Friday, July 29, 2005

BOOK: David Fromkin, "Europe's Last Summer"

David Fromkin: Europe's Last Summer: Who started the Great War in 1914?. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, 0375411569; Vintage Books, 2005, 037572575X. xiii + 349 pp.

This is a delightful book about the origins of the first world war. It presents the political situation in Europe in the years before the war, showing how a situation slowly formed in which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was able to spark a continent-wide war; it tells in detail the story of the crisis in summer 1914, from the assassination to the outbreak of war about a month later; and it ends with several fascinating chapters in which the author, like the detective in a crime novel, presents his conclusions about how the causes of the war are best explained. It is written in a pleasant style which makes it always fun to read, never boring or tedious.

Perhaps the most interesting and original idea in the book is that to understand the outbreak of war in 1914, we should really see it as two separate wars: one of Austria-Hungary against Serbia, and one of Germany against Russia. Austria-Hungary wanted to strengthen its position in the Balkans by crushing Serbia; it was also concerned that the sight of an independent Serbia might encourage Austria's Southern Slavic nations to aspire towards independence as well (p. 277). The assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided the Austrians with a good pretext to start the war on Serbia; as is well known, their ultimatum was never really meant to be a serious effort to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means. Of course there was the possibility that Russia would act in defense of Serbia, and Austria did not want to risk a war with Russia (p. 53); but after Germany gave Austria the famous “blank check” (p. 90, 161), i.e. a promise to support Austria no matter what Austria decided to do, the Austrians went on with the plans to start the war against Serbia. (Giving this kind of guarantee seems risky, but many Germans at the time felt that chances of war are small because Russia would not dare to interfere once it learned about Germany's firm support of Austria; p. 161.) If the situation in Europe had been different, all that would follow would be another small Balkan war, in which Austria would defeat Serbia and perhaps occupy its territory, convert it into a protectorate or something of that sort. However, there were in Germany many influential people (e.g. Moltke) who really wanted to start a war against Russia. They felt that, since Russia is so much larger and more populous than Germany, it will inevitably eclipse Germany as the main military power on the European continent as soon as it manages to modernize its economy (p. 87). There had indeed been considerable progress in Russia in the ten years between its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, so the Germans' concern was perhaps not so unreasonable. They therefore felt that Russia should be attacked preemptively, before it becomes too strong (p. 38, 260). (Additionally, other European countries were also arming; Germany wasn't able to increase its army much beyond its 1914 size, which meant that it had nothing to gain by waiting and starting the war at a later time; see below and on p. 93. In fact these concerns that other powers would soon eclipse Germany were probably somewhat unjustified, but they nevertheless influenced the thinking of people such as Moltke; p. 96, 110. Moltke and others felt that such a war was inevitable and that all they could choose was to start it now rather than later; p. 268.) They also knew that Russia had an alliance with France, meaning that if Germany attacks one of them it will have to fight against both at the same time. Originally the Germans' idea was to use a small part of their forces to halt the Russian army while the rest of the German army would attack France and quickly defeat it, much like in the war of 1870–71. Then the whole German army could be used against Russia (pp. 33, 240). However, since Russia had become stronger in the last few years, Germany now felt that it couldn't risk such a war on its own, and Austria was the only ally it could reasonably rely on (p. 36). Thus Germany had to maintain good relations with Austria and try to uphold Austria's status as a great power (p. 55, 87). In fact Austria wasn't terribly reliable either, as previous experience had shown (e.g. it didn't support Germany during the Morocco crisis a few years earlier; p. 78, 271). Thus Germany had to basically trick Austria into a situation where Austria would start a war on its own initiative and in its own interest (i.e. the war against Serbia, as it turned out in 1914), but the war would then be redirected into the one that Germany wanted to fight, i.e. against Russia (p. 273). When favourable circumstances occurred in July 1914, this is indeed what happened; Austria started its war against Serbia thinking that, since Germany is backing Austria, Russia won't dare to get involved. But the Germans made sure that Russia couldn't stay out of the war (p. 299), and once this started the Austrians had no choice but to use most of their army against Russia rather than for their own private little war against Serbia (p. 274). (In fact Austria did fight some initial skirmishes against the Serbs first, but suffered serious defeats; p. 301.)

The rest of the outbreak of war is more straightforward. Germany wanted to attack France from the north, as it was not so well defended and Germany hoped to reach Paris quickly and thus force the French to admit defeat (p. 34). In order to do this, Germany had to cross Belgian territory (p. 203); Belgium, being a neutral country, refused permission; Germany overran it nevertheless; and this violation of Belgian neutrality was an important factor in swaying British opinion in favour of British entry into the war (before that point many British politicians felt that Britain should not get involved; in fact Germany also hadn't expected that Britain would enter the war, but once it realized that this would happen it was too late to call the war off).

