Category Archives: 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

4 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History

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

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.

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           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.

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         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

 

 

 

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Filed under Biography, British History, English History

Apolitical Technocrat or War Criminal?

 

Martin Kitchen, Speer: Hitler’s Architect 

            Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s chief architect who also served as Nazi Germany’s Minister of Armaments from 1942 up to the end of World War II, was one of 24 high level officials placed on trial by the victorious allies at the International Military Tribunal, which met from November 1945 to October 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany.  The Nuremberg defendants were charged under a common indictment with four general counts: 1) participating in a common plan or conspiracy against peace; 2) planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; 3) war crimes; and 4) crimes against humanity.  Ten of Speer’s fellow defendants received the death penalty.  In a compromise verdict among the court’s eight judges — two each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union — Speer was acquitted on the first two counts, found guilty on the last two, and sentenced to a 20-year prison term, which he served at Berlin’s Spandau Prison until 1966.  Speer considered his sentence outrageously severe: he had seen himself as a primary candidate to lead the effort to rebuild a New Germany after the war and felt that he was being punished for the honesty and candor he had demonstrated at Nuremberg.

            That apparent honesty and candor had made a strong initial impression upon the British and American interrogators who had interviewed Speer prior to the trial, including Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Speer impressed his interrogators with what seemed like genuine remorse for his participation in the Nazi war effort.  He offered his assistance to Great Britain and the United States in bringing the war against Japan to a quick conclusion and expressed his willingness to work with the British and American governments to prevent valuable inside information on the German armaments industry from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union.  But Speer also impressed his interrogators by being the antithesis of the stereotypical Nazi official: he was articulate and refined, with a sense of culture and history, anything but the boorish, psychopathic thug that most people outside Germany associated with Nazi leadership.

              At the Nuremberg trial, Speer cast himself as an apolitical technocrat thrust into a role in the armaments industry which he had not sought, and emphasized how untamed technology was more responsible for the catastrophe of World War II than the Western Allies had realized.  He explained how, as Armaments Minister, he had concluded by late 1943 that the war was lost, and that in late 1944 and early 1945 had courageously countered Hitler’s order that German soldiers destroy everything in reach as they retreated – sometimes referred to as Hitler’s “Nero Order” – thereby saving many lives and substantial property.

          Perhaps because of his refined personal qualities and his refreshing differences from the stereotypical Nazi, neither his interrogators nor the prosecutors who presented the case against him probed in any depth into the labor conditions in the armaments operations that Speer controlled, or what he had or had not done to counter the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. Speer professed to have had no knowledge of the appalling mistreatment of the hundreds of thousands of unfortunates who had worked for him and to have been unaware of the fate of the European Jews.  He told the Nuremberg judges that he was willing to accept “responsibility” for his role in Nazi war crimes, but not “guilt.”  He admitted that he should have known about the Holocaust and the extent of other Nazi crimes, but he did not. His were errors of omission rather than commission, which he maintained were less reprehensible.

            If Speer was incensed by the harshness of the 20-year sentence he received at Nuremberg, British-Canadian historian Martin Kitchen considers the sentence almost unconscionably lenient.  In Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Kitchen, who has written extensively on Germany, World War II and the Cold War, contends that Speer was fortunate to escape the death sentences that befell many other members of Hitler’s inner circle, including Martin Bormann, Herman Göring and Fritz Sauckel, who had worked hand-in-hand with Speer in recruiting the labor force for the armaments industry during the war.  Kitchen writes throughout this exhaustively researched biography with the fervor of a man on a mission: to deflate what might be termed the “Speer myth” that Speer successfully cultivated at Nuremberg and afterwards as a refined and repentant former Nazi with no knowledge of the appalling labor conditions in the armaments industry or of the fate of European Jewry.  To the contrary, Kitchen argues, Speer was an “active participant in Nazi crimes” (p.364), one of the Third Reich’s leading criminals.

              It is “utterly inconceivable,” Kitchen writes, that a man in Speer’s position “knew nothing of the persecution of the Jews or the ill-treatment of the slave laborers that had the misfortune to work under him” (p.334).  Speer’s attempt to cast himself as a “conscience-stricken prophet in a technological wilderness” was a “sham” (p.364). Speer was “particularly frightening” because he was not a thuggish and boorish Nazi.  A “hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, highly intelligent, totally lacking in moral vision, unable to question the consequences of his actions and without scruples,” Speer was the “outstanding representative of a widespread type that made the regime possible.” The Third Reich “would never have been so deadly effective had it relied on the adventurers, thugs, half-crazed ideologues, racist fanatics and worshippers of Germanic deities that people the public image of the regime” (p.371).

          Readers hoping to glean an understanding of Speer’s character through information about his childhood or as the father of six children are likely to be disappointed by Kitchen’s account. Speer’s personal life barely figures in Kitchen’s 350 plus pages.  His book is almost exclusively about what Speer did after he said good-bye to the wife and kids in the morning and went off to work.  After an initial chapter on Speer’s early life, the book’s remaining 13 chapters can be divided into three parts: 1) Speer’s role as Hitler’s architect; 2) his work as Armaments Minister; and 3) his post-war life up to his death in 1981. The chapters on the German wartime armaments industry are by far the most extensive, with considerably more about bureaucratic in fighting and the manipulation of production statistics than most general readers will feel they need to know.

