Category Archives: British History

High Point of Modern International Economic Diplomacy

Ed Conway, The Summit: Bretton Woods 1944,

J.M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy 

               During the first three weeks of July 1944, as World War II raged on the far sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, 730 delegates from 44 countries gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Northern New Hampshire for what has come to be known as the Bretton Woods conference. The conference’s objective was audacious: create a new and more stable framework for the post-World War II monetary order, with the hope of avoiding future economic upheavals like the Great Depression of the 1930s.   To this end, the delegates reconsidered and in many cases rewrote some of the most basic rules of international finance and global capitalism, such as how money should flow between sovereign states, how exchange rates should interact, and how central banks should set interest rates. The conference took place at the venerable but aging Mount Washington Hotel, in an area informally known as Bretton Woods, not far from Mount Washington itself, Eastern United States’ highest peak.

In The Summit, Bretton Woods, 1944: J.M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, Ed Conway, formerly economics editor for Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and presently economics editor for Sky News, provides new and fascinating detail about the conference. The word “summit” in his title carries a triple sense: it refers to Mount Washington and to the term that came into use in the following decade for a meeting of international leaders. But Conway also contends that the Bretton Woods conference now appears to have been another sort of summit. The conference marked the “only time countries ever came together to remold the world’s monetary system” (p.xx).  It stands in history as the “very highest point of modern international economic diplomacy” (p.xxv).

Conway differentiates his work from others on Bretton Woods by focusing on the interactions among the delegates and the “sheer human drama” (p.xxii) of the event.  As the sub-title indicates, British economist John Maynard Keynes is forefront among these delegates. Conway could have added to his subtitle the lesser-known Harry Dexter White, Chief International Economist at the US Treasury Department and Deputy to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the head of the US delegation and formal president of the conference.  White’s name in the subtitle would have underscored that this book is a story about  the relationship between the two men who assumed de facto leadership of the conference. But the book is also a story about the uneasy relationship at Bretton Woods between the United States and the United Kingdom, the conference’s two lead delegations.

Although allies in the fight against Nazi Germany, the two countries were far from allies at Bretton Woods.  Great Britain, one of the world’s most indebted nations, came to the conference unable to pay for its own defense in the war against Nazi Germany and unable to protect and preserve its vast worldwide empire.  It was utterly outmatched at Bretton Woods by an already dominant United States, its principal creditor, which had little interest in providing debt relief to Britain or helping it maintain an empire. Even the force of Keynes’ dominating personality was insufficient to give Britain much more than a supplicant’s role at Bretton Woods.

Conway’s book also constitutes a useful and understandable historical overview of the international monetary order from pre-World War I days up to Bretton Woods and beyond.  The overview revolves around the gold standard as a basis for international currency exchanges and attempts over the years to find workable alternatives. Bretton Woods produced such an alternative, a standard pegged to the United States dollar — which, paradoxically, was itself tied to the price of gold.  Bretton Woods also produced two key institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now known as the World Bank, designed to provide stability to the new economic order. But the Bretton Woods dollar standard remained in effect only until 1971, when US President Richard Nixon severed by presidential fiat the link between the dollar and gold, allowing currency values to float, as they had done in the 1930s.  In Conway’s view, the demise of Bretton Woods is to be regretted.

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          Keynes was a legendary figure when he arrived at Bretton Woods in July 1944, a “genuine international celebrity, the only household name at Bretton Woods” (p.xv). Educated at Kings College, Cambridge, a member of the faculty of that august institution, and a peer in Britain’s House of Lords, Keynes was also a highly skilled writer and journalist, as well as a fearsome debater.  As a young man, he  established his reputation  with a famous critique of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a tract that predicted with eerie accuracy the breakdown of the financial order that the post World War I treaty envisioned, based upon imposition of punitive reparations upon Germany. Although Keynes dazzled fellow delegates at Bretton Woods with his rhetorical brilliance, he was given to outlandish and provocative statements that hardly helped the bonhomie of the conference.   He suffered a heart attack toward the end of the conference and died less than two years later.

White was a contrast to Keynes in just about every way. He came from a modest first generation Jewish immigrant family from Boston and had to scramble for his education. Unusual for the time, in his 30s White earned an undergraduate degree from Stanford after having spent the better portion of a decade as a social worker. White had a dour personality, with none of Keynes’ flamboyance. Then there were the physical differences.   Keynes stood about six feet six inches tall (approximately 2.0 meters), whereas White was at least a foot smaller (approximately 1.7 meters). But if Keynes was the marquee star of the Bretton Woods because of his personality and reputation, White was its driving force because he represented the United States, undisputedly the conference’s driving force.

By the time of the Bretton Woods conference, however, White was also unduly familiar with Russian intelligence services. Although Conway hesitates to slap the “spy” label on him, there is little doubt that White provided a hefty amount of information to the Soviets, both at the conference and outside its confines. Of course, much of the “information sharing” took place during World War II, when the Soviet Union was allied with Britain and the United States in the fight against Nazi Germany and such sharing was seen in a different light than in the subsequent Cold War era.  One possibility, Conway speculates, was that White was “merely carrying out his own, personal form of diplomacy – unaware that the Soviets were construing this as espionage” (p.159; the Soviet Union attended the conference but did not join the international mechanisms which the conference established).

The reality, Conway concludes, is that we will “never know for certain whether White knowingly betrayed his country by passing information to the Soviets” (p.362).   Critically, there is “no evidence that White’s Soviet activities undermined the Bretton Woods agreement itself” (p.163;). White died in 1948, four years after the conference, and the FBI’s case against him became moot. From that point onward, the question whether White was a spy for the Soviet Union became one almost exclusively for historians, a question that today remains unresolved (ironically, after White’s death, young Congressman Richard Nixon remained just about the only public official still interested in White’s case; when Nixon became president two decades later, he terminated the Bretton Woods financial standards White had helped create).

The conference itself begins at about the book’s halfway point. Prior to his account of its deliberations, Conway shows how the gold standard operated and the search for workable alternatives. In the period up to World War I, the world’s powers guaranteed that they could redeem their currency for its value in gold. The World War I belligerents went off the gold standard so they could print the currency needed to pay for their war costs, causing hyperinflation, as the supply of money overwhelmed the demand.  In the 1920s, countries gradually resorted back to the gold standard.

But the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing depression prompted countries to again abandon the gold standard. In the 1930s, what Conway terms a “gold exchange standard” prevailed, in which governments undertook competitive devaluations of their currency. President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, used a “primitive scheme” to set the dollar “where he wanted it – which meant as low against the [British] pound as possible” (p.83).  The competitive devaluations and floating rates of the 1930s led to restrictive trade policies, discouraged trade and investment, and encouraged destabilizing speculation, all of which many economists linked to the devastating war that broke out across the globe at the end of the decade.

Bretton Woods sought to eliminate these disruptions for the post-war world by crafting an international monetary system based upon cooperation among the world’s sovereign states. The conference was preceded by nearly two years of negotiations between the Treasury Departments of Great Britain and the United States — essentially exchanges between Keynes and White, each with a plan on how a new international monetary order should operate. Both were “determined to use the conference to safeguard their own economies” (p.18). Keynes wanted to protect not only the British Empire but also London’s place as the center of international finance. White saw little need to protect the empire and foresaw New York as the world’s new economic hub.  He also wanted to locate the two institutions that Bretton Woods would create, the IMF and World Bank, in the United States, whereas Keynes hoped that at least one would be located either in Britain or on the European continent. White and the Americans would win on these and almost all other points of difference.

But Keynes and White shared a broad general vision that Bretton Woods should produce a system designed to do away with the worst effects of both the gold standard and the interwar years of instability and depression.   There needed to be something in between the rigidity associated with the gold standard on the one hand and free-floating currencies, which were “associated with dangerous flows of ‘hot money’ and inescapable lurches in exchange rates” (p.124), on the other. To White and the American delegation, “Bretton Woods needed to look as similar as possible to the gold standard: politicians’ hands should be tied to prevent them from inflating away their debts. It was essential to avoid the threat of the competitive devaluations that had wreaked such havoc in the 1930s” (p.171).  For Keynes and his colleagues, “Bretton Woods should be about ensuring stable world trade – without the rigidity of the gold standard” (p.171).

The British and American delegations met in Atlantic City in June 1944 in an attempt to narrow their differences before travelling to Northern New Hampshire, where the floor would be opened to the conference’s additional delegations.  Much of what happened at Bretton Woods was confined to the business pages of the newspapers, with attention focused on the war effort and President Roosevelt’s re-election bid for a fourth presidential term.  This suited White, who “wanted the conference to look as uncontroversial, technical and boring as possible” (p.203).  The conference was split into three main parts. White chaired Commission I, dealing with the IMF, while Keynes chaired Commission II, whose focus was the World Bank.  Each commission divided into multiple committees and sub-committees.  Commission III, whose formal title was “Other Means of International Cooperation,” was in Conway’s view essentially a “toxic waste dump into which White and Keynes could jettison some of the summit’s trickier issues” (p.216).

The core principle to emerge from the Bretton Woods deliberations was that the world’s currencies, rather than being tied directly to gold or allowed to float, would be pegged to the US dollar which, in turn, was tied to gold at a value of $35 per ounce. Keynes and White anticipated that fixing currencies against the dollar would ensure that:

international trade was protected for exchange rate risk. Nations would determine their own interest rates for purely domestic economic reasons, whereas under the gold standard, rates had been set primarily in order to keep the country’s gold stocks at an acceptable level. Countries would be allowed to devalue their currency if they became uncompetitive – but they would have to notify the International Monetary Fund in advance: this element of international co-ordination was intended to guard against a repeat of the 1930s spiral of competitive devaluation (p.369).


The IMF’s primary purpose under the Bretton Woods framework was to provide relief in balance of payments crises such as those of the 1930s, when countries in deficit were unable to borrow and exporting countries failed to find markets for their goods. “Rather than leaving the market to its own devices – the laissez-faire strategy discredited in the Depression – the Fund would be able to step in and lend countries money, crucially in whichever currency they most needed. So as to avoid the threat of competitive devaluations, the Fund would also arbitrate whether a country could devalue its exchange rate” (p.169).

One of the most sensitive issues in structuring the IMF involved the contributions that each country was required to pay into the Fund, termed “quotas.” When short of reserves, each member state would be entitled to borrow needed foreign currency in amounts determined by the size of its quota.  Most countries wanted to contribute more rather than less, both as a matter of national pride and as a means to gain future leverage with the Fund. Heated quota battles ensued “both publicly in the conference rooms and privately in the hotel corridors, until the very end of the proceedings” (p.222-23), with the United States ultimately determining quota amounts according to a process most delegations considered opaque and secretive.

The World Bank, almost an afterthought at the conference, was to have the power to finance reconstruction in Europe and elsewhere after the war.  But the Marshall Plan, an “extraordinary program of aid devoted to shoring up Europe’s economy” (p.357), upended Bretton Woods’ visions for both institutions for nearly a decade.  It was the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the post-war years, not the IMF or the World Bank. The Fund’s main role in its initial years, Conway notes, was to funnel money to member countries “as a stop-gap before their Marshall Plan aid arrived” (p.357),

When Harry Truman became President in April 1945 after Roosevelt’s death, he replaced Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, White’s boss, with future Supreme Court justice Fred Vinson. Never a fan of White, Vinson diminished his role at Treasury and White left the department in 1947. He died the following year, in August 1948 at age 55.  Although the August 1945 change in British Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill to Clement Atlee did not undermine Keynes to the same extent, his deteriorating health diminished his role after Bretton Woods as well. Keynes died in April 1946 at age 62, shortly after returning to Britain from the inaugural IMF meeting in Savannah, Georgia, his last encounter with White.

Throughout the 1950s, the US dollar assumed a “new degree of hegemony,” becoming “formally equivalent to gold. So when they sought to bolster their foreign exchange reserves to protect them from future crises, foreign governments built up large reserves of dollars” (p.374). But with more dollars in the world economy, the United States found it increasingly difficult to convert them back into gold at the official exchange rate of $35 per ounce.  When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, the United States held $10.5 billion in gold, but foreign governments had $40 billion in dollar reserves, and foreign investors and corporations held another $30 billion. The world’s monetary system had become, once again, an “inverted pyramid of paper money perched on a static stack of gold” and Bretton Woods was “buckling so badly it seemed almost certain to collapse” (p.377).

In a single secluded weekend in 1971 at the Presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, Nixon’s advisors fashioned a plan to “close the gold window”: the United States would no longer provide gold to official foreign holders of dollars and instead would impose “aggressive new surcharges and taxes on imports intended to push other countries into revaluing their own currencies” (p.381).  When Nixon agreed to his advisors’ proposal,  the Bretton Woods system, which had “begun with fanfare, an unprecedented series of conferences and the deepest investigation in history into the state of macro-economics” ended overnight, “without almost anyone realizing it” (p.385). The era of fixed exchange rates was over, with currency values henceforth to be determined by “what traders and investors thought they were worth” (p.392).  Since 1971, the world’s monetary system has operated on what Conway describes as an “ad hoc basis, with no particular sense of the direction in which to follow” (p.401).

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            In his epilogue, Conway cites a 2011 Bank of England study that showed that between 1948 and the early 1970s, the world enjoyed a “period of economic growth and stability that has never been rivaled – before or since” (p.388).  In Bretton Woods member states during this period “life expectancy climbed swiftly higher, inequality fell, and social welfare systems were constructed which, for the time being at least, seemed eminently affordable” (p.388).  The “imperfect” and “short-lived” (p.406) system which Keynes and White fashioned at Bretton Woods may not be the full explanation for these developments but it surely contributed.  In the messy world of international economics, that system has “come to represent something hopeful, something closer to perfection” (p.408).  The two men at the center of this captivating story came to Bretton Woods intent upon repairing the world’s economic system and replacing it with something better — something that might avert future economic depressions and the resort to war to settle differences.  “For a time,” Conway concludes, “they succeeded” (p.408).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 8, 2017


Filed under British History, European History, History, United States History, World History

A Particular Sort of Friendship



Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: 

Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal 

     In the long history of espionage – sometimes described as the world’s second oldest profession – few chapters are as bizarre and as intriguing as that of the infamous “Cambridge Five”: Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, five well-bred upper class lads who studied at Cambridge University in the 1930s, then left the university to spy for the Soviet Union.  Among them, Philby might qualify as the most infamous. Even by the standards of spies, Philby’s duplicity and mendacity were breathtaking. The historical consensus is that, during his long career as a British-Soviet double agent, Philby provided more damaging information to the Soviets than any of his peers: details on British counterintelligence activities, the identities of British agents and operatives, the structure of Britain’s intelligence services, even information on his father and wife Aileen.  These betrayals led directly to the deaths of countless persons.

     But the betrayals that form the core of Ben Macintyre’s account of Philby and his milieu, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, involve Philby’s friendship with his protégé within the British intelligence service, Nicolas Elliot; and, to a lesser extent, with his American counterpart James Jesus Angleton. By focusing on Philby’s relationships with Elliot and Angleton, Macintyre seeks to capture what he describes as a “particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history.” His book, unlike others on Philby, is “less about politics, ideology, and accountability than personality [and] character” (p.xv). Macintyre, a writer-at-large for The Times of London, also casts much light on the insularity of upper class Britain’s ruling elite in the mid-20th century, a “family” where “mutual trust was so absolute and unquestioned that there was no need for elaborate security precautions” (p.88). Although not quite a “real-life-spy-thriller,” Macintyre’s compact and measured account is in its own way as riveting as the spy fiction of Ian Fleming, who appears briefly here as a Naval Intelligence Officer and confidante of Elliot; or of John Le Carré, the author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based in part on Philby’s story, who has written a short “Afterword” to Macintyre’s book.