On pp. 12–14 there are some fascinating remarks about the world before the outbreak of war in 1914. “According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, ‘until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state.’ [...] John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without exchange controls or customs barriers.” (P. 13.) I remember reading similar remarks before; but every time that some economist waxes lyrical about the pre-WW1 world, with its free trade and freedom from regulation, I cannot help thinking that the only ones to benefit from these arrangements were the wealthy classes of a handful of industrialized countries. To the working classes, and to inhabitants of colonies — that is to say, to the vast majority of the world's population — they brought nothing but misery. A state whose existence you could hardly notice is a state that does not do anything to help you in times of need; a state with no social security; one in which old, ill, or unemployed people must live off their savings, or starve if they haven't got any; one in which education and medical care are available only to the wealthy; one that for most people offers nothing but a life of grinding poverty and exploitation. A lack of customs barriers and limits on currency exchange means that capital is free to jump from one country to another in search of the best opportunities to exploit and take advantage of their populations, who have no means of defending themselves from it. In short, the world before 1914, for the vast majority of people, was simply abominable, presenting no opportunities for a life worth living. No, I will never look wistfully back on those bad old days. Strong regulation of the economy, with strong protectionism on the borders, are the only way of forcing those greedy plundering capitalists to take the people's needs into account. The market economy is a dramatic failure, one of the greatest blind alleys in the history of humankind. The sooner we re-introduce a plan-based economy, the sooner we will have the chance to live a decent life once again.

To most of the ordinary people in 1914, the international situation didn't seem such as would make a major war in any sense likely (p. 12). The public mood in the years before the war, however, was in many ways favourable to war. “Unfulfilled revolutions and revolutions betrayed had left Europe frustrated, and in a mood—following Nietzsche—to smash things.” (P. 39.) War was seen by many as an honourable and virtuous thing (p. 41-2). Indeed on p. 259 Fromkin adds that the idealized view of pre-WW1 Europe as “a sort of Eden in which the outbreak of hostilities among major powers came as a surprise” is inaccurate (see also p. 337).

Apparently, the well-known “Schlieffen plan” of 1905, which is sometimes claimed to have provided a rigid timetable causing Germany to start the war just when it did (p. 34), was not really a plan at all: “the Schlieffen memorandum [...] was not a plan. It was not operational. It did not go into details or issue orders.” (P. 35; see also p. 268.)

The growing democratization of politics and diplomacy meant that statesmen from different countries didn't have as much common ground as the royalty and aristocrats of an earlier age: “The loss of aristocratic values and the weakening of ties were what made the behavior of some of the statesmen in July 1914 possible.” (P. 45.)

Despite its expansionist aims, Germany “deliberately chose not to increase the size of its army” because the accompanying increase in the officer corps would cause the latter to lose its predominantly Prussian aristocratic character (p. 56, 60). The navy did expand, however, which alienated Great Britain (p. 60). Together with the fact that Germany allowed its former alliance with Russia to lapse without being renewed (p. 59), this helped to bring about exactly what the Germans feared: encirclement of Germany by hostile powers (p. 61). Nor was the German army funded as strongly as one might expect given the progress of the German economy; this was due to “an archaic constitutional structure and the consequent lack of a progressive tax system” (p. 57).

Although William II is often seen as an almost autocratic ruler, and himself boasted of this, his ministers often learned to disregard him, or to get him to change his mind (p. 59); nor was he popular with the Prussian junker class (p. 57). The scandal following his indiscreet statements in a 1908 interview further weakened his position (p. 73).

On William II and Franz Ferdinand: “Time and again, during the frequent war crises that were so conspicuous a feature of their time, both men chose peace, and were distrusted by the military in their respective countries for having done so.“ (Pp. 99–100.) Thus another factor that helped in the outbreak of war in 1914 was that both of these leaders were out of the way: Franz Ferdinand assassinated and William II outmanoeuvred and ignored by his own ministers (pp. 196–7, 225, 239).

This remark from p. 118 is just plain silly: “Franz Ferdinand [...] was a reactionary: he would have liked to turn back the calendar by a century. The Slavs who plotted against him were more reactionary still; they looked back more than five centuries [...] to the First Battle of Kosovo, at which, they believed, the greatness of Serbia had been lost.” Surely it is ridiculous to call a national liberation movement reactionary merely because it is encouraged by the fact that national liberty had already existed at some past point? By this standard the Irish nationalists were even greater reactionaries (700 years) and the Zionists were probably the greatest reactionaries of all time (2000 years).

Assassination of monarchs and statesmen was quite a common phenomenon in the last decades before WW1. “On average, one head of state or head of government was murdered every year” in the period 1894–1914 (see the list on p. 121).

