Category Archives: European History

Portrait of a President Living on Borrowed Time

Joseph Lelyveld, His Final Battle:

The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt 

            During the last year and a half of his life, from mid-October 1943 to his death in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential plate was full, even overflowing. He was grappling with winning history’s most devastating  war and structuring a lasting peace for the post-war global order, all the while tending to multiple domestic political demands. But Roosevelt spent much of this time out of public view in semi-convalescence, often in locations outside Washington, with limited contact with the outside world. Those who met the president, however, noticed a striking weight loss and described him with words like “listless,” “weary,” and “easily distracted.” We now know that Roosevelt had life-threatening high blood pressure, termed malignant hypertension, making him susceptible to a stroke or coronary attack at any moment. Roosevelt’s declining health was carefully shielded from the public and only rarely discussed directly, even within his inner circle. At the time, probably not more than a handful of doctors were aware of the full gravity of Roosevelt’s physical condition, and it is an open question whether Roosevelt himself was aware.

In His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, seeks to shed light upon, if not answer, this open question. Lelyveld suggests that the president likely was more aware than he let on of the implications of his declining physical condition. In a resourceful portrait of America’s longest serving president during his final year and a half, Lelyveld considers Roosevelt’s political activities against the backdrop of his health. The story is bookended by Roosevelt’s meetings to negotiate the post-war order with fellow wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, in Teheran in December 1943 and at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. Between the two meetings came Roosevelt’s 1944 decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term, a decision he reached just weeks prior to the Democratic National Convention that summer, and the ensuing campaign.

Lelyveld’s portrait of a president living on borrowed time emerges from an excruciatingly thin written record of Roosevelt’s medical condition. Roosevelt’s medical file disappeared without explanation from a safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital shortly after his death.   Unable to consider Roosevelt’s actual medical records, Lelyveld draws clues  concerning his physical condition from the diary of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, discovered after Suckley’s death in 1991 at age 100, and made public in 1995. The slim written record on Roosevelt’s medical condition limits Lelyveld’s ability to tease out conclusions on the extent to which that condition may have undermined his job performance in his final months.

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            Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of Roosevelt, was a constant presence in the president’s life in his final years and a keen observer of his physical condition. During Roosevelt’s last months, the “worshipful” (p.3) and “singularly undemanding” Suckley had become what Lelyveld terms the “Boswell of [Roosevelt’s] rambling ruminations,” secretly recording in an “uncritical, disjointed way the hopes and daydreams” that occupied the frequently inscrutable president (p.75). By 1944, Lelyfeld notes, there was “scarcely a page in Daisy’s diary without some allusion to how the president looks or feels” (p.77).   Lelyveld relies heavily upon the Suckley diary out of necessity, given the disappearance of Roosevelt’s actual medical records after his death.

Lelyveld attributes the disappearance to Admiral Ross McIntire, an ears-nose-and-throat specialist who served both as Roosevelt’s personal physician and Surgeon General of the Navy. In the latter capacity, McIntire oversaw a wartime staff of 175,000 doctors, nurses and orderlies at 330 hospitals and medical stations around the world. Earlier in his career, Roosevelt’s press secretary had upbraided McIntire for allowing the president to be photographed in his wheel chair. From that point forward, McIntire understood that a major component of his job was to conceal Roosevelt’s physical infirmities and protect and promote a vigorously healthy public image of the president. The “resolutely upbeat” (p.212) McIntire, a master of “soothing, well-practiced bromides” (p.226), thus assumes a role in Lelyveld’s account which seems as much “spin doctor” as actual doctor. His most frequent message for the public was that the president was in “robust health” (p.22), in the process of “getting over” a wide range of lesser ailments such as a heavy cold, flu, or bronchitis.

A key turning point in Lelyveld’s story occurred in mid-March 1944, 13 months prior to Roosevelt’s death, when the president’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger confronted McIntire and demanded to know more about what was wrong with her father. McIntire doled out his “standard bromides, but this time they didn’t go down” (p.23). Anna later said that she “didn’t think McIntire was an internist who really knew what he was talking about” (p.93). In response, however, McIntire brought in Dr. Howard Bruenn, the Navy’s top cardiologist. Evidently, Lelyveld writes, McIntire had “known all along where the problem was to be found” (p.23). Breunn was apparently the first cardiologist to have examined Roosevelt.

McIntire promised to have Roosevelt’s medical records delivered to Bruenn prior to his initial examination of the president, but failed to do so, an “extraordinary lapse” (p.98) which Lelyveld regards as additional evidence that McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of those records after Roosevelt’s death the following year. Breunn found that Roosevelt was suffering from “acute congestive heart failure” (p.98). He recommended that the wartime president avoid “irritation,” severely cut back his work hours, rest more, and reduce his smoking habit, then a daily pack and a half of Camel’s cigarettes. In the midst of the country’s struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, its leader was told that he “needed to sleep half his time and reduce his workload to that of a bank teller” (p.99), Lelyveld wryly notes.  Dr. Bruenn saw the president regularly from that point onward, traveling with him to Yalta in February 1945 and to Warm Springs in April of that year.

Ten days after Dr. Bruenn’s diagnosis, Roosevelt told a newspaper columnist, “I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified . . . I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do” (p.103). The president, Lelyveld concludes, “seems to have processed the admonition of the physicians – however it was delivered, bluntly or softly – and to be well on the way to convincing himself that if he could survive in his office by limiting his daily expenditure of energy, it was his duty to do so” (p.103).

At that time, Roosevelt had not indicated publicly whether he wished to seek a 4th precedential term and had not discussed this question with any of his advisors. Moreover, with the “most destructive military struggle in history approaching its climax, there was no one in the White House, or his party, or the whole of political Washington, who dared stand before him in the early months of 1944 and ask face-to-face for a clear answer to the question of whether he could contemplate stepping down” (p.3). The hard if unspoken political truth was that Roosevelt was the Democratic party’s only hope to retain the White House. There was no viable successor in the party’s ranks. But his re-election was far from assured, and public airing of concerns about his health would be unhelpful to say the least in his  re-election bid. Roosevelt did not make his actual decision to run until just weeks before the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the convention, Roosevelt’s then vice-president, Henry Wallace, and his counselors Harry Hopkins, and Jimmy Byrnes jockeyed for the vice-presidential nomination, along with William Douglas, already a Supreme Court justice at age 45. There’s no indication that Senator Harry S. Truman actively sought to be Roosevelt’s running mate. Lelyveld writes that it is tribute to FDR’s “wiliness” that the notion has persisted over the years that he was “only fleetingly engaged in the selection” of his 1944 vice-president and that he was “simply oblivious when it came to the larger question of succession” (p.172). To the contrary, although he may not have used the used the word “succession” in connection with his vice-presidential choice, Roosevelt “cared enough about qualifications for the presidency to eliminate Wallace as a possibility and keep Byrnes’s hopes alive to the last moment, when, for the sake of party unity, he returned to Harry Truman as the safe choice” (p.172-73).

Having settled upon Truman as his running mate, Roosevelt indicated that he did not want to campaign as usual because the war was too important. But campaign he did, and Lelyveld shows how hard he campaigned – and how hard it was for him given his deteriorating health, which aggravated his mobility problems. The outcome was in doubt up until Election Day, but Roosevelt was resoundingly reelected to a fourth presidential term. The president could then turn his full attention to the war effort, focusing both upon how the war would be won and how the peace would be structured. Roosevelt’s foremost priority was structuring the peace; the details on winning the war were largely left to his staff and to the military commanders in the field.

Roosevelt badly wanted to avoid the mistakes that Woodrow Wilson had made after World War I. He was putting together the pieces of an organization already referred to as the United Nations and fervently sought  the participation and support of his war ally, the Soviet Union. He also wanted Soviet support for the war against Japan in the Pacific after the Nazi surrender, and for an independent and democratic Poland. In pursuit of these objectives, Roosevelt agreed to travel over 10,000 arduous miles to Yalta, to meet in February 1945 with Stalin and Churchill.

In Roosevelt’s mind, Stalin  was by then both the key to victory on the battlefield and for a lasting peace afterwards — and he was, in Roosevelt’s phrase, “get-at-able” (p.28) with the right doses of the legendary Roosevelt charm.   Roosevelt had begun his serious courtship of the Soviet leader at their first meeting in Teheran in December 1943.  His fixation on Stalin, “crossing over now and then into realms of fantasy” (p.28), continued at Yalta. Lelyveld’s treatment of Roosevelt at Yalta covers similar ground to that in Michael Dobbs’ Six Months That Shook the World, reviewed here in April 2015. In Lelyveld’s account, as in that of Dobbs, a mentally and physical exhausted Roosevelt at Yalta ignored the briefing books his staff prepared for him and relied instead upon improvisation and his political instincts, fully confident that he could win over Stalin by force of personality.

According to cardiologist Bruenn’s memoir, published a quarter of a century later, early in the conference Roosevelt showed worrying signs of oxygen deficiency in his blood. His habitually high blood pressure readings revealed a dangerous condition, pulsus alternans, in which every second heartbeat was weaker than the preceding one, a “warning signal from an overworked heart” (p.270).   Dr. Bruenn ordered Roosevelt to curtail his activities in the midst of the conference. Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, wrote that Roosevelt had “all the symptoms of hardening of arteries in the brain” during the conference and gave the president “only a few months to live” (p.270-71). Churchill himself commented that his wartime ally “really was a pale reflection almost throughout” (p.270) the Yalta conference.

Yet, Roosevelt recovered sufficiently to return home from the conference and address Congress and the public on its results, plausibly claiming victory. The Soviet Union had agreed to participate in the United Nations and in the war in Asia, and to hold what could be construed as free elections in Poland. Had he lived longer, Roosevelt would have seen that Stalin delivered as promised on the Asian war. The Soviet Union also became a member of the United Nations and maintained its membership in the organization until its dissolution in 1991, but was rarely if ever the partner Roosevelt envisioned in keeping world peace. The possibility of a democratic Poland, “by far the knottiest and most time-consuming issue Roosevelt confronted at Yalta” (p.285), was by contrast slipping away even before Roosevelt’s death.

At one point in his remaining weeks, Roosevelt exclaimed, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” on Poland (p.304; Dobbs includes the same quotation, adding that Roosevelt thumped on his wheelchair at the time of this outburst). But, like Dobbs, Lelyveld argues that even a more physically fit, fully focused and coldly realistic Roosevelt would likely have been unable to save Poland from Soviet clutches. When the allies met at Yalta, Stalin’s Red Army was in the process of consolidating military control over almost all of Polish territory.  If Roosevelt had been at the peak of vigor, Lelyveld concludes, the results on Poland “would have been much the same” (p.287).

