Solitary Confrontations

 

Glenn Frankel, High Noon:

The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of An American Classic 

            High Noon remains one of Hollywood’s most enduringly popular movies. The term “High Noon” is now part of our everyday language, meaning a “time of a decisive confrontation or contest,” usually between good and evil, in which good is often embodied in a solitary person.  High Noon is a fairly simple story, yet filled with tension.  The film takes place in the small western town of Hadleyville.  Former marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, is preparing to leave town with his new bride, Amy Fowler, played by Grace Kelly, when he learns that notorious criminal Frank Miller, whom Kane had helped send to jail, has been set free and is arriving with his cronies on the noon train to take revenge on the marshal.  Amy, a devout Quaker and a pacifist, urges her husband to leave town before Miller arrives, but Kane’s sense of duty and honor compels him to stay. As he seeks deputies and assistance among the townspeople, Kane is rebuffed at each turn, leaving him alone to face Miller and his gang in a fatal gunfight at the film’s end.

          High Noon came to the screen in 1952 at the height of Hollywood’s anti-communist campaign, best known for its practice of blacklisting, by which actors, writers, directors, producers, and others in the film industry could be denied employment based upon past or present membership in or sympathy for the American Communist Party.  Developed and administered by film industry organizations and luminaries, among them Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne and future American president Ronald Reagan, blacklisting arose during the early Cold War years as Hollywood’s response to the work of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC.

            Until surpassed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, HUAC was the driving force in post World War II America’s campaign to uproot communists and communist sympathizers from all aspects of public life.  The Committee exerted pressure on Hollywood personnel with suspected communist ties or sympathies to avoid the blacklist by “cooperating” with the Committee, which entailed in particular “naming names” – identifying other party members or sympathizers.  Hollywood blacklisting had all the indicia of what we might today call a “witch hunt.” Blacklisting also came close to curtailing High Noon altogether.

         Glenn Frankel’s engrossing, thoroughly-researched High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of An American Classic captures the link between the film classic and Hollywood’s efforts to purge its ranks of present and former communists and sympathizers. Frankel places the anti-communist HUAC investigations and the Hollywood blacklisting campaign within the larger context of a resurgence of American political conservatism after World War II – a “right wing backlash” (p.45) — with the political right struggling to regain the upper hand after twelve years of New Deal politics at home and an alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II.  There was a feeling then, as today, Frankel explains, that usurpers had stolen the country: “outsiders had taken control of the nation’s civil institutions and culture and were plotting to subvert its security and values” (p.x).   The usurpers of the post-World War II era were liberals, Jews and communists, and “self-appointed guardians of American values were determined to claw it back” (p.x).

          Hollywood, with its “extraordinary high profile” and “abiding role in our national culture and fantasies” (p.xi), was uniquely placed to shape American values and, to many, communists and Jews seemed to be doing an inordinate amount of the shaping.  In an industry that employed nearly 30,000 persons, genuine communists in Hollywood probably never exceeded 350, with screenwriters roughly half of the 350.  But 175 screenwriters, unless thwarted, could freely produce what right-wing politicians termed “propaganda pictures” designed to undermine American values.  Communists constituted a particularly insidious threat because they looked and sounded indistinguishable from others in the industry, yet were “agents of a ruthless foreign power whose declared goal was to destroy the American way of life” (p.x).  That a high portion of Hollywood’s communists were Jewish heightened suspicion of the Jews who, from Hollywood’s earliest days as the center of the film industry, had played an outside role as studio heads, screenwriters, and agents.  Jews in Hollywood were at once “uniquely powerful” and “uniquely vulnerable” to the attacks of anti-Semites who accused them of “using the movies to undermine traditional American values” (p.13).

            Frankel’s account of this struggle over security and values involves a multitude of individuals, primarily in Hollywood and secondarily in Washington, but centers upon the interaction between three: Gary Cooper, Stanley Kramer, and Carl Foreman.  Cooper was the star of High Noon and Kramer its producer.   Foreman wrote the script and was the film’s associate director until his refusal in September 1951 to name names before HUAC forced him to leave High Noon before its completion.  Foreman and Kramer, leftist leaning politically, were “fast-talking urban intellectuals from the Jewish ghettos of Chicago [Foreman] and New York [Kramer]” (p.xvi).  Foreman had been a member of the American Communist Party as a young adult in the 1930s until sometime in the immediate post-war years; Kramer’s relationship to the party is unclear in Frankel’s account.  Cooper was a distinct contrast to Foreman and Kramer in about every respect, a “tall, elegant, and reticent” (p.xvi) Anglo-Saxon Protestant from rural Montana, the product of conservative Republican stock who liked to keep a low profile when it came to politics.

            Although Cooper was the star of High Noon, Foreman emerges as the star in Frankel’s examination of HUAC investigations and blacklisting. Foreman saw his encounter with HUAC in terms similar to those which Cooper, as Will Kane, encountered in Hadleyville: he was the marshal, HUAC seemed like the gunmen coming to kill the marshal, and the “hypocritical and cowardly citizens of Hadleyville” found their counterparts in the “denizens of Hollywood who stood by passively or betrayed him as the forces of repression bore down” (p.xiii).  The filming of High Noon had begun a few days prior to Foreman’s testimony before HUAC and was completed in just 32 days, on what amounted to a shoestring budget of $790,000.  How the 84-minute black-and-white film survived Foreman’s departure constitutes a mini-drama within Frankel’s often gripping narrative.

* * *

         In most accounts, Hollywood’s blacklisting practices began in 1947, when ten writers and directors — the “Hollywood Ten” — appeared before HUAC and refused to answer the committee’s questions about their membership in the Communist Party.  They were cited for contempt of Congress and served time in prison.  After their testimony, a group of studio executives, acting under the aegis of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, fired the ten and issued what came to be known as the Waldorf Statement, which committed the studios to firing anyone with ties to the Communist Party, whether called to testify before HUAC or not.  This commitment in practice extended well beyond party members to anyone who refused to “cooperate” with HUAC.

           Neither Foreman nor Kramer was within HUAC’s sights in 1947.  At the time, the two had banded together in the small, independent Stanley Kramer Production Company, specializing in socially relevant films that aimed to attract “war-hardened young audiences who were tired of the slick, superficial entertainments the big Hollywood studios specialized in and [were] hungry for something more meaningful” (p.59).  In March 1951, Kramer Production became a sub-part of Columbia Pictures, one of Hollywood’s major studios.   In June of that year, while finishing the script for High Noon, Foreman received his subpoena to testify before HUAC.  The subpoena was an “invitation to an inquisition” (p.xii), as Frankel puts it.

           HUAC, in the words of writer David Halberstam, was a collection of “bigots, racists, reactionaries and sheer buffoons” (p.76). The Committee acted as judge, jury and prosecutor, with little concern for basic civil liberties such as the right of the accused to call witnesses or cross-examine the accuser.  Witnesses willing to cooperate with the Committee were required to undergo a “ritual of humiliation and purification” (p.xii), renouncing their membership in the Communist Party and praising the Committee for its devotion to combating the Red plot to destroy America.  A “defining part of the process” (p.xiii) entailed identifying other party members or sympathizers – the infamous “naming of names” — which became an end in itself for the HUAC, not merely a means to obtain more information, since the Committee already had the names of most party members and sympathizers working in Hollywood.  Forman was brought to the Committee’s attention by Martin Berkeley, an obscure screenwriter and ex-Communist who emerges as one of the book’s more villainous characters — Hollywood’s “champion namer of names” (p.241).

           Loath to name names, Foreman had few good options.  The primary alternative was to invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions. But such witnesses appeared to have something to hide, and often were blacklisted for failure to cooperate with the Committee.  When he testified before HUAC in September 1951, Forman stressed that he loved his country as much as anyone on the Committee and used his military service during World War II to demonstrate his commitment to the United States.  But he would go no further, refusing to name names.  Foreman conceded for the record that he “wasn’t a Communist now, and hadn’t been one in 1950 when he signed the Screen Writers Guild loyalty oath” (p.201).  The Committee did not hold Foreman in contempt, as it had done with the Hollywood Ten.  But it didn’t take Foreman long to feel the consequences of his refusal to “cooperate.”

           Kramer, who had initially been supportive of Foreman, perhaps out of concern that Foreman might name him as one with communist ties, ended by acceding to Columbia Pictures’ position that Foreman was too tainted to continue to work for its subsidiary.  Foreman left Kramer Production with a lucrative separation package, more than any other blacklisted screenwriter. His attempt to start his own film production company went nowhere when it became clear that anyone working for the company would be blacklisted.  Foreman, a “committed movie guy” who “passionately believed in [films] as the most successful and popular art from ever invented” (p.218), was finished in Hollywood.  He and Kramer never spoke again.

* * *

            Kramer had had little direct involvement with the early shooting of High Noon. But after Foreman’s departure, he reviewed the film and was deeply dismayed by what he saw.  He responded by making substantial cuts, which he later claimed had “saved” the film.  But in Frankel’s account, Cooper rather than Kramer saved High Noon, making the film an unexpected success.  Prior to his departure, Foreman had suggested to Cooper, working for a fraction of his normal fee, that he consider withdrawing from High Noon to preserve his reputation.  Cooper refused. “You know how I feel about Communism,” Frankel quotes Cooper telling Foreman, “but you’re not a Communist now and anyhow I like you, I think you’re an honest man, and I think you should do what is right” (p.170-71).

            Kramer and Foreman were initially reluctant to consider Cooper for the lead role in High Noon.  At age fifty, he “looked at least ten years too old to play the marshal.  And Cooper was exactly the kind of big studio celebrity actor that both men tended to deprecate” (p.150).  Yet, Cooper’s “carefully controlled performance,” combining strength and vulnerability, gave not only his character but the entire picture “plausibility, intimacy and human scale” (p.252), Frankel writes.  Will Kane is “no superhuman action hero, just an aging, tired man seeking to escape his predicament with his life and his new marriage intact, yet knowing he cannot . . . It is a brave performance, and it is hard to imagine any other actor pulling it off with the same skill and grace” (p.252).  None of the “gifted young bucks” whom Kramer and Foreman would likely have preferred for the lead role, such as Marlon Brando, William Holden, or Kirk Douglas, could have done it with “such convincing authenticity, despite all their talent.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper is indeed the truth” (p.252).

            High Noon also established Cooper’s co-star, Grace Kelly, playing Marshal Kane’s new wife Amy in her first major film.  Kelly was some 30 years younger than Cooper and many, including Kramer, considered the pairing a mismatch. But she came cheap and the pairing worked. Katy Jurado, a star in her native Mexico, played the other woman in the film, Helen Ramirez, who had been the girlfriend of both Marshal Kane and his adversary Miller.  During the film, she is involved romantically with Kane’s feckless deputy, Harvey Pell, played by Lloyd Bridges.  High Noon was only Jurado’s second American film, but she was perfect in the role of a sultry Mexican woman.  By design, Foreman created a dichotomy between the film’s male hero — a man of “standard masculine characteristics, inarticulate, stubborn, adept at and reliant on gun violence” (p.253) — and its two women characters who do not fit the conventional models that Western films usually impose on female characters.  The film’s “sensitive focus on Helen and Amy – remarkable for its era and genre – is one of the elements that make it an extraordinary movie” (p.255), Frankel contends.

           Frankel pays almost as much attention to the movie’s stirring theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” sung by Tex Ritter, as he does to the film’s characters.  The musical score was primarily the work of Dimitri Tiomkin, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, with lyricist Ned Washington providing the words.  The pair produced a song that could be “sung, whistled, and played by the orchestra all the way through the film, an innovative approach that had rarely been used in movies before ” (p.230). Ritter’s raspy voice proved ideally suited to the song’s role of building tension in the film (the better known Frankie Laine had a “more synthetic and melodramatic” (p.234) version that surpassed Ritter’s in sales).  The song’s narrator is Kane himself, addressing his new bride and expressing his fears and longings in music.  The song, whose melody is played at least 12 times during the movie, encapsulates the plot while explaining the marshal’s “inner conflict in a way that he himself cannot articulate” (p.232). Its repetition throughout the film reminds us that Kane’s life and happiness are “on the line, yet he cannot walk away from his duty” (p.250).

           Frankel also dwells on the use of clocks in the film to heighten tension as 12:00 o’clock, High Noon, approaches.  The clocks, which become bigger as the film progresses, “constantly remind us that time is running out for our hero.  They help build and underscore the tension and anxiety of his fruitless search for support.  There are no dissolves in High Noon – none of the usual fade-ins and fade-outs connoting the unseen passage of time – because time passes directly in front of us.  Every minute counts – and is counted” (p.250).

           High Noon was an instant success from the time it came out in the summer of 1952, an “austere and unusual piece of entertainment,” as Frankel describes the film, “modest, terse, almost dour . . . with no grand vistas, no cattle drives, and no Indian attacks, in fact no gunplay whatsoever until its final showdown.  Yet its taut, powerful storytelling, gritty visual beauty, suspenseful use of time, evocative music, and understated ensemble acting made it enormously compelling” (p.249).   But the film was less popular with critics, many of whom considered the film overly dramatic and corny.

          The consensus among the cognoscenti was that the film was “just barely disguised social drama using a Western setting and costumes,” as one critic put it, the “favorite Western for people who hate Westerns” (p.256).  John Wayne argued that Marshal Kane’s pleas for help made him look weak.  Moreover, Wayne didn’t like the negative portrayal of the church people, which he saw it as an attack on American values.  The American Legion also attacked the film on the ground that it was infected by the input of communists and communist sympathizers.

* * *

          After leaving the High Noon set, Foreman spent much of the 1950s in London, where he had limited success in the British film industry while his marriage unraveled.  For a while, he lost his American passport, pursuant to State Department policy of denying passports to anyone it had reason to suspect was Communist or Communist-leaning, making him a man without a country until a court overturned State Department policy.  Kramer left Columbia pictures after High Noon.  He went back to being an independent producer and in that capacity established a reputation as Hollywood’s most consistently liberal filmmaker.  To this day, the families of Foreman and Kramer, who died in 1984 and 2001, respectively, continue to spar over which of the two deserves more credit for High Noon’s success.  Cooper continued to make films after High Noon, most of them westerns of middling quality, “playing the same role over and over” (p.289) as he aged and his mobility grew more restricted.  He kept in touch with Foreman up until his death from prostate cancer in 1961.

* * *

         Frankel returns at the end of his work to Foreman’s view of High Noon as an allegory for the Hollywood blacklisting process — a single man seeking to preserve honor and confront evil alone when everyone around him wants to cut and run. But, Frankel argues, seen on the screen at a distance of more than sixty years, the film’s politics are “almost illegible.” Some critics, he notes, have suggested that Kane, rather than being a brave opponent of the blacklist, could “just as readily be seen as Senator Joseph McCarthy bravely taking on the evil forces of Communism while exposing the cowardice and hypocrisy of the Washington establishment” (p.259).  Sometimes a good movie is just a good movie.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 3, 2018

 

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Filed under Film, Politics, United States History

Magic Moscow Moment

 

Stuart Isacoff, When the World Stopped to Listen:

Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath 

            Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., known to the world as “Van,” was the pianist from Texas who at age 23 astounded the world when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.  The Soviet Union, fresh from launching the satellite Sputnik into orbit the previous year and thereby gaining an edge on the Americans in worldwide technological competition, looked at the Tchaikovsky Competition as opportunity to showcase its cultural superiority over the United States.  Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath takes us behind the scenes of the 1958 competition to show the machinations that led to Cliburn’s selection in Moscow.

            They are intriguing, but come down to this: the young Cliburn was so impossibly talented, so far above his fellow competitors, that the competition’s jurors concluded that they had no choice but to award him the prize.  But before the jurors announced what might have been considered a politically incorrect decision to give the award to an American, they felt compelled to present their dilemma to Soviet party leader and premier Nikita Khrushchev. Considered, unfairly perhaps, a country bumpkin lacking cultural sophistication, Khrushchev asked who had been the best performer.  The answer was Cliburn.  According to the official Soviet version, Khrushchev responded with a simple, straightforward directive: “Then give him the prize” (p.156).

            Isacoff, a professional pianist as well as an accomplished writer, suggests that there was more to Khrushchev’s directive than what the official version allows.  But his response and the official announcement two days later, on April 14, 1958, that Cliburn had won first place make an endearing high point to Isacoff’s spirited biography.  The competition in Moscow and its immediate aftermath form the book’s core, about 60%. Here, Isacoff shows how Cliburn became a personality known worldwide — “the classical Elvis” and “the American Sputnik” were just two of the monikers given to him – and how his victory contributed appreciably to a thaw in Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The remaining 40% of the book is split roughly evenly between Cliburn’s life prior to the Moscow competition, as a child prodigy growing up in Texas and his ascendant entry into the world of competitive piano playing; and his post-Moscow life, fairly described as descendant.

            Cliburn never recaptured the glory of his 1958 moment in Moscow, and his life after receiving the Moscow prize was a slow but steady decline, up to his death from bone cancer in 2013.  For the lanky, enigmatic Texan, Isacoff writes, “triumph and decline were inextricably joined” (p.8).

* * *

            Cliburn was born in 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, the only child of Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Sr., and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn.  When he was six, he moved with his parents from Shreveport to the East Texas town of Kilgore.  Despite spending his earliest years in Louisiana, Cliburn always considered himself a Texan, with Kilgore his hometown.   Cliburn’s father worked for Magnolia Oil Company, which had relocated him from Shreveport to Kilgore, a rough-and-tumble oil “company town.”  We learn little about the senior Cliburn in this biography, but mother Rildia Bee is everywhere. She was a dominating presence upon her son not only in his youthful years but also throughout his adult life, up to her death in 1994 at age 97.

        Prior to her marriage, Rildia had been a pupil of renowned pianist Arthur Friedheim.  It was Southern mores, Isacoff suggests, that discouraged her from pursuing what looked like her own promising career as a pianist.  But with the arrival of her son, she found a new outlet for her seemingly limitless musical energies.  Rildia was “more teacher than nurturer” (p.12), Isacoff writes, bringing discipline and structure to her son, who had started playing the piano around age 3.  From the start, the “sonority of the piano was entwined with his feelings for his mother” (p.12).  By age 12, Cliburn had won a statewide piano contest, and had played with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in a radio concert.  In adolescence, with his father fading in importance, Cliburn’s mother continued to dominate his life. “Despite small signs of teenage waywardness, when it came to his mother, Van was forever smitten” (p.21).

