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Not Unfathomable

Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 14, 2018

 

 

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Inside the Mind and Time of Victor Hugo

 

 

 

David Bellos, The Novel of the Century:

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 17, 2018

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Three Jews From the City Now Called Lviv

 

Philippe Sands, East-West Street:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2018

2 Comments

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

Honest Broker

 

 

Michael Doran, Ike’s Gamble:

America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East 

 

       On July 26, 1956, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser stunned the world by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, a critical conduit through Egypt for the transportation of oil between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Constructed between 1859 and 1869, the canal was owned by the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company. What followed three months later was the Suez Crisis of 1956: on October 29, Israeli brigades invaded Egypt across its Sinai Peninsula, advancing to within ten miles of the canal.  Britain and France, following a scheme concocted with Israel to retake the canal and oust Nasser, demanded that both Israeli and Egyptian troops withdraw from the occupied territory. Then, on November 5th, British and French forces invaded Egypt and occupied most of the Canal Zone, the territory along the canal. The United States famously opposed the joint operation and, through the United Nations, forced Britain and France out of Egypt.  Nearly simultaneously, the Soviet Union ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Hungary.

       The autumn of 1956 was thus a tumultuous time. Across the globe, it was a time when colonies were clamoring for and achieving independence from former colonizers, and the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for the allegiance of emerging states in what was coming to be known as the Third World.  In the volatile and complex Middle East, it was a time of rising nationalism. Nasser, a wildly ambitious general who came to power after a 1952 military coup had deposed the King of Egypt, aspired to become not simply the leader of his country but also of the Arab speaking world, even the entire Muslim world.  By 1956, Nasser had emerged as the region’s most visible nationalist. But he was far from the only voice in the Middle East seeking to speak for Middle East nationalism. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq were also imbued with the rising spirit of nationalism and saw Nasser as a rival, not a fraternal comrade-in-arms.

       Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East provides background and context for the United States’ decision not to support Britain, France and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis. As his title suggests, Doran places America’s President, war hero and father figure Dwight D. Eisenhower, known affectionately as Ike, at the middle of the complicated Middle East web (although Nasser probably merited a place in Doran’s title: “Ike’s Gamble on Nasser” would have better captured the spirit of the narrative). Behind the perpetual smile, Eisenhower was a cold-blooded realist who was “unshakably convinced” (p.214) that the best way to advance American interests in the Middle East and hold Soviet ambitions in check was for the United States to play the role of an “honest broker” in the region, sympathetic to the region’s nationalist aspirations and not too closely aligned with its traditional allies Britain and France, or with the young state of Israel.

       But Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former high level official at the National Security Council and Department of Defense in the administration of George W. Bush, goes on to argue that Eisenhower’s vision of the honest broker – and his “bet” on Nasser – were undermined by the United States’ failure to recognize the “deepest drivers of the Arab and Muslim states, namely their rivalries with each other for power and authority” (p.105). Less than two years after taking Nasser’s side in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eisenhower seemed to reverse himself.  By mid-1958, Doran reveals, Eisenhower had come to regret his bet on Nasser and his refusal to back Britain, France and Israel during the crisis. Eisenhower kept this view largely to himself, however, distorting the historical picture of his Middle East policies.

        Although Doran considers Eisenhower “one of the most sophisticated and experienced practitioners of international politics ever to reside in the White House,” the story of his relationship with Nasser is at bottom a lesson in the “dangers of calibrating the distinction between ally and enemy incorrectly” (p.13).  Or, as he puts it elsewhere, Eisenhower’s “bet” on Nasser’s regime is a “tale of Frankenstein’s monster, with the United States as the mad scientist and the new regime as his uncontrollable creation” (p.10).

* * *

      The “honest broker” approach to the Middle East dominated the Eisenhower administration from its earliest days in 1953. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and most of their key advisors shared a common picture of the volatile region. Trying to wind down a war in Korea they had inherited from the Truman Administration, they considered the Middle East the next and most critical region of confrontation in the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  As they saw it, in the Middle East the United States found itself caught between Arabs and other “indigenous” nationalities on one side, and the British, French, and Israelis on the other. “Each side had hold of one arm of the United States, which they were pulling like a tug rope. The picture was so obvious to almost everyone in the Eisenhower administration that it was understood as an objective description of reality” (p.44). It is impossible, Doran writes, to exaggerate the “impact that the image of America as an honest broker had on Eisenhower’s thought . . . The notion that the top priority of the United States was to co-opt Arab nationalists by helping them extract concessions – within limits – from Britain and Israel was not open to debate. It was a view that shaped all other policy proposals” (p.10).

         Alongside Ike’s “bet” on Nasser, the book’s second major theme is the deterioration of the famous “special relationship” between Britain and the United States during Eisenhower’s first term, due in large measure to differences over Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Nasser (and, to quibble further with the book’s title, “Britain’s Fall from Power in the Middle East” in my view would have captured the spirit of the narrative better than “America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East”).  The Eisenhower administration viewed Britain’s once mighty empire as a relic of the past, out of place in the post World War II order. It viewed Britain’s leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in much the same way. Eisenhower entered his presidency convinced that it was time for Churchill, then approaching age 80, to exit the world stage and for Britain to relinquish control of its remaining colonial possessions – in Egypt, its military base and sizeable military presence along the Suez Canal.

      Anthony Eden replaced Churchill as prime minister in 1955.  A leading anti-appeasement ally of Churchill in the 1930s, by the 1950s Eden shared Eisenhower’s view that Churchill had become a “wondrous relic” who was “stubbornly clinging to outmoded ideas” (p.20) about Britain’s empire and its place in the world.  Although interested in aligning Britain’s policies with the realities of the post World War II era, Eden led the British assault on Suez in 1956.  With  “his career destroyed” (p.202), Eden was forced to resign early in 1957.

       If the United States today also has a “special relationship” with Israel, that relationship had yet to emerge during the first Eisenhower term.  Israel’s circumstances were of course entirely different from those of Britain and France, a young country surrounded by Arab-speaking states implacably hostile to its very existence. President Truman had formally recognized Israel less than a decade earlier, in 1948.  But substantial segments of America’s foreign policy establishment in the 1950s continued to believe that such recognition had been in error. Not least among them was John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  There seemed to be more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in Dulles’ antagonism toward Israel.

        Describing Israel as the “darling of Jewry throughout the world” (p.98), Dulles decried the “potency of international Jewry” (p.98) and warned that the United States should not be seen as a “backer of expansionist Zionism” (p.77).  For the first two years of the Eisenhower administration, Dulles followed a policy designed to “’deflate the Jews’ . . . by refusing to sell arms to Israel, rebuffing Israeli requests for security guarantees, and diminishing the level of financial assistance to the Jewish state” (p.99).   Dulles’ views were far from idiosyncratic. Israel “stirred up deep hostility among the Arabs” and many of America’s foreign policy elites in the 1950s ”saw Israel as a liability” (p.9). Without success, the United States sought Nasser’s agreement to an Arab-Israeli accord which would have required limited territorial concessions from Israel.

       Behind the scenes, however, the United States brokered a 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement, by which Britain would withdraw from its military base in the Canal Zone over an 18-month period, with Egypt agreeing that Britain could return to its base in the event of a major war. Doran terms this Eisenhower’s “first bet” on Nasser. Ike “wagered that the evacuation of the British from Egypt would sate Nasser’s nationalist appetite. The Egyptian leader, having learned that the United States was willing and able to act as a strategic partner, would now keep Egypt solidly within the Western security system. It would not take long before Eisenhower would come to realize that Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating” (p.67-68).

        As the United States courted Nasser as a voice of Arab nationalism and a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the region, it also encouraged other Arab voices. In what the United States imprecisely termed the “Northern Tier,” it supported security pacts between Turkey and Iraq and made overtures to Egypt’s neighbors Syria and Jordan. Nasser adamantly opposed these measures, considering them a means of constraining his own regional aspirations and preserving Western influence through the back door.  The “fatal intellectual flaw” of the United States’ honest broker strategy, Doran argues, was that it “imagined the Arabs and Muslims as a unified bloc. It paid no attention whatsoever to all of the bitter rivalries in the Middle East that had no connection to the British and Israeli millstones. Consequently, Nasser’s disputes with his rivals simply did not register in Washington as factors of strategic significance” (p.78).

           In September 1955, Nasser shocked the United States by concluding an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union, through Czechoslovakia, one of several indications that he was at best playing the West against the Soviet Union, at worst tilting toward the Soviet side.  Another came in May 1956, when Egypt formally recognized Communist China. In July 1956, partially in reaction to Nasser’s pro-Soviet dalliances, Dulles informed the Egyptian leader that the United States was pulling out of a project to provide funding for a dam across the Nile River at Aswan, Nasser’s “flagship development project . . . [which was] expected to bring under cultivation hundreds of thousands of acres of arid land and to generate millions of watts of electricity” (p.167).

         Days later, Nasser countered by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, predicting that the tolls collected from ships passing through the canal would pay for the dam’s construction within five years. Doran characterizes Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal as the “single greatest move of his career.” It is impossible to exaggerate, he contends, the “power of the emotions that the canal takeover stirred in ordinary Egyptians. If Europeans claimed that the company was a private concern, Egyptians saw it as an instrument of imperial exploitation – ‘a state within a state’. . . [that was] plundering a national asset for the benefit of France and Britain” (p.171).