          But the chapters on Speer the architect and as Armaments Minster serve as a predicate for Kitchen’s assessment of Speer in his post-war life and his protracted effort to reinvent himself, at Nuremberg, during his twenty-year prison term, and in the 15 years that remained to him until his death in 1981.  The chapters on the post-war Speer have much of the tone and flavor of a prosecutor’s closing argument, where Kitchen seems to ask his readers to serve as jurors and render a judgment for the court of history on Speer and his carefully cultivated self-image in light of the facts presented about the man’s work in Hitler’s Third Reich.

* * *

         Albert Speer was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1905 into a Protestant family of comfortable means.  At age 22, he married Marguerite (“Gretel”) Weber, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life. Although the workings of the marriage are almost entirely absent from Kitchen’s account, we learn in the initial chapter that Speer’s parents, who had a distant and generally cold relationship with their son, did not approve of his relationship with Gretel and did not meet her until seven years into the marriage. The couple had six children together, but we learn almost nothing about Speer’s relationship with any of them, other than that it was cold and distant, much like his relationship to his own parents.

            In March 1931, Speer joined Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party as Party Comrade 474,481. There is ample evidence that Speer’s attitude toward National Socialism was “far from being lukewarm” (p.22).  Although neither an ideologue nor anything more than an “instinctive anti-Semite,” Speer was an opportunist who utilized his party connections to make his rise to power possible. “In this too he was typical of the well-educated and skilled middle class that gave the Third Reich its compliant support, despite some reservations and occasional feelings of remorse” (p.24), Kitchen writes.

               Through chief Nazi Party propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Speer met Adolph Hitler in early 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power. Over the course of the next twelve years, Speer remained a particular favorite of the Führer, forming with his boss the “closest thing to a friendship that Hitler ever managed to enjoy” (p.42).  When Paul Troost, Hitler’s architect, died suddenly in 1934, Hitler appointed the 28 year old Speer to succeed Trost.

            Speer was in Kitchen’s estimation at best a mediocre architect, lacking in creativity.  But Hitler sought a conversational partner to listen attentively to his grandiose ideas about architecture: “massive atavistic cult monuments that were a defiant rejection of modernity” (p.33), and “vast monuments to his boundless imperial ambitions” (p.34).  Speer filled that role perfectly. He gave “precise and direct answers to all his [Hitler’s] many questions. He never made the slightest attempt to curry favor. He appeared not to be intimidated by his immense power and prestige. Hitler admired his impeccable manners and self-confidence. He was a pleasant contrast to the toadying courtiers, adulating acolytes and heel-clicking automata in his customary entourage” (p.41).

        Speer was initially charged with designing a vast new chancellery in Berlin, a structure “designed to overawe and intimidate by its sheer size” (p.4). Then, in 1937, he was appointed General Building Inspector (GBI) for Berlin, with the task of drawing up plans for a New Berlin, grandiosely termed “Germania.”  In that capacity, Speer coordinated the seizure, exploitation and allocation of Jewish assets after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. The GBI handed over some 10,000 Jews to Heinrich Himmler’s SS, “to be shipped to what was delicately described as ‘the East’” (p.96). An essential part of Speer’s plans to rebuild Berlin involved the creation of new concentration camps to quarry the stone and make the bricks for the Germania project.  In close collaboration with the SS, Speer ruthlessly exploited the labor of concentration camp inmates working in inhumane conditions. “There is no evidence that Speer and his colleagues showed the slightest sign of concern or even interest as to their fate” (p.95), Kitchen writes. National Socialist monumental architecture was thus “inextricably linked to the oppression, terror and murderous intent of Himmler’s SS” (p.73). From at least the time when he became GBI, Speer and his team of planners and architects were “intimately involved in the ‘Final Solution’” (p.100).

           Speer stepped into his position as Minister of Armaments when Fritz Todt, the minister at the war’s outset,  was killed  in an airplane accident in February 1942 under mysterious circumstances.  That Speer had no expertise in the armament field was a plus for Hitler, who “detested experts” and considered Speer a “loyal vassal, who would never dare step out of line” (p.121). Kitchen credits Speer with having exceptional organizational talent and being a generally effective bureaucrat, with a flair for besting rivals in inter-agency turf wars.  He “knew how to pick a team, delegate responsibility and deliver the goods” (p.35).  Speer was aware that with “virtually unlimited access to Hitler he held the key to power in the Third Reich. . . His closeness to Hitler enabled him to show scant concern for established rules of procedure or legal constraints” (p.122). Within a few weeks of becoming Minister of Armaments, Speer had made himself into “one of them most powerful figures in the Third Reich” (p.133-34).

        Hitler gave Speer authority to shut down all branches of industry that were not directly or indirectly connected to armaments and supported him in almost all instances.  By mid-1943, Speer had acquired “virtually dictatorial powers over the economy at home and in the occupied territories. . . His powers extended from the Soviet Union, Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to Luxembourg, Alsace Lorraine, Carinthia, Carniola and Lower Syria” (p.177-78).  Although Speer may have concluded in this time frame that the war was hopelessly lost, as he subsequently claimed at Nuremberg, this was not the message he was delivering to those working under him and to the Führer himself.

      Speer continually emphasized how will power could overcome all obstacles to victory, aided by forthcoming “miracle weapons.” The worse the situation on the ground became, the “greater the emphasis on ‘miracle weapons’ that would soon become operational and turn the tables on the enemy. Speer did all he could to raise expectations, even appointing a special propaganda section within his ministry to trumpet future wonders” (p.253).  Kitchen has no doubt that Speer “did indeed help to prolong the war longer than many thought possible, as a result of which millions were killed and Germany reduced to a pile of rubble” (p.364-66).