However, as far as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was concerned, he was hardly missed by anybody. Franz Joseph had disliked him because of his marriage to a mere countess, the Hungarians disliked him because of his anti-Hungarian feelings, etc.; his death came as a relief and provided a very welcome excuse to move against Serbia (pp. 138–9; Austria wanted to attack Serbia since the Balkan wars of 1912, but until the assassination in 1914 it did not have the German support it needed; pp. 153–4, 260). Nor was there much of a public reaction to the assassinations (p. 143). In fact Wilhelm, who had cultivated a friendship with Franz Ferdinand for years and looked on him as a future partner in the German-Austrian alliance, was among the few who would really miss him (pp. 138–9). If it hadn't been for this, he wouldn't have given Austrians the blank check and risked war (p. 263). “Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand were the two most obnoxious public figures in Europe, but they were the ones who kept hotheads in check and, in the end, always opted for peace.” (P. 264.)

After the assassination, the initial plan was for Austria to go ahead with the war very quickly, occupy at least a part of Serbia in a few weeks and thus effectively present a fait accompli to the other powers. The German and Austrian leaders went on their vacations normally to avoid causing suspicion. However, Austria-Hungary delayed, partly because the Hungarian prime minister was opposed to the war with Serbia (p. 165) and partly because the Austrian army was not ready (p. 168–9). Thus a fait accompli was no longer possible. Germany tried to dissuade the other powers from becoming involved (p. 179); to prevent the involvement of France, the ultimatum to Serbia was delivered at a time when the French leaders were returning from a visit to Russia by ship (p. 180); as for Britain, Germany hoped that it was sufficiently distracted by home rule problems in Ireland (p. 184).

In the British Foreign Office, “on weekdays ‘official hours were from twelve to six’ ” (p. 206).

Asquith writing to Venetia Stanley: “The Austrians are quite the stupidest people in Europe (as the Italians are the most perfidious)” (p. 207). (Gibbon hints at their stupidity as well; see note 27 to ch. 5 of his Decline and Fall.)

I'm amazed at Germany's ham-handed approach to diplomacy:

  • At some point they suggested to France that they would not attack her if she guarantees to remain neutral during their war with Russia; as a guarantee of her neutrality, France should allow Germany to occupy certain key fortifications (without which she would be practically undefended). That is to say, the Germans basically suggested that the French should concede defeat without putting up a fight. Needless to say, the proposal was rejected. (See Robert Massie's Dreadnought, ch. 46, p. 891.)
  • In this book on p. 228 we read of the similarly bizarre German proposal to Britain: in exchange for British neutrality, Germany would promise to respect the independence of Holland and to forego annexing any French territory (colonies excepted).
  • Later in the war they tried to get Mexico to attack the United States, promising they would let the Mexicans keep parts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico after the war. (Even assuming that Germany would have won, and the U.S. found themselves among the defeated, how did Germany suppose to weaken the U.S. to such an extent that the Mexicans would stand a chance at preventing the U.S. from recovering these territories?) Once the famous Zimmerman telegram with the contents of this proposal came to light, it was an important factor in the U.S. decision to declare war on Germany.

With examples like these, there's no wonder why everybody kept on harping on about how Germans are unable to see the world through other peoples' eyes and to understand how other countries would react to their actions and proposals.

Different degrees of partial and full mobilization are mentioned at various points in the book; it would be interesting to learn more about what exactly the differences were. In particular, on p. 231 we learn that “[f]or Germany, mobilization meant war; [...] ‘Russia's armies’ [...] could ‘remain mobile behind their frontier almost indefinitely.’ ” And: “for Germany, mobilization meant war—within twenty-four hours if not before.” (P. 239.) What were the reasons for this? I always thought that mobilization simply means that people are called up into the army and have to come live in the barracks and wait to be sent to the front. It isn't obvious to me why, once they have been mobilized in this way, they couldn't wait for a couple of weeks before the fighting actually begins. Unfortunately the book does not go into details about this.

Despite what is sometimes claimed, financiers were not in favour of starting the war. Lloyd George wrote: “All the bankers and commercial people are begging us not to intervene. The governor of the Bank of England said to me with tears in his eyes ‘Keep us out of it. We shall all be ruined if we are dragged in.’ ” (P. 236. Similar statements are also quoted in Dreadnought, ch. 46, pp. 898-9.) I guess he was right; the whole of Europe was ruined by the war, its predominant role in the world gone, perhaps for good. But it would have happened anyway, even without WW1, except perhaps a few decades later; the growing power of the U.S. would eventually still eclipse the European powers, and their colonies would eventually win independence just the same. Nor would it do the British much good if they stayed out of the war and let the continental powers sort it out among themselves; Germany would probably end up by concluding a very advantageous peace with France and inflicting a crushing defeat on Russia (a la the Breast-Litovsk treaty). This would make Germany by far the predominant continental power, it could eventually pick up the naval arms race again and easily out-build Britain this time, which would make the British just as much the second fiddle to the Germans as if they had gone to war and lost it.