Roosevelt was still trying to mend fences with Stalin on April 11, 1945, the day before his death in Warm Springs. Throughout the following morning, Roosevelt worked on matters of state: he received an update on the US military advances within Germany and even signed a bill, sustaining the Commodity Credit Corporation. Then, just before lunch Roosevelt collapsed. Dr. Bruenn arrived about 15 minutes later and diagnosed a hemorrhage in the brain, a stroke likely caused by the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain or the rupture of an aneurysm. “Roosevelt was doomed from the instant he was stricken” (p.323).  Around midnight, Daisy Suckley recorded in her diary that the president had died at 3:35 pm that afternoon. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hope of the world, is dead,” (p.324), she wrote.

Daisy was one of several women present at Warm Springs to provide company to the president during his final visit. Another was Eleanor Roosevelt’s former Secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, by this time the primary Other Woman in the president’s life. Rutherford had driven down from South Carolina to be with the president, part of a recurring pattern in which Rutherford appeared in instances when wife Eleanor was absent, as if coordinated by a social secretary with the knowing consent of all concerned. But this orchestration broke down in Warm Springs in April 1945. After the president died, Rutherford had to flee in haste to make room for Eleanor. Still another woman in the president’s entourage, loquacious cousin Laura Delano, compounded Eleanor’s grief by letting her know that Rutherford had been in Warm Springs for the previous three days, adding gratuitously that Rutherford had also served as hostess at occasions at the White House when Eleanor was away. “Grief and bitter fury were folded tightly in a large knot” (p.325) for the former First Lady at Warm Springs.

Subsequently, Admiral McIntire asserted that Roosevelt had a “stout heart” and that his blood pressure was “not alarming at any time” (p.324-25), implying that the president’s death from a stroke had proven that McIntire had “always been right to downplay any suggestion that the president might have heart disease.” If not a flat-out falsehood, Lelyveld argues, McIntire’s assertion “at least raises the question of what it would have taken to alarm him” (p.325). Roosevelt’s medical file by this time had gone missing from the safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital, most likely removed by the Admiral because it would have revealed the “emptiness of the reassurances he’d fed the press and the public over the years, whenever questions arose about the president’s health” (p.325).

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           Lelyveld declines to engage in what he terms an “argument without end” (p.92) on the degree to which Roosevelt’s deteriorating health impaired his job performance during his last months and final days. Rather, he  skillfully pieces together the limited historical record of Roosevelt’s medical condition to add new insights into the ailing but ever enigmatic president as he led his country nearly to the end of history’s most devastating war.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 28, 2017

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, History, United States History, World 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

7 Comments

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

Reporting From the Front Lines of the Enlightenment

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Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment

           The 18th century Enlightenment was an extraordinary time when religious skepticism rose across Europe and philosophes boldly asserted that man’s capacity for reason was the key to understanding both human nature and the nature of the universe.   In Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, provides a highly personalized view of the Enlightenment as experienced by James Boswell (1740-1795), the faithful Scottish companion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and author of a seminal biography on the learned doctor.  The crux of Zaretsky’s story lies in  Boswell’s tour of the European continent between 1763 and 1765 – the “Grand Tour” – where, as a young man, Boswell encountered seemingly all the period’s leading thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, then Europe’s two best known philosophes. Zaretsky’s self-described purpose is to “place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment” (p.16-17). Also figuring prominently in Zaretsky’s account are Boswell’s encounters prior to departing for Europe with several leading Scottish luminaries, most notably David Hume, Britain’s best-known religious skeptic. The account further includes the beginning phases of Boswell’s life-long relationship with Johnson, the “most celebrated literary figure in London” (p.71) and, for Boswell, already a “moral and intellectual rock” (p.227).

         But Zaretsky’s title is a delicious double entendre, for his book is simultaneously the intriguing story of Boswell’s personal coming of age in the mid-18th century – his “enlightenment” with a small “e” – amidst the intellectual fervor of his times. The young Boswell searching for himself  was more than a little sycophantic, with an uncommon facility to curry favor with the prominent personalities of his day – an unabashed 18th century celebrity hound.  But Boswell also possessed a fertile, impressionable mind, along with a young man’s zest to experience life in all its facets. Upon leaving for his Grand Tour, moreover, Boswell was already a prolific if not yet entirely polished writer who kept a detailed journal of his travels, much of which survives. In his journal, the introspective Boswell was a “merciless self-critic” (p.97). Yet, Zaretsky writes, Boswell’s ability to re-create conversations and characters in his journals makes him a “remarkable witness to his age” (p.15).  Few individuals “reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment” (p.13).

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        In his prologue, Zaretsky raises the question whether the 18th century Enlightenment should be considered a unified phenomena, centered in France and radiating out from there; or whether it makes more sense to think of separate Enlightenments, such as, for example, both a Scottish and a French Enlightenment. This is a familiar theme to assiduous readers of this blog: in 2013, I reviewed Arthur Hermann’s exuberant claim to a distinct Scottish Enlightenment; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s more sober argument for distinctive French, English and American Enlightenments. Without answering this always-pertinent question, Zaretsky turns his account to young Boswell’s search for himself and the greatest minds of 18th century Europe.

        Boswell was the son of a prominent Edinburgh judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, a follower of John Knox’s stern brand of Calvinism and an overriding force in young Boswell’s life. Boswell’s effort to break the grip that his father exerted over his life was also in many senses an attempt to break the grip of his Calvinist upbringing. When as a law student in Edinburgh his son developed what Lord Auchinleck considered a most unhealthy interest in theatre — and women working in the theatre — he sent the wayward son from lively and overly liberal Edinburgh to more subdued Glasgow. There, Boswell came under the influence of renowned professor Adam Smith.  Although his arguments for the advantages of laissez faire capitalism came later, Smith was already a sensation across Europe for his view that empathy, or “fellow feeling,” was the key to understanding what makes human beings good.    A few years later, Lord Auchinleck started his son on his Grand Tour across the European continent by insisting that young Boswell study civil law in the Netherlands, as he had done in his student days.

        Throughout his travels, the young Boswell wrestled with the question of religious faith and how it might be reconciled with the demands of reason. The religious skepticism of Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau weighed on him.  But, like Johnson, Boswell was not quite ready to buy into it. For Boswell, reason was “not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end, this thought of our death. Instead, religion alone offered respite” (p.241). In an age where death was a “constant and dire presence,” Boswell “stands out for his preoccupation, if not obsession, with his mortal end” (p.15). Boswell’s chronic “hypochondria” – the term used in Boswell’s time for depression — was “closely tied to his preoccupation with his mortality” (p.15).  For Boswell, like Johnson, the defense of traditional religion was “less fear of hell than fear of nothingness – what both men called ‘annihilation’” (p.85).

      Boswell’s fear of the annihilation of death probably helps explain his life long fascination with public executions. Throughout the Grand Tour, he consistently went out of his way to attend these very public 18th century spectacles, “transfixed by the ways in which the victims approached their last moments” (p.15). Boswell’s attraction to public executions, whose official justification was to “educate the public on the consequences of crime” was, Zaretsky notes, “exceptional even among his contemporaries” (p.80). But if the young Boswell feared death, he dove deeply into life and, through his journal, shared his dives with posterity.

        A prodigious drinker and carouser, Boswell seduced women across the continent, often the wives of men he was meeting to discuss the profound issues of life and death. At seemingly every stop along the way, moreover, he patronized establishments practicing the world’s oldest profession, with several bouts of gonorrhea resulting from these frequentations, followed by excruciatingly painful medical treatments. Boswell’s multiple encounters with the opposite sex form a colorful portion of his journal and are no small portion of the reason why the journal continues to fascinate readers to this day.

        But Boswell’s first significant encounter with the opposite sex during the Grand Tour was also his first significant encounter on the continent with an Enlightenment luminary, Elisabeth van Tuyell van Serooskerken, whom the young Scot wisely shortened to “Belle.” Boswell met Belle in Utrecht, the Netherlands, his initial stop on the Grand Tour, where he was ostensibly studying civil law. Belle, who went on to write several epistolary novels under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière, was a sophisticated religious skeptic who understood the “social and moral necessity of religion; but she also understood that true skepticism entailed, as Hume believed, a kind of humility and intellectual modesty” (p.127). Belle was not free of religious doubt, Zaretsky notes, but unlike Boswell, was “free of the temptation to seek certainty” (p.127).   Boswell was attracted to Belle’s “lightning” mind, which, as he wrote a friend, “flashes with so much brilliance [that it] may scorch” (p.117). But Belle was not nearly as smitten by Boswell as he was with her, and her father never bothered to pass to his daughter the marriage proposal that Boswell had presented to him. The two parted when Boswell left Utrecht, seeking to put his unrequited love behind him.

        Boswell headed from the Netherlands to German-speaking Prussia and its king, “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great.  Zaretsky considers Frederick “far more despotic than enlightened” (p.143), but Frederick plainly saw the value to the state of religious tolerance. “Here everyone must be allowed to go to heaven in his own way” (p.145) summarized Frederick’s attitude toward religion.  Frederick proved to be one of the era’s few luminaries who was “indifferent to the Scot’s irrepressible efforts at presenting himself to them” (p.141), and Boswell had little direct time with the Prussian monarch during his six month stay.

          But Boswell managed back-to-back visits with Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland, his next destination. Rousseau and Voltaire had both been banished from Catholic France for heretical religious views. Rousseau, who was born in Calvinist Geneva,  was no longer welcome in that city either because of his religious views.  Beyond a shared disdain for organized religion, the former friends disagreed about just about everything else — culture and civilization, theater and literature, politics and education.  Zaretsky’s chapter on these visits, entitled “The Distance Between Môtiers and Ferney” – a reference to the remote Swiss locations where, respectively, Rousseau and Voltaire resided — is in my view the book’s best, with an erudite overview of the two men’s wide ranging thinking, their reactions to their impetuous young visitor, and the enmity that separated them.

         Zaretsky describes Rousseau as a “poet of nature” (p.148), for whom religious doctrines led “not to God, but instead to oppression and war” (p.149).   But Rousseau also questioned his era’s advances in learning and the Enlightenment’s belief in human progress. The more science and the arts advanced, Rousseau argued, the more  contemporary society became consumed by personal gain and greed.  Voltaire, the “high priest of the French Enlightenment” (p.12), was a poet, historian and moralist who had fled from France to England in the 1730s because of his heretical religious views. There, he absorbed the thinking of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose pragmatic approach and grounded reason he found superior to the abstract reasoning and metaphysical speculation that he associated with Descartes. While not an original or systematic thinker like Locke or Bacon, Voltaire was an “immensely gifted translator of their work and method” (p.172).