            France, otherwise largely missing in Doran’s detailed account, concocted the scheme that led to the October 1956 crisis.  Concerned that Nasser was providing arms to anti-French rebels in Algeria, France proposed to Israel what Doran terms a “stranger than fiction” (p.189) plot by which the Israelis would invade Egypt. Then, in order to protect shipping through the canal, France and Britain would:

issue an ultimatum demanding that the belligerents withdraw to a position of ten miles on either side of the canal, or face severe consequences. The Israelis, by prior arrangement, would comply. Nasser, however, would inevitably reject the ultimatum, because it would leave Israeli forces inside Egypt while simultaneously compelling Egyptian forces to withdraw from their own sovereign territory. An Anglo-French force would then intervene to punish Egypt for noncompliance. It would take over the canal and, in the process, topple Nasser (p.189).

The crisis unfolded more or less according to this script when Israeli brigades invaded Egypt on October 29th and Britain and France launched their joint invasion on November 5th. Nasser sunk ships in the canal and blocked oil tankers headed through the canal to Europe.

         Convinced that acquiescence in the invasion would drive the entire Arab world to the Soviet side in the global Cold War, the United States issued measured warnings to Britain and France to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. If Nasser was by then a disappointment to the United States, Doran writes, the “smart money was still on an alliance with moderate nationalism, not with dying empires” (p.178). But when Eden telephoned the White House on November 7, 1956, largely to protest the United States’ refusal to sell oil to Britain, Ike went further. In that phone call, Eisenhower as honest broker “decided that Nasser must win the war, and that he must be seen to win” (p.249).  Eisenhower’s hardening toward his traditional allies a week into the crisis, Doran contends, constituted his “most fateful decision of the Suez Crisis: to stand against the British, French, and Israelis in [a] manner that was relentless, ruthless, and uncompromising . . . [Eisenhower] demanded, with single-minded purpose, the total and unconditional British, French, and Israeli evacuation from Egypt. These steps, not the original decision to oppose the war, were the key factors that gave Nasser the triumph of his life” (p.248-49).

        When the financial markets caught wind of the blocked oil supplies, the value of the British pound plummeted and a run on sterling reserves ensued. “With his currency in free fall, Eden became ever more vulnerable to pressure from Eisenhower. Stabilizing the markets required the cooperation of the United States, which the Americans refused to give until the British accepted a complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal from Egypt” (p.196). At almost the same time, Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to suppress a burgeoning Hungarian pro-democracy movement. The crisis in Eastern Europe had the effect of “intensifying Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s frustration with the British and the French. As they saw it, Soviet repression in Hungary offered the West a prime opportunity to capture the moral high ground in international politics – an opportunity that the gunboat diplomacy in Egypt was destroying” (p.197). The United States supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of invading troops. Britain, France and Israel had little choice bu to accept these terms in December 1956.

       In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the emboldened Nasser continued his quest to become the region’s dominant leader. In February 1958, he engineered the formation of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria that he envisioned as the first step toward a broader pan-Arab state (in fact, the union lasted only until 1961). He orchestrated a coup in Iraq in July 1958. Later that month, Eisenhower sent American troops into Lebanon to avert an Egyptian-led uprising against the pro-western government of Christian president Camille Chamoun. Sometime in the period between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Doran argues, Eisenhower withdrew his bet on Nasser, coming to the view that his support of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis had been a mistake.

        The Eisenhower of 1958 “consistently and clearly argued against embracing Nasser” (p.231).  He now viewed Nasser as a hardline opponent of any reconciliation between Arabs and Israel, squarely in the Soviet camp. Eisenhower, a “true realist with no ideological ax to grind,” came to recognize that his Suez policy of “sidelining the Israelis and the Europeans simply did not produce the promised results. The policy was . . . a blunder” (p.255).   Unfortunately, Doran argues, Eisenhower kept his views to himself until well into the 1960s and few historians picked up on his change of mind. This allowed those who sought to distance United States policy from Israel to cite Eisenhower’s stance in the 1956 Suez Crisis, without taking account of Eisenhower’s later reconsideration of that stance.

* * *

      Doran relies upon an extensive mining of diplomatic archival sources, especially those of the United States and Great Britain, to piece together this intricate depiction of the Eisenhower-Nasser relationship and the 1956 Suez Crisis. These sources allow Doran to emphasize the interactions of the key actors in the Middle East throughout the 1950s, including personal animosities and rivalries, and intra-governmental turf wars.  He writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. Helpful subheadings within each chapter make his detailed and sometimes dense narrative easier to follow. His work will appeal to anyone who has worked in an Embassy overseas, to Middle East and foreign policy wonks, and to general readers with an interest in the 1950s.

Thomas H. Peebles

Saint Augustin-de-Desmaures

Québec, Canada

June 19, 2017

11 Comments

Filed under American Politics, British History, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Managing Winston

Clementine.1

Clementine.2

Sonia Purnell, Clementine:

The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill 

            Biographies of political spouses run the risk of being overwhelmed by the politician once he or she enters the scene. Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by far the most comprehensive biography to date of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, does not quite succumb to that risk.  But Purnell, a freelance British journalist and historian, provides a fresh look at the familiar ups and downs in Winston’s career, recounting them from Clementine’s perspective, from the time the couple first met in 1904 and married in 1908 through Winston’s death in 1965.  Although comprehensive in its cradle-to-grave coverage of Clementine herself, the book shines in its treatment of the couple during World War II.  When Winston became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in 1940, Clementine functioned as her husband’s closest advisor. She was, Purnell writes, Winston’s “ultimate authority, his conscience and the nearest he had to a direct line to the people.”  Without Clementine sharing his burden, “it is difficult if not impossible to imagine [Winston] becoming the single-minded giant who led Britain, against almost impossible odds, to victory over tyranny” (p.391).

            But if World War II was the couple’s own “finest hour,” to borrow from Winston’s famous speech to Parliament in June 1940, many of the qualities that enabled them to survive and thrive during that trial can be traced to the testing they received during World War I.  War, it seems, served as the force that bound their marriage together.  We know a great deal about the workings of that marriage because the couple spent an extraordinary amount of time apart from one another. They corresponded regularly when separated, and even communicated frequently in writing when they were together under the same roof. By one count, the couple sent about 1,700 letters, notes and telegrams back and forth over the course of nearly six decades of courtship and marriage, many of which survive.

          The Churchills’ correspondence and the other portions of the record that Purnell has skillfully pieced together reveal a marriage that had its share of difficult moments, bending but never breaking. Both spouses had volatile and frequently volcanic personalities.  Although her husband was known for his bouts of depression, referred to informally as “Black Dog,” Clementine had an actual case of clinically diagnosed depression, and more than her fair share of mood swings and temperamental outbursts. Further, both spouses were surprisingly indifferent parents, more devoted to each other than to their children. Clementine, tormented that Winston might abandon her as her father had abandoned her mother, clearly placed Winston’s needs over those of her children. Yet, on more than one occasion she seems to have contemplated leaving the marriage.  Nonetheless, over the course of 57 years, the marital glue held.

* * *

         Clementine, born in 1885, had an unorthodox upbringing. Her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, of aristocratic origin but limited means, was trapped in a bad marriage to Colonel Henry Hozier, who left his wife and children during Clementine’s early childhood. To this day, historians debate whether Hozier was indeed Clementine’s biological father, and the matter is unlikely ever to be settled conclusively. Clementine’s two sisters, Kitty and Nellie, may have been her half sisters – their paternity has not been conclusively established either. After Colonel Hozier’s departure, the three girls lived a peripatetic life with Lady Blanche, who took her children frequently to Northern France and allowed herself to be pursued by a wide number of suitors. Kitty seemed to be her mother’s favorite among the three daughters, but she died a month before her 17th birthday and her mother “was never the same again” (p.21). Lady Blanche never provided Clementine with a steady, loving childhood, a loss which likely affected Clementine’s subsequent relationships with her own children.

         Clementine was first introduced to rising political star Winston Churchill at a society ball in the summer of 1904, when she was 18 and he was 29.  She was far from impressed with the “notorious publicity seeker” (p.29) who had recently defected from the Conservative Party to join the upstart Liberal Party over his opposition to a Conservative proposal to impose protective tariffs on goods imported into Britain.  Inexplicably, the usually gregarious and supremely self-confident young man clammed up, unable to make the requisite small talk. The next encounter occurred four years later, in 1908, when Clementine happened to be seated next to Winston at a dinner party. This time, Clementine “found his idealism and brilliance liberating” (p.31).  Winston was impressed that Clementine, herself more mature at age 22, knew “far more about life than the ladies of cosseting privilege he normally met, and she was well educated, sharing his love of France and its culture” (p.31). After a courtship conventionally aristocratic, if short, the couple married later that year (the courtship, marriage and Winston’s early political years, from 1900 to 1915, are the subject matter of Michael Seldin’s Young Titan, reviewed here in May 2015).