               In 1951, at age 17, Rildia and Harvey Sr., sent their son off to New York to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, a training ground for future leaders in music and dance.  There, he became a student of the other woman in his life, Ukraine-born Rosina Lhévinne, a gold-medal graduate of the Moscow Conservatory whose late husband Josef had been considered one of the world’s greatest pianists.  Like Rildia, Lhévinne too was a force of nature, a powerful influence on the young Cliburn.  Improbably, Lhévinne and Rildia for the most part saw eye to eye on the best way to nurture the talents of the prodigious young man.  Both women focused Cliburn on “technical finesse and beauty of sound rather than on musical structure,” realizing that his best qualities as a pianist “rested on surface polish and emotional persuasiveness” (p.54).  Each recognized that for Cliburn, music would always be “visceral, not abstract or academic.  He played the way he did because he felt it in the core of his being” (p.34).

           More than Rildia, Lhévinne was able to show Cliburn how to moderate and channel these innate qualities.  Without her stringent guidance, Isacoff indicates, Cliburn might have lapsed into “sentimentality, deteriorating into the pianistic mannerisms of a high romantic” (p.56). Although learning through Lhévinne to hold his interpretative flourishes in check, Cliburn’s “overriding personality – emotionally exuberant, and unshakably sentimental – was still present in every bar” (p.121).  By the time he left for the Moscow competition, Cliburn had demonstrated a “natural ability to grasp and convey the meaning of the music, to animate the virtual world that arises through the art’s subtle symbolic gestures. It set him apart” (p.18).

          During his Julliard years in New York, the adult Cliburn personality the world would soon know came into view: courteous and generous, sentimental and emotional.  He had by then also developed the idiosyncratic habit of being late for just about everything, a habit that continued throughout his life.  Isacoff mentions one concert after another in which Cliburn was late by periods that often became a matter of hours.  Both in the United States and abroad, he regularly compensated for showing up late by beginning with America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”  At Juilliard, Cliburn also began a smoking habit that stayed with him for the remainder of his life.  Except when he was actually playing — when he had the habit of looking upward, “as if communing with the heavens whenever the music reached an emotional peak” (p.6) — it was difficult to get a photo of him without a cigarette in his hands or mouth.

           It may have been at Juilliard that Clliburn had his first homosexual relationship, although Isacoff plays down this aspect of Cliburn’s early life.  He mentions Cliburn’s experience in high school dating a girl and attending the senior prom.  Then, a few pages later, he notes matter-of-factly that a friendship with a fellow male Juilliard student had “blossomed into romance” (p.35).  But there are many questions about Cliburn’s sexuality that seem pertinent to our understanding of the man.  Did Cliburn undergo any of the torment that often accompanies the realization in adolescence that one is gay, especially in the 1950s?  Did he “come out” to his friends and acquaintances, in Texas or New York, or did he live the homosexual life largely in the closest?  Were his parents aware of his sexual identity and if so, what was their reaction?  None of these is treated here.

            With little fanfare, Juilliard nominated Cliburn in early 1958 for the initial Tchaikovsky International Competition, taking advantage of an offer of the Rockefeller Foundation to pay travel expenses for one entrant in each of the competition’s two components, piano and violin.  The Soviet Union, which paid the remaining expenses for the participants, envisioned a “high-culture version of the World Cup, pitting musical talents from around the globe against one another” (p.4). The Soviets confidently assumed that showcasing its violin and piano expertise after its technological success the previous year with the Sputnik launch would provide another propaganda victory over the United States.

            Soviet pianists who wished to enter the competition had to pass a daunting series of tests, musical and political, to qualify for the competition, with training similar to that of its Olympic athletes.  Many of the Soviet Union’s emerging piano stars were reluctant to jump into the fray.  Each had a specific reason, along with a “general reluctance to become involved in the political machinations of the event” (p.59).  Lev Vlassenko, a “solid, well-respected pianist” who became a lifetime friend of Cliburn in the aftermath of the competition, emerged as the presumptive favorite, “clearly destined to win” (p.60).

            On the American side, the US State Department only reluctantly gave its approval to the competition, fearing that it would be rigged.  The two pianists whom the Soviets considered the most talented Americans, Jerome Lowenthal and Daniel Pollack, traveled to Moscow at their own expense, unlike Cliburn (pop singer Neil Sedaka was among the competitors for the US but was barred by the Soviets as too closely associated with decadent rock ‘n roll; they undoubtedly did Sedaka a favor, as his more lucrative pop career was just then beginning to take off).  Other major competitors came from France, Iceland, Bulgaria, and China.

            For the competition’s first round, Cliburn was assigned pieces from Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  The audience at the renowned Moscow Conservatory, where the competition took place, fell from the beginning for the Texan and his luxurious sound. They “swooned at the crooner in him . . . Some said they discerned in his playing a ‘Russian soul’” (p.121).  But among the jurors, who carried both political and aesthetic responsibilities, reaction to Cliburn’s first round was mixed.  Some were underwhelmed with his renditions of Mozart and Bach, but all found his Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff “out of this world,” as one juror put it (p.120).

          Isacoff likens the jurors’ deliberations to a round of speed dating, “where the sensitive antennae of the panelists hone in on the character traits of each candidate. . . There is no magical formula for choosing a winner; in the end, the decision is usually distilled down to a basic overriding question: Do I want to hear this performer again?”(p.117).  Famed pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who served on the jury, emerges here as the equivalent of the “hold out juror” in an American criminal trial, “willing to create a serious ruckus when he felt that the deck was being stacked against the American.  As the competition progressed, his fireworks in the jury room would be every bit the equal of the ones onstage” (p.114).

            Cliburn’s second round program was designed to show range.  Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms were the heart of a romantic repertoire.  He also played the Prokofiev Sixth, a modernist piece that reflected the political tensions and fears of 1940 Russia.  Cliburn received a 15-minute standing ovation at the end of the round, the audience voting literally with its feet and hands.  In the jury room, Richter continued to press the case for Cliburn, although the jury ranked him only third, tied with Soviet pianist Naum Shtarkman. Overall, Vlassenko ranked first and eminent Chinese pianist Shikun Liu second.

            But in the third round, Cliburn blew the competition away.  The round  began with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, for which Cliburn delivered an “extraordinary” interpretation, with every tone “imbued with an inner glow, with long phrases concluding in an emphatic, edgy pounce. The effect was simply breathtaking” (p.146). Cliburn’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “treacherously difficult” (p.147) Piano Concerto no. 3 was even more powerful.  In prose that strains to capture Cliburn’s unique brilliance, Isacoff explains:

After Van, people would never again hear this music the same way. . . There is no simple explanation for why in that moment Van played perhaps the best concert of his life. Sometimes a performer experiences an instant of artistic grace, when heaven seems to open up and hold him in the palm of its hand – when the swirl of worldly sensations gives way to a pervasive, knowing stillness, and he feels connected to life’s unbroken dance.  If that was not exactly Van’s experience when playing Rachmaninoff Concerto no. 3, it must have come close (p.146-47).

         Cliburn had finally won over even the most recalcitrant jurors, who briefly considered a compromise in which Cliburn and Vlassenko would share the top prize.  But the final determination was left to premier Khrushchev.  The Soviet leader’s instantaneous and decisively simple response quoted above was the version released to the press.  But with the violin component of the competition going overwhelmingly to the Soviets, the ever-shrewd Khrushchev appears to have concluded that awarding the piano prize to the American would underscore the competition’s objectivity and fairness.  One advisor recalled Khrushchev saying to her: “The future success of this competition lies in one thing: the justice that the jury gives” (p.156).  The jury’s official and public decision of April 14, 1958 had Cliburn in first place, with Vlassenko and Liu sharing second.  Cliburn could not have accomplished what he did, Isacoff writes, without Khrushchev, his “willing partner in the Kremlin” (p.206).

        Cliburn had another willing partner in Max Frankel, then the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times (and later, its Executive Editor). Frankel had sensed a good story during the competition and reported extensively on all its aspects.  He also pushed his editors back home to put his dispatches on page 1.  One of his stories forthrightly raised the question whether the Soviets would have the courage to award the prize to Cliburn.  For Isacoff, Frankel’s reporting and the pressure he exerted on his Times editors to give it a prominent place also contributed to the final decision.

             After his victory in Moscow, Cliburn went on an extensive tour within the Soviet Union. To the adoring Russians, Cliburn represented the “new face of freedom.” Performing under the auspices of a repressive regime, he “seemed to answer to no authority other than the shifting tides of his own soul” (p.8).  Naïve and politically unsophisticated, Cliburn raised concerns at the State Department when he developed the habit of describing the Russians as “my people,” comparing them to Texans and telling them that he had never felt so at home anywhere else.

          A month after the Moscow victory, Cliburn returned triumphantly to the United States amidst a frenzy that approached what he had generated in the Soviet Union.  He became the first (and, as of now, only) classical musician to be accorded a ticker tape parade in New York City, in no small measure because of lobbying by the New York Times, which saw the parade as vindication for its extensive coverage of the competition.

          After Cliburn’s Moscow award, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to host each other’s major exhibitions in the summer of 1959.  It started to seem, Isacoff writes, that “after years of protracted wrangling, a period of true detente might actually be dawning” (p.174).   The cultural attaché at the American Embassy in Moscow wrote that Cliburn had become a “symbol of the unifying friendship that overcomes old rivalries.  . . a symbol of art and humanity overruling political pragmatics” (p.206).

           A genuine if improbable bond of affection had developed in Moscow between Khrushchev and Cliburn. That bond endured after Cold War relations took several turns for the worse, first after the Soviets shot down the American U-2 spy plane in 1960, followed by erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the direct confrontation in 1962 over Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba. The bond even continued after Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, indicating that it had some basis beyond political expediency.

           But Cliburn’s post-Moscow career failed to recapture the magic of his spring 1958 moment.  The post-Moscow Cliburn seemed to be beleaguered by self-doubt and burdened by psychological tribulations that are not fully explained here.  “Everyone had expected Van’s earlier, youthful qualities to mature and deepen over time,” Isacoff writes.  But he “never seemed to grow into the old master they had hoped for . . . At home, critics increasingly accused Van of staleness, and concluded he was chasing after momentary success with too little interest in artistic growth” (p.223).  Even in the Soviet Union, where he made several return visits, critics “began to complain of an artistic decline” (p.222).  In these years, Cliburn “developed an enduring fascination with psychic phenomena and astrology that eventually grew into an obsession. The world of stargazing became a vital part of his life” (p.53).

           Cliburn’s mother remained a dominant force in his life throughout his post-Moscow years, serving as his manager until she was almost 80 years old.  As she edged toward 90, she and her son continued to address one another as “Little Precious” and “Little Darling” (p.230).  Her death at age 97 in 1994 was predictably devastating for Cliburn. In musing about his mother’s effect on Cliburn’s career trajectory, Isacoff wonders whether Rildia Bee, the “wind that filled his sails” might also have been the “albatross that sunk him” (p.243).  While many thought that Cliburn might collapse with the death of his mother, by this time he was in a relationship with Tommy Smith, a music student 29 years younger.  With Smith, Cliburn had “at last found a fulfilling, loving union” (p.242). Smith traveled regularly with Cliburn, even accompanying him to Moscow in 2004, where none other than Vladimir Putin presented Cliburn with a friendship award.  Smith was at Cliburn’s side throughout his battle with bone cancer, which took the pianist’s life in 2013 at age 79.

* * *

            Tommy Smith became the happy ending to Cliburn’s uneven life story — a story which for Isacoff resembles that of a tragic Greek hero who “rose to mythical heights in an extraordinary victory that proved only fleeting, before the gods of fortune exacted their price” (p.8).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 5, 2018

 

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Filed under American Politics, History, Music, Soviet Union, United States History

The Close Scrutiny of History

Richard Evans, The Third Reich in History and Memory 

            Books about Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich continue to proliferate, filling the reading public’s seemingly insatiable desire for more information about one of history’s most odious regimes.  But spending one’s limited reading time on Hitler, the Nazis and the Third Reich is for most readers not a formula for uplifting the spirit.  Those who wish to broaden their understanding of the Nazi regime yet limit their engagement with the subject are likely to find Richard Evans’ The Third Reich in History and Memory well suited to their needs.  If Peter Hayes’ Why: Explaining the Holocaust, reviewed here earlier this month, was a vehicle to see the dense and intimidating forest of the Holocaust through its many trees, Evans’ work might be considered a close-up look at selected trees within the forest of the Third Reich.

          The Third Reich in History and Memory provides an indication of how broadly our knowledge of the Nazi regime has expanded in the first two decades of the 21st century alone.  The book is compilation of Evans’ earlier reviews of other studies of the Nazi regime, most of which have been previously published.  Evans uses the word “essay” to describe his reviews, and that is the appropriate term. The book consists, as he puts it, of “extended book reviews that use a new study of one or other aspect of the Third Reich as a starting point for wider reflections” (p.x). All reviews/essays were published originally in this century, most since 2010; the oldest dates to 2001. Evans, a prolific scholar who has been Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, President of Cambridge’s Wolfson College, and Provost of London’s Gresham College, is also the author of the Third Reich Trilogy, a three volume work that is probably the most comprehensive single study of Nazi Germany.

          The “Memory” portion of Evans’ title alludes to what he considers the most remarkable change in historical work on Nazi Germany since the late 20th century, the “increasing intertwining of history and memory,” (p.ix), reflected in particular in several reviews/essays that address post-war Germany.  It is now almost impossible, Evans observes, to write about the Third Reich “without also thinking about how its memory survived, often in complex and surprising ways, in the postwar years” (p.ix). But memory “needs to be subjected to the close scrutiny of history if it is to stand up, while history’s implications for the collective cultural memory of Nazism in the present need to be spelled out with precision as well as with passion” (p.x; the collection does not include a review of Lawrence Douglas’ The Right Wrong Man, reviewed here in July 2017, an account of the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk and a telling reminder of the limits of memory of Holocaust survivors).

            The book contains 28 separate reviews, arranged into seven sections: German antecedents to the Third Reich; internal workings of the regime; its economy; its foreign policy; its military decision-making; the Holocaust; and the regime’s after effects.  Each of the seven sections contains three to six reviews; each review is an individual chapter, with each chapter only loosely related to the others in the section.  The collection begins with chapters on Imperial Germany’s practices in its own colonies prior to World War I and the possibility of links to the Nazi era; it ends with a chapter on post-World War II German art and architecture, and what they might tell us about the Third Reich’s legacy.  In between, individual chapters look at a diverse range of subjects, including Hitler’s mental and physical health; his relationship with his ally Benito Mussolini; the role of the Krupp industrial consortium in building the German economy in the 1930s and 1940s; and the role of the German Foreign Office in the conduct of the war.  In these and the book’s other chapters, Evans reveals his mastery of unfamiliar aspects of the Third Reich.

* * *

            Germany’s pre-World War I colonies seemed an irrelevance and were largely forgotten in the years immediately following World War II.  But with the emergence of what is sometimes called post-colonial studies, historians “now put racism and racial ideology instead of totalitarianism and class exploitation at the center of their explanations of National Socialism [and] . . . the history of the German colonizing experience no longer seem[s] so very irrelevant” (p.7).  Evans’ two initial chapters, among the most thought-provoking in the collection, review two works addressing the question of the extent to which Germany’s colonial experience prior to World War I may have established a foundation for its subsequent attempt to subjugate much of Europe and eliminate European Jewry: Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History; and Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler.

          Germany’s pre-World War I overseas empire was short-lived compared to that of the other European powers.  It came into being, largely over Bismarck’s objections, in the 1880s, and ended abruptly with Germany’s defeat in World War I, after which it was stripped of all its overseas territories (along with much of its European territory).  But in the final decades of the 19th century, Germany amassed an eclectic group of colonies that by 1914 constituted Europe’s 4th largest empire, after those of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.  It included, in Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Tanganyika (predecessor to Tanzania), Togo, and the predecessors to Rwanda and Burundi, along with assorted Pacific Islands.

           In its relatively brief period as an overseas colonizer, Germany earned the dubious distinction of being the only European power to introduce concentration camps, “named them as such and deliberately created conditions so harsh that their purpose was clearly as much to exterminate their inmates as it was to force them to work” (p.6). Violence, “including public beatings of Africans,” was “a part of everyday life in the German colonies” (p.10). In a horrifying 1904-07 war against the Herrer and Nama tribes in Namibia, Germany wiped out half of the population of each, one of the clearest instances of genocide perpetrated by a European power in Africa. Germany alone among the European powers banned racial intermarriage in their colonies.  Yet Evans, writing both for himself and the two works under review, cautions against drawing too direct a line between the pre-World War I German colonial experience and the atrocities perpetrated in World War II.  German colonialism, he concludes, “does seem to have been more systematically racist in conception and more brutally violent in operation that that of other European nations, but this does not mean it inspired the Holocaust” (p.13).

         Almost all chapters in the book intersect in some way with the Holocaust and thus with Hayes’ work.  But that intersection is most evident in the sixth of the seven sections, “The Politics of Genocide,” where Evans reviews Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire and, in a chapter entitled “Was the ‘Final Solution’ Unique?,” a compendium of German essays addressing this question.  This chapter, itself originally in German but revised and translated into English for this volume, confronts the argument that the Holocaust was a crime without precedent or parallel in history, so appalling that it is “illegitimate to compare it with anything else” (p.365).  Evans dismisses this argument as “theological.”

          Comparison “doesn’t mean simply drawing out similarities,” Evans argues, it also means “isolating differences and weighing the two” (p.365).  If the Holocaust was unique, the “never again” slogan becomes meaningless.  Ascribing categorical uniqueness to the Holocaust may be rewarding for theologians, he writes.  But, sounding much like Hayes, he reminds us that the historian must approach the Holocaust in the “same way an any other large-scale historical phenomenon, which means asking basic, comparative questions and trying to answer them at the level of secular rationality” (p.365).  Asking comparative questions at this level nevertheless leads Evans to find a unique quality to the Holocaust, without parallel elsewhere: its sweeping, racialist ideological underpinnings.