* * *

     Harold Adrian Russell Philby — nicknamed “Kim” after the boy in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim — was born in India in 1912, the son of a well-known author and explorer who became a civil servant in India and later converted to Islam. Philby was educated in elite British private schools (paradoxically termed “public schools”) and at Cambridge’s prestigious Trinity College, where he also began espionage work for the Soviet Union. He launched his career with British intelligence during World War II. He served for a while as head of Britain’s primary counterintelligence unit, Section V of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the M16, coordinating Britain’s anti-Soviet clandestine activity while simultaneously providing information to the Soviets. He led his double life in London and in foreign assignments in Istanbul, Washington, and Beirut. From Beirut, he defected to Moscow in 1963.

     The word most consistently used to describe Philby was “charm,” Macintyre writes, that “intoxicating, beguiling, and occasionally lethal English quality.”  Philby could “inspire and convey affection with such ease that few ever noticed they were being charmed. Male and female, old and young, rich and poor, Kim enveloped them all” (p.19). Like many intelligent and idealistic young men coming of age in the 1930s, Philby became a believer in the great Soviet experiment.  His beliefs were “radical but simple”: the rich had “exploited the poor for too long; the only bulwark against fascism was Soviet communism . . . capitalism was doomed and crumbling; the British establishment was poisoned by Nazi leanings” (p.37-38). There is no evidence that Philby “ever questioned the ideology he had discovered at Cambridge, changed his opinions, or seriously acknowledged the iniquities of practical communism,” Macintyre argues. Moreover, Philby “never shared or discussed his views, either with friend or foe. Instead, he retained and sustained his faith, without the need for priests or fellow believers, in perfect isolation.  Philby regarded himself as an ideologue and a loyalist; in truth, he was a dogmatist, valuing only one opinion, his own” (p.215).

     But Macintyre’s story revolves around Nicholas Elliot almost as much as Philby.  Born five years after Philby in 1917, Elliot was the son of the Headmaster at Eton, one of Britain’s most prestigious public schools.  Elliot and Philby were “two men of almost identical tastes and upbringing” (p.2), as close as “two heterosexual, upper-class midcentury Englishmen could be” (p.249). The two men:

learned the spy trade together during the Second World War. When that war was over, they rose together through the ranks of British intelligence, sharing every secret. The belonged to the same clubs, drank in the same bars, wore the same well-tailored clothes, and married women of their own tribe. But all that time, Philby had one secret he never shared: he was covertly working for Moscow, taking everything he was told by Elliot and passing it on to his Soviet spymasters (p.1).

     During World War II, the American James Jesus Angleton built a strong working relationship with both Elliot and Philby, working in the counterintelligence section of the Office of Strategic Services that was the direct counterpart to M16’s Section V.  Angleton was a Yale graduate who enjoyed the bonhomie of time spent with Elliot and Philby, trading information in exchanges often fueled by substantial amounts of alcohol. After World War II, Angleton became head of counterintelligence at the CIA. No two spies symbolized the close rapport between British and American intelligence services during the early Cold War than Phllby and Angleton, Macintyre contends.

     The dichotomy and tension between M15, Britain’s Security Service, and M16, its Secret Intelligence Service, runs throughout Macintyre’s story.  Americans can appreciate the differences between the two units, as Macintyre compares M15 to the FBI and M16 to to the CIA. The two services were “fundamentally dissimilar in outlook. M15 tended to recruit former policemen and soldiers, men who sometimes spoke with regional accents and frequently did not know, or care about, the right order to use the cutlery at a formal dinner. They enforced the law and defended the realm, caught spies and prosecuted them” (p.162). M16 by contrast was a prototype upper class Establishment institution, “more public school and Oxbridge; its accent more refined, its tailoring better. Its agents and officers frequently broke the laws of other countries in pursuit of secrets and did so with a certain swagger” (p.162).  But along with this swagger came a tendency in the old boy network that was the M16 not to ask questions about one of their own and to assume that all members of the elite club were what they seemed.

     The extent to which alcohol drove Philby and fueled his exchanges with Elliot, Angleton and other counterparts is astounding. “Even by the heavy-drinking standards of wartime, the spies were spectacular boozers” (p.25), McIntyre notes. In his “Afterword,” Le Carré describes alcohol as “so much a part of the culture of M16” that a non-drinker “could look like a subversive or worse” (p.298).  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how these spies could have maintained their guard with so much alcohol in their systems.   And, as Macintyre further notes, no one “served (or consumed) alcohol with quite the same joie de vivre and determination as Kim Philby” (p.26).  Alcohol helped Philby “maintain the double life, for an alcoholic has already become divorced from his or her real self, hooked on an artificial reality” (p.215).

       During World War II, Philby provided the Soviet Union with the names of several thousand members of the Nazi resistance movement in Germany, Germans worling with Britain in the hope that a genuine democracy might be established in their country after the war.  Many were rounded up and presumed shot by the Soviets after the Russian conquest of what became East Germany.  After the war, Philby was posted to Istanbul, where he served as head of British intelligence, under the cover of First Secretary at the British Consulate. He served in a similar position in Washington, D.C. From these positions, he furnished the Soviets with a steady stream of invaluable information. As Macintyre emphasizes, Philby not only told his Soviet handlers what Britain’s spymasters were doing; he was also able to “tell Moscow what London was thinking” (p.104). Philby undermined British counter-revolutionary operations in Georgia, Armenia and Albania, with many of the operatives dying in uneven combat.  These were “ill-conceived, badly planned” operations that “might well have failed anyway; but Philby could not have killed [the operatives] more certainly if he had executed them himself.” (p.118).  Their ensuing deaths did not trouble him, then or later.

     There was what Macintyre describes as a “peculiar paradox” to Philby’s double dealing: “if all his anti-Soviet operations failed, he would soon be out of a job; but if they succeeded too well, he risked inflicting real damage on his adopted cause” (p.95).  Philby thus maintained a “pattern of duality” in which he “consistently undermined his own work but never aroused suspicion. He made elaborate plans to combat Soviet intelligence and then immediately betrayed them to Soviet intelligence; he urged ever greater efforts to combat the communist threat and personified that threat; his own section worked smoothly, yet nothing quite succeeded” (p.103).  

     In May 1951, fellow double agents Burgess and Maclean suddenly disappeared, fleeing to Moscow.  Maclean had come under suspicion as a Soviet mole within British intelligence and Philby sent Burgess, who lived with Philby and his wife in Washington, to alert Maclean that he was about to be arrested. Philby had not intended that Burgess himself flee. When he did — which Philby considered an act of betrayal – Philby himself came under suspicion as the “third man,” still another Soviet mole within British intelligence, and was forced to resign from M16.

     Over the course of the next several years, Philby was investigated by both M15 and M16, with M15 taking the position that Philby was a Soviet spy, but without the evidence to prove its case, while M16 remained equally certain of his innocence, but without evidence to exonerate him. Similarly, in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were convinced that Philby was a Soviet agent, whereas Angleton’s CIA defended him. Philby’s case thus remained in limbo for “months and then years,” a “bubbling unsolved mystery, still entirely unknown to the public but the source of poisonous discord between the intelligence services” (p.173).

     In 1955, Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan agreed with an M16 report that with no hard evidence despite four years of investigation, it would be “entirely contrary to the English tradition for a man to have to prove his innocence. . . in a case where the prosecution has nothing but suspicion to go upon” (p.186). Based upon the report and a subsequent softball M16 interview of Philby – in which, Macintyre speculates, Elliot was likely one of the two interviewers — Macmillan officially exonerated Philby.

     No longer in limbo, Philby resumed work for M16, going to Beirut in 1956 under cover as Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist.  Philby’s nearly seamless return to British intelligence, Macintyre observes, “displayed the old boys’ network running at its smoothest: a word in an ear, a nod, a drink with one of the chaps at the club, and the machinery kicked in” (p.208).  Journalism can be the perfect cover for a spy and double agent, allowing the journalist to ask “direct, unsubtle, and impertinent questions about the most sensitive subjects without arousing suspicion” (p.211). But Philby’s work as a journalist proved to be his undoing.

      What British authorities took as iron clad proof of Philby’s double agency came from Flora Solomon, a prominent Jewish-Russian émigré to Britain who had known Philby since the 1930s (Solomon’s son Peter founded Amnesty International in 1961). Solomon’s main passion by the 1960s was the State of Israel, which she “defended and supported in word, deed, and funds at every opportunity” (p.244).  Solomon became increasingly irritated by what she perceived as anti-Israel and hence pro-Soviet bias to Philby’s Middle East reporting. Almost casually, she reported to another pillar of the Anglo-Jewish community, Lord Victor Rothschild, then Chairman of Marks & Spencer’s who had worked in M15 during the war, that Philby had clumsily tried to recruit her to spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s.  Rothschild, in turn, reported Solomon’s information to M15.  Solomon’s revelation was the ammunition that M15 had lacked and the evidence of guilt that Philby’s M16 supporters had always demanded.

     Although still not convinced that it had enough evidence to successfully prosecute Philby, M16 sent Elliot to Beirut in January 1963 to extract a confession. M16’s ostensible strategy was to offer Philby immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession.  In a series of tense meetings between the long-time friends, which Macintyre ably recounts based upon secret recordings, Philby became increasingly open about his years of activity as a Soviet agent, even providing the names of Blunt and Carncross as the fourth and fifth Cambridge spies.  Signed confession in hand, Elliot left Beirut.

     Shortly thereafter, Philby failed to appear at an Embassy dinner party, fleeing to Moscow on a Soviet freighter. Elliot, Macintyre writes, “could not have made it easier for Philby to flee, whether intentionally or otherwise. In defiance of every rule of intelligence, he left Beirut without making any provision for monitoring a man who had just confessed to being a double agent: Philby was not followed or watched; his flat was not placed under surveillance; his phone was not tapped; and M16’s allies in the Lebanese security service were not alerted. . . Elliot simply walked away from Beirut and left the door to Moscow wide open” (p.267).

     Elliot later claimed that the possibility that Philby might defect to Moscow had never occurred to him or to anyone else, a claim which “defies belief” (p.266).  But Macintyre suggests that M16 may have deliberately allowed Philby to escape to Moscow. “Nobody wanted him in London” (p.266). Although Elliot had made clear to Philby that if he failed to cooperate fully, the “immunity deal was off and the confession he had signed would be used against him,” the prospect of prosecuting Philby in Britain was “anathema to the intelligence services. . . politically damaging and profoundly embarrassing” (p.266-67).  M16 may have therefore concluded that allowing Philby to join Burgess and Maclean in Moscow was the “tidiest solution all a round” (p.267).

     From the moment he finally understood and accepted Philby’s betrayal, “Elliott’s world changed utterly: inside he was crushed, humiliated, enraged, and saddened.” For the rest of his life, Elliot never ceased to “wonder how a man to whom he had felt so close, and who was so similar in every way, had been, underneath, a fraud” (p.250). Elliot also began to ask himself:

how many people he, James Angleton, and others had unwittingly condemned to death. Some of the victims had names . . . Many casualties remained nameless . . . Elliott would never be able to calculate the precise death tally, for who can remember every conversation, every confidence exchanged with a friend stretching back three decades? . . . Elliott had given away almost every secret he had to Philby; but Philby had never given away his own ( p.249).

Although discredited within British intelligence after Philby’s defection, Elliot remained in the service until 1968.  In the 1980s, he became an unofficial advisor on intelligence matters to Prime Minister Thatcher.  He died in 1994.

     As to Angleton, after Philby’s defection, a “profound and poisonous paranoia” seemed to seize him. In Angleton’s warped logic, “If Philby had fooled him, then there must be many other KGB spies in positions of influence in the West. . . Convinced that the CIA was riddled with Soviet spies, Angleton set about rooting them out, detecting layer after layer of deception surrounding him. He suspected that a host of world leaders were all under KGB control” (p.285-86).  Angleton was forced out of the CIA in 1974, when the “extent of his illegal mole hunting was revealed” (p.287). He died in 1987.

     Philby lived his remaining years, a quarter of a century, in the Soviet Union. The Soviets provided Philby with accommodations and allowed him to live a relatively undisturbed life. But they hardly welcomed him. He was of little use to them by then. In Moscow, Macintyre writes, Philby at times “sounded like a retired civil servant put out to pasture (which, in a way, he was), harrumphing at the vulgarity of modern life, protesting against change . . . He demanded not only admiration for this ideological consistency, for having ‘stayed the course,’ but sympathy for what it had cost him” (p.284). In his last years, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, which he compared to a knighthood.

* * *

     With no apparent remorse and few if any second thoughts about the path he chose to travel during his life’s journey, Philby died in the Soviet Union in 1988.  He was buried in Moscow’s Kuntsevo cemetery, a long distance from Cambridge.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 24, 2016






Filed under British History, European History, History, Soviet Union

Remarkable Life, Remarkably Sad Ending



Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, A Life

     Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor, born in 1855, became the successor to her father as a radical analyst of industrial capitalism. But she was also an instrumental if under-appreciated force in her own right in the emergence of social democracy in Victorian Britain and internationally in the late 19th century. Her remarkable life, as Rachel Holmes writes in her comprehensive biography, entitled simply Eleanor Marx, A Life, was “as varied and full of contradictions as the materialist dialectic in which she was, quite literally, conceived . . . If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice” (p.xvi). Holmes, a cultural historian from Gloucestershire, England, who specializes in gender issues, characterizes Eleanor as the “foremother of socialist feminism” (p.xii).  She emphasizes how Eleanor supplemented her father’s work by defining for the first time the place of women in the working class struggles of the 19th century.

     But in conventional (Karl) Marxist thinking, the personal and the political are never far removed and they are ever so tightly intertwined in Holmes’ account, which focuses heavily on interactions within the Marx family circle. In the last third of the book, Holmes provides heartbreaking detail on how the three closest men in Eleanor’s life betrayed her: her father Karl; her father’s collaborator and Eleanor’s life-long mentor, Friedrich Engels; and her common law husband, Edward Aveling. The collective burden of these three men’s betrayal drove Eleanor to an apparent suicide in 1898 at age 43.

     Adhering to a chronological format, Holmes writes in a light, breezy style that, oddly, is well suited to bear the book’s heavy themes. Nearly everyone in the Marx family circle had nicknames, which Holmes uses throughout the book, adding to its informal flavor. Eleanor herself is “Tussy,” her father is “Möhr,” and her mother Jenny is “Möhme.” Eleanor had two sisters, Laura and Jenny, the latter referred to as “Jennychen,” little Jenny.  Jennychen died two months prior to father Karl in 1883. Two older brothers and one sister failed to survive infancy.

     The Marx family’s inner circle also included Engels, “the General,” and its long-time and exceptionally loyal servant, Helen Dumuth, “Lenchen.” Engels, the son of a rich German industrialist with substantial business interests in Manchester, was Marx’s life-long partner and benefactor and akin to an uncle or second father to Eleanor. Lenchen, whom Holmes describes as “history’s housekeeper” (p.342) and the keeper of the family secrets, followed the Marx family from Germany to Britain and shared the progressive values of Eleanor’s parents. Lenchen and Eleanor’s mother Jenny were childhood friends and remained remarkably close in adulthood.

    Lenchen had a son, Freddy, four years older than Eleanor, who “grew up in foster care with minimal education” (p.199). As Eleanor grew older, she gradually intuited that Engels was Freddy’s father, although Freddy’s paternal origins were never mentioned within the family, least of all by Engels himself, who always seemed uncomfortable around Freddy. Freddy resurfaced in the tumultuous period prior to Eleanor’s untimely death, when he became Eleanor’s closest confidant — almost a substitute for her two brothers whom she never knew.