            The marriage was “never destined to be smooth” (p.54), Purnell writes. The man Clementine married was “demanding, selfish and rash” (p.54), emotionally needy, lacking in empathy, and a workaholic with a tendency to bully.  But Clementine could be “rigid and unforgiving” (p.4) and brought an “explosive temper” to the marriage, where the “slightest setback, such as cold soup or a late delivery, could send her into a fury” (p.53). Plagued throughout life by a pattern of “severe listlessness alternating with near-hysterical outbursts” (p.148), Clementine, not Winston, had the couple’s only case of clinically diagnosed depression. Throughout their first three decades of marriage, the couple was united in the goal of making Winston Prime Minister. But they pursued this goal at no small cost to their offspring.

            Between 1909 and 1922, the couple had five children, four daughters and one son. Daughter Marigold, born in 1918, died at an early age. The four surviving offspring — Diana, b.1909; Randolph, b.1911; Sarah, b.1914; and Mary, b.1922 – “saw little of either parent, even by the standards of British upper-class families of the period” (p.184). Winston outwardly adored his children. He gave them silly nicknames and, when available, enjoyed playing games and roughhousing with them. But he was only infrequently available.  Clementine in this account seemed to lack even this level of intimacy. She was distant and not particularly warm with any of her children, and also frequently absent, either traveling with her husband or away on recurring travel and adventures on her own.

          Randolph, Diana and Sarah went on to lead turbulent adult lives. Randolph drank heavily, gambled frequently and acquired a reputation for boorish behavior.  One of the book’s most surprising – indeed stunning – episodes occurred during his 1939 marriage to Pamela Digby, later Pamela Harrington. It was not a good marriage. Randolph was abusive in many ways, physically and otherwise.  In their troubled  marriage, Randolph’s parents plainly sided with their daughter-in-law over their son. After war broke out, with Randolph serving in the army and the couple living apart, Pamela pursued affairs with several leading figures from the United States, including famed journalist Edward R. Murrow and wealthy businessman Averill Harriman, whom she later married.

            In Purnell’s account, both Winston, by then Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and Clementine encouraged these romantic liaisons for their intelligence gathering potential in furtherance of the war effort. Pamela “fast became one of the most important intelligence brokers in the war” (p.275).   She provided information to her parents-in-law on “what the Americans were thinking” (p.274) and boosted Britain’s case for more American assistance.  Randolph never forgave his parents for condoning the liaisons, and it is not difficult to understand why. Randolph died of a heart attack in 1968, at age 57.

            Randolph’s sisters Diana and Sarah also struggled through adult life.  Diana had two bad marriages and suffered repeatedly from nervous breakdowns.  She likely took her own life from an overdose of barbiturates in 1963, at age 54.  Sarah had a moderately successful acting career, but was plagued throughout much of her adult life by alcohol abuse, “drinking herself to her grave by slow stages” (p.387). She married three times. Her termination of an affair with American Ambassador John Winant likely contributed to his suicide in 1947. With Sarah on the brink of filing for divorce from her second husband, he too committed suicide. Sarah died in 1982, five years after Clementine, at age 68.

            Only the youngest Churchill, Mary, “always the perfect daughter” (p.387), achieved something akin to normalcy as an adult.  She married but once, had five children, served in numerous public organizations, and wrote the first (and seemingly only other) biography of her mother.  In the 1960s, she was quoted as saying that, based on her own childhood experience, she “made a conscious decision to put my children first because I did feel something had been. . . yes, missing at home” (p.359).  Alone among the Churchill children, Mary lived to an old age, dying in 2014 at age 92.

            Purnell documents several points between the two wars, and after World War II, when Clementine appeared to be on the brink of exiting the marriage.  Bitter rows between the parents over Randolph’s behavior as a young adult led in the 1930s to hints that the Churchills’ “ever more regular separations might become permanent” (p.196). After the war, perfect daughter Marry sought to mediate the couple’s differences.  Worried that her parents’ marriage again seemed on the verge of falling apart, Mary acknowledged her mother’s “occasional yearning for ‘the quieter more banal happiness of being married to an ordinary man’” (p.354).

          Another sign of the marriage’s sometimes fragile character came in the 1930s, when Clementine, traveling without her husband on a four-month cruise of the East Indies, fell under the charms of Terence Philip, an art dealer with a reputation for “passing flirtations” (p.203).  Phillip was “tall, rich, suave, an authority on art and unburdened by driving ambition – unlike Winston, in fact, in almost every respect” (p.201). It is unclear whether Clementine’s relationship with Phillip was adulterous. Phillip was “thought not to be that interested in women sexually. . . Nevertheless his open and ardent admiration shook Clementine to her core” (p.203-04). Purnell also describes an incident where Winston was invited to take tea with his cousin’s fiancée, only to learn upon arrival at her apartment that the barely clad woman had a purpose other than tea in mind for his visit.  Upon discovering that purpose, Winston “insisted he had left immediately” and recounted the incident to Clementine, who “appears to have been surprisingly relaxed about the encounter” (p.132).

* * *

            Purnell neatly weaves these soap opera details of the Churchill family into the familiar story of Winston pursuing his political ambitions and the less familiar story of Clementine playing an indispensable role in that pursuit. Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Winston became Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order in the country.  In 1911, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, and held this position when Britain found itself at war in 1914.  In this capacity, he oversaw the failed 1915 attack on Ottoman Turkey at the Dardanelles straights, a calamitous failure for which Winston became the scapegoat, “held liable for one of the bloodiest British military failures in history” (p.81). Purnell suggests that Winston’s marriage saved him from self-destruction at the time of this grim setback. Only Clementine “could repeatedly tell him why he was deemed untrustworthy and why he had made so many enemies”(p.118).

             With Clementine’s support, Winston slowly crept back into politics. He lost his seat as a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1922. At a time when the Liberal Party was fading into irrelevance, he rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that capacity, he oversaw Britain’s return in 1926 to the gold standard, another decision that proved disastrous for him politically, resulting in deflation and unemployment and leading to the General Strike of 1926. With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Winston was out of politics and entered what he later termed his “Wilderness Years.” In the 1920s, he had earned a reputation as somewhat of a crank, railing incessantly about the Bolshevik menace to Europe.  In the 1930s, he shifted his rhetorical target to Germany and the threat that Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party posed, which the public perceived initially as little more than another example of his crankiness. But in May 1940, Winston became his country’s Prime Minister, charged with leading the war against Nazi Germany which had broken out the previous September.  Winston and Clementine’s “true life’s work” then began,  and she “would barely leave his side again until it was done” (p.234).

            By the time Winston became Prime Minister, Clementine was already an “amalgam of special advisor, lobbyist and spin doctor” — or, as David Lloyd George put it, an “expert at ‘managing’ Winston” (p.94). At each juncture in Winston’s career, Clementine developed an “astute judgment of the characters involved, the goals that were achievable and the dangers to be anticipated” (p.57). She closely reviewed drafts of Winston’s speeches and coached him on effective delivery techniques.   Campaigning for his seat in Parliament bored Winston, and he frequently sent Clementine to rouse his constituents as elections approached.   In a time before political optics and images were given over to full-time professionals, Clementine was Winston’s optics specialist. With her “surer grasp of the importance of public image” (p.3), she frequently raised questions that the more impulsive Winston hadn’t fully thought through about how a course of action would look to the voters or be perceived internationally.

            During World War II, Clementine assumed an unprecedented role as Winston’s aide.  It is unlikely, Purnell contends, that “any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power – albeit entirely behind the scenes.  She did not duplicate what Winston was doing, or cross it; she complemented it and he gave her free rein to do so” (p.246-47).  When Winston was in Teheran in December 1943 meeting with Roosevelt and Stalin, for instance, Clementine was busy putting out fires and easing tensions within Winston’s cabinet.  At the same time, she “reviewed reports on parliamentary debates, read the most secret telegrams, kept [Opposition leader and Deputy Prime Minister] Clement Attlee informed of the prime minister’s progress, dealt with constituency matters, and sent back to Winston digests of public reaction to the war “(p.314).

          Yet, paradoxically, Winston and Clementine did not see eye-to-eye on many of issues of their time, with Clementine’s instincts conspicuously more liberal than those of her husband.  Despite her aristocratic background and lofty position as a politician’s’wife, Clementine was unusually adept at establishing links and relations with average citizens. Her relatively impoverished childhood and limited work experience while unmarried “fostered in Clementine an instinctive sympathy for the worker’s point of view” (p.103).  Even before World War I, she was a fervent advocate of women’s voting rights, “just the first of many issues on which she would part ways with her husband’s more conservative political views” (p.56). Later she would champion co-education at Cambridge University’s Churchill College and abolition of the death penalty.

          During World War II, Clementine frequently visited injured military personnel and otherwise sought out everyday citizens to encourage them to continue to support the war effort.  She also prevailed upon her husband to create opportunities for women to serve in auxiliary military roles. Winston was “initially unenthusiastic at the idea . . . but Clementine persevered and he became one of the first to appreciate that the country could not win through the sacrifice of its menfolk alone” (p.241).