Amazingly, Switzerland seems to have mobilized in the days before the outbreak of war, and came very close to placing its army under German command (p. 245).

This sentence from p. 245 is simply priceless: “Italy's military chief said that his country could not go to war in any event because its armed forces did not have enough uniforms.”

After Germany had already started the war against Russia, France and Britain, Austria was supposed to declare war against them as well; however, it procrastinated for so long that Moltke was worried that Germany, being unable to fight them all by herself, “would have to sue for peace on the best terms it could get” (p. 250).

Germany, as well as Austria, tried to portray themselves as the injured parties rather than as the aggressors of the war. They removed many documents from their archives to conceal the truth; they also published fake documents (pp. 252–3).

The book also contains appendices with the text of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, and the Serbian reply (see also p. 196 on the hectic efforts of the Serbian government to prepare the reply within the required time limit). After the Austrians received this reply, they declared it unsatisfactory and cut diplomatic relations; this later led to some head-scratching about how to declare war as they no longer had any diplomats in Serbia (eventually they decided to just send a cable, and the Serbian government wondered it might be a hoax; p. 220). Interestingly, Fromkin feels that the Serbian reply is not quite such a wholesale capitulation as it is commonly taken to be (p. 265); however, after reading it I don't see any reasons for this concern; the Serbian reply should have been more than satisfactory to the Austrians if they had had the slightest interest in avoiding a war.

There are some regrettably anti-Serbian sentiments on p. 265. “The opinion was widespread at the time that no country that accepted it [i.e. the Austrian ultimatum] could thereafter remain independent. But after the experiences of the brutal twentieth century, historians have grown callous; they no longer find the Austrian demands outrageous.” He goes on to justify this with the fact that Princip and his fellow conspirators were supported by anti-Austrian organizations based in Serbia (even though they had no official sanction from the Serbian government itself), and the people of Serbia largely welcomed the assassination. Thus, since the Serbian government had failed to suppress these activities, it had in effect forfeited a part of the sovereignty over its territory and Austria is supposed to have had a good justification in trying to step in with its own armed forces. As further support of this principle, Fromkin mentions the U.S. attacks against Mexico in 1916 (after Pancho Villa's raid on U.S. territory), and its attack against Afghanistan in 2001. I'm afraid I don't agree with him in the least on this question; it seems to be just another example of imperialists sticking together: U.S. imperialism of 2001 going hand in hand with Habsburg imperialism of 1914. After all, Serbia had every good reason to hate the Habsburg monarchy and wish it all the worst, and I sure can't blame its people for celebrating in the streets when they learnt of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. But then maybe I shouldn't complain too much; in a way it's good that Austria started the war after all: the war was just the kick that was necessary for Austria-Hungary to collapse like the decrepit rotten house of cards that it was. I sure am glad it collapsed, and, if it had happened a few decades earlier, would be gladder still.

The initial motivation that drove Germany to war against Russia was that it tried to maintain the status quo and prevent Russia from becoming too strong. Austrian motivation against Serbia was similar. However, it is true that a few months after the war started the belligerents expanded their war goals, including demand for new territories and colonies etc. (pp. 278, 280). “The common assumption today is that everybody wants peace if it can be had on acceptable terms”; but for Germany (and Austria) in 1914, no terms would have been acceptable: “it wanted to crush its adversary to an extent that only a successful war makes possible” (pp. 282, 288). WW1 was not the result of a small Balkan conflict going out of hand; it was “the result of premeditated decisions by two governments” (p. 293). For Russia and France, the matter of becoming involved in the war was something they had little choice in, as they were both attacked by Germany. For Britain, the main motivation was to prevent Germany from becoming too strong, as it would become if it defeated France (p. 280). Thus, basically WW1 was about the “relative ranking among the great European powers that at the time ruled most of the world” (p. 195). Insofar as the war can be blamed on a single person, this must be Moltke, the chief promoter of the belief that Germany is on the way down, soon to be eclipsed by Russia unless it starts a pre-emptive war against it (p. 305).

The photographs of the leading personalities, included in the middle of the book, are interesting. It seems that Britain was the only European power with a predominantly clean-shaven cabinet (Asquith, Grey, Churchill; Lloyd George had a mustache); everywhere else, mustaches and usually also beards predominated. The Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, is patriarchally bearded and looks as if he stepped straight out of some Russian 19th-century novel. The photograph of “The scene of the first assassination attempt” in Sarajevo also fascinated me, as it shows very nicely what a diverse mixture the population of early 20th-century Bosnia was. Some of the people in the photograph are dressed in respectable modern bourgeois attire, with bowler hats or panama hats; there are a few proletarian-type people, wearing simpler modern clothes; there is a peasant in traditional costume with a fez on his head; and then there's a curiously-looking man in a three-piece suit but also wearing a fez.