* * *

    By the time Eleanor was born in 1855, her father Karl was already famous as the author of important tracts on the coming Communist revolution in Europe. Banished from his native Germany as a dangerous radical, Marx took refuge in Britain. The household in which Eleanor grew up, “living and breathing historical materialism and socialism” (p.47), was disorderly but still somehow structured. Father Karl was notorious for being unable to balance his family’s budget, and was consistently borrowing money. Much of this money came from Engels.

    Eleanor came of age just prior to the time when British universities began to admit women, and she was almost entirely home-schooled and self-educated. Yet, the depth and range of her learning and intellectual prowess were nothing short of extraordinary. With her father (and Engels) serving as her guides, Eleanor started reading novels at age six, and went on to teach herself history, politics and economics. She also had an amazing facility for languages. The only member of the family who could claim English as a native language, Eleanor mastered German, her parents’ native language, then French, and later other European languages, most notably Russian. She became a skilled translator and interpreter, producing the first English language translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

    By her early twenties, Eleanor had demonstrated exceptional organizing skills that her father lacked, along with genuine empathy for the plight of working families (which her father also lacked). The more pragmatic Eleanor seemed to be in all places where workers gathered and sought to organize. She supported dock and gas workers’ unions and their strikes. She became actively involved in London education policy, Irish Home Rule, the evolution of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, and the campaign in France for amnesty for the revolutionaries of the 1870-71 Paris Commune.

     Eleanor’s work in mobilizing trade unions provided impetus to the emergence of the Independent Labor Party in the early 1890s, Britain’s first democratic socialist political party. Her work clarified that for Eleanor and her socialist colleagues Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in the sense that it demanded that people think in boldly different terms about capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the workers who fueled the capitalist system.  But it was also a doctrine that rejected violent revolution in favor of respect for the main tenets of liberal (“bourgeois”!) democracy, including elections, parliamentary governance and the rule of law.  Her views crystallized as she and her colleagues battled with anti-capitalist anarchists, who did not believe in any form of government. Eleanor saw “no way of squaring anti-democratic anarchism with democratic socialism and its commitment to work within a representative parliamentary system” (p.397), Holmes writes. Eleanor Marx was more Bernie Sanders than Bolshevik.

     While involved in organizational activities, Eleanor maintained an abiding interest in the theatre.  Unlike her first class talent for organizing workers, her acting abilities were modest. Shakespeare and Ibsen were Eleanor’s particular interests among major playwrights, whose works contained messages for her on going organizing activities. Given her organizational skills, Holmes thinks that Eleanor would have made a brilliant theater director. But such a position was closed to women in her day. Instead, her “theatre for creating a new cast of radical actors in English art and politics” was the recently opened British Museum Reading Room, “its lofty dome a metaphor for the seat of the brain, workplace for writers and thinkers” (p.182). Here, in the aftermath of her father’s death in 1883, Eleanor wrote books and articles about her father, becoming his “first biographer and posthumous exponent of his economic theory” (p.195). All subsequent Marx biographers, Holmes indicates, have based their accounts on the “primary sources supplied by Eleanor immediately after her father’s death” (p.196).

     The Reading Room was also the venue where Eleanor first met Edward Aveling, an accomplished actor from comfortable circumstances who became a socialist and Eleanor’s common law husband. Aveling proved himself to be a monstrous villain whose malevolence and treachery dominate the last third of the book, with Aveling the central character in a story that has the intricacy of a Dickens plot coupled with psychological probing worthy of Dostoevsky,

* * *

      Holmes describes Aveling as an “attractive, clever cad who played a significant role in popularizing Darwin and steering British secularists towards socialism. It’s easy to see why his anti-establishment, anti-religious, anti-materialist turn of mind appealed to Eleanor” (p.195). But Aveling was also a con artist and the author of a seemingly endless series of scams, stunningly skillful in talking people — Eleanor among them — into loaning him money that was rarely if ever repaid. Eleanor “failed to recognize that his character was the projection of a consummate actor” (p.195), Holmes argues.

     Aveling was further a first rate philanderer, with a steady stream of affairs, most frequently with young actresses or his female students. Although these dalliances made Eleanor “emotionally lonely,” she came to accept them. Eleanor and Edward were proponents of what was then termed “free love,” but the freedom was all on Edward’s side.  The net result, Holmes writes, was that Eleanor took on the “aspect of conventional stoical wife and Edward of conventional philandering husband” (p.238).

    Marx and Aveling jointly published a seminal work on women in the social democratic movement, “The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View,” probably the only positive product of their relationship. “The Woman Question” made “absolutely clear,” Holmes writes, that the “struggle for women’s emancipation and the equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution” (p.262). Marx and Aveling aimed in their landmark essay to show that “feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement, and that sexual inequality was fundamentally a question of economics” (p.260). Aside from their genuine collaboration on “The Woman Question,” just about everything in the fourteen-year Aveling-Marx relationship was negative.

     Holmes documents how Eleanor’s family and friends privately expressed doubt about Aveling and his suitability for Eleanor. Toward the end of her shortened life, they were expressing these doubts directly to Eleanor. The couple did not marry because Aveling reported to Eleanor that he was still legally married to another woman who was “emotionally unstable, difficult, vindictive and refused to divorce him” (p.420).  In fact, Aveling schemed to preserve the marriage to inherit his wife’s estate should she die. When she died, Aveling hid this fact from Eleanor over the course of five years. Finally, Aveling simply walked away from Eleanor and the house they kept together, “without explanation, pocketing all the cash, money orders and movable values he could find” (p.415), to marry a young actress named Eva Frye.

     When Eleanor learned of Aveling’s marriage sometime during the final days of March 1898, she was “confronted by the fact that Edward, after all his fine words about free love and open unions being as morally and emotionally binding as marriage under the law, was simply a liar. And she was a gull, a fool who had willingly suspended her disbelief – because she loved him” (p.420). One of the books’ most puzzling mysteries is why Eleanor, with her keen awareness of women’s vulnerability and their potential for mistreatment from men in what she saw as a rigidly patriarchal society, stayed so long with Aveling. Holmes finds an answer in the deeper recesses of what she terms Eleanor’s “cultural ancestry,” which presented her with the:

questionable example of loyal, dutiful wives and mothers. The formative examples of her Möhme and “second mother” Lenchen, both utterly devoted to her father, shaped her attitude to Edward. Unintentionally, Tussy’s mothers were dangerous, unhelpful role models, ill-equipping their daughter for freedom from subordination to romantic illusions (p.227).

     Eleanor’s frentic final weeks were marked by  desperate correspondence with Freddy, Engels’s putative son. Realizing that a codicil to a will she had executed a few years earlier left most of her estate to Aveling, Eleanor wrote to Freddy that she was “so alone” and “face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was. And I want someone to consult with” (p.418).

     Eleanor executed a second codicil, reversing the earlier one and leaving her estate to her surviving sister, nieces and nephews. The codicil was in an envelope addressed to her lawyer, undelivered on the morning of March 31, 1898. That morning, after a vociferous argument with Edward, Eleanor sent her housekeeper Gertrude Gentry to the local pharmacist with a sealed envelope requesting “chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog” (p.431-32).  The prescription required a signature to be returned to the pharmacy.  Aveling was in the house when the housekeeper left to return the signature to the pharmacy, Holmes asserts, but when the housekeeper returned the second time, she found only Eleanor, lifeless in her bed, wearing a summer dress she was fond of.  Aveling had by then left the premises.

    What Aveling did that day and why he left the house are among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eleanor’s death. The death was officially ruled a suicide after a slipshod coroner’s hearing, the second codicil was never given effect, and Aveling inherited Eleanor’s estate. Many, including Aveling’s own family, were convinced that Aveling had “murdered Eleanor by engineering her suicide” (p.433). Calls for Aveling to be brought to trial for murder, theft and fraud followed  him for the following four months, but were mooted when he died of kidney disease on August 2, 1898.

* * *

      If Aveling’s duplicity was the most direct causative link to Eleanor’s apparent suicide, the revelation in Eleanor’s final years of an astounding betrayal on the part of her long-deceased father and Engels, at a time when Engels was dying of cancer, almost certainly contributed to Eleanor’s decision to end her life. But I will refrain from divulging details of the dark secret the two men had maintained with the hope that you might scurry to Holmes’ thoroughly-researched and often riveting account to learn all you can about this remarkable woman, her “profound, progressive contribution to English political thought – and action” (p.xi), and the tragic ending to her life.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 28, 2016


Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Politics

When the Boot Was on the Other Foot


R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane:
The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War 

          R.M. Douglas’ Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War tells the little-known story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, Volkdeutsch, primarily from Czechoslovakia and Poland, and secondarily from Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania in 1945 and 1946, into a battered and beaten Germany. By virtue of Article 13 of the Potsdam Decree of August 1945, the victorious allied powers – the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union — specifically mandated “orderly and humane” expulsions of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. The Volkdeutsch populations of Romania and Yugoslavia were not covered. Article 13 provides Douglas with his title Orderly and Humane, used with forceful irony throughout this engaging work.

        In 1945 and 1946, approximately 12 million ethnic Germans were uprooted from the lands where they had lived, sometimes for generations. Their expulsion was not only the “greatest forced migration in human history, but may well constitute the greatest single movement of population” (p.65), Douglas writes. It gave rise to a “massive state-sponsored carnival of violence” (p.129), resulting in a death toll that Douglas estimates to have been somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million. As such, the expulsions were “unique in the peacetime history of twentieth-century Europe” (p.129). Yet, Douglas notes, this was an episode in European history that “escaped the notice of most Europeans, and practically all Americans, other than those physically present on the scene” (p.129).

        The want of attention given to this episode in the United States and Great Britain may be attributable to what Douglas describes as the “dominant narratives about the nature and meaning of the Second World War” (p.353) – the “good war” notion — in which the Western democracies, allied with the Soviet Union, fought and defeated an irrefutably evil enemy. In the abstract, the thought of uprooting 12 million people on account of their ethnicity and sending them to another country would make most of us recoil.  But there was nothing abstract about the circumstances of ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia, Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe in 1945 and 1946.

       These were lands which Nazi Germany invaded and went on to commit uncountable and unspeakable atrocities. Whether the Volkdeutsche should be regarded as “perpetrators,” “victims” or “by-standers” of Nazi atrocities is, Douglas writes, a “question without an obvious answer” (p.59). Yet, he writes elsewhere that during World War II, the Czechoslovak German ethnic population, Sudetendeutsche, “whether enthusiastic Hitlerites or passive anti-Nazis, continued to serve the Greater Germany of which they considered themselves a part” (p.38). In this respect, they “did not differ from any of the other ethnic German . . . communities in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states and elsewhere who, regardless of their individual political leanings, either aligned themselves with the Reich or did nothing to oppose it” (p.38).

       Douglas must therefore address a variant of the notion of collective responsibility: to what extent should those of German ethnicity be held accountable for the crimes that another government committed? Czechoslovakia and Poland argued that the Volkdeutsche were “even more guilty that the people of the ’old Reich’ by virtue of having added treachery to barbarity” (p.287). Although the Allies never explicitly issued a finding of collective responsibility of the Volkdeutsche, there was little dissent in 1945 to the view that Nazism was at bottom an extreme manifestation of “brutal pan-Germanism” with which the “minds and hearts” of ethnic Germans, like those within Germany, had been “thoroughly imbued” (p.287). Moreover, does calling attention to the multiple human rights violations committed during the expulsions risk disparaging those who suffered because of the still greater crimes of Nazi Germany? Wasn’t there room for what Douglas terms “cathartic cruelty” (p.370) toward all Volkdeutsche once the heinous Nazi enemy was defeated and the “boot was on the other foot” (p.9).

       These questions lurk behind Douglas’ methodically written yet passionately argued work. His work is not easy to read. Douglas’ prose sometimes seems dense, but that is largely a consequence of his comprehensive coverage, in which he presents his subject matter from every conceivable angle and delves deeply into each angle. There are full chapters dedicated to the place of the Volkdeutsche in countries outside Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; prior European experiments in mass expulsions; Nazi Germany’s forced expulsions during World War II; camps utilized as holding grounds for expellees (sometimes the same camps the Nazis had utilized); treatment of Volkdeutsche children; administration of territory formerly occupied by Volkdeutsche and confiscation of their property; resettlement and integration of Volkdeutsche into Germany; application of principles of international law to the expulsions; and vestiges of the expulsions still with us today.

        Throughout, Douglas emphasizes how expulsion of the Volkdeutsche out of other states and their absorption into the ruins of Germany was undertaken with shockingly little advanced planning — remarkable for the “deliberate refusal of those who carried [the expulsions] out . . . to make any preparations, of however rudimentary a character, for an enterprise whose disruption to the normal life of central Europe was second only to that caused by the war itself” (p.65). Douglas painstakingly documents numerous other failings of the public authorities who participated in or condoned the widespread human rights abuses resulting from the expulsions. But he reserves his harshest judgments for the indispensable roles played in the expulsions by the Western Allies, the United States and Great Britain who, he writes, “disavowed any responsibility for the suffering that resulted, which was, they asserted, entirely the concern of the expelling states or of the Germans themselves” (p.285).

* * *

      Two terms were used to describe the expulsions of Volkdeutsche during the height of the expulsions — roughly the 20 months between May 1945 and December 1946 – “wild expulsions,” putatively spontaneous actions of feed up citizens ridding their country of all vestiges of Nazism; and “ordered expulsions,” those expulsions sanctioned by the Potsdam accords in August 1945 for Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, designed to put an end to wild expulsions. One of the many contributions which Douglas makes to our understanding of the period is his demonstration that there were very few actual “wild expulsions.” Most were not carried out by mobs but rather “by troops, police, and militia, acting under orders and more often than not executing policies laid down at the highest levels” (p.94). Yet, the expelling governments encouraged the notion of wild expulsions, which amply suited their interests.

       The most notable exception occurred in Czechoslovakia immediately after the Nazi capitulation, when Czechs hunted Germans across Czechoslovakia throughout May and into June 1945. The prime movers were local civilians, “albeit highly politicized ones” (p.100). But, Douglas cautions, “[f]ew of the misnamed ‘wild expulsions’ that took place later during the summer [of 1945] followed this pattern” (p.99-100). Most had at least the tacit support of state authorities.

          Czechoslovakia and Poland receive most of Douglas’ attention. The Czech expulsions in the aftermath of the war were carried out with a ruthlessness not exceeded elsewhere. In the typical case, Douglas writes, Czechoslovakia’s Volkdeutsche, were “rounded up, normally at an hour’s notice, permitted to gather together some hand baggage; searched for contraband; and then marched on foot either to the border or to a holding camp” (p.100). Ridding the country of its Sudentland Germans had been a project of Czech leaders since the country’s creation in the aftermath of World War I.

        Czechoslovak leader Edouard Beneš was convinced that the Second World War presented his country with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete the Czechoslovakian national project” by ridding itself of unwanted minority populations through mass expulsions (p.16). By 1942, the Czechoslovak government in exile was “openly committed to the removal of all or most of its Sudetendeutsch population after the war. . . no more than 600,000 or 700,000 Sudeten Germans, or a fifth of the prewar population, would be allowed to remain” (p.21).