         A tale within the tale of World War II is Clementine’s relationship with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two met on several occasions during the war. Clementine did not care for Eleanor’s husband Franklin, who had taken the unpardonable liberty of calling her “Clemmie,” a “privilege normally reserved for the most deserving and long-serving friends” (p.310); and there was no love lost between Winston and Eleanor.  Eleanor felt Winston “romanticized war” (p.281), while Winston found Eleanor to be a busybody “who did not conform to [his] ideas of an ‘attractive’ woman” (p.285).  Nonetheless, the two women “enjoyed each other’s company” (p.296).  They were of a similar age and upper class backgrounds, and each had endured a difficult childhood.  Both demonstrated uncommon concern for the poor and their countries’ least favored citizens.  Each lost a child as a young mother, and had children who struggled through adult life.  Purnell notes that the four Roosevelt sons racked up 18 marriages between them, while Clementine’s four children blundered through a mere eight.

          But the Roosevelts were living almost entirely separate lives during World War II, with Eleanor reduced to the role of a second-tier political advisor, in the dark on most of the key war issues that her husband was dealing with.  She sometimes criticized or questioned her husband’s decisions or policies in a newspaper column she wrote. Such public airing of differences between Clementine and Winston was unthinkable for either spouse.  As Purnell notes, Clementine “never even hinted publicly about her private disagreements with Winston. But then [unlike Franklin Roosevelt] he kept nothing from her” (p.306).

          Roosevelt died in April 1945, less than a month prior to the end of Europe’s most devastating war.  A few short months later, Winston, himself in poor health, saw his Conservative party voted out of office, as Clement Atlee and his Labour Party won a general election in July 1945.  Improbably, Winston returned at age 77 as Prime Minister to lead the Conservatives from 1951 to 1955, his final and generally unsatisfactory years as government leader.  He remained a Member of Parliament until the October 1964 general election, and died just months later in January 1965.

* * *

         Purnell ends her substantive chapters with Winston’s death, covering Clementine’s final years as a widow, up to her death in 1977 at age 92, in an “Epilogue.” This was a period of “almost ethereal calm” (p.387) for her.  With Randolph’s death in 1968, she had outlived three of her five children. Her husband’s towering reputation across the globe was secure and, as Purnell puts it, “if her light was fading, so be it” (p.388).  Purnell’s thoroughly researched and highly readable work constitutes a major step in assuring that Clementine’s light continues to shine.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 4, 2017

 

9 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Uncategorized

Refining the Rubric: tomsbooks@5

infidel-ayaan-hirsi-aliDreyfus Harris

     December 2016 marks the end of tomsbooks’ fifth year. On January 22, 2012, a time when I barely knew what a blog was, I posted a review of John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. That was the first of 93 postings over the next five years, reviewing 102 books (had I been counting, I probably would have paused last month to observe the 100th book reviewed, David Maraniss’ Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, a work on my home town during my senior year in high school). The year-by-year tally of reviews is as follows:

Year          Reviews          Books Reviewed
2012             25                          32
2013             19                          20
2014              9                            9
2015            21                          22
2016            19                          19

From the beginning, my goal has been to point general, well educated but non-specialist readers to works unlikely to make best-seller lists but, in most cases, worthy of their consideration and reading time  — works often overlooked in major publications like The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books.  Most of the books reviewed here fit into a rubric of “modern history, politics, and political theory,” with McWhorter’s work being perhaps one of the few exceptions.

     Earlier this month, I sought to refine that rubric through an index by specific subject matter of the five years of reviews, now completed and available upon request. Currently, I have 37 different categories (e.g. “French History,” “Thinkers,” “Biography/Autobiography,” “Cold War,”), with much overlap; almost all reviews fit into more than one category. Looking at the index makes clear that my overall focus has most frequently been on either the United States or Europe, in many cases both. But if America and Europe is my comfort zone, I have ventured outside of it on more than a few occasions to review books rooted in other areas. My most recent review was on sub-Saharan Africa, and I have reviewed books on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, plus several books on Islam (e.g., here, here and here).

     While producing 1-2 reviews per month over the past five years, I gradually came to the realization that I have also been refining the rubric of “modern history, politics, and political theory” in another, more substantive way. I now see that almost all the books reviewed here explore in one way or another the concept of modern liberal democracy, a concept you  can define in different ways. The word “liberal” should not be equated with that term as used in everyday political discourse in the United States; it’s more like the “liberal” in “liberal arts.” For me, broadly stated, liberal democracy is the system of representative government we’ve come to take for granted in the West, a system that seeks to maximize both individual liberty and equality among citizens, through free and fair elections, the rule of law, free but regulated markets, and respect for human rights. Liberal democracy is also decidedly pluralist, seeking to provide a channel for as many voices as possible to compete for influence in a free and orderly, if at times cacophonous, process.

     There is no single category for “democracy” or “liberal democracy” among the 37 specific categories in my index, and I can think of only one book reviewed here that addresses the subject head on, Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, reviewed in May 2012 (and categorized in the index under “Political Theory,” and “Intellectual History’). But just about every book reviewed here necessarily addresses, however indirectly, some aspect of the subject of liberal democracy,  raising issues pertinent to its story in modern times: what is it; where does it come from; where is it going; how should it work; how does it work; what are its strengths and weaknesses, it successes and failures. Of course, this includes books on instances where liberal democracy has “gone off the rails,” most notably in Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia. By my count, I have reviewed 13 books on the Nazi period in Germany and 6 on communist rule in the Soviet Union, along with 10 on “totalitarianism,” the antithesis of liberal democracy.

     Winston Churchill once famously described democracy as the worst possible system of government, except for all the others (and he could have said “liberal democracy”). It may be difficult to disagree with Churchill’s quirky formulation, but I think a more generous one is warranted. I consider modern liberal democracy to be among the most uplifting and powerful ideas that our collective human civilization has put into practice over the last three centuries, providing unparalleled opportunity for high quality of life for individuals fortunate to live in liberal democratic states. But no one has to tell me that these are dispiriting times for liberal democracy in much of the world, starting very close to home.

* * *

The Science of Liberty, Ferrismichelleo-1SternandSifton

     I trace liberal democracy’s modern roots principally to Great Britain, the United States and France, three countries I have been lucky enough to live, work and study in. Perhaps because of this happy coincidence, the history and politics of these three countries are the starting point for my bookish interests. But in each today, in different ways, liberal democracy seems to be on the defensive, facing rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism. In the “Brexit” campaign tinged with no small doses of anti-immigrant sentiment, Great Britain notoriously elected in June of this year to pull out of the European Union, arguably the most critical multi-national liberal democracy project of the post-World War II era. The United States in November elected as its next President a man who seems at best indifferent to the ideals of liberal democracy, often hostile. In France, the National Front party, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-European, has what looks at this juncture like better than a 50-50 chance that its leader will reach the final round for the French presidency, in elections scheduled for May 2017.

     Beyond this core, the outlook for liberal democracy at the end of 2016 appears at least equally bleak. Anti-immigrant and anti-liberal parties are gaining elsewhere across Europe, in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and Poland (although an insurgent anti-immigrant party in Austria recently suffered a setback in its bid for the country’s presidency). On Europe’s periphery, both Russia and Turkey have overtly embraced authoritarian, anti-democratic rule, sometimes explicitly referred to as “illiberal democracy.”  Meanwhile China, the world’s newest economic behemoth, continues the oddest of combinations, a form of free market capitalism coupled with strict control over individuals’ lives and the absence of the most basic political freedoms.

    I wistfully recall the optimism of the 1990s, when the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and apartheid had been consigned to the dustbin of South African history.  Liberal democracy seemed to be on the march throughout the world.  It was then described as the world’s “default option,” with one commentator famously declaring the “end of history.” In the second half of the 21st century’s second decade, this seems like a quaint, bygone era, far longer ago than a quarter of a century. Today, our global civilization appears to be heading into the darkest and most difficult period for liberal democracy since the 1930s. We can only hope that a catastrophe analogous to the world war that erupted at the end of that decade can be averted.

     Despite the multiple reasons for concern if not outright alarm about the near future, I remain “cautiously optimistic,” as the diplomats say, about the future of liberal democracy throughout the world. It is quite simply too powerful an idea to be bottled up over the long term. While older and more rural populations may favor authoritarian rulers who promise to restore some type of mythological past, the future is not with these demographic groups. Liberal democracy will continue to find strong and often courageous support among well-educated young people and in urban centers throughout the world — in Cairo and Teheran, Moscow and Ankara, as well as Paris, London and New York.

      A spate of books on the future of liberal democracy is likely to flood the market in the months and years ahead, including works analyzing the previously unimaginable rise to power in the United States of an authoritarian leader with no apparent attachment to America’s abiding democratic principles. Occasionally, I may elect to review such works, but I suspect that such instances will be rare. Rather, I envision continuing to address liberal democracy less directly, through reviews of serious works on history and politics which, often unintentionally, contain some insight, broad or narrow, about the perils and possibilities of liberal democracy. I hope you will stay with me for what looks like a bumpy ride ahead over the next months and years.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 24, 2016

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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.

* * *

      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

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

Extraordinarily Intense and Abstract

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Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think:

An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People 

 

     You may wince at the title of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.  Attempting to explain in book form “how the French think” seems like an audacious if not preposterous undertaking. Yet, however improbably, Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University who also teaches in Paris, somehow accomplishes the daunting tasks he sets for himself: identifying the “cultural distinctiveness of French thinking” (p.3) and showing how and why the activities of the mind have “occupied such a special place in French public life” (p.7).