         By the time Boswell arrived in Môtiers, the two philosophes were no longer on speaking terms. Rousseau publicly termed Voltaire a “mountebank” and “impious braggart,” a man of “so much talent put to such vile use” (p.158). Voltaire returned the verbal fire with a string of vitriolic epithets, among them “ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable.” The clash between the two men went beyond epithets and name-calling. Rousseau publicly identified Voltaire as the author of Oath of the Fifty, a “brutal and hilarious critique of Christian scripture” (p.180). Voltaire, for his part, revealed that Rousseau had fathered five children with his partner Thérèse Levasseur, whom the couple subsequently abandoned.

        The enmity between the two men was not an obstacle to Boswell visiting each, although his actual meetings constitute a minor portion of the engrossing chapter. Boswell had an “improbable” five separate meetings with the usually reclusive Rousseau. They were wide-ranging, with the “resolute and relentless” Boswell pursing “questions great and small, philosophical and personal” (p.156). When Boswell pressed Rousseau on how religious faith could be reconciled with reason, however, Rousseau’s answer was, in essence, that’s for you to figure out. Boswell did not fare much better with Voltaire on how he might reconcile reason with religious faith.

          Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire was no recluse. He prided himself on being the “innkeeper of Europe” (p.174), and his residence at Ferney was usually overflowing with visitors. Despite spending several days at Ferney, Boswell managed a single one-on-one meeting with the man he described as the “Monarch of French Literature” (p.176). In a two-hour conversation that reached what Zaretsky terms “epic proportions” (p.178), the men took up the subject of religious faith. “If ever two men disputed with vehemence we did” (p.178), Boswell  wrote afterwards.  The young traveler wrote eight pages on the encounter in a document separate from his journal.  Alas, these eight pages have been lost to history. But we know that the traveler  left the meeting more than a little disappointed that Voltaire could not provide the definitive resolution he was seeking of how to bridge the chasm between reason and faith.

          After a short stay in Italy that included “ruins and galleries . . .brothels and bawdy houses. . .churches and cathedrals” (p.200), Boswell’s last stop on the Grand Tour was the island of Corsica, a distant and exotic location where few Britons had ever visited.  There, he met General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the movement for Corsican independence from the city-state of Genoa, which exercised control over most of the island. Paoli was already attracting attention throughout Europe for his determination to establish a republican government on the island.  Rousseau, who had been asked to write a constitution for an independent Corsica, wrote for Boswell a letter of introduction to Paoli.  During a six-day visit to the island, Paoli treated the mesmerized Boswell increasingly like a son. Paoli “embodied those ancient values that Boswell most admired, though frequently failed to practice: personal integrity and public authority; intellectual lucidity and stoic responsibility” (p.232). Paoli’s leadership of the independence movement demonstrated to Boswell that heroism was still alive, an “especially crucial quality in an age like his of philosophical and religious doubt” (p.217). Upon returning to Britain, Boswell became a vigorous advocate for Paoli and the cause of Corsican independence.

        Boswell’s tour on the continent ended — and Zaretsky’s narrative ends — with a dramatic flourish that Zaretsky likens to episodes in Henry Fielding’s then popular novel Tom Jones. While Boswell was in Italy, Rousseau and Thérèse were forced to flee Môitiers because of hostile reaction to Voltaire’s revelation about the couple’s five children. By chance, David Hume, who had been in Paris, was able to escort Rousseau into exile in England, leaving Thérèse temporarily behind. Boswell somehow got wind of Thérèse’s situation and, sensing an opportunity to win favor with Rousseau, eagerly accepted her request to escort her to England to join her partner.  But over the course of the 11-day trip to England, Boswell and Thérèse “found themselves sharing the same bed. Inevitably, Boswell recounted his sexual prowess in his journal: ‘My powers were excited and I felt myself vigorous’” (p.225). No less inevitably, Zaretsky notes, Boswell also recorded Thérèse’s “more nuanced response: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’” (p.225).

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       After following Boswell’s encounters across the continent with many of the period’s most illustrious figures, I was disappointed that Zaretsky does not return to the question he raises initially about nature of 18th century Enlightenment.   It would have been interesting to learn what conclusions, if any, he draws from Boswell’s journey. Does the young Scot’s partaking of the thoughts of Voltaire, Rousseau and others, and his championing the cause of Corsican independence, suggest a single movement indifferent to national and cultural boundaries? Or should Boswell best be considered an emissary of a peculiarly Scottish form of Enlightenment? Or was Boswell himself too young, too impressionable – too full of himself – to allow for any broader conclusions to be drawn from his youthful experiences about the nature of the 18th century Enlightenment? These unanswered questions constitute a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging account of a young man seeking to make sense of the intellectual currents that were riveting his 18th century world and to apply them in his personal life.

Thomas H. Peebles

Florence, Italy

January 25, 2017

 

5 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Intellectual History, Religion

Formidable Thinker, Reluctant Politician, President of Two Countries

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Michael Žantovsky, Havel: A Life

     In our time of rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism, Václav Havel, if he is remembered at all, seems anachronistic, a quaint figure from a bygone era. The first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, Havel (1936-2011) was elected during the “Velvet Revolution” in December 1989, barely a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just days after Soviet control of Czechoslovakia collapsed.  After the 1992 “Velvet Divorce” split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel served as Czech Republic president from 1993 to 2003.

     Although both Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first, Havel was more than just president of two countries. He was also a towering moral symbol in Eastern Europe’s remarkable transition to democracy in the 1990s after decades of communist rule.  Michael Zantovsky demonstrates in his engaging biography, Havel: A Life, how Havel was instrumental in bringing about the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, “one of the most dramatic social transitions of recent history” (p.1). As president of two countries, Havel should be credited with “finally putting to rest one of the most alluring utopias of all time” (p.1).

     Havel may fairly be paired with Nelson Mandela, the most visible and best-known engineer of late 20th century transitions to democracy. Before becoming political leaders, both Mandela and Havel were jailed on account of their dissident activities.  Like Mandela, Havel advocated non-violence “not only as a matter of moral principle but as a weapon of political struggle” (p.437). But unlike Mandela, who was a man of action par excellence – a boxer as a young man, then a civil rights lawyer – Havel was an intellectual par excellence.

    Zantovsky describes Havel as a “formidable thinker, who consistently attempted to apply the results of his thinking process . . . to his practical engagement in the realm of politics” (p.1-2).  Havel’s deep thinking on the individual in the modern state is as much a part of his legacy as his actual steering of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic through the post-communist years.  Havel was already known as a playwright when he became a dissident challenging the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. If he had never entered politics, we would likely remember him as one of the 20th century’s most noteworthy  playwrights, on par with the likes of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Berthold Brecht.

     Zantovsky’s book divides into two roughly equal parts: Havel the playwright and dissident in the first half; Havel the politician in the second. Zantovsky himself is an important figure in his story. A clinical psychologist by training, a correspondent for Reuters, and once an aspiring rock music lyricist, Zantovsky served as a primary advisor and press secretary to Havel during the early transition years. Later, he received appointments as Czech Ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom. Zantovsky admits to having shared with Havel “many laughs, moments of sadness, quite a few drinks and some incredible moments together, both before and after he became president” (p.5).  Zantovsky’s insider’s view, seen only rarely in biography, does not preclude him from presenting a balanced portrait of his one-time boss that includes Havel’s shortcomings and failures. Zantovsky also indicates that this is his first book in English. His crisp, straightforward style, coupled with wry observations and humorous digressions, reveals a high comfort level not only with his subject but also with the English language.

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     Havel’s early years coincided with the critical events that marked the life of his country and indelibly shaped his adult perspective. In 1938, when Havel was two, France and Great Britain abandoned the defense of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the infamous Munich accords of 1938, the “prime trauma of modern Czechoslovak history” (p.336). The Nazis invaded the country in March 1939. After their defeat in World War II, Stalinists in 1948 seized control of the Czechoslovak government in a non-violent putsch and instituted a communist regime that lasted four decades, until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (these events are set forth in Prague Winter, the memoir of Madeline Albright, a fellow Czech native and prominent contemporary and friend of Havel, reviewed here in May 2013).

      Havel grew up in comfortable circumstances, but his moderately wealthy bourgeois background was not an asset once the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. Havel’s privileged upbringing left him feeling “’alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed’ and humbled” (p.21). This feeling of being outcast, isolated and unfairly privileged, Zantovsky writes, “remained with Havel throughout his life. In his own thinking it endowed him with a lifelong perspective from ‘below’ or from the ‘outside.’” (p.21). From his teens onward, Havel was a “leader, setting agendas, walking at the front, showing the way. . . [but] with a diffidence, kindness and politeness so unwavering (and often unwarranted) that Havel himself caricatured it some of his plays” (p.3). At age 19, when he fell in love with his life-long partner and wife Olga Šplichalová, Havel already had the “gravitas of really believing what he was saying” (p.53).

     Havel’s bourgeois background precluded him from being accepted in an arts and science faculty at a Czech university. He was able to gain admission to a program in the economics of transportation, an arcane field that did not interest him, and he dropped out to join the Czech military. After completing military service, Havel became a playwright and an established member of the “shadow, non-conformist, bohemian underworld” (p.41) of the Prague intellectual class. Whatever he did  in the future, Zantovksy indicates, Havel’s loyalties always remained with this shadowy underworld.

     Havel’s plays explored how inauthenticity, alienation, the absurd, social isolation and depersonalization affected individuals in Czechoslovakia and totalitarian societies generally.   In one of his best known plays, “The Memorandum,” Havel posed the question of “passive participation in evil” (p.93), a question that he would return to repeatedly. Havel sought to demonstrate how totalitarian control drives individuals to “isolation, and makes them fear, suspect and avoid others” (p.95). But the human capacity to “’live the truth,’ to reaffirm man’s ‘authentic identity’” constitutes in all of Havel’s plays what Zantovsky terms the “nuclear weapon” that “gives power to the powerless. As soon as the system is no longer able to extract the ritual endorsement from its subjects, its ideological pretensions collapse as the lies they are” (p.200).

     In the 1960s, Havel gradually became associated with dissident opposition to the Communist regime. With his principal themes of identity, responsibility and the elusive notion of “living in truth” by this time fully formed, Havel came to the hazardous conclusion that rather than “waste time by hopelessly tinkering with the [communist] system in the effort of making it livable and sustainable, it was necessary to replace it as a whole” (p.96). Havel became a full-fledged leader of the dissident movement at the time of the “Czech spring” of 1968, when the Czechoslovak government sought to institute modest reforms under the guise of “socialism with a human face.” In August of that year, the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the fledgling reform movement in one of the “most massive overnight military invasions in European history” (p.115). Twenty oppressive years of what the communists termed “normalization” followed.