        Poland’s ethnic German population was far smaller than that in Czechoslovakia, only about 3% of its pre-war population. By September 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London had determined that those Germans “who do not leave Polish territory after the war will have to removed from it” (p.25). This applied equally to the area of the Polish state in 1939, and what was termed the “recovered territories” — the territories “whose incorporation into Poland will be demanded as a result of the present war” (p.25).  Although Poland’s record of respecting the rights of Jewish, German and Ukrainian minorities between the wars was “thoroughly undistinguished” (p.and Nazi occupation had been “infinitely more savage and inhumane” in Poland than in Czechoslovakia, Polish expulsions were “not marked by the kind of violent reprisals seen in Czechoslovakia” (p.108). )

       As ethnic Germans were removed from Poland’s recovered territories and Czechoslovakia’s Sudentland — termed the “Wild West” in both countries (p.257) — Czechoslovak and Polish citizens’ “enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth” (p.255). Douglas describes the “locust cloud of ‘gold diggers,’ ‘gleaners,’ or ‘prospectors’ who descended on the cleared areas, either to seize the most desirable houses and businesses or simply to loot vacated premises and carry the goods away for use or resale” (p.267). Neither country had drawn up a detailed plan to determine the method by which German property was to be confiscated and redistributed and, in both, “all kinds of moneymaking schemes and scams proliferated” (p.181). The central governments “lost control of the process of redistributing confiscated German properties from the very outset, and never fully regained it. . . ‘gold digging’ permeated the whole of Czechoslovakia and Polish society, from the very bottom to the highest echelons” (p.267). Such “gold digging” even extended to Christian churches, which “enthusiastically embraced the opportunity both to acquire property and to eliminate the local influence of competing sects” (p.267).

         The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas. Yet, proven cases of opposition to forced removal in Czechoslovakia and Poland were “nowhere to be found. The uniform, almost eerie, meekness of the German population was recorded in report an after report in both Czechoslovakia and Poland” (p.115). The lack of opposition was due in part to the demographics of those expelled. Although the justification had been to remove the most dangerous ethnic Germans, those likely to comprise a subversive fifth column, in fact the opposite occurred. The least dangerous ethnic Germans, predominately children and the elderly, were expelled “while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will” (p.193). In Poland, “[v]irtually every report remarked upon the extraordinarily high proportion of elderly people included in the transports. . . [T]he Polish authorities were taking the opportunity to rid themselves of the unproductive element of the German population, retaining employable males for compulsory labor” (p.169).

        Up to sixty-five thousand Hungarian ethnic Germans were removed from Hungary by February 1945, about one third of whom died in Soviet camps. Hungary was the “only country in which expellees felt confident enough to display more than negligible resistance to their expropriation and removal” (p.215). Although the Soviet Union opposed expulsion of the Volkdeutsch population from Yugoslavia into their zone of Germany, Yugoslav leader Tito was willing to risk alienating his Soviet ideological allies by expelling Yugoslavia’s Volkdeutsche population. The deportations from Romania were carried out in as chaotic a manner as those in Czechoslovakia and Poland. As many as seventy-five thousand Volksdeutsche were removed. Others were taken up into internment camps, to “facilitate the redistribution of their property” (p.112). Although most ethnic Germans from Romania were not formally deported, they were “confronted with conditions that made it impossible for many of them to remain” (p.112).

         Douglas’ devotes a full chapter to camps set up to temporarily house Volkdeutsche prior to their expulsion to Germany. In Poland, the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz was quickly made available for Volkdeutsche.  Douglas also devotes a full chapter to the effect of the expulsions on children. Although the expelling countries and the Western Allies had subscribed in 1926 to the International Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which stipulated that children were to be the “first to receive relief in times of distress” without taking into account “considerations of race nationality, or creed,” the convention remained a “dead letter” throughout most of 1945 and 1946 (p.240).  With a few exceptions, there is “little evidence to suggest that the authorities exerted themselves to shield children from the harsher aspects of camp life” (p.236). Rather, the response of authorities to humanitarian appeals on behalf of children was “almost without exception to ignore them” (p.235). Between 160,000 and 180,000 of the children who became separated from their parents in the course of the transfer operations had not been reunited with them by 1950. Despite some general sympathy for children, Douglas concludes, “Western opinion in general was not ready to deviate from the established narrative of Germans as ‘perpetrators,’ regardless of the age or exact status of the ‘Germans’ concerned” (p.240).

       Early in 1947, Great Britain became the first of the three Allies to call for an end to the Volkdeutsche expulsions, with the United States following shortly thereafter. The Western Allies did not withdraw their support for the expulsions they had authorized on humanitarian grounds. Rather, they “found themselves confronted with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economics of the expelling states for years to come” (p.193). What had changed by the end of 1946 for Britain, Douglas argues, was not the “degree of suffering caused to the expellees, but the enthusiasm of British administrators and politicians for a project that was creating an accelerating, open-ended, and ruinously expensive social crisis in their occupation zone [of Germany], for which taxpayers at home would have to pick up the bill” (p.196). Thus, after “coping—or failing to cope – with the ‘wild expulsions’ of 1945, and finding the ‘organized expulsions’ of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving to be an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible” (p.193).

       Critics of the expulsions had argued that the Volkdeutsche would never be successfully integrated into Germany, their new homeland, and would remain a glaring social problem that could affect the overall health of the country as it tried to rebuild after the devastating war. On this score, surprisingly, the critics were wrong. Douglas stresses how little social upheaval could be attributed to the Volkdeutsche immigrants in post-war Germany. Fears of widespread juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and educational underperformance were “not borne out by events” (p.253). Within an “incredibly few years,” the expellees had become “effectively – if not quite completely – integrated into the larger society in both West and East Germany” (p.302). Roughly one-fourth of Germany’s population today is descended from expellees from neighboring countries in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

* * *

         There are few heroes in this prodigiously researched account. Although Douglas meticulously demonstrates the wholesale violations of human rights committed by the expelling countries, above all else his book is a searing critique of the policies pursued by the Western Allies, Great Britain and the United States. One of the most disturbing aspects of the expulsions, he writes, was “how little those Britons and Americans directly involved in their oversight were disturbed by them” (p.369). Many “derived a degree of vicarious satisfaction from the anguish the expellees were undergoing. They also regarded the deliberately cruel way in which the expulsions were often conducted as not only forgivable but cathartic for the expelling societies themselves” (p.369-70). At several points, Douglas suggests that the Western Allies sanctioned policies that invite comparisons to the methods of Nazi Germany. In a particularly impassioned summation, he notes that the Western Allies had:

not just ignored, but consciously and after mature consideration rejected, the unanimous advice of experts who had predicated with great accuracy the state of affair their policies would produce. They had knowingly opted to pursue a course that would cause greater rather than less suffering, so as to generate what they regarded as an “educational” effect upon the defeated German population. They had dismissed as irrelevant distinctions between the innocent and the guilty, far less any effort to distinguish between degrees of guilt. They had encouraged their allies to carry out, and promised their cooperation in accomplishing, deeds for which they would later prosecute their enemies as war crimes (p.92).

         Douglas categorically rejects the notion that addressing the massive human rights violations attributed to the post-war expulsions might in some sense discount or downplay the “unprecedented barbarities of the Hitler regime” (p.157). Most certainly, he argues, the “connection between the expulsions and the Holocaust, as well as to the Hitler regime’s numerous other atrocities, is both inescapable and appropriate.” But a frame of reference that measures acts of violence and injustice in the expulsions against the “supreme atrocity of our time and assesses the former as being unworthy of notice in comparison with the latter makes such violations more rather than less likely to be repeated” (p.347). The focus of any historical or commemorative treatment of the expulsions, as with the other tragedies of the era, “must remain squarely on the human person,” which during both the war and the post-ear expulsions was “reduced to an abstract category rather than recognized as an all too vulnerable individual” (p.361-62).

* * *

         With the exception of the war years themselves, Europe west of the Soviet Union “had never seen, nor would it again see, so vast a complex of arbitrary detention – one in which tens of thousands, including many children, would lose their lives” (p.156-57). For Douglas, the “most delusional aspect of this entire tragic episode” was the supposition that the expulsions could be “directed against a single group of perceived enemies and then never again resorted to for any of other purpose, that afterwards it would be possible to return to a peaceful, ordered existence in which individual rights would once more be upheld and respected” (p.228). That the post-war expulsions largely escaped the attention of contemporaries elsewhere in Europe and the notice of history today is, Douglas writes, a “chilling commentary on the ease with which great evils in plain sight may go overlooked when they present a spectacle that international public opinion prefers not to see” (p.157). Douglas’ comprehensive and provocative account of this unhappy yet understudied aspect of post-war history provides hope that some lessons can still be derived from it.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 1, 2015


Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, United States History

Two Giants of the Age of Revolutions


Yuval Levin, The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine,
And the Birth of Right and Left 

               Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left took me back to an old friend from college, Edmund Burke, probably Britain’s leading 18th century conservative political thinker, although a Whig not a Tory. I remember writing two term papers on Burke: one compared him to the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre, the other to Montesquieu. I was fascinated by Burke’s approach and his conservative disposition, his support for gradual reform, his aversion to abstract natural rights principles, and his view of society as an intricate web of interactions which, if you tinkered with it too much, would likely make matters worse, not better. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there might have been some conflict between these views of Burke and the dramatic changes students my age were calling for across North America and Europe. Levin’s book compares the thought of Burke to that of Thomas Paine, among the English-speaking world’s most radical 18th century thinkers, a strong proponent of both the American and French Revolutions, and an unwavering advocate of the natural rights theories which Burke abhorred.

               In his introduction, Levin describes his book as a “case study in how ideas move history and in where some of the key ideas that have moved, and still move, our history came from” (p.xi). He indicates that he hopes to demonstrate how the Burke-Paine split presages contemporary America’s conservative-liberal divide. This goes beyond the promise of his sub-title, which suggests rather that the thinking of the two reveals the 18th century “birth” of modern conceptions of Right and Left. Throughout the book’s seven substantive chapters, Levin hints at how he will deliver on the more ambitious promise of his introduction, but by and large that is reserved for the book’s conclusion.

            The seven substantive chapters compare the thinking of the two men on those matters that divided them and much of Europe in the 18th century: revolution versus reform and gradual change; the role in politics of reason, tradition, natural and inherited rights; the debt, if any, which each generation owes to previous and future generations (Paine made each generation debt free, while Burke loaded each generation with massive debts to previous and future ones). Levin once worked for former Congressman and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and writes for The National Review and The Weekly Standard, giving him solid conservative credentials. But as I read his book, it became clear that Levin is no polemicist but rather a scrupulously careful and objective scholar who strives to do justice to both Burke and Paine. At the outset, I surmised that Levin’s personal sympathies had to lie with Burke. By the time I finished, I was less sure.

* * *

              Born in Ireland in 1729 to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, Burke served in Parliament for more than 30 years, where he was no reactionary. He was a leader in almost every reform effort undertaken in Parliament during his time in elected office, a reformer of “financial policy and trade policy, of laws restricting freedom of Catholics and Protestant dissenters, and of the criminal law. He also opposed the slave trade as inhuman and unjust and resisted the undue intervention of the Crown in politics” (p.192-93). Burke supported the American Revolution, finding that Britain had imposed an “unprecedented regime of taxation and limits on commerce in America,” based on what Burke considered to be the dangerous premise that “Parliament had unlimited authority to govern colonial affairs directly” (p.171).

          In Burke’s view, as Levin summarizes it, the “old and tried model will not always work, of course.” But when it fails, “societies would be wise to fix it by gradually building on what does work about it rather than by starting fresh with an untried idea. Burke thus offers a model of gradual change – of evolution rather than revolution” (p.66-67). Levin describes Burke as a forward-looking rather than backward looking traditionalist who believed that the present is better than the past and was “committed to sustaining the means by which it has become better, to facilitate further improvement” (p.78).

          Paine, born in England in 1737, was self-educated, and part polemicist and part political theorist. He disclaimed being well-read and, later in life, appeared to boast when he said, “I neither read books, nor studied other people’s opinions. I thought for myself” (p.xviii). Levin characterizes Paine’s thinking as “not highly original” but “fairly representative of the Enlightenment-liberal (or radical) views of his day” (p.15). Paine spoke for many, but “far more effectively than most” (p.15). His “great rhetorical power came from his ability to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions and to give those questions an immediacy and intensity that few political thinkers could match” (p. xviii).

           Paine’s full acceptance of the natural equality of man — the “crucial premise of Enlightenment thought” – led him to the “politics of individualism and individual reason. If men are equal, then none can simply command the assent of another and none will accept on faith the superior wisdom of others” (p.151). Human reason, once empowered, allows for a “continuing series of good judgments and choices” which can lead to a “great forward motion in history – a future that will get better and better as improvements build on one another” (p.167). Rather than look backward to history and tradition for guidance, as Burke counseled, Paine contended that we must “look to reason and, with its help, move forward” (p.167).

        The French Revolution prompted both men to write the texts for which they are best known today, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s Rights of Man, an explicit rejoinder to Burke’s Reflections. The appearance of Rights of Man in 1791 marked the moment when the “two giants of the age of revolutions were set clearly against one another and when the great debate they had launched truly came into its own” (p.32-33). Burke’s Reflections was a “masterpiece of rhetoric. . . [and] the first sustained assessment and dissection of the claims of liberal radicalism in the age of revolutions” (p.30). What worried Burke about events across the channel was the “combination of philosophical pretensions and applied savagery of the revolution – mob rule making its case in metaphysical abstractions” (p.27). In Burke’s view, the revolutionaries had “far too much faith in the ability of reason alone to govern [the] other elements [of human character] – and especially the passions and sentiments” (p.57). But Burke’s deepest objections to the revolutionaries and their approach to political change involved their “attitudes about the past and their relation to it – their assertion that political change must overcome the past, rather than build on it” (p.191).

          Paine’s Rights of Man responded to Burke’s Reflections with a “logical, sustained, focused and powerful argument, delivered with astonishing force” (p.32). The Rights of Man was Paine’s “most expressly theoretical work” (p.32), revealing his “resolute confidence in the efficacy of reason in political life” (p.33). For Paine, revolution was, at its core, a “return to the distant pasts to begin again, and better” (p.48). Inherited social status was a “recipe for an unjust society that could never be well governed. . . The idea that social standing or the right to rule, like property, should somehow be transmitted through the generations therefore strikes Paine as a profound misunderstanding of the nature of man and of political life” (p.88), Levin writes. Hereditary monarchy and aristocracy were not only “unjust impositions on the liberty of the individual” but also “unjust impositions by the past on the present”(p.209).

        Levin summarizes Paine’s outlook as “assertive, confident, rationalistic, technocratic, and progressive” (p.222). His commitment to reason led him to an optimistic if not utopian vision of man as capable of reshaping his world to “end the long-standing scourge of injustice, war and suffering” (p.222). Burke, by contrast, was “grateful, protective, cautious, pious, gradualist and reformist” (p.222). Politics is not an application of abstract theory, but rather the search for “good practical outcomes” (p.147). For Burke, man could “only hope to improve his circumstances if he understood his own limits, built on the achievements of those who came before him to repair their errors, and realized that some profound human miseries and vices are permanent functions of our nature – and that pretending otherwise would only make them worse” (p.222).

         After reading and digesting Levin’s seven comparative chapters, I found that I came down much more frequently on Paine’s side than that of my old friend Burke. With the passage of several decades since I last read Burke and wrote those undergraduate term papers, Burke’s thinking about human limits and the risks of idealistic overreaching, while still deeply-nuanced and subtle, reappeared to me as an anachronistic apologia for monarchy and inherited privilege. Paine was much more homespun and even simplistic in some of his thinking. His faith in reason to resolve all questions facing a democracy seems, at best, quixotic. But Paine’s radical views about the importance of individual autonomy, choice, and equality of opportunity have had far more staying power in the democratic world than Burke’s broad defense of the 18th century status quo, subject to small amounts of gradual tinkering on the edges.

