Category Archives: 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

Minding Our Public Language

Mark Thompson, Enough Said:

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics 

          In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, Mark Thompson examines the role which “public language” — the language we use “when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything else in a public context” (p.2) — plays in today’s cacophonous political debates.  Thompson, currently Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times and before that General Director of the BBC, contends that there is a crisis in contemporary democratic decision-making today that at heart is a crisis of political language.  Public language appears to be losing its power to explain and engage, thereby threatening the bond between people and politicians. “Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere,” Thompson writes, and the way our public language has changed is an “important contributing and exacerbating factor” (p.297-98).

          Thompson seeks to revive the formal study of rhetoric as a means to understand and even reverse the contemporary crisis of public language.  Rhetoric is simply the “study of the theory and practice of public language” (p.2).  Rhetoric “helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to ‘pay heed’ to the ‘opposite side,’ the other” (p.361). Democracies need public debate and therefore competition in the mastery of public persuasion. Rhetoric, the language of explanation and persuasion, enables collective decision-making to take place.

        Across the book’s disparate parts, Thompson’s central concern is today’s angry and polarized political climate often referred to as “populist,” in which the word “compromise” has become pejorative, the adjective “uncompromising” is a compliment, and the “public presumption of good faith between opposing parties and factions” (p.97) seems to have largely evaporated.  Thompson recognizes that the current populist wave is founded upon a severe distrust of elites.  Given his highest-of-high-level positions at the BBC and The New York Times (along with a degree from Oxford University), Thompson is about as elite as one can become.  He thus observes from the top of a besieged citadel.  Unsurprisingly, Thompson brings a well-informed Anglo-American perspective to his observations, and he shines in pointing to commonalities as well as differences between Great Britain and the United States. There are occasional glances at continental Europe and elsewhere – Silvio Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills are examined, for example – but for the most part this is an analysis of public language at work in contemporary Britain and the United States.

          In the book’s first half, Thompson uses the terminology of classical rhetoric to frame an examination of what he considers the root causes of today’s crisis in public language. Among them are the impact of social media on political discourse and how the pervasive use of sales and marketing language has devalued public debate.  Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a “Darwinian natural selection of words and phrases,” he writes, in which, “by definition, the only kind of language that emerges from this process is language that works. You hear it, you get it, you pass it on. The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius – a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill – is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art, but as algorithm” (p.187).  The use of language associated with sales and marketing serves further to give political language “some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing,” while stripping away its “explanatory and argumentative power” (p.191).

          In the second half, Thompson shifts way from applying notions of classical rhetoric to public debate and focuses more directly upon the debate itself in three settings: when scientific consensus confronts spurious scientific claims; when claims for tolerance and respect for racial, religious or ethnic minorities seek to override untrammeled freedom of expression; and when, after the unprecedented and still unfathomable devastation of the 20th century’s world wars, leaders seek to take their country into war.  Thompson’s analyses of these situations are lucid and clearheaded, but for all the common sense and good judgment that he brings to them, I found this section more conventional and less original than the book’s first half, and consequently less intriguing.

* * *

       Thompson starts with a compelling example to which he returns throughout the book, involving the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin and her rhetorical attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Before the ACA was signed into law, one Elizabeth McCaughey, an analyst with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, looked at a single clause among the 1,000 plus pages of the proposed legislation and drew the conclusion that the act required patients over a certain age to be counseled by a panel of experts on the options available for ending their lives. McCaughey’s conclusion was dead wrong. The clause merely clarified that expenses would be covered for those who desired such counseling, as proponents of the legislation made clear from the outset.

         No matter. Palin grabbed the ball McCaughey had thrown out and ran with it. In one of her most Palinesque moments, the one-term Alaska governor wrote on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of heath care. Such a system is downright evil (p.4-5).

By placing the words “death panel” and “level of productivity in society” in quotation marks, Palin left the impression that she was quoting from the statute itself.  Thus presented, the words conjured up early 20th century eugenics and Nazi doctors at death camps.  To her supporters, Palin had uncovered “nothing less than a conspiracy to murder” (p.7).

        In the terminology of classical rhetoric, “death panel” was an enthymeme, words that might not mean much to a neutral observer but were all that Palin’s supporters needed to “fill in the missing parts of her argument to construct a complete critique of Obamacare” (p.30).   It had the power of compression, perfect for the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the effect of a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.  Its words were prophetic, taking an imagined future scenario and presenting it as current reality.  Palin’s claim was symptomatic of today’s polarized political debate. It achieved its impact “by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty,” building on a presumption of “irredeemable bad faith,” and rejecting “even the possibility of a rational debate” with the statute’s supporters (p.17).

        Thompson considers Palin’s rhetorical approach distinct in keys ways from that of Donald Trump.    Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Thompson observes that Trump had “rewritten the playbook of American political language” (p.80). Trumpian rhetoric avoids cleverness or sophistication:

There are no cunning mousetraps like the “death panel.” The shocking statements are not couched in witty or allusive language. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again! – could hardly be less original or artful. Everything is intended to emphasize the break with the despised language of the men and women of the Washington machine. There is a wall between them and you, Trump seems to say to his audience, but I am on this side of the wall alongside you. They treat you as stupid, but you understand things far better than they do. The guarantee that I see the world as you do is the fact that I speak in your language, not theirs (p.79-80).

        Yet Thompson roots both Palin’s populism and that of Trump in a rhetorical approach that dates from the 18th century Enlightenment termed “authenticism,” a mode of expression that prioritizes emotion and simplicity of language, and purports to engage with the “lowliest members of the chosen community” (p.155).  To the authenticst, if something “feels true, then in some sense it must be true” (p.155).  Since the Enlightenment, authenticism has been in tension with “rhetorical rationalism,” which venerates fact-based arguments and empirical thinking.  Authenticism rises as trust in public leaders declines.   Authenticists take what their rationalist opponents regard as their most egregious failings, “fantasies dressed up as facts, petulance, tribalism, loss of control of one’s own emotions,” and “flip them into strengths.”  Rationalists may consider authenticism “pitifully cruel, impossible to sustain, downright crazy,” but it can be a compelling rhetorical approach for the “right audience in the right season” (p.356).

        Authenticism found the right audience in the right season in Brexit, Britain’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, with people voting for Brexit because they were “sick and tired of spin, prevarication and policy jargon” (p.351).   A single topic referendum such as Brexit, unlike a general election, requires a “minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved,” Thompson writes. By this standard, the Brexit referendum should be considered a “disgrace” (p.347).  Those opposing Brexit had little to offer “in the way of positivity to counterbalance the threats; its Tory and Labour leaders seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about Britain’s membership [in] the EU than their opponents.  Their campaign was lackluster and low-energy.  They deserved to lose” (p.347).

        In understanding how classical rhetoric influences public debate, Thompson attaches particular significance to George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the “best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century” (p.136).  Although Orwell claimed that his main concern in the essay was clarity of language, what he cared most about, Thompson contends, was the “beauty of language . . . Orwell associated beauty of language with clarity, and clarity with the ability of language to express rather than prevent thought and, by so doing, to support truthful and effective political debate” (p.143).  Orwell’s essay thus embodied the “classical understanding of rhetoric,” specifically the “ancient belief that the civic value of a given piece of rhetoric is correlated with its excellence as a piece of expression” (p.143).

* * *

      In the book’s second half, Thompson looks at the public debate over a host of contentious issues that have riveted the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, beginning with the deference that democratic debate should accord to questionable scientific claims.  So-called climate skeptics, who challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, can make what superficially sounds like a compelling case that their views should be entitled to equal time in forums dedicated to the elaboration of public issues, such as those provided by the BBC or The New York Times.  Minority scientific views have themselves frequently evolved into accepted scientific understanding (one 19th century example was the underlying cause of the Irish potato famine, discussed here  in 2014 in my review of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking).  Refusal to accord a forum for such views can easily be cast as a “cover up.”

         Thompson shows how members of Britain’s most distinguished scientific body, the Royal Society, once responded to public skepticism over global warming by becoming advocates, presenting the scientific consensus on the need for action in terms unburdened by the caution and caveats that are usually part of scientific explanation, and emphasizing the bad faith of climate change skeptics. Its efforts largely backfired. The more scientists sound like politicians with an agenda, the “less convincing they are likely to be” (p.211).   The same issue arose when a British medical researcher claimed to have a found connection between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. The research was subsequently found to be fraudulent, but not before a handful of celebrities and a few politicians jumped aboard an anti-vaccination movement (including, in the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Donald Trump, when he was more celebrity than politician), with an uncountable number of parents opting not to have their children vaccinated.

       Thompson’s discussion of the boundaries of tolerance and free speech raises a similar issue: to what degree should democratic forums include those whose views are antithetical to democratic norms. While at the BBC, Thompson needed to decide whether the BBC would invite the British National Party (BNP), which flirted with Holocaust denial but had demonstrated a substantial following at the ballot box, to a broadcast that involved representatives of Britain’s major parties. In the face of strident opposition, Thompson elected to include the BNP representative and explains why here: the public “had the right to see him and listen to him responding to questions put to him by a studio audience itself made up of people like them. They did so and drew their own conclusions” (p.263).

       Thompson also delivers a full-throated rebuke to American universities that have disinvited speakers because students objected to their views.  The way to defeat extremists and their defenders, whether in faculty lounges or the halls of power, is simply to out-argue them, he contends.  Freedom of expression is best considered a right to be enjoyed “not just by those with something public to say but by everyone” (p.262-63), as a means by which an audience can seek to reach its own judgment. With a few exceptions like child pornography or incitement to violence, Thompson finds no support for the notion that suppressing ideas of which we disapprove is a better way to defeat them in a modern democracy than confronting and debating them in public.

       In a chapter entitled simply “War,” Thompson argues that war is today the greatest rhetorical test for a political leader:

To convince a country to got to war, or to rally a people’s courage and optimism during the course of that war, depends on your ability to persuade those who are listening to you to risk sacrificing themselves and their children for some wider public purpose. It is words against life and limb. [It includes the] need for length and detail as you explain the justification of the war; the simultaneous need for brevity and emotional impact; authenticity, rationality, authority; the search for a persuasiveness that does not – cannot— sound anything like marketing given the blood and treasure that are at stake” (p.219).

        Today, it is almost impossible for any war to be well received in a democracy, except in the very short term.  This is undoubtedly an advance over the days when war was celebrated for its gallantry and chivalry. But, drawing upon the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, and to Britain’s decision to join the United States in the second Iraq war in 2003, Thompson faults anti-war rhetoric for its tendency to assume bad faith almost immediately, to “omit awkward arguments or to downplay unresolved issues, to pretend that difficult choices are easy, to talk straight past the other side in the debate, to oversimplify everything” (p.254-55).

* * *

      Thompson does not see today’s populist wave receding any time soon. “One can believe that populism always fails in the end – because of the crudity of its policies, its unwillingness to do unpopular but necessary things, its underlying divisiveness and intolerance – yet still accept that it will be a political fact of life in many western countries for years to come” (p.363).  He ends by abandoning the measured, “this-too-shall-pass” tone that prevails throughout most of his wide-ranging book to conclude on a near-apocalyptic note.   A storm is gathering, he writes, which threatens to be:

greater than any seen since the global infernos of the twentieth century. If the first premonitory gusts of a global populist storm were enough to blow Britain out of Europe and Donald Trump into the White House, what will the main blasts do? If the foretaste of the economic and social disruption to come was enough to show our public language to be almost wholly wanting in 2016, what will happen when the hurricane arrives?” (p.364).

       Is there anything we can do to restore the power of public language to cement the bonds of trust between the public and its leaders?  Can rhetorical rationalists regain the upper hand in public debate? Thompson argues that we need to “put public language at the heart of the teaching of civics . . . We need to teach our children how to parse every kind of public language” (p.322).  Secondary school and university students need to know “how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly” (p.366).   This seems like a sensible starting place.  But it may not be sufficient to withstand the hurricane.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 18, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, British History, Intellectual History, Language, Politics

Pledging Allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet Union

Kati Marton, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy 

 Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and The Cambridge Spy Ring 

          Spying has frequently been described as the world’s second oldest profession, and it may outrank rank the first as a subject matter that sells books. A substantial portion of the lucrative market for spy literature belongs to imaginative novelists churning out best-selling thrillers whose pages seem to turn themselves – think John Le Carré. Fortunately, there are also intrepid non-fiction writers who sift through evidence and dig deeply into the historical record to produce accounts of the realities of the second oldest profession and its practitioners, as two recently published biographies attest: Kati Marton’s True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, and Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and The Cambridge Spy Ring.

        Bearing similar titles, these works detail the lives of two men who in the tumultuous 1930s chose to spy for the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin: American Noel Field (1904-1970) and Englishman Guy Burgess (1911-1963). Burgess, the better known of the two, was one of the infamous “Cambridge Five,” five upper class lads who, while studying at Cambridge in the 1930s, became Soviet spies. Field, less likely to be known to general readers, was a graduate of another elite institution, Harvard University. Seven years older than Burgess, he was recruited to spy for the Soviet Union at about the same time, in the mid-1930s.

           While the 1930s and the war that followed were formative periods for both young men, their stories became noteworthy in the Cold War era that followed World War II. Field spent five years in solitary confinement in post-war Budapest, from 1949 to 1954, imprisoned as a traitor to the communist cause after being used by Stalin and Hungarian authorities in a major show trial designed to root out unreliable elements among Hungary’s communist leadership and consolidate Stalin’s power over the country. His imprisonment led to the imprisonment of his wife, brother and informally adopted daughter. Burgess came to international attention in 1951 when he mysteriously fled Britain for Moscow with Donald Maclean, another of the Cambridge Five.  Burgess and Maclean’s whereabouts remained unknown and the source of much speculation until they resurfaced five years later, in 1956.

            Both men came from comfortable but not super-rich backgrounds.  Each lost his father early in life, which unmoored both. After graduating from Harvard and Cambridge with elite diplomas in hand, they even followed similar career paths. Field served in the United States State Department and was recruited during World War II by future CIA Director Allen Dulles to work for the CIA’s predecessor agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), all the while providing information to the Soviet Union. Burgess served in critical periods in the British equivalents, Britain’s Foreign Office and its premier intelligence agencies, M15 and M16, while he too reported to the Soviet Union.  Field worked with refugees during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Burgess had a critical stint during the war at the BBC.  Both men ended their lives in exile, Field in Budapest, Burgess in Moscow.

          But the two men could not have been more different in personality.  Field was an earnest American with a Quaker background, outwardly projecting rectitude and seriousness, a “sensitive, self-absorbed idealist and dreamer” (M.3), as Marton puts it. Lownie describes Burgess as “outrageous, loud, talkative, indiscreet, irreverent, overtly rebellious” (L.30), a “magnificent manipulator of people and trader in gossip” (L.324).   Burgess was also openly gay and notoriously promiscuous at a time when homosexual conduct carried serious risks.  Field, Marton argues, was never one of Stalin’s master spies. “He lacked both the steel and the polished performance skills of Kim Philby or Alger Hiss” (M.3).  Lownie claims nearly the opposite for Burgess: that he was the “most important of the Cambridge Spies” (L.x).

          Marton’s biography of Field is likely to be the more appealing of the two for general readers. It is more focused, more selective in its use of evidence and substantively tells a more compelling story, raising questions still worth pondering today. Why did Field’s quest for a life of meaning and high-minded service to mankind lead him to become an apologist for one of the 20th century’s most murderous regimes? How could his faith in that regime remain unshaken even after it imprisoned him for five years, along with his wife, brother and informally adopted daughter? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Marton raises them in a way that leads her readers to consider their implications. “True Believer” seems the perfect title for her biography, a study of the psychology of pledging and maintaining allegiance to Stalin’s Soviet Union.

         “Stalin’s Englishman,” by contrast, struck me as an overstatement for Lownie’s work. Most of the book up to Burgess’ defection to Moscow in 1951— which comes at about the book’s three-quarter mark — details his interactions in Britain with a vast array of individuals: Soviet handlers and contacts, British work colleagues, lovers, friends, and acquaintances.  Only in a final chapter does Lownie present his argument that Burgess had an enduring impact in the international espionage game and deserves to be considered the most important of the Cambridge Five.  Lownie’s biography suffers from what young people today term TMI – too much information.  He has uncovered a wealth of written documentation on Burgess and seems bent on using all of it, giving his work a gossipy flavor.  At its core, Lownie’s work is probably best understood as a study of how a flamboyant life style proved compatible with taking the pledge to Stalin and the Soviet Union.