          The Nazi genocide of the Jews was unique, Evans contends, in that it was intended to be geographically and temporally unlimited.  To Hitler, the Jews were a world enemy, a “deadly, universal threat” to the existence of Germany that had to be “eliminated by any means possible, as fast as possible, as thoroughly as possible” (p.381).  The Nazis’ obsessive desire to be “comprehensive and make no exceptions, anywhere, is a major factor distinguishing the Nazis’ racial war from all other racial wars in history” (p.376-77).  Young Turkish nationalists launched a campaign of genocide against the Armenian Christian minority in Anatolia.  But the Armenians were not seen as part of a world conspiracy against the Turks, as the Germans saw the Jews.  The 1994 assault by Hutus on Tutsis in the former German colony of Rwanda was also geographically limited.   Moreover, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany occupied Poland during World War II after the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact (detailed in Roger Moorhouse’s The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, reviewed here in May 2016).  The Soviet occupation of Poland, albeit brutal, was carried out to implement ideological goals but was “not an attempt to exterminate entire peoples” (p.367).

           This difference between the Soviet and Nazi occupation in Poland leads Evans to a severe reproach of Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder’s otherwise highly-acclaimed examination of the mass murders conducted by the Soviets and the Nazis in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States during the 1930s and the war years, in which Snyder emphasizes similarities between the policies and practices of the two regimes.  Most prominent among Evans’ numerous objections to Bloodlands  is that its comparison of Hitler’s plans for Eastern Europe with Stalin’s mass murders in the same geographic areas “distracts attention from what was unique about the extermination of the Jews. That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on” (p.396).  Bloodlands, Evans concludes, “forms part of a post-war narrative that homogenizes the history of mass murder by equating Hitler’s policies with those of Stalin” (p.398).  We “do not need to be told again about the facts of mass murder,” he petulantly intones, but rather to “understand why it took place and how people could carry it out, and in this task Snyder’s book is of no use” (p.398).

         Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire, the third work under review in the section on the Holocaust, draws a more sympathetic review. Mazower considered the policies and practices of the German occupation of much of Europe during World War II against the backdrop of the British and other European empires.  Hitler’s empire, Evans writes, was the “shortest-lived of all imperial creations, and the last” (p.364).  But for a brief moment in the second half of 1941, it seemed possible that the Nazis’ megalomaniac vision of world domination, taking on Great Britain and the United States after defeating the Soviet Union, might become reality.  The Nazis, however, had “no coherent idea of how their huge new empire was to be made to serve the global purposes for which it was intended” (p.358).  Mazower’s “absorbing and thought-provoking account,” Evans concludes, paradoxically “makes us view the older European empires in a relatively favorable light.  Growing up over decades, even centuries, they had remained in existence only through a complex nexus of collaboration, compromise and accommodation. Racist they may have been, murderous sometimes, even on occasion exterminatory, but none of them were created or sustained on the basis of such a narrow or exploitative nationalism as animated the Nazi empire” (p.364).

           Three of the works which Evans reviews will be familiar to assiduous readers of this blog: R.H. Douglas’ Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (reviewed here in August 2015); Heike Görtemaker’s Eva Braun: Life With Hitler (March 2013); and Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45 (December 2012).   All three earn Evan’s high praise.  Douglas’ book tells the little-known story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, Volkdeutsch, from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania in 1945 and 1946, into a battered and beaten Germany.  It is one example of research on post-war Germany, where the “subterranean continuities with the Nazi era have become steadily more apparent” (p.x).

            Douglas breaks new ground by showing how the ethnic cleanings of “millions of undesirable citizens did not end with the Nazis but continued well into the years after the fall of the Third Reich, though this time directed against the Germans rather than perpetrated by them” (p.x).  His work thus constitutes a “major achievement,” at last putting the neglected subject matter on a scholarly footing.  Orderly and Humane “should be on the desk of every international policy-maker as well as every historian of twentieth century Europe.  Characterized by assured scholarship, cool objectivity and convincing detail,” Douglas’ work  is also a “passionate plea for tolerance and fairness in a multi-cultural world” (p.412).

           The central question of Görtemaker’s biography of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress (and his wife for 24 hours, before the newlyweds committed suicide in the Berlin bunker on the last day of April 1945), is the extent to which Braun was knowledgeable about, and therefore complicit in, the enormous war crimes and crimes against humanity engineered by the man in her life.  Evans finds highly convincing Görtemaker’s conclusion that Braun was fully cognizant of what her man was up to: “There can be little doubt that Eva Braun closely followed the major events of the war,” he writes, and that she “felt her fate was bound inextricably to that of her companion’s from the outset” (p.160; I was less convinced, describing Görtemaker’s case as based on “inference rather than concrete evidence,” and noting that Görtemaker conceded that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered”).

            Ian Kershaw is a scholar of the same generation as Evans who rivals him in stature as a student of the Nazi regime — among his many works is a two-volume biography of Hitler.  His The End provides the grisly details on how and why Germany continued to fight in the second half of 1944 and the first half of 1945, when it was clear that the war was lost.  It is, Evans writes, a “vivid account of the last days of Hitler’s Reich, with a real feel for the mentalities and situations of people caught up in a calamity which many didn’t survive, and which those who did took years to overcome” (p.351).

            The remaining chapters in the collection address subjects equally likely to be unfamiliar yet of interest to general readers.  Of course, the advantage of a collection of this sort is that readers are not obliged to read every chapter; they can pick and choose among them.  One editorial weakness to the collection is the absence of any indication at the beginning of each chapter of the specific work under review and where it was first published.  Evans rarely mentions the work under review until well into the chapter. There is a list of “Acknowledgements” at the end that sets out this information.  But the initial entries are in the wrong order, adding confusion and limiting the utility of the list.

* * *

            Evans’ reviews/essays are impressive both for their breath and their depth.  Throughout, Evans proves to be an able guide for readers hoping to draw informed lessons from recent works about the Third Reich.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 25, 2018

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Filed under European History, German History, History

Not Unfathomable

Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust 

            In thinking about the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, words like “incomprehensible” or “unfathomable” often come to mind as the only adequate descriptors.  How could Germany, that cultured land of Beethoven and Bach, Hegel and Kant, become the country of mass murderers Hitler and Himmler? How could so many “ordinary Germans,” to borrow a phrase from the Holocaust debate, buy into, support, and participate in crimes of this enormity?  Rational, evidence-based responses to such questions frequently seem inadequate.  Might the Holocaust be a subject for which the conventional tools of historical explanation are insufficient?  Not at all, Peter Hayes argues in Why: Explaining the Holocaust, where he applies the conventional tools to identify and answer the most critical questions about the Holocaust.

      Characterizing the Holocaust as “incomprehensible” or “unfathomable,” Hayes writes, leads us to “despair, to give up, to admit to being too lazy to make the long effort, and, worst of all, to duck the challenge to our most cherished illusions about ourselves and each other that looking into the abyss of this subject entails” (p.326; disclosure: I have used the word “unfathomable” to describe the Holocaust on several occasions on this blog; e.g. here, 4th paragraph; here, final paragraph).  Hayes, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, Chair of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the author of numerous works on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, recognizes that a “coherent explanation of why such ghastly carnage erupted from the heart of civilized Europe in the twentieth century seems still to elude people” (p.xiii).  But he asks that we approach the Holocaust “neither in awe nor in anger,” viewing it as a “set of historical events, to be recovered, studied and comprehended by the usual historical means,” that is, “‘carefully and soberly,’ with a mix of precision and feeling, and without engaging in sentimentality or sanctification” (p.325).  The alternative to trying to understand how and why the Holocaust happened is to “capitulate to a belief in fate, divine purpose, or sheer randomness in human events” (p.326).

            Hayes begins this highly analytical yet eminently readable work with an introduction asking the ever-pertinent question, “Why Another Book on the Holocaust?” — an introduction which he might well have titled “Why Would Anyone Want to Study the Holocaust?”  He then moves to seven substantive “why” questions he considers essential in understanding the Holocaust, each a separate chapter:

  • Targets: Why the Jews?
  • Attackers: Why the Germans?
  • Escalation: Why Murder?
  • Annihilation: Why This Swift and Sweeping?
  • Victims: Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often?
  • Homelands: Why Did Survival Rates Diverge? And
  • Onlookers: Why Such Limited Help from the Outside?

For each question, Hayes provides his assessment and summation of the state of current scholarship and research on that aspect of the Holocaust.  In his final chapter, “Aftermath,” he asks: “What Legacies, What Lessons?”  Given the proliferation of specialized research on the Holocaust, Hayes offers his readers what he terms a “comprehensive stocktaking directed squarely at answering the most central and enduring questions about why and how the massacre of European Jewry unfolded” (p.xvi).  His book thus serves as a compact primer on the scholarship involving the Holocaust, rendering it a valuable device to see a dense and intimidating forest through its many trees.

* * *

          Hayes’ evidence-based answers to the book’s seven questions build a narrative of a “perfect storm,” in which centuries of antipathy toward Jews culminated in the enormous crimes of the Holocaust, fueled by Adolph Hitler’s murderous ideology that posited Jews as Germany’s implacable enemy.   The initial chapter, “Targets: Why the Jews,” contains an overview of this antipathy, “deeply rooted in religious rivalry and superstition” (p.35).  Underlying Christian Europe’s historic hostility toward Jews is the notion that Jews had “common repellent and/or ruinous qualities that set them apart from non-Jews.  Descent is determinative; individuality is illusory” (p. 3).

         The latter half of the 19th century gave rise to what we might term “modern anti-Semitism.”  In 1879, the word “anti-Semitism” itself entered into popular usage — an inapt, artificial word, Hayes points out, targeting speakers of Semitic languages, whose syntax and grammatical structure is different from standard European languages, yet largely exempting speakers of Arabic, also a Semitic language (Hayes also prefers the Hebrew word “Shoah,” meaning destruction, to “Holocaust,” derived from the ancient Greek term for an “offering totally consumed by fire,” i.e. a religious sacrifice).  In the same time frame, pseudo-scientific racial theories based on eugenics came into vogue to justify discrimination against Jews.  By the late 19th century, Hayes notes, overt hostility toward Jews correlated closely with the economy, becoming more severe during economic downturns.  It was generally harshest in Russia and Eastern Europe, Germany and the Austrian portions of the Hapsburg Empire.

            “Attackers: Why the Germans” explores the particularities of anti-Semitism in German speaking lands from the 19th century through the rise of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party during the Great Depression of the late 1920s, but prior to Hitler’s appointment as Weimar Germany’s Chancellor in January 1933.   Even before Germany became a unified state in 1871, 19th century nationalism in German-speaking lands tended to be less inclusive and more tribal than that in Britain or France.  Having developed in reaction to and rejection of the French conquest and occupation under Napoleon, German nationalism “crystallized around the only idea that could unite so much difference, the notion that all the tribes were related and parts of a common people, or Volk” (p.38), a notion that left little room for outsiders, especially Jews.  Before World War I, however, anti-Semitism in Germany was “loud, quotable, recurrent, but it had little political traction or legislative success” (p.44).

            Germany’s defeat in World War I provided the basis for political traction.  The myth of the “stab in the back” quickly arose in the aftermath of the defeat: the German army had been on the cusp of victory in the field, only to be undermined on the home front by an insidious coalition of Jews and leftists.  By this time, German anti-Semitism had been further linked to Bolshevism in the Soviet Union and the specter of violent revolution throughout Germany and Europe.  In this environment, Hitler’s toxic brand of anti-Semitism thrived, a “witches’ brew of self-pity, entitlement, and aggression, but simultaneously a “form of magical thinking that promised to end all of Germans’ postwar sufferings, the products of defeat and deceit, by banishing their supposed ultimate cause, the Jews and their agents” (p.65).

            Hayes describes Hitler’s ideology as a “bastardized Marxism that substituted race for class” (p.61), in which history is the struggle among races to control space or territory and the Jews are Germany’s most implacable enemy.  The Nazis’ relentless effort to portray the persecution of Jews as acts of self-defense is critical to understanding the subsequent Holocaust, Hayes emphasizes, “so essential as a justification for what the Nazis wanted to do that it repeatedly appears in new forms: They threaten us, so we must strike to protect ourselves” (p.60-61).  But the immediate force behind Hitler’s rise to power was the widespread economic crisis of the Great Depression.

          Contrary to widely held popular belief, Hayes stresses that anti-Semitism did not play a decisive or primary role in bringing the Nazis to power.  Most Germans who voted for the Nazi party did so in spite of its anti-Semitism, not because of it.  Germany’s dire economic situation increased receptivity to the Nazi message and reduced anti-Semitism as a disqualifier for office.  At a time when no political party appeared to have a plan to deal with the economy, the Nazis seemed more dynamic to many Germans than the other major parties: they were authoritarian, unalterably opposed to the faltering Weimer democracy, and able to get things done.  The promise of Nazism was to “restore all that was best in Germany’s traditions yet also to revolutionize the country” (p.68).  But without the collusion of conservative leaders, who expected to use Hitler for their purposes during the economic crisis, the Nazis would not have come to power.

            In his middle chapters, Hayes explains how the project to exterminate Germany’s Jewish population came about in increments once the Nazis gained power in 1933.  Despite what Hitler had said in Mein Kampf, it was in no sense inevitable or preordained that extermination would become the Nazi end game. Nazi policy at the outset concentrated on harassment, intimidation, isolation and dispossession, but stopped short of killing, even though killing metaphors were part of everyday Nazi rhetoric.  At the core of the Nazi vision was an “unwavering dream of a Jew-free environment, since that was a precondition of German strength and happiness” (p.65).

          During the Nazis’ early years in power, Germans divided generally into three groups: “people who endorsed the persecution of the Jews, people who merely accepted it, and people who disliked it but saw little point in protesting, even though they frequently expressed reservations or felt embarrassed about specific actions” (p.98).   Prior to the savage riots of November 1938 known as Kristallnacht, German public opinion generally accepted anti-Semitic policies “except when they threatened the self-interest of non-Jews” (p.99). Violence and viciousness toward Jews “increased steadily during the 1930s in Nazi Germany and in full public view . . . yet the pattern gave rise to too little rejection or revulsion to make the Nazi regime change course” (p.99-100).

       The point at which persecution gave way to mass killing most likely occurred sometime in the second half of 1941, the outgrowth of a series of meetings between Hitler and Himmler after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in June of that year.  In October 1941, Himmler issued an instruction that forbade further emigration of Jews from the European continent. This document “clearly signaled the end to the policy of driving Jews away . . . and suggested that the Nazis had found a new approach to the Jewish problem” (p.123).  Nazi leaders by then knew they had the means to kill people en masse in gas chambers and began constructing sites to do so. “The Final Solution, the annihilation of the Jews of Europe, was in motion” (p.125).

          But why did so many Germans enthusiastically embrace and participate in state-sponsored killing?  Hayes confronts this question in his chapter, “Annihilation: Why This Swift and Sweeping?” and throughout much of the rest of the book.  This question probably gives rise to more differences and less consensus among historians than any of the book’s other questions.   Here, Hayes surveys the scholarly literature on the subject, in particular Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), and Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men (1992).  Goldhagen, in a work which “the public loved and most historians panned” argued that Germans killed Jews “because they wanted to; they wanted to because they universally hated Jews; and they hated Jews because Germans always had – their nation’s culture had been thoroughly and pervasively anti-Semitic for hundreds of years” (p.137-38; curiously, Goldhagen’s provocative work found a particularly receptive audience in the reunited Germany of the 1990s).  Browning’s more nuanced study “maintains that anti-Semitic convictions had little to do with the readiness of Germans to commit murder; rather, they acted out of loyalty to one another” (p.138).

           Hayes attempts to summarize and synthesize these and similar works with several salient points.  Above all, he argues, the Nazi regime “succeeded in creating a closed mental world, an ideological echo chamber in which leaders constantly harped on the threat the Jews supposedly constituted and the need for Germans to defend themselves against it” (p.144).  Rank and file Nazi perpetrators engaged in self-delusion, developing a “capacity to distract themselves from what they were doing by calling it something else. Perpetrators never owned up to torturing and slaughtering; they always professed to be serving a sanctified purpose that immunized them from the charge of immorality” (p.154).   Many embraced anti-Semitism as a “conveniently available form of legitimizing what they had been ordered to do. . . . [T]hey did not kill because they hated their victims, but they decided to hate them because they thought they had to kill them” (p.139).

          Hayes dismisses the question of his chapter on victims, “Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often,” as one posed by succeeding generations “from the comfort of living in liberal and law-observing societies” (p.176).  There was more Jewish resistance than is commonly realized.   Overall, however, the Jewish response to the Nazi onslaught was to “comply with German demands and orders in hopes of preventing them from getting worse” (p.177).   Jews took arms only when they knew the alternative was near-certain death.  The  odds were “stacked against them, because they could not see or could not bear to see what was going to happen to them, because the slimmest chance that some might survive tempted them to avoid committing suicide by fighting back, and because they clung to life as best they could in ever more adverse circumstances” (p.196-97).

         Hayes thus rejects the provocative charge of Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, two early leaders in the study of the Holocaust who contended in the 1960s that the destruction of European Jewry can be explained primarily through the lack of Jewish resistance and complicity in the killing itself.  Their “harsh accusations have not stood up to historical analysis over the past forty years “ (p.178).  Hayes nonetheless recognizes that in the ghettos established in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, usually as a prelude to deportation to death camps, the Nazis frequently delegated responsibility for carrying out German instructions to Jewish Councils, a “diabolically effective” means of minimizing the resources they needed to police the Jews and making them “complicit in their own persecution.  In effect, the Nazis applied the tried-and-true colonial practice of indirect rule through favored natives who got privileges or exemptions for punishments in exchange for helping to control everyone else” (p.180).

            The system of divide and conquer functioned in the camps “to the same diabolical effect that it operated in the ghettos. . . The Germans exploited internal divisions and individuals’ will to live right up until the dissolution of the camps” (p.217).   It is, Hayes concludes, both “unfair and inaccurate to hold the Jewish victims responsible for what happened to them.” Whether they lived or died “depended on two things alone: the actions of the Nazi regime and the progress of the Allied armies” (p.195-197).

          As to why help from the outside was so limited, the subject of the penultimate chapter, “Onlookers,” Hayes examines the individual policies of the countries best situated to help Jewish victims: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States.  Overall, a “combination of anti-Semitism and economic and political interests worked to restrict the admission of Jews to other countries throughout the Holocaust and to inhibit other action on their behalf. Sooner or later, every nation that might have helped decided that it had higher priorities than aiding or defending the Jews” (p. 259-60).   The same could be said of the major non-governmental organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and almost every transnational religious institution, especially the Catholic Church.  The fate of the Jews of Europe was “always a matter of secondary importance to everyone but themselves and the regime that wished to kill them” (p.296).