     In his sweeping, erudite yet highly-readable work, Hazareesingh affably guides his readers through three centuries of French intellectual history. Hazareesingh approaches with light-hearted humor his impossibly broad and – certainly to the French – highly serious subject. He assumes that it is possible to make “meaningful generalizations” about the “shared intellectual habits of a people as diverse and fragmented as the French” (p.17). He is most concerned in presenting selected “meaningful generalizations” about how the French – and particularly France’s intellectual elite — have looked upon the country, its past, its major political institutions, and its place in the larger world.  He places particular emphasis upon the theories and ideas which have sustained France’s political divisions since the 1789 French Revolution.

     Hazareesingh finds French thinking to be both extraordinarily intense and, by Anglo-American standards, extraordinarily abstract. Ideas in France are “believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for” (p.17). He identifies a quintessentially French “fetish” – a term used frequently throughout his book – for “unifying theoretical syntheses and for formulations which are far-reaching and outlandish – and sometimes both” (p.111). The notion of knowledge as “continuous and cumulative, which is such a central premise of Anglo-Saxon epistemology,” is, Hazareesingh argues, “alien to the French way of thinking” (p.21).  French ideas tend to be the product of a form of thinking which is “not necessarily grounded in empirical reality,” giving them a “speculative” character (p.21).

     More than elsewhere, French thinking tends to look at issues as binary choices, between either A or B: nationalism or universalism; individualism or collective spirit; spiritualism or science. French thinking also reserves a special place for paradox, producing passionate rationalists, revolutionary traditions, secular missionaries and, on the battlefield, glorious defeats.  France’s vaunted sense of exceptionalism, which lies in its distinct “association of its own special quality with its moral and intellectual prowess” (p.11), endures today side by side with a pervasive sense of pessimism and decline – malaise.  In the 18th century, French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu observed that French thinkers had mastered “doing frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously” (p.7), and Hazareesingh finds that the same “insouciance of manner” also endures in today’s France.

      Hazareesingh arranges his work into ten chapters, working toward the present. He starts with the influence of 17th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes on all subsequent French thinking. Within a Cartesian framework, he then discusses in the next five chapters distinctive 19th century modes of thought in France: exotic sects devoted to mysticism and occultism; the powerful influence of science on 19th century French thinking; the evolution of notions of a political Left and Right; and the emergence of a French view of “the Nation” and French identity toward the end of the century.  Although focused on the 19th century – and in some cases, the 20th century up to the fall of Third French Republic in 1940 – these chapters also address the contemporary presence and influence of the chapter’s subject matter. Each could serve as an informative and entertaining stand-alone essay.

      The chapter on the emergence of the political Left and Right in the aftermath of the French Revolution is both the thread that ties together the book’s chapters on 19th century French thinking and its  link to the final four chapters, on post World War II French political and social thought. These final chapters revolve around the providential leadership style of Charles de Gaulle and the persistent attraction of communism as the heart of the French intelligentsia’s opposition to de Gaulle. Along the way, Hazareesingh discusses a host of post-World War II French thinkers, particularly the ubiquitous Jean Paul Sartre.  He also provides an illuminating overview of the Structuralist movement, which gained great sway in academic circles, especially in American universities, for its grandiose analysis of human culture. Its key thinkers – Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Fourcault, Jacques Derrida – seem to personify France’s proclivity for abstract if not obtuse thinking.  In his final chapters, Hazareesingh describes the widespread contemporary French malaise, with French historians and its political intelligentsia looking at the country, its past and future, with a deepening sense of pessimism and despair.

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     In Hazareesingh’s estimation, modern French thinking began in the 17th century with René Descartes and his belief in the primacy of human reason, the “defining feature of the human condition” (p.50). Descartes’ signal contribution was to “accustom men increasingly to found their knowledge on examination rather than belief” (p.33), thereby rejecting arguments based upon religious faith.  The esprit cartésian, “based on logical clarity and the search for certainty” (p.33), rests on the conviction that reason is the “only source of our ability to make moral judgments and impose a durable conceptual order on the world” (p.50).

     The distinction between a political Left and Right, Hazareesingh writes, has often been viewed as a manifestation of the Cartesian character of French thought and its “propensity to cast political ideas in binary terms and to follow lines of reasoning to their extremes” (p.133). The distinction originated in the early phases of the French Revolution, when supporters of the king’s prerogative to veto legislation gathered on the right side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly, while opponents of the royal veto grouped on the Assembly’s left side.  Throughout the 19th century and up to the fall of the Third Republic in 1940, the subsequent debate between Left and Right was “largely between advocates and opponents of the French Revolution itself” (p.136).

     Central to the mindset of the many tribes on the Left during the 19th century was a “belief in the possibility of redesigning political institutions to create a better, more humane society whose members were freed from material and moral oppression” (p.137). This entailed above all establishment of a republican form of government, with power “exercised by elected representatives in the name of the people” (p.137). Political change “could be meaningful only if it was comprehensive and cleansing” (p.143).  The conceptual origins of European socialism and social democracy may be found on the left side of the 1789 Constituent Assembly.

      The 18th century Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a major share of the conceptual underpinning for France’s Leftist sensibilities.  Rousseau concluded that it was “plainly contrary to the law of nature” that the “privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitudes are in want of the bare necessities of life” (p.79-80). Rousseau’s protean political philosophy appealed simultaneously to the “libertarian yearning for absolute freedom, the progressive quest for a better world and the collectivist desire for equality” (p.80). In the mid-19th century, the ideas of Auguste Comte further animated the Leftist vision. One of the 19th century’s “most original standard-bearers of Cartesianism” (p.33), Comte’s comprehensive attempt to unite all forms of scientific inquiry into a single overarching philosophical system inspired a republican faith in education and science as keys to building a progressive, secular and just society.

     The counterpoint to the vision of the French Left was shaped by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (discussed here in May 2015 in a review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left).  Burke’s Reflections constituted “such an iconic representation of anti-1789 sentiment that copies were burned in bonfires by revolutionary peasants” (p.138). Like Burke, the political Right in France defended the entrenched institutions that the French Revolution sought to uproot — notably, monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and the Catholic Church – and stridently resisted the democratic and republican impulses of the Left. The language of the Right was “typically about the avoidance of conflict, the defense of hierarchy, the appeal to tradition and religious faith. . . the Right was predominantly concerned with the preservation (or restoration) of social stability” (p.141).

     In the first half of the 19th century, the most fervent proponents of the Right’s conservative vision were Catholic traditionalists and the royalists who never relinquished their dream of a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Hazareesingh credits the ultra-royalist polemicist Joseph de Maistre with encapsulating the Right’s aversion to everything associated with the 1789 Revolution. De Maistre saw the events of the 1790s as a “manifestation of divine retribution for decades of French irreligiosity and philosophical skepticism” (p.138). The notion  of universal rights of man was to de Maistre a “senseless abstraction.”  De Maistre is best known to history for his observation that he had “seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians. . . but as to man, I have never met one” (p.138).

      A central theme in the mythological imagination of the Right in the latter half of the 19th century was the “presence of sinister forces working to unravel the fabric of French society.” These destructive agents were “all the more noxious in that they were often perceived to represent alien interests and values” (p.150).  Jews in particular came to be identified as posing the ultimate existential menace to traditional conservative ideals, as manifested in the notorious affair involving Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Army officer wrongly convicted of spying for Germany in 1896 (three books on the Dreyfus Affair were reviewed here in 2012).  In the 20th century, the French political Right contributed to the “genesis of fascist doctrine” in Europe (p.147). The demise in 1944 of the collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled much of France during the years of German occupation marked the effective end for this traditional, counter-revolutionary French Right.

 

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      After World War II, two developments reshaped the schism between Left and Right: the emergence of a “new synthetic vision of Frenchness, centered around Charles de Gaulle, and the entrenchment of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia” (p.191). In their “schematic visions of the world after the Second World War, and in their bitter opposition to each other,” Gaullists and Marxists, “symbolized the French capacity for intellectual polarization and their apparent relish for endlessly reproducing the older divisions created by the Revolution” (p.196).

     De Gaulle modernized French conservative thought by “incorporating more fraternal ideals into its scheme of values, notably, by granting voting rights to women and, later, ending French rule in Algeria” (p.192). Although his leadership revolved around his own charismatic persona as the incarnation of the grandeur of France — echoing Napoleon Bonaparte – De Gaulle was also relentlessly pragmatic.  He “did not hesitate to discard key elements of the heritage of the French Right, especially its hostility to republicanism and its xenophobic, racialist and anti-egalitarian tendencies” (p.192).

     The French intelligentsia’s “extraordinary fascination” with communist theory was “born out of the First World War and its apogee in France between the 1930s and the ‘60s coincided with one of the most troubled periods in the nation’s modern history” (p.102). Although ostensibly identifying with the Soviet Union as a model of governance, French communism “remained deeply rooted in [France’s] historic political culture” (p.107). Through the 1960s, communism offered its intellectual adherents a “way of experiencing the values of friendship, human solidarity and fraternity” (p.107).