* * *

          As a high school youth, Noel Field said he had two overriding goals in life: “to work for international peace, and to help improve the social conditions of my fellow human beings” (M.14). The introspective young Field initially saw communism and the Soviet Union as his means to implement these high-minded, humanitarian goals. But in a “quest for a life of meaning that went horribly wrong” (M.9), Field evolved into a hard-core Stalinist.  Marton frames her book’s central question as: how does an apparently good man, “who started out with noble intentions” end up sacrificing “his own and his family’s freedom, a promising career, and his country, all for a fatal myth. His is the story of the sometimes terrible consequences of blind faith” (M.1).

         Field was raised in Switzerland, where his father, a well-known, Harvard-educated biologist and outspoken New England pacifist, established a research institute. In secondary school in Zurich, Field was far more introspective and emotionally sensitive than his classmates. He had only one close friend, Herta Vieser, the “plump, blond daughter of a German civil servant” (M.12), whom he subsequently married in 1926.  Field’s father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 53, when Field was 17, shattering the peaceful, well-ordered family life the young man had known up to that time.

         Field failed to find any bearings a year later when he entered Harvard, his father’s alma mater. He knew nothing of America except what he had heard from his father, and at Harvard he was again an outsider among his privileged, callow classmates. But he graduated with full honors after only two years. In his mid-twenties, Marton writes, Field was still a “romantic, idealistic young man” who“put almost total faith in books. He had lived a sheltered, family-centered life” (M.30).

         From Harvard, Field entered the Foreign Service but worked in Washington, at the State Department’s West European Desk, where he performed brilliantly but again did not feel at home, “still in search of deeper fulfillment than any bureaucracy could offer” (M.26). In 1929, he attended an event in New York City sponsored by the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party.  It was a turning point for him.  The “warm, spontaneous fellowship” at the meeting made him think he had realized his childhood dream of “being part of the ‘brotherhood of man’” (M.41). Soviet agents formally recruited Field sometime in 1935, assisted by the persuasive efforts of State Department colleague and friend Alger Hiss.

          For Field, Marton writes, communism was a substitute for his Quaker faith. Like the Quakers, communists “encouraged self-sacrifice on behalf of others.” But the austere Quakers were “no match for the siren song of the Soviet myth: man and society leveled, the promise of a new day for humanity” (M.39-40).  Communism offered a tantalizing dream: “join us to build a new society, a pure, egalitarian utopia to replace the disintegrating capitalist system, a comradely embrace to replace cutthroat competition.”  In embracing communism, Field felt he could “deliver on his long-ago promise to this father to work for world peace” (M.39).

            In 1936, Field left the State Department to take a position in Geneva to work for the League of Nations’ Disarmament Section — and assist the Soviet Union. The following year, he reached another turning point when he participated in the assassination in Switzerland of a “traitor,“ Ignaz Reiss, a battle tested Eastern European Jewish Communist who envisioned exporting the revolution beyond Russia.  Reiss was appalled by the Soviet show trials and executions of 1936-38 and expressed his dismay far too openly for Stalin, making him a marked man. Others may have hatched the plot against Reiss, and still others pulled the trigger, Marton writes, “but Field was prepared to help” (M.246). He had “shown his willingness to do Moscow’s bidding – even as an accessory in a comrade’s murder. He had demonstrated his absolute loyalty to Stalin” (M.68).

            Deeply moved by the Spanish Civil War, Field became involved in efforts to assist victims and opponents of the Franco insurgency.  During the conflict, Field and his wife met a refined German doctor, Wilhelm Glaser, his wife and 17-year old daughter Erica.  A precocious, feisty teenager, Erica was the only member of her high school class who had refused to join her school’s Hitler Youth Group.  She had contracted typhoid fever when her parents met the Fields. With her parents desperate for medical attention for their daughter, the Fields volunteered to take her with them to Switzerland. In what became an informal adoption, Erica lived with Noel and Herta for the next seven years, with the rest of her life intertwined with that of Fields.  After Erica’s initial appearance in the book at about the one-third point, she becomes a central and inspiring character in Marton’s otherwise dispiriting narrative – someone who merits her own biography.

            When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Field landed a job in Marseilles, France, with the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), a Boston-based humanitarian organization then charged with assisting the thousands of French Jews fleeing the Nazis, along with as many as 30,000 refugees from Spain, Germany, and Nazi-occupied territories of Eastern Europe.  Field’s practice was to prioritize communist refugees for assistance, including many hard-core Stalinists rejected by other relief organizations, hoping to repatriate as many as possible to their own countries “to seed the ground for an eventual postwar Communist takeover” (M.106).  It took a while for the USC to pick up on how Field had transformed it from a humanitarian relief organization into what Marton terms a “Red Aid organization” (M.131).

         After the Germans occupied the rest of France in November 1942, the Fields escaped from Marseilles to Geneva, where they continued to assist refugees and provide special attention to communists whom Noel considered potential leaders in Eastern Europe after the war.  While in Geneva, Field attracted the attention of Allen Dulles, an old family friend from Zurich in the World War I era who had also crossed paths with Field at the State Department in Washington.  Dulles, then head of OSS, wanted Field to use his extensive communist connections to infiltrate Nazi-occupied countries of Eastern Europe. With Field acting as a go-between, the OSS provided communists from Field’s network with financial and logistical support both during and after the war.

        But Field failed to understand that his network was composed largely of communists who had fallen into Stalin’s disfavor. Stalin considered them unreliable, with allegiances that might prioritize their home countries – Poland, East Germany, Hungary or Czechoslovakia – rather than the Soviet Union.  Although Stalin tightened the Soviet grip on these countries in the early Cold War years, he failed to bring Yugoslavia’s independent-minded leader, Marshal Josip Tito, into line.  To make sure that no other communist leaders entertained ideas of independence from the Soviet Union, Stalin targeted a host of Eastern European communists as “Titoists,” which became the highest crime in Stalin’s world — much like being a “Trotskyite” in the 1930s.   Stalin chose Budapest as the place for new round of show trials, analogous to those of 1936-38.

            Back in the United States, in Congressional testimony in 1948, Whittaker Chambers named Field’s long-time friend Alger Hiss as a member of an underground communist cell based in Washington. Hiss categorically denied the allegation and mounted an aggressive counterattack, including a libel suit against Chambers. In the course of defending the suit, Chambers named Field as another communist who had worked at a high level in the State Department.  Field’s double life ended in the aftermath of Chambers’ revelations. He could no longer return to the United States.

            Field’s outing occurred when he was in Prague, seeking a university position after his relief work had ended. From Prague, he was kidnapped and taken to Budapest, where he was interrogated and tortured over his association with Allen Dulles and the CIA.  Like so many loyal communists in the 1930s show trials, Field “confessed” that his rescue of communists during the war was a cover for recruiting for Dulles and the arch-traitor, Tito.   He provided his interrogators with a list of 562 communists he had helped return to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.  All, Marton writes, “paid with their lives, their freedom, or – the lucky ones — merely their livelihood, for the crime of being ‘Fieldists’” (M.157).  At one point, authorities confronted Field with a man he had never met, a Hungarian national who had previously been a leader within Hungarian communist circles, and ordered Field to accuse the man of being his agent.  Field did so, and the man was later sentenced to death and hanged.

          Hungarian authorities used Field’s “confession” as the centerpiece in a massive 1949 show trial of seven Hungarian communists, including Laslo Rajk, a lifelong communist and top party theoretician who had been Hungary’s Interior Minister and later its Foreign Minister.  All were accused of being “Fieldists,” who had attempted to overthrow the “peoples’ democracy” on behalf of Allen Dulles, the CIA, and Tito.  Field was not tried, nor did he appear as a witness in the trials.  All defendants admitted that Field had spurred them on; all were subsequently executed. By coincidence, Marton’s parents, themselves dissident Hungarian journalists, covered the trial.

           Field was kept in solitary confinement until released in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. Marton excoriates Field for a public statement he made after his release. “We are not among those,” he declared, “who blame an entire people, a system or a government for the misdeeds of a handful of the overzealous and the misguided,’’ adding her own emphasis to Field’s statement. Field, she writes, thereby exonerated “one of history’s most cruel human experiments, blaming the jailing and slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents on a few excessively fervent bad apples” (M.194).

         Field’s wife Herta traveled to Czechoslovakia in the hope of getting information from Czech authorities on her missing husband’s whereabouts. Those authorities handed her over to their Hungarian counterparts, who placed her in solitary confinement in the same jail as her husband, although neither was aware of the other’s presence during her nearly five years of confinement.   When Field’s younger brother Hermann went looking for Field, he was arrested in Warsaw, where he had worked just prior to the outbreak of the war, assisting endangered refugees to immigrate to Great Britain. Herta and Hermann were also released in 1954. Hermann returned to the United States and published a short work about the experience, Trapped in the Cold War: The Ordeal of an American Family.

           Erica Glaser, Field’s unofficially adopted daughter, like Herta and Hermann, went searching for Noel and she too ended up in jail as a result.  Erica had moved to the American zone of occupied Germany after the war, working for the OSS. But she left that job to work for the Communist Party in the Hesse Regional Parliament. There, she met and fell in love with U.S. Army Captain Robert Wallach.  When her party superiors objected to the relationship, Erica broke her connections with the party and the couple moved to Paris. They married in 1948.

          In 1950, Erica decided to search for both Noel and Herta. Using her own Communist Party contacts, Erica was lured to East Berlin, where she was arrested. She was condemned to death by a Soviet military court in Berlin and sent to Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison for execution. After Stalin’s death, her death sentence was commuted, but she was shipped to Siberia, where she endured further imprisonment in a Soviet gulag (Marton’s description of Erica’s time in the Gulag reads like Caroline Moorhead’s account of several courageous French women who survived Nazi prison camps in World War II, A Train in Winter, one of the first books reviewed here in 2012).

       Erica was released in October 1955 under an amnesty declared by Nikita Khrushchev, but was unable to join her husband in the United States because of State Department concern over her previous Communist Party affiliations.  Allen Dulles intervened on her behalf to reunite her with her family in 1957.  She finally reached the United States, where she lived with her husband and their children in Virginia’s horse country, an ironic landing point for the fiery former communist.  Erica wrote a book based on her experiences in Europe, Light at Midnight, published in 1967, a clever inversion of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.  She lived happily and comfortably in Virginia up to her death in 1993.

            Field spent his remaining years in Hungary after his release in 1954.  He fully supported the Soviet Union’s intervention in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He stopped paying dues to the Hungarian Communist Party after the Soviets put an end to the “Prague Spring” in 1968, but Marton indicates that there is no evidence that the two events were related.  Field “never criticized the system he served, never showed regret for his role in abetting a murderous dictatorship,” Marton concludes. “At the end, Noel Field was still a willing prisoner of an ideology that had captured him when his youthful ardor ran highest” (M.249).  Field died in Budapest in 1970. His wife Herta died ten years later, in 1980.

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            Much like Noel Field, Guy Burgess, “never felt he belonged. He was an outsider” (L.332), Lownie writes.  But Burgess’ motivation for entry into the world’s second oldest profession was far removed from that of the high-minded Field: “Espionage was simply another instrument in his social revolt, another gesture of self-assertion . . . Guy Burgess sought power and realizing he was unable to achieve that overtly, he chose to do so covertly. He enjoyed intrigue and secrets for they were his currency in exerting power and controlling people” (L.332).

         Burgess’ father and grandfather were military men. His father, an officer in the Royal Navy, was frequently away during Burgess’s earliest years, and the boy depended upon his mother for emotional support and guidance. His father died suddenly of a heart attack when Guy was 13, bringing him still closer to his mother.  Burgess attended Eton College, Britain’s most prestigious “public school,” i.e., upper class boarding school, and from there earned a scholarship to study history at Trinity College, Cambridge. When Burgess arrived in 1930, left-wing radicalism dominated Cambridge.

         Burgess entered Cambridge considering himself a socialist and it was an easy step from there to communism, which appeared to many undergraduates as “attractive and simple, a combination of the best of Christianity and liberal politics” (L.41). Fellow undergraduates Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, whom Burgess met early in his tenure at Cambridge, helped move him toward communism.  Both were recruited to work as agents for the Soviet Union while at Cambridge, and Burgess followed suit in late 1934.  Burgess’ contacts within Britain’s homosexual circles made him an attractive recruit for Soviet intelligence services.

        Before defecting to Moscow, Burgess worked  first as a producer and publicist at the BBC (for a while, alongside fellow Etonian George Orwell), followed by stints as an intelligence officer within both M15 and M16.  He joined the Foreign Office in 1944.  While with the Foreign Office, he was posted to the British Embassy in Washington, where he worked for about nine months.  Philby was his immediate boss in Washington and Burgess lived for a while with Philby’s family. In these positions, Burgess drew attention for his eccentric habits, e.g., constantly chewing garlic; for his slovenly appearance, especially dirty fingernails; and for incessant drinking and smoking — at one point, he was smoking a mind-boggling 60 cigarettes per day.  A Foreign Office colleague’s description was typical: Burgess was a “disagreeable character,” who “presented an unkempt, distinctly unclear appearance . . . his fingernails were always black with dirt. His conversation was no less grimy, laced with obscene jokes and profane language” (L.183). Burgess’ virtues were that he was witty and erudite, often a charming conversationalist, but with a tendency to name-drop and overstate his proximity to powerful government figures.

            Working at the highest levels within Britain’s media, intelligence and foreign policy communities, Burgess frequently seemed on the edge of being dismissed for unprofessional conduct, well before suspicions of his loyalty began to surface.  How Burgess could have remained in these high level positions despite his eccentricities remains somewhat of a mystery.  One answer is that his untethered, indiscreet life-style served as a sort of cover: no one living like that could possibly be a double agent. As one colleague remarked, if he was really working for the Soviets, “surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlor communist so obviously – with all that communist talk and those filthy clothes and filthy fingernails” (L.167).   Another answer is that he was a member of Britain’s old boy network, at the very top of the English class system, where there was an ingrained tendency not to be too probing or overly judgmental of one’s social peers.  Ben McIntyre emphasizes this point throughout his biography on Philby, reviewed here in June 2016, and Lownie alludes to it in explaining Burgess.

          The book’s real drama starts with Burgess’ sudden defection from Britain to the Soviet Union in 1951 with Donald Maclean, at a time when British authorities had finally caught onto Maclean — but before official doubts about Burgess had crystallized.  Burgess’s Soviet handler told Burgess, who had recently been sent home from the Embassy in Washington after he threatened a Virginia State Trooper who had stopped him for a speeding violation, that he needed to “exfiltrate” Maclean – get him out of Britain.  By leaving himself, Burgess surprised and angered his former boss Philby, who was charged with the British investigation into Maclean’s activities.  Burgess’ defection turned the focus on Philby, who defected himself a decade later.

          The route out of Britain that Maclean and Burgess took remains unclear, as are Burgess’s reasons for accompanying Maclean to the Soviet Union.   The official line was that the departure was nothing more than a “drunken spree by two low-level diplomats,” but the popular press saw the disappearance of the two as a “useful tool to beat the government” (L.264), while of course increasing circulation.  Sometime after his defection, British authorities awoke to the realization that the eccentric Burgess may have been more than just a smooth-talking, chain-smoking drunk.  But they were never able to assemble a solid case against him and did not believe that there would be sufficient evidence to prosecute him should he return to Britain.  In fact, he never did and the issue never had to be faced.

         The two men’s whereabouts remained an international mystery until 1956, when the Soviets staged an outing for a Sunday Times correspondent at a Moscow hotel.  Burgess and Mclean issued a written statement for the correspondent indicating that they had come to Moscow to work for better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West, convinced as they were that neither Britain nor the United States was seriously interested in better relations.   Burgess spent his remaining years in Moscow, where he was lonely and isolated.

        Burgess read voraciously, listened to music, and pursued his promiscuous lifestyle in Moscow, a place where homosexuality was a criminal offense less likely to be overlooked than in Britain.  Burgess clearly missed his former circle of friends in England.  During this period, he took to saying that although he remained a loyal communist, he would prefer to live among British communists. “I don’t like the Russian communists . . . I’m a foreigner here. They don’t understand me on so many matters” (L.315).  Stalin’s Englishman outlasted Stalin by a decade.  Burgess died in Moscow in 1963, at age 52, an adult lifetime of unhealthy living finally catching up with him. He was buried in a Moscow cemetery, the first of the Cambridge Five to go to the grave.

             Throughout the book’s main chapters, Burgess’ impact as a spy gets lost among the descriptions of his excessive smoking, drinking and homosexual trysts.  Burgess passed many documents to the Soviets, Lownie indicates.  Most revealed official British thinking at key points in British-Soviet relations, among them, documents involving the 1938 crisis with Hitler over Czechoslovakia; 1943-45 negotiations with the Soviets over the future of Poland; the Berlin blockade of 1948; and the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula in 1950.  But there does not seem to be anything comparable to Philby’s cold-blooded revelations of anti-Soviet operations and operatives, leading directly to many deaths; or, for that matter, comparable to Field’s complicity in the Reiss assassination or his denunciation of Hungarian communists.