     The early years of so-called “normalization” following suppression of the Czech Spring were for Havel a period of “shapeless fog” (p.132). But by the mid-1970s, Havel had become the driving force behind the Czechoslovak dissident movement.  His essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” dissected the nature of the communist regime and argued that sustained opposition on the part of ordinary citizens could eventually topple it. Havel became one of the principal authors of Charter 77, written in late 1977 in response to the imprisonment of members of  Czech psychedelic rock band.  Charter 77 became the defining document of the Czech dissident movement and helped raise awareness in Western countries of human rights behind the Iron Curtain. The charter criticized the Czechoslovak government for failing to implement human rights provisions in its constitution and in a host of international instruments that it had signed.

     During his dissident years, Havel landed in prison on multiple occasions, the longest being nearly four years, between 1979 and 1983. While imprisoned, Havel wrote an extensive series of letters to his wife Olga, later published as “Letters to Olga” — “hybrids of creative writing, philosophy and political prose” (p.3). Although in jail when Czech dissident activities surged in the early 1980s, Havel was nonetheless directly or indirectly linked to these activities, as an “instigator, an inspiration, a spectator or as a friend. It almost appears as if he were a spider at the center of a web, spinning and waiting” (p.275). Around this time, Havel “must have realized himself that he was on a transitional trajectory from being an artist and dissident to becoming a politician” (p.275). His prison experience had made him “uniquely well prepared for the single-minded focus towards the tasks ahead, culminating with his leadership of the Velvet Revolution” (p.231).

     A dizzying six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Havel, leading a disparate group termed Civic Forum, became his country’s first freely elected president since the legendary post-World War I leader Tomas Masaryk.  Havel “probably never dreamt about being president, nor did he particularly wish to assume the office. Throughout his life he thought of himself primarily as a writer; what people thought about his writing affected him much more personally than what they thought about him as a politician” (p.317). But in what Zantovsky terms the “reality play of his life,” Havel had “set the stage in such a way that, when the final act arrived, the logic of the piece inexorably led him to assume the leading position” (p.317) as the newly independent state set upon an uncertain transformation away from totalitarian rule and toward democracy.

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     Both as a protester and as a politician, Havel advocated what Zantovsky terms “socialist humanism,” an idealized version of the social welfare states of Western Europe. Despite his voracious reading and self-education, when Havel became president he was “ignorant of the fundamentals of economic theory” and “totally unfamiliar with the practical workings of a real economy” (p.392-93). Only “grudgingly” did Havel come to “acknowledge, and even to respect the role of political organizations as agents of change and condensers of political energy” (p.204). In an interview after he left office, Havel said that his most serious mistake as president was that he had “not more energetically promoted his vision of a humanistic and moral society during his time as president.” To many people, especially his detractors, Zantovsky wryly notes, “he had done little else” (p.459).

     Havel seemed embarrassed by the power that his political position yielded, “always wary of trying to elevate himself or of exaggerating his own importance” (p.405). In leading the transition away from communism and toward democracy, one of Havel’s strengths, but arguably also a weakness, was that he rejected the “concept of the Enemy.” He consistently went out of his way to “understand rather than to demonize the motives of the other side and, if at all possible, always to extend to them the benefit of the doubt” (p.108-09). Havel’s conciliatory approach “led to accusations that he was soft on the exponents of the previous regime, or even that there was possible some secret collusion between them” (p.109).

     The most significant issue Havel had to deal with as President of Czechoslovakia was the Velvet Divorce, when a Slovak independence movement split the country in July 1992 into a new Czech Republic and a southern and eastern neighbor, Slovakia. Havel could not endorse separation, which “ran against the grain of his conviction, his philosophy, his understanding of democracy and his sense of responsibility” (p.419). But neither could Havel take a “heroic stand” against separation, “in view of the risks and uncertainties this would pose for 15 million of his fellow citizens” (p.419). It was better to have two functioning countries than a single, dysfunctional one, Havel reasoned. Havel resigned as president of Czechoslovakia after Slovakia’s official July 1992 declaration of independence.  He had no involvement in the working out of details of the separation over the following six months. But he was persuaded to run for the presidency of the new Czech Republic and became its first president in January 1993.

     As Czech President, Havel had a complicated relationship with Vaclav Klaus, his Prime Minister who went on to succeed Havel as Czech President in 2003.  Klaus was in many ways the opposite of Havel. A free-market economist, Klaus battled with Havel over the “character of Czech society and over the values and principles it should abide by. For Klaus, these values could be reduced to individual economic and political freedom and a vague allegiance to the national community as the conduit of history, culture and traditions” (p.456). Klaus was a Eurosceptic, whereas Havel “emphasized time and time again the great opportunity that the process of European integration offered for ‘civilizational self-reflection,’ and promoted the idea of ‘Europe as a mission’” (p.449). Havel’s relationship with his Polish counterpart Lech Walęsa, another hero in Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, was less complicated, in no small measure because Walęsa shared Havel’s dedication to European integration for former Warsaw Pact  countries.

     Walęsa embodied the “heroic past of the Polish nation, with its brave if sometimes futile resistance to foreign oppressors,” whereas Havel “exemplified the fundamental unity of Central Europe with the rest of the West in terms of culture, philosophy and political thinking” (p.444). But despite differences in the two men’s character and outlook, they were a forceful single voice for expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and accession of former Iron Curtain countries into the European Union, which both US President Bill Clinton and major Western European leaders initially opposed. Havel and Walęsa “complemented each other as well as any pair since Laurel and Hardy. It is hard to imagine that the enlargement would have occurred without either of them,” Zantovsky contends. “If most of Europe today is safer than at any time in its history, it is not least thanks to the vision of statesmen like Bill Clinton, Lech Walęsa. . . and Václav Havel” (p.444-45).

     When Havel left the Czech presidency in 2003, he was a widely known and respected figure worldwide, and he traveled extensively throughout the world.  His wife Olga had died in 1996 and Havel married an actress (Havel had more than his fair share of extra-marital affairs while married to Olga, which Zantovsky mentions but does not dwell upon). Havel became a Visiting Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, where he wrote a memoir, “To the Castle and Back,” which Zantovksy describes as an “existential mediation on the meaning of life, politics and love, for which the presidency is not much more than a backdrop” (p.504). He also wrote a play, “Leaving,” that seemed to foreshadow his own death. After several years of declining health, brought about in part by a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking, Havel died at his country home in December 2011, age 75.

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     Zantovsky summarizes the “remarkable balance sheet” of his former boss’ presidency by noting that Havel should be given credit for the “peaceful transformation of the country from totalitarian rule to democracy; [and] for building a stable system of democratic and political institutions, comparable in most respects, flaws included, to long-existing systems in the West” (p.497). Further, Havel “successfully brought the country back to Europe and made it an integral part of Western political and security alliances; and he remained an inspiration and identifiable supporter in the struggle for human rights and freedoms around the world” (p.497). Even the Velvet Divorce, Havel’s greatest setback as a political leader, was mitigated by its “peaceful and consensual character” (p.497).

    Yet Zantovsky also notes in his affectionate portrait that Havel “conspicuously failed at making the society at large adhere to his ideals of morality, tolerance, and civic spirit, but that said more about society than about him. Arguably, he had never expected to succeed fully” (p.497). Today, the ideals of this enigmatic, brilliant man and reluctant politician seem far more elusive than in Havel’s time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 19, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, History

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

A Particular Sort of Friendship

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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.

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     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.

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     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

 

 

 

 

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

The 22-Month Criminal Partnership That Turned the World On Its Head

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Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance:
Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41 

     On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stunned the world by executing a non-aggression pact, sometimes referred to as the “Ribbentrop-Molotov” accord after the foreign ministers of the two countries.  The pact, executed in Moscow, seemed to come out of nowhere and was inexplicable to large portions of the world’s population, not least to German and Soviet citizens. Throughout most of the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had vilified the other as its archenemy.  Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany in no small measure because he offered the country and especially its privileged elites protection from the Bolshevik menace emanating from the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Russia viewed the forces of Fascism and Nazism as dark and virulent manifestations of Western imperialism and global capitalism that threatened the Soviet Union.

     In his fascinating and highly readable account of the pact, The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, Roger Moorhouse, an independent British historian, writes that the “bitter enmity between the Nazis and the Soviets had been considered as a given, one of the fixed points of political life.  Now, overnight, it had apparently been consigned to history. The signature of the pact, then, was one of those rare moments in history where the world – with all its norms and assumptions – appeared to have been turned on its head” (p.142). Or, as one commentator quipped at the time, the pact turned “all our –isms into –wasisms” (p.2).

     According to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, when the Fûhrer learned at his mountain retreat that Stalin had accepted the broad outlines of the proposal Ribbentrop carried to Moscow, Hitler “stared into space for a moment, flushed deeply, then banged on the table so hard that the glasses rattled, and exclaimed in a voice breaking with excitement, ‘I have them! I have them!’” (p.35). But Moorhouse quotes Stalin a few pages later telling his adjutants, “Of course, it’s all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me but actually it’s I who has tricked him” (p.44).

    Which devil got the better of the other is an open and perhaps unanswerable question. For Germany, the pact allowed Hitler to attack Poland a little over a week later without having to worry about Soviet retaliation and, once Poland was eliminated, to pursue his aims elsewhere in Europe without a two-front war reminiscent of Germany’s situation in World War I up to Russia’s surrender after the Bolshevik revolution.  The conventional view is that for the Soviet Union, which had always looked upon war with Nazi Germany as inevitable, the pact at a minimum bought time to continue to modernize and mobilize its military forces.

     But, Moorhouse argues, Stalin was interested in far more than simply buying time. He also sought to “exploit Nazi aggression to his own ends, to speed up the fall of the West and the long awaited collapse of the West” (p.2). The non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany provided the Soviet Union with an opportunity to expand its influence westward and recapture territory lost to Russia after World War I.  The pact ended almost exactly 22 months after its execution, on June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the code name given to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But during the pact’s 22-month existence, both Hitler and Stalin extended their authority over wide swaths of Europe.  By June 1941, the two dictators — the two devils — between them controlled nearly half of the continent.