            Kitchen contends that Speer’s resistance to Hitler’s “Nero Order,” in which the Führer ordered the destruction of areas not likely to be regained in light of the Allied advances in both the East and West, was far less courageous than Speer made it seem at Nuremberg.  A “scorched earth policy was never a viable option. The Germans lacked the time, the manpower and the explosives to carry out demolition on this scale” (p.255).   Industrialists, bankers and the business elite, along with substantial portions of the military and the civil administration, all “refused to accept the preposterous notion that there was no alternative to national suicide” (p.265).  Speer had the support of the vast majority of the German people, who wanted “nothing more than an end to all the misery and suffering. He also had the distinct advantage that the communications network had broken down.  Orders from Hitler’s bunker seldom reached the front line” (p.265).

           In close collaboration with Fritz Sauckel, Speer used laborers, including POWs, as needed in his armament operations.  As in the projects for Berlin, Himmler once again supplied Speer and Sauckel with much of the labor they needed from the slave labor camps his SS maintained. Himmler viewed the camps as instruments of oppression to punish the state’s enemies and eliminate undesirables — “annihilation through work” (p.39) was his mantra.   Speer took the more pragmatic view that starving workers to death was “not an effective way to run a business” (p.153). But Speer “needed workers, which Himmler had in ample supply” (p.73).

        At Nuremberg, Speer pointed the finger at Sauckel as being responsible for the inhumane working conditions in the armaments industry. Sauckel was “crude and uneducated, lacked style and had a grating personality.” He stood in sharp contrast to Speer, “handsome, suave, polite, cultured and solidly bourgeois” (p.311). These differences, in Kitchen’s view, account for the difference in sentencing of the two men: the death penalty for Sauckel versus 20 years in Spandau prison for Speer.

          Kitchen describes Speer’s defense at Nuremberg as “masterly,” presenting himself as a “diligent minister who stuck to the immediate tasks at hand, leaving politics to others” (p.286). Speer’s decision to accept “overall responsibility” for Nazi crimes but not “guilt” – which Kitchen terms an “empty formula” (p.363) — was contrary to what his lawyer wanted but turned out to be a “brilliant move that saved him from the hangman’s noose” (p.286). Speer remained calm throughout the trial, “convincing all who witnessed his performance that he stood apart from his more unsavory colleagues” (p.286-87).  But the reason he did not receive the death penalty at Nuremberg was that “no mention was made of his treatment of the Jews in Berlin” and that his “close cooperation with Himmler, the SS and the concentration camps was overlooked” (p.312).

          After he left Spandau prison in 1966, Speer continued to reinvent his past, claiming to have been victimized by an evil system and by the “phantom of technology that had enslaved him.” It was an “extraordinary achievement for a man who was responsible for so many deaths to present himself to the world as a guiltless innocent,” Kitchen concludes, “and to have been so astonishingly successful in getting away with it” (p.328).

* * *

      Kitchen presents a highly-convincing case that Speer was indeed lucky to have escaped a death sentence at Nuremberg.  The self-image which Speer so carefully cultivated — an “apolitical penitent, unaware of the crimes committed by the regime he served, an innocent victim of a remorseless technocratic age” (p.9), as Kitchen phrases it — had begun to crumble well before Kitchen’s fervently argued book.  But with Kitchen’s assiduous compilation from a more complete factual record than what had previously been available, there is little likelihood that  Speer’s implausibly benign self-image will be taken seriously anytime in the foreseeable future.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

March 26, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Two Who Embodied That Sweet Soul Music

 

Jonathan Gould, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life 

Tony Fletcher, In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett 

        By 1955, the year I turned 10, I had already been listening to popular music for a couple of years on a small bedside radio my parents had given me. My favorite pop singers were Patti Page and Eddie Fisher, whose soft, staid, melodious songs seemed in tune with the Big Band and swing music of my parents’ generation. The previous year, 1954, a guy named Bill Haley had come out of nowhere onto the popular music scene with “Rock Around the Clock,” which he followed in 1955 with “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Haley’s two hits became the centerpiece of my musical world. They were so different: they moved, they jumped – they rocked and they rolled! – in a way that resembled nothing I had heard from Page, Fisher and their counterparts.

        The term “rock ‘n roll” was already in use in 1955 to describe the new style that Haley’s songs represented. But “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” were not the only hit tunes I listened to that year that seemed light years apart from what I had been familiar with. There was Ray Charles, with “I Got a Woman;” Chuck Berry with “Maybelline;” and, most exotic of all, a man named Richard Penniman, known in the record world as “Little Richard,” rose to fame with a song titled “Tutti Frutti.” What I didn’t realize then was that Charles, Berry and Penniman were African-Americans, whereas Haley was a white guy, and that Charles and his counterparts were bringing their brand of popular music, then officially called “rhythm and blues” (and more colloquially “R & B”) into the popular music mainstream on a massive scale for white listeners like me.  Within a decade after that breakthrough year of 1955, “soul music” had largely supplanted “rhythm and blues” as the term of choice to refer to African-American popular music.