          In a final chapter, entitled “Summing Up” – which might have been better titled “Why Burgess Matters” – Lownie acknowledges that it is unclear how valuable were the many documents were which Burgess passed to the Soviets:

[E]ven when we know what documentation was taken, we don’t know who saw it, when, and what they did with the material. The irony is that the more explosive the material, the less likely it was to be trusted, as Stalin ad his cohorts couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a plant. Also if it didn’t fit in with Soviet assumptions, then it was ignored (L. 323-24).

          One of Burgess’ most damaging legacies, Lownie argues, was the defection itself, which “undermined Anglo-American intelligence co-operation at least until 1955, and public respect for the institutions of government, including Parliament and the Foreign Office. It also bequeathed a culture of suspicion and mistrust within the Security Services that was still being played out half a century after the 1951 flight” (p.325-26).  Burgess may have been the “most important of the Cambridge spies,” as Lownie claims at the outset, but I was not convinced that the claim was proven in his book.

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            Noel Field and Guy Burgess, highly intelligent and well educated men, were entirely different in character and motivation.  That both chose to live duplicitous lives as practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession is a telling indication of the mesmerizing power which Joseph Stalin and his murderous ideology exerted over the best and brightest of the generation which came of age in the 1930s.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 25, 2017

8 Comments

Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, Russian History, Soviet Union, United States History

Revolutionary Train Ride

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train 

            On April 9, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, secretively boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, that was headed for Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg), then the capital of Russia.  The train left Zurich on its journey just days after the United States had entered World War I on the side of Russia and its allies, Great Britain and France.  Over the course of 8 days, Lenin and a group of 32 fellow Bolsheviks and their families traveled 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers). They passed through Germany, then Russia’s battlefield enemy, crossed the Baltic Sea by ferry to neutral Sweden and on to Finland (at the time part of the Russian empire), before arriving at Petrograd’s famous Finland Station on April 16, 1917.  Barely six months later, in November 1917, 100 years ago last month, Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts had seized control of the reins of power in Russia and declared a new revolutionary government in the world’s largest nation-state, with Lenin at its head.

           Lenin’s trip from Zurich to Petrograd via train is the centerpiece of Catherine Merridale’s incisive, often-riveting Lenin on the Train, in which she recounts in detail what she aptly terms a “journey that changed the world” (p.5).  Merridale, author of several other books on Russia and the Soviet Union, also provides a close look at the world Lenin inhabited in the immediate weeks and months before and after his train trip, while stopping short of the events of the 1917 November Revolution (often termed the “October Revolution,” due to the 13-day difference between the Julian calendar employed in Russia at that time and that utilized in most of the rest of the world).  She has done extensive digging into the archives and historical records of Russia, Germany, France and Britain to produce a nuanced picture of these crucial months in 1917. Her account benefits from detailed portraits of the numerous people who surrounded and interacted with Lenin in Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, and of course during the notorious train ride.

            Lenin’s ride back to his home country in April 1917 was precipitated by Russian Tsar Nicolas II’s stunning abdication a few weeks previously, abruptly ending the nearly 300-year Romanov dynasty.  Russia at the time of the Tsar’s abdication was a country seething with anger and falling into chaos. Workers were striking over food shortages and civil unrest was spreading from Petrograd across the country, all at a time when Russia’s war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was going poorly, with alarming desertion levels among its demoralized troops.  The State Duma, a parliamentary body dating from Russia’s 1905 Revolution that had shared power with the Tsar, conferred authority upon what came to be known as the Provisional Government, a caretaker institution charged with maintaining order and continuity until more permanent institutions could be established. Many Russian reformers and revolutionaries saw the Provisional Government as a step toward liberal, Western-style democracy.

            Not Lenin.  A fiery but uncommonly focused revolutionary from a decidedly bourgeois family, Lenin led the Bolsheviks, the most militant of the many revolutionary and reform groups that had pressed for changes in the Tsarist regime in Russia’s 1905 Revolution (“Bolshevik” was Lenin’s term, “majority men,” coined prior to the 1905 Revolution and intended to contrast with the other anti-Tsarist forces, the “Mensheviks,” literally “minority men” but by 1917 far more numerous than the Bolsheviks).  Lenin had spent much of his life since 1905 in exile, out of reach of the Tsars and their heavy-handed methods.  At the time of the Nicholas II’s abdication, he was in Zurich, where he was spending his daytime hours in the city’s library, reading and writing, theorizing and fantasizing about the coming world revolution that would bring down capitalism and imperialism. Lenin at this stage in his life was, as a contemporary put it, the “only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation twenty-four hours a day, who has no thoughts but of revolution, and even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution” (p.78).

            Once he learned that the Tsar had abdicated, Lenin was naturally more than eager to get back to Petrograd and put his revolutionary stamp on the emerging post-Tsarist regime.  In crossing Germany to return home, Lenin’s party benefitted from the unexpected cooperation of the German High Command.  But the extent of that cooperation remains unresolved to this day.  Was Lenin a German spy or agent? Did Germany acquiesce in the trip across its territory with the expectation that Lenin’s return to Russia would lead to its withdrawal from the war, thereby freeing Germany to fight on a single front against it British and French enemies?  Merridale does not shy away from addressing these still open questions.

          Throughout, Merridale provides a close up look at Lenin during his most pivotal period, emphasizing the forcefulness of his convictions while treading lightly over the ruthlessness of his character.  The Lenin who arrived in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, really believed that the world was on the edge of a worldwide proletarian revolution; that the revolution had already started in Russia but would not be restricted to her  boundaries (more conventional Marxist wisdom held that the revolution would start in Germany; Russia was considered too backward and insufficiently industrialized); and that with this revolution, the capitalist and imperialist world of 19th and early 20the century Europe would vanish. Lenin foresaw, as Merridale puts it, a “series of coordinated, pitiless and violent campaigns that would annihilate the twin oppressions of capitalism and empire forever. The bourgeoisie would have to die, the big country estates would burn, and everywhere slave-owners would face enslavement themselves” (p.77).

           When Lenin arrived at the Finland Station armed with this apocalyptic vision, the many anti-Tsarist forces in Russia were in almost complete disarray.  In the weeks that followed, Lenin provided clarity and focus to his Bolshevik followers on two key points which helped propel them to seizure of power a half year later: there would be no compromise between the Bolsheviks and  other anti-Tsarist forces; and there would be no further support for the war among the capitalist and imperialist powers that was ravaging Russia.

* * *

          Lenin and his party traveled in a single wooden train car, painted green, with three second-class and five third class compartments, plus two toilets and a baggage area.  The puritanical Lenin instituted strict rules aboard the train.  Disturbed by the bent of some of his group to sing well into the night, he instituted official times for sleeping. Smoking was allowed only in the toilets, with a system of tickets for their use. Those who wished to use the toilet to smoke were given “second-class” tickets, and had to accord priority to those with “first class” tickets who needed to use the toilet for more basic purposes.

       Before the train left, Lenin had wrenched numerous concessions from the German High Command, the most critical of which was that the car transporting his group was to be treated as an extra-territorial entity, “sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population” (p.7).  A chalk line drawn on the floor of the car served to demarcate a “border” between “Russia” and “Germany,” with the Russian travelers confined to one side of the line, the German soldiers assigned to guard them on the other. A designated neutral, befittingly a Swiss national, acted as the contact between the passengers and the German soldiers.  Lenin needed to stay in the Russian portion of the car so that he could later say he never set foot in “Germany.”  The High Command also agreed that no passenger could be ordered to leave the train, and that there would be no passport controls and no discrimination against potential passengers on account of their political views.

          The trip took place at a time when Germany yearned to be relieved of its two-front war so that it might concentrate its resources on the Western Front against its British and French enemies, before reinforcements from America could have a significant effect upon the stalemate in the trenches.  If Russia could be persuaded to withdraw from the war, Germany could then “focus all its troops along a single front, crushing the French and British like so many gnats” (p.39-40).   Britain and France, of course, were committed to keeping Russia in the war at almost any cost for precisely this reason.

          By 1917, the inconclusive nature of trench warfare had led all belligerents to search for ways of gaining advantages off the battlefield.  In Germany, foreign ministry officials had come to support using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored French military mutineers and Irish nationalists, and even looked at possibilities for sparking rebellion in distant India.  They were thus “quick to grasp [Lenin’s] potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort” and indisputably provided some financial backing to Lenin, what has come to be known as “German gold” (p.7).

          Lenin’s critics and rivals for power seized on the notion of “German gold” to label him a traitor, an agent operating on behalf of the enemy that was slaughtering Russian soldiers.  These charges never receded, and they continue to intrigue contemporary historians.  Merridale evaluates some of the more elaborately documented theories that Lenin was in fact a German agent, and finds them unproven.  In one instance she recounts, in the 1950s renowned diplomat and Russia expert George Kennan examined extensive documentation purporting to show an agency relationship between Lenin and the German government and concluded that the documents were forgeries.

          Lenin himself added to the speculation and conspiracy theories by denying that he had accepted any German assistance. Merridale suggests that, rather than lying about his acceptance of German gold, Lenin could have utilized his acceptance to forge a powerful argument on his own behalf.  A braver Lenin, she contends, might have “boasted of that German cash,” as a means to “help the German proletariat defeat the Kaiser. . . If taking German money was one kind of crime,” Lenin could have argued that “trampling on the people’s dreams, making them fight against their will and even starving them were surely worse. . . [Lenin] might have pointed to the poetry of taking money from the robbers of the poor, whatever country they were from” (p.262).

          Merridale submits that Germany most likely gambled that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were unlikely to achieve power on a long-term basis but could stir up useful “inconclusive civil chaos” (p.56) in the short term to further destabilize and weaken Russia. The Germans seemed to recognize that fomenting revolution was a dangerous idea, given that Germany had its own socialist revolutionaries at home. Lenin in any event arrived in Petrograd amidst the rumors of treachery and treason.

          Most socialists and many revolutionaries at that time, including some members of Lenin’s own Bolshevik party, regarded cooperation with the Provisional Government and bourgeois forces as necessary, at least on an interim basis. Lenin, however, never wavered in his categorical rejection of any compromise, coalition, or cooperation with the Provisional Government or any of the reform elements in Russia. Waiting for the bourgeoisie to turn into a revolutionary force was in Lenin’s view pointless.  The bourgeoisie was inalterably “bent on the defense of property, profit, and caste” (p.227).   Collusion with the Provisional Government would be the “death of socialism” (p.223).

            Scorning the Provisional Government, Lenin saw the key to revolution and subsequent governance of the country in a network of workers’ councils, known as “soviets,” led by the Petrograd Soviet. He rejected the conventional view that the Petrograd Soviet and its counterparts in provincial cities were simply workers’ educational councils designed not to compete with the Provisional Government for power. The soviet system which Lenin envisioned would not be a parliamentary republic, Lenin told his supporters, but rather a “Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom” (p.228). To defend against counter-revolutionary insurgencies, the new revolutionary state would need to be governed by what Lenin termed, in perhaps his most enduring phrase, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.195).

       Lenin further distinguished himself from other revolutionaries and reformers with his uncompromising stance on Russia’s unpopular war. By the time of his return to Petrograd, Russia had sustained nearly 5 million causalities, killed, missing or wounded, a far higher rate than any other belligerent. By some estimates, an additional 1.5 million soldiers had deserted. Arguments about the war had foiled all attempts at unity among the many anti-Tsarist factions. From the war’s outbreak in 1914, a major Russian objective had been to wrestle Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, away from the dying Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The aspiration for control of Constantinople’s shipping lanes along the Bosporus and Dardanelles survived the Tsar’s abdication.

        Many in the Provisional Government saw the quest for Constantinople as reason enough to remain in the war. Others on the left believed that a more modern, democratic Russia could deliver a quick deathblow to the Kaiser and German imperialism, especially with the United States now fighting alongside Russia and its Western allies.  Russia could then join with revolutionary elements in Germany in establishing a socialism that transcended national boundaries, a position sometimes termed “revolutionary defencism.”

      Lenin would have none of this.  He rejected even the slightest concession to proponents of “revolutionary defencism.” The present conflict, Lenin reminded his followers, “unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war” (p.227).  Bourgeois elements, he argued, “could never give up on war because their future was bound to it” (p.224). Lenin was no pacifist, however. Cessation of the capitalist and imperialist war among the great powers must be followed by transnational class warfare against capitalism itself.  Lenin forced these ideas upon his party, and in November 1917 forced them upon the country after he and his Bolshevik cohorts had ousted the Provisional Government in an armed insurgency.

* * *

        Although not detailing the events of the November 1917 insurgency, Merridale argues that Lenin succeeded in that fateful month because he had worn down his opposition by the “force of his conviction.  While others talked and traded exquisite concessions, picking their way along the path of revolution as if they were avoiding mines, Lenin knew where he wanted to go and he knew exactly why.  His energy was prodigious, and he wrote and argued tirelessly, repeating the same themes until his opponents wearied of concocting new rebuttals” (p.230).  Merridale’s book is neither a biography of Lenin nor a comprehensive account of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; there are plenty of works available on both subjects, including several that have come out during this centennial year of the 1917 Revolution.  But hers is an ideal choice for readers whose goal is to understand what drove Lenin, literally and figuratively, to reorder the course of history.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 6, 2017

 

7 Comments

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

Complementary Lives

Thomas Ricks, Churchill & Orwell:

The Fight For Freedom 

       Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like an unlikely pairing for a dual biography. They were of different generations — Churchill was born in 1874, Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903; they pursued different career paths, Churchill as a career politician par excellence, Orwell as a journalist and writer; and there is no record that they ever met.  In Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom, Thomas Ricks seeks to give a new twist to both men in a work that, in highly condensed form, emphasizes their complementary lives in the 1930s and 1940s.  Ricks, among the foremost contemporary writers on war, with a talent for explaining complex military operations without over-simplifying, contends that Churchill and Orwell “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” (p.3).

       Unlike most of their peers, Ricks argues, Churchill and Orwell recognized that the 20th century’s key question was “not who controlled the means of production, as Marx thought, or how the human psyche functioned, as Freud taught, but rather how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life” (p.3). The legacies of the two men were also complementary: Churchill’s wartime leadership “gave us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now” (p.5).

        Churchill and Orwell further shared an uncommon facility with language: each was able to articulate the challenges which 20th century democracy faced in robust, unflinching English prose.  Churchill was “intoxicated by language, reveling in the nuances and sounds of words” (p.11).  Orwell added several words and expressions to the English language, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” and had a distinct style in examining politics and culture that has become the “accepted manner of modern discussion of such issues” (p.262).

            Ricks identifies additional commonalities in the two men’s backgrounds.  Each had a privileged upbringing.  Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament.  Orwell’s father was a high level civil servant in India, where Orwell was born.  Neither felt close to his father.    Both attended “public schools,” upper class boarding schools, with Churchill’s father telling young Winston that he was just another of the “public school failures” (p.9).  Although Orwell once described his background as “lower upper middle class,” he attended Eton, England’s uppermost public school.  Each had experience in Britain’s far-flung empire: Orwell, who was born in India, spent a formative period in the 1920s in Burma as a policeman; Churchill had youthful adventures in India and the Sudan and served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902.  Orwell too had a brief stint as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

            There is even a mirror image similarity to the two men’s situations in the 1930s. Churchill was a man of the political right who was never fully trusted by his fellow conservatives, and had a nearly complete fallout with the Conservative Party over appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s.  Orwell was a conventional left-wing socialist until his experiences in the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the brutality and dogmatism that could be found on the political left. But their career trajectories moved in opposite directions during World War II and its aftermath. Churchill came off the political sidelines in the 1930s to peak as an inspirational politician and war leader in 1940 and 1941.  Thereafter, Ricks argues, he went into downward slide that never reversed itself.  Orwell remained an obscure, mid-level writer throughout World War II.  His career took off only after publication of his anti-Soviet parable  Animal Farm in 1945, followed four years later by his dystopian classic, 1984.  Orwell’s reputation as a seminal writer, Riggs emphasizes, was established mostly posthumously, after his death from tuberculosis at age 47 in 1950.

          But while Churchill and Orwell recognized the threat that totalitarian systems posed, their political visions were at best only partially overlapping.  The need to preserve the British Empire animated Churchill both during and after World War II, whereas Orwell found the notion of colonization abhorrent.   Orwell’s apprehensions about powerfully intrusive states also arising in the West most likely intrigued but did not consume Churchill. As long as Britain stayed out of Stalin’s clutches, it is unlikely that Churchill fretted much about it evolving into the bleak, all-controlling state Orwell described in 1984.  Ricks’ formulation of the common denominator of their political vision – the need to preserve individual liberty in the face of powerful state intrusions into private life – applies aptly to Orwell.  But the formulation seems less apt as applied to Churchill.