* * *

         In his conclusion, Levin jumps to 21st America and argues backwards, seeking to show how the wide political divide in the United States today has its roots in the thought of Burke and Paine, with Republicans and political conservatives tracing their thinking to Burke, while Democrats and liberals lay claim to the tradition of Paine. Each of the two American political parties “plainly fits the profile that emerges from our study of the great debate” in the 18th century between Burke and Paine (p.231), Levin argues. Each captures a form of modern liberalism: “progressive liberalism,” a “politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal” and “conservative liberalism,” a “politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance” (p.227). The contrasting approaches of Burke and Paine, Levin asserts, still represent “two broad and fundamental dispositions toward political life and political change in our liberal age” (p.225).

        Levin acknowledges that because American conservatives seek to conserve a political tradition that began in revolution, the American Right has been “more inclined . . . to appeal to individualism than Burke was” (p.228). The tradition of conservative liberalism, with its emphasis upon the “gradual accumulation of practices and institutions of freedom and order” has “only rarely been articulated in American terms. For this reason, it is not often heard on the lips of today’s conservatives” (p.229). Levin goes on to chastise contemporary American conservatives as “too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyper individualism . . . They could benefit from adopting Burke’s focus on the social character of man, from Burke’s thoroughgoing gradualism, and from his innovative liberal alternative to Enlightenment radicalism” (p.229).

           While American conservatives may seem at times to wrap themselves in Paine’s individualism, American liberals no longer fully embrace Paine. They may share his general utopian commitment to ameliorate society and the lives of individuals. But to do so, Levin argues, progressive American liberalism has adopted what he considers a social democratic vision of the state as a “direct provider of basic necessities and largely unencumbered by the restraints of Paine’s Enlightenment liberalism” (p.227), combining “material collectivism and moral individualism” (p.228). Consequently, contemporary American liberals are “left philosophically adrift and far too open to the cold logic of utilitarianism – they could learn from Paine’s insistence on limits to the use of power and the role of government” (p.229).

      An amalgam of “material collectivism” and “moral individualism” seems to be a fair way to describe the contemporary “progressive liberalism” that is embodied, however imperfectly, in today’s Democratic Party. Further, Levin is not far off in arguing that, at a superficial level, there is not much that sounds Burkean in the rhetoric of today’s American conservatives. Neither the Tea Party faithful who appear from my vantage point to have commandeered today’s Republican Party nor the disquisitions of such oracles of contemporary conservatism as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentators sounds to my ears to be speaking Burke’s language of temperate and gradual reform.

           Yet, at another level, Levin finds today’s American conservatives almost unanimously Burkean, even if they don’t always use the language of Burke or recognize his influence. Burke’s vision lurks in the background when conservatives:

defend traditional social institutions and the family, seek to make our culture more hospitable to children . . . rail against attempts at technocratic expert government . . . insist on allegiance to our forefathers’ constitutional forms, warn of the dangers of burdening our children with debt to fund our own consumption, or insist that the sheer scope and ambition of our government makes it untenable (p.229).

      Levin could have gone further in finding a Burkean “politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance” in much of contemporary conservative argument, but to do so would have pushed him into the darker ramifications of Burke. The weakness in Burke, which I missed entirely as a college undergraduate, is that Burkean arguments can too easily be marshaled to defend a status quo becoming less and less defensible—for example, the institutions of monarchy and inherited privilege for Paine in the 18th century. Today, one frequently hears Burkean arguments in opposition to same-sex marriage, on the ground that such arrangements undermine the traditional social institution of marriage and threaten the family. Levin might argue that this is a misappropriation of Burke’s conservative liberalism and would likely go on to point out that many Republicans and conservatives now recognize same-sex marriage as an “idea whose time has come.” Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine Burke evolving on the issue of such marriage – President Obama did! – and crafting an eloquent and elaborate defense of this form of equality based upon an extension of time-tested liberties.

       But the search for “what-would-Burke-say” about our 21st century issues can lead just about anywhere and highlights why Levin’s attempt to fit contemporary political tendencies into one of the two 18th century molds struck me as forced. Today’s liberals and conservatives draw upon many antecedents, and connections between our 21st century divisions and this very 18th century debate are, at best, attenuated. Levin could have stopped after his seven judicious substantive chapters, where he ably assists his readers in understanding the momentous Burke-Paine debate in 18th century terms, as it should be understood.

Thomas H. Peebles

Lexington, Virginia

May 9, 2015

1 Comment

Filed under British History, European History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Uncategorized

Liberal Star Rising High, Falling Fast


Michael Shelden, Young Titan:
The Making of Winston Churchill

                  Michael Shelden’s Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill adds a significant slice of the life of Winston Churchill to the ever-growing body of Churchill literature. Shelden, author of highly-acclaimed biographies of George Orwell, Mark Twain and Graham Greene, treats Churchill’s earliest years in politics, roughly 1900 to 1915. The book is easy to read. Rather than digging deeply, the book seems to skim along the surface of British political and social life in the first decades of the 20th century and, as such, constitutes an enjoyable glimpse of Britain at what was arguably the apogee of its worldwide power.

              Churchill returned to England in 1901 at age 26, after making himself known to the British public at a very young age for his adventures, exploits and writing from places as diverse as Cuba, India and the Sudan. “Most dramatic of all,” Churchill survived “capture by the Boers in South Africa, and then [made] his escape across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory” (p.7). Thanks to a “torrent of prose in five books and many newspaper articles, almost everyone in Britain knew of young Churchill’s brave deeds on three continents between 1895 and 1900” when he had “lived the adventures of a storybook character” (p.7). Having made his reputation as a man of adventure, the supremely confident Churchill now sought to “earn respect as a man of learning. He regretted not having a university education, but he was always his own best teacher, and had made good use of his independent reading. In political battles, he wanted to excel by making knowledge his sword, entering each fray with more facts and a deeper understanding than his opponents” (p.29).

               As he embarked on a career in public service, Churchill considered politics “almost as exciting as war, and – quite as dangerous” (p.83). He successfully launched his political career in 1901, winning a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative. Less than three years later, however, Churchill switched to the Liberal Party and his political fortunes soared. But the book ends abruptly in 1915 with the spectacular failure of a British military operation during World War I at the Dardanelles. Then head of the Royal Navy, Churchill was held responsible and forced to resign. In the book’s final pages, the brilliant political wunderkind appears to have gone down in flames, crashed and burned, with a highly uncertain future ahead of him.

               Much of the first half of the book concerns not Churchill’s politics but his search for a suitable wife. There were numerous candidates whom Churchill pursued, always with zest. The first was society femme fatale Pamela Plowden, who spurned Churchill’s marriage offer. Shelden suggests that this was a lucky break for Churchill, who “sadly misjudged Pamela’s character from the start.” Shelden describes Plowden as a “young woman of ordinary desires who always found it hard to limit her interests to one man” (p.53). A notable exception to Churchill’s search within England’s aristocracy was the American singing star Ethel Barrymore. In addition to her own multiple attractions, it could not have escaped Churchill’s attention that as he was pursuing Ms. Barrymore, he was also following in his revered father’s footsteps — America was the birthplace of Churchill’s mother Jennie (although Churchill’s father died well before the book starts, his mother is a constant here, advising her son on many of the romantic and political issues he was dealing with). But Barrymore too spurned Churchill’s marriage offer.

             Another leading candidate was Violet Asquith, daughter of Henry Herbert Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister during much of the period covered. Shelden describes Violet as “strong-willed,” “highly opinionated,” “idealistic,” “overwhelming,” and “romantic” (p.152-53), qualities which could also be ascribed to Churchill. But similar though they might have been, Churchill was not as attracted to Violet and she was to him, and did not extend a marriage offer to her. Later in life, Violet wrote that their relationship had been one of “unrequited love” (p.152). Yet, Churchill retained contact with Violet throughout his married life. Much like his mother, Violet served was an informal political advisor to Churchill. Shelden describes Violet as the sister Churchill never had.

                 Churchill’s campaign to find a wife came to an end in 1908 – and at about the half-way point in the book — when he wed Clementine Hozier (always “Clemmie” to Churchill). Eleven years younger than Churchill, Clementine was the granddaughter of an Earl and thus had the requisite aristocratic background. But her childhood was hardly royal. Her mother, Lady Blanche, separated from her husband, Sir William, when Clementine was 6, and to this day it is not clear whether Sir William was Clementine’s biological father. After the separation, Clementine and her family “lived a frugal but often colorful life in England and France” (p.167), where Lady Blanche befriended numerous artists and writers, including the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Churchill liked Clementine’s unconventional background and her French connections. “Bachelor life had been lonelier than Winston had wanted to admit,” Shelden writes, and when he married Clementine, the woman he would stay married to for life, he had found a “companion with whom he could share everything” (p.207).

          Churchill’s shift from the Conservative to the Liberal Party in 1904 marked a crucial turning point in the ambitious young politician’s career. The immediate issue prompting the shift was tariffs on goods coming from with the Empire. Conservative leader Joseph Chamberlin, a Birmingham industrialist known as the “King of the Screw Trade” (p.64), favored tariffs to boost revenue and home industries. Churchill was at heart a free trader, a good liberal position, but the issue seems like a pretext – Churchill had calculated that he could rise higher and faster within the Liberal Party for several reasons, not least of which was that his boss would be his friend Violet’s father, Henry Asquith. In his new party, Churchill found a “‘house of many mansions’ large enough to hold even the oversized individuality of Winston Churchill, giving him the chance to belong to a party that he could define as he chose” (p.178).

          Churchill saw Britain’s next political battlefield at home, lying in the “growing discontent over questions of economic justice and basic human rights” (p.57). He joined forces with the more radical Beatrice Webb and astonished everyone by how swiftly he managed to lay out his vision of a Britain “protected and liberated by what later generations would call the social safety net” (p.218). He called for a “network of State intervention & regulation,” which he hoped would “give everyone in Britain a minimum standard of security in such areas as employment, housing, and old age pensions. This was heretical thinking for a politician who had left the Tories only three years previously” (p.164).

            In 1907, Asquith appointed Churchill to his first cabinet position, President of the Board of Trade. At age 33, Churchill was the youngest cabinet member in nearly 50 years. Although his strong suit had generally been style, after entering the cabinet, Shelden argues, Churchill was able to show that he was also a “political leader of real substance” (p.217). As Board of Trade President, Churchill was responsible for three major achievements: the Labour Exchanges Act, which created a national job placement system; the Trade Boards Act, which helped alleviate unhealthy working conditions and miserable pay among “sweated laborers,” mostly women in small workshops; and a scheme for unemployment insurance which was embodied in the National Insurance Act of 1911. Churchill described these as actions designed to give a “greater measure of security to all classes, but particularly to the laboring classes” (p.218). By 1909, the last year that the Liberal Party had a commanding majority in the House of Commons, Churchill had become the party’s most effective figure.

            Churchill next accepted a post as Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order the country. He had become, in effect, the country’s top cop. “In his work as a Liberal legislator, Winston had been trying to create a better life for the millions struggling to survive in the hard conditions of industrial Britain. But in his job at the Home Office he was given a harrowing view of the crime and depravity in the nation’s slums and was forced to confront how intractable these problems were” (p.222). Throughout his tenure as Home Secretary, Churchill acted with flair, gusto, and daring. He was not a low profile leader.

              In an infamous confrontation with striking miners in Tonypandy, South Wales, Churchill suppressed the miners’ protest, efficiently if perhaps also ruthlessly, making enemies on the left. Then, he enraged conservatives with his efforts to reconcile with the miners. Churchill emerged from the crisis with a “whole new set of enemies on the right and left blaming him for doing the wrong thing – one side saying that he was too tough, the other that he wasn’t tough enough (p.237). Churchill gained further notoriety when two Russian anarchists went on a shooting spree in the East End of London. He was called to the scene precipitously, and adroitly managed to minimize casualties as the house in which the anarchists were hiding went up in flames. Although Churchill’s handling of the incident should have been one of his finest moments as Home Secretary, instead he was “ridiculed as a grandstanding egomaniac who didn’t have any business inserting himself into an armed police operation” (p.241).

            By the time he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, in 1911, Churchill had already begun to grasp the implications of Britain’s growing military and economic rivalry with Germany and the importance of sea power in defending the British Isles and the empire. Churchill, Shelden writes, was the “only major British leader who was thinking so far ahead about the catastrophe that awaited the world” (p.258). He wrote an eerily-prescient memo that year, supposed to be only for Asquith and the Committee of Imperial Defence, which “read like an outline for a novel about the first weeks of a European war” (p.257). Drawing on his considerable powers of imagination, Churchill described what he believed would transpire in the first forty days of fighting. As he pointed out after the First World War, his forecasts were “almost literally verified three years later by the event” (p.257).

                       When war broke out in 1914, Churchill, not yet 40, found himself:

at the center of a world war, with a heavy responsibility for the largest navy in the world, and a duty to protect the shores of his island nation. It had taken him only thirteen years to rise from a parliamentary backbencher to one of the top posts in an empire at war. After all the struggles, after all the political fights and name-calling, he now had the chance to change the course of world history, and to prove the worth of his heroic view of life (p.306-07).

            With his “youthful energy, battlefield experience, and the will to win” (p.309), Churchill seemed to be everywhere at once in the opening months of the war. He actually went into combat, taking part in the defense of Antwerp, Belgium. This was, to say the least, a highly unusual tactic for someone in his position. Lacking sleep but with his mind spinning relentlessly, Churchill came up with all sorts of ideas for saving the city, some good, some not so good. The worst came when he wired Asquith requesting that he be allowed to resign as First Lord and given “full powers of a commander of a detached force in the field.” In the heat of battle, Churchill had “lost all sense of priorities, thinking that holding Antwerp was everything. But the only priority that mattered at that second was winning” (p.310). As Shelden points out, leaders were often criticized for sending others into battle. Now, Churchill was criticized for doing the opposite.

             Then came the ill-fated 1915 attack on the Dardanelles, the narrow 38-mile straight which divides European from Asian Turkey along the Gallopi peninsula, emptying into the Mediterranean. By Shelden’s account, Churchill unwisely accepted the advice of an eccentric and cantankerous retired Admiral, Jacky Fischer, once considered the “greatest naval innovator of his time” (p.275), but then in his seventies and well past his prime. The idea was to take out Ottoman Turkey, Germany’s ally, to enable Russia, Britain’s ally, to move freely through the straights to the Mediterranean, thereby forcing Germany to shift its focus away from the Western Front, where British troops were entrenched. The assault turned out to be a “disaster from start to finish . . . [W]hen the older battleships moved into the strait on March 18 to attack additional forts they ran into mines, and they were lost in a matter of a few hours. . . mistake after mistake was made” (p.315). The Turks “proved to be far more disciplined and determined than the British had been willing to believe” (p.315).

                The setback in the Dardanelles was “so big that a suitably big scapegoat was needed, and Winston was it. As soon as things began to go wrong, little time was wasted in pointing the finger of blame in his direction” (p.315). As Shelden puts it, the “young Titan had pushed his luck too far” (p.315) and was forced to resign. In a war that left so many of its combatants maimed or traumatized for life, Churchill was “lucky to escape with merely a wounded career. But he couldn’t be sure at the time that the wound would ever heal and allow him to resume his rise to the top. Because he had been so sure of himself, and had risen so quickly, he was so unprepared for this precipitous fall that few options were left open to him” (p.321).