          Also listening to Charles, Berry and Penniman in 1955 were two African-American teenagers from the American South, both born in 1941, both named for their fathers: Otis Redding, Jr., and Wilson Pickett, Jr.  Redding was from Macon, Georgia (as was “Little Richard” Penniman). Pickett was from rural Alabama, but lived a substantial part of his adolescence with his father in Detroit. Each had already shown talent for gospel singing, which was then becoming a familiar pathway for African-Americans into secular rhythm and blues, and thus into the burgeoning world of popular music. A decade later, the two found themselves near the top of a staggering alignment of talent in the popular music world.

          As I look back at the period that began in 1955 and ended around 1970, I now see a golden era of American popular music.  It saw the rise of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, along with oh so many stellar practitioners of that “sweet soul music,” to borrow from the  title of a 1967 hit which Redding helped develop. Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard Penniman may have jump-started the genre in that pivotal year 1955, but plenty of others were soon competing with these pioneers: Sam Cooke, James Brown (another son of Macon, Georgia), Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, the Platters, the Temptations, Clyde McPhatter and later Ben E. King and the Drifters, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were among the most prominent male stars, while Aretha Franklin, Mary Wells, Dionne Warwick, the Marvellettes, the Shirelles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were among the women who left their imprint upon this golden era.

          But if I had to pick two songs that represented the quintessence of that sweet soul music in this golden era, my choices would be Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” two songs that to me still define and embody soul music. Two recent biographies seek to capture the men behind these irresistible voices: Jonathan Gould’s Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, and Tony Fletcher’s In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett.  Despite Redding and Pickett’s professional successes, their stories are both sad, albeit in different ways.

         Gould’s title reminds us that Redding died before the end of the golden age, in a plane crash in Wisconsin in December 1967, at age 26, as his career was soaring.  Pickett in Fletcher’s account had peaked by the end of the 1960s, with his career thereafter going into a steep downward slide. Through alcohol and drugs, Pickett destroyed himself and several people around him. Most tragically, Pickett physically abused the numerous women in his life. Pickett died in January 2006 at age of 64 of a heart attack, most likely brought about at least in part by years of substance abuse.

        Popular music stars are rarely like poets, novelists, even politicians who leave an extensive written record of their thoughts and activities.   The record for most pop music stars consists primarily of their records.  Gould, more handicapped than Fletcher in this regard given Redding’s premature death in 1967, gets around this obstacle by producing a work that is only about one-half Otis Redding biography.  The other half of his work provides a textbook overview of African-American music in the United States and its relationship to the condition of African-Americans in the United States.

        Unlike many of their peers, neither Redding nor Pickett manifested much outward interest in the American Civil Rights movement that was underway as their careers took off and peaked. But the story of African-American singers beginning their careers in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the lucrative world of 1960s pop music cannot be told apart from that movement.  At every phase of his story of Otis Redding, Gould reminds readers what was going on in the quest for African-American equality: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King’s marches, Civil Rights legislation passed under President Lyndon Johnson, and the rise of Malcolm X’s less accommodating message about how to achieve full equality are all part of Gould’s story, as are the day-to-day indignities that African-American performers endured as they advanced their careers.  Fletcher does not ignore this background – no credible biographer of an African-American singer in the ‘50s and ‘60s could – but it is less prominent in his work.

        More than Fletcher, Gould also links African-American music to African-American history.  He treats the role music played for African-Americans in the time of slavery, during Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow era, and into the post-World War II and modern Civil Rights era. Gould’s overview of African-American history through the lens of African-American music alone makes his book worth reading, and may give it particular appeal to readers from outside the United States who know and love American R&B and soul music, but are less familiar with the historical and sociological context in which it emerged.  But both writers provide lively, detailed accounts of the 1950s and 1960s musical scene in which Redding and Pickett rose to prominence.  Just about every soul music practitioner whom I admired in that era makes an appearance in one or both books.  The two books should thus constitute a welcome trip down memory lane for those who still love that sweet soul music.

* * *

        Otis Redding grew up in a home environment far more stable than that of Wilson Pickett.  Otis was the fourth child, after three sisters, born to Otis Sr. and his wife Fannie. Otis Sr. had serious health issues, but worked while he could at Robbins Air Force base, just outside Macon, Georgia.  Although only minimally educated, Otis Sr. and Fannie saw education as the key to a better future for their children.  They were particularly disappointed when Otis Jr. showed little interest in his studies and dropped out of high school at age 15. As an adolescent, Otis Jr. was known as a “big talker and a good talker, someone who could ‘run his mouth’ and hold his own in the endless arguments and verbal contests that constituted a prime form of recreation among people who quite literally didn’t have anything better to talk about” (Gould, p.115; hereafter “G”).

        Wilson Pickett was one of 11 children born into a family of sharecroppers, barely surviving in the rigidly segregated world of rural Alabama.  When Wilson, Jr. was seven, his father took the family to Detroit, Michigan, in search of a better life, and landed a job at Ford Motor Company. But the family came apart during the initial time in Detroit. His mother Lena returned to Alabama, and young Wilson ended up spending time in both places.  Wilson was subject to harsh discipline at home at the hands of both his mother and his father and grew into an irascible young man, quick to anger and frequently involved as an adolescent in physical altercations with classmates and friends.  His irascibility “provoked ever more harsh lashings, and because these still failed to deter him, it created an especially vicious cycle,” Fletcher writes, with the excessive violence Wilson later perpetrated on others representing a “continuation of the way he had been raised” (Fletcher, p.17; hereafter “F”). For a while, Pickett attended Detroit’s Northwestern High School, where future soul singers Mary Wells and Florence Ballard were also students. But Pickett, like Redding, did not finish high school.