* * *

          Riggs’ dual biographical narrative begins to gather momentum with the 1930s, years that were  “horrible in many ways.”  With communism and fascism on the rise in Europe, and an economic depression spreading across the globe, there was a “growing sense that a new Dark Age was at hand” (p.45). But for Churchill, the 1930s constituted what he termed his “wilderness years,” which he spent mostly on the political sidelines.  By this time, he was considered somewhat of a crank within Conservative Party circles, “flighty, with more energy than judgment, immovable in his views but loose in party loyalties” (p.54).  He had spent much of the 1920s railing against the threat that Indian independence and the Soviet Union posed to Britain. In the 1930s he targeted an even more ominous menace: Adolph Hitler, whose Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. One reason that Churchill’s foreboding speeches on Germany were greeted with skepticism, Ricks notes, was that he had been “equally intense about the dangers of Indian independence” (p.47).

      Churchill’s fulminations against the Nazi regime were not what fellow Conservative Party members wanted to hear. Many British conservatives regarded Nazi Germany as a needed bulwark against the Bolshevik menace emanating from Moscow. Churchill’s rupture with Conservative party hierarchy seemed complete after the 1938 Munich accords, engineered by Conservative Party Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which dismembered the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.  For Churchill, Munich was a “disaster of the first making . . . the beginning of the reckoning” (p.60).  He issued what Ricks terms an “almost Biblical” warning about the consequences of Munich: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p.60).

            Orwell in the 1930s, still using his birth name Eric Blair for many purposes, was a “writer [and] minor author of mediocre novels that had not been selling well” (p.2-3).  Yet he had already discovered what Ricks terms his “core theme,” the abuse of power, a thread that “runs throughout all his writings, from his early works to the very end” (p.23).  When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. What Orwell saw during his seven months in Spain “would inform all his subsequent work,” Ricks writes. “There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984” (p.65).

         Orwell joined a unit known by the Spanish acronym POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers Party of Unified Marxism, which Ricks describes as a “far-left splinter group. . . vaguely Trotskyite,” politically most distinctive for being anti-Stalinist and thus “anathema to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party in Spain” (p.67).  The NKVD, the Russian spy agency deeply involved in Spain during the Civil War, targeted the Spanish POUM for liquidation. “When the crackdown on POUM came in the spring of 1937,” Ricks writes, “Orwell and his fellows would become marked men” (p.68).

          Orwell almost died in May 1937 when he was shot in the neck while fighting against Franco’s insurgents in Barcelona. He was evacuated to Britain to recuperate. While in Britain, the Spanish Communist Party officially charged Orwell and his wife with spying and treason.  During his recuperation, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia, his most noteworthy book to date, in which he hammered two main points: “The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right” (p.76).  Orwell “went to Spain to fight fascism,” Ricks writes, “but instead wound up being hunted by communists. This is the central fact of his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and indeed it is the key fact of his entire life” (p.44). In Spain, Orwell “developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor” (p.77).

          The Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Germany, executed in August 1939, in which the two powers agreed to divide much of Eastern Europe between them, was a “final moment of clarity” for Orwell. “From this point on, his target was the abuse of power in all its forms, but especially by the totalitarian state, whether left or right” (p.82).  The pact “had the effect on Orwell that the Munich Agreement had on Churchill eleven months earlier, confirming his fears and making him all the more determined to follow the dissident political course he was on, in defiance of his mainstream leftist comrades” (p.81).

          Churchill in Ricks’ interpretation peaked in the period beginning in May 1940, when he became Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe as the only force fighting Nazi tyranny. “These were the months in which Churchill became England’s symbolic rallying point” (p.110).  In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and, suddenly, Churchill’s nemesis from the 1920s was Britain’s ally.   “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Churchill told the British public in a radio broadcast.  “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” (p.142-43). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, just as suddenly Churchill had a second powerful ally.

           In a chapter on the fraught months between May 1940 and December 1941, entitled “Fighting the Germans, Reaching Out to the Americans,” Ricks analyzes Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister, still “good reading seventy-five years after their delivery” (p.110). He gives particular attention to Churchill’s speech to the United States Congress in late December 1941, in which the Prime Minister presented to representatives of his new wartime ally his vision of the Anglo-American partnership in wartime.  The address was what Ricks describes as a rhetorical “work of political genius . . . more than a speech, it was the diplomatic equivalent of a marriage proposal”(p.149-51).   But with that speech, Ricks argues, Churchill’s best days were already behind him.

            The 1943 meeting in Tehran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was a turning point for Churchill, the “first time Roosevelt began to act as if he held the senior role in the partnership. It was in Iran that Churchill realized that his dream of dominating a long-term Anglo-American alliance would not come to fruition” (p.169).  Churchill flew out of Tehran “in a black mood, anguished by the passing of British supremacy in the world. After that conference, his personality seemed to change. The dynamo of 1940 became the sluggard of 1944 – increasingly forgetful, less eloquent, and often terribly tired, napping more often and sleeping in late many mornings” (p 171).  Churchill was “off his game at the end of the war and after. The plain facts of British decline were becoming harder to ignore. Churchill’s oratory of this period ‘seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast’” (p.220), Ricks writes, quoting historian Simon Schama.

          As World War II loomed, Orwell was “seen as a minor and somewhat cranky writer” (p.82), now out of favor with many of his former allies on the political left.  He was not able to enlist in the army because of ill health.  Yet, World War II “energized” him as a writer. Although the war “seemed to knock fiction writing out of Orwell for several years. . . [i]n 1940 alone he produced more than one hundred pieces of journalism – articles, essays, and reviews” (p.127).  His writings showed consistently strong support for Churchill’s war leadership — Churchill was the “only Conservative Orwell seems to have admired” (p.129).

           Orwell joined the BBC’s Overseas Service in August 1941. “There, for more than two years, working on broadcasts to India, he engaged in the kind of propaganda that he spent much of his writing life denouncing,” putting himself “in an occupation that ran deeply against his grain” (p.143).  Orwell’s tenure at the BBC “intensified his distrust of state control of information” (p.145). During the war years, Orwell began work on Animal Farm, published in 1945 as the war ended.

           Animal Farm is a tale of “political violence and betrayal of ideals” (p.176), in which the pigs lead other farm animals in a revolt against their human masters, only to become themselves enslavers. In Animal Farm, the pigs “steadily revise the rules of the farm to their own advantage, and along with it their accounts of the history of farm.”  A single sentence from the book — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” — may be Orwell’s most lasting contribution to modern thought about totalitarianism.  Animal Farm foreshadows the concern that dominated 1984, that controlling the past as well as the present and future, was an “essential aspect of total state control” (p.178-79).

        Orwell was dying of tuberculosis with just seven months to live when 1984 was published in June 1949 (Orwell apparently chose his title by reversing the digits “4” and “8” of 1948, the year he finished the work). The 1943 Tehran conference influenced the world that Orwell described in 1984, consisting of three totalitarian super states, Oceania, Eastasia, and Euroasia, with England reduced to “Airstrip One.” The novel’s hero is a “miserable middle-aged Englishman” (p.225) named Winston Smith. It is unclear whether Orwell’s selection of the name had any relationship to Churchill. Riggs points out that Winston Smith’s life in England bore far more similarities to Orwell’s life than to that of Churchill.

           Smith’s world is one of universal surveillance, where the state’s watchword is “Big Brother is Watching You,” and the ruling party’s slogan’s are “”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”  Objective reality “does not exist or at least is deemed to be illegal by the all-seeing state” (p.226).  Smith’s most significant act is “simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible” (p.226-27).  At a time when Churchill was warning the post-war world that the Soviet Union had erected an Iron Curtain across Europe, 1984 was driven by Orwell’s concern that powerful states on both sides of the curtain would not only forbid people to express certain thought but would also tell them what to think.

          The immediate reaction to both Animal Farm and 1984 was middling at best. It was not until after Orwell’s death in 1950 that the two works attracted worldwide attention and made the former Eric Blair a familiar household name. How Orwell’s reputation took off after his death constitutes a major portion of Ricks’ treatment of Orwell.  Based upon references, allusions, and tributes appearing daily in the media around the world, Ricks concludes, Orwell is a “contemporary figure in our culture. In recent years, he may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence. It has been one of the most extraordinary posthumous performances in British literary history” (p.245).

         While Orwell in 1984 “looked forward with horror,” Churchill spent the post war years working on his war memoirs, “looking back in triumph” (p.221).  Ricks provides an extensive analysis of those memoirs.   Orwell’s last published article was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second of the Churchill war memoirs. Orwell concluded his review by describing Churchill’s writings as “more like those of a human being than of a public figure” (p.233), high praise from the dying man.  There is no indication that Churchill ever read Animal Farm, but he may have read 1984 twice.

* * *

          The Fight for Freedom is not a dual biography based on parallelism between two men’s lives, unlike  Allan Bullock’s masterful Parallel Lives, Hitler and Stalin. Nor is there quite the parallelism in Churchill and Orwell’s political visions that Ricks assumes.  Other factors add a strained quality to The Fight for Freedom.  Numerous digressions fit awkwardly into the narrative: e.g., Margaret Thatcher as “Churchill’s rightful political heir” (p.142); Tony Blair trying to be Churchillian as he took the country into the Iraq war; Martin Luther King forcing Americans to confront the realities of racial discrimination; and Keith Richards defending his dissipated life style by pointing to Churchill’s fondness for alcohol.  There is also a heavy reliance upon other writers’ assessments of the two men. The text thus reads at points like a Ph.D. dissertation or college term paper, with a “cut and paste” feel.  Then there are many Orwell quotations that, Ricks tells us, could have been written by Churchill; and Churchill quotations that could have come from Orwell’s pen. All this suggests that the threads linking the two men may be too thin to be stretched into a coherent narrative, even by a writer as skilled as Thomas Ricks.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, European History, History, Language, Political Theory, Politics

Women Pressing For Seditious Ideas

 

Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free:

My Fight for Human Rights in Iran 

 

Manal Al-Sharif, Daring to Drive:

A Saudi Woman’s Awakening 

             Anyone with an elementary understanding of today’s world knows that there is a major geopolitical tug of war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers competing for influence across the Middle East.  That same anyone knows that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent home bases for the two major branches of contemporary Islam: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.  And of course our anyone knows that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is considered to be among the world’s rogue nations, a member of an “axis of evil,’ to use President George W. Bush’s memorable phrase.  Iran is the seat of the ancient and venerable Persian Empire; it became known officially as Iran only in the 1930s.  Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, was carved out of vast tribal areas in the 1930s. Iran shocked the world in 1979 when it overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi to establish what is formally known as the Islamic Republic, where ultimate power rests in the hands of a theocratic Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House of Saud, the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12), to quote from Karen House’s incisive study of Saudi Arabia, reviewed here in October 2014.

          Within the last year, a woman from each published a noteworthy memoir detailing her struggle on behalf of human rights in her country: Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran; and Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.  Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for her human rights work in Iran, especially on behalf of women, children and refugees. She was both the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the coveted award – and later became the first recipient to have her medal confiscated by the state.  Al-Sharif won international acclaim in 2011 for leading a campaign in Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive. That campaign landed the divorced single mother in a Saudi jail, arrested for what Saudi authorities termed, with no sense of irony, “driving while female.”  Just last month, the Saudi government announced that women will be immediately eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses, and will actually be permitted to drive on Saudi roads a mere nine months hence, in June 2018.

        The two authors are a generation apart: Ebadi was born in 1947, al-Sharif in 1979.  But they have much in common. Each is a devout, practicing Muslim. Throughout as-Sharif’s memoir, references to the Prophet Muhammad are invariably followed by PBUH in parenthesis, “peace be unto him.” Each has a deep love for her home country. “The story of Iran is the story of my life,” Ebadi writes at the outset of her memoir. “I am so attached to my country. . . [and] feel a duty to my nation that outweighs everything else” (p.3).  Al-Sharif expresses similar sentiments throughout her memoir.  Yet, today both live in exile far from home, Ebadi in Great Britain, al-Sharif in Australia.

        The two memoirs are of almost identical length. Although they tell very different stories, each author must confront the inescapable reality that in her home country, religion and the state are inextricably intertwined.  Shite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia may be fierce geopolitical rivals, with religious clerics in each dismissing the other’s brand of Islam as heretical.  But in both countries, Islamic law, norms and customs are the touchstone for governance, with individual rights and the rule of law brutally subordinated to perceived national interests.  Neither offers a hospitable environment for resourceful, independent women pressing for seditious ideas like human rights and full equality for all citizens.

* * *

          During the regime of Shah Pahlavi, Shirin Ebadi became a high-ranking judge in Iran, one of the country’s few female judges, even though she had opposed the regime.  Initially a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Ebadi quickly ran afoul of the new, radical Shiite regime. When ruling clerics determined that Islam prohibits women from serving as judges, she was stripped of her judgeship and demoted to the position of court clerk.  She then embarked on a far more perilous career course as a human rights lawyer, a niche within the legal profession which, to put it mildly, was destined to displease Iranian authorities.

          Ebadi used the money from her Nobel prize to found the Defenders of Human Rights Center, a focal point for work on human rights within Iran.  She led a movement to remove landmines remaining from Iran’s eight-year war with Iran, and to provide assistance to victims injured by the mines; she defended religious minorities facing discrimination in the fiercely Shiite republic: and she helped organize a movement termed the One Million Signature campaign, which focused on demonstrating how Iranian laws hurt women of all social classes and religious beliefs.  Her memoir gains momentum when one of its two major villains, Mohammed Ahmadinejad, was first elected president in 2005.

           Ahmadinejad freely used and abused religion to consolidate power. He unleashed religious extremists who filled the ranks of the state’s voluntary militias, “encouraging their most intolerant attitudes and giving them subtle signals that should they wish to punish those who deviated from their strict view of Islam, the state would not get in their way” (p.59). These extremists broke up anti-state lectures, set up check points to harass youth listening to Western music in their cars, and raided private parties where people might have been daring to have fun. At some point during Ahmadinejad’s first term, Ebadi went from being a thorn in the government’s side to what it considered an enemy of the state, part of a global conspiracy to undermine the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

           The task of following Ebadi and seeking to silence her fell to the memoir’s other major villain, Mr. Mahmudi, a particularly enterprising intelligence agent.  Mahmudi began watching Ebadi’s every move with an obsession that never waned. Because she was too visible and too powerful for the state to target directly, Mahmudi and his colleagues systematically undercut all the constituent pieces of her professional and personal life.  Hounded by Mahmudi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center was forced to shut down, closing the “main intellectual and social hub for those in Tehran working on civic activism” (p.103).

             When state authorities took away her daughter’s passport, it became clear to Ebadi that the state had started going after her family. “It wasn’t just content with me anymore. I had witnessed this over the years with many of my clients, dissidents and activists whose relatives suffered state intimidation, were hassled and threatened and sometimes blackmailed or imprisoned, all ‘collateral damage’ in the quest to get the original target – the dissident or activist or journalist in question – to drop their activities. It was the dirtiest of the methods the security agencies used, exploiting these families and their emotional ties” (p.126).

            The 2009 presidential election, pitting Ahmadinejad against reform candidate Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and one other candidate, proved to be a fateful turning point for Ebadi. Ahmadinejad’s popularity prior to the elections had “sunk abysmally; Iranians widely reviled him for ruining the economy and for the repressiveness of his rule” (p.131). Mousavi seemed to have a genuine chance to replace Ahmadinejad.  Yet, in an election widely considered to have been plagued with irregularities, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner after the first round with 62% of the vote.   Huge numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest the results.

           Ebadi happened to be in Majorca at a conference in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Her husband and professional colleagues counseled against her returning to Tehran amidst the civil unrest and ensuing government crackdown.  As the crackdown continued, Ebadi came to the realization that should she return to her native country, her passport would surely be confiscated, she would likely be jailed, and perhaps even executed.  She therefore elected to stay abroad, relocating to London with her daughter, who had taken a job there.  But the attempts of Mr. Mahmudi and fellow state intelligence agents to destroy Ebadi intensified rather than diminished while she was out of the country.

          Most heartbreakingly, her husband of more than thirty years was the victim of a state sexual blackmail plot to place him in a compromised position with another woman, a former girlfriend prior to his marriage to Ebadi. The plot marked the beginning to the breakup of what had been a solid, loving relationship.  Disappointed that her husband had succumbed to the state-manufactured temptation, Ebadi writes that she was “even more furious, more floored, by the depth of evil of the intelligence agents. Their malice and cunning truly had no limit: they were prepared to do anything – crush people’s children, their marriage – to achieve their ends.”  She asked herself, “How much could they take away from one person? They had taken my judgeship, my entire life’s ambition; when I resurrected myself and built a human rights center, they took that too; with their violence and electoral fraud, I had lost my homeland.  And now they had tried to take away my husband” (p.166-67).