                 Churchill “lost something in 1915 that he never regained,” Shelden concludes. A spirit that had “once seemed so vital and inexhaustible, a lively spark that had served him well from crisis to crisis . . . [had] flickered and went out in 1915 and Churchill was never the same” (p.323). We all know, however, that the pugnacious Churchill survived, rebuilt his career and much more. The ignominious ending to the story leaves the reader hoping that Shelden will next describe the path which the fallen Liberal star took back into the political arena.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
April 26, 2015


Filed under British History, English History, Uncategorized

Closing the Sussex Gate


David Caute, Isaac & Isaiah:
The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic 

            In “Issac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic,” David Caute seizes upon a seemingly banal episode in university hiring in the 1960s to take his readers on an intellectual tour of post-World War II Britain at the height of the Cold War, roughly from 1945 to 1970, a time when “scarcely any branch of thought and learning . . . remained unaffected by the schism between the ‘Free World’ and the Soviet sphere of influence” (p.37). Caute shows his readers debates and differences within elite British intellectual, academic and political circles over such matters as the Soviet Union and communism, the Anglo-American alliance, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel. The catalyst for this tour was the refusal of Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers – or, as he began calling himself in the latter portion of his career, an historian of ideas — to endorse Isaac Deutscher for a position at Sussex University, where Berlin served as an external advisor to the university’s academic board. Berlin’s refusal to endorse Deutscher, a self-proclaimed Marxist and highly respected journalist and author – albeit one without academic degrees — does not appear to have been based on the quality of Deutscher’s scholarship. Deutscher’s study of Joseph Stalin was widely acclaimed, even by stringent academic standards. Nor was it based on Deutscher’s lack of academic credentials.

            However, in 1955, Deutscher reviewed unfavorably one of Berlin’s best known works, Historical Inevitability. Caute concludes that “[w]ithout doubt” this review was the “killer event in Berlin’s attitude to Deutscher” (p.64). Berlin wrote subsequently that he suffered “from profound, perhaps exaggerated antipathy to all his [Deutscher’s] writings – I think him specious, dishonest, and in any case possessed of some quality which causes some kind of nausea in me” (p.152). Berlin’s writings are laced with similarly vitriolic references to Deutscher, which Caute has amassed here, all of which post-date Deutscher’s 1955 review of Berlin’s book. Yet, the two men had little personal inter-action, and there is nothing in the written record to suggest that Deutscher reciprocated Berlin’s personal animus or was even aware of that animus. Rather, Deutscher appears to have regarded Berlin as an “ideological opponent whom he scarcely knew . . . not a figure to be despised and loathed” (p.36). After Deutscher died prematurely in 1967, his wife confronted Berlin, asking why he had refused to endorse her husband’s candidacy at Sussex. Berlin’s obsequiously disingenuous response was little more than “I did no such thing.”

            Caute has a personal stake in the effort to shed light upon Berlin’s animosity to Deutscher. As a graduate student at Oxford University in March 1963, Caute had an exchange with Berlin in the commons room of All Souls College, in which Berlin declared that he could never recommend Deutscher for a university position, or any other, for that matter. Berlin told Caute that Deutscher was the “only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (p.4). In that conversation, Berlin contended that Deutscher’s adherence to Marxism was not the issue for him. “To be a Marxist is a legitimate stance for an academic,” Berlin told Caute (p.4), adding that he was an admirer and on friendly terms with E.H. Carr, a Marxist and Russian history specialist. But if not Deutscher’s Marxism, what was Berlin’s problem with Deutscher? The conversation danced around that question, without answering it. A half century later, with both Deutscher and Berlin deceased (Berlin died in 1997), Caute tries to find an answer to the question that eluded him in his conversation with Berlin in the All Souls Commons in 1963, a question that only sounds biblical: why did Isaiah so despise Isaac?

* * *

            Caute’s protagonists, Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin, were:

of the same generation, both refugees, both British by adoption, both multi-lingual, opinionated Jews, one Latvian-Russian, the other Polish. Both came to exercise influence not only in academic circles but among the wider British and American public. Both can be viewed as missionary spirits in contention to convince or convert the ideologically naïve English and American natives (p.36).

In addition, both lost close relatives to the Holocaust — both parents in Deutscher’s case. Early in their careers, each published a biography of a leading communist figure, Berlin on Marx, Deutscher on Stalin, with Deutscher later writing a widely acclaimed three volume biography of Trotsky.

            Berlin was born in Latvia in 1909. His family left Latvia for St. Petersburg in 1916, then left Russia for Britain with his family in 1920, after the Bolshevik Revolution. Although only 11 years old at the time of his family’s departure from St. Petersburg, the deleterious effect of the Revolution on his family shaped Berlin’s thinking and world view for the remainder of his life. In Britain, Berlin became more than just a revered philosopher and historian of ideas. He was also the quintessential academic establishment figure, well-known in the media and a familiar face in the halls of power, in Whitehall, Westminster, and Washington.

            Caute describes his portrait of Berlin as “somewhat revisionist” (p.xiii) and, true to his words, the Berlin who emerges from these pages is an “impeccably conforming British citizen” (p.39) and far from an endearing figure. “[O]utgoing, gregarious and socially ambitious” (p.15), Berlin plainly enjoyed the company of the rich and well-born. Further, Caute observes, the more one digs into Berlin’s writings, the more one finds a “passionate defense of the status quo, an extended plea that the things we enjoy and value should not be taken from us” (p.15). Berlin seemed to regard active political commitment as the “enemy of clear thinking” (p.40), and left little public record of his views on most of the social and political issues that dominated Britain in the quarter-century after World War II, such as capital punishment, homosexual law reform, rules governing divorce, immigration into the United Kingdom, or rising racial tension.

            Deutscher was a near contemporary of Berlin, born in 1907. He fled his native Poland for Britain in 1939, at the time of the Nazi invasion. Seven years earlier, in 1932, the Polish Communist Party expelled Deutscher after he had published The Danger of a New Barbarism in Europe, which called for a common front between communists and socialists in opposition to Nazism and the Pilsudski dictatorship in Poland. Deutscher’s sin was that, as the party’s indictment read, he had “exaggerated the danger of Nazism and was spreading panic in the communist ranks” (p.21). Deutscher did not enjoy Berlin’s fame or insider access in Britain, but nonetheless became a successful journalist for mainstream and elite media outlets, building a “remarkably respectable” image for an avowed Marxist (p.24).

          Deutscher also became a highly-respected scholar whose work drew praise from those who did not share his Marxist world view. His biography of Stalin was greeted on both sides of the Atlantic as a “deeply researched and compellingly written objective study, the first definitive study of the most powerful man in the world” (p.27). As Caute emphasizes, however, there was a scrappy, polemical side to Deutscher. He enjoyed a good intellectual fight and loved to goad those he considered knee-jerk anti-communists and apologists for capitalism, of which Berlin was surely one. In this capacity, Deutscher was a “speaker of spellbinding power and a debater of great argumentative force” (p.33). But the polemicist Deutscher had a “tendency to overlook what he had written as a historian – or to count on his readers overlooking it” (p.175). Was it Deutscher’s Marxism that rendered him insupportable to Berlin?

* * *

            Caute describes the differences between Marxists and anti-Marxist liberals in post-War Britain as an “intimate family quarrel akin to that of Catholics and Protestants at war over Christ’s heritage” (p.38). Both camps were “children of the European Enlightenment. . . [who] subscribed in the abstract to education, justice, freedom” (p.38). Berlin’s childhood experience with the 1917 Russian Revolution led him to an unabated opposition to the Soviet Union and communist ideology throughout his adult life. He reserved special ire for Lenin, whom he found worse than Stalin – worse than Hitler, Caute argues at one point. For Berlin, Lenin was the “great contaminator, the self-confident doctor of poisonous medicine, who had in effect chased the Berlins from their family home, their roots” (p.74). Thus it was only natural that Berlin would become a leading Cold War warrior in the post-war period, very comfortable with the Anglo-American alliance and its firmest anti-communist stands. Throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, for example, Berlin supported the United States, while most of his academic peers adopted anti-war positions. Berlin’s “heartbeat belonged to the Anglo-American alliance,” (p.199), Caute writes.

            If Berlin was a consistently anti-communist intellectual, Deutscher remained conflicted by the realities of Russia and the Soviet socialist experiment throughout his professional life. For Deutscher, Lenin was the “builder of the Soviet Republic, the originator of the New Economic Policy, the revolutionary turned into a supreme diplomatist” who embodied the “salvation and consummation” of the Russian revolution (p.83). Slowly, and reluctantly, however, Deutscher recognized that Stalin had committed unspeakable crimes. Yet, in Russia after Stalin, which Deutscher wrote shortly after Stalin’s death, he contended that Stalin nonetheless remained the “guardian and the trustee of the revolution. He consolidated its national gains and extended them . . .[E]ven his opponents, while denouncing his autocracy, admitted that most of his economic reforms were essential for socialism” (p.72). Deutscher “insisted that Stalinism rescued subjugated peoples of Eastern Europe from feudalism, ‘savage poverty and darkness’” (p.161). In a high-powered seminar at Harvard in 1959, Deutscher argued that Western students of Soviet affairs, including his critics, had tended to “overrate the totalitarian aspect of the Soviet system and its capacity to resist popular pressures” (p.190).

            Caute notes that Deutscher made many private concessions, for example that most German workers would prefer American capitalism to East German socialism. But he could never bring himself to state these concessions publicly because, as he once wrote, “disclosure would not serve ‘peace’ or ‘socialism’” (p.163). Even as Deutscher modified his apologetics for Stalin, he remained largely enamored of Lenin – Berlin’s bête noire—Trotsky and, later, Mao Zedong who, he contended, stood for the “inevitability of gradualness” (p.189). Throughout the Cold War, Deutscher was a harsh critic of both Great Britain and the United States, “intransigently” rejecting the “entire Western system and its international policies, [and] dismissing the ‘Free World’ as the cosmetics of an expansionist, colonialist monopoly capitalism” (p.37). Deutscher’s perspective on the Cold War was that “an exhausted and depleted Russia had no intention of expanding or attacking anyone. America, by contrast, emerged from the war unscathed, buoyant and spoiling for a global fight” (p.159). Deutscher “never modified his analysis of the Cold War, repeating the same phrases and arguments across twenty years” (p.162).

            Berlin expanded his hostility to Bolshevism into a theoretical opposition to utopian ideologies of all sorts. Berlin’s professional legacy revolves in no small measure around his abhorrence of systems of thought that purported to spell out how a society should be structured or how individuals can attain a moral life. Individual liberty to do what one wants to do, without harming others, and what he called “value pluralism” were at the heart of Berlin’s political philosophy. He argued that society can be structured in any number of different ways, consistent with respect for individual liberty, and individuals can pursue any number of different paths to a moral life. Berlin warned against the “claims of philosophers, social engineers and revolutionaries who professed to understand men’s objectives needs and aspirations better than they did themselves” (p.110). But, as Caute cheekily points out, few have been “more dogmatic about the perils of dogmatism [than Berlin]. No one has more clearly insisted that historical outcomes are inevitably not inevitable” (p.43).

       It was this insistence that Deutscher pounced on in his 1955 review in the Observer of Berlin’s Historical Inevitability.  Under the title “Determinists All,” Deutscher noted much dogmatism in Berlin’s attack on dogmatism and termed his work a “tirade” (p.64). Berlin “protests on almost every page against the generalizations and abstractions of others, but he himself sins in this respect to quite an extraordinary extent,” Deutscher wrote. He “lumps together scores of philosophical ideas and systems, determines in a few sentences of sweeping generalization what is the ‘common denominator,’ and then roundly condemns them all. . . Mr. Berlin does not analyze. He does not even argue his case. He proclaims and declaims [and] . . . is not over-scrupulous or over-precise in his statements” (p.64-65).

           Deutscher’s review of Historical Inevitability is plainly Exhibit A in answering the book’s fundamental question, why Isaiah detested Isaac. But the chapters on communism and the Cold War fail to yield anything close to an Exhibit B. The two men saw Marxism, communism and the Soviet Union in diametrically different terms but, as Berlin says on several occasions in this book, he would never judge another on this ground. In the final chapters of the book, on Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, Caute comes closer to pinpointing an Exhibit B.

* * *

        Caute suggests that the Jewish heritage which the two men shared “exacerbated their antagonism, imparting a fratricidal intimacy to their wider ideological quarrel” (p.235). Neither Berlin nor Deutscher came close to being religious in any conventional sense, but Jewish identity was plainly a significantly stronger force in Berlin’s life and world view that it was for Deutscher. Berlin was a strong Zionist and proponent of Israel in its early years, the only two political issues which he regularly addressed publicly. Deutscher, in contrast, opposed both Zionist tendencies and establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Although his opposition to the State of Israel softened in his later years, Deutscher’s view was that after the calamities of World War II, the last thing the post-war world needed was another nation-state fueled by patriotic national fervor. He once described his “intellectual opposition to Judaism” as part of an overall “opposition to all forms of theological thinking” (p.155). On another occasion, however, Deutscher described himself as a Jew “by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated” (p.241).

         Berlin maintained a particular aversion to Jewish Marxists who, as Caute phrases it, sought to “escape from their pariah status as Jews by inventing an alternative, more universal allegiance” (p.47). Berlin criticized Marx himself on this ground in his biography. Caute also highlights a snobbishness that Berlin shared with his well-to-do Anglo-Jewish friends, leaders in financial, banking and media circles, who tended to look down on less refined Jews. Berlin acknowledged his aversion to large crowds of Jews and, on one occasion, expressed his disdain for “Jews with colossal noses” (p.237). In 1959, a friend requested that Berlin reply to an article which Deutscher had written on Lenin. Berlin declined with a venomous ad hominem attack on Deutscher. “I hate him [Deutscher] too much,” Berlin wrote. “I cannot be sure that it is only his hateful personality. . . his Communism (which is that mean, dead talmudical ‘parshivy yevrey” type) . . . I am sure I shall find fault with whatever he does” (p.88). The Russian phase “parshivy yevrey,” Caute indicates, means “mangy Jew.”

* * *

        In the last chapter, “The Sussex Papers,” Caute comes full circle to Deutscher’s non-appointment at Sussex University – we’re at Sussexgate! The “smoking gun” was Berlin’s letter to Sussex University’s Vice-Chancellor, written the same month that he had his conversation with Caute in the All Souls Commons. Without mentioning Deutscher by name, Berlin declared that the “candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable” (p.279). Berlin’s statement effectively killed the Deutscher appointment. A few weeks later, with no news from Sussex, Deutscher – who had recently turned down an offer for a tenured position at the University of Wisconsin — told the university that he was “disappointed at your being unable to make any offer, especially as I was given to understand that what was under discussion was only the particulars of the offer” (p.281).

           In 1969, two years after Deutscher’s death, a leftist publication, Black Dwarf, published an anonymous article in which it alleged that Berlin was responsible for Deutscher being refused a university post at Sussex. Black Dwarf quoted Berlin as saying “You can’t have a Marxist teaching history” (p.282). Berlin considered a libel suit over Black Dwarf’s allegations. But with these allegations in the public domain, he crafted an argument that he would have preferred to have seen Deutscher appointed to a department where there would be another, more politically correct, colleague to balance him.

           In response to an inquiry from Deutscher’s wife after the Black Dwarf article, Berlin explained to Mrs. Deutscher that her husband’s “remarkable gifts would benefit the [Sussex] University if he were not called on to create a field of studies but to reinvigorate an existing discipline. . . I know nothing of the circumstances; the only point I wish to make is that if the University had wished to appoint Mr. Deutscher to be Professor of Soviet Studies, they could have done so, in the knowledge that no opposition to this would come from me” (p.284-85). Berlin reiterated for Mrs. Deutscher that her late husband’s Marxism was for him an irrelevant consideration, writing that it “would have been a betrayal of every intellectual value in which I believe if I had allowed this to sway my judgment consciously in judging his fitness for an academic post” (p.285).