         Both married young. Otis married his childhood sweetheart Zelma Atwood at about the time he should have been graduating from high school, when Zelma was pregnant with their second child.  Otis arrived more than an hour late for his wedding. Despite this less-than-promising beginning, he stayed married to Zelma for the remainder of his unfinished life and became a loyal and dedicated father to two additional children. Pickett married his girlfriend Bonnie Covington at age 18, when she too was pregnant. The couple stayed technically married until 1986, but spent little time together. Pickett’s relationships with his numerous additional female partners throughout his adult life all ended badly.

        Pickett discovered his singing talent through gospel music both in church in rural Alabama and on the streets of Detroit.  In the rigidly segregated South, Fletcher explains, the African-American church provided schooling, charity and community, along with an opportunity to listen to and participate in music.  Gospel was often the only music that young African-Americans in the 1940s and early 1950s were exposed to. “No surprise, then, that for a young Wilson Pickett, gospel music became everything” (F., p.18).  Similarly, it was “all but inevitable that Otis Redding would chose to focus his early musical energies on gospel singing” (G., p.62) at the Baptist Church in Macon which his parents attended.

       Redding gained attention as a 16-year old for his credible imitations of Little Richard. Soon after, he was able to replicate fluently the major R & B songs of the late 1950s. Through a neighborhood friend, Johnny Jenkins, a skilled guitarist, Redding joined a group called the Pinetoppers which played at local African American clubs – dubbed the “Chitlin’ circuit” – and earned money playing at all white fraternity parties at Mercer University in Macon and the University of Georgia.  Redding also spent a short time in Los Angeles visiting relatives, where he fell under the spell of Sam Cooke. Pickett started singing professionally in Detroit with a group known as the Falcons, which also featured Eddie Floyd, who would later go on to record “Knock on Wood,” a popular hit of the mid-60s.  Pickett’s first solo recording came in 1962, “If You Need Me.”

          Redding and Pickett in these two accounts had little direct interaction, and although they looked upon one another as rivals as their careers took off, each appears to have had a high degree of respect for the other. But each had a contract with Atlantic Records, and their careers thus followed closely parallel tracks.  Based in New York, Atlantic signed and marketed some of the most prominent R & B singers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin (whose charms were felt by both Redding and Pickett), along with several leading jazz artists and a handful of white singers. By the mid-1960s, Atlantic and its Detroit rival, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, dominated the R & B sector of American popular music.

       Both men’s careers benefitted from the creative marketing of Jerry Wexler, who joined Atlantic in 1953 after working for Billboard Magazine (where he had coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace “race music” as a category for African American music). Atlantic and Wexler cultivated licensing arrangements with smaller recording companies where both Redding and Pickett recorded, including Stax in Memphis, Tennessee, and Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Redding and Pickett’s relationships with Wexler at Atlantic, and with a colorful cast of characters at Stax and Fame, play a prominent part in the two biographies.

          But the most affecting business relationship in the two books is that which Redding established with Phil Walden, his primary manger and promoter during his entire career. Walden, a white boy from Macon the same age as Redding, loved popular music of all types and developed a particular interest in the burgeoning rhythm and blues style.  Phil initially booked Otis to sing at fraternity parties at all-white Mercer University in Macon, where he was a student, and somehow the two young men from different worlds within the same hometown bonded. Gould uses the improbable Redding-Walden relationship to illustrate how complex black-white relationships could be in the segregated South, and how the two young men navigated these complexities to their mutual benefit.

       In 1965, Pickett produced his first hit, “In the Midnight Hour,” “perhaps the song most emblematic of the whole southern soul era” (F., p.74). The song appealed to the same white audiences that were listening the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the other British invasion bands. It was “probably the first southern soul recording to have such an effect on such a young white audience,” Fletcher writes, “yet it was every bit an authentic rhythm and blues record too, the rare kind of single that appealed to everyone without compromising” (F., p.76).

         Pickett had had three major hits the following year, 1966: “634-5789,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally.” The first two rose to #1 on the R & B charts.  Although “634-5789” was in Fletcher’s terms a “blatant rip-off” of the Marvellettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and the “closest Pickett would ever come to sounding like part of Motown” (F., p.80), it surpassed “In the Midnight Hour” in sales. In 1968, Pickett turned the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” into his own hit. He also made an eye-opening trip to the newly independent African nation of Ghana, as part of a “Soul to Soul” group that included Ike and Tina Turner and Roberta Flack.  Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” worked the 100,000 plus crowd into a frenzy, Fletcher recounts. Pickett was the “ticket that everyone wanted to see” (F., p.169) and his performance in Ghana may have marked his career’s high point (although the tour included an embarassing low point when Pickett and Ike Turner got into a fight over dressing room priorities).

          “Dock of the Bay,” the song most closely identified with Otis Redding, was released in 1968, and became the only posthumous number one hit in American music history.  At the time of his death in late 1967, Redding had firmly established his reputation with a remarkable string of hits characterized by powerful emotion and depth of voice: “Try a Little Tenderness,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Pain in My Heart,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Like Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” a Beatles’ hit, Redding also “covered,” to use the music industry term, the Rolling Stones’ signature hit, “Satisfaction,” with his own idiosyncratic version.  Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” and Redding’s “Satisfaction,” the two authors note, deftly reversed a trend in popular music, in which for years white singers had freely appropriated African-American singers’ work.