        Iranian tax authorities subsequently reinterpreted Iranian law to conclude that Ebadi owed taxes on her Nobel Prize, a matter that seemed clearly settled at the time the prize was awarded. This required Ebadi to sell what seems like a very comfortable Tehran apartment to pay back taxes, along with a rural property her family was particularly attached to. The amounts generated by the sale of the properties proved insufficient to satisfy the tax claims, and Ebadi became a formal debtor to the Islamic Republic. The secure family life Ebadi had known in Tehran was thus shattered beyond repair. She was hopelessly in debt to the state for alleged back taxes; she separated and then divorced her husband after 30 plus years of marriage; and state authorities briefly confiscated her Nobel medal, until the international outcry forced them to return it to her family.

            In London, Ebadi became active in the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights, supporting pro-democracy elements in Iran by working with other lawyers who had left Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 protests. The memoir ends with Ebadi in Britain, afraid that the intelligence services will target her directly for assassination there, something they had not quite dared to do directly while she was in Iran.  To this day, Ebadi has not returned to Iran.

        Although Ebadi’s memoir lacks detail on precisely why state intelligence services concluded that she was an enemy of the Islamic revolution, her outspokenness as an independent woman was clearly an affront to state authorities. Whether the state would have been quite so ferociously persistent with a male civil rights lawyer is left to the reader’s speculation, but the overall thrust of the 1979 Islamic Revolution has plainly been to try to redefine the status of women. Somehow, Ebadi emphasizes, Iran was able to retain a “burgeoning, vibrant women’s movement. . . [which] had managed to flourish, despite Ahmadinejad’s emergence” (p.68-69).  Literacy among Iranian girls and young women is nearly 99 percent, she indicates, and women make up over 60 percent of all university students.  “[I]f you walk the streets of any Iranian city at rush hour, you will see women streaming out of workplaces, boarding buses and subways alongside men. They are an active, engaged part of public life and they increasingly often serve as primary breadwinners in their households” (p.264).

        Iran has long suffered from honor killings, forced marriages, and domestic violence although, Ebadi notes, with “far less severity than many of its neighbors” (p.264). But the legal structure of the Islamic Republic, based on medieval interpretations of sharia law, “enshrines gender discrimination and violent punishments, including lashing and stoning . . . Iran remains a country where a man can marry up to four wives, where women face enormous challenges securing a divorce, and where a married woman cannot travel without the written permission of her husband.   The list of discriminatory laws that are unfit for Iran’s modern society is long” (p.254-55).  Ahmadinejad “singlehandedly snuffed out [Iran’s] women’s movement and, most dangerously . . . renormalized the idea that women should be open targets for the state and ordinary Iranians alike” (p.263).

           Consequently, the climate for women in contemporary Iran is “deteriorating by the day” (p.262).  Women can no longer work in Tehran’s cafés and restaurants; female musicians are no longer permitted to perform onstage; and female civil servants in Tehran are no longer permitted to work along side men, on the theory that “women working long hours outside the home in the company of male colleagues undermined family life” (p.262). Ahmadinejad instituted gender quotas in state universities, “making it impossible for women to study physics, chemistry, and tens of other subjects” (p.260).  In 2014, authorities in Tehran forbade women from watching the World Cup in public cinemas and cafés, particularly disappointing for young people. These moves were “part of a stealthy segregation plan, deployed piecemeal over time in and across different spheres, that threatened to remake public life in Iran and push women, who participated vibrantly despite the state’s myriad restrictions, to the margins” (p.262).  Treatment of women in Iran thus seems to be headed in a direction similar to that so firmly entrenched in its bitter geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia.

* * *

          Manal al-Sharif’s memoir makes clear that the interdiction against driving is but one example of the almost unimaginable control and subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women need permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports, enroll in school, sign contracts, or undergo medical procedures. Most public places, such as parks, beaches, and buses, are rigidly segregated, and public schools are both separate and blatantly unequal. In 2002, fifteen girls died inside a segregated girl’s middle school. The religious police, al-Sharif recounts, barred the girls from exiting through the front door because they were not following proper Islamic dress code. “When the school door was opened and they were finally carried out, it was as charred corpses” (p.66).  At another point in her memoir, al-Sharif describes how she was not allowed to board a public bus because she did not have a male guardian accompanying her. At that point, I screamed to anyone within earshot, using my most profane language, “At least they let Rosa Parks onto the bus, for crying out loud.”

            Yet, in a country ostensibly seeking to modernize, the Saudi ban on women driving stands out as both wildly inefficient and absurdly contradictory. Unless a husband or male family member is available, it requires women to rely upon a male taxi or hired driver for every trip of daily life, such as shopping, commuting to work or taking children to school, not to mention emergency trips to the hospital. Moreover, as al-Sharif points out:

[A] society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone (p.10).

            But al-Sharif’s memoir is about far more than her campaign to allow women to drive.  After beginning with her arrest and time in a Saudi women’s prison, it shifts back to tell her life story before finishing by focusing again on the driving campaign. Her story delivers powerful insight into the challenges of Saudi life, particularly for young and intelligent women.

         Al-Sharif grew up in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in sub-standard housing, without running water or a telephone. Her mother, born and raised in Egypt, attained only a fourth grade education. Her father was an illiterate Saudi taxi driver. Beatings were a regular part of her family upbringing, mostly by her father, occasionally by her mother. Her mother had a fiery temperament and late in life was diagnosed as a likely bipolar schizophrenic. Yet, she also had an uncommon belief in the value of education for her children, and instilled in al-Sharif a thirst for learning.  Al-Sharif excelled at the girls’ schools she attended.

            In one of the book’s most difficult passages, al-Sharif describes in gut-wrenching terms how she was “circumcised” at age 8, subject to female genital mutilation, a practice designed to protect girls from “‘deviant’ behavior by “removing her desire for sex” (p.57). It was a trauma from which she never fully recovered.  A few years later, when al-Sharif told her cousins about her first menstrual period, they “informed me that I could no longer talk to my male cousins, let alone play with them. If one of my male cousins wanted to a walk past where I was sitting, or even enter the house while I was there, I had to first be hidden out of sight” (p.88).  Saudi females, al-Sharif indicates, pass through two stages in their lives. “First, as young girls, they are supervised and monitored; then, as adult women, they are controlled and judged. Their first menstrual cycle is the abrupt turning point. There is no transition into adolescence” (p.89).

          Al-Sharif further complicated her adolescence through a religious conversion that lasted into her early 20s, becoming an ultra-devout, practicing Salafi Muslim. Even by Saudi standards, she stood out for her religiosity, upbraiding family and friends when they were insufficiently observant.  Although she had previously been “crazy over books” (p.73), she abandoned all but religious reading and urged her brother to give up his interest in decadent Western popular music.  At the heart of the Salafi religious ideology, al-Sharif writes, is a “deep belief in Hell,” which led her to an “all-consuming fear that I, as a Muslim, wouldn’t reach the level of righteousness and devotion required to escape condemnation from the eternal hellfires” (p.96).  But the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, led by young Saudi men of her age, transformed her religious convictions. “I could not believe that God would demand the killing of innocent people,” she writes. “I was done with Salafism” (p.133-34).

         After completing university, al-Sharif landed a job as a computer security specialist at Armaco, once Standard Oil’s Saudi outlet, today owned by the Saudi government. But Armaco remains a state within the state, as it as been since its beginnings in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Its huge compound, which al-Sharif compares to a “perfect Southern California town” (p.3), was set up to make Saudi Arabia more inviting to expatriate Armaco workers, with housing, shopping and amenities that are unavailable within the rest of the kingdom. Even though the Saudi state now runs Armaco, many of the severe norms and mores of Saudi life do not apply on its compound. For starters, men and women work together in the compound, side by side. Imagine that.

           While working at Armaco, al-Sharif met the man she would marry – and later divorce. Al-Sharif’s account of her courtship is a Saudi version of a more universal eye-on-the-guy tale.  She developed a mad crush on a man she had only seen briefly at work and knew almost not at all.  Somehow, they met and courted in a way that was well at odds with Saudi norms, not least because it was conducted without the initial approval of either family – for a while, without even the knowledge of the families.   But later, both families were brought on board and gave the relationship their blessing.  Al-Sharif and the young man married and had a child together. But they did not live happily ever after.

          Her husband proved to be more traditional than al-Sharif had anticipated in his views of the proper role for a married woman; by Western standards, he was plainly abusive. When the marriage broke apart, al-Sharif was able to maintain something akin to custody over her son. But she had to give him up when Armaco sent her to study in the United States.  Al-Sharif spent a year in New Hampshire, where she learned to drive and obtained not only a driver’s license but also a rental car, paid for by Armaco. It was “no small irony,” she writes, “to think that Saudi Arabia’s largest company was openly paying for a Saudi woman to drive abroad” (p.199).

           Al-Sharif’s year in the United States and her driving experiences there emboldened her.  Upon return to Saudi Arabia, she became active in a group termed Women2Drive, which used Facebook and other social media to attract potential women drivers. Women2Drive followed a 1990 Saudi women drivers’ protest, in which 47 women had driven on city streets for about one-half hour. That protest “stalked them for the rest of their lives” (p.210). The women and their husbands were banned from foreign travel; those who held government jobs were fired; and all became targets of religious condemnation, “denounced as immoral vixens, boldly seeking to destroy Saudi society” (p.210).

          In 2011, the comments on the Women2Drive Facebook page, mostly left by men, were “menacing, saying very directly that our campaign was designed to corrupt young girls and that we were ‘betraying Islam’” (p.214). Al-Sharif nonetheless “clung to the belief that if I could just show Saudi society that no harm would come if a woman drove, many of the other issues surrounding the campaign would simply vanish” (p.221).  She studied the Saudi traffic codes and other relevant legal instruments and concluded that there was no formal legal interdiction against women driving; it was simply a matter of custom.

         In preparation for Women2Drive’s national driving campaign, al-Sharif allowed herself to be filmed driving, with the intention of posting the film on YouTube. She describes her mixed feelings of fear and fearlessness as she pulled out behind the wheel onto a Saudi road in the town of Khobar:

My heart began to beat faster as I turned the key, heard the engine catch, put my foot on the brake, and switched the car into reverse. My decision to drive had been made in a moment of anger, but now I felt pure calm rise up inside me. I was committed to driving because I was convinced, after having read and understood the traffic code, that there was nothing actually forbidding me from doing so (p.224-25).

           Shortly thereafter, however, in the middle of the night, Saudi authorities came to her house to arrest her. She spent nearly two weeks in a Saudi women’s prison, not a pleasant place for women transgressors of Saudi custom and order.  Her imprisonment attracted huge attention within Saudi Arabia and internationally.  The Saudi press accused her of operating as a traitor and spy on behalf of foreign enemies.  Saudi religious clerics denounced her for blasphemy and for seeking to destroy Islam, describing her as a whore.  She was released from prison when her father, two of his cousins, and their tribal chief traveled to the Royal Palace to meet 86-year-old King Abdullah.  Although the King made no commitments at their meeting, al-Sharif was released later that day. By this time, she had become an international celebrity.

          Al-Sharif was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2011 and received the Oslo Freedom Forum’s first Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She resigned from Armaco when it refused to allow her to travel to Oslo to accept the award.  Notwithstanding her international celebrity status, official Saudi Arabia gave no ground on the issue of women driving. The government endorsed a report in the fall of 2011 warning that if women were allowed to drive, “prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce would ‘surge,’” and “within ten years, there would be no more virgins” in Saudi Arabia (p.270).

         When death threats against her became too ominous, al-Sharif fled Saudi Arabia for Dubai with her new husband, a Brazilian national whom she had met at Armaco.  She left without her son, whom she had to leave in the custody of her first husband.  In 2014, she gave birth to a second son. She lives today in Sydney, Australia, where her second husband relocated for his work, but returns periodically to Saudi Arabia to see her son from her first marriage.

* * *

          Only the most hard-hearted readers will fail to be stirred by these two valiant women and their stories of overcoming oppression and resisting the bullying of religious and state authorities.  But each has been forced into exile, required to work for change from outside her home country.  Although women behind the wheel may be commonplace in Saudi Arabia by this time next year, I finished the two memoirs thinking that women in both countries seeking full rights as citizens still have a long, uphill drive ahead of them.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bayonne, France

October 24, 2017

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, History, Middle Eastern History, Religion

Exuberance That Failed to Last

Robert Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil,

From Tahrir Square to ISIS 

            The upheaval known as the Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian street fruit vendor, Muhammed Bouazizi, doused his body with gasoline and burned himself.  The 26-year old had been distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit. Pro-democracy protests throughout Tunisia began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Bouazizi died 18 days later, on January 4, 2011. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned the office he had held since 1987.

          In less than two weeks, pro-democracy demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, took place on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  On February 11, 2011, Mubarak too resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and Yemen. On March 14, 2011, similar protests began in Syria.  Before the end of the year, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of North Yemen since 1978 and of Yemen since the North’s merger with South Yemen in 1990, had been forced to resign; and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who had ruled Libya since 1969, was driven from office and shot by rebels. Of the region’s autocrats, only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, and his days too appeared numbered.

           The era of dictators and despots was over in the Middle East, or so it seemed. The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats prompted many exuberant souls, myself included, to permit themselves to believe that finally, at last, democracy had broken through in the Middle East.  Some went so far as to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.

          But, as we now know, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and giddiness of that year have turned to despair. Egypt’s democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi, was deposed by a military coup and the current government seems as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak. Assad holds on to power in Syria amidst a ruinous civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands lives and shows few signs of abating.  Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs. Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of an enduring democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

         For those wondering how such high initial hopes could have been so thoroughly dashed, and for those simply seeking to better their understanding of what happened, Robert Worth’s A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS, should be prescribed reading. A former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, Worth takes his readers on a personally guided country-by-country tour of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, places that seemed so promising in early 2011, with roughly half the book devoted to Egypt.  As his title indicates, Worth also addresses the rise of ISIS to become what he terms the “great menace of a new age . . . capable of inspiring people as far away as France or even California to murder in the name of God” (p.231).

        Not least among the many virtues of Worth’s perspective upon the various iterations of the Arab Spring is that he does not seek to wrap them into a grandiose overall theory that would explain how the hopeful vision of 2011 unraveled. Although the early message of the Arab Spring now “appears to have been wholly reversed,” Worth writes, each country he treats “fell apart in its own way” (p.4).   Worth focuses on the indigenous forces that propelled the uprisings of 2011, rather than the “mostly secondary” (p.12) role of the United States and European powers. His book is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the Arab Spring but rather, as he puts it, a “much more selective effort to make sense of the fallout”(p.12). He argues that the Arab world had “never built a peaceful model for political succession” and that the pro-democracy activists of 2011 were “spectacularly unprepared for upheaval” (p.8).

      Worth’s perspective sustains its momentum through personal stories of  individuals who experienced the Arab Spring, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Hochschild’s account of the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts, reviewed here last month. But unlike Hochschild, Worth portrays men and women he had met and worked with: his professional contacts, acquaintances and, in some cases, personal friends. Their stories humanize the regional upheaval, underscoring its complex and tragic character.

* * *

         Worth was present almost from the beginning of the January 2011 anti-Mubarak demonstrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and he writes about them more as a participant than as a journalist observer. He recounts his experience through the eyes of Pierre Siaufi, a 49 year old, 300 pound “slacker and bohemian . . . a benevolent Arab version of Allen Ginsberg” (p.17-18). Siaufi turned his disheveled apartment near Tahrir Square into “ground zero,” the nerve center of the largely leaderless anti-Mubarak protests.  The demonstrators included groups and classes that had previously viewed one another with distrust: Facebook and social media savvy youth, middle class liberals and intellectuals, secularists, Christians and Muslims – including the long suppressed Muslim Brotherhood – even, Worth notes, street vendors from Cairo’s slums and some notorious soccer hooligans.

          For a short period, the unlikely grouping on Tahirir Square seemed almost impossibly united:

There was an emotion in the air that encompassed all of us, made us feel we’d shed our old skins and the past was irrelevant . . . [There was] a sudden shift in perspective, as if Earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along. The tyrant, once vast and august, was now revealed as a laughable old fool . . . Most of all, there was the passionate insistence that the revolution would triumph, that justice would replace injustice, that the country’s problems – its sectarian hatreds, its corruption, its terrorist gangs – were all artificial, trumped up, the cynical props of the old regime. All of it would fade away now that the people were empowered (p.19-20).

Yet Worth’s gut feeling was that this exuberance could not last. He summarizes in italics the views of those around him, which seem to be his own as well: “I know these things are not true. But perhaps, if we will them with enough conviction, they will come true someday” (p.20).