* * *

            Readers may conclude that Caute provides at best only a partial answer to his initial question. Deutscher’s dogged Marxism was plainly a major contributor to Berlin’s antipathy to Deutscher, notwithstanding his protestations to Mrs. Deutscher, Caute himself, and others. To this, one could add Deutscher’s unfavorable 1955 review of Historical Inevitability and Berlin’s intra-Jewish prejudices. The rest of the explanation seems to lie somewhere in the deeper recesses of Berlin’s psyche and is unlikely to be discovered. But this book is only partially about Sussexgate.

           For those who relish the academic equivalent of “inside baseball” — and I must confess that I include myself in this eccentric group, especially when the academic is someone of Berlin’s stature – Caute’s look at the non-hiring decision at Sussex University half a century ago makes for entertaining reading. Caute also adds good overviews of Berlin’s thinking, as well as a peek at the darker side of Sir Isaiah. How brilliant minds like that of Deutscher could cling stubbornly to Marxism is also fascinating subject matter and Caute’s portrayal of Deutscher convinced me that this lesser-known figure deserves a full length biography. Moreover, as a depiction of the zeitgeist of post-war Britain and the country’s polarization over such matters as the Soviet Union and communism, the Anglo-American alliance, Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, Caute’s book is erudite and engaging, even for readers who may not care why Isaiah so despised Isaac.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
December 6, 2014


Filed under British History, European History, History, Intellectual History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized

Not So Great


Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars:
A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 

          Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion makes a nice complement to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, reviewed here in September. Hochschild’s work does not purport to be a comprehensive account of what is sometimes called the Great War, as is Clark’s on the prelude to the war. Rather, Hochschild elaborates upon selected manifestations and consequences of the destruction unleashed in the summer of 1914, destruction that “still seems beyond belief,” with a “magnitude of slaughter. . . beyond anything in European experience” (p.xiii-xiv). In artful prose, Hochschild surveys war resisters, women’s rights advocates, socialists, soldiers on the front lines and their commanding generals. His approach is anecdotal but also rather strictly chronological, treating the war in yearly sections, staring in 1914 and ending in 1918. Hochschild’s primary focus is on Great Britain, but he manages to bring all the belligerents into his picture. Throughout, he writes sympathetically and passionately, yet objectively, about those who prosecuted the war and those who opposed it.

          Hochschild starts with a captivating prelude termed “Dramatis Personae,” which provides an overview of Britain in the half-century prior to 1914. Here, Hochschild introduces his readers to several of the main characters of his book, whom he follows throughout the course of the Great War. These exceptionally vivid sketches personalize the fault lines of the war, none more so than between career soldier John French, who became commander of British forces on the Western Front, and his pacifist, progressive sister, Charlotte Despard, who led the opposition to the war. Hochschild also gives prominent attention to Douglas Haig, French’s “ambitious subordinate” (p.104), who replaced French as Western Front commander and in that capacity made some of the most misguided strategic decisions of the war. The jingoistic poet Rudyard Kipling is the figure in “Dramatis Personae” most likely to be familiar to readers. Kipling’s unabated enthusiasm for the war was tested when his beloved son John disappeared in battle in Northern France. Hochschild also introduces his readers to Emmeline Pankhurst, whose fervent support for women’s suffrage overrode her pacifist inclinations; and James Keir Hardy, leader of the British Socialist Party and a true believer that socialism was the perfect antidote to war.

          “Dramatis Personae” further highlights forces that changed the nature of warfare when the conflict broke out in 1914, most of which came into view during Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. Over 100,000 civilians, including African farmhands, Boer women, children, and elderly were herded into guarded concentration camps, “an eerie glimpse into the not-so-distant future” (p.33). More than twice the number of Boer civilians died in concentration camps than Boer soldiers who died in combat. The Boer War made clear that industrial might would determine the outcome of the next war.

          The socialism that was gaining ground across Europe as 1914 began was an early manifestation of what we might now term globalism, in which social welfare and improvement of living standards across Europe were deemed to trump workers’ loyalty to their nation states. But British class consciousness proved for the most part an ineffectual competitor with the national loyalties which the Great War demanded. The socialist dream “[d]issolved in the face of an ancient and greater force: the deep, instinctive human impulse for solidarity with fellow members of one’s tribe – a group most defined, in this moment of crisis, not by class but by nation” (p.128). In Germany, too, socialists were “like everyone else, carried along on the unstoppable torrent of emotion” (p.92). On both sides, consequently, “governments were delighted to discover that they had feared the left too much” (p.92).

           At the outset of the war, advocates of women’s suffrage were among the few who raised their voices in opposition. Emmeline Parkhurst, who had been a vocal opponent of the Boer War, suggested when war broke out in Europe in 1914 that “all war was the mere byproduct of male stupidity” (p.48). The Suffragettes’ opposition to the war was so strong that her Women’s Social and Political Union decided to put suffrage on hold. But later in 1914, Parkhurst went through a mysterious transformation into a war supporter. Hochschild spectulates that she may have made tactical decision that it would be easier to obtain the vote for women if she supported the war. It was perhaps in recognition of this support, as well as recognition of the sacrifices that women were making to further the war effort, that Britain in 1918 gave the vote to women over 30 — those less likely to have husbands killed or wounded in the war, and therefore less likely to adopt anti-war sentiments, Hochschild suggests. By the time the war ended, Parkhurst had become one of the most strident voices in support of the British war effort.

          The anti-war movement arose in Britain at about same time as conscription and remained an important force throughout the war. By 1916, some 200,000 Britons had signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace. Russia was the only other belligerent to have an anti-war movement as large and as vocal as Britain. Although the war had unleashed “powerful national chauvinism, witch hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight” (p.257), Britain alone enjoyed the “deeply embedded tradition of civil liberties” that allowed the anti-war movement to flourish (p.188). But with overwhelming pressure from friends and family to support the war effort, it nonetheless required “rare courage to resist” (p.188). Yet, by 1917, there were anti-war voices within the Establishment and the right.

          British leaders vigorously sought to counter anti-war sentiment. Parliament empowered a War Propaganda Bureau, which enlisted a wide range of authors to launch a “flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, postcards, slide shows, and films for consumption in Britain and abroad,” (p.148), with the United States being one of the primary foreign targets. “Pamphlets and books bore the imprimatur of well-known publishing houses, and the government secretly agreed in advance to buy copies, which it often distributed for free” (p.148). The Bureau freely ran with rumors and half truths about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. In one court case against a war resister, prosecutor Sir Archibald Bodkin — who, after the war, won fame for winning the case that banned James Joyce’s Ulysses from publication in England – argued that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong” (p.191).  Imagine.

          In his treatment of the realities of the battlefield, Hochschild focuses on trench warfare, new weapons, and battlefield carnage. Trench warfare was not new. Versions were seen in the American Civil War and the Boer War. But it “seemed like such an ignoble sort of combat that hardly anyone in Europe had planned for it” (p.123). “No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long” (p.173). On all sides, military leaders were reluctant to admit how dramatically the machine gun had changed warfare. “No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers” (p.124).

              The Battle of the Somme on July1, 1916 was the bloodiest of the war so far, and marked a turning point for Great Britain. Of the 120,000 British troops thrown into the battle, 57,000 were dead or wounded by day’s end – “nearly two causalities for every yard of the front” (p.206). From that point onward, Hochschild argues, the attitudes of British soldiers began to change. “It was not a turn toward rebellion but toward a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference” (p.211). Later that year, however, David Lloyd George as Secretary of State for War allowed a film of the gruesome battle to be shown in theatres. The film actually reinforced civilian support for the war. “The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all” (p.228).

          Hochschild’s treatment of battlefield realities is interlaced with discussions of miscalculations made by military hierarchy, especially French and Haig. Haig combined stubbornness with an “unshakable faith in the rightness of the British cause. . . [and a] mindless optimism in the face of bad news” (p.321). Haig adhered to his belief that the cavalry was still the 20th century’s key to military success. Referring to two cavalry skeptics, Hochschild quotes Haig as saying, “If these two had their way, Cavalry would cease to exist as such. In their opinion, the war will continue and end in trenches” (p.139). High casualties were seen in some military circles as a sign of aggressive leadership and a measure of success. This perverse logic, Hochschild writes, “sometimes led Haig to fly into rage when he thought British losses . . . were too low” (p.209). But what made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He “felt it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations,” his son wrote, “because these visits made him physically ill” (p.210).

          Haig launched a bombing campaign in Northern Belgium – one of lowest spots in Europe’s “low countries” — with no apparent thought given to the possibility that this bombardment would “wreck canals and drainage ditches and leave tens of thousands of craters that soon filled with water” (p.285). Haig and French were jointly responsible for Britain’s first use of poison gas, on September 25, 1915. The winds did not favor the use of gas that day and, when the day was done, Britain had suffered more casualties than Germany from its own gas.

          The following day, Haig made a decision to order an advance by two battle weary, inexperienced reserve divisions directly up a hill guarded by German machine guns and uncut barbed wire. Out of the 10,000 men thrown into battle, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded or missing in very short time. It is difficult for us to look at this “spasm of carnage” on September 26, 1915, Hochschild writes, as “anything other than a blatant, needless massacre” initiated by French, Haig and their advisors “with near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced” (p.165). But, Hochschild notes, few survivors saw that day’s carnage in this light. “For them to question the generals’ judgment would have meant . . . asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born” (p.165).

          After detailing the military ineptitude that exacerbated the unparalleled carnage on the battlefield, Hochschild poses the question that lies behind his narrative: is there an argument to be made, from Britain’s perspective, that the Great War had been necessary. Here, Hochschild differs dramatically from Clark, who refused to assign responsibility to any nation state for the outbreak of the war, depicting it not as a crime of any state but a collective tragedy implemented by sleepwalking diplomats. Hochschild would likely respond that the war was both a tragedy and a crime, with Germany the most criminal of the belligerents. It invaded neutral Belgium, committing widespread atrocities against the Belgium civilian population –“pre-figuring the Nazis’ even more ruthless occupation regime of the Second World War” (p.219) — and clearly threatened to conquer France in the West and Russia in the East.

           In the end, though, Hochschild sidesteps a direct response to this question, while nonetheless reminding readers that the consequences of the Great War would be devastating for years to come. The “most toxic legacy of the conflict,” he concludes, “lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed” (p.373).

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 8, 2014


Filed under British History, English History, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized

Middle Eastern Rationalist


Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh
and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

         In this crisply-written biography, Christopher de Bellaigue provides an in-depth portrait of Muhammed Mossadegh, the leader of Iran at the time of a joint American-British covert operation in 1953 that deposed Mossadegh and gave new impetus to the regime of Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi.  De Bellaigue terms the coup tragic and makes a strong case that this is precisely the right term.  The coup was tragic for the ancient land of Persia, now called Iran, setting it off on a course that led to the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the taking of hostages from the American Embassy in Teheran later that year.  But it was also tragic for Great Britain, the United States, and the West generally, converting Iran, potentially an ally and a stabilizing force in the Middle East, into a seemingly implacable enemy of the West.  With discussions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions still tenuously underway, and a regime of stringent sanctions still paralyzing the country, Iran seems as far from becoming a stabilizing force in the Middle East as it did in 1979.


          But while Mossadegh served as Iran’s democratically-chosen Prime Minister from 1951to 1953, the country held much promise as a moderate partner of the West in a turbulent region.  Mossadegh emerges in this portrait as an irascible, mercurial hypochondriac, given to fainting spells at opportune times.  Behind these personal qualities, however, was a “rationalist who hated obscurantism and believed in the primacy of law” (p.3).  At the time of the coup, the country was on a course toward modernization that “would have brought Iran substantially closer to a secular, constitutional regime” (p.207), de Bellaigue argues.  As a result of his “long immersion in the ideas of the West,” Mossadegh combined an understanding of independence and democracy with an “even more profound identification with his own society and people” (p.273).  To de Bellaigue, Mossadegh was the  “first to try to build a modern Middle Eastern State on basis of collective and individual liberty” (p.273).


* * *


          Mossadegh was born in Tehran in 1882, the son of elite parents.  His mother lived into her nineties and was herself an activist for a pluralist Iran almost to her final days.  Mossadegh  spent time in Paris and other parts of Western Europe as a young man, and earned a Doctor of Law degree at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.  He was of a generation of western-educated Middle Eastern and Asian leaders animated by the nationalism and anti-colonial outlook that gained impetus after World War I.  His view of leadership was colored by his Muslim faith: the community chooses the best person and follows him wherever he chooses to lead.  In 1906, he was elected to a new parliament, the Majlis, at the age of 24.  By the time he turned 40, he had served as Iran’s minister of justice, finance minister and governor of two provinces.  He left politics in 1925 when the Majlis, over Mossadegh’s objection, deposed the ruling Quajar Shah and installed Reza Khan Pahlavi as the new monarch, the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty (Shah is the Persian word for king).


          Unlike much of the non-European world in the latter portion of the 19th century, Iran was never formally taken over by European powers.  Yet, Russia and Great Britain competed for interest in Iran, “constrained by mutual wariness from trying to swallow the country whole” (p. 10).  Much of Iranian history in the first half of the 20th century revolved around the question of oil and Iran’s relationship to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, now British Petroleum or BP) and to AIOC’s dominant shareholder, the government of Great Britain.  AIOC had been in Iran since 1913.  In 1933, the Shah signed an oil agreement with Britain that was decidedly not favorable to Iran.  AIOC refused to agree to a 50%-50% profit sharing arrangement, allocating a mere 16% of annual company profits to Iran and employing few Iranians in skilled-worker or management positions.  Mossadegh became an uncompromising proponent of nationalization of Iran’s oil reserves, incurring the wrath of both the British and the Shah.


          After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in August 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union, now allies, jointly occupied Iran.  Later that year, Britain forced the Shah, who leaned toward the Axis powers, to abdicate in favor of his 22 year old son, Mohammed Raza Pahlavi.  When World War II ended, Iran was “rich [in oil], potentially unstable, and susceptible to interference — qualities that guaranteed the close attention of the powers as they gathered their forces for the new Cold War” (p.112).  Although highly suspicious of the Soviet Union, Iran reserved its most unfettered hostility for Great Britain.  As de Bellaigue notes, Iranian “fear and hatred of the British . . . [assumed] proportions rarely seen in the formal empire” (p.54). Mistrust between Great Britain and Iran “became a pathology” (p.134).   Both “felt wronged and expected redress, but neither understood the grievance nursed by the other – or else they dismissed it as humbug.  .  . Both were surprised by the other’s intransigence” (p.165).


          In the post-World War II era, Iranian secular nationalists battled religious nationalists, with oil usually providing the backdrop.  An indication of Mossadegh’s political dexterity is that he had good relations with both groups.  Mossadegh became Prime Minister in 1951 when Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara, an opponent of naturalization and a close ally of the Shah, was assassinated by hard line Islamists.  In the aftermath of Razmara’s assassination, Parliament officially nationalized Iranian oil reserves, a measure strongly supported by both secular and religious nationalists.  25% of oil profits were to be set aside for AIOC’s claims of compensation.  For Mossadegh, Iranian oil “represented life, hope, freedom. . . Mossadegh did not see why the British could not accept their new, lower status.  After all, they would be amply compensated for nationalization and retain full access to Iran’s oil” (p.165).   Mossadegh said he was more interested in what he termed the “moral” rather than “economic” aspect of oil nationalization.  The Western powers saw only “hysteria, irrationality and caprice” in such remarks, failing to recognize that Mossadegh’s words represented a voice for an “authentic movement of national independence” (p.144).