* * *

     As late as mid-August 1939, Soviet diplomats were pursuing an anti-Nazi collective defense agreement with Britain and France. But Stalin and his diplomats suspected that the British and the French “would be happy to cut a deal with Hitler at their expense” (p.24).  Sometime that month, Stalin concluded that no meaningful collective defense agreement with the Western powers was feasible. Through the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, therefore, Stalin preempted the British and French at what he considered their own duplicitous game. Three days prior to the signing of the non-aggression pact, on August 20, 1939, Berlin and Moscow executed a commercial agreement that provided for formalized exchanges of raw materials from the Soviet Union and industrial goods from Germany. This agreement had been in the works for months and, unlike the non-non-agression pact, had been followed closely in capitals across the globe.

     The non-aggression pact that followed on August 23rd was a short and in general non-descript document, in which each party guaranteed non-belligerence to the other and pledged in somewhat oblique terms that it would neither ally itself nor aid an enemy of the other party.  But a highly secret protocol accompanied the pact  — so secret that, on the Soviet side, historians suspect, “only Stalin and Molotov knew of its existence” (p.39); so secret that the Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge its existence until the Gorbachev era, three years after Molotov had gone to his grave denying the existence of any such instrument.  The protocol divided Poland into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of interest” to apply in the event of a “territorial and political rearrangement of the area belonging to the Polish state” (p.306).

     The accompanying protocol contained similar terms for Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, anticipating future “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries. The protocol also acknowledged Moscow’s “interest in” Bessarabia, the eastern portion of today’s Moldova, then part of Romania, for which Germany declared its “complete disinterest” (p.306). For Stalin, the pact and its secret protocol marked what Moorhouse terms an “astounding success,” in which he reacquired a claim to “almost all of the lands lost by the Russian Empire in the maelstrom of the First World War” (p.37). Moorhouse’s chapters on how the Soviets capitalized on the pact and accompanying secret protocol support the view that the Soviet and Nazi regimes, although based on opposing ideologies, were similar at least in one particular sense: both were ruthless dictatorships with no scruples inhibiting territorial expansion at the expense of less powerful neighbors.

* * *

       After Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939 (eight days almost to the hour after execution of the pact), the Soviet Union followed suit by invading Poland from the east on September 17th. The Nazi and Soviet occupiers embarked upon a “simultaneous cleansing of Polish society,” with the Nazis motivated “primarily by concerns of race and the Soviets mainly by class-political criteria” (p.57).  Moorhouse recounts in detail the most chilling example of Soviet class cleansing, the infamous Katyn Forest massacre, where the Soviets methodically executed approximately 21,000 Polish prisoners of war – high-ranking Army officers, aristocrats, Catholic priests, lawyers, and others, all deemed “class enemies.” Stalin attributed the massacre to the Nazis, and official acknowledgement of Soviet responsibility did not come until 1990, one year prior to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

     The Soviet Union browbeat Estonia into a “mutual assistance” treaty that, nominally, obligated both parties to respect the other’s independence. Yet, by allowing for the establishment of Soviet military bases on Estonian soil, the treaty “fatally undermined Estonian sovereignty. Estonia was effectively at Stalin’s mercy” (p.77). Similar tactics were employed in Lithuania and Latvia. By mid-October 1939, barely six weeks after signing the pact, Stalin had “moved to exercise control of most of the territory that he had been promised by Hitler” in the secret protocol, “securing the stationing of around 70,000 Red Army troops in the three Baltic states, a larger force than the combined standing armies of the three countries” (p.78). By August 1940, each Baltic state had become a Soviet constituent republic.

     The Soviet Union also invaded Finland in November 1939 and fought what proved to be a costly winter war against the brave Finns, who resisted heroically. The war demonstrated to the world – and, significantly, to Nazi Germany itself – the weaknesses of the Red Army.  It ended in a standstill in March 1940, with Moscow annexing small pieces of Finnish territory, but with no Soviet occupation or puppet government. The Soviet Union also wiped out Bessarabia. Although the secret protocol had explicitly recognized Soviet interest in Bessarabia, Hitler saw the Soviet move as a “symbol of Stalin’s undiminished territorial ambition.” Though he said nothing in public, Moorhouse writes, “Hitler complained to his adjutants that the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia signified the ‘first Russian attack on Western Europe’” (p.107).

      In the same timeframe, Hitler extended Nazi domination over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg and Northern France, as well as much of Poland, some 800,000 square kilometers.  Hitler and Stalin thus divided up Europe in 1940, with Nazi Germany becoming the preeminent power on the continent. Stalin “did less well territorially, with only around half of Hitler’s haul at 422, 000 square kilometers, but was arguably better placed to actually absorb his gains, given that all of them were long standing Russian irredentia, with some tradition of rule from Moscow and all were neatly contiguous to the western frontier of the USSR” (p.106).

    Hitler’s concerns about the extent of Soviet territorial ambitions in Europe after its annexation of Bessarabia were magnified when the Soviets also demanded nearby northern Burkovina, a small parcel of land under Romanian control, nestled between Bessarabia and Ukraine. Northern Burkovina was Stalin’s first demand for territory beyond what the secret protocol had slated for Moscow. By late summer of 1940, therefore, the German-Soviet relationship was in trouble. The “mood of collaboration of late 1939 shifted increasingly to one of confrontation, with growing suspicions on both sides that the other was acting in bad faith” (p.197).

    In November 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was summoned to Berlin to try to breathe new life into the pact. Hitler and Ribbentrop made a concerted effort to head off westward Soviet expansion with the suggestion that the Soviet Union join the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan and focus its territorial ambitions to the south, especially on India, where it could participate in the “great liquidation of the British Empire” (p.215).  Ribbentrop’s contention that Britain was on the verge of collapse was called into question when certain meetings with Molotov had to be moved to a bunker because of British bombings of the German capital.

    Molotov left Berlin thinking that he had attended the initial round in what were likely to be lengthy additional territorial negotiations between the two parties.  In fact, the November conference marked the end of any meaningful give-and-take between them. In its formal response back to Germany, which Molotov delivered to the German Ambassador in Moscow, the Soviet Union made clear that it had no intention of abandoning its ambitions for westward expansion into Europe in exchange for membership in the Tripartite Pact. No formal German response was forthcoming to  Soviet demands for additional European territory. Rather, the often-vacillating Hitler had by this time made what turned out to be an irrevocable decision to invade the Soviet Union, with the objective of turning Russia into “our India” (p.295).

* * *

    In the period leading up to the invasion in June 1941, Stalin refused to react to a steady stream of intelligence from as many as 47 different sources concerning a German build up near the Western edges of the new Soviet empire.  Stalin was obsessed with not provoking Germany into military action, “convinced that the military build up and the rumor-mongering were little more than a Nazi negotiating tool: an attempt to exert psychological pressure as a prelude to the resumption of talks” (p.229). Stalin seemed to believe that “while Hitler was engaged in the west against the British, he would have to be mad to attack the USSR” (p.230).

    But ominous intelligence reports continued to pour into Moscow. One in April 1941 concluded that Germany had “as many as one hundred divisions massed on the USSR’s western frontier” (p.238). In addition, over the previous three weeks, there had been eighty recorded German violations of Soviet airspace. “Such raw data was added to the various human intelligence reports to come in from Soviet agents . . . all of which pointed to a growing German threat” (p.238).  Still, Stalin “did not believe that war was coming, and he was growing increasingly impatient with those who tried to persuade him of anything different” (p.239).

    In the early phases of Operation Barbarossa, German troops met with little serious resistance and were able to penetrate far into Soviet territory.  In many of the areas that the Soviets had grabbed for themselves after execution of the pact, including portions of the Baltic States, the Germans were welcomed as liberators. The Soviet Union incurred staggering loses in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, losing much of the territory it had acquired as a result of the pact.

     Minsk, Bessarabia’s largest city, fell into German hands on June 28, 1941.  Its fall, Moorhouse writes, “symbolized the wider disaster not only for the USSR, but for Stalin personally.” It was the “moment at which his misjudgment was thrown into sharp relief. Only a dictator of his brutal determination – and one with the absolute power that he had arrogated for himself – could have survived it” (p. 273).  Moorhouse’s narrative ends with the Germans, anticipating an easy victory, not far from Moscow as 1941 entered its final months and the unforgiving Russian winter approached.

* * *

      Moorhouse contends that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-non-aggresson pact has largely been glossed over in Western accounts of World War II, which focus on the fall of France and Britain’s lonely battle against the seemingly invincible Nazi military juggernaut during the  22-month period when the Soviet Union appeared to be aligned with Germany against the West.   To the degree that there is a knowledge gap in the West concerning the pact and its ramifications, Moorhouse’s work aptly and ably fills that gap.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 13, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, Soviet Union

Empowering and Sustaining Fascism

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David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini:
The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

      Italy’s fascist government, led by Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943, was the 20th century’s first to be characterized as “totalitarian.” By some accounts, Mussolini himself coined the term and boastfully applied it to his insurgent regime.  That regime came to power in 1922, after Mussolini and a small band of activists from the unruly Fascist party engineered the famous March on Rome in October 1922, which resulted in Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister in Italy’s constitutional monarchy.  Once in power, the charismatic Mussolini, a master of crowd manipulation known as the Duce, eliminated his political opposition and dropped all pretensions of democratic governance in favor of one-man rule. He recklessly took Italy into World War II on Hitler’s side, was deposed by fellow Fascists in 1943 prior to Italy’s surrender to the Allies, and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.

     In The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer reveals the surprising extent to which the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church empowered and sustained fascism in Italy.  Mussolini had his counterpart in Pope Pius XI, appointed head of the Catholic Church in 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power. Pius XI remained pope until his death in February 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II in September of that year.  Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, shines the historian’s spotlight on the improbable but mutually beneficial alliance between Mussolini and Pius XI.

     The Vatican under Pius XI considered Mussolini and his Fascist party to be the only force that could preserve order in Italy and serve as a bulwark against Russian inspired socialism, which the Vatican considered an existential threat to itself and the church. The Vatican benefitted from the explicitly anti-democratic Fascist regime’s measures to reinstate the church’s privileged position within Italian society.  Its support in turn played a major role in legitimizing Mussolini’s fascist regime, allowing the Duce to cast himself as Italy’s “champion of law and order and national pride” (p.26).  Mussolini and Pius XI “came to be disillusioned by the other,” Kertzer concludes, “yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end” (p.407).

      Kertzer’s story has two general parts. In the first, he explains how Mussolini and Pius XI pieced together in 1929 what are known as the “Lateran Accords,” agreements that reversed the strict separation between church and state that had existed since Italian unification in 1861 and had been arguably the most salient characteristic of Italy’s constitutional monarchy. The second involves Hitler’s intrusion into the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship after he was appointed Germany’s chancellor in 1933, with devastating effects for Italy’s small Jewish population.