         Gould begins his book with what proved to be the high water mark of Redding’s career, his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. There, he mesmerized the mostly white audience – “footloose college students, college dropouts, teenaged runaways, and ‘flower children’” (G., p.1) – with an electrifying five-song performance, “song for song and note for note, the greatest performance of his career” (G., p.412).  The audience, which had come to hear the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, rewarded Redding with an uninterrupted 10 minute standing ovation.

          After Monterey, Redding developed throat problems that required surgery.  During his recuperation, he developed “Dock of the Bay.” Gould sees affinities in the song to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Otis was seeking a new form of musical identity, Gould contends, becoming more philosophical and introspective, “shedding his usual persona of self-assurance and self-assertion in order to convey the uncertainty and ambivalence of life as it is actually lived”(G. p.447).

          Redding’s premature death, Gould writes, “inspired an outpouring of publicity that far exceeded the sum of what was written about him during his life” (G., p.444). Both writers quote Jerry Wexler’s eulogy: Otis was a “natural prince . . . When you were with him he communicated love and a tremendous faith in human possibility, a promise that great and happy events were coming” (G., p.438; F., p.126). There is a tinge of envy in Fletcher’s observation that Otis’ musical reputation remained “untarnished – preserved at its peak by his early death” (F., p.126).

          Pickett’s story is quite the opposite.  Although he had a couple of mid-level hits in the 1970s, Pickett’s life entered into its own long, slow but steady demise in the years following Redding’s death.  Pickett drank excessively while becoming a regular cocaine consumer during these years. His father had struggled with alcohol, and Pickett exhibited all the signs of severe alcoholism, including heavy morning drinking. Fletcher describes painful instances of domestic violence perpetrated against each of the women with whom Pickett lived.  He was the subject of numerous civil complaints and served some jail time for domestic violence offenses.  Of course, Redding might have gone into a decline as abrupt as that of Pickett had he lived longer; his career might have plateaued and edged into mediocrity, like Pickett’s; and his personal life might have become as messy as Pickett’s.  We’ll never know.

* * *

          Pickett was far from the only star whose best songs were behind him as the 1970s dawned.  Elvis comes immediately to mind, but the same could be said of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Barry Gordy moved his Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, where it never recaptured the spark it had enjoyed . . . in Motown.   By 1970, a harder form of rock, intertwined with the psychedelic drug culture, was in competition with that sweet soul music. The 1960s may have been a turbulent decade but the popular music trends that began in 1955 and culminated in that decade were, as Gould aptly puts it, “graced by the talents of an incomparable generation of African-American singers” (G., p.465). The  biographies of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett take us deeply into those times and its unsurpassed music. It was fun while it lasted.

Thomas H. Peebles

Marseille, France

February 26, 2018

P.S. For an audio trip down memory lane, please click these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTVjnBo96Ug

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGVGFfj7POA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp3JOzcpBds

 

 

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Filed under American Society, Biography, Music, United States History

Inside Both Sides of Regime Change in Iraq

 

John Nixon, Debriefing the President:

The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein 

          When Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq in December 2003, it marked only the second time in the post-World War II era in which the United States had detained and questioned a deposed head of state, the first being Panama’s Manuel Noriega in 1989.  On an American base near Baghdad, CIA intelligence analyst John Nixon led the initial round of questioning of Saddam in December 2003 and January 2004.  In the first two-thirds of Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, Nixon shares some of the insights he gained from his round of questioning  — insights about Saddam himself, his rule, and the consequences of removing him from power.

        Upon return to the United States, Nixon became a regular at meetings on Iraq at the White House and National Security Council, including several with President George W. Bush.   The book’s final third contains Nixon’s account of these meetings, which continued up to the end of the Bush administration. In this portion of the book, Nixon also reflects upon the role of CIA intelligence analysis in the formulation of foreign policy.  Nixon is one of the few individuals — maybe the only individual — who had extensive exposure both to Saddam and to those who drove the decision to remove him from power in 2003.  Nixon thus offers readers of this compact volume a formidable inside perspective on Saddam’s regime and the US mission to change it.

         But while working through Nixon’s account of his meetings with Saddam, I was puzzled by his title, “Debriefing the President,” asking myself, which president? Saddam Hussein had held the title of President of the Republic of Iraq and continued to refer to himself as president after he had been deposed, clinging tenaciously to the idea that he was still head of the Iraqi state. So does the “president” in the title refer to Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush? With the first two-thirds of the book detailing Nixon’s discussions with Saddam, I began to think that the reference was to the former Iraqi leader, which struck me as oddly respectful of a brutal tyrant and war criminal.  But this ambiguity may be Nixon’s way of highlighting one of his major objectives in writing this book.

          Nixon seeks to provide the reading public with a fuller and more nuanced portrait of Saddam Hussein than that which animated US policymakers and prevailed in the media at the time of the US intervention in Iraq, which began fifteen years ago next month.  By detailing the content of his meetings with Saddam to the extent possible – the book contains numerous passages blacked out by CIA censors — Nixon hopes to reveal the man in all his twisted complexity. He recognizes that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, launched a fruitless war with Iran and used chemical weapons without compunction.  He “took a proud and very advanced society and ground it into dirt through his misrule” (p.12), Nixon writes, and thus deserves the sobriquet “Butcher of Baghdad.”  But while “tyrant,” “war criminal” and “Butcher of Baghdad” can be useful starting points in understanding Saddam, Nixon seems to be saying, they should not be the end point. “It is vital to know who this man was and what motivated him.  We will surely see his likes again” in the Middle East (p.9), he writes.