I read the paperback edition of this book; at the end there's a publisher's advert for another Fromkin's book, The Way of the World. I couldn't help laughing at the following sentence: “Fromkin reminds us of the astounding record of human achievement, and the potential in each of us to improve the way of our world.” Alas! how I wish that I was able to have such a positive and optimistic view of mankind. Unfortunately, I am apparently unable to think of other people as being any better than myself: greedy, selfish, abominable little idiots. The “astounding record of human achievement” is nothing but a long tale of exploitation, oppression, and abuse; and the only “potential in each of us” is to make this world, thanks to our greed and selfishness, an absolute hellhole to inhabit. The history of the last couple of decades is a case in point. Our inability to use the progress of technology to improve our quality of life is truly astounding. Despite all the so-called “progress”, people work more than they did a couple of decades ago and quality of their lives is worse rather than better. Exploitation is running amok, freedom is being crushed on all sides, the environment is being ruined at an unprecedented pace. No, I can't bring myself to think there's any hope for humankind. The sooner an asteroid blows us all into dust, the better. Good riddance, I say. We won't be missed.

Friday, July 22, 2005

BOOK: Gitta Sereny, "The German Trauma"

Gitta Sereny: The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections, 1938–2001. Penguin Books, 2000, 2001. 0140292632. xxii + 383 pp.

This is a curious miscellany of a book. It is a collection of Sereny's writings on various topics related to Nazi Germany, the WW2, and the post-war attitudes to the Nazi period. Many of these pieces have been published in various magazines or newspapers over the years, some of the material overlaps with her books, but there is also some new material.

All in all I found many interesting passages in this book, while a few parts were also fairly boring. I often found myself wishing that the book had had a clearer unifying common thread running through all the pieces, i.e. something more than just “Gitta Sereny writes about WW2-related subjects in her usual way”. Not that I necessarily object to her approach to history; I certainly think it's good that somebody cares for more than just discovering and listing facts; but at the same time I find her preoccupation with topics of guilt, morality, conscience, responsibility, etc., somewhat tiresome. She often seems more interested not in what a person did, but what he or she felt, or thought, or knew, or could or should have known, etc.

The first two chapters have more of an autobiographical character and describe the author's youth and her experiences during the war. During 1940–41, she worked as a volunteer nurse for a children's charity in France (p. 11). She almost got arrested for complicity in hiding a British airman, but was warned in time by a friendly German officer and managed to escape (pp. 13–14), eventually reaching Spain (p. 21) and then the U.S. She joined the UNRRA at the end of the war (p. 23) and worked with displaced persons, particularly children (ch. 3).

In some of the occupied territories during WW2, particularly in Poland, the Nazis made efforts to identify children of “good racial types” (in Himmler's phrase, p. 38), who would then be taken away from their parents and sent to Germany (pp. 45–47), eventually to be adopted by German families. At least it seems that the children (unless they were found racially “defective” in some aspect) were treated reasonably well during this process (p. 47). The adoptive parents were not told that the children had been abducted from their real parents, and usually treated the children genuinely well; thus it was not only the abduction of the children that caused grief, but also their repatriation after the war was over (p. 44). Curiously, it seems that the U.S. at some point considered refusing to allow Soviet children to be returned to their parents; rather than having them live in the Soviet Union, they were to be resettled in English-speaking countries. Fortunately, this was not actually implemented (p. 49).

Chapters 4, 7, and 20 discuss how various post-war generations in Germany react to the burden of German guilt for the war. I must admit that I am personally not particularly interested in questions of guilt. Being a bit of a cynic, I don't have any lofty expectations of human nature. Going about on a murderous rampage in the hopes of territorial conquest and extermination of one's neighbours and rivals is surely one of the most natural things for a nation to do; for this to actually come to pass, all that is necessary is that a government (and to some extent the population) of the aggressor country feels that they stand a good chance of winning the war and that the expected gains justify the risks and costs. Much of the time they don't, which is why wars don't occur even more frequently than they already do. But when they do occur, as I said, although most regrettable, they are a most natural occurrence and there is not much point in obsessing over guilt and shame. Instead we should make efforts to arrange matters so that wars will be less likely to seem appealing. In fact, the second half of the 20th century seems to have discovered a good recipe for that: give the people a capitalist economy and a moderate amount of democracy, dangle the carrot of economic progress and wealth in front of them, and they will more or less gladly abandon the dreams of slaughtering their neighbours for the pursuit of a new car, a week-end cottage, an exotic holiday, a pay raise, or whatever other fetish their consumerist fancy happened to alight upon that particular day. Engulfed by material posessions, with reasonable chances of obtaining more by continuing in the same direction as heretofore, war will have little allure left for them; in war they will have much to lose and little to gain. And I must admit that, much though I deplore the vapid consumerism and the pursuit of filthy material wealth, it has to be said that even they are not altogether bad, insofar as they distract people's minds from wishing to slaughter or enslave the population of neighbouring countries. Even though the exploitation of e.g. sweatshop labourers in the present system of capitalism is utterly abominable, it is nevertheless probably relatively benign in comparison to e.g. the system envisaged by the Nazis for their occupied eastern territories.