      Worth’s gut proved right. The heady moment on February 11, 2011, when Mubarak stepped aside, led to an Islamic ascendancy, resulting in the election and disastrous presidency of Muhammad Morsi.  Morsi represented Egypt’s infuriatingly complex Muslim Brotherhood, a “religious movement seeking democracy” but including a “more secretive element – with radical spin-offs – bent on implementing Islamic law” (p.132). Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood operated in a “legal shadowland” (p.132), subject to periodic mass arrests.

         After Mubarak’s resignation, the Brotherhood indicated that it would not proffer a candidate for president. But with unexpected success in parliamentary elections in late 2011, it reversed itself.  Morsi, a stubborn organization man with few political skills, was elected president in June 2012. Worth contrasts Morsi with Brotherhood member Muhammad Beltagy, a thoughtful medical doctor in Cairo’s slums, with skills at mediation and conciliation far exceeding those of Morsi.  Beltagy “always looked as if he’d been up all night negotiating a truce and emerged victorious at dawn” (p.128), Worth writes. He suggests that Beltagy might well have avoided the catastrophic consequences of the Morsi presidency had he been willing to serve.

          A decree which Morsi issued in November 2012, granting him broad powers above the courts as the “guardian of the revolution,” precipitated large scale protests and set the stage for the bloody military coup orchestrated by General Abdelfattah al Sisi that deposed Morsi in July 2013, with the support of many secularists and liberals who had previously joined with the Brotherhood in opposing Mubarak. Once in power, Sisi brutally suppressed pro-Islamist demonstrations and arrested most of the Brotherhood leadership.  Almost overnight, the Brotherhood went from the “summit of power to the status of a terrorist group” (p.167). Many Brotherhood members fled the country, with some joining ISIS to fight in Syria and Libya. Beltagy’s daughter was killed in one of the demonstrations and Beltagy found himself jailed and sentenced to death under the military regime.

        Worth places responsibility for the failure of Egypt’s democratically elected government squarely upon Morsi and his “pigheadedness” (p.152), which alienated even his own cabinet ministers.  When faced with organized opposition to his regime, Morsi “sounded as brittle and intransigent as any ancient regime tyrant. He blamed it all on a ‘fifth column’ and refused to give any ground. He wrapped himself in the flag just as Mubarak had, warning against hired thugs and saboteurs, never acknowledging the depth of the anger he had provoked” (p.147).

* * *

         By mid-2011, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring had begun, appeared to be heading in the same calamitous direction as Egypt. In the first parliamentary elections since the uprising, Ennahda, an Islamist party led by Rached Ghannouchi, won a plurality of seats. As in Egypt, the Islamist ascendancy in Tunisia caused alarm throughout the country. But Ghannouchi was the polar opposite of Egypt’s Morsi, a “philosopher-king” (p.207) within Tunisia’s Islamist movement who had lived abroad, spoke several languages, and was reluctant to demonize his political opponents.  In August 2013, Ghannouchi began meeting secretly in Paris with the primary opposition leader, Beji Caid Essebsi.

          Essebsi was Tunisia’s “ remaining elder statesman” (p.200), a rigorous secularist who had served as Interior Minister under Ben Ali’s predecessor, Tunisia’s post-World War II anti-colonialist leader Habib Bourguiba.  Worth provides an affecting fly-on-the-wall account of the discussions between Tunisia’s “two grand old men” (p.221) — Ghannouchi was then 72, Essebsi 86. Although from opposite ends of the social spectrum and opposite sides of Tunisia’s sectarian divide, Ghannouchi and Essebsi found common ground and a way forward. By September 2013, they agreed that Ennahda would cede power to a caretaker government, while a new constitution could be considered.

          In January 2014, Ennahada suffered major loses in parliamentary elections, with Essebsi’s secularist party winning a parliamentary majority. Essebsi was elected president and formed a coalition government with Ennahda. Two deadly terrorist attacks later in 2014 all but destroyed Tunisia’s critical tourist industry and threatened the coalition government, which bent but did not break. By mid-2015, the coalition government was “coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate” (p.221).

          The legacy to be granted to Tunisia’s two grand old men, Ghannouchi and Essebsi, remains to be determined, Worth concludes: “The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015” (p.221). But, five years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s death had set the Arab Spring in motion, most Tunisians “still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built” (p.221).

* * *

            Protests against Yemen’s leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in the summer of 2010, but gained momentum after the events in Tunisia and Egypt in the winter of 2011.  Saleh was a ruler who, as Worth puts it, brought corruption and manipulation to a “whole new level of cynicism and mastery” (p.98). In the Arab world’s poorest country, he managed to “rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family” (p.98), becoming richer than Hosni Mubarak. Elevating blackmail into a “tool of the state,” Saleh’s greatest talent was for “corrupting other people . . . He made sure that every potential opponent had dirty money or blood on his hands, or both” (p.98-99).

         By June 2011, anti-Saleh rebels had captured large portions of the country. When Saleh himself was injured in a bombing at a mosque, he fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving the country rudderless.  In November, he officially resigned his office in exchange for a diplomatically brokered agreement providing him with immunity from prosecution. But the agreement failed to end the fighting among tribal factions. Tribal warfare, “widely viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran” (p.240), continues to this day. Worth tells the story of Yemen through the eyes of Saeed, a grizzled and battered activist who had been fighting the Yemeni regime for four decades and provides the book’s best single line quotation. “I don’t want an Islamic state, I don’t want a Socialist state, I don’t want a one-party state,” Saeed said. “I just want a modern state” — which Worth defines as a “state where citizenship meant something, where the rule of law was respected” (p.100).  Yemen is not there yet.

* * *

            Protests against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya began on February 15, 2011, four days after Mubarak’s fall. The protestors were “met with truncheons, and then with bullets; they picked up weapons almost at once” (p.38-39). Within days, the rebels had driven Qaddafi’s forces out and laid claim to almost half the country. By August 2011, Qaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli. He was captured and killed in October 2011. In a country where clan solidarity and the tradition of blood feuds run deep, Qaddafi left his countrymen with a void: “no army, no police, no unions, nothing to bring them together” (p.38).  ISIS filled part of the void, founding a mini-state in portions of the country, amidst a civil war between competing militias that Worth describes as “so fragmented and mercurial that it defied all efforts to distill a larger meaning” (p.226-27). Libya had become an “archipelago of feuding warlords” (p.38).

* * *

          With Saleh’s resignation and Quaddafi’s death, Syria’s Bashar Assad was — and remains to this day — the last tyrant still standing, with a shaky hold on power amidst a civil war that has destroyed his country and produced one of the 21st century’s most severe humanitarian crisis.  Anti-Assad demonstrations in Syria began after both Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia had been forced out of office, but was triggered by police mistreatment of teenagers arrested in the southern Syrian town of Daraa for writing antigovernment graffiti. Assad determined early on that he would not go down as easily as his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts.

       Worth presents the sectarian underpinnings to Syria’s civil war through the pairing of two bright women, both in their 20s from opposite sides of the country’s sectarian divide: Naura Kanafani, a Sunni Muslim; and her long-time best friend Aliaa Ali, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and supporter of fellow Alawite Assad.  Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, approximately 70% of its population, looks down on the impoverished Alawais as heretics and crude mountain people, Worth explains. But Assad’s father, Alawi military officer Hafez al Assad, became Syria’s autocrat-in-charge in 1971. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, described by Worth as “tall and angular. . . with a birdlike watchfulness and an elongated neck and head that made him look as if he’d been painted by El Greco” (p.67), succeeded him.

          Bashar responded to the March 2011 protests by unleashing his “foot soldiers,” essentially Alawi thugs from the mountains, to counter the protesters. By the end of 2011, forces loyal to Assad were “using tanks and fighter jets to pound whole neighborhoods to rubble. . . [They were] massacring Sunni civilians in the their homes and leaving scrawled sectarian slogans on the doors” (p.68). Best friends Naura and Aliaa, for whom religious differences had previously been irrelevant, began to see the same events differently. Naura was aghast that the regime appeared to be killing innocent people wantonly, while Aliaa attributed such reports to “fake news.” Little by little, Naura and Aliaa began to define each other as the enemy. Their prior friendship “belonged to a world that no longer made sense” (p.95).

          Throughout 2012, the Syrian conflict “spun outward. . . drawing in almost every country in the region and many beyond it” (p.86). The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and Shiite Iran supported Assad, with Russian backing. ISIS came into its own in Syria fighting Assad, and seized control of substantial portions of Syrian territory. Western-backed factions also fought Assad, finding themselves uncomfortably on the same side as ISIS. The first wave of anti-Assad rebels, the “urban young men and women who spoke of democracy,” gave way to “legions of young zealots who slipped across the border with holy war and martyrdom and on their minds” (p.80). These zealous migrants, including eager volunteers for suicide missions, helped ISIS become what Worth terms the “most powerful jihadi group in history” (p.175).

      In mid-2013, Worth returned to Syria, where he had previously spent considerable time and nurtured numerous contacts.  This time he barely recognized the country. “Half the country was behind rebel lines, in a zone where Western hostages were bought and sold and beheaded. Most of my Syrian friends had fled and were living in Europe or Beirut or Dubai” (p.87). By the end of 2014, the death toll in Syria exceeded 200,000, with huge waves of migration out of Syria, making their way through Turkey on “rickety boats to Greece and onward to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany” (p.230). As a Sunni Muslim, Naura Kanafani was among the hundreds of thousands forced to flee Syria, escaping into Turkey on foot with her mother.

* * *

         Readers convinced that democracy cannot take hold and flourish in the Arab world – or in the Middle East, or in Muslim-majority countries – will have to dig deeply into Worth’s book to find support for their convictions, and they are unlikely to come up with much.  Despite the dashed expectations of 2011, Worth’s dispiriting yet riveting account leaves his readers thinking – or maybe just hoping – that the yearning expressed by his Yemeni contact Saaed for a modern state is unlikely to recede across the Middle East.

Thomas H. Peebles

Aubais, France

September 26, 2017

 

2 Comments

Filed under History, Middle Eastern History

Why Isn’t Russia More Like Us?

Peter Conradi, Who Lost Russia?

How the World Entered a New Cold War 

             In Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi, formerly Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times and presently its foreign editor, looks at Russian history over the past quarter of a century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “through the prism of [Russia’s] relations with the West” (p.x).  Given his somewhat overly dramatic title, there is an odd suspense to this otherwise straightforward, solidly written work, as the reader asks along the way, “Well, who really did ‘lose’ Russia?”  Conradi’s narrative invites readers to proffer their own nominees for the person or entity that “lost” Russia.  Only in the final pages does he inform us of his nominee – and no way will I reveal his selection here.  But the real question is not who “lost” Russia — that’s fine for a catchy title, evoking the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the question of the 1950s, who lost China.

            Rather, the questions at the heart of Conradi’s methodical study are why the once promising relationship between Russia and the West evolved into one best described today as adversarial; and, relatedly, why Russia did not follow the path toward Western-style liberal democracy after what looked like an earnest start in the 1990s. There are no simple or single answers to these questions but, by looking at post-Communist Russia’s relationship with the West during the years 1991-2016, Conradi manages to tease out a host of partial answers.  His book went to press in January 2017, during the earliest days of the Trump administration.  He alludes in an afterthought to the possibility of links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state.  With much on this subject having come to light since the book first appeared, Conradi’s observations are not a reason to read his book.  But the book does provide much needed context to help understand why Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated to the point where no one should be surprised that Russia deliberately sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

          Conradi dedicates a substantial portion of his work to the personal interactions between the leaders of the United States and Russia over the 25-year period: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Boris Yeltsin; George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; Barack Obama and first Dimitri Medvedev, then Obama and Putin. He further includes speculation toward the end about how the relationship between Trump and Putin might unfold.  Numerous substantive issues bedeviled the leaders of the two countries between 1991 and 2016, but foremost among them were the intertwined questions of eastward expansion of NATO and Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.

      Throughout the quarter century, Russia and the West maintained entirely different perspectives on NATO’s embrace of the former Warsaw Pact countries once under Soviet control, and its potential embrace of several former Soviet Republics, most notably Ukraine. While the West regarded NATO expansion as a benign extension of universal democratic values to newly independent states, Russia construed expansion as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. And although the Soviet Union dissolved peaceably, Ukraine’s independence proved particularly vexing for Russia from the earliest post-Soviet days.

         During the presidency of Vladimir Putin, differences between Russia and the West over these and related issues transformed an uneven and sometimes uneasy partnership between Russia and the West into an adversarial one.   Western triumphalism of the early 1990s, when both Western Europe and the United States basked in their Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, plainly fueled Russian resentment. The breakdown of the partnership finds its roots, Conradi contends, in the “inability of both sides to agree on what happened in 1991 . . . and, in particular, [in] Russian resentment at being treated as a vanquished foe” (p.341).  The West underestimated how badly the loses that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union “rankled with Moscow, and how much the Kremlin continued to consider the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence” (p.161).

         By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, ending Dimitri Medvedev’s four-year interregnum, Russia had abandoned any pretense of striving for Western style liberal democracy.  It was now, Conradi writes, “positioning itself as a beacon of traditional, conservative values in a decadent, liberal world” (p,235).  The official narrative was that it had been “duped to believe in the promises of democracy . . . [which] did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and [was] under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it” (p.236).  Borrowing from the other portion of Conradi’s title, the world in the 21st century’s second decade had thus entered a “new Cold War,” with a level of hostility between Russia and the West “not seen even at the height of Soviet rule” (p.xiii).

* * *

            Conradi ably captures the momentous changes that ensued in Russia after the Soviet Union abruptly dissolved in December 1991.  He describes January 2, 1992, the first day of Russia’s transition to a free market, as a “life-defining moment. The previous six months had a seen a series of political events, each more dramatic than the last, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet none had such a direct and immediate impact as the Yeltsin government’s decision to end the price controls that had been a feature of Soviet life since the 1920s” (p.20).  The end of price controls was part of a broader process that “challenged everything the Soviets had been brought up to believe in. Buying and selling for a profit had once been denounced as speculation and been punishable with jail. Now it was the foundation of the economy. Money-changing used to be conducted by shady characters on street corners; now it was carried out by financial experts sitting at rows of computer screens in swanky offices” (p.21).

           The early post-Soviet years were a wild and woolly time in Russia, with a mad grab for ownership and control of previously state-owned property. During the 1990s, Russia’s famous oligarchs emerged, some of the richest and, in many cases, most ruthless, businessmen on the planet.  Yet, Conradi notes, the early post-Soviet years also “created more losers than winners, and it took years before living standards drew level even with the last years of the Soviet era. Many people, especially members of the older generations, still felt a sense not so much of liberation but rather of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie. There was a feeling of wasted lives, of humiliation and wounded pride” (p.98).

           Conradi nonetheless gives Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a “charismatic larger-than-life figure whose ruddy cheeks betrayed his weakness for alcohol” (p.3) — high marks for avoiding the type of ethnic and nationalist violence that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Yeltsin also steered a new constitution through to adoption by referendum, representing a “break with Soviet practice by, among other things, abolishing the leading role of the Communist (or indeed, any other) Party and guaranteeing a pluralistic political system” (p.47).  Although George H.W. Bush was the American president when the Soviet Union dissolved and Yeltsin rose to power, most of the Yeltsin years corresponded to the Clinton years.

          In a chapter entitled “Bill and Ol’ Boris,” Conradi shows how the two leaders struck up what seemed from the outside to have been a productive relationship between the two countries, with the United States providing substantial assistance to Russia in the hope of establishing a framework for a functioning democracy with a market economy.  Ol’ Boris sometimes chaffed at the nature of the American-Russian partnership, with America always the dominant partner and Russia reduced to a supplicant. He saw a special role for Russia as a regional peacekeeper in the other former Soviet republics – what the Russians termed the “near abroad” — an idea that fell flat with Bill.   More than a little uneasy about Ukraine’s drive for independence, Ol’ Bois periodically objected to Bill’s dogged determination to bring the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe under the NATO umbrella.  NATO’s eastward expansion looked to the Russian president like a “brazen attempt by the West to exploit [Russian] weakness to take over countries formerly part of Moscow’s sphere of influence” (p.64).   “Got to get over it, Boris,” seemed to be Bill’s response. “We don’t mean ya’ll no harm.”

            In his 1999 televised New Year’s address to the Russia people, six months prior to the expiration of his second term, Yeltsin stunned his viewers and the rest of the world by announcing, “in a characteristic piece of theater” (p.106), that he was resigning immediately.  Previously, there had been speculation that he might seek to change the constitution to pursue a third presidential term.  Yeltsin announced that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister the preceding August, would be his replacement.  Yeltsin was not obligated to anoint a successor. He could have “played the true democrat and not nominated anyone at all, instead creating a level playing field on which rival candidates could compete for votes”(p.322). Conradi suggests that Yeltsin had three candidates in mind; the other two in retrospect seem to have been more likely to continue the country along the road toward liberal democracy.  Yeltsin chose Putin, Conradi argues, because he, Yeltsin,  was “obsessed with securing a guarantee of immunity for himself and the ‘family’ from prosecution for their past misdemeanors” (p.322).