* * *

          In his conclusion, “Aftermath: What Legacies, What Lessons,” Hayes returns to those of us still grappling to comprehend the Holocaust. What transpired during the fateful years 1933-45 was “not mysterious and inscrutable,” he writes.  It was “the work of humans acting on familiar human weaknesses and motives: wounded pride, fear, self-righteousness, prejudice, and personal ambition being among the most obvious” (p.342) — qualities hardly in short supply in today’s public sphere.  Among my own take away lessons in the aftermath of reading Hayes’ thoughtful work: the word “unfathomable” is unlikely to be used again in these pages to describe the Holocaust.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 14, 2018

 

 

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Inside the Mind and Time of Victor Hugo

 

 

 

David Bellos, The Novel of the Century:

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables 

            When first published on April 4, 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was an immediate best seller – in today’s parlance, a “blockbuster” but also, at 1,900 pages in the original French, a “doorstopper” (the English translation was a mere 1,500 pages).  Hugo in 1862 was among France’s most revered writers, but was then living in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, having fled several years earlier from what he considered the dictatorial regime of Louis-Napoléon, better known as Napoléon III.  Hugo intended Les Misérables, his epic tale of reconciliation and redemption, with its searing portraits of the poor and those at society’s margins, to be the culmination of his already illustrious career as a novelist, poet and playwright.  It didn’t take long after Les Misérables’ initial publication for Hugo to conclude that his novel would easily meet his lofty aspirations.

             Over a century and half later, Hugo’s Les Misérables remains in the forefront of literary classics, still read in the original French and in countless translations in all the world’s major languages.  Within weeks of its publication, moreover, Les Misérables was turned into a play, and in the 20th century became the subject of more adaptations for radio, stage and screen than any just about any other literary work.  But David Bellos, professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, worries that Les Misérables’ extraordinary staying power and its enduring mass market appeal has led too many to dismiss the novel as a work that falls below the level of great art.

            In The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, Bellos seeks to dispel such notions by getting inside Victor Hugo’s mind and his time as he pieced together Les Misérables.   Much like Alice Kaplan’s Looking For “The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, reviewed here in April, Bellos’ work could be considered a “biography of a book.”  In an introductory chapter, “The Journey of Les Misérables,” Bellos provides an overview to the novel, its setting and its multiple twists and improbable turns, all highly useful for readers who have not read the novel for several years if at all.

       Here he introduces the novel’s principal characters: Jean Valjean, famously sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whose twenty-year quest to rehabilitate himself constitutes the novel’s “narrative backbone” (p.xviii); Fantine, an abandoned single mother who loses her job, falls into prostitution and meets an early death; her illegitimate daughter Cosette, entrusted to Valjean’s care after her mother’s death; Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean relentlessly throughout the novel; the inn-keeping couple the Thénardiers, and their urchin children, Éponine and Gavroche; and Marius, a student and budding political activist who falls in love with Cosette.

              Les Misérables consists of five parts, with 48 “books” (Bellos too has divided his work into five parts, surely not coincidentally).  Hugo’s Part I is entitled “Fantine;” Part II, “Cosette,” in which the young girl is saved by Valjean from cruel foster parents after her mother’s death; Part III, “Marius,” focusing on the student’s life on the barricades in his fight to overcome the monarchy; Part IV, “The Idyll of Rue Plumer and the Epic of Rue Saint Denis,” two Parisian streets, the first where the love affair of Cosette and Marius blossomed, the second where Marius fought in a political barricade; and Part V, simply “Jean Valjean.”  Each of the 48 books has chapters, 365 in all.  With many of the chapters quite short, Bellos suggests a chapter per day over the course of a year for those who want to read or reread the novel.

               The individuals who surrounded Hugo as he wrote Les Misérables loom as large in Bellos’ work as the characters in the novel itself.   Hugo and his wife Adèle Foucher had five children, the first of whom died in infancy.  Their oldest daughter Léopoldine died in a boating accident at age 19, the “gravest emotional wound in Hugo’s life “ (p.98). Their last child, daughter Adèle, kept a diary from an early age that provides a major portion of the record about the evolution of Les Misérables,.  Adèle was in the forefront of an innovative campaign to market the novel across Europe (her unrequited love for a British military officer was the subject of the 1975 François Trauffaut film, The Story of Adèle H).  Hugo’s older son Charles also played a major role in arranging for publication of Les Misérables, while younger son François-Victor became a literary heavyweight in his own right through his translations into French of the major works of Shakespeare.

           An additional presence throughout Bellos’ account is Hugo’s long-term  mistress, Juliette Drout, an aspiring actress who followed Hugo into exile.  While living in quarters separate from the Hugo family, Juliette became Hugo’s regular traveling companion and served informally as his secretary and confidante (Juliette was traveling with Hugo when he learned of daughter Léopoldine’s death).  But Bellos adds that Hugo was a “serial philanderer” (p.30), with ample supplements to his on-going extra-marital liaison with Juliette and his legal attachment to wife Adèle.

          Les Misérables begins in 1815 and extends to 1835.  Hugo wrote the novel in fits and starts between 1845 and 1862.  The period between 1815 and 1862 encompasses some of the most dramatic upheavals of France’s turbulent and often violent 19th century.  The final defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo and the “Bourbon restoration” of Louis XVIII as a constitutional monarch took place in the fateful year 1815.  By 1862, France was in the midst of the “Second Empire” of Louis-Napoléon (Napoléon III), the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, who in a coup d’etat in 1851 had ended France’s Second Republic, the event that sent Hugo into exile.  In addition to the 1851 coup, the first half of the century witnessed periodic uprisings against the government, among them: the 1830 “July Revolution,” which ousted Louis XVIII’s successor Charles X in favor of Louis-Philippe d’Orleans; a mini-1832 rebellion which unsuccessfully sought to reverse the 1830 July Revolution, an uprising critical to Hugo’s novel but less so to French history; and the February 1848 revolution in which Louis-Napoléon deposed Louis-Philippe and established the Second French Republic, an uprising in which Hugo was directly involved.

            Bellos’ account shines in its illumination of how these events and the broader currents of 19th century French history affected both Hugo himself and the novel he was working on.  To enhance our understanding of the novel and its seventeen year gestation period, Bellos includes what he terms “interludes,” short digressions on diverse but pragmatic subjects, such as regional and class differences in language in Hugo’s time; money and credit in 19th century France; intellectual property protection and the technical process involved in publishing books in the mid-19th century; and transportation in the time of Les Misérables (people walked a lot more then than they do today).  Bellos also delves into how Hugo’s political and religious views entered into his novel.

            Although Les Misérables is a “progressive” work which “surely expresses moral outrage at the plight of the poor,” (p.219), Bellos cautions that it should not be considered a tract for the emerging views of the European left.  Subtly, however, the novel traced out a “limited if still ambitious program of social action” (p.202-03): more humane criminal justice, with easier entry back into society for offenders, more education, and more jobs for the uneducated.  Hugo, who had never been baptized and did not subscribe to any established religion or cult, considered Les Misérables to be a religious but not Catholic work.  Hugo’s novel argues for “natural religion” capable of bridging the conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics, and between believers and non-believers, conflicts which in Hugo’s view exacerbated the disparities between rich and poor.  Les Misérables is thus, as Bellos puts it, a “work of reconciliation — between the classes, but also between the conflicting currents that turn our own lives into storms. It is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good” (p.xxiv).

* * *

             Bellos notes that Les Misérables was already an “historical” novel when it first appeared in 1862.  With its story set in a past that had ended over a quarter of a century earlier, the novel could immediately be read as an “exercise in nostalgia for a vanished world . . . [and as] an unintended guide to the way things used to be” (p.54).  To dig into the novel’s 1815-to-1835 period is thus to dig into Hugo’s own adolescence and his formative early adult years.  The son of a soldier who fought in Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars, Hugo turned 13 in 1815.

               A precocious literary youth, by 1815 Hugo had already demonstrated a flair for poetry.  By 1832, the year he turned 30, Hugo was among France’s best-known poets who had published a handful of novels, among them the immensely popular Notre Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). 1832 marked the death of Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century.”  Bellos notes that Hugo considered himself the logical candidate to step into Goethe’s shoes as “European genius-in-chief” (p.4). 1832 was also the year of the unsuccessful two-day revolt against the July monarchy, a minor episode in France’s 19th century which Hugo elevated to the center of Les Misérables through Marius’ participation in its events.

               The first draft of Hugo’s novel, whose title was initially Les Misères, was written in Paris between November 1845 and February 1848. Although this draft no longer exists, scholars have concluded that its plot corresponds closely to that of the final version.  1845 was also the year when Hugo was appointed a peer in France’s upper legislative chamber.  He was working on Marius’ involvement in the 1832 upheaval at the time of the 1848 uprising against the regime of King Louis-Philippe, and found himself, improbably, on the front lines defending the regime – an “experience like no other Hugo had ever had, and not easy to square with his views, his feelings, and his position” (p.47-48).  Hugo’s role in in the suppression of the popular revolt of 1848 was, Bellos argues, “what he had to come to terms with to carry on with his book, and what he [had] to come terns with in his book if it [was] to be the ‘social and moral panorama’ that he intended it to be” (p.113-14).

              Hugo’s position as an establishment figure ended definitively when he became one of the most outspoken and relentless critics of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état.  Forced into exile, he fled initially to Brussels and from there to the Channel Islands, outposts of the British crown off the coast of France. After living first on the Channel Island of Jersey, Hugo and his entourage landed in Guernsey in 1855, with his draft novel gathering dust in a trunk.  He established residence for his family at an elaborate mansion known as Hauteville House, overlooking the sea.  Juliette was assigned to a smaller house nearby.  In 1859, Napoleon III issued an amnesty to those who had opposed his seizure of power in 1851.  Many of the exiles on Channel Islands chose to return to France, but Hugo elected to stay.  But it was not until April 25, 1860, that Hugo went back to the trunk that had followed him from Jersey and pulled out the musty pages of the work he had spent little time on since 1848.

            From that date onward, Bellos’ narrative gathers momentum as he traces the frenetic period that followed.   By this time, Hugo had changed the name of his work from Les Misères to Les Misérables, his innovative term that shifted the meaning from the “poor,” “pitiable” or “despicable” to something more inclusive that suggests solidarity among the less fortunate: a “moral and social identity that had no name before” (p.103).  Hugo finally settled on the names of most of his characters in early 1861. These names have become so familiar, Bellos observes, that it “takes an effort to realize that they all had to be invented, for none of them was taken from the existing stock of French first and family names” (p.115).  Hugo did not finalize Jean Valjean’s name until March 1861.  Previously he had been Jean Tréjan, Jacques Sou and Jean Vlajean.

            Hugo’s work was technically covered by the same contract that had paid him in the 1830s for Notre Dame de Paris.  Because of concerns that the novel might be subject to censorship or litigation if published in France, Hugo shifted to Albert Lacroix and his Brussels-based, politically liberal micro-publishing firm.  Hugo needed a buy out of his original contract and overall wanted more for Les Misérables than had ever been paid to an author for any book. He largely got it, nearly 3 million British pounds in today’s currency, with about 40% of that amount being paid to him up-front, in cash, prior to publication.  Hugo’s deal with Lacroix, worked out in a single day when Lacroix visited Hugo at Hauteville House without having read the draft of the novel, was thus the “contract of the century,” to use the title of one of Bellos’ chapters.

            Hugo got his cash payment on time, in December 1860, because Oppenheim Bank of Brussels agreed to lend money to Lacroix to pay for the book.  For Hugo, debt and crime were two sides of the same coin, and Bellos notes the irony of a novel “so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major loan – probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book,” thereby placing Les Misérables “at the vanguard of . . . the use of venture capital to fund the arts” (p.143).

          Hugo was still working on the latter portions of the novel when Parts I and II appeared in print on April 4, 1862.  A full two months later, on June 14, 1862, Hugo “corrected the last galley of the last volume of Les Misérables and dispatched it to Brussels.”  Over the course of the previous nine months, he had “turned a single-copy manuscript of a still unfinished work into the greatest publishing sensation of his age” (p.260).

             While Hugo was confined to Hauteville House finalizing his novel, daughter Adèle was in Paris serving as the publicity manager for its launch, working with her brother Charles and Lacroix, both in Brussels. Adèle had to raise the interest and enthusiasm level for the novel to a “pitch so high it would discourage the authorities from banning or seizing the book.  But she also had to let not a scrap of it be seen in advance. The requirement to boost the book while keeping it secret made the publicity manager’s job a work of art” (p.223).   Adèle promoted the book through a billboard campaign.  She also gave advance portions to newspapers, but told them they couldn’t print them until she gave a go ahead.  Thanks to the advance work, the book had been “trumped in all the media then available” in France, a “country that the author refused to enter” (p.228).

            Les Misérables was to go on sale in other major European cities outside France at the same time.  Adèle, Charles and Lacroix thus devised what Bellos labels the “first truly international book launch,” but with an infrastructure that was “barely ready for it: paddle steamers, a rail network that still had more gaps than connections, four-horse diligences and maybe, on the approaches to St. Petersburg, a jingling three-horse sleigh” (p.228).

             From its initial appearances, there was an electricity attached to Hugo’s novel that is difficult for us to fathom more than a century and a half later. The first two parts of Les Misérables sold out in France in two days. The crush for the first copies “verged on a riot” (p.231).  Groups of workers pooled their limited means to buy a copy of the book, passed it around among members of the group, and took turns reading its nearly 2,000 pages to fellow workers who were unable to read.  But the French press did not share readers’ enthusiasm for Les Misérables.  Left wing and socialist critiques were lukewarm; those in the right wing press were stinging.

          Outside France, one recurring criticism of the novel was that it was too rooted in French history, and thus lacked deep meaning for non-French reading audiences. These criticisms were not unfounded, Bellos points out.  Underlying Les Misérables was Hugo’s view that France was the “moral and intellectual powerhouse of the world,” with Les Misérables serving as the “first full formulation of the conventional explanation of the exceptional status of France” (p.235).  One of the larger purposes of Les Misérables, which begins at the end of France’s revolutionary period, was to make the French Revolution the “well-spring of nineteenth-century civilization and so to heal the bleeding wound that it bequeathed to subsequent generations of French men and women” (p.38).

            When the publisher of the first Italian translation of Les Misérables fretted that the legacy of the French Revolution had little relevance to his readers, Hugo responded with a “grandiose reply,” in which he “pulled out all the rhetorical stops” (p.237).  Hugo said that while he did not know whether Les Misérables would be read by all, he had written it for everyone. “I write,” Hugo explained:

with a deep love for my country but without preoccupying myself with France more than any other nation. As I grow older I grow simpler and become increasingly a patriot of humanity.  That is the trend of our times and the law of radiation of the French Revolution. To respond to the growing enlargement of civilization, books must stop being exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish or English, and become European; more than that, human (p.237).

* * *

          As if to respond himself to the Italian publisher and others in Hugo’s time who considered Les Misérables too Franco-centric, Bellos concludes that the novel’s “moral compass,” extends “far beyond the history, geography, politics and economics of the world in which its story is set. The novel achieves the extraordinary feat of being at the same time an intricately realistic portrait of a specific place and time, a dramatic page-turner with masterful moments of theatrical suspense and surprise, an encyclopedia of facts and ideas and an easily understood demonstration of generous moral principles that we could do far worse than to apply to our lives today” (p.259).  Bellos’ conclusion could also be considered a final riposte to those modern-day skeptics who doubt whether Les Misérables rises to the level of great art.  Few readers of Bellos’ erudite yet easy-to-read account are likely to side with the skeptics.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 17, 2018

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Extended European Civil War

 

Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished:

Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 

            On November 11th this autumn, the yearly celebrations and remembrances associated with Veteran’s Day (sometimes called Armistice Day) will carry particular weight – that day will mark 100 years to the day when war-weary German generals signed the ceasefire agreement in a French railroad car that ended the four-year conflict still sometimes termed the “Great War.” There will be many ceremonies and much speechifying about valor, sacrifice, and the high cost of preserving peace.  But if Robert Gerwarth, a German-born professor of modern history at University College, Dublin, were to speak at any such ceremony, he might be considered a party crasher.  He would likely ask his listeners not to think of that November day in 1918 as a moment when the killing and carnage stopped across Europe.

               Gerwarth could explain, as he does in The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, how the November 1918 armistice did not bring peace to much of Europe.  Although the Western Allies, Great Britain and France, found relative peace and stability in the aftermath of the armistice (Britain still had to cope with an unruly Ireland), that was anything but the case in central and eastern Europe.  There, ethnic strife and political violence continued well past November 1918, to the point where, Gerwarth contends, we should think of the post-war period, up to 1923, as one of an “extended European civil war” (p.8; Gerwarth’s book might thus be considered a counterpart to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, reviewed here in July 2013, recounting the ethnic violence and fighting that continued well after the official end to World War II hostilities in 1945).  Not since the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century had a “series of interconnected wars and civil wars in Europe been as inchoate and deadly as in the years after 1917-18” (p.7).

            As his title indicates, Gerwarth’s focus is on World War I’s losers, the “vanquished,” better known as the Central Powers, whose defeat on the battlefield deprived them of justification for their immense sacrifices during the war.  In addition to Germany, the vanquished included the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria, all of whom had signed ceasefire agreements with the Allies prior to Germany’s capitulation on November 11, 1918.  But the first vanquished power for Gerwarth is Russia. The most populous of all combatant states, Russia “became the first to descend into the chaos of revolution and military defeat” (p.15).  It sued Germany for peace in late 1917, the same year Romanov Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated, and only shortly after Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party had seized power.

          Gerwarth’s starting point is thus an extensive treatment of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the so-called “Russian Civil War” that followed (his initial chapter is entitled “A Train Journey in Spring,” reminiscent of Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, reviewed here in December 2017).  He then moves to central and eastern Europe after the November 1918 Armistice, a period when both left and right-wing violence plagued the territories once controlled by the Central Powers.  Gerwarth delves into the specific situations in Germany and just about every other country in central and eastern Europe, including many that came into existence after the war, among them Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. His survey also includes Italy, which switched sides during the war and saw Europe’s first fascist government come to power in 1922 under Benito Mussolini.