Chapter 5 is about Franz Stangl, the commander of the extermination camp at Treblinka. This is mostly material that has been described in more detail in Sereny's book Into that Darkness, which I read last year. Here the main interest of the author seems to be: how could someone like Stangl, who was by and large “an intelligent human being” (p. 96) with “a semblance of conscience” (p. 96), end up doing all the horrible things he was responsible for, and how could he subsequently bear to live with his guilt? It seems that the main reasons in Stangl's case were, firstly, that his involvement in Nazi crimes proceeded little by little, by degrees, which gave him some time to become used to what he was doing; secondly, that he managed to compartmentalize his thinking (p. 120) and convince himself for a long time that the horrors were only being perpetrated by others while his own role is much less problematic (e.g. “merely [...] responsible for law and order” during the euthanasia programme, p. 104); thirdly, by the time he was expected to do really problematic things such as head an extermination camp, he felt (probably with much justification) that it would be distinctly unhealthy for him, and possibly for his family, to refuse these assignments (p. 116), and besides, getting himself shot for refusing wouldn't make any difference in the wider scheme of things as the job would be taken over by somebody else (pp. 128 9). I very much sympathise with this last reason; when somebody is forced to choose between committing some crime and getting himself killed, I don't think it's reasonable to expect that he will refuse to commit the crime. If he does, that's great, we can only wish that there were more people like him; but the human wish to survive (cf. p. 130) is in my opinion so strong that it would be unnatural to expect people in general to prefer death to committing a crime. In fact the author seems to hold a milder form of this opinion as well (p. 116). (Not everyone agrees, of course; cf. p. 351.) Another thing that helped Stangl carry on with his gruesome job was the dehumanisation of the victims; after seeing the large masses of corpses, he starts thinking of the victims as mere cargo (p. 124), and is later reminded of them when seeing a freight train carrying cattle (p. 93). The dehumanisation was made easier by the fact that the victims were always seen in large groups (rather than as individuals), and were forced to undress before being sent off to their deaths (p. 125); their weakness and passivity also made it easier to feel contempt for them (p. 129).

A hilarious piece of information from p. 143: “In his own letter [...] Himmler used his pet name for Globocnik: ‘Dear Globus, [...] Cordially yours, H.H.’ ” (And there's another instance on p. 198.)

Chapter 8, about the Hitler diary hoax, is extremely interesting, as is chapter 9 on the author's investigation of claims (false, as it turns out) that Odilo Globocnik did not really commit suicide after being captured by the Allies in 1945, but was instead provided by them with a new identity and allowed to settle in the U.S.

There are a few curious mentions of Karl May. “X [a former SS officer, whose name is not given and who is referred to as X throughout this chapter] belonged to an Indianer club where the members dressed up as braves and squaws. The appeal of Red Indians to men like X is their racial purity — a subject which Hitler's favourite author, Karl May, wrote about incessantly.” (P. 182.) And on p. 222, mentioned by the film director Syberberg: “ ‘Here I had them all together,’ says Syberberg. ‘Ludwig, Karl May, Hitler — three pathologic egocentrics in “recent” German history — and the link, Wagner. [...]’ ” Well, Karl May happens to be undoubtedly the favourite author of my childhood. I read as many of his novels as I could lay my hands on. Frankly, I feel somewhat sad to see him lambasted here as some kind of Nazi fodder. It's been a long time since I last read his books, and I don't remember whether the obsession with the racial purity of the Indians is there or not; but I certainly remember that the books made a very positive impression on me even then (although I was just a child and knew nothing about May's life, the period when he lived or the context in which he wrote; but then I still know very little about these things; in particular, I don't know whether he was a pathological egocentric, but at least in his novels there don't seem to be any obvious indications of that, unless perhaps in the sense that his novels tend to feature a first-person narrator named Karl, who is in many ways a most admirable person) by the careful decency and humanity that pervaded his works. It's true that individual characters tend to be either rather good or rather bad (they are usually not complex or ambiguous), but whether they are good or bad depends more on their individual deeds and character, rather than on their racial or ethnic origin. (The one exception to this, which annoyed me somewhat even then, and would probably annoy me even more now if I were so rash as to attempt re-reading the books, was the fact that the first-person narrator of his novels tends to encounter fellow Germans unusually frequently (regardless of whether the story is taking place in North or in South America, or even in the Near East), and among these Germans there is perhaps a statistically unusually high proportion of remarkably positive characters. But then I suppose we should forgive the author for that; he was writing, if I remember correctly, in the late 19th century and for German family-oriented magazines, and given this milieu his patriotism is in fact remarkably sane and moderate.) Among Indians, Africans, Arabs — people that were often thought of as inferior or savage by May's contemporaries — we often find positive and admirable characters; in particular, the author's positive portrayal of Indians is remarkable and well-known. The first-person narrator himself is, on the whole, a remarkably kind, decent, reasonable, humane person; at some point in one of the books, a sworn enemy happens to come into the narrator's hands, and the narrator has him bastinadoed (or something along these lines; I forgot the details long ago), and then promptly apologizes to the reader for this uncharacteristic and un-Christian outburst of violence towards that villain. Perhaps the translations I read were expurgated in some sense, but I doubt it; all in all, I would say that as far as adventure stories for young readers go (especially adventure stories written in the jingoism- and imperialism-ridden late 19th century), few can be said to be so generally benign and harmless as those of Karl May. Nor did they appeal only to the Nazi period or indeed to the Germans alone; they had a huge popularity throughout central and eastern Europe and during the whole of the 20th century. Perhaps in the last 10 or 15 years or so has their popularity waned somewhat; I don't really know but I vaguely remember reading at some point that children nowadays (holy shit! I'm starting to write like a decrepit old man) prefer more complex works dealing with more serious problems from the modern world, problems of the sort that they might also themselves encounter while they are growing up. It's possible, I guess; simplistic escapist adventure stories may be going out of favour; ah well, yet another way in which I, a naive simpleton inordinately fond of all forms of escapism, am out of touch with the contemporary world. But anyway, I'll always have fond memories of Karl May's adventure stories, and much gratitude to the man himself for having written them. And I don't think he should be treated quite so severely only because, out of the millions of readers who loved his books when they were young, a handful went on to grow up into Nazi war criminals.