            As a 36 year old KGB agent based in Dresden in 1989, Putin had watched East Germany disintegrate and disappear, demonstrating for him the “frailty of political elites and the ease with which they can be toppled by ‘people power’”(p.110). Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin had served as an assistant city administrator in his native St. Petersburg.   The literature on Putin in English seems to be growing on an almost daily basis, with many works seeking to probe Putin’s psyche to find psychological explanations for why he steered Russia in a direction outwardly different from that of Yeltsin. This is not one of them.  Instead, Conradi systematically shows how more than why the former KGB officer, unlike his predecessor, “pursued policies both at home and abroad that would inevitably challenge the West” (p.322).

* * *

            In the early years of his presidency, Putin, like Yeltsin, said many things that the West wanted to hear about Russia’s quest for democracy and its belief in individual freedom after years of Soviet oppression.  There was even talk about possible Russian membership in the EU and NATO, with Putin recommending that NATO’s focus be shifted to terrorism, piracy and cybercrime.  The initial meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, who had succeeded Clinton in 2001, augured well for the US-Russia partnership. Bush tried to avoid what he considered Clinton’s tendency to hector his Russian counterpart about free markets and attempts to curb freedom of speech.  He famously told reporters after his first meeting with Putin that he had been able to get a sense of the Russian leader’s “soul.”  Having “looked the man in the eye,” Bush said, he found his counterpart to be “straight-forward and trustworthy,” and “deeply committed to his country” (p.137)

            Yet, for all the warm talk, the Bush administration recurrently sent out signals of its “intention to treat Russia as a mid-ranking country rather than a superpower” (p.132-33).  Although Putin was the first world leader to express solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did incalculable damage to U.S.-Russia relations. “A really strong, anti-terrorist international coalition was created after September 2001,” Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, said. “It was destroyed in 2003 when the Americans decided to start their war in Iraq” (p.203). In Putin’s view, Washington had given itself a “license to support regime change wherever it wished,” with countries closest to Russia geographically and economically “at the top of its hit list”(p.174).

           American support for the pro-Western “Rose” demonstrations in Georgia in 2003 and “Orange” in Ukraine in 2004 — the so-called “Color Revolutions”  – aroused Putin’s fury because of the “existential threat” which they appeared to pose to the Kremlin (p.173).  Georgians and Ukrainians had:

provided a compelling model of how ordinary people could mobilize in a post-Soviet society to prevent a discredited regime from clinging to office – with more than a helping hand from the CIA, in Putin’s view. Putin’s concern was that Bush, with his determination to promote democracy around the world, might now try to encourage similar such forces in Russia to challenge Putin’s own hold on power (p.173).

Conradi perceives a “growing assertiveness” to Putin’s governance after the Color Revolutions, in which he “consolidated political and economic power in his hand and marginalized his opponents” (p.177).

            Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped aside in 2008 and his Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, was elected president.  Medvedev, trained as a lawyer and a decade younger than Putin, was more polished and less paranoid.  But he was without an independent power base and thus dependent for support upon Putin, who became Prime Minister.  The Medvedev years, 2008-2012, overlapped with the last year of George W. Bush’s term and Barack Obama’s first term. Obama assumed the presidency with the idea of a “reset” in Russian-American relations. But neither administration in Conradi’s view ever fully figured out who was in control in Moscow during these years, Medvedev or Putin.

            Conradi observes a discernible shift in Putin’s style of governance when he was re-elected president in 2012.  During his first eight years, Putin had governed according to an unwritten pact: “citizens stayed out of the state’s business, and in return it guaranteed them growing prosperity, underwritten by surging oil revenues” (p.234).  After 2012, Putin sought a “new source of legitimacy,” described as “‘patriotic mobilization.’ This new direction was accompanied by tighter control of television and a tougher line against opposition parties and civil society. The move was given greater urgency by the Arab Spring, which provided a salutary reminder of the ease with which regimes could be toppled if popular protests were allowed to get out of hand” (p.234).

            The 2013-14 crises in Ukraine and Crimea marked the end of the last glimmer of hope for a workable general partnership between Russia and the West. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of an assistance agreement with the European Union in November 2013, massive pro-Western demonstrations erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych fled to Russia and sought Russian assistance. Putin followed in March 2014 with the boldest move of his presidency: military invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a largely autonomous region within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population and several Russian naval bases. The purported basis of the intervention was to protect beleaguered ethnic Russians.

          Conradi cautions against considering Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as the “first staging in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union” (p.301). His actions appear instead to have been prompted more by fear that Ukraine, a country still considered part of the Russian homeland, was “in danger of drifting into the Western camp.  He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him” (p.303). The 2013-2014 crises “put a definitive end to any further expansion of NATO” and “allowed Putin to reassert his right of veto over any change in the ‘near abroad’” (p.295).

         If Russian governance today might be considered “Putinism,” it is based “neither on Soviet nostalgia nor on integration with the West” (p.235). Its distinctly anti-Western appeals are to an emotive Russian nationalism and ethnicity as the “backbone of the Russian state” (p.234); and to a social conservatism that is blatantly anti-homosexual, reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church as “arbiter and enforcer of national mores” (p.234).  Oppressed during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church saw a resurgence after the fall of communism and, as in Tsarist times, is once again “intimately woven into the affairs of state,” wielding “extraordinary power” (p.235).

            Putinism sees foreign policy as a “zero sum game” (p.339), where  plots and conspiracies against Russia abound.  Yet Russia’s role on the world stage, Conradi argues, is that of a “wrecker of the established order rather than as a positive force . . . The attempt to position Russia as a socially conservative rival to the liberal democracies of the West [has] attracted few takers in Europe beyond backers of the fringe parties on the right” (p.295).

* * *

            Conradi alludes to a common understanding of Russian history and culture divided between two camps: “Europhiles,” who look to the West for models; and “Slavophiles,” who look inward, rejecting Western values and celebrating Russian culture and history (a more elaborate discussion may be found in Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December 2014).   The interplay between these competing camps was largely kept below the surface during the Soviet regime. When Putin came to power in the year 2000, he appeared to have a foot in each camp. But at some point in the new century’s first decade, both Putin feet moved firmly into the Slavophile camp.  Setting aside Conradi’s answer to his question who lost Russia — you will have to read the book to find that answer – Conradi’s astute analysis leads to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin “found” or “refound” the traditional Slavophile Russia, a Russia that the West in the 1990s too readily assumed had disappeared altogether.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 8, 2017

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Russian History

World War Warm-Up

 

Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts:

Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 

 

            In the 1930s, at a time when authoritarian right-wing dictatorships and military rulers appeared to be on the rise across Europe — not only in Germany and Italy, but also in Portugal, Poland, Greece, Romania and Hungary — Spain embarked upon a different course. In 1931, its monarchy yielded to a Republican form of government, with a democratic constitution and an elected parliament.  Five years later, in February 1936, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, known as the Popular Front, narrowly won a parliamentary majority and promised far-reaching reforms. Spain was then arguably Western Europe’s most backward country, with industrialization lagging behind other Western European nations, large landowners dominating the rural economy, and the Catholic Church controlling the country’s social and cultural life.

            To major segments of Spanish society – especially the military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church — democracy itself was profoundly threatening and the Popular Front appeared bent on leading Spain directly to its own version of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. When a coup against the Republican government and its democratic institutions commenced on July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco, who had been reassigned by the Popular Front to a distant military outpost on the Canary Islands, quickly assumed leadership. The Spanish Civil War, now considered a warm-up for World War II, ensued.

        In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, Adam Hochschild explores what he terms the “fiercest conflict in Europe since World War I, marked by a vindictive savagery not seen even then” (p.xiv). He recounts the conflict in large measure from the perspective of the approximately 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain, 750 of whom died, a “far higher death rate than the US military suffered in any of its twentieth-century wars” (p.xiv).  The Spanish Civil War was the “only time so many Americans joined someone else’s civil war – and they did so even though their own government made strenuous efforts to stop them” (p.xx).

          Two of Europe’s most ruthless dictators, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, supported Franco and the three year assault on Spain’s democratic institutions.  But the Republican side received substantial support from the Soviet Union and its no less ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin.  With Great Britain, France and the United States officially neutral throughout most of the conflict, the Soviet Union was the only major power willing to sell arms and ammunition to the Republican side.

          To the Americans arriving in Spain, the Soviet Union appeared to represent modernization and international solidarity across national lines, a beacon of hope not only because it was the only major nation taking a stand against fascism, which they saw as the “most dangerous development on the planet” (p.22); but also because the Soviet Union seemed better equipped to resist the economic crisis that was extending its grip across the globe in the 1930s. But the Americans discovered that the Soviet Union was more interested in doctrinal purity and purging its ranks of communist heretics, especially those loyal to Stalin’s archrival Leon Trotsky, than in advancing the democratic principles that the Republic stood for.  In addition to communists and socialists of all stripes, the Republican side drew support from urban liberals and secularists, trade unionists, rural farm workers, anarchists and a motley collection of fringe groups.

            Hochschild tells this intricate story through individual lives and personal portraits.  Assiduous readers of this blog will recall To End All Wars, reviewed here in October 2014, in which Hochschild detailed Great Britain’s participation in World War I through personal stories of leading opponents of the war and political and military leaders prosecuting the war. Here, too, he weaves the stories of individual American and international volunteers into a broader narrative of the three-year civil war. The personal portraits in Hochschild’s account of Britain during World War I were nearly equally balanced between war supporters and opponents. Here, the personalities are mostly on the Republican side, although we also meet a few individuals who assisted the Nationalists.

                 The dominant American in Hochschild’s narrative is Bob Merriman, a lanky economist from Nevada who seemed to be heading toward a successful academic career in Berkeley, California, when he decided to leave Berkeley for a two-year tour in the Soviet Union and, from there, traveled to Spain to fight on the Republican side.  Once in Spain, Merriman rose quickly to become the charismatic chief of staff of what came to be known informally as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the unit to which most of the approximately 2,800 American volunteers belonged. We experience the main battles of the war primarily through Merriman, up until April 1938, when he disappeared in battle. Hochschild also introduces a host of other Americans who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause. Numerous journalists and literary figures add vitality and specificity to Hochschild’s overall picture of the war. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell are central characters in the story. Antoine St. Exuprey, André Malraux and John Dos Passos make short appearances.   Hochschild’s title “Spain in Our Hearts” is from the pen of Albert Camus.

* * *

              Franco’s military rebels called themselves Nacionales, which in Spanish is stronger than “nationalist” in English, suggesting that the rebels represented “the only true Spaniards” (p.27). Hochschild characterizes the Nationalist cause as a “war of earlier centuries against modernity, of traditional Catholicism against the secular world, of an ancient rural order against urban, industrial culture” (p.69). Franco’s aim was to “restore the glories of age-old Spain and the key pillars of a highly authoritarian state: the army, the Church, the big estates, and the overseas Spanish empire that had once spanned continents . . . There would be no elections, no independent trade unions, no democratic trappings of any sort” (p.69).

            The Nationalist military forces counted among their ranks the notoriously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion, along with large numbers of North African Arab or Berber recruits, which together “formed the core of the Nationalist army” (p.98).  Termed “Moors,” the Arab and Berber recruits were led by Spanish officers who told them that they would be “fighting against infidels and Jews who wanted to abolish Allah.” The recruits thus fought alongside Spanish militiamen whose war cry was “Long Live Christ the King” (p.29). Spain’s Catholic hierarchy, the “most reactionary in Europe,” embraced Franco and the Nationalist cause “wholeheartedly, and were rewarded in turn” (p.69). In regions that came under Nationalist control, Republican reforms, including a law permitting divorce, were reversed. “Textbooks were purged of anything deemed contrary to Christian morality, and all teachers were ordered to lead their children daily in praying to the Virgin Mary for a Nationalist victory” (p.69).

            On the diverse but faction-riddled Republican side, Hochschild highlights the role which Spanish anarchists played.  Adherents of a creed that thrived in Spain, anarchists believed in “commnismo libertario, libertarian or stateless communism. The police, courts, money, taxes, political parties, the Catholic Church, and private property would all be done away with. Communities and workplaces would be run directly by the people in them, free at last to exercise a natural human instinct for mutual aid that, anarchists fervently believed, exists in us all . . . Anarchism was really a preindustrial ideology, and exactly how its vision was to be realized in a complex modern economy remained hazy at best” (p.42).

            Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War seemed to some the concrete realization of the anarchist vision. It is hard to find an example, before or since, Hochschild argues, “where so many ideas normally considered utopian were put into practice on a scale affecting millions of people” (p.214). Workers’ collectives ruled the city. Large mansions were seized and turned into homeless shelters, a liqueur distillery became a hospital, and a monastery became a children’s TB sanitarium.  Pawn shops were forced to give objects back to poorer citizens. Throughout the city, anarchist flags “hung from balconies or ropes strung across streets. They also fluttered from small poles fastened to automobiles and were painted on every imaginable surface. . . from subway cars to shoeshine boxes” (p.51). Barcelona thus “turned the normal social order on its head,” (p.61), drawing independent-minded leftists from all over the world.

            Some 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 different countries, divided into five international brigades, provided support to the Republican army, itself an “ill-trained hodgepodge of militia units loyal to different political parties and trade unions” (p.148). The 2,800 American volunteers who made up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came from 46 different states, and included “rich and poor, Ivy League graduates, and men who had ridden freight trains in search of work” (p.xx). About half were Jewish and about one-third came from the New York City area. There were 90 African-American volunteers. The Abraham Lincoln brigade also included a Native American member of the Sioux tribe; two FBI fingerprint experts; a vaudeville acrobat; a rabbi; and a Jewish poet from New Orleans.

            Their de facto leader, Bob Merriman was, according to one report, the “backbone and moving spirit” of the Lincoln brigade, “filled with initiative, overflowing with energy . . . unquestionably the domina[n]t figure in the brigade” (p.247). A member of the brigade described Merriam as “universally liked and respected . . . one of those rare men who radiate strength and inspire confidence by their very appearance” (p.111). Yet, Merriman maintained what to Hochschild was a puzzling, even obstinate, loyalty to Stalin’s Soviet Union throughout the Spanish conflict. Merriman disappeared in a battle near the town of Corbera, six miles west of the Ebro River, in April 1938. There is much speculation, but still no definitive answer, as to the details of Merriman’s disappearance.

          Ernest Hemmingway, already a celebrity author, was a war correspondent during the war, and his “notorious strut and bluster” (p.xv) are on full display throughout Hochschild’s narrative. Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, often considered his greatest work, was published in 1940 and is drawn directly from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Eric Blair, writing under the name George Orwell, actually fought and was injured in the war. His memoir Hommage to Catalonia constitutes one of the most significant contemporaneous records of the conflict. Both Hemmingway and Orwell passionately supported the Republican cause, but they portrayed the cause differently, Hochschild notes. Orwell’s Hommage described a “faction-ridden Republic . . . a picture far different from what its government wanted to present to the world” (p.362). Hemmingway, by contrast, said nothing in his wartime dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image, saving his most acidic and searing insights for novels and short stories published after the war.

           Many other journalists figure prominently in Hochschild’s account. Famed New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews became a passionate supporter of the Republican side. Matthews fought his own civil war at the Times with his colleague William Carney, who wrote from Spain as an open Franco enthusiast.  Louis Fischer, an ardent communist as a young man who contributed to the 1949 anti-communist tract The God that Failed, abandoned journalism altogether to become an advisor to the Republican side. Socialite journalist Virginia Cowles, more realist than Hemmingway or Matthews, revealed the “spirit of revenge” (p.203) and summary executions that permeated the Nationalist side, and was among the first to depict the Republican cause as doomed.  Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemmingway wife number three (of four), accompanied Hemmingway throughout much of the war.

          Among the small number of internationals who aided the Nationalists, the most colorful is Torkild Rieber of Texaco Oil, a “swashbuckling American oilman with a penchant for right-wing dictators” (p.xvi).  Texaco was close to being the official supplier of oil to the Nationalist cause — on credit, often with free shipping, and probably in violation of United States law. A “grateful Franco continued to buy Texaco oil long after the war, and later made Rieber a Knight of the Grand Cross of Isabella, the Catholic, one of Spain’s highest honors . . . A few years later the undersecretary of the Spanish foreign ministry went further. ‘Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits . . . we could never have won the civil war’” (p.343).