   Mussolini and Pius XI met only once. Their relationship was conducted primarily through intermediaries, who form an indispensable component of Kertzer’s story.  Most noteworthy among them was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the pope’s principal deputy in 1930 before being named Pope himself, Pius XII, when Pius XI died in 1939.  Kertzer begins and ends with an account of how Pacelli and like-minded subordinates conspired with Mussolini’s spies within the Vatican to prevent dissemination of the dying Pius XI’s most important final work, an undelivered papal speech condemning racism, persecution of the Jews, and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The undelivered speech was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords and would have marked an irreversible rupture to the improbable alliance between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist government.

* * *

     Mussolini, born in 1883 as the son of a small-town blacksmith, started his political career as a socialist and adhered to the strong anti-clerical positions that characterized early 20th century Italian socialism.  As a young rabble-rouser, Mussolini was “part left-wing wild man and part Don Juan” who “always seemed to know how to become the center of attention . . . [H]e was someone you would rather have on your side than against you” (p.21).  More opportunist than ideologue, Mussolini broke with socialism sometime after World War I erupted in 1914. In a transformation that his former socialist colleagues viewed as “inexplicable and traitorous,” Mussolini “kept the revolutionary’s disdain for parliamentary democracy and fascination with the possibilities of violent action” but “jettisoned much of the rest of Marxist ideology” (p.22).

     The period after World War I was a time of great unrest in Italy, when a violent revolution similar to the one that had recently toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia seemed imminent. The chaos surrounding the end of the war created an opportunity for Mussolini. He had “always committed, above all, to himself and to a belief in his own ability to rise to the top. Now he began to see a new path that could allow him to realize those dreams” (p.22). That path involved presenting himself as the protector of the Catholic faith. In his first speech to parliament in late 1922, without any previous consultation with Vatican authorities, the irreligious Mussolini pledged that Fascism would restore Christianity in Italy by building a “Catholic state befitting a Catholic nation” (p.27).

     Mussolini’s protagonist throughout Kertzer’s story, Pius XI, was born Achille Ratti in 1857, twenty-six years before Mussolini.  Ratti seemingly came out of nowhere to become the head of the Catholic Church in 1922.  For most of his career, he had worked as a librarian, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But Pope Benedict XV unexpectedly sent Ratti to Poland in 1918 as his emissary to the heavily Catholic country, where he witnessed the invasion of the Red Army in the wake of the Russian revolution and developed a “lifelong loathing of Communism” (p.xxii).  Ratti then became a cardinal and was a surprising choice for the prestigious position of Archbishop of Milan.  He had barely begun that position when Benedict XV died. After 14 ballots, Ratti was elected pope in February 1922.

     Once in office, Pius XI assumed a manner that was imperious even by the standards of popes.  Compared to his predecessors, Pius XI was “cold and curt” (p.85) and “lacked any hint of diplomatic skills” (p.85).  He insisted that his own brother address him as “Holy Father.”  He had a proclivity for longwinded speeches and frequent outbursts of a volatile temper.  He was a detail oriented, hands on manager who sought to be informed and involved in even the most minor of Vatican administrative matters.  His love of order and deep sense of obedience to authority “set the tone for his reign” (p.39). His commands were to be followed “sooner than immediately,” he liked to say (p.39).

      Pius XI denounced the French Revolution as the “origin of much evil, spreading harmful notions of the ‘rights of man’” (p.84).  He contested the secular, modernist notion that in turning away from the Church, society was advancing; rather society was lapsing back into a “state of barbarism” (p.49). The pope’s vision of the role for the Vatican in society was at heart “medieval” (p.49), Kertzer contends.

     Although Pius XI and Mussolini seemed to have little in common, Kertzer notes that the two men were nonetheless alike in many ways. “Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality. Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them” (p.68). The two men also shared important values. “Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat. Both thought Italy was mired in a crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” (p.48). Like Mussolini, Pius XI believed that Italy needed a “strong man to lead it, free from the cacophony of multiparty bickering” (p.29).

     Never under any illusion that Mussolini personally embraced Catholic values or cared for anything other than his own aggrandizement, Pius XI nonetheless was willing to test Mussolini’s apparent commitment to restore church influence in Italy.  Mussolini moved quickly to make good on his promises to the Vatican. By the end of 1922, he had ordered crucifixes to be placed in every classroom, courtroom, and hospital in the country. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He required that the Catholic religion be taught in elementary schools and showered the Church with money to restore churches damaged during World War I and to subsidize Church-run schools abroad.

      Through a tendentious back and forth process that lasted four years and forms the heart of this book, Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929. The accords, which included a declaration that Catholicism was “the only religion of the State,” ended the official hostility between the Vatican and the Italian state that had existed since Italy’s the unification in 1861.  The Italian state for the first time officially recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity, with the government having no right to interfere in internal Vatican affairs.  In exchange for the Vatican’s withdrawal of all claims to territory lost at the time of unification, Italy further agreed to pay the Vatican the equivalent of roughly one billion present day US dollars.

      The historic accords offered Mussolini the opportunity to “solidify support for his regime in a way that was otherwise unimaginable” (p.99).  Pius XI saw the accords as a means of reinstating what had been lost in the 1860s with Italian unification, a “hierarchical, authoritarian society run according to Church principles” (p.110). Newspapers throughout the country hailed the accords, emphasizing that they “could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and Fascism, had made it possible” (p.111).  Yet, neither Mussolini nor Pius XI was fully satisfied with the accords. The pope “would not be happy unless he could get Mussolini to respect what he regarded as the Church’s divinely ordained prerogatives.  Mussolini was willing to give the pope what he wanted as long as it did not conflict with his dictatorship and his own dreams of glory” (p.122).

     In the aftermath of the accords, Mussolini became a hero to Catholics in Italy and throughout the world and his popularity reached unimagined heights.  With no significant opposition, his craving for adulation grew and his feeling of self-importance “knew no bounds. His trust in his instincts had grown to the point where he seemed to believe the pope was not the only one in the Eternal City who was infallible” (p.240), Kertzer wryly observes. But as Mussolini’s popularity in Italy soared, Hitler came to power in nearby Germany early in 1933. The latter portion of Kertzer’s book, focused on a three-way Hitler-Mussolini-Pius XI relationship, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Italy and within the Vatican itself.

* * *

     Hitler had been attracted to Mussolini and the way he ruled Italy from as early as the 1922 March on Rome, and Mussolini sensed that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he had a potentially valuable ally with whom he had much in common. Pius XI, by contrast, abhorred from the beginning Hitler’s hostility to Christianity and his treatment of German Catholics. He viewed Nazism as a pagan movement based on tribal nationalism that was contrary to the Church’s belief in the universality of humankind. But Pius XI initially found little that was objectionable in the new German government’s approach to what was then euphemistically termed the “Jewish question.” Pius XI’s views of world Jewry were in line with thinking that was widely prevalent across Europe in the early decades of the 20th century: Jews were “Christ killers” bent upon destroying Christianity; and Jewish influence was behind both the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the amoral, godless capitalism centered in the United States.

     Prior to the Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, Mussolini’s views on Jews had been more liberal than those of the Pope. He did not regard Italy’s small Jewish population as a threat to the Italian state.  After Hitler made a triumphal trip to Italy in 1938, however, Mussolini pushed through a series of “racial laws” which in many senses mirrored measures Hitler was taking in Germany to resolve the “Jewish question.” The racial laws defined the “Jewish race” to include those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. They excluded Jews from the civil service and revoked the citizenship of foreign-born Jews who had become citizens after 1919.  All Jews who were not citizens were ordered to leave the country within six months.  All Jewish teachers, from elementary school through university, were fired.

     In a second wave of racial laws, Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist Party; banned from the military; and barred from owning or directing businesses having more than a hundred employees, or from owning more than fifty hectares of land.  In pursuing the racial laws, Mussolini had obviously fallen under the sway of Hitler. Yet, Kertzer refrains from probing  the motivations behind Mussolini’s thorough and sudden embrace of Nazi approaches to the “Jewish question,” noting simply that Mussolini was “eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews” (p.293).

     The racial laws were presented to the Italian public as a reinstatement of traditional Catholic teachings on the Jews.  Pius XI and the Vatican initially criticized only their application to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.  Neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican “ever voiced any opposition to the great bulk of the racial laws, aimed at stripping Jews of their rights as Italian citizens” (p.345).  Yet, as his health deteriorated and war appeared ever more imminent in Europe in late 1938 and early 1939, Pius XI began to see the racial laws and the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany as anathema to Christian teaching.

     Kertzer’s story ends where it begins, with Pius XI near death and seeking to deliver a speech condemning unequivocally Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, racism and the persecution of the Jews on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Lateran Accords.  The speech would have marked the definitive break between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  During Pius XI’s final days, Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, worked feverishly with other Vatican subordinates to preclude Pius XI from delivering the speech. After the pope’s death, at Mussolini’s urging, they sought to destroy all remaining copies of the undelivered speech.

     Their efforts were almost fully successful. The words the pope had “so painstakingly prepared in the last days of his life would never be seen as long as Pacelli lived” (p.373).  The speech did not become public until 1958, when Pius XII’s successor, John Paul XXIII, in one of his first acts as pope, ordered release of excerpts.  But passages most critical of Mussolini and the Fascist regime were deleted from the released text, “presumably to protect Pacelli, suspected of having buried the speech in order not to offend Mussolini or Hitler” (p.373).  The full text did not become available until 2006, when the Vatican opened its archives on Pius XI.

* * *

     Kertzer’s suspenseful account of Pius XI’s undelivered speech demonstrates his flair for capturing the palace and bureaucratic intrigue that underlay both sides of the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship.  This flair for intrigue, in evidence throughout the book, coupled with his colorful portraits of Mussolini and Pius XI, render Kerzter’s work highly entertaining as well as crucially informative. Although his work is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Mussolini’s regime, his emphasis upon how the Vatican abetted the regime during Pius XI’s papacy constitutes an invaluable addition to our understanding of the nature of the Fascist state and twentieth century totalitarianism under Mussolini.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 11, 2016

4 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Italian History

The Man Himself, Far From Banal

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Bettina Stangeth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem:
The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,
Translated by Ruth Martin

      Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is sometimes euphemistically described as a “transportation specialist.” During much of Hitler’s Third Reich, Eichmann, born in 1906, held the official title of “Advisor for Jewish Affairs” and in that capacity facilitated and managed the logistics required to move Jews to Nazi death camps.  He was famously kidnapped by Israeli security forces in 1960 in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial on genocide charges.  Found guilty, Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem 1962.  His trial is often credited with refocusing world opinion on the horrors of the Holocaust, after years in which there seemed to be little interest in revisiting the details of Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  In Eichmann Before Jerusalem, The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Bettina Stangeth explores Eichmann’s years in Argentina, after World War II and his escape from Germany with help from the Vatican and the Red Cross, up to his capture in 1960.  Stangeth, an independent writer and historian from Hamburg, Germany, does not address Eichmann’s life prior to the Third Reich, which includes his youth and upbringing in Linz, Austria, not far from where Hitler was born, and his early adult years prior to joining and rising in Hitler’s National Socialist party.