There are several chapters with short presentations of various interesting persons, such as the film director Hans Jürgen Syberberg (ch. 11); François Genoud, a Swiss businessman, editor, Nazi sympathizer and owner of the copyrights of Hitler, Bormann and Goebbels (ch. 12); Leni Riefenstahl (ch. 13; it seems that her autobiography, Sieve of Time, contains much falsehood but might make for interesting reading nevertheless; p. 235); Kurt Waldheim (ch. 14; the uproar about his supposed Nazi past was apparently much exaggerated); Hans Münch, a rare example that proves it was sometimes possible to refuse participating in war crimes (he worked as an SS doctor in Auschwitz for over a year and refused to take part in selections or unethical medical experiments; ch. 15); and Traudl Junge, Hitler's last secretary (ch. 19).

Chapter 16 is on Albert Speer and, as far as I see, doesn't contain anything that hasn't appeared in Sereny's excellent biography of Speer.

Chapter 17 is about children of prominent Nazis. There's a curious anecdote on p. 299, where Martin Bormann jr. recounts being shown (by one Frau Pothast, Himmler's secretary and mistress) instances of furniture made of human bones and a copy of Mein Kampf bound in human skin. (The notorious human-skin lampshades aren't mentioned in this passage, however.) I'm not entirely sure how to react to this story. Apparently one is supposed to think of this as somehow exceedingly sick and horrible. However, let's be reasonable. If you manage to plan and execute the murder of six million people, does it really make a difference how you treat the corpses? I mean, would the whole genocide thing have been any less horrible if the six million corpses had been given a reverent burial rather than being converted into soap and fertilizer (and, in a few instances, furniture and fine bindings)? Sure, I agree that human-bone furniture and human-skin bindings are a ridiculous idea; whoever comes up with something like that is evidently suffering from a regrettable form of fetishism; but then we already know that Himmler was a seriously kooky person with a fondness for all kinds of absurdities (e.g. occultism), so this is hardly big news. Frankly, if you go about murdering people by the millions, this is a problem of such a magnitude that your subsequent method of corpse disposal is utterly irrelevant relative to it.

An anecdote about advertising for Ian Kershaw's excellent biography of Hitler: “Because it is illegal in Germany now to reproduce Hitler's image in a public place, to Kershaw's considerable surprise, the photograph on the buses was that of the author of the book rather than its subject.” (P. 287.) I must admit that I personally sometimes wish that the English-language publishers (or rather their marketing departments) didn't feel compelled to stamp a big fat swastika on the cover of every single book that has anything whatsoever to do with the Nazi Germany. Although I doubt that we have any laws on the matter, I sometimes do feel a bit uncomfortable walking about with a book like that (e.g. to read it on the bus).

Chapter 18 deals with the story of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American who was suspected of having been the same person as a ‘Ivan the Terrible’, a notorious guard at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was extradited to Israel and initially found guilty by the court and sentenced to death; however, on appeal he was eventually acquitted, partly based on new evidence from Russian sources discovered by Sereny. This is not to say that Demjanjuk had not in fact been a guard at an extermination camp, but he had not been the one he was suspected of being. The trial had several problematic aspects: initially the court relied too strongly on the testimony of camp survivors, which was later found to be unreliable; and later the court dragged its feet in all possible ways, being loath to acquit him as they knew he couldn't be tried again (p. 355). I very much agree with the case made here by the author, namely that such trials should be made in front of an international court (p. 357) rather than in any particular country such as Israel.