            But Gerwarth uses this extensive country-specific detail to create a broader picture. Europe’s post-war upheaval, he argues, has hitherto been looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of individual countries, e.g., what was going on in Russia and Germany, “as if the revolutionary events that shook Europe between 1917 and the early 1920s were completely unconnected” (p.14). There is no study in any language, he asserts, that “investigates the experiences of all the vanquished states within the confines of one book” (p.14).  Gerwarth seeks to fill this void.

                To this end, The Vanquished emphasizes how the extended post-World War I civil war coincided with the dismantlement of the highly-diverse Hapsburg and Ottoman land empires of central and eastern Europe, replaced by fledgling nation states (Germany too under the Kaiser was considered a European land empire; Romanov Russia, Europe’s other great land empire, ended with the Tsar’s 1917 abdication, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian capitulation to Germany).  Dismantlement of Europe’s land empires was not an initial war aim of the Western Allies, and only became so within the last year of the war. By late 1923, when Europe’s extended civil war had largely ended, Fascist and Bolshevik governments were entrenched in key European states, and the idea that a true nation state required ethnic and religious homogeneity had gained an ominous toehold.

                Gerwarth connects the dots for his macro-portrait in large measure through the peace treaties that purported to settle the conflicts of the World War I era and restructure Europe’s geo-political order. The treaties were not the only cause of the extended political turmoil of the post-war years, but they plainly exacerbated that turmoil.  The first, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, between Russia and Germany, was signed eight months prior to the November armistice, on March 3, 1918.  In the middle chronologically – and in the middle of Gerwarth’s narrative – are the accords that arose out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference: the Versailles peace treaty, which prescribed terms for Germany; the Treaty of San-Germaine-en-Laye for Austria; Trianon for Hungary; Sèvres for Ottoman Turkey; and Neuilly for Bulgaria.  The end point is the July 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which resolved the extended post-war conflict between Greece and a young, post-Ottoman Turkish Republic. Between Brest-Litovsk and Lausanne, Gerwarth ranges widely yet probes deeply, methodically presenting account after account of the inter-state and civil wars, political revolutions and counter-revolutionary reaction, that ravaged central and eastern Europe in the half-decade following the November 1918 armistice.

* * *

            The March 1918 Treaty of Brest- Litovsk between Russia and Germany stripped the former Romanov Empire of almost all the western, non-Russian portions of its territory, approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, containing almost one-third of its pre-war population and much of its natural resources.  The treaty was a “moment of extraordinary triumph” (p.39) for Germany, bringing it closer to its initial war aim of becoming the dominant power in Central and Eastern Europe. The territorial concessions exacted from Russia as the price for peace, Gerwarth contends, made those imposed upon Germany in the Versailles treaty the following year “seem benign by comparison” (p.39).

            The Russian Civil War that followed n the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk involved counter-revolutionary opponents, peasant insurgencies and the attempts by several regions on the western border of the former Russian Empire to break away from Bolshevik rule.  Allied intervention, initially intended to prevent the Central Powers from taking control of strategic resources, “soon included military aid for the loose confederation of anti-communist forces known as the ‘Whites’ in their struggle against the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks” (p.77).  The eventual Red triumph came at a “staggeringly high price for the country. After two revolutions and seven uninterrupted years of armed conflict, Russia in 1921 lay in ruins” (p.93).

            Two days after the November 1918 armistice, the Russian Red Army sought to recapture western territories lost as a result of Brest-Litovsk.  By early 1919, Bolshevism appeared to be on the march westward, with Germany a cauldron of left and right wing fervor.  Left wing radicals, led by revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, challenged the post-war government in Berlin in the “Spartacus Uprising.” Bavaria sought to become an independent socialist republic.  Former German soldiers, friekorps, set themselves up as a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism, aided by a huge contingent of émigrés from the Russian civil war.  Liebknecht and Luxembourg were assassinated in January 1919.  Friekorps paramilitary forces were on the front line in the 1920 “Kapp putsch,” an unsuccessful right-wing attack on the German government in 1920.  Bavaria witnessed another unsuccessful right-wing putsch in 1923this one led by a World War I veteran from Austria and members of his infant National Socialist party.

                With Vienna and Budapest experiencing similar upheaval, the Paris Peace Conference convened in mid-January 1919 to decide the future of the vanquished powers. The vanquished themselves were excluded from the negotiations, to be summoned only when the peace treaties had been finalized.  Russia, immersed in civil war, was similarly missing from the negotiations. The treaties were thus a product of compromise, “not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the key actors among the victorious Allies” (p.174; the deliberations and machinations of the Paris Peace Conference are captured brilliantly in Margaret MacMillan’s 2003 work, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World).

               The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, is best known for its Article 231, ascribing sole responsibility for the war to Germany, and its unrealistic war reparation requirements.  Germany was also forced into substantial territorial concessions, with its overseas colonies redistributed among the victorious states.  In Germany, the terms of the treaty, considered a diktat, were greeted with disbelief, uniting an otherwise seriously polarized country in a shared sense of “fundamental betrayal and resentment” (p.203).

            Yet Germany “actually fared better in Paris than all of the other Central Powers” (p.204), Gerwarth contends. The treaty of St. Germaine-en-Laye, signed in September 1919, allotted huge swaths of the former Hapsburg Empire to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the future state of Yugoslavia, reducing Austria to a “tiny and impoverished Republic in the Alps” (p.5).  The treaty imposed heavy reparations upon both Austria and Hungary and stipulated that the two countries would have to carry most of the old empire’s war debt.  It further proscribed Anschluss, the voluntary union of Austria with the German Reich, an aspiration strongly supported by the political left in both Austria and Germany which seemed consistent with American President Woodrow Wilson’s lofty principle of “national self determination.”  The newly independent state of Hungary was similarly forced to cede large segments of Hungarian-speaking territory and did not sign the Treaty of Trianon until June 1920, and then  under protest.

            Bulgaria’s territorial loses in the Treaty of Neuilly were less extensive than those of Austria and Hungary but, proportionate to its size and GDP, it faced the highest reparations bill of all the Central Powers.  The Treaty of Sèvres, the last of the Paris Peace Conference, signed in August 1920, forced Ottoman Turkey to cede huge amounts of territory to Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, while allowing onerous foreign spheres of influence and domination in much of the remainder.  The treaty also imposed substantial reparations. “No other defeated Central Power had to subject itself to such a compromise of its sovereignty,” Gerwarth writes. For Turkish nationalists, the treaty’s draconian terms continued “in an even more extreme form the humiliating European interference  in Ottoman affairs [that occurred] during the nineteenth century” (p.236).

             But the focus on Versailles’ war guilt clause and the issue of war reparations for all of the Central Powers obscures what Gerwarth considers the most significant outcome of the Paris Peace accords: the “transformation of an entire continent previously dominated by land empires into one composed of ‘nation states’” (p.174).  Neither Great Britain nor France had gone to war in 1914 with the aim of creating a “Europe of nations,” and it was “only from early 1918 onwards that the destruction of the land empires became an explicit war aim” (p.173).  The Paris accords also led to a series of “Minority treaties,” agreements signed by the new nation states, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, as a precondition for their international recognition, in which the new states guaranteed rights to ethnic and religious minorities living within their boundaries.

            In his post-Paris Peace Conference section, Gerwarth dedicates a full chapter to Italy and its quest for control over the Adriatic port of Fiume, a city also claimed by the emerging state of Yugoslavia.  Fiume was at the top of the list of territories Italy thought it had been promised when it came over to the Allied side in 1915 in the Great War, but failed to gain in Paris, giving rise to the notion of a “mutilated” Italian victory.  For a while, the flamboyant poet Gabriel D’Annunzio occupied Fiume before being driven out by the Italian central government in Rome.

                Fiume became one of the causes that propelled Benito Mussolini to power in 1922 as Europe’s first overtly fascist leader.  Gerwarth observes how Mussolini utilized lessons he drew from Lenin, notably that “parliamentary majorities were far less important than the ability and determination to instill fear in opponents and to act ruthlessly when an opportunity presented itself” (p.163). Mussolini’s appointment as Italian Prime Minister in 1922 was an instance much like Lenin’s coup d’état in 1917 where power was “handed over to the head of a militia party which had imposed its authority by means of violence” (p.163).

            Gerwarth finishes with the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey.  Greece had joined the Allied side in the war in 1915 out of ambition for territory in the Ottoman Empire.  Encouraged by Britain, in May 1919 it launched an invasion at the Aegean city of Smyrna (now Izmir), and for a short time controlled substantial portions of the Turkish mainland, Anatolia.  But Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemel, soon to be known as Attäturk, checked Greece forces, recaptured Smyrma and drove the Greeks from Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists negotiated a new treaty at Lausanne which completely overturned the Treaty of Sèvres. The Treaty of Lausanne recognized the independence of the Republic of Turkey and its sovereignty over what was sometimes termed Asia Minor, modern Turkey, along with its largest city, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Eastern Thrace, now the Turkish portion of the European continent bordering Bulgaria.  By virtue of Lausanne, Greece became the “last of the vanquished states of the ‘post-war’ period” (p.246).

              But the Lausanne Treaty had ominous implications for Europe as a whole. Drawn up to prevent mass violence between different religious groups, the treaty sanctioned the forced exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Christians, living in Anatolia, who were sent to Greece, and nearly 400,000 Muslims resettled the other way.  Lausanne:

effectively established the legal right of state governments to expel large parts of their citizens on the grounds of ‘otherness.’ It fatally undermined cultural, ethnic and religious plurality as an ideal to which to aspire . . . [T]he future now seemed to belong to ethnic homogeneity as a pre-condition for nation states to live in peace (p.246).

Lausanne thus all but reversed the commitment of the Paris Peace Conference’s Minority treaties to the defense of vulnerable ethnic minorities. It confirmed what was then becoming an “increasingly popular idea” that a “‘true’ nation state could only be founded on the principle of ethnic or religious homogeneity, and that this had to be achieved at almost any human price” (p.243-44).

             Yet, central and eastern Europe entered into a relatively stable period after Lausanne.  Gerwarth sees a “new spirit of rapprochement” (p.248) from late 1923 onward that lasted throughout the remainder of the 1920s, embodied in such instruments as the Dawes plan, which strove to make German reparations payments more manageable; the Locarno Treaty of 1925, by which Germany acknowledged its post-Versailles western borders; and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, whose high-minded purpose was to ban war as an instrument of foreign policy, except for self-defense.  But the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression reversed much of the progress toward a lasting peace made in the latter portion of the 1920s.  As the decade ended, Fascism and Bolshevism (now referred to more frequently as “Communism”) remained entrenched in Italy and the former Romanov state.  As to Germany, while the fringe National Socialist party was attracting attention for its rabble-rousing attacks on the Versailles treaty, few Germans gave the party any serious chance of achieving power.

* * *

             It is an open question whether Gerwarth offers new detail of Europe’s turbulent period 1917-1923.  The book’s extensive country-specific accounts of these years, especially those pertaining to Russia and Germany, have been the subject matter of numerous other works.   But the virtue of Gerwarth’s work lies in its use of the country-specific histories of Russia, Germany and just about every other European country from Italy eastward to create a comprehensive, thought-provoking portrait of a half-continent awash in ethnic strife and political violence in the aftermath of the November 1918 armistice.  Gerwarth’s  work also seems likely to be at odds with what you might read or hear this coming November 11th.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 22, 2018

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History, Italian History, Russian History

School Daze, Halycon Haze

 

Charles A. Hobbie, Days of Splendor, Hours Like Dreams:

Four Years at a Small College in the Still North (1963-1967)

            Charles “Chuck” Hobbie has written a loving memoir of his undergraduate experience at Dartmouth College from 1963 to 1967, Days of Splendor, Hours Like Dreams: Four Years at a Small College in the Still North.  Hobbie’s recollections of his undergraduate days more than a half-century ago are shrouded in what he terms a “halcyon haze” (p.19), and that haze infuses his memoir: it is an unabashedly joyful account of a young man’s four year odyssey, utterly free from the angst and anxiety that frequently underlie personal memoirs.  Hobbie’s recollections were shaped in a time that seems quite different from the present, at an institution very different then from what it is today.

            Dartmouth, founded in 1769 to educate Native Americans – “Indians” was the term used freely in those days — is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, on the Connecticut River in Northern New England, a serious drive away from anything resembling a mid-size city, yet minutes from largely unspoiled wilderness. Dartmouth in Hobbie’s time was a single sex, all male institution, although that changed in 1972, five years after his graduation.  As a point of disclosure, I was a classmate of Hobbie’s but did not know him as an undergraduate, even though we lived in the same dorm during our freshman year, 1963-64. I have come to know him in recent years through alumni activities.

       Hobbie majored in English literature at Dartmouth, one of the most demanding fields of undergraduate study.  Plainly a globalist before that term had come into vogue, with an affinity for learning about other cultures and countries that far surpassed most of his classmates, Hobbie also studied French and German as an undergraduate and participated in what was then a small overseas study program in Montpelier, France.  He spent two transformative summers in Uppsala, Sweden, and had other enriching international experiences. He further found time to partake of a wide variety of extra-curricular activities during his undergraduate years, and developed a deep reverence for the Northern New England wilderness.

            Hobbie’s memoir throws much light upon the mid-1960s, a period when the culture and mores in American society as a whole were undergoing rapid change, but just prior to what might be considered the quintessential “sixties” year, 1968.  Hobbie provides his readers with a good sense of what single sex education was like in that by-gone era, when the Northeast United States was dotted with numerous single-sex institutions, male and female.  Most charmingly, Hobbie provides his readers with an insider’s view of how young men between 18 and 22, suddenly free from parental boundaries, pursued the opposite sex from their remote all-male institution.  Dartmouth did not provide easy terrain for this time-honored and always challenging pre-occupation, but Hobbie proved unusually adept at it.  His endearing descriptions of a relentless pursuit of a bevy of young women throughout his undergraduate years furnish momentum and gusto to his affectionate memoir.

* * *

            Hobbie came to Dartmouth from Buffalo, New York, after excelling in secondary school.  Although he gained admission to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Colgate, as well as his father’s alma mater, Cornell, Dartmouth was his only serious choice.  His brother had graduated from the college six years previously, and as a high school student Hobbie had fallen in love with the pristine New Hampshire wilderness while working as a counselor in a summer camp in Northern New England.  Hobbie entered Dartmouth aiming to become a doctor, and thus spent his early undergraduate years in the ultra-rigorous biology and chemistry courses that were an obligatory part of what was termed the “pre-med” curriculum.  Like many of his classmates, Hobbie discovered after a heavy dose of these courses that maybe he didn’t aspire to be a doctor after all.  Quite late in his undergraduate career, he selected English literature as his major field of study.

            Hobbie can still recall the many English literature courses he wrestled with at Dartmouth, on Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the English and American novel, among others.  He provides his readers with glimpses into the worlds that opened to him in these courses.  He also recounts one of the more quaint features to being an English major at Dartmouth that had no counterpart in other academic departments.  The English department was (and still is) located in Sanborn House, an adjunct to Baker Library, the College’s main library, and was built at about the same time, in the 1920s. But even more than Baker Library, Sanborn House was made to look like it had been built in the 1820s or even the 1720s.  It had aged wooden panels, stacks of old looking books, and an inviting fireplace; it felt slightly musty, in a cozy way.  Hobbie imagined that Sanborn House had been “modeled on some seventeenth-century library in a stately English castle” (p.175).

            Weekdays at 4:00 pm, the faculty held tea at Sanborn House, to which undergraduates were cordially invited.  You didn’t have to be an English major to attend, but must of the attendees were.  Through the “enchanting tradition” (p.174) of afternoon teas, as well as through his course work, Hobbie came to know several of the school’s impressively learned English literature professors on a personal level, and he kept in touch with a handful after his undergraduate years.

            Hobbie joined freshman crew during his first year at Dartmouth, and describes learning to coordinate strokes with fellow crew members during early morning and late afternoon practice sessions on the Connecticut River.  “There is nothing quite so thrilling as silently gliding down a river,” he writes, “cutting like a knife through the reflections of the autumn colors, sunset, and sky in the water, with the only sounds those of the wind, the straining of the oars, and the rhythmic calls of the cox and stroke” (p.64).  But he gave up crew in later years for the Dartmouth Glee Club, a singing group that traveled far and wide delivering stirring concerts to audiences across the United States, along with some stops in Canada.

            Hobbie also learned to ski at the ski run located on the edge of the Dartmouth campus.  Throughout his undergraduate years, he worked part-time cleaning dishes in Dartmouth’s dining hall. And he spent much time as an undergraduate hiking in the woods, frequently spending nights at the College’s wilderness retreat at Mt. Moosilauke. In some of the memoir’s most affecting passages, Hobbie expresses his ever-deepening appreciation of the Northern New England wilderness – its “stately mountains, vast forests, and pristine lakes and rivers” (p.158) — and how that wilderness shaped the outlook he would take with him upon graduation.

          Hobbie channeled in several directions his international bent and his curiosity about cultures different from his own.    His two summers in Uppsala, Sweden, where he worked  with his older brother who was a university research assistant there, began what he terms a lifelong love affair with Sweden.  Hobbie describes himself as having been mesmerized by Uppsala’s “ancient museums, cathedral, and academic structures, intimate charm, student cafes and clubs, narrow cobblestone streets, and old-world aura” (p.116; he was also mesmerized by more than a handful of young Swedish women – see below).  During a semester at the University of Montpelier, in Mediterranean France, Hobbie lived with a French family and prepared a long thesis – what the French call a “memoire” – analyzing, in French, Balzac’s Human Comedy. He developed a deep affection for his French family, especially his “brother,” Alain, a young man of Hobbie’s age who provided the American with valuable insights into the mysterious world of French women.

          During his final year at Dartmouth, Hobbie arranged to room with a first year student from the Netherlands, for whom he seems to have been an outstanding mentor.  Late in his undergraduate career, Hobbie immersed himself in the study of German.  Then, in his final trimester, he met with a Peace Corps recruiting officer, and was plainly captivated with the mission of this then-fledgling institution that was the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy. Upon graduating from Dartmouth, Hobbie went on to join the Peace Corps after studying English literature at the University of Wisconsin and served three years in Korea.  Today, over 50 years after graduation and armed with a law degree, Hobbie works as Associate General Counsel at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

            Throughout his undergraduate years, Hobbie pursued young women with zeal and zest, and he shares with his readers what is presumably only a small fraction of his amorous adventures.  Before he left home for Dartmouth, Hobbie’s older sister told him to be kind to his dates, “if I ever had any. I wondered what she meant by that,” he tells his readers, “but I hope that I fulfilled her wish” (p.34). His sister need not have worried.  Hobbie had plenty of dates as an undergraduate, and appears to have been unfailingly kind to all.