          When Nixon returned to the United States after his interviews with Saddam, he was surprised that none of the high-level policy makers he met with seemed interested in the question whether the United States should have removed Saddam from power.  Nixon addresses this question in his final pages with a straightforward and unsparing answer: regime change was a catastrophe for both Iraq and the United States.

* * *

           Nixon began his career as a CIA analyst at in 1998.  Working at CIA Headquarters in Virginia, he became a “leadership analyst” on Iraq, responsible for developing information on Saddam Hussein: “the family connections that helped keep him in power, his tribal ties, his motives and methods, everything that made him tick. It was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle with small but important pieces gleaned from clandestine reporting and electronic intercepts” (p.38).  In October 2003, roughly five months after President Bush had famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, Nixon was sent from headquarters to Baghdad.  There, he helped CIA operatives and Army Special Forces target individuals for capture.  At the top of the list was HVT-1, High Value Target Number 1, Saddam Hussein.

           After Saddam was captured in December 2003 at the same farm near his hometown of Tikrit where he had taken refuge in 1959 after a bungled assassination attempt upon the Iraqi prime minister, Nixon confirmed Saddam’s identity.  US officials had assumed that Saddam would “kill himself rather than be captured, or be killed as he tried to escape. When he was captured alive, no one knew what to do” (p.76).  Nixon was surprised that the CIA became the first US agency to meet with Saddam. His team had little time to prepare or coordinate with other agencies with an interest in information from Saddam, particularly the Defense Department and the FBI.  “Everything had to be done on the fly.  We learned a lot from Saddam, but we could have learned a lot more” (p.84-85).

          Nixon’s instructions from Washington were that no coercive techniques were to be used during the meetings.  Saddam was treated, Nixon indicates, in “exemplary fashion – far better than he treated his old enemies.  He got three meals a day.  He was given a Koran and an Arabic translation of the Geneva conventions. He was allowed to pray five times each day according to his Islamic faith” (p.110).   But Nixon and his colleagues had few carrots to offer Saddam in return for his cooperation. Their position was unlike that of a prosecutor who could ask a judge for leniency in sentencing in exchange for cooperation.  Nixon told Saddam that the meetings were “his chance, once and for all, to set the record straight and tell the world who he was” (p.83).  Gradually, Nixon and his colleagues buitl a measure of rapport with Saddam, who clearly enjoyed the meetings as a break from the boredom of captivity.

          Saddam, Nixon found, had  “great charisma” and “an outsize presence. Even as a prisoner who was certain to be executed, he exuded an air of importance” (p.81-82).  He was “remarkably forthright when it suited his purposes. When he felt he was in the clear or had nothing to hide, he spoke freely. He provided interesting insights into the Ba’ath party and his early years, for example. But we spent most of our time chipping away at layers of defense meant to stymie or deceive us, particularly about areas such as his life history, human rights abuse, and WMD, to name just a few” (p.71-72).

         Saddam saw himself as the “personification of Iraq’s greatness and a symbol of its evolution into a modern state,” with a “grand idea of how he fit into Iraq’s history” (p.86).  He was “always answering questions with questions of history, and he would frequently demand to known why we had asked about a certain topic before he would give his answer” (p.100). He often feigned ignorance to test his interrogators knowledge.  He frequently began his answers “by going back to the rule of Saladin.”  Nixon   “often wondered afterward how many people told Saddam Hussein to keep it brief and lived to tell about it” (p.100).

       The meetings revealed to Nixon and his colleagues that the United States had seriously underestimated the degree to which Saddam saw himself as buffeted between his Shia opponents and their Iranian backers on one side, and Sunni extremists such as al-Quada on the other.  Saddam, himself a Sunni who became more religious in the latter stages of his life, could not hide his enmity for Shiite Iran.  He saw Iraq as the “first line of Arab defense against the Persians of Iran and as a Sunni bulwark against its overwhelmingly Shia population” (p.4).  But Saddam considered Sunni fundamentalism to be an even greater threat to his regime than Iraq’s majority Shiites or Iran.

       What made the Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis, so threatening was that they “came from his own Sunni base of support. They would be difficult to root out without alienating the Iraqi tribes, and they could rely on a steady stream of financial support from Saudi Arabia. If the Wahhabists were free to spread their ideology, then his power base would rot from within” (p.124).  Saddam seemed genuinely mystified by the United States’ intervention in Iraq. He considered himself an implacable foe of Islamic extremism, and felt that the 9/11 attacks should have brought his country and the United States closer together.  Moreover, as he mentioned frequently, the United States had supported his country during the Iran-Iraq war.

          The meetings with Saddam further confirmed that in the years leading up to the United States intervention, he had begun to disengage from ruling the country.  At the time hostilities began, he had delegated much of the running of the government to subordinates and was mainly occupied with nongovernmental pursuits, including writing a novel.  Saddam in the winter of 2003 was “not a man bracing for a pulverizing military attack” (p.46), Nixon writes.  In all the sessions, Saddam “never accepted guilt for any of the crimes he was accused of committing, and he frequently responded to questions about human rights abuses by telling us to talk with the commander who had been on the scene” (p.129).