         In Britain’s view, nationalization meant quite simply that Mossedegh needed to be deposed by any means available.  Britain imposed a boycott on Iranian oil, and Iran proved wanting in the technical expertise required to operate its oil fields successfully.  This precipitated a serious national crisis, with oil income reduced to near zero, hampering Mossadegh from implementing the reforms he sought.  During the nationalization crisis, Mossadegh formed an alliance of convenience with the Communist Tudeh Party (“Tudeh” means “the masses” in Persian).  After much distance and distrust between Mosadegh and the Tudeh, by 1953, the Tudeh was at least nominally in Mossadegh’s camp, a fact that did not go unnoticed in Washington and London.


          However fervently Britain desired to depose Mossadegh, it was incapable of engineering a coup by itself and turned to the United States for assistance.  The United States was slightly more sympathetic to Mossadegh and nationalization than Great Britain.  President Harry Truman didn’t care nearly as much about Mossadegh or AIOC as he cared about stopping communism. Like many others in Washington at the time, Truman saw the Soviet Union as primed to take over Iran.  Truman nonetheless resisted a coup to depose Mossadegh, as did Britain’s Prime Minister Clement Atlee.  But Winston Churchill returned to power as Prime Minister in 1951, and Dwight Eisenhower replaced Truman as President in January 1953.


         Churchill viewed a firm stand against nationalization as necessary to preserving Britain’s waning prestige and power in the post-war world, as well as a source of desperately needed revenue.  In what de Bellagiue characterizes as a “remarkable cable,” Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, wrote that in his view nationalization of AIOC, would “destroy the last vestige of confidence in British power and the pound. . . [T]he cardinal purpose of  British policy is not to prevent Iran  from going Commie; the cardinal point is to preserve what they believe to be the last remaining bulwark of British solvency; that is, their overseas investment and property position” (p.184-85).


          American support for the British position in the Eisenhower administration was driven by the anti-communist fervor that was sweeping the country.  This was the McCarthy era, after all, and two anti-communist warriors named Dulles were in positions of immense authority in the young Eisenhower administration: Allen, running the CIA and brother John Foster, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  The brothers Dulles were quick to see the Soviet Union as poised to step into and take over Iran should Western resolve falter.  Although skeptical of the communist menace in Iran, Churchill was able to convince Eisenhower that a coup that would replace Mossadegh would serve as a critical check upon Soviet interests in Iran.  The “British obsession with lost prestige and the American obsession with communism” thus brought the two allies together in common cause against Mossadegh’s government (p.207).


          The CIA plan, Operation Ajax — its first exercise in regime change — was hatched in early 1953 with assistance from the British M16.  The plan envisioned a pro-Shah military coup to depose Mossadegh, even though the Shah initially opposed the British-American plot.  In the summer of 1953, the CIA launched a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh’s government, with Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, serving as the CIA field commander.  The campaign precipitated large scale protests between pro and anti-Mossadegh factions, with the CIA apparently encouraging both sides in the hope that the protests would turn violent.  They did.  Meanwhile, as many as 30 members of Parliament, bankrolled by the CIA, “plotted murders and kidnapping whilst hiding behind their parliamentary immunity” (p.228).


         A failed coup took place on August 15-16, 1953.  The Shah panicked and left for Rome.  Mossadegh ordered security forces to round up the coup plotters, and dozens were imprisoned.  Believing that he had beaten back a Shah-led coup, Mossadegh asked his supporters to return to their homes.  This was a serious miscalculation.  The plotters regrouped and, on August 19, 1953, succeeded in toppling the Mossadegh government. In a “remarkable reversal in fortune,” Roosevelt and his co-conspirators had “turned defeat into triumph and their methods would enter the training manuals” (p.235).  There is “no glossing” of the ruthlessness of the Anglo-American intervention, de Ballaigue asserts, which subjected Mossadegh’s government to “pitiless acts of war by two hostile powers,” including not only a “bombardment of misinformation” but also “conspiracies to riot, murder and abduct”   (p.228).


          De Bellaigue portrays Mossadegh during the coup as a Hamlet-like figure, vacillating between “inertia and unfounded optimism” (p.242-43).  Although Mossadegh almost certainly had advance knowledge of the coup, he failed to react to its warning signs, remaining too favorably disposed to individual liberties to protect his own interests.  Absorbed in legal niceties as the “ground was laid for his overthrow” (p.236), Mossadegh refused to use the popular support available to him and did not take the threat sufficiently seriously until it was too late.  Unaware until almost the very end that the United States was behind the coup, Mossadegh was guided by his desire “not to isolate himself completely from the Eisenhower administration.  He only had one foreign policy, to lean on the United States, and even [at the time of the coup]. . . he hoped to preserve it”  (p.236).


          Mossadegh was arrested, tried and convicted of treason in a military court.  He was initially sentenced to death but, after the Shah commuted his sentence, Mossadegh was placed under house arrest.  Many of his political associates were executed.  General Fazlloh Zahedi, formerly Minister of Interior in Mossadegh’s cabinet and the CIA’s choice as Prime Minister, led the new government.  Zahedi quickly reached agreement with AIOC to restore the flow of Iranian oil, with the United States and Britain receiving the largest share.  In return, the United States massively funded the Shah’s government, including his army and secret police, the SAVAK, turning Iran into a “vulgar tyranny” (p.273) until the Shah’s overthrow in 1979.  Mossadegh lived the rest of his life under house arrest.  He died in 1967, having seen his ideals “submerged in a tide of petro-dollars” (p.271).


* * *


          “Few foreign interventions in the Middle East have been as ignoble as the coup of 1953,” de Bellaigue concludes, and “few Middle Eastern leaders have less deserved our hostility than Muhammed Mossadegh” (p.273).  Among the policies which were reversed by the coup, de Bellaigue cites land reforms, social security and rent controls to help the rural and urban poor.  Mossadegh also envisioned a military under civil control and “modestly enhanced rights for women in the face of clerical unease” (p.207).  Had these reforms survived, “Mossadegh would now be remembered as an agent of extraordinary change” (p.207).   But Iran never regained the path toward a stable, pluralist and secular constitutional monarchy of the type that Mossadegh sought to put into place.  De Bellaigue demonstrates convincingly in this penetrating study that upending Mossadegh’s government was a tragic miscalculation for the United States and Great Britain, a miscalculation that continues to reverberate today.


Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

September 28, 2014


Filed under American Politics, British History, History, Politics, Uncategorized

Irish Potato Blight, British Potato Blunders

John Kelly, The Graves Are Walking:

The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

     john kelly bookJohnKelly220x328

          The potato crop failure that devastated rural Ireland from 1845-49 is the central subject of John Kelley’s “The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People.” Between 1845 and 1855, the Irish population of 8.2 million shrank by a third; starvation and related diseases killed 1.1 million and another 2 million emigrated. In his prodigiously researched work, Kelly gives these abstract figures concrete meaning through a series of gripping real life anecdotes of the devastating effects of the potato disease upon individual Irish families. He deftly weaves these anecdotes into a scathing indictment of the short-sighted poverty alleviation policies which successive British governments in London applied to Ireland during the famine.

          British officials perceived the famine as a consequence of what they considered a deeply-rooted Irish “culture of dependency” upon government and a lack of self-discipline and initiative. By 1830s, the idea was widespread throughout much of Britain that the Irish were congenitally poor and that their poverty was a manifestation of moral weakness. Potato farming was thought to encourage this dependency. The potato’s ease of cultivation “explained all the defects of the Irish character,” fostering a “culture of laziness” (p.25) and producing “habits and values incompatible with the swift winds of change blowing through the 19th century” (p.56), Kelly writes.

         The Act of Union of 1801 brought Britain and Ireland together to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. But in Britain’s expanding mid-19th century empire, Ireland was more than just a rural backwater. It was a failed state which Kelly compares to today’s Haiti. For some British officials, the famine represented an opportunity to modernize the Irish agricultural economy consistent with the general principles of laissez-faire capitalism that were leading the rest of Victorian Britain to unprecedented prosperity. What turned a natural disaster into a human disaster, Kelly argues, was the “determination of senior British officials to use relief policy as an instrument of nation building” in backward Ireland (p.3). Kelly describes these policies as “parsimonious, short-sighted, [and] grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology,” producing “tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of needless deaths” (p.338). If the famine has any enduring lesson, it is “about the harm that even the best are capable of when they lose their way and allow religion and politics to traduce reason and humanity” (p.4).

* * *

             Most rural Irish in the 1840s lived on small plots of land in which only potato farming could support a family. Absentee landlords, usually Protestant, held somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the land. The typical landlord was “far more interested in prompt rent payment than in providing tenants with modern farm implements or schooling them in the techniques of modern agriculture” (p.25). Kelly compares the power which landlords in Ireland exercised over their rural tenants to the found in the American South of the same era. In A Tour of Ireland, the “first comprehensive look at the [Irish] agricultural system,” (p.19), Arthur young wrote in the late 18th century that “nothing satisfies the Irish landlord but an unlimited submissiveness. Disrespect or anything tending toward sauciness he may punish with his cane or horsewhip” (p.20). Reminiscent of the American South, proprietors on some estates also demanded sexual favors.

            With its dependence on potato farming, rural Ireland was ill-equipped to resist what was known officially as “phytophtara infestans,” and colloquially as the “potato blight.” Although different strains of potato were vulnerable to the disease, the worst was the lumper, a strain first introduced in Munster in 1810, which required less fertilizer, could be grown in weaker soils, and came to dominate Irish potato fields. The potato disease was associated with heavy rains: once the disease arrived, it could kill a field in a single day. Potatoes dug from the ground were blackened and slimy, leaving behind a “violent order of decay” (p.28). The 1846 crop was wiped out in 72 to 96 hours, “so swift and comprehensive was the destruction, that a kind of mass disorientation seized Ireland” (p.111).

           There was no shortage of theories explaining the basis for the disease, with the least credible in the 1840s being that the disease was propagated by fungi. Initial proponents of this theory – “fungalists” – were considered cranks and crackpots, outside the scientific mainstream. More in vogue were the “degenerists,” who held that the blight was “simply another manifestation of the biological corruption produced by ‘the repeated cultivation of the same stock’” (p.31). But two decades later, in the 1860s, an eminent French scientist, Anton de Barry, established conclusively the fungal origins of the blight, carried by plant destroying, infective spores.

           Kelly details the multiple gyrations of British policy during the famine. The problem was not that there was no food available in Ireland. Wheat, meat and dairy products were produced in ample portions, but rural Irish peasants could rarely afford to buy these products and most were shipped to England and elsewhere. The Tory government of Robert Peel, in power from 1845 to mid-1846, sought to buy United States corn and repeal the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain products from foreign competition. To alleviate famine in Ireland, Peel’s government established works programs. Peel intended to limit British involvement in the crop failure to “organizational support, loans and some supplies” (p.50).

           In June 1846, a Whig government, led by Lord John Russell, came to power. The new government charged Sir Charles Trevelyan with primary responsibility for dealing with the food crisis. In economic matters, Trevelyan was a “passionate laissez faire man” (p.90). Trevelyan was also an adherent of Moralism, an “evangelical sect that preached a passionate gospel of self-help. Moralists opposed public assistance on the grounds that relief deprived the poor of the incentive to change the behaviors that had made them poor – alcoholism, sloth, indolence, sexual promiscuity” (p.90-91). Trevelyan believed that the crop failure constituted a providential judgment on Irish dependency and backwardness, representing a call for “salutary change” in Ireland. Under Trevelyan, famine alleviation policy would aim to foster a “new culture of initiative, industriousness, and self-reliance” (p.154).

          In January 1847,Trevelyan oversaw the opening of soup kitchens and the end of the sale of “Peel’s Indian corn” as an instrument to deal with the famine. But the idea of feeding directly a large portion of the Irish people conflicted with Trevelyan’s convictions about the appropriate role of government. In mid-1846, consequently, the Russell government shifted to public works programs. Financed primarily by local taxes, these programs were “designed to puts food money into the pocket of the peasant” (p.91). By late December 1846, perhaps as many as a half million Irish men, women and children were working on projects scuh as breaking apart stones to build largely useless roads that “began anywhere and ended nowhere” (p.105), with a workforce rarely earning enough to avoid starvation.

           Then, in early 1847, the Russell government abruptly shut down public work projects and reverted to soup kitchens. The public works program, “created to protect the Irish peasant from the moral depredation of free food, had failed, a victim of snows, gales, malnutrition, and the ideological fixations of its creators” (p.234). Under the Soup Kitchen Act of 1847, food was to be provided through locally collected taxes. But tax revenues were insufficient to meet the pressing needs and demand at the kitchens far exceeded supply. By the autumn of 1847, Trevelyan had returned to public works programs.

          Meanwhile, Irish peasants continued to die of starvation and related diseases in record numbers. An Irish-born Vicar explained to his English parish that in Ireland the “living envy the dead . . . [and] the dead are allowed either to putrefy . . . or [are] flung into the earth coffin-less and unwept” (p.244). Kelly summarizes a report on the Irish famine in the Montreal Gazette in the summer of 1847, in which the Gazette “imagined it was reporting an unprecedented mortality.” But its report failed to gain attention because everything in the article had been “said a thousand times before in hundreds of newspapers across two continents,” Kelly writes. By the summer of 1847, “newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do anymore was die” (p.281). This passage also captures Kelly’s own dilemma as a writer. His formidable series of illustrations of the devastation which the famine caused individual Irish families, almost always exacerbated by ill-conceived British policies, can have a numbing effect on the reader –only so many descriptions of unburied corpses, skeletal children, or babies dying of starvation in their desperate mothers’ arms can move most readers.

          Although roughly one-third of rural Ireland died from the consequences of the potato blight, another third emigrated, particularly to the United States, Canada and England. By spring of 1847, people were fleeing Ireland “heedlessly, recklessly, with no thought other than to get out” (p.254). The desire to leave was so powerful that “people left without luggage, without money, without forethought, without shoes” (p.256-57). Kelly includes illuminating sections on the Irish immigrant experience in Liverpool, Québec, and New York City. An Archbishop in New York “feared that famine immigration had succeeded only in moving Irish squalor from one side of the Atlantic to the other” (p.300). Citizens of Liverpool, Québec and other jurisdictions where Irish immigrants appeared in large numbers undoubtedly reached similar conclusions. But these sections are diversions from Kelly’s general theme, how ideological and religious considerations overcame common sense and common humanitarian reaction to drive British policy in the wake of the famine.

* * *

          Kelly concludes that the various British relief programs were “more concerned with fostering change than with saving lives” (p.4) – overly eager to modernize the Irish agricultural economy and improve the Irish character, with its “alarming ‘dependence on government’” and utter lack of the “virtues of the new industrial age, such as self-discipline and initative’” (p.3-4). Both the government in London and the population throughout other parts of Britain saw some good arising from the “evil of famine, pestilence, and mass death. The potato culture, the principal source of Irish economic and moral backwardness, was in collapse,” with “starvation, disease and emigration . . . rapidly lowering the Irish population to a size . . . commensurate with the country’s resources” (p.324).

          Although the word “genocide” was not then in vogue, there was certainly plenty of talk among the Irish to the effect that something along genocidal lines was indeed the intent of British policy. More recently, some scholars have argued that the term genocide aptly describes British policy in the famine years. Kelly dismisses such claims of as unsupported by the historical record. But he is also clear in his energetic work that there is plenty of evidence to conclude that British policy inadvertently had genocidal effects.

Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

August 26, 2014


Filed under British History, European History, History, Uncategorized