                In these pages, Hobbie introduces us to, among others, Lindsey (“[s]mart, personable, athletic and sensitive. . . a long-legged, longhaired, gorgeous, blue-eyed blonde, with full lips and a nice figure;” p.61); Judy (“not only a wonderfully fun, intelligent, and interesting woman but also one of the prettiest girls I had ever met, whose exotic face and long, dark hair completely enchanted me” p.176); Diana (a woman with a “very distinctive and attractive voice, as well as a unique and charming way of laughing that had the cadence of the love song of a chickadee”; p.188); and Connie (the “prettiest blush I ever saw”; p.184).

              Not all Hobbie’s relationships ended to his liking.  Lindsey, his high school sweetheart, left him for some guy named Doug, whom Hobbie considered unworthy of the young lady’s attention.  With no fanfare, Judy abandoned Hobbie for her high school sweetheart.  And after Diana had told Hobbie that she couldn’t see him on a particular weekend because she had the flu, Hobbie crossed paths with her on campus in the company of another student. But a young lady named Alice, a student at Simmons College, a women’s school located near Boston, provided Hobbie with what is probably the memoir’s most painful lesson of the heart.

             After an initial encounter in Hanover, Hobbie and Alice exchanged flowery letters.  Alice’s letters gave Hobbie “some hope that she was interested in becoming a closer friend” (p.109).  One weekend, Hobbie traveled to Simmons unannounced, in the hope of surprising Alice.  But when he entered her dormitory, he had his own surprise.   On the bulletin board in the front hall he saw a “familiar letter – the letter I had written to Alice several weeks before.” Alice had not merely posted the young man’s letter on the bulletin board. To his chagrin, the letter had been “covered with mocking, annotative comments from her Simmons dormitory mates” (p.109). After his visit to Alice’s dorm, the now far wiser Hobbie says he remembers only “being dazed and more humiliated than I had ever been before. That was it for Alice and for Simmons College . . . I also learned to be more careful in the future with candidly expressing my feelings” (p.110).

            Readers should not be surprised that Hobbie earnestly sought to bridge cultural divides while overseas.  He found Swedish women “tremendously alluring, with their lilting accents, European clothes, elegant but subtle makeup and hairstyles, and confident but innocent sexuality” (p.119). In his first summer in Uppsala, he struck up a short-lived but intense friendship with a “lovely, doe-eyed blond girl” named Leena, who “in many ways personified my ideal girl” (p.118).  But Hobbie fell harder that summer for Anna, a mathematics student and a “jewel . . . strikingly beautiful with long blonde hair and blue eyes” (p119-120).

               It was “pure heaven” to be with Anna, Hobbie informs us.  When he left Uppsala by train at the end of the summer, “[n]o other woman looked attractive or interesting anymore,” although, he quickly adds, “there were lots of very enticing young women on the train” (p.121).  The following summer, by accident, he ran across Anna in Stockholm. It seemed liked “divine intervention” (p.165), and the pair had a joyous reunion, although he never saw her again after that evening, much to his regret.  While in Sweden, Hobbie also had occasion to dance with American popular singer Eartha Kitt, and befriended Anna Tolstoy, the great novelist’s granddaughter.  No wonder young Hobbie found Sweden alluring.

                It may come as a disappointment to his readers that Hobbie reveals no French girlfriends from his time in Montpelier.  But he frequently went to the beach with Nadia, a German student also studying at the university, an “extremely attractive, dark-haired beauty [who] spilled out of the tiniest bikini I had every seen” (p.168). In his language laboratory exercises at the university, moreover, Hobbie was fortunate to have as an instructor a “lovely blonde student about twenty-five years old with one of the sexiest voices I have ever heard” (p.168).

               But if Hobbie came up short in his quest for a French girlfriend while in Montpelier, he tantalizes his readers with Madame Colette Gaudin, his French teacher in his second year at Dartmouth, for my money the memoir’s most intriguing female figure.  Hobbie first spotted Madame Gaudin on the Dartmouth ski slopes – a “stunning, exquisitely graceful skier” (p.54) – and signed up for her class almost immediately thereafter. The “gorgeous” Madame Gaudin, with a “husky, seductive voice like the actress Lauren Bacall” (p.53), proved to be an excellent teacher.

            Hobbie’s new French teacher “often wore a black, loosely knitted sweater . . . and semed to slowly remove it, stretching it over her head, at least once in each class’ (p.54).  Hobbie reveals that he entertained a “secret daydream that a faculty member might wish to have an affair with a reverential man a dozen years younger,” adding that he will be “grateful forever to Madame Gaudin for her excellent French instruction” (p.53).  Hobbie barely hints at what he learned from Madame Gaudin’s instruction, leaving his readers yearning for more particulars (readers will be reassured to know that Hobbie found the elusive true and lasting love of his life while serving in the Peace Corps in Korea after graduation, where he met his future wife Young Ei; today he and Young are the proud parents of two adult children and a recently arrived grandchild).

               While detailing how he pursued women on two continents, studied literature and sang around the country in the Glee Club, Hobbie weaves into his memoir his growing awareness of the changes that were sweeping the country at large during his undergraduate years.  In the fall of 1963, when both Hobbie and I arrived in Hanover, John Kennedy was President; it was in many ways an extension of the 1950s.  Haircuts were short, ties, when they were worn (almost never at Dartmouth after the first week, up until graduation), were narrow.  Alcohol flowed freely – way too freely, in retrospect – but marijuana was a rare indulgence and few if any undergraduates could have told you what LSD was. War protest did not yet exist, although the United States already had limited involvement in Vietnam’s civil war.

                     In the winter of 1964, our first winter term in Hanover, there were signs across the country that “the times, they were a changin’,” to borrow from rising singer Bob Dylan.  John Kennedy had been killed the previous fall – a traumatic and defining moment for all of us in the first term of our first year.  Although we certainly didn’t realize it at the time, the 1950s were giving way to the 1960s.  Four guys from Liverpool, who called themselves the Beatles, had taken the country by storm with a new genre of music.

                 By the time we graduated in 1967, psychedelic drugs were competing with alcohol in many corners of the campus and weekly protests against the Vietnam War had become part of standard campus activity, seeming to increase in intensity each week.  Hobbie relates how his opposition to the Vietnam War crystallized in Sweden through intense discussions with students during his summers there (the war also led to Hobbie’s opportunity to dance with Eartha Kitt, who was singing professionally in Sweden because her anti-war activities had undermined her career in the United States).

                   But nothing to my mind better illustrates the changes of our undergraduate years than two visits of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace to the campus, the first in 1963, during our freshman year, the second in 1967, weeks prior to graduation. Wallace’s first visit precipitated a firm but modest and fully civil protest.  When Wallace reappeared on campus for a second visit in the spring of 1967, he was met with a far more unruly reception, with demonstrators seeking to shout him down when he attempted to deliver a speech in a campus auditorium, then blocking and ultimately jumping on his car as Wallace sought to leave the campus.  Hobbie, a strong supporter of civil rights from his earliest undergraduate days,  recounts how he happened to be in the vicinity when he spotted the crowd impeding Wallace’s departure and, more or less spontaneously, joined in the excitement of the moment.

                 Not unexpectedly, Hobbie befriended one of the few African-Americans in our class – one of three, Hobbie indicates.  That friendship leads Hobbie to reflect upon the near-total lack of what we would now term diversity: our class consisted of close to 800 white boys.  There were no women in the class, to be sure, and at best only a handful of non-Caucasian men.  Hobbie seems to have found and become friends with all of them.  As he further notes, not all our classmates were spirited heterosexuals like himself.  But “gay” was not yet a term in use in those days to refer to one’s sexuality, and the young men whose objects of desire were other young men stayed more or less in a dark closet. One example was Hobbie’s African-American friend, who was also a gay man – a fact I learned only after reading his obituary when he died of AIDS in the 1980s.

* * *

                 Dartmouth is of course a very different institution today from what it was in Hobbie’s time, with women adding immeasurable richness to the school, and both the faculty and student body achieving demographic diversity beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings in the mid-1960s.  But in the era when he attended Dartmouth, Hobbie was quite plainly in the right place.  Although perhaps not his objective, his relentlessly upbeat memoir reveals how he maximized the advantages that Dartmouth offered its undergraduates in the mid-1960s.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 27, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, Gender Issues

Three Jews From the City Now Called Lviv

 

Philippe Sands, East-West Street:

On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ 

        Philippe Sands is a distinguished, London-based international human rights lawyer who has written prolifically on international law, taught the subject at the university level, and handled human rights cases arising from Chile, Congo, Rwanda, and the ex-Yugoslavia, among others. He is also the grandson of Leon and Rita Buchholz, Jews who fled Vienna in the World War II era. Like many children and grandchildren of Jews who escaped Hitler’s clutches, Sands received little detail from his grandparents — or his parents — as he was growing up about the circumstances leading his grandparents and their infant daughter, Sands’ mother Ruth, out of Austria. Uncovering these details is one of several threads running through this multifaceted work, East-West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity,’ a masterful blend of family memoir, Holocaust remembrance, and legal history.

          As his subtitle suggests, Sands’ work is also about the evolution of the legal concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” today two pillars of international human rights law; and about the leading legal scholar behind each, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, respectively.  The two scholars were at the forefront in the development of a powerful idea that began to take shape after World War I and assumed greater urgency as World War II unfolded and Nazi atrocities multiplied: that a strengthened international legal order was necessary where nation states and their key actors could be held accountable, thereby ending the notion that state sovereignty allowed a state to pursue any policy it chose toward its citizens.

         But from this common starting point, the solutions Lemkin and Lauterpacht pursued were almost polar opposites.  Lemkin nearly singlehandedly came up with the notion of genocide as a term to describe state policies that single out persons for inhumane treatment because of their membership in a particular group. Lauterpach, rejected group membership as a basis for holding states accountable.  Nation states and their actors, he countered, need to be held accountable for their inhumane treatment of individuals — for what he termed their crimes against humanity.

          Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz and the two legal scholars were Jews and roughly contemporaries, with links to the same city, Lviv, today part of Western Ukraine.  Buchholz was born there in 1904.  Lauterpacht, born in nearby Zółkiew in 1897, moved to Lviv with his family in 1911 and studied law there. Lemkin, born in 1900 on a farm at some distance from Lviv, moved to the city in 1921 to study law (East-West Street, Sands’ title, refers to a street in Zółkiew where Lauterpacht and Buchholz’s mother lived for a time, on opposite ends).  Lviv itself plays a major role in Sands’ story.

          Today’s Lviv reflects the upheavals of the 20th century.   When the three young men were growing up prior to World War I, the city was known as Lemberg. It was the largest city in Galacia, a province within the Austro-Hungarian (or Hapsburg) Empire, and a vibrant melting pot of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and others.  After World War I, the city became part of a newly independent Polish state and was known as Lwów. The three young men acquired Polish citizenship at that time.  The Soviet Union occupied the city at the outbreak of World War II, in the aftermath of the secret 1939 protocol between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union partitioning Poland (the subject of Roger Moorehouse’s Devils’ Alliance, reviewed here in May 2016).   In 1941, Germany retook the city from the Soviets, who in turn drove the Germans out in 1944.  The city then became part of Ukraine and the Soviet Union and assumed its present name. It became part of an independent Ukraine with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

        None of the three men was present in Lviv during World War II, but their war experiences were similar in one grim respect: each lost parents and most other family members left behind during the German occupation.  Those loses can be traced in no small measure to Hans Frank, a genuine villain whom Sands adds to his story of the three Jewish men from Lviv.  Frank, born in Germany in 1900, the same year as Lemkin, was Adolph Hitler’s personal lawyer and a German legal scholar of some stature who fashioned many of the Nazis’ idiosyncratic legal theories – theories that, in opposition to those of Lemkin and Lauterpacht, subordinated the individual to an all-powerful state and emphasized the inviolability of state sovereignty.  Frank became governor of German-controlled Poland after the 1939 Nazi invasion that triggered World War II, and his authority was extended to Lviv in 1941, when the Nazis dislodged the Soviet Union from the city.  As German governor, Frank oversaw the decimation of thriving Jewish communities across Poland, including that of Lviv, and crafted the policies that destroyed the three men’s families.

            With the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Frank and the legal theories they espoused met head on at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg.  Frank was one of 24 high level Nazi officials placed on trial for his role in atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Behind the scenes, Lemkin and Lauterpact competed to define the terms of the prosecution and judgment, with each lobbying to have the tribunal’s judges and prosecutors adopt his legal principle as a basis for prosecution – genocide for Lemkin, crimes against humanity for Lauterpacht — and reject that of the other. But one point was clear from the outset of the proceedings: Frank’s expansive notion of state sovereignty was categorically rejected — states were no longer free to treat their people entirely as they wished; state sovereignty no longer constituted an absolute bar to prosecution for acts of atrocity.

         But Sands starts and finishes with his family portrait, the story of his grandfather Leon, his wife Rita and their young daughter Ruth, Sands’ mother, uncovering details of their lives in those turbulent times which they chose not to reveal to the future human rights lawyer as he grew up in Great Britain.  Throughout, Sands himself is very much part of his story, which jumps between past and present as he explains how he pieced together his narrative’s disparate threads.  Among his sources are several still living individuals related to the central characters in the story, including the sons of Lauterpacht and Frank.  Sands thus packs a lot into just less than 400 pages.

* * *

           Sands explains at the outset that his motivation for writing this book stems from mysteries surrounding the life of his grandfather Leon, a man he clearly loved yet found he hardly knew. For the most part, Sands writes, Leon “locked the first half of his life into a crypt” (p.xxv).  Sands came to know Leon in the 1960s when, as a young boy, he visited the Paris apartment where Leon and his wife Rita lived.  Intuitively, the young Sands, born in 1960, came to realize that Leon and Rita’s time before Paris was not to be talked about.  It’s too complicated and not important, Leon told his grandson. But as he sought to uncover the circumstances that led his grandparents and mother from Vienna to Paris, he pieced together many additional details of their prior life.

            Leon was the youngest of four children. His older brother was killed in World War I just after its outbreak, in September 1914, and his grieving father died shortly thereafter.  Leon had two sisters, Gusta and Laura.  Gusta married in 1913 and moved to Vienna. Leon’s mother Malke took Leon and Laura to Vienna to be with Gusta, where young Leon attended primary and secondary school.  A few years later, Leon and Laura returned with their mother to Lviv.  Leon left the city definitively at age 19, in 1923, after it had become part of Poland, to make his way in Vienna. Gusta, Laura, and Malke all subsequently died in the Holocaust, along with Laura’s daughter.

         In Vienna, Leon worked for a while at the liquor store of his brother-in-law, then set up his own distillery.  He met his future wife, Rita Landes, in Vienna, and they married there in 1937. Their daughter Ruth, Sands’ mother, was born one year later, just prior to the German Anchluss with Austria in 1938.  Growing up, Sands had assumed that his mother’s family had all left Vienna at the same time, but he learned that this was far from the case. Leon was expelled from Vienna in late 1938, in the aftermath of the spasm of anti-Jewish violence known as Kristallnacht, and arrived alone in Paris in January 1939.  Rita stayed behind, ostensibly to care for her ailing mother. She did not leave Austria until November 9, 1941. The very next day “‘the borders of the German Reich were closed for refugees,’ all emigration ended, all departure routes were blocked. Rita got out at the last minute. Her escape was either very fortunate or based on assistance from someone with inside information” (p.39).

          The details of Rita’s departure eluded Sands, but an even greater mystery bedeviled him. The passport of his mother Ruth indicated that she arrived in Paris in July 1939, near her first birthday. How did the one year old get to Paris in July 1939 if Leon had been there since January of that year and Rita stayed in Vienna until 1941? The evidence pointed to a Miss Elsie Tilney, the most remarkable of the many supporting characters in this story. Sands learned that Miss Tilney was an heroic Christian missionary who spent the dark Nazi era escorting Jews, particularly Jewish children, to safer locations, and that Ruth had traveled to Paris with Ms. Tilney.   He further learned that the 11-year old daughter of Leon’s sister Laura was to have traveled to Paris with Miss Tilney and Ruth, but that Laura changed her mind at last minute, because she couldn’t face the separation. Neither mother nor daughter survived the war.

           In the process of uncovering these details about the departures from Vienna, Sands also stumbled across evidence he had not be looking for, suggesting a substantial rift between his grandparents: his grandmother may have had an affair with another man, which may or may not have been part of the reason Leon traveled alone to Paris in 1939.  Sands further came across suggestions that his grandfather too may have been attracted to another man.  Sands’ narrative assumes a spell-binding quality as he weighs the limited evidence available and comes closer to a fuller picture of how his grandparents and their daughter escaped Vienna and survived the war, while most of the rest of the family perished.

          Into this close-to-home family history, Sands adds not just the legal theories but also much personal detail about the lives of legal scholars Lemkin and Lauterpacht.  Like Buchholz, Lauterpacht found his way to Vienna as a young man, in 1919.  After beginning the study of law at the university in Lviv, Lauterpacht continued his legal studies in Vienna, where he reflected upon how the upheavals of the post-World War I era might be avoided in the future.  When a wave of anti-Semitism swept Vienna in 1923, he emigrated to Britain, where he first studied, then taught at the London School of Economics, followed by an appointment to Cambridge University in 1937.

          Lemkin studied law and linguistics at the same university in Lviv a few years after Lauterpacht, where he had the same criminal law instructor who had previously taught Lauterpacht.  Lemkin became a public prosecutor in Warsaw, while publishing extensively on international criminal law. He escaped from Poland after the Germans invaded the country in 1939, ending a circuitous journey at Duke University in North Carolina, where he taught law for many years.

             Against the backdrop of the two men’s personal lives, Sands zeroes in on the evolution of the legal thinking that began to take form for both in Lviv and blossomed in academic settings in the United Kingdom and the United States.  Lemkin and Lauterpacht shared an optimistic belief in the “power of law to do good and protect people,” and the “need to change the law to achieve that objective,” Sands writes. “Both agreed on the value of a single human life and on the importance of being part of the community” (p.385). But their solutions pointed in opposite directions.