     Throughout the post-War period, Jean Paul Sartre dominated the French intellectual landscape. The “flamboyant personification of the French ‘intellectual,’” Sartre combined high visibility interventions in the political arena with an “original synthesis of Marxism and existentialism” and a “commitment to revolution, ‘the seizure of power by violent class struggle’” (p.230). After Sartre’s death in 1980 and the election of reformist Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981, Hazareesingh observes a change in the tone of the discourse between the political Left and Right.

      The ideals at the heart of Sartre’s “redemptive conception of politics – communism, revolution, the proletariat – lost much of their symbolic resonance in the 1980s,” Hazareesingh indicates. Marxism “ceased to be the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of French intellectual life as the nation elected a reformist socialist as its president, the Communist Party declined, the working class withered away and the Cold War came to an end” (p.236).   By the time Mitterrand was elected in 1981, the “division between Left and Right was already beginning to decline. . . the Right had moved away from its republican rejectionism . . . [and] the Left completed the movement in the 1980s by abandoning the universalist abstractions that underpinned progressive thought: the belief in human perfectibility and the sense that history had a purpose and that capitalist society could be radically overhauled” (p.158).

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        Today, France grapples with a “growing sense of unease about its present condition and its future prospects” (p.21), the French malaise. The factors giving rise to contemporary malaise include the decline of the French language internationally, coupled with France’s diminished claim to be a world power. But since the late 1980s, France’s pervasive pessimism seems most closely linked to issues of multi-culturalism and integration of France’s Muslim population.  Like every European nation with even a modest Muslim population, how to treat this minority remains an overriding challenge in France.  Few thinkers. Left or Right, are optimistic that France’s Muslim population can be successfully integrated into French society while France remains true to its revolutionary republican principles.

     Hazareesingh sees the rise of France’s nationalistic, xenophobic National Front party, originally headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now by his estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, as not only a response to the pervasive sense of French national decline but also a telling indication of the diminished clout of today’s political intelligentsia.  He chastises the “collective inability of the intellectual class” over the past decade to “confront the rise of the Front National and the growing dissemination of its ideas among the French people — a silence all the more remarkable as, throughout their history, and notably during the Dreyfus Affair, French intellectuals were at the forefront of the battle against racism and xenophobia. It is a measure of the disorientation of the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites on this issue that some progressive figures now openly admit their fascination with Jean-Marie Le Pen” (p.256-57).

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     Despite the doom and gloom that he perceives throughout contemporary France, Hazareesingh concludes optimistically that in facing the challenges of the 21st century, it is “certain” that the French will “remain the most intellectual of peoples, continuing to produce elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition” (p.326). Let’s hope so – and let’s hope that Hazareesingh might again provide clear-headed guidance for English-language readers on how to understand these sophisticated abstractions, as he does throughout this lucid and engaging work.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 9, 2016

 

 

 

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Filed under France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Uncategorized

Spiritual Heads of the Resistance

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Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, No Ordinary Men:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi 

          No Ordinary Men, a short volume of 142 pages, began with a commission from The New York Review of Books to provide a synopsis of works about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous pastor active in the German resistance who was killed by the Nazis early in April 1945, when the Nazi defeat appeared imminent.  Author Fritz Stern is a professor emeritus at Columbia University, a refugee from the Nazis as a young boy, and a leading expert on German and Central European history. Co-author Elisabeth Sifton is the daughter of heralded American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a highly respected New York literary editor, and the wife of Stern.  As the two eminently qualified authors approached their subject, they realized “how much bigger the story was than Bonhoeffer’s alone” (p.5) and expanded their work to a standalone volume. In particular, the pair wished to introduce the reading public to Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, a learned but little-known German jurist who married Bonhoeffer’s sister Christine and played an instrumental role in the German resistance to Hitler.

         The authors’ sub-title, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, highlights how Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi stood out in their two very different professions, clerical and legal. Even prior to Hitler’s ascension to power in January 1933, both recognized the threat that the Nazi party posed to Germany’s fledgling and struggling Weimar Republic. Once Hitler was in power, most of their professional colleagues and counterparts acquiesced in Nazi rule and found ways to adjust their professional lives to accommodate the regime, whatever their personal feelings might have been. Opposing the “satanic barbarism” of the Nazi regime was “rare and fraught with danger,” the authors write. To do so to “protect the sanctity of law and of faith was rarer still” (p.1). Moreover, they argue that Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s knowledge of what the Nazis were doing to Germany’s Jews propelled their resistance to the Hitler regime – knowledge of “unspeakable truths” that most people, inside and outside Germany, “did not know and did not want to know” (p.3).

* * *

          Born in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from a remarkable family, with prominent parents. His father was “Germany’s preeminent psychiatrist” (p.3) and his mother a leading left-wing activist. The couple had eight children. One son, Walter, was killed in World War I and another gravely wounded. The family was nominally German Lutheran, but more secular and non-practicing than religious in the conventional sense. The authors describe the Bonhoeffer parents as “proud of their country and hopeful about its future” (p.9) as World War I broke out in 1914. In the aftermath of the war, the Bonhoeffers shared with their fellow Germans their outrage at the harsh terms of the 1919 Versailles treaty, especially its clause declaring Germany solely responsible for the war. But they began to recoil at the nationalist super-patriotism that gripped the country. The seven surviving Bonhoeffer children embarked on what would likely have been distinguished careers had Germany remained normal during their formative years during the post-war decades.

          Dietrich’s decision to become a pastor and theologian, which he announced to his parents at age 14, took the family by surprise. The authors surmise that Bonhoeffer was attracted to the ministry because of the “spiritual turmoil” and “moral uncertainty” (p.19) that characterized Germany in the 1920s. Bonhoeffer never wavered from this career goal and in the absence of the Nazi calamity would surely have become one of the century’s leading Protestant theologians, in a category with one of his leading mentors, Karl Barth, and author Sifton’s father Reinhold Niebuhr. The authors reviewed Bonhoeffer’s wide-ranging early lectures, concluding that the “sheer breadth of the young man’s erudition remains astounding” (p.31).

           Even prior to World War I, German Protestantism, which had a long-standing nationalist strain, “had already lost moral strength,” with its churches “often functioning as mere decorative shells for the pious but secular bourgeois life” (p.14). Once Hitler became Reich Chancellor in 1933, all too many German pastors “converted their old-fashioned anti-Weimar conservatism into support for Nazi appeals for ‘national regeneration and sacrifice,’ along with exhortations to young people who might be fed up with what was called ‘Weimar liberalism’” (p.38-39).

          The question how Protestant churches should treat members from once-Jewish families –termed the “Jewish question” or Judenfrage — led Bonhoeffer and a handful of fellow pastors to declare or “confess” the fundamental tenets of their Christian faith. A seminal Bonhoeffer essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” laid the foundation for what came to be known as the “Confessing Church,” which attracted Nazi attention when it explicitly repudiated a law restricting most civil service positions to “Aryans,” i.e., non-Jews, cynically named the “Law for the Restoration of Professional Civil Service.” As a counterpoint to the Nazi-approved Reich Christian Church, the Confessing Church acquired an intensity “unparalleled in German Protestantism since the Reformation” (p.47). In the summer of 1937, Nazi authorities came down hard on the Confessing Church, with some pastors arrested. Bonhoeffer was banned from Berlin and retreated to the rural area of Pomerania.

         Dohnanyi, born four years earlier than Bonhoeffer in 1902, was from a less prominent family, but distinguished himself as a law student and then as a lawyer. He was the son of Hungarian musicians, composer Ernst von Dohnanyi and his pianist wife Elizabeth Kunwald, whose father was Jewish. He had known the Bonhoeffer family since his childhood – “since the sandbox,” to use a German expression – and became part of the family when he married Dietrich’s sister Christine in 1925. He earned a doctorate in law and held a number of high-level governmental posts, particularly within Germany’s Justice Ministry. The authors describe him as an “energetic, ambitious man of exceptional intellect and integrity” (p.45).

          In June 1933, Dohnanyi became an assistant to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a holdover from the previous regime whom Hitler had retained to reassure the German people that the administration of justice remained in impartial, non-Nazi hands. Dohnanyi accompanied Gürtner to an appointment with Hitler shortly assuming this position, and told Christine after the meeting, “The man is mad” (p.45). As Gürtner’s chief assistant, Dohnanyi usually knew ahead of time of new laws which the Nazis were planning, and became privy to information about Nazi crimes. By 1934, with remarkably “cool-headed efficiency and rising outrage” (p.46), Dohnanyi began to keep a chronological record, along with supporting evidence and an index, of the regime’s illegal acts. These documents, stored in a safe in Zossen, about 20 miles from Berlin, were “meant to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime” (p.46). In November 1937, Dohnanyi also learned about a confidential meeting of Hitler and his military chiefs in which Hitler laid out in alarmingly explicit terms his plans for a war of conquest in Europe.