      Stangeth’s title alludes to Hannah Arendt’s famous analysis of the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, first published in book form in 1963.  In her seminal work, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology. Arendt’s analysis also gained notoriety for its emphasis upon Jewish leaders’ complicity in the Holocaust.  One of Stangeth’s purposes is to free Eichmann from Arendt’s provocative portrait, based on extensive additional material on Eichmann that was unavailable to Arendt when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, a time when “Holocaust research was in its infancy” (p.xxiii). “One cannot help but feel that the story of the trial has stopped being about Eichmann,” Stangeth writes, and that today we would “rather talk about the debate and various theories of evil [which Arendt’s work engendered] than try to discover more about the man himself” (p.xxiii-xiv).

     Stangeth intends for her readers to discover much more about the man himself.  She makes comprehensive use of the broader Eichmann record now available, several thousand pages of “manuscripts, transcribed statements, letters, personal dossiers, ideological tracts, individual jottings, and thousand of marginal notes on documents” (p.381).  From this record, Stangeth reveals an Eichmann with an unrestrained propensity for self-promotion and what she terms a “talent for self-dramatization” (p.xvi), a complex and perversely talented bureaucrat who wrote prolifically.  Stangeth’s Eichmann is also more ideological and more explicitly anti-Semitic than Arendt had allowed, a man with a frighteningly precise grasp upon how his work fit into the larger picture of the Nazi extermination project.  The man himself in Stangeth’s account is far from banal.

      Eichmann made the revelations about himself and the Nazi project in 1957 and 1958 in recorded and transcribed group sessions organized by Willem Sassen, a Nazi collaborator from the Netherlands who also found refuge after World War II in Argentina, where he became a well-known journalist and led a group of unrepentant anti-Semitic Nazis.  Sassen sought to develop a project that rehabilitated Nazi Germany in the world’s eyes, primarily by debunking as “international propaganda” – by which Sassen and his colleagues meant “Jewish propaganda” – the notion that the Nazi regime had exterminated six million Jews and other undesirables.  Unfortunately for Sassen, he invited Eichmann to participate in the project.  Rather than exposing the six million figure as a desperate lie, Eichmann provided the group with the facts, figures and specificity that left no doubt that Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had reached the scale imputed to the Nazi regime.  Eichmann’s contribution to the Sassen group constitutes the core of Stangeth’s story of his Argentina years.

      Stangeth tells this story from the perspective of an historian seeking to summarize and interpret the transcripts of the Sassen interviews and Eichmann’s writings from Argentina and his final two years in captivity in Israel.  She emphasizes that she is interested in presenting all the recently available sources on Eichmann, “in detail for the first time, and the route they have taken through history, in the hope that it will enable further research and prompt more questions” about Eichmann (p.xxiv).  She focuses especially upon “what people thought of [Eichmann] and when; and how he reacted to what they thought and said” (p.xvii).  Herein lies both the book’s greatest strength and its most formidable obstacle for general readers.

      Strangeth pursues the historian’s perspective with an intensity and comprehensiveness that will appeal to scholars interested in amplifying or building upon her portrait of Eichmann.  But this perspective is likely to discourage most general readers.  There is far more deliberation here than the general reader needs about how to evaluate the copious Eichmann record.  The result is a ponderous narrative that makes for slow reading.  At one point, Stangeth surmises that her readers may have “lost sight of the bigger picture amid all these names and connections” (p.130), and I had this sense often throughout her otherwise invaluable, groundbreaking work.

* * *

      Stangeth begins with basic background facts on Eichmann’s role in Hitler’s Third Reich.  Contrary to the impression Arendt left in her analysis, Eichmann was well-known during the Third Reich’s heyday.  From 1938, he was the “face of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy” (p.9-10), involved with the “leading experiments” which can now be seen as “prototypes” for genocidal practices that “later became standard” (p.27).  At the notorious 1942 Wannasee Conference, generally acknowledged to be the place and time where Hitler’s subordinates drew up their “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem,” Reinhard Heydrich, chairman of the conference, “officially enthroned Eichmann as the coordinator of all interministerial efforts toward the ‘final solution of the Jewish question.’ It was the next step for his career.  A lunatic project like this required someone who had experience in unconventional solutions, someone who wouldn’t get caught up in the usual bureaucratic formalities” (p.27).

     In 1950, Eichmann fled to Argentina with the help of a “chain of German helpers, Argentine public officials, Austrian border guards, Italian records offices, the Red Cross, men from Vatican circles, and influential shipping magnates” (p.79). Like many other Nazis going into exile:

Eichmann used a system supported by a number of different parties, not least the professional people smugglers employed by the Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón.  Argentina had an interest in German professionals who could help to drive forward the transformation of an agrarian country into an industrialized nation, and assisting their escape seemed like a solid investment . . . Argentina was not the only country trying to convince well-educated men to emigrate, but it was one of the few that also provided this opportunity to criminals like Eichmann (p.88).

      In 1953, Eichmann moved his family from rural Argentina to Buenos Aires, where he went to work for a newly formed company that was a “Perón-sponsored cover organization for Third Reich technocrats, which existed mainly thanks to a large government contract for developing hydroelectric plants,” with Eichmann’s work a “kind of occupational therapy for those who had recently arrived, only very few of whom were qualified for their jobs” (p.106).  In the Argentine exile community, Eichmann had a reputation for being the “only surviving Nazi with any reliable information on the scale of the Holocaust, and on how the extermination process had worked, which made him increasingly sought after” (p.160).

      It thus did not take long for Eichmann to meet Nazi collaborator and journalist Willem Sassen, who gathered a group of Nazis at his home on Sundays for recorded sessions intended to establish the raw material for his Nazi rehabilitation project. Prior to Eichmann’s arrival, all the participants in the group had “clearly been so convinced that the systematic mass murder of the Jews was a propaganda lie that they really expected that a closer inspection would only confirm their view.  Sassen figured that if ‘the Jews’ were forced to provide lists of names, to prove exactly who had been killed, then it would emerge that the dead would be only a tiny proportion” (p.299) of the six million figure.  But Sassen and his colleagues “hadn’t reckoned with anything like the major insight they received into the National Socialists’ extermination operation. Adolf Eichmann confronted them with the magnitude and, above all, the face of the horror” (p.277).

    Eichmann demonstrated in the group’s recorded sessions that he had an unusual ability to recall facts and especially figures, revealing with unassailable specificity the “monstrous scale of this German crime and the immeasurable suffering of the people who had fallen victim to the German mania” (p.145). In a “discussion group with a tape recorder in the room,” Eichmann provided a “monstrous confession” (p.306) that mass murder and gas chambers “had happened, they were part of German history, and Nationalist Socialists like Eichmann had played a decisive role in creating them, out of their dedication to the cause” (p.308-09).  The “striking accuracy” of Eichmann’s figures on the number of people who fell victim to the Nazis’ murder operations, Stangeth contends, “shows how well informed Eichmann was about the scale of the genocide and how deceitful were his later attempts, in both Argentina and Israel, to feign ignorance” (p.301-02).  Whether he was in the Third Reich, Argentina, or Israel, Eichmann “gave detailed and well-informed accounts of the murder of millions.  He simply adjusted the account of his own role, and his attitude toward the murders, to his changing circumstances” (p.382).

     In his taped interviews for the Sassen project, Eichmann further demonstrated his unrestrained capacity for self-promotion and a “pronounced need for recognition” (p.367).  Although Eichmann could have been a silent, conscientious servant of the German Reich, attracting no attention, that “wouldn’t have been enough for him: he wanted to be a man of importance” (p.125). He worried about his reputation and how he would be perceived by history. He liked to drop names of the high level Nazis to whom he had had access, especially Henrich Himmler, his direct boss during his most productive years working for the Nazi death machine.

     The Eichmann contributing to Sassen’s project was also both more ideological and more anti-Semitic than in Arendt’s account.  Stangeth emphatically rejects as “insupportable” Arendt’s focus upon Eichmann’s “inability to speak” and his “inability to think” (p.268).  What Eichmann told the Sassen group in Argentina was not “thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought” (p.268), Stangeth argues.  Throughout the Sassen interviews, Eichmann assumed as axiomatic that “the Jews” – a diabolical, monolithic force in the world, by then represented by the State of Israel— remained the implacable foe of Germany, bent upon its destruction.  For Eichmann, therefore, “ideology was not a pastime or a theoretical superfluity but the fundamental authorization for his actions” (p.221).

      Eichmann “completely rejected traditional ideas of morality,” in favor of the “no-holds barred struggle for survival that nature demanded.”  He “identified entirely with a way of thinking that said any form of contemplation without clear reference to blood and soil was outdated and, most of all, dangerous . . . The very idea of a common understanding among all people was a betrayal” (p.218).  Eichmann’s only criticism of the National Socialist project was that “we could and should have done more” (p.306).  Eichmann was a National Socialist and “for that reason,” Stangeth argues with emphasis,  a “dedicated mass murderer” (p.307).

     Stangeth devotes minimal space to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and his execution in May 1962 (Deborah Lipset’s incisive analysis of the proceedings, The Eichmann Trial, was reviewed here in October 2013).  She finishes with a section entitled “Aftermath,” which traces the paper trail of the Sassen transcripts and Eichmann’s own writings in Argentina and Israel up to the present day.  Now, she concludes, scholars need to “put Eichmann where he belongs, rather than be struck dumb by his torrent of words.”  The “curse of a man who was desperate to write and to explain himself is that this urge has put others in a position to read his every word, more thoroughly than he could ever have imagined” (p.422).