            Lemkin “imagined new rules to protect ‘the life of the peoples’: to prevent ‘barbarity’, the destruction of groups, and to prevent ‘vandalism,’ attacks on culture and heritage” (p.157). Although not opposed to individual rights, Lemkin believed that an “excessive focus on individuals was naïve, that it ignored the reality of conflict and violence: individuals were targeted because they were members of a particular group, not because of their individual qualities” (p. 291).  Lemkin advanced his notion of genocide in a 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which Lauterpacht reviewed in the Cambridge Law Journal in a “detached and lukewarm” (p.107) tone.

           To Lauterpacht, Lemkin’s notion of genocide and its emphasis upon group membership seemed likely to “reinforce latent instincts of tribalism, perhaps enhancing the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ pitting one group against another” (p.281). Lauterpacht sought to diminish the force of inter-group conflict. The emerging international legal order needed to protect each individual, “irrespective of which group he or she happened to belong to, to limit the potent force of tribalism, not reinforce it” (p.291).

         In the contest between competing legal theories at Nuremberg, Lauterpacht was the immediate winner. His ideas on crimes against humanity and the rights of the individual were “firmly entrenched in the proceedings, coloring the entire case” (p.353). The term “genocide” was by contrast barely mentioned.  Both men attended substantial portions of the proceedings, which took place between November 1945 and October 1946, during which both learned that their parents and several family members had not survived the war.  In this time frame, Leon Buchholz also most likely learned that his family members left behind in Lviv had met the same fate.

         Lauterpacht exchanged ideas on how to frame the Nuremberg indictment with American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson. But as the proceedings progressed, he exerted an even more direct influence upon British prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross. In his opening argument on December 4, 1945, Shawcross adopted wording Lauterpacht had proposed, “arguing forcefully that the tribunal should sweep aside the tradition that sovereigns could act as they wished, free to kill, main and torture their own people” (p.292).  The core of Shawcross’ argument came straight from Lauterpact: “The state is not an abstract entity. . . Its rights and duties are the rights and duties of men.” Shawcross thus put a radical spin on the idea of individual responsibility by “placing ‘fundamental human rights’ and ‘fundamental human duties’ at the heart of a new international system” (p.292-93).

       The prosecution’s case against Hans Frank at Nuremberg brought German actions in Lviv and Poland to center stage in the proceedings. In drafts that Lauterpacht had provided to Shawcross, Frank was the only defendant Lautherpacht mentioned, and he did so repeatedly — no coincidence, Sands writes, given that Frank was the “man in the dock most closely connected to the murder of his own family” (p.339).  While governor of Poland, Frank had kept a detailed and highly incriminating diary of his daily activities, which had fallen into allied hands as the war ended, giving him little room to maneuver.

         As Frank initially faced the tribunal in March 1946, Sands speculates that his lawyer had no sense what his client might say. When the lawyer asked Frank at the outset whether he had participated in the annihilation of Jews in Poland, the former governor astounded the Nuremberg court and his fellow defendants by responding, “yes,” adding that his conscience did not permit him to throw responsibility for the slaughters upon what he termed “minor people.”  One thousand years will pass, Frank told the court, “and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (p.310).  But Frank’s lawyer appeared to walk back this confession in his closing argument the following July.

       His client’s diaries were the thoughts of the secretaries who transcribed them, Frank’s lawyer contended.  His client had never killed anyone, and he had tried to mitigate some of the most atrocious excesses of the regime. Most likely, the other defendants and their lawyers had in the time since March impressed upon Frank and his lawyer the need for solidarity among the defendants, and convinced them to reverse course. The arguments proved to be of no avail.  Frank was condemned to death by hanging and became the fifth Nazi official to go to the gallows.

        The judgments at Nuremberg “came as a relief to Lauterpacht.” His arguments on crimes against humanity, endorsed by the tribunal, were “now part of international law.  The protection for the individual, and the idea of individual criminal responsibility for the worst crimes, would be part of the new legal order. The sovereignty of the state would no longer provide absolute refuge for crimes on such a scale, in theory at least” (p.372).   But if he felt any satisfaction with the judgment, he never mentioned it to anyone.  Lemkin by contrast was devastated by absence of any mention of genocide in the court’s final judgments. This “Nuremberg nightmare” (p.372) was the worst day of his life, he told an American junior prosecutor, worse even than the day a month earlier when he learned that both his parents had perished in the Holocaust.

          But genocide gained traction as a recognized concept in international law in December 1946, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that affirmed that genocide, which denied the “right of existence of entire human groups,” was a crime under international law.  Where the judges at Nuremberg had feared to tread, Sands notes, governments working through the United Nations “legislated into existence a rule to reflect Lemkin’s work” (p.377).  Two years later, in December 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the first human rights treaty of the modern era.  One day later, the General Assembly also adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which Lauterpacht was a primary inspiration.

        Much of the vibrancy of Sand’s story comes from his resourcefulness in finding living persons to supplement the meager record of writings and photographs with oral recollections of the story’s central characters, especially the sons of Lauterpacht and Frank, Eli and Niklas.  Eli (officially Sir Elihu), born in London in 1928, followed in his father’s footsteps as an academic and lawyer specializing in international law, founding Cambridge’s Lauterpacht Centre for International Law.  Sands first met Eli when he took Eli’s course in international law at Cambridge in the 1980s.  But it was not until several decades later that Sands learned of the Lviv connection between Eli’s father and Leon Buchholz.  Eli told Sands that as he grew up in Britain his father, like Leon, never talked about life in Poland (Eli died in 2017, after Sands’ book went to press).

           Niklas Frank, born in 1939, became a distinguished journalist as a foreign correspondent for Stern Magazine.  The younger Frank came to Sands’ attention for a book he had written in the 1980s called Der Vater (The Father), an “unforgiving, merciless attack on his father, a work that broke a taboo that directed the children of senior Nazis to honor their parents” (p.224).  On one occasion, Niklas told Sands, “My father loved the Führer more than he loved his family” (p.235).  Sands and Niklas visited the Nuremberg tribunal together in 2014.  “My father was a lawyer; he knew what he did” (p.xxiii), Frank told Sands at the time.

* * *

         The major threads of Sands’ book – his family’s exodus out of Vienna in the Nazi era; the clash of ideas between Lauterpacht and Lemkin for a new legal order that played out at Nuremberg; and the vicissitudes of Lviv – illuminate, each in its own way, the travails of Europe’s 20th century and their on-going consequences.  Each would surely merit treatment in a separate work.  Readers contemplating investing time in Sands’ book may ask themselves whether these disparate threads can be wrapped together coherently into an absorbing narrative.  My answer upon concluding this epic work was that Sands has accomplished precisely that.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2018

2 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Gender Issues, History, Intellectual History, Rule of Law, Uncategorized

Novel Biography

 

Alice Kaplan, Looking For “The Stranger”:

Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic 

 

            In Looking For The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Alice Kaplan,  Professor of Literature at Yale University and one of the English-speaking world’s leading authorities on modern French literature, seeks to bring a fresh perspective to Albert Camus and his signature novel, L’Etranger — known in North America as The Stranger and in Great Britain as The Outsider. Kaplan describes her story as a biography of a book, “connected to the life of its creator but also separate and distinct from him” (p.3).  Finding that Camus’ personality overshadows his novel in traditional biographies, Kaplan aims to tell the story of how Camus “created this singular book” by getting “as close as [she] can to his process and his state of mind as he creates The Stranger” (p.3-4).

          Kaplan’s central premise is that the elements of The Stranger were nearly fixed in Camus’ mind before he started writing.  The job of writing the  novel entailed coaxing these elements out of the mind and onto the written page, then tying them together.  In this sense, Camus “discovered the novel within himself” (p.3).  Kaplan thus examines how The Stranger went from glimmers and flashes in Camus’s mind in the late 1930s to a published volume in 1942, and in the years after publication became one of the 20th century’s most widely read novels.

             The Stranger changed the course of modern literature, Kaplan contends. Camus gave “new energy to the novel, a form that had existed for centuries, by turning it outwards, simplifying its expression and deepening its purpose” (p.83).   The story itself is, as Kaplan puts it, “deceptively simple” (p.1). The lead character, Meursault, like Camus an Algerian of French descent, learns in the book’s opening paragraph that his mother died. He attends her funeral. The day after the funeral, in Kaplan’s succinct summation, Meursault:

goes swimming with a girl friend and takes her to the movies. He writes a letter for a friend who is a pretty rough character. He kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. He is tried and sentenced to death and, as the novel ends, he awaits execution (p.1).

Camus divided the story into two parts, with Meursault’s first person narration before and after the murder. The Arab whom Meursault kills is given no name in the novel, a matter that raises more questions today than it did in Camus’ time.

          Among The Stranger’s many mysteries is the spelling of the name of the novel’s narrator.  The only surviving draft spells Meursault without the first “u,” Mersault.  Inserting the “u,” Kaplan notes, adds an allusion to the French word for plunge, sauter, and to death, meur, as well as being the name of a famous French wine that apparently impressed Camus as a young man.  Without the “u,” the name has more of a Spanish sound and could have belonged to a European of Spanish descent.  Kaplan raises the possibility that the fateful “u” was added only by the publisher in the final page proofs.   There is no record that Camus ever clarified how he intended to spell his lead character’s name.

            As she endeavors to unlock this and other enigmas of The Stranger, Kaplan also includes enough about Camus the man to give the work some of the flavor of a traditional biography.  With the novel set in pre-independence Algeria, where Camus was born in 1913 and grew up as a dirt-poor European in a predominantly Muslim and Arab country, Kaplan also gives her readers a sense of what Algeria was like as a French colony.  But The Stranger was published not in Algeria but in Paris in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation, “one of the most humiliating and complicated climates for publishing in French history” (p.3).  Kaplan thus provides an incisive look into the milieu in which French writers and publishers struggled to survive during the Nazi occupation (a subject covered in more detail in Alan Riding’s fine work, And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012). Kaplan skillfully weaves this contextual background into her biography of Camus’ novel, making her compact and thoughtful book highly engaging and often intriguing.

* * *

          Algeria in the 1930s was in its final decades of colonization before achieving independence from France in 1962 after a protracted war of independence. First colonized in the 1830s, Algeria by the 1930s was more than a French colony: it was part of la France d’outre mer, overseas France (or Greater France), made up of three administrative units that were départements every bit as much as the départements in mainland France.  Algiers, where Europeans lived in neighborhoods that looked like Marseille, was France’s fourth largest city. But liberté, égalité and fraternité went only so far in la France d’outre mer. By one of the odder particularities of colonial rule, Jews born and raised in Algeria were deemed full-fledged, 100% French citizens — like Camus and his family.  Arabs and Berbers, whom we might today term indigenous peoples, enjoyed by contrast almost none of the rights of Frenchmen, making Algeria a society structured on rank inequality.  Although Camus was “appalled by colonial violence and deeply hostile to [French] government policy” (p.51) in the 1930s, he was not yet a proponent of independence.  He saw his duty as a social critic to “strengthen French humanistic values” (p.51) in the administration of Algeria.

          Camus’ family was part of Algeria’s settler class, at the bottom of the European hierarchy, but nonetheless with privileges foreclosed to the Arab population.  His mother was of Spanish descent, illiterate, and almost totally deaf.  His father, an agricultural worker of French descent, died in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne in World I, when his son was one year old. Although brought up in dire poverty, young Camus was a promising pupil in primary school and received a scholarship that allowed him to attend a lycée, an elite French secondary school.  At the lycée, he proved to be an outstanding student, as well as a gifted athlete who enjoyed football, boxing and swimming — a “force of nature, physically unstoppable” (p.9). At age 17, however, Camus contracted tuberculosis, at the time frequently a fatal disease.

             Camus received a degree from the University of Algiers in 1936, where he had studied philosophy and literature. While an undergraduate, Camus met his first wife, Simone Hié, whom he married in 1934, when he was 21 and she was 20. At both the lycée and university, Camus was a student of philosopher Jean Grenier, who helped him develop his literary and philosophical ideas and became Camus’ life-long mentor.  Throughout the 1930s, Camus read avidly, was active in theatre, and became a prominent figure among left-wing intellectuals in Algiers, joining the Algerian Communist Party for a short time.

              After university, Camus worked for the Alger Républicain, a struggling, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist newspaper, where he wrote literary reviews and covered major trials, including several that grew out of ethnic tensions between Europeans and Arabs in Algeria.  As a court reporter, Camus assumed the role of what Kaplan terms a “lobbyist for justice,” earning a “reputation as a troublemaker with the colonial government” (p.39). Camus’ impatience with the hypocrisy of the courts became one of the cornerstones for the novel that was then percolating in his mind.

          As the novel percolated, Camus drew on memories of his own life with his near-deaf mother, “whose vocabulary amounted to 400 words and who had little language to give him beyond her gestures” (p.67).   In this concrete world, “objects come first, concepts last, and each sense is given its due.”  Because his first, most intimate attempts at communication were “defined by the absence of verbal understanding,” as Camus formulated his novel the physical world “became essential” (p.67).  Meursault and The Stranger thus emerged from the conditions of Camus’ own life. But Kaplan is emphatic that The Stranger should not be considered autobiographical.  If anything, Camus was reversing his life story, she argues:

Camus’s childish love for his deaf mother became Meursault’s indifference. The silent world in which he had grown up became the noisy place where Meursault heard every sound. Camus’ hatred of colonial violence expressed itself through Meursault’s murder of an Arab (p.85).

             Camus had a moment of epiphany in the fall of 1938, when he wrote the first five sentences of his percolating novel.  These five sentences did not change over the next four years, prior to publication in 1942. At that moment, Camus realized that “this was his beginning, and he stuck with it” (p.65). By mid-1939, Camus knew that his narrator “was going to kill an Arab,” at a time when there was “an abundance of material in the press about conflicts between Arabs and Europeans” (p.43-44).

            When war broke out later in 1939, Camus, 26 years old, was determined unfit for military service because of his tuberculosis.  With France at war, Alger Républicain was targeted as a security risk that authorities sought to shut down.  Camus then embarked on a four-year odyssey in which he moved back and forth between Algeria and France, ended his marriage to Simon Hié and married Francine Faure, all the while continuing to plug away at The Stranger.  In 1940, Camus landed a job with Paris-Soir, a prestigious French newspaper based in Paris, while he worked on The Stranger every day and part of every night.

           Living and writing in a drab Montmartre hotel, Camus “discovered that he could be in the middle of a paragraph, go off to work his shift at Paris-Soir, come back to the hotel and pick up exactly where he had left off, with no difficulty . . . [H]e had never done creative work with so much ease, and certainly not fiction” (p.79).  By April 1940, Camus had completed chapters 1 and 2 of his novel, and had started on chapter 3.  On May 1, 1940, Camus pronounced The Stranger finished, although significant vetting still lay ahead as he sought a publisher.  But the exaltation he felt upon completion of The Stranger was quickly dissipated by a relapse of tuberculosis — a relapse which subsequently rendered him too weak to read the page proofs of his novel.

           Later that same May 1940, the Nazis invaded France and in June 1940 the occupation of Paris began. Camus followed Paris-Soir out of Paris when the paper moved to Clermont-Ferrand.  By the end of year, however, he returned to Algeria, where he joined his new wife Francine and, relying upon  the uncertain wartime mail service, continued his efforts to find a publisher for The Stranger, along with Caligula and his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, two other pieces he had been working on simultaneously. He sent his manuscripts to Jean Grenier, his former lycée and university teacher then living in France, and Pascal Pia, an editor at Paris-Soir.  Both men provided Camus with comments on The Stranger.

              Grenier, still an esteemed mentor, did not give his former student high marks for his work.  In what Kaplan terms “one of the great misunderstandings of a literary achievement” (p.109), Grenier seemed to go out of his way to highlight perceived shortcomings in The Stranger.  Grenier emphasized how the work did not measure up to those of Kafka, as if Camus was intent upon following in Kafka’s path.  In addition, Grenier had the temerity to compare the parts of the draft he liked to his own work.   Grenier’s reservations about The Stranger, Kaplan notes, although deeply discouraging at the time, may have been a gift to Camus that permitted him to break free of his former mentor.

          Pia’s response, by contrast, was “a beautiful example of generous reading, of enablement,” to the point that he and Grenier “seem to have read entirely different books” (p.113).  Pia also sent the manuscript to Roland Malraux, who passed the draft to his brother, renowned French writer André Malraux.  A “wonderful reader” (p.122), André Malraux was wildly enthusiastic about The Stranger and offered several practical suggestions for revisions.  Unfortunately, Malraux’s comments and Camus’ reaction to them have not survived, and we therefore do not know the extent to which Camus followed Malraux’s advice.

        Working independently, Grenier and Pia gravitated toward the major Parisian publishing firm Editions Gallimard as the potential publisher for The Stranger.  Publishing had become a particularly delicate enterprise in occupied Paris, involving an “unpredictable and politically fraught” process (p.132), in which Nazi overseers closely monitored the activities of publishing houses.  The houses were barred from publishing anything by Jewish writers, and otherwise had to stay away from works that looked “political,” a porous term that could encompass any work that reflected unfavorably upon the Nazis and their occupation of France and its capital.  Somehow, The Stranger was able to navigate through these obstacles: the novel was deemed “apolitical” and Camus was of the “right” ethnic heritage.

              On December 12, 1941, Camus authorized Gallimard to publish The Stranger before he had signed a contract, something he never would have done in ordinary times.  On April 21, 1942, after overcoming a wartime paper shortage, the last pages of The Stranger rolled off the printing presses.  In May 1942, Camus received a promised advance, and an advertisement for the book appeared in the Parisian daily newspaper Le Figaro in June.

            In a review in Le Figaro later that year, André Rousseaux, a highly literate, conservative Catholic, delved deeply into the novel and, as we would say in modern parlance, trashed it. Rousseaux showed no sympathy for Meursault, who was “simply inhuman” and Camus’ talent had “made his narrator’s inhumanity all the more despicable” (p.147).   But The Stranger survived this unflattering review, in no small measure because of a far more sympathetic assessment from none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the ubiquitous philosopher and writer who by then set the terms of intellectual debate in France.