         Hochschild unsparingly recounts the atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict, while giving the Nationalists a decisive edge for brutality. The Nationalist carpet bombing of the Basque town Guernica, which inspired the war’s best known work of art by Pablo Picasso, “represented the first near-total destruction of a European city from the air,” with a “powerful impact on a world that had not yet seen the London blitz or the obliteration of Dresden and Hiroshima” (p.177).   One of the reasons that the bombing of Guernica inspired such worldwide outrage was that Franco and the Catholic Church first vigorously denied that it had ever taken place, then claimed that Guernica had been burned to the ground by retreating Republican troops.

            The Nationalist ferocity “knew no bounds” toward female supporters of the Republic. Rapes were standard and, “playing on centuries of racial feeling that was shared across the political spectrum, Nationalist officers deliberately compounded the terror by choosing Moorish troops to do the raping” (p.39). The treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was ruthless. But the Republicans generally spared Nationalist enlisted men, “considered either deluded by propaganda or forced to fight against their will” (p.241), whereas the Nationalists routinely shot captured soldiers at all levels, targeting internationals in particular: 173 of the 287 Americans taken prisoner were killed.

            More than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican territory during the war, most during the first four months. By contrast, some 150,000 civilians were murdered in Nationalist-controlled Spain, with at least 20,000 more executions after the war. By the end of 1936, the Republican government had largely succeeded in bringing civilian deaths to a halt. But such deaths included many clergy members and attracted the attention of the conservative American press, doing great damage to the Republican chances of gaining assistance from abroad. When a British special envoy encouraged both sides in Spain to suspend summary executions, the Republic readily agreed. Nationalist Spain, “where the number of political prisoners facing the death sentence ran into the thousands, refused to do likewise” (p.339).

            The story of the Spanish Civil War must be told against the backdrop of a Europe in 1936-39 lurching toward continent-wide war. After the September 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France ceded the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco “knew that the path to victory was clear. Previously, Hitler had been in no great hurry for the Spanish war to end, since it distracted Western attention from his ambitions in the east. But with Munich behind him, he sent the Nationalists a massive new wave of arms and supplies” (p.338). For his part, Stalin after Munich “began to lose interest in the war. . . [and] gradually withdrew most of the Russian and Eastern European officers he had lent to the Republic’s military and, for good measure, he continued to order many of them executed” (p.331).

            A few weeks after Munich, the Republican government announced that its was removing all international support, in the forlorn hope that Great Britain and France might insist that Franco do the same with the German and Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side. The departure of the International Brigades, Hochschild writes, “marked the end of an almost unparalleled moment. Never before had so many men, from so many countries, against the will of their own governments, come to a place foreign to all of them to fight for what they believed in” (p.337).

            Britain and France formally recognized Nationalist Spain on February 27, 1939, while combat continued.  By March 31, 1939, the Nationalists occupied all of Spain, and the fighting was over. The outcome, Orwell wrote, was “settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin” (p.362) – and he could have added Washington to the list, Hochschild notes. In Orwell’s succinct phrasing, the Nationalists won “because they were stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t” (p.362). Hochschild speculates, as many have before him, that greater assistance from the Western powers might have tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor.

            Franco’s victory brought not reconciliation but vengeance. If, during the war, Nationalist supporters in a particular town or village had been killed or had their property confiscated, “people from that town were executed in retaliation, whether or not they had had anything to do with the original events. If the regime couldn’t lay its hands on someone, his family paid the price. . . At every level of society, Franco aimed to rid Spain of what he considered alien influences” (p.344).  Franco remained in power 36 years after the cessation of hostilities, up until his death in 1975.

* * *

          Hochschild acknowledges that the Second World War has largely eclipsed the Spanish Civil War in our collective memory today.  But by presenting the three-year assault on democratic institutions in Spain through the lens of participating American and international volunteers, Hochschild captures the flavor of a conflict that, as he aptly puts it, was seen at the time as a “world war in embryo” (p.xv).

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky

August 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European History, Spanish History

Using Space to Achieve Control

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto:

The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea 

            In 1516, Venice’s ruling authorities, concerned about an influx into the city of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, created an official Jewish quarter. They termed the quarter “ghetto” because it was situated on a Venetian island that was known for its copper foundry, geto in Venetian dialect. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Rome’s Jews into a similarly enclosed section of the city also referred to as the “ghetto.” Gradually, the term began to be applied to distinctly Jewish residential areas across Europe. After World War II in the United States, the term took on a life of its own, applied to African-American communities in cities in the urban North. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines the origins and usages of the word “ghetto.”

            The major portion of Duneir’s book explores how the word influenced selected post World War II thinkers in their analyses of discrimination against African-Americans in urban America. While there were a few instances pre-dating World War II of the use of the term ghetto to describe African-American neighborhoods in the United States, it was Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe that gave impetus to this use of the term. By the 1960s, the use of the word ghetto to refer African-American neighborhoods had become commonplace. Today, Duneier writes, the idea of the black ghetto in the United States is “synonymous in the social sciences and public policy discussions with such phrases as ‘segregated housing patterns’ and ‘residential racial segregation’” (p.220).

          Duneier wants us to understand the urban ghetto in the United States as a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks” (p.xii).  It is not the result of a natural sorting or Darwinian selection; it is not an illustration of the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” He discourages any attempt to apply the term to, for example, poor whites, Hispanics or Chinese. The notion of a ghetto, he argues, becomes a “less meaningful concept if it is watered down to simply designate a black neighborhood that varies in degree (but not in kind) from white and ethnic neighborhoods of the city.  .  . Extending the definition to other minority groups . . . carries the cost of obscuring the specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks” (p.224). Duneier shows how, in the decades since World War II, theorists have emphasized different types of external controls over African-American communities: restrictive racial covenants in real estate contracts in the 1940s, precluding the sale of properties to African-Americans; the rise of educational and social welfare bureaucracies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and, more recently, police and prison control of African-American males resulting from the war on drugs.  But Duneier’s  story, tracing the idea of a ghetto, starts in Europe.

* * *

            In medieval times, Jews in French, English and German speaking lands lived in “semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help” (p.4). But Jewish quarters were “almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century” (p.5). Jews were always free to come and go and were, in varying degrees, part of the community-at-large. This changed with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with many migrating to Italy.  Following the designation of the ghetto in Venice in 1516, Pope Paul IV gave impetus to the rise of separate and unequal Jewish quarters when he issued an infamous Papal Bull in 1555, “Cum nimis absurdum.” In that instrument, the Pope mandated that all Rome’s Jews should live “solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three [places] or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians” (p,8).  After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, Duneier writes, suddenly Rome’s Jews were forcibly relocated to a small strip of land near the Tiber, “packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river” (p.8).

          This pattern prevailed across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with Jews living in predominantly Jewish quarters in most major cities, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory.  “Isolation in space” (p.7) became part of what it meant to be Jewish.  Napoleon’s war of conquest in Italy in 1797 led to the liberation of Jewish ghettos in Venice, Rome and across the Italian peninsula.  In the 19th century, ghettos began to disappear across Europe. Yet, Rome remained stubbornly resistant. When Napoleon retreated from Italy in 1814, Pope Pius VI almost immediately reinstated the Roman ghetto, sending the Jews back into the “same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries” (p.12). A product of papal authority, the Roman ghetto was formally and officially abolished with Italian unification in 1870. Thus, Rome’s Jews, among the first in Europe to be confined to a ghetto, “became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country” (p.12).

          Duneier perceives a benign aspect to confinement of Jews in traditional ghettos.  The ghetto was a “comfort zone” for often-thriving Jewish communities, a designated area where Jews were required to live but could exercise their faith freely, in a section of the city where they would not face opprobrium from fellow citizens. Jewish communities possessed “internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions” (p.11). In Venice and throughout Europe, the ghetto represented a “compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled [Jewish] presence in the city” (p.7). The traditional European ghetto was thus “always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom” (p.10).

      In the early 20th century, the word ghetto came to refer to high-density neighborhoods inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews. In the United States, the word frequently denoted neighborhoods inhabited not by African-Americans but by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they gave ominous new meanings to the word ghetto. Privately, Hitler used the word to compare areas of enforced Jewish habitation to zoos, enclosed areas where, as he put it, Jews could “behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals” (p.14). Publicly, and more politely, Hitler argued that confined Jewish quarters under the Nazis simply replicated the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews in 19th century Rome.

          But ghettos controlled by the Nazis were more frequently like prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire walls. The Nazi ghetto was a place established with the “express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality” (p.22), a place where the state exercised the “firmest control over its subjects’ lives” (p.220). The Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, Duneier concludes, “transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency” (p.22).

* * *

       The fight in World War II against Hitler and Nazi tyranny, in which African-Americans participated in large numbers, understandably had the effect of highlighting the pervasive discrimination that African-Americans faced in the United States. The modern Civil Rights movement came into being in the years following World War II, focused primarily on the Southern United States and its distinctive system of rigid racial separation know as “Jim Crow.” A less visible battle took place in Northern cities, where attention focused on discrimination in employment, education and housing. A small group of sociologists, centered at the University of Chicago, emphasized how African-Americans in nearly all cities in the urban North were confined to distinct neighborhoods characterized by sub-standard housing, neighborhoods that came to be referred to as ghettos.

       Framing the debate in post-war America was the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote what is now considered the classic analysis of discrimination in the United States, “An American Dilemma.”  Myrdal’s work, based on research conducted during World War II and published in 1944, took on a high level of importance in post-war America.  Myrdal’s research focused principally on the Jim Crow South, where three-fourths of America’s black population then lived.  But Myrdal also advanced what may seem in retrospect like a naïve if idealistic view of Northern racial segregation: it was due primarily to the practice of inserting restrictive covenants into real estate sales contracts, forbidding the selling of property to minorities (along with African-Americans, Jews and Chinese were other groups often excluded by such covenants). Restrictive covenants directed against African-Americans had a component of racial purity that was uncomfortably similar to Nazi practices, most frequently excluding persons with a single great-grandparent of black ancestry. Such clauses, Myrdal argued, were contrary to the basic American creed of equality.  Once white citizens were made aware of the contradiction, they would cease the practice of inserting such restrictions into real estate contracts, and housing patterns would desegregate.

        Myrdal himself rarely used the term ghetto and his treatment of the urban North was “perfunctory by any standard” (p.58). His main contribution was to view Northern segregation not as a natural occurrence, but as a “phenomenon of the majority’s power over a minority population” (p.63). Myrdal’s notion of majority white control over African-American communities influenced the views of two younger African-American sociologists from the University of Chicago, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In 1945, Cayton and Drake published Black Metropolis, a work that focused on discrimination in Chicago and the urban North but failed to gain the attention that Myrdal’s work had received. Duneier indicates that Myrdal’s analysis of the urban North suffered because he was unable to work out an arrangement with Cayton to use the younger scholar’s copious notes of interviews and firsthand observations of conditions in Chicago’s African-American communities.  

         Cayton and Drake sought to “systematically explain the situation of blacks who had recently moved from the rural South to the urban North” (p.233). They were among the first to use the word ghetto frequently as a description of African-American communities in the North.  The word was for them a “metaphor for both segregation and Caucasian purity in the Nazi era” (p.71-72): blacks who sought to leave, they wrote, encountered the “invisible barbed wire fence of restrictive covenants” (p.72; Duneier’s emphasis). Cayton and Drake considered black confinement to black neighborhoods as permanent and officially sanctioned, unlike Hispanic or Chinese neighborhoods, giving African-American neighborhoods their ghetto-like quality.  For Cayton and Drake, therefore, ghetto was a term used to highlight the differences between African-American communities and other poor neighborhoods throughout the city.

         Echoing the interpretations of traditional European Jewish ghettos discussed above, Cayton and Drake emphasized the “more pleasant aspects of black life that were symbolic of an authentic black identity” (p.69). They argued that racial separation had created a refuge for blacks in a racist world and that blacks had no particular interest in mingling with white people, “having accommodated themselves over time to a dense and separate institutional life – ‘an intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations, ordered by a system of social classes’ – in their own black communities. This life so absorbed them as to make participation in interracial activities feel superfluous” (p.69). Today, Black Metropolis remains a “major inspiration for efforts to understand racial inequality, due to its focus on Northern racism, physical space, and the consequences of racial segregation” (p.79).

            Another protégé of Myrdal, renowned Columbia University sociologist Kenneth Clark, emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s the extent to which external controls of black neighborhoods – absentee landlords and business owners, and school, welfare and public housing bureaucracies – produced a “powerless colony” (p.91). Clark’s 1965 work, Dark Ghetto, which Duneier considers the most important work on the African-American condition in the urban North since Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis two decades earlier, argued that the black ghetto was a product of the larger society’s successful “institutionalization of powerlessness” (p.114). Clark looked at segregated residential patterns as just one of several interlocking factors that together produced in ghetto residents a sense of helplessness and suspicion. Others included discrimination in the work place and unequal educational opportunities. Clark thus saw urban ghettos as reenforcing  “vicious cycles occurring within a powerless social, economic, political, and educational landscape” (p.137). Together, theses cycles led to what Clark termed a “tangle of pathologies.”

       For Clark, the traditional Jewish European ghetto bore little resemblance to American realities. Rigid housing segregation was “more meaningfully a North American invention, a manner of existence that had little in common with anything that had come before in Europe or even in the U.S. South” (p.114).  More than any other thinker in Duneier’s study, Clark provided the term ghetto with a distinctly American meaning.  In the 1980s and 1990s, African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson rethought much of the received wisdom that had come from or through Myrdal and Clark.

            Wilson took into account the out-migration of African Americans from inner cities that had begun to gather momentum in the 1970s.  In understanding the plight of those left behind, Wilson argued that class had become a more significant factor than race. African-Americans were dividing into two major classes: a middle class, a “black bourgeoisie,” more and more often living outside the urban core – outside the ghetto – in outlying areas of the city, or in the suburbs, not uncommonly in mixed black-white neighborhoods. The black ghetto remained, concentrating and isolating the least skilled, least educated and least fortunate African-Americans, a “black underclass.”  In contrast to the African-American communities Cayton and Drake had described in the 1940s, those left behind in the 1970s and 1980s saw far fewer black role models they could emulate. A new form of American ghetto had emerged by 1980, Wilson argued, “characterized by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Unlike in previous eras, middle-class and lower-class blacks were having very different life experiences in the 1980s” (p.234).

        Wilson further posited that any neighborhood with 40 percent poverty should be termed a ghetto, thereby blurring the distinction between poor black and poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods.  Assistance program that target poor communities generally, Wilson theorized, were more likely to be approved and implemented than programs targeting only African-American communities.  For the first time since the term ghetto had become part of the analysis of Northern housing patterns in the early post-World War II era, the term was now used without reference to either race or power. With Wilson’s analysis, Duneier contends, the history of the idea of a ghetto in Europe and America “no longer seemed relevant” (p.184).

         Duneier devotes a full chapter to Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic community activist rather than a theorist and scholar. In the 1990s and early 21st century, Canada came to see early education as the key to improving the quality of life in African American neighborhoods – in black ghettos – thereby increasing the range of work and living opportunities for African American youth.  Canada was one of the first to characterize the federal crackdown on drug crime as a tragic mistake, producing alarming rates of black incarceration.  As a result, the country was spending “far more money on prisons than on education” (p.198).

        Two white theorists,  Patrick Moynihan and Oscar Lewis, also figure in Duneier’s analysis. Moynihan, an advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and later Senator from New York, described the black ghetto in terms of broken families. The relatively large number of illegitimate births and a matriarchal family structure in African-American communities, Moynihan argued, held back both black men and women.  Lewis, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois, advanced the notion of a “culture of poverty,” contending that poverty produces a distinct and debilitating mindset that was remarkably similar throughout the world, in advanced and developing countries, in urban and rural areas alike.

         In a final chapter, Duneier summarizes where his key thinkers have led us in our current conception of the term ghetto in the United States. “By the 1960s, an uplifting portrait of the black ghetto became harder to draw. Ever since, those left behind in the black ghetto have had a qualitatively different existence” (p.219). The word now signifies “restriction and impoverishment in a delimited residential space. This emphasis highlights the important point that today’s residential patterns did not come about ‘naturally’; they were promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive” (p.220).

* * *

         Duneier has synthesized some of the most important sociological thinking of the post World War II era on discrimination against African Americans, producing a fascinating, useful and timely work.  But Duneier does not spoon feed. The basis for his hypothesis that the links between the traditional Jewish European ghetto and the black American ghetto have gradually faded is not readily gleaned from the text. Similarly, how theorists used the term ghetto in their analyzes of racial discrimination against African Americans seems at times a minor subtheme, overwhelmed by his treatment of the analyzes themselves.  Duneier’s important work thus requires – and merits — a careful reading.

          Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D. C.

July 27, 2017

 

 

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Filed under American Society, European History, United States History