* * *

      With her probing dissection of the extensive written now record available, Stangeth’s Eichmann seems likely to supplant that of Arendt as the accepted consensual version of the man himself.  Eichmann Before Jerusalem therefore represents a momentous contribution to our understanding of the enigmatic mass murderer whom Hannah Arendt introduced to the reading public a full half-century earlier.  But readers will need patience and persistence in teasing out Stangeth’s Eichmann.  In her quest for a comprehensive evaluation of the written record, Stangeth allows too many trees to obscure her forest.  My sense is that a book about half this length would have sufficed for general readers interested in learning the basics about Eichmann’s Argentina years.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 17, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, World History

Discovering Humanistic Culture in the Land of Hitler and Himmler

Fest.1

Fest.2

Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood,
translated by Martin Chalmers

      It is nearly impossible to reflect upon the Nazi period in Germany without asking how this exceptionally cultured country could sink to such unprecedented levels of barbarity.  This reflection upon what might be termed Germany’s “duality” – the land of Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Schiller becoming the land of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels — is so commonplace as to be a platitude.  But it is also the main thread tying together Joachim Fest’s engaging memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, recently translated into English.  Fest, born in Germany in 1926, went on after World War II to become a respected historian, one of a handful of Germans who wrote openly about his country’s descent into barbarity during the Nazi period.  His works include a biography of Adolf Hitler and books about Albert Speer and the German resistance to Nazism.  Fest was 7 years old when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and was old enough in 1944, at age 18, to serve in the Nazi military.  Fest died in 2006.

      The duality of the Germany which Fest describes proved fatal to many of his family’s Jewish friends, whose faith in the humanism of German culture blinded them to the true nature of the Nazi regime until it was too late. They had “believed all too unreservedly in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart and the whole tradition which came from that” (p.261), Fest writes. But this duality is also at work throughout Fest’s memoir in his more mundane descriptions of everyday childhood life in Nazi Germany where, within the rigidly controlled and aggresively anti-intellectual Nazi environment, young Joachim discovered humanistic German culture.

* * *

       Fest describes his German childhood world, with the Nazis in firm control by his 7th birthday in 1933, as “utterly political,” where “[m]any conversations and almost all personal decisions were made with an eye to the prevailing situation.” Yet, the “traditional rules of upbringing still applied, in our home perhaps even a little more than elsewhere” (p.76), in large measure because of the structured home environment which Fest’s parents provided.  Fest’s father Johannes dominates the first half of the memoir, the author’s childhood years, then recedes to the background but remains a forceful influence as the author reaches adolescence and early adulthood, which he spent in boarding school and the German military.

     The senior Fest possessed an “authority which was never challenged, still less doubted” within the Fest family, where “fragments of this elevated image increasingly asserted themselves, in the face of all childish and later all adolescent resistance” (p.29). The “Not I” portion of the memoir’s title were words which Johannes dictated to his children, in Latin – etiam si omnes, ego non – “even if everyone else, not I,” from St. Matthew’s gospel, to remind them of the family’s resolute opposition to the Nazi regime.  As young Joachim moved through his childhood years, his father served as the lens with which the son came to view the regime.

      Johannes was from a staunch Prussian Catholic family yet, unusually, also strongly supported the Weimar Republic, Germany’s beleaguered post World War I experiment in parliamentary democracy. “If Prussia and republicanism were not easily reconciled,” Fest writes of his father, “then the contradiction was further sharpened by my father’s strict Catholicism. He was a pious man, who accounted to the ‘Lord God’ (as he usually put it in this context) for each of his private or political decisions” (p.16).  Joannes never wavered in his conviction that a “human being without faith was ‘incomplete.’ Neither reason nor walking upright separated him from the apes; the difference between the two lay in the need for a Beyond” (p.112).

      Professionally, the senior Fest was an erudite primary school headmaster who lost his job during Hitler’s first year in power. Unwilling to join the party and pledge allegiance to the new regime, which he repeatedly termed a “band of criminals,” the author’s father was informed that his “public speeches disparaging the Führer” were the reason for his dismissal (p.35). When handed his dismissal papers, Fest’s father reminded the Nazi bureaucrat in charge that he was a civil servant entitled to certain protections. “You can tell our Führer that. He’ll be very impressed” (p.34), the bureaucrat responded.

       Fest’s mother Elisabeth shared her husband’s opposition to the Nazi regime but was far from supportive of his outspoken hostility to the regime and his refusal to join the Nazi party.  Joannes’ stand in her view endangered the entire family and threatened its stability. On numerous occasions, Fest’s mother entreated her husband to yield to Nazi demands and provide the requisite assurances to the authorities to enable him to continue to hold a  job and maintain the family’s comfortable living standard.  If joining the party would be a lie to those in charge, the author overheard his mother telling his father, “then let it be a lie! A thousand lies even, if necessary!” (p.50).

      The Fest family grew up in Karlshorst, a middle class Berlin suburb.  Joachim was the second son in a family of five children, where the older three siblings were boys and the younger two were girls. Fest’s older brother Wolfgang died serving in Hitler’s military, but the other family members survived the war.  Fest was 13 when World War II began in 1939. By this time, he had developed a precocious interest in poetry, literature, and music, and much of the memoir details the evolution of these interests against a backdrop of ubiquitous pressure to support the Nazi regime.

       Fest’s Aunt Dolley introduced him to opera at age six, when they heard Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an “overwhelming experience” which served as Fest’s “entry to the magical world of music” (p.48-49). Another important influence on young Fest was Father Wittenbrink, the family’s anti-Nazi parish priest.  Father Wittenbrink tried to convince the author that Mozart was the “most convincing proof of the existence of God. . . Every single page of his biography teaches us that he comes from another world” (p.174), Father Wittenbrink argued.  Fest learned poetry through regular visits to the home of the Fest family’s friend, Dr. Meyer, who was incessantly talking about the “books he was reading for the second, third or fourth time” (p.89).

      One of the family’s many Jewish friends, Dr. Meyer disappeared during the war and, although his fate is not difficult to imagine, we never learn exactly what happened to him.  In their last meeting in the spring of 1939, Dr. Meyer ruminated to the young Fest that the great German poets  — and thus Germany’s duality — “bore some of the blame” for the uncertainty he was then facing in his life. He had often considered emigrating and had been “close to making the decision to leave.” But then “trust in the culture of the Germans had always won out” (p.129-30).  Dr. Meyer lamented that he had accepted the idea that a nation that had “produced Goethe and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and whoever else, would simply be incapable of barbarism. Griping at the Jews, prejudice, there had always been that,” Dr. Meyer mused.  “But not violent persecution. They wouldn’t do anything to us.” Dr. Meyer’s final words to young Fest were, “You know how mistaken we were” (p.130).

      Joachim and his older brother Wolfgang were sent off to a provincial boarding school near Frankfurt after the war began in 1939. As he left Berlin on the train, Joachim reflected on his German childhood. Although these years had been difficult ones for his parents, his childhood had nonetheless been “happy years” because his parents had “let us feel their fears as little as possible” (p.133).  A volume of Schiller’s work provided Fest with what he described as his “refuge from the irksome features of boarding school” (p.141). But Fest developed a reputation with the school’s administration for impertinence – for being a “wise guy” – as captured in a report from the school sent to Fest’s parents:

Joachim F. shows no intellectual interest and only turns his attention to subjects he finds easy . . . His religious attachment leaves something to be desired. He is hard to deal with. He shows a precocious liking for naked women, which he hides behind a taste for Italian painting . . . He is taciturn. All attempts by the rectorate to draw him into discussion were in vain (p.187).

       In 1944, Joachim reached age 18 and, facing conscription into the German SS, volunteered instead for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe.  When he told his father by telephone from boarding school that he had volunteered to avoid being drafted into the SS, his father reacted indignantly. “Volunteered!. . . For this war! Have you thought of me? Of us?” Finally, “after long argument and even longer silence we hung up” (p.182). In the letter that arrived few days later, his father wrote, with an “unbelievable lack of caution,” that one “does not volunteer for ‘Hitler’s criminal war’, not even to avoid the SS” (p.182).

       Despite his father’s entreaties, Fest went ahead with his plan to volunteer for the Luftwaffe, where he again found refuge  in literature, music and poetry, abetted by a colleague who shared Fest’s cultured passions. In March 1945, advancing American forces captured Fest and he wound up in an American prison camp as the war ended two months later.  Although Fest initially found his capture a welcome happenstance, a rumor circulated within the camp that its administration was to be turned over to the French.  Fest and his fellow prisoners surmised that the French were likely to be more bent upon revenge than the Americans.  This prompted Fest to organize an ingenious but unsuccessful escape attempt from the camp, one of the memoir’s most memorable sections. Upon his return to prison camp, a book-loving American guard introduced Fest to English language novels, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

       The memoir ends with the family reunited in devastated Berlin in late 1945, absent Fest’s older brother Wolfgang, who died of a lung infection on Germany’s Eastern Front. Upon returning home, Fest learned that his father at age 50 had been conscripted into the military, where he had been captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a Russian camp. Fest found his father “hardly recognizable: a man abruptly grown smaller, slighter, grey-haired. Most of the time he simply sat there, his eyes sunken, where previously he had always set the tone” (p.260).

      In her husband’s absence during the war, Fest’s mother had “proved to be a robust person and had completely shed her [family] gentleness” (p.259). But upon seeing his mother, Fest was “dismayed by the emaciated, scraggy picture that she presented, and how empty her eyes were” (p.248). When, unavoidably, the name of brother Wolfgang was mentioned, his mother’s “mouth began to twitch” (p.260). Wolfgang’s death was an “unnameable misfortune for our family. My mother had always said as long as we were all alive she would not complain. Now that security was gone. In the almost twenty-five years that remained to her, whenever Wolfgang’s name was mentioned or an episode which had something to do with him, she rose from her seat and left the room” (p.196).

     Fest’s father was given to reflection after the war on why even he and his highly literate friends, all ardent opponents of the Nazi regime, had nonetheless underestimated Hitler.  Until Hitler came to power, his father had always trusted that a “primitive gangster like Hitler could never achieve power in Germany” (p.261). But, in his father’s view, Germans in the Hitler era failed to uphold their cultured heritage. They “lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” Their model was no longer the “reflective scholar type of the nineteenth century” but rather, the “tribal warrior, dancing around a stake and showing his chief a painted grimace. The nation of Goethe!” (p.280).

      Remembering his Jewish friends who perished during the war, Fest’s father said that “in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance they had really been the last Prussians; in any case, he had more often encountered his idea of Prussiansim among the long-established, often highly educated Berlin Jews than anywhere else” (p.63). Germany’s dualism, however, undermined them. Their “one failing” was that they were “overwhelmingly governed by their heads . . . [and] lost the instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages” (p.63).

* * *

      The prose in this poignant coming-of-age memoir is sometimes dense, making for slow reading, which might be a function of its translation into English from the German original.  But the memoir shines as a statement of how Fest and his family, led by his Nazi-resisting father Johannes, maintained their grasp on Germany’s cultivated heritage during the Hitler years. As this grim chapter in German and European history recedes, it remains useful to be reminded that there were Germans like Johannes Fest who said “Not I” to Hitler’s call.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

January 16, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History