           Sartre’s review, entitled “The Stranger Explained,” was published in February 1943, and served as a major turning point for Camus’ novel. Sartre characterized The Stranger as a work that comes from “across the sea; an outsider novel, interested neither in burying the ancient regime one more time nor in indulging in self-loathing – two commonplaces of the modern French novel.”  The Stranger, Sartre wrote, was thus a “welcome reminder, in a terribly political moment, that a novel could exist with nothing to prove” (p.158-59). The attention that Sartre paid to Camus and his seriousness of analysis “defined The Stranger as an essential contemporary novel,” Kaplan writes. “Once Sartre had spoken, The Stranger’s future was all but guaranteed” (p.156).  Camus became close to both Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir in the years immediately following The Stranger’s publication, although they fell out in the 1950s, ostensibly over political differences during the Cold War.

          The Stranger gained in stature in the late 1940s, as France struggled to reestablish its vaunted cultural life, and soared in esteem throughout the 1950s, the final decade of Camus’s life.  In 1957, Camus earned the Nobel prize for literature, based primarily upon the success of The Stranger (p.197). By this time, Camus had been recognized as a proponent of existentialism, the philosophy most closely associated with Sartre and Beauvoir. It was a label Camus resisted.

         Camus and Sartre had, Kaplan notes, a different notion of human potential that precluded Camus from embracing Sartre’s brand of philosophy. “For Sartre what mattered was consciousness – people getting along, or not getting along with one another.  Whereas for Camus what mattered was the insignificance of man against the world” (p.191).   But these distinctions were overlooked in the 1950s by the “demands of publicity and by the excitement over the latest intellectual fashion” (p.191; existentialism and Camus’s relationship with Sartre are at the heart of Sarah Blackwell’s highly-acclaimed At the Existentialist Café, reviewed here in April 2017).

          However Camus may have considered himself, the world saw him as an existentialist in January 1960, when he died in an automobile accident while riding to Paris with publisher and friend Michel Gallimard and Michel’s wife Janine.   A train ticket was found in Camus’ pocket, indicating that he may have decided only at the last minute to travel back to Paris by car with the Gallimards.  With his premature death,  Kaplan wistfully observes, there would be “no bad books for Albert Camus and he would never disappoint his readers” (p.198-99).

             In the years since Camus’ death, The Stranger has been analyzed in all the modern schools of literary construction and interpretation: in addition to existentialism, these include new criticism, deconstruction, feminism, and post colonial studies.  The most consistent criticism of The Stranger has been the lack of a name for the Arab killed, for many a stark reminder of the raw inhumanity of colonization in Algeria.  In 1962, two years after Camus’ death, colonization came to an end as Algeria achieved independence after a brutal civil war that had begun as World War II ended.

              Recently, Kaplan notes, an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, has written a well-received work of fiction, The Meursault Investigation, which tells The Stranger’s story from the viewpoint of the brother of the Arab killed. In the French translation from the Arabic, the narrator’s brother is “Moussa,” a name that “delicately echoes Meursault” (p.206).  But in the English translation, Moussa becomes “Musa,” closer, Kaplan notes, to Camus than Meursault.  Perhaps it is fitting that the Arab with no name in Camus’ novel has become, in the languages of two of history’s most wide-ranging colonizers, an Arab with two names.

* *

                 In just over 200 pages, Kaplan presents a comprehensive “biography” of one of the 20th century’s most consequential novels – its gestation period, birth, early years, adolescence and adulthood – strengthened by her judicious account of the novel’s author and his times and places.  Her work should appeal to those who have read The Stranger recently as well as those who read it decades ago.  It should also entice those who have not yet read Camus’ enigmatic work to do so.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2018

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under France, French History, Literature

The Full Six-Pack

 

Laura Thompson, Take Six Girls,

The Lives of the Mitford Sisters 

            Is there anything more or original left to say about the Mitford sisters, those six girls born into the English upper class between 1904 and 1920 and became household names in the fraught 1930s, achieving both fame and notoriety that would endure throughout World War II and the entire post-war period, up until the last died in 2014? Freelance author and journalist Laura Thompson thinks so. Adding to a long list of works about the Mitfords — enough to fill a mid-size library if you include the many books by the sisters themselves – Thompson seeks to capture a collective Mitford spirit rooted in the times in which the sisters lived and their inter-family relations — a “veritable morass of female rivalries, shifting and reconfiguring throughout their lives” (p.25), as she puts it in Take Six Girls, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters.

            Thompson says the Mitford girls were like a “social experiment, the results of which would have staggered even the most imaginative scientist” (p.1). Oldest daughter Nancy (1904-1973) became a highly acclaimed novelist and writer.  Second daughter Pamela (1907-1994) married a brilliant but eccentric physicist and accomplished horseman, who had five additional marriages; when her marriage broke up, she took up with an Italian horsewoman.  Diana (1910-2003) left what from the outside looked like the perfect high society marriage for Oswald Mosley, the demagogic leader of Britain’s fascist party, and she and Mosley spent time in jail during World War II as potential traitors to Britain.  Unity (1914-1948) in her early 20s became a particular favorite of Adolph Hitler, meeting with the Führer on more than 100 occasions, and thereby made herself the object of thoroughgoing public revulsion as relations between Britain and Germany worsened in the late 1930s.  Jessica ((1917-1996), a fervent communist, went to Spain to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, and ended up in the United States, where she became a leading American progressive.  Only Deborah (1920-2014), the youngest sister, managed to live something akin to a conventional aristocratic life.   And then there was brother Tom (1909-1945) , born between Pamela and Diana, an integral if outmatched part of the family.

            The term “Mitfordian” has a meaning, Thompson contends, much like Dickensian or Proustian, although that meaning never quite emerges in these pages.  The sisters’ complexity and their feisty individualism would likely thwart any attempt to provide a tidy definition to the term.  Still, Thompson identifies some commonalities between the six Mitford sisters.  The  sisters were “never going to be ignored,” she writes. “Being what they were, they did not want to be. They had a feel for the limelight, a desire to prance in the in the glow” (p.10).  They were “naturally and comfortably shameless” or at least “shame free” (p.9).  A “blend of formality and anarchy that is impossible now to achieve,” with an “indestructibly feminine way of breaking the rules,” the sisters “always operated within certain boundaries” (p.24).

         Thompson arranges her book in approximate chronological order, in four parts: Part I, family background and early years; Part II, the 1930s; Part III, World War II; and Part IV, post-war.   But the parts are unnamed, with no titles, leaving readers on their own to figure out the focus and direction for each. Thompson writes in a breezy, informal style that at times becomes too cute.  We can imagine that we the readers are seated next to her on a couch as she goes through a family photograph album and provides commentary, caustic and defensive in equal doses, while showing us family photos.

        Eldest daughter Nancy and third daughter Diana loom larger than the rest in Thompson’s account, the two centerpieces to the story of six sisters.  “When people talk about the ‘Mitford Girls,’” Thompson writes, it is Diana and Nancy whom they really mean, “because without the separate components of Diana and Nancy the spell of the whole would never have been created” (p.11).  Nancy and Diana were the two queens “who dominated the rest, and who each would have dominated outright had it not been for the other” (p.113).

          Thompson draws freely upon Nancy’s novels as keys to understanding the family.  The Pursuit of Love, Nancy’s 1945 best seller that Thompson compares to Brideshead Revisited, “contains the genesis of the Mitford myth” (p.12). It was Nancy’s “mythologizing skills” and the way she marketed herself, her family and her social class that gave rise to the sustained public interest in what Thompson terms the “full six-pack” (p.19). Without these mythologizing skills, the girls would have been looked at individually, with most focus on Unity and her friendship with Hitler.

          The Mitford girls were born into the early 20th century English aristocracy, at a time when its wealth was diminished and its influence increasingly under question. The girls’ upbringing manifested many of the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that go with generations of inherited privilege. While brother Tom went off to Eton, the girls were educated at home, at the three different country houses they inhabited. Home education was handled partially by governesses, but more by giving the girls access to the family library, full of books of all genres, and being told to read.  And read they did, voraciously.

         The head of the household, David Mitford, was the 2nd Baron Redesdale, a loving father by the standards of the times but at a loss as to how he should react to his “bright and mischievous and competitive” daughters (p.77).  Like many of his social class, David, a peer in the House of Lords, was hopeless with money.  David’s wife, Sydney Bowles, the girls’ mother, was cold, reserved, judgmental, miserly with praise – “not innately maternal” (p.64), as Thompson delicately puts it.  Unlike her husband, however, Sydney was fastidious when it came to money.   But in Thompson’s account, David and Sydney are mostly perplexed parents, not quite sure what to make of or do with the seven children they brought into the world.

          Whereas many English aristocratic families identified culturally with France, David and Sydney entertained an affinity for German culture.  They were attracted to the writings of Goethe and Schiller, the music of Bach and Brahms, the operas of the Wagners.   This affinity proved problematic in the 1930s, after Hitler came to power.   Like many in the English upper classes, David and Sydney saw Hitler and the Nazis as a bulwark against communism, which they considered by far the greater menace.  David in the 1930s became one of Britain’s most outspoken proponents of appeasement of Hitler.  Of the seven Mitford children, all but Nancy and Jessica shared this generally benign view of Hitler and the Nazis prior to World War II.

          Thompson notes that oldest daughter Nancy’s debutante ball at age 18 was in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power in Italy. Deborah, the last sibling, had her coming out ball in 1938, just after Hitler’s Anchluss with Austria. The Mitford girls thus came of age during “one of the most politically explosive periods in history” (p.1). In this tense period, politics became “ever more openly polarized and extreme.  Communism and Fascism stood at each end of the global chessboard like clumsy monoliths. Democracy seemed a feeble little beast by contrast, bleating of moderation in the face of the aftermath of war and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and mass unemployment” (p.5). While the book covers the sisters into the 21st century, the Mitford phenomenon finds its origins in the tumultuous period  prior to World War II.  The “nature of the girls, the nature of the world at that time: such a configuration can never happen again” (p.3).

* * *

            Eldest daughter Nancy was not the only talented writer among the sisters, but she was the unofficial family raconteur and scribe.  She was also the token Francophile in a family drawn to German culture.   By the standards of the time, she married quite late, at the ripe age of 28, to Peter Rodd, after having pursued a dashing homosexual who was more interested in brother Tom.  Her marriage to Rodd proved unsatisfactory.  Like most of the men who entered the Mitford women’s lives, Rodd chased numerous other women during the marriage (he purportedly proposed to several others on the night she accepted his marriage proposal).  But in the end, Rodd was “simply too boring” for Nancy (p.150).  During World War II, Nancy struck up a relationship with Gaston Palewski, a Free French officer close to Charles de Gaulle, and followed him to Paris after the war.  Palewski was even more proficient than Rodd in pursuing multiple women simultaneously. They never married, but Nancy’s affection for Palewski  remained unwavering during the post-war years, which she spent in Paris, writing prolifically.  Through it all, her relationship with Diana was riddled with tension.

            Diana was in Thompson’s view the most physically attractive of the sisters, “beautiful as a goddess” (p.8).  At age 19, she married Bryan Guinness, heir to a family fortune derived in part from the beer of that name.  Although Bryan was a “worshipping husband” and the couple had two young sons together, Diana left her life of “picture book perfection” (p.8) with Guinness for Oswald Mosley, head of Britain’s Fascist Party, the British Union of Fascists, and 14 years Diana’s senior.  Married at the time, Mosley too was a serial womanizer.  But he continued to live with wife during his affair with the 22-year-old Diana, while pursuing other women.  Diana lived for nearly two years in a separate residence, an outcast in her family, waiting for Mosley’s attentions.  Her conduct seems mad, Thompson writes.  She had walked out on a man who had “given her everything, to face a future of absolute uncertainty” with “London’s worst philanderer” (p.136-37).   In 1932, open adultery of this kind was “scandalous beyond comprehension” (p.137).  Thompson describes Diana’s otherwise inexplicable attraction to Mosley as the “unfathomable paradox” within Diana: “a woman of the most intensely civilized values . . . was, in her deepest soul, attracted to something dark, harsh, dictatorial and violent” (p.140).

          Only after Mosley’s wife died did he and Diana marry – at the home of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, with Adolph Hitler as the guest of honor.  Although Mosley’s philandering did not end with the marriage, they stayed married for the remainder of their lives. The Mosleys actually came closest together as a couple during World War II, after  both were interned as wartime security risks, without charges or trial.  When public authorities sought to intern Mosley, Nancy suggested that his internment would be “quite useless if [Diana] is still at large” (p.244).  After three years’ imprisonment, the couple was released in November 1943 because of Mosley’s ill health. Jessica stated in an open letter to Prime Minister Churchill that their release betrayed “those who have died for the cause of anti-fascism” (p.249).

            Diana’s sister Unity, four years younger, introduced Diana to Hitler after the two sisters had attended a major Nazi rally in Nuremberg.  Unity was most likely conceived in a small Canadian mining town called Swastika, Thompson indicates, when Sydney accompanied David on an otherwise unsuccessful mining venture. Cynics might therefore contend that the Nazi symbol remained embedded in her genes from that point forward.  In early 1934, at age 20, Unity went to Munich, with the crazy schoolgirl dream of meeting Hitler.  Thompson speculates that this was her way of competing with older sister Diana, who was by then with Mosley.  Somehow, she did meet the Führer, and spent substantial time in his presence between 1936 and 1940, with 140 documented meetings.

                Unity was treated “like an honored guest at rallies, [and] at events such as the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Bayreuth Festival; she was twice invited to [Hitler’s] retreat at Berchtesgaden . . . Effectively Unity was admitted to Hitler’s inner circle” (p.168).  Her relationship with Hitler, Thompson indicates, was most probably platonic.  There’s no clue that Unity was a romantic rival to Eva Braun, the Führer’s official mistress (see my review of two books on Hitler’s relationship with Braun, reviewed here in March 2013). Thompson describes Hitler’s attraction to Unity as “light relief, a combination of younger sister, court jester and talisman . . . [Hitler] was impressed by Britain, fascinated by its ability to command an empire, and like so many people he was compelled by the British aristocracy” (p.169). For her part, Unity in her early twenties came to consider herself an intermediary between Britain and Germany, capable of steering the two countries away from war.

               More than Diana, Unity was vilified in the public eye for her coziness with the Nazis as Britain and Germany inched toward war. In August 1939, just before the war’s outbreak, Unity attempted unsuccessfully to take her own life, leaving her with substantial brain damage from which she never recovered.  The bullet lodged itself at the back of her head, in a position too precarious to allow its removal, “causing her to become wholly childlike in her moods, her lack of co-ordination and her incontinence. Yet somehow she remained very much herself” (p.209).  Unity was the first of the Mitford sisters to die, in 1948, at age 34.

           Although always under the spell of her older sister Diana, Unity somehow remained close to her sister Jessica, the family’s official lefty, a communist who unlike most of the rest of the family looked upon Hitler as a grave threat.  While Jessica never wavered in her dislike for Diana, and saw her only rarely in adult life, she considered her Nazi-loving sister Unity “easily my favorite sister” (p.255), an innocent, led astray by Diana.

            Jessica’s embrace of communism was for her parents almost completely beyond comprehension. Jessica created her own family scandal, akin to Diana leaving her marriage for Mosley, when she eloped with a fellow communist, Esmond Romilly, the nephew and rumored son of Winston Churchill, whom she had met in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was an Alpha male, much like Mosley in that regard — “Mosley with a red flag” (p.182) – and still another man who did not attach a high priority to marital fidelity.

            The pair traveled to the United States as war loomed, owning and running a bar in Miami purchased with the assistance of Washington Post owner Phillip Graham.  Esmond joined Canadian Air Force in 1940, and was lost in action after a bombing raid over Germany in 1941.  Jessica stayed in Washington during the war, where she worked for the government.  She eventually remarried, to American civil rights lawyer Phillip Truehart, a leading American progressive and also – surprise – a serial philanderer.

        Jessica and Truehaft were actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the late ‘40s and 1950s, and both came under suspicion for their Communist Party affiliations during the McCarthy era.  She and Truehaft left the Party in 1958.  In the 1960s, Jessica became a best-selling author with her The American Way of Death, an exposé of the exploitative practices of the American funeral industry.  She continued investigative journalism and the pursuit of liberal causes in the United States and wrote prolifically for the remainder of her life.

       Pamela and Deborah are the sisters most difficult to decipher in this account, seeming to get lost amongst their flashier sisters. Second-oldest Pamela married the eccentric Derek Jackson, a brilliant physicist and accomplished horseman, with a colorful personal life who married six times. Thompson contends that Jackson was at one time or another in love with all the Mitford girls except Nancy, as well as with brother Tom.  After her divorce from Jackson in the 1950s, Pamela took up with an Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi, in what turned out to be a lasting partnership.

          The last daughter, Deborah, had the life that most closely conformed to whatDavid and Sydney had in mind for all their daughters.  As a young woman, she became friendly with the Kennedy family.  At a party at the United States Embassy, she not only danced with the future American president, she also met Andrew Cavendish, the nephew of future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Andrew’s brother Billy married Kathleen Kennedy in 1944, but was killed in the war shortly thereafter; Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948). Deborah married Andrew in 1941 and became the Duchess of Devonshire.  Her marriage proved to be the most stable by far among the sisters.  Thompson describes Deborah as “emollient. She really was the only Mitford girl to retain good relations with all the others and to receive, and deftly juggle, all their confidences” (p.65). The last of the Mitfords to die, in 2014, Deborah’s most conspicuous eccentricity was that she was an inveterate fan of Elvis Presley and filled her stately country home with memorabilia of America’s king.

            Brother Tom, growing up surrounded on all sides by female energy and intensity, seems to have been a decent chap, good looking and likely gay.  Tom was the one person in the family “whom everybody both respected and liked” (p.71). His affection for Hitler and the Nazis rivaled that of Diana and Unity. He died in World War II, fighting Japan, after refusing to fight in Europe against Germany.  Tom’s loss was felt deeply by all his sisters. They were “united in the fact that they all loved Tom: a man who had known Mosley and Romilly and had found the respect and liking of both” (p.283-84).

* * *

             Whether Thompson’s book contains any breakthrough revelations that might lead to a new and different understanding of the six sisters is a question for more seasoned Mitford readers and scholars.  The book may not produce a lasting collective notion of the sisters and what made them so . . . Mitfordian.  But readers who are new to the Mitfords will find Thompson’s work a thorough introduction to the sisters, while seasoned Mitford readers are likely to marvel anew at the sheer implausibility of the six sisters’ stories. You can’t make this stuff up!

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 16, 2018

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History