          On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush had likened Saddam to Hitler, and the idea took hold in the larger American public. But not once during the interviews did Saddam say he admired either Hitler or Stalin.  When Nixon asked which world leaders he most admired, Saddam said de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao and George Washington, because they were founders of political systems and thinkers.  Nixon quotes Saddam as saying, “Stalin does not interest me. He was not a thinker. For me, if a person is not a thinker, I lose interest” (p.165).

          When Nixon told Saddam that he was leaving Iraq to return to Washington, Saddam gave him a firm handshake and told Nixon to be just and fair to him back home.  Nearly three years later, in December 2006, Saddam was put to death by hanging in a “rushed execution in a dark basement” in an Iraqi Ministry (p.270), after the United States caved to Iraqi pressure and turned him over to what turned out to be little more than a Shiite lynch mob.  Nixon concludes that Saddam’s unseemly execution signaled the final collapse of the American mission in Iraq.  Saddam, Nixon writes, was:

not a likeable guy. The more you got to know him, the less you liked him. He had committed horrible crimes against humanity.  But we had come to Iraq saying that we would make things better.  We would bring democracy and the rule of law.  No longer would people be awakened by a threatening knock on the door.  And here we were, allowing Saddam to be hanged in the middle of the night (p.270).

* * *

            Nixon’s experiences with Saddam made him a familiar face at the White House and National Security Council when he returned to the United States in early 2004.  His meetings with President Bush convinced him that Bush never came close to getting a handle on the complexities of the Middle East.  After more than seven years in office, the president “still didn’t understand the region and the fallout from the invasion” (p.212). In Nixon’s view, Bush’s decision to take the country into war was largely because of the purported attempt Saddam had made on his father’s life  in the aftermath of the first Gulf War – a “misguided belief” in Nixon’s view.  The younger Bush and his entourage ordered the invasion of a country “without the slightest clue about the people they would be attacking. Even after Saddam’s capture, the White House was only looking for information that supported its decision to go to war” (p.235).

          One of the ironies of the Iraq War, Nixon contends, was that Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush were alike in many ways:

Both had haughty, imperious demeanors.  Both were fairly ignorant of the outside world and had rarely traveled abroad.  Both tended to see things as black and white, good and bad, for and against, and became uncomfortable when presented with multiple alternatives. Both surrounded themselves with compliant advisers and had little tolerance for dissent. Both prized unanimity, at least when it coalesced behind their own views. Both distrusted expert opinion (p.240).

       Nixon is almost as tough on the rest of the team that surrounded Bush and contributed to the decision to go to war, although he found Vice President Dick Chaney to be a source of caution, providing a measure of good sense to discussions.  Chaney was “professional, dignified, and considerate . . . an attentive listener” (p.197-98).  But he is sharply critical of the CIA Director at the time, George Tenet (even while refraining from mentioning the remark most frequently attributed to his former boss, that the answer to the question whether Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk”).

         In Nixon’s view, Tenet transformed the agency’s intelligence gathering function from one of neutral fact-finding, laying out the best factual assessment possible in a given situation, into an agency whose role was to serve up intelligence reports tailored to support the administration’s positions.  Tenet was “too eager to please the White House.  He encouraged analysts to punch up their reports even when the evidence was flimsy, and he surrounded himself with yes men” (p.225).  Nixon recounts how, prior to the 2003 invasion, the line level Iraq team at the CIA was given three hours to respond to a paper prepared by another agency purporting to show a connection between Saddam’s regime and the 9/11 attacks — a paper the team found “full of holes, inaccuracies, sloppy reporting and pie-in-the-sky analysis” (p.229).  Line level analysts drafted a dissenting note, but its objections were “gutted” by CIA leadership (p.230) and the faulty paper went on to serve as an important basis to justify the invasion of Iraq.

          Nixon left the agency in 2011. But in the latter portion of his book he delivers his fair share of parting shots at the post-Iraq CIA, which has become in his view a “sclerotic organization” (p.256) that “badly needs fixing” (p.261).  The agency’s leadership needs to “stop fostering the notion that the CIA is omniscient” and the broader foreign policy community needs to recognize that intelligence analysts can provide “only information and insights, and can’t serve as a crystal ball to predict the future” (p.261).  But as Nixon fires shots at his former agency, he lauds the line level CIA analysts with whom he worked. The analysts represent the “best and the brightest our country has to offer . . . The American people are well served, and their tax dollars well spent, by employing such exemplary public servants. I can actually say about these folks, ’Where do we get such people?’ and not mean it sarcastically” (p.273-74).

* * *

         Was Saddam worth removing from power, Nixon asks in his conclusion. “As of this writing, I see only negative consequences for the United States from Saddam’s overthrow” (p.257).  No serious Middle East analyst believes that Iraq was a threat to the United States, he argues.  The United States spent trillions of dollars and wasted the lives of thousands of its military men and women “only to end up with a country that is infinitely more chaotic than Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq” (p.258).  The United States could have avoided this chaos, which has given rise to ISIS and other forms of Islamic extremism, “had it been willing to live with an aging and disengaged Saddam Hussein”(1-2).  Nixon’s conclusion, informed by his opportunity to probe the mindset of both Saddam Hussein and those who determined to remove him from power, rings true today and stings sharply.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 31, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, Middle Eastern History, United States History