       After war broke out in 1939, Dohnanyi found his way into the Abbwehr, in theory a military intelligence gathering unit but in fact a hotbed of anti-Nazi, anti-Hitler activity and conspiracy. He arranged for Bonhoeffer to join the unit as well, as an alternative to military conscription. In 1942, Dohnanyi assisted two German Jewish lawyers, Friedrich Arnold and Julius Fliess, to flee to Switzerland, disguised as Abwehr agents. Altogether, Dohnany assisted 14 people to leave Germany and was directly involved in nearly all wartime attempts to eliminate Hitler.

        Bonhoeffer’s most significant direct contribution to the resistance was his outreach to Bishop George Bell of Chicester, England, who served as a conduit to British leadership, especially Foreign Secretary Antony Eden. Bell strove in vain to convince the leadership of the bona fides of the German resistance. What the resistance sought above all were guarantees that should the resistance succeed in deposing Hitler, the terms of surrender would be “reasonable” and not give rise to terms similar to those imposed on Germany at Versailles after World War I. British leadership, already leaning toward the “unconditional surrender” position, gave the cold shoulder to these advances, with Eden finding that the German opposition had given “little evidence of their existence” (p.98). Another British bureaucrat advised Eden that the “Bishop of Chicester and his like have learnt nothing from the two German wars and are now, busily, in all innocence, trying to lay the foundations of a third” (p.98).

       In late February 1943, Dohnanyi engineered an assassination attempt on Hitler that involved smuggling a bomb, disguised as two gift bottles of Cointreau, aboard Hitler’s plane. But the bomb failed to go off. A few days later, Dohanyi was involved in another attempt on Hitler’s life, which failed due to last-minute changes in Hitler’s schedule. Neither the Gestapo nor the SS learned of the two failed attempts on Hitler’s life. But on April 5, 1943, the Gestapo arrested Dohnanyi at his office on charges of alleged breaches of foreign currency regulations involving the transfer of funds to a Swiss bank on behalf of the Jews he had assisted in leaving Germany. Both Bonhoeffer and Dohanyi’s wife Christine were also arrested, although Christine was released shortly thereafter. These arrests took the steam out of the anti-Hitler movement, the authors indicate.

          Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, the most celebrated effort to assassinate Hitler, “changed irredeemably” (p.119) any hope that either Bonhoeffer or Dohnanyi might survive their prison sentences. Dohnanyi’s fate was sealed two months later when the Gestapo found documents which Donhanyi had hidden in the safe in Zossen. The documents revealed Dohanyi’s network of conspirators as well as his involvement in multiple attempts to assassinate Hitler and overthrow his regime. The Gestapo concluded that Dohnanyi was the “spiritual head of the conspiracy” to eliminate Hitler (p.126), a moniker arguably better suited for Bonhoeffer. On Hitler’s orders, on April 6, 1945, Dohnanyi was condemned to death by an SS court and executed by hanging immediately thereafter. Bonhoeffer was similarly executed on April 9, 1945. Three weeks later, Hitler took is own life and, on May 7, 1945, the Nazi regime capitulated.

* * *

       A short “Appendix” contains in abbreviated form the authors’ original commission to review other books on Bonhoeffer and the German resistance for the New York Review of Books. The authors cast a critical eye on a recent Bonhoeffer biography, Eric Metaxis’ Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, reviewed here in August 2013. Although Metaxas brought a “lively new tone” to the discussion of Bonhoeffer, they characterize his work overall as “glib” (p.147). Throughout, Metaxis also manifested what the authors consider a “quite amazing ignorance” (p.147) of German history, language and culture, noting in particular his references to Hitler having been “elected” in 1933, whereas he was appointed Reich Chancellor. Following up on a point made in the main portion of the text, they also take issue with attempts to turn Bonhoeffer into what we would term today a fundamentalist Christian, of which Metaxis’ biography might be considered an example.

* * *

           Stern and Sifton describe Bonhoeffer’s greatness as involving not so much his role in anti-Hitler operations as his “steadfast opposition to National Socialism within the German Evangelical Church, his valorous efforts to gain international recognition for the Confessing Church, and his lived commitment to a free church and a free country” (p.140). But the attention on Bonhoeffer, they contend, has obscured the role of other figures engaged in the Hitler resistance, notably Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Dohnanyi and his involvement in “virtually every attempt . . .  made since 1938 to overthrow the regime” (p.120). “Both men’s lives offer lasting moral instruction,” the authors conclude. “Though the world knows of Bonhoeffer in detail and hardly at all of Dohnanyi, they deserve to be remembered together. The Third Reich had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies” than Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi (p.141-42).

           Stern and Sifton’s lucid and concise work should be of interest both to readers new to Bonhoeffer and to those already familiar with his role in the resistance to the Nazi regime. Readers should also appreciate the authors’ introduction to Dohnanyi, with many – myself included – hoping that their work will serve as a prelude to an in-depth biography of this consequential but insufficiently known resister.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 23, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History, Uncategorized

Never At Home

LHO

Peter Savodnik, The Interloper:
Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union

            More than fifty years after Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, writers are still trying to make sense out of an assassination which has proven also to be something of a national obsession. In The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, Peter Savodnik seeks to deepen our understanding of Oswald himself through an exploration of his time in the Soviet Union, where he lived from 1959 to 1962, primarily in the provincial Belarusian city of Minsk at the height of the Cold War. Savodnik’s book is unlikely to have much appeal to conspiracy theorists. Savodnik posits early in the book that Oswald acted alone in killing the president, and that the “lone gun” theory is the only plausible account of the assassination. The question we should be asking, Savodnik contends, is not who killed President Kennedy, but why did Oswald kill him.

            In many senses, Oswald fit the all-too-familiar pattern of the American assassin, a lonely, disturbed, undistinguished young man whose notorious act – at least for those who accept the lone gunman theory – seems nearly senseless. But Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union during the Cold War sets him apart from other American assassins. Exploration of Oswald’s experiences in a country that was the “arch enemy of his own” (p.27) thus adds a dimension to Oswald’s life which, Savodnik indicates, has not previously been examined in depth.

           As the word “interloper” in his title indicates, Savodnik’s overriding theme is that Oswald was never at home anywhere. He was always an outsider, an interloper. His failure to settle anywhere made him more aware of his status as an outsider or interloper. “And with this awareness came anger building to a fury” (p.xv). Oswald actually spent more time in Minsk than any other location in his short life and, Savodnik stresses, he came closest in Minsk to shedding his interloper status and achieving a “sense of place” (p.xiv). Savodnik finds a very American quality to Oswald’s rootlessness. Oswald’s “fury, naïveté, narcissism, and even indifference to whatever place he had parachuted into” for Savodnik reflects an “uncontainable rage that felt and sounded American,” expressing a “classically American individuality, a desire to be free of external forces and to achieve a wholly separate self that had not been shaped by other people, clans, or institutions” (p.210).

         Savodnik’s book is arranged in three general sections, “Before Minsk,” “Minsk,” and “After Minsk” addressing, respectively the first twenty years of Oswald’s life; the 32 months in Minsk, from October 1959 to June 1962; and Oswald’s final 17 months back in the United States after leaving Minsk and the Soviet Union, from June 1962 to November 1963. Oswald’s tortured relationship to the United States is a constant theme throughout the three sections. A final section, “Epilogue: A Conjecture,” seeks to use Oswald and Kennedy’s intertwined lives to explain the United States in the early 1960s.

* * *

          Born in 1939 in New Orleans, Oswald had a tumultuous youth and was adrift from his earliest days. His father, a descendant of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee (the reason for Oswald’s first name) was an insurance premium collector who died of a heart attack in August 1939, two months before his son was born. His father’s death and absence from Oswald’s life “might be regarded as the defining trauma of Oswald’s entire life, setting in motion a youth of chaos and frenzy” (p.3), Savodnik argues. He describes Oswald’s mother Marguerite as “perennially unstable” (p.xiv), “unreliable, frantic, harried, hectoring, needy, and prone to irrational outbursts” (p.4), hardly capable of playing the role of one parent, let alone two. Marguerite and her two sons, Lee and older brother Robert, moved from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth to New York City, then back to New Orleans. In a previous marriage, Marguerite had another son, John Pic, Oswald’s half brother, with whom he had intermittent contact. Marguerite’s “inability to provide any semblance of stability and normalcy for her youngest son” is “clearly reflected in Lee’s constant moving” (p.4). Oswald attended 12 different schools and by one count had resided in 17 different locations before dropping out of high school at age 16. Oswald’s peripatetic and essentially homeless youth “cannot be stressed enough,” Savodnik contends, in understanding the “unstable man Lee Harvey Oswald was to become” (p.4).

       Savodnik asks his readers to view Oswald’s embrace of Marxism through the lens of Oswald’s childhood and adolescence. There was “little, if anything, in Lee’s childhood that suggested he might one day embrace radical politics” (p.9), Savodnik notes. But by the time Oswald reached early adolescence, there was an “obvious emptiness in his life, a desire for something real and deeply felt to compensate for the home that was sorely missing” (p.9). At age 15, Oswald began to teach himself about Marxist theory. By then, the “gulf separating Oswald from his mother was probably unbridgeable, he had very little extended family to speak of, and he had no friends or place that he thought of as home” (p.9). Marxism offered the young Oswald “discipline and purpose” and was “shot through with a vocabulary and mood that comported with Lee’s mounting rage” (p.9). But here, and throughout his life, what Oswald believed to be strongly-held ideological convictions were nothing more than what Savodnik characterizes as “very personal feelings – about his home, his family, his sense of rootlessness – that had hardened into political viewpoints but, at root, had nothing to do with anything explicitly political” (p.171).

       After dropping out of high school, Oswald joined the Marines at age 17 in October 1956. He spent nearly three years in the Marines, but left on a hardship discharge at age 20, claiming that his mother needed care. In October 1959, almost immediately after leaving the Marines, Oswald traveled to Moscow on an overnight train from Finland, where he arrived with a one week visa. In his short time in Moscow, he applied for Soviet citizenship. The request was denied and Oswald was told that he had to leave the Soviet Union immediately. There then followed an ostensible suicide attempt. Oswald stayed in Moscow under psychiatric care, until the end of October 1959, when he went to the United States Embassy in Moscow in a failed attempt to renounce his citizenship.

       Hinting to Soviet authorities that he might have valuable information to pass along based upon his time in the Marines, the Soviets allowed Oswald to stay in the country. The KGB, suspicious that he might be an American “sleeper agent” (p.83), found Oswald “difficult and irascible and, at times, histrionic, self-pitying, and reckless. He could hardly have been counted on to do or finish anything” (p.33). He was sent to Minsk, a city that was “proudly Soviet and conservative” (p.119) and an unusual destination for defecting Americans – most at that time were sent to Ukraine.

* * *

        Although the city of Minsk had existed since the 11th century, Old Minsk had been largely flattened by the Nazis. Even prior to the Nazi invasion, the population of Minsk had been depleted by Stalinist collectivism, mass deportations and the purges of the 1930s, destroying “most everyone who might have helped cultivate a national identity separate from the Soviet super state” (p.72). Consequently, New Minsk was a “model communist city . . . broad, orderly and boring . . . an unequivocal statement of the totalitarian impulse” (p.70). It lacked “its own commercial practices, its own mores and rituals” as well as any deep traditions of “artistic and intellectual inheritance” (p.73). Nothing in Minsk connected its citizens, termed Menchani, with previous generations. Rather, the Menchani were “above all Soviet. They may also have been Belorussian, Polish, or Russian, but their primary identity was their ideology” (p.72). They were thus quite unlike residents of the Baltic states or Ukraine, who had “retained a national heritage and were in a permanent state of semi-war with the Soviet regime” (p.72).

        In Minsk in the early 1960s, World War II continued to be the overriding force that shaped the mindset of all adults. The experience of the war had been “so intense, so acrid, bitter, and all-consuming, that it had changed everyone permanently. It was hard to understand people who had not been changed in the same way” (p.81). Not having lived through that war experience, “Oswald could never really grasp the shape and scope of the lives of everyone he spent most of his time with – and it meant that they had a very difficult time making sense of Oswald” (p.76).

        Under Stalin, who had died six years earlier, in 1953, “any right-thinking Soviet citizen would have avoided Oswald, an American, for fear of being branded a traitor or counterrevolutionary” (p.54). But by the time Oswald arrived in Minsk in 1959, Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had not only denounced Stalinist crimes but was also seeking to loosen controls over artistic endeavors and lessen tensions with the West. Average Menchani in 1959 “weren’t sure whether they should stay away or give in to their curiosity” and talk to Oswald (p.54). Those whom Oswald met were “mostly courteous and temperate. They listened to whatever he had to say. They were pleasant, if at times a little brusque” (p.55).

        Thanks to considerable assistance from the KGB, Oswald had a relatively easy life in Minsk, with a comparatively spacious apartment and a prestigious job for the time, as a lathe operator in a factory that manufactured radios and televisions. He found a few friends in Minsk, but most of his co-workers resented his relative privilege. Oswald was too clean, had no real grime under his fingernails, and didn’t like to drink Vodka. Moreover, notwithstanding the loosening of norms in the Khrushchev era, his follow workers were driven by the unspoken fear that “being too close, or perceived as too close to the American would make other people, and especially the security organs, question one’s loyalty” (p.91). Yet, for a fleeting moment in Minsk, Oswald “looked as if he was ready, at long last, to leave behind his adolescence and his many angers and frustrations” (p.106).

        Oswald developed a deep crush on a woman who turned down his marriage proposal, Ella German, whom he described as a “silky, black haired Jewish beauty” (p.101). Savodnik suggests that Oswald’s decision to leave the Soviet Union and the start of his precipitous final descent that ended in Dallas in November 1963 may be linked to German’s rejection of his marriage offer. A few months thereafter, Oswald married Marina Prusakova after a strikingly short courtship. Oswald’s marriage to Mariana may have been intended to spite German, Savodnik surmises. Marina’s background bore some similarity to that of Oswald: she had never known her father and had moved around constantly as a youth. Marina bore Oswald a child in the Soviet Union, June, born in February 1962; and another, Rachel, born in October 1963 when the couple returned to the United States.

       Despite good living and working conditions in Minsk by the standards of the era, Oswald gradually discovered, with “unhappiness, dejection and fear” that he was “not a Menchan and never would be” (p.80). Oswald’s experience in Minsk was one of “gradually coming to the conclusion that he was all alone. . . [and] that the Soviet Union was not the home he had hoped it would be” (p.74). Nearly three years after his arrival in Russia, Oswald was “not only angry but also self-pitying, lost, spent, humiliated. In Russia . . . he’d been told, obliquely, that he was not really a worker, a Menchan, that he would never be admitted to the proletarian family that he had disparately craved. His ideology had been sapped . . . and, finally, he’d come to the awful conclusion that there was nothing else to do, so he left” (p.186).

* * *

       In late June 1962, Oswald found himself back in the United States with Marina and their baby daughter. Oswald’s 17 months in the United States after Minsk were “more chaotic, frenzied, hapless, and desperate than any other time he had known,” a period of “continuous unraveling” (p.194). “Unhappiness, fury, a permanent and deepening sense of alienation” were Oswald’s’ “new default position” as he confronted a life of “inescapable rootlessness” (p.189). He and Marina relocated to the Dallas area, but separated shortly after arrival there, with Marina moving in with an acquaintance she had met. During his 17 months back in the United States, Oswald lived at nine different addresses for an average of two months each, plus some shorter stays and trips. He was “unable, as always, to build a life anywhere—to hold onto a job, pay his rent or bills, make friends, or tend to the chores and duties of daily life” (p.190).

        During this time, Oswald began to cobble together a small arsenal. In April 1963, Oswald attempted to assassinate Major General Edwin Walker, a leading right-wing figure. This attempt had plain ideological overtones: Oswald compared it to killing Hitler. The Walker assassination attempt, Savodnik notes, marked the first time since his suicide attempt in Moscow that Oswald had “sought to resolve his mounting furies with a powerful and culminating violence” (p.196). Oswald took up the issue of Cuba, becoming active in an organization known as Fair Play for Cuba. Oswald then landed a job at the Dallas School Book Depository, from which the fatal shots were fired on November 22, 1963. Ironically, Savodnik notes that Oswald’s position at the School Book Depository provided a modicum of stability to his tormented life. Savodnik considers the assassination a form of suicide, “anticipated many years before by an awful childhood that could not be corrected for by school or social workers and could not be overcome in the Marines or the Soviet Union” (p.217).

* * *

       In  “Epilogue: A Conjecture,” Savodnik tries to provide his readers with a sense of what the entwined lives of Oswald and President Kennedy tell us about the United States in the early 1960s. Although he acknowledges at one point that there was an “intense hatred” directed at the President from different directions (p.218), for the most part Savodnik’s description of Kennedy and his administration is so rosy as to be almost unrecognizable. For most Americans in the early 1960s, Savodnik argues, Kennedy “seemed to hover between man and god—to be half man, half deity, and a conduit connecting [Americans] with something eternal and deep. Americans had rarely, if ever, experienced this feeling with their presidents” (p.213). During the short Kennedy administration, a “Rubicon of sorts seemed to have been crossed. Suddenly the affection or sympathy that many Americans had at one time or another felt for a president morphed into a kind of love. . . it was Kennedy, more than any of the thirty four who preceded him, who crossed into the magical realm” (p.213). Kennedy had “captured – he was – the national zeitgeist. The country was confident, bold, unwavering; it knew exactly what it was, and that certainty was central not only to America but to Kennedy’s persona (p.201). In killing Kennedy, Oswald “elevated him—he mythologized a president who was already a myth, and not just him but his title, the presidency” (p.218). This strikes me as over-the-top hyperbole, taking too seriously the Camelot myth that arose after Kennedy’s death and adding little to Savodnik’s narrative.

* * *

         Savodnik admits that Oswald’s “psychology and the interior forces that preyed on him remain a secret” (p.219). But through his treatment of Oswald’s Soviet years and his emphasis on Oswald’s continuous moving and searching, Savodnik succeeds at least partially in explaining what made Oswald tick. Savodnik’s portrait of Minsk during the Khrushchev years, moreover, makes his book worthwhile even for those readers not particularly interested in peering into Lee Harvey Oswald’s tormented mind.

Thomas H. Peebles
Herndon, Virginia
June 15, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History