The book also includes two sections of plates with some interesting photos. There is a photo of Sereny at age 15 in an evening dress; she looks very pretty. At the end there's a photo of her from “the early 1970s”, when she must have been about 50; even here she doesn't look bad for her age.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

BOOK: Ernest R. Pope, "Munich Playground"

Ernest R. Pope: Munich Playground. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1941. viii + 260 pp.

I often think it would be interesting to know more about how momentous events were seen by their contemporaries, by the ordinary people who were alive at the time when the thing in question was going on. Thus when I noticed an advertisement for Munich Playground on the dust jacket of Curt Riess' Total Espionage, it immediately struck me as a book that I would like to read. Pope worked as a Reuters reporter in Munich for several years before WW2 as well as during the first two years of the war itself. In his view, Munich was a more cheerful and easy-going place than e.g. Berlin; Hitler and other Nazi leaders would often visit Bavaria to relax and have a good time: hence the word “playground” in the title of the book. Pope had many opportunities to observe that the Nazi leaders were not “an awe-inspiring group of ascetic, fanatic, and inhuman supermen” as they were sometimes imagined; “[i]ndeed, their human failings are far greater than those of other national leaders” (p. vii).

As can be expected from a book like this (indeed it was probably one of its important selling points), it contains several more or less lurid anecdotes; I have of course no idea to what extent they are true, but after all lurid anectotes may be enjoyed regardless of their truthfulness (or lack of it). To be fair to Pope, it should be pointed out that he does not insist that these stories are true, but often simply presents them as stories told by some other source, or even simply as rumours.

For example, there's the rumour that Himmler entered Unity Mitford's hotel room in Nuremberg one night and tried to get into her bed (p. 134).

And even: “it was in this room [in Hitler's residence in Munich] that Hitler's niece shot herself—after an unwilling incestual night with her wild-eyed uncle” (p. 138). Ian Kershaw in his recent biography of Hitler is more moderate (Hubris 9 VII): “whether actively sexual or not, Hitler's behaviour towards Geli [i.e. his niece] has all the traits of a strong, latent at least, sexual dependence”; however, evidence about the exact nature of Hitler's relationship with his niece and the causes of her suicide is really too scarce and unreliable to allow any clear conclusions to be drawn.

Pope also mentions rumours that Hitler and Eva Braun already got married, but thinks it unlikely because Nazi propaganda strongly promoted the view that “no mortal woman is worthy to become a Frau Hitler” (p. 138).

Chapter 10 is about Unity Mitford and her obsession with Hitler and Nazism. Supposedly Unity denounced to the German authorities a number of German citizens whom she overheard expressing critical opinions of Nazism, and saw to it that they were sent to Dachau; p. 133. Pope also claims that her suicide attempt following the outbreak of war was faked (p. 132), “she was found merely unconscious, with a superficial bullet wound” (p. 137). As far as I know, this is quite inaccurate; according to Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls, the wound was in fact quite serious, Unity never fully recovered, and complications from the wound were also the cause of her death in 1948.

Himmler supposedly enjoyed “personally administering whippings to the inmates of Dachau Concentration Camp” (p. 154; see also p. 156).

When Ribbentrop and Ciano met, “plotting the overthrow of the British Empire two weeks before the war”, since Ribbentrop couldn't speak Italian and Ciano couldn't speak German, they “discussed their intrigues against England in English!” (P. 163.)

Pope also mentions “[u]nconfirmed local rumors [...] that Heinrich Himmler on occasion would flush some condemned two-legged game for the Reichsjägermeister” (i.e. for Göring, who was an avid hunter); p. 167. It's not impossible, I suppose; but such rumours often arise during wars. In the 1990s, while the war was going on in Bosnia, I remember reading in a newspaper rumours that snipers involved in the siege of Sarajevo were occasionally joined by pecunious foreign hunters who wished to add a human trophy to their collections. In fact, as long as the “hunters” are taking the same risks as the snipers, I don't see the conduct of such hunters as being inherently any less moral than that of the snipers. The hunter would in effect be acting as a short-term auxiliary or mercenary soldier of some sort. But in Göring's case, if the above anecdote is true, the matter is of course altogether different; firstly the prisoners supplied by Himmler were almost certainly imprisoned unjustly, and besides Göring was simply shooting and unarmed civillians outside of a combat/war-zone situation, so it was really nothing else than cold-blooded murder. And I must admit that, although I am not exactly a fanatical supporter of animal rights, once we agree that such “hunting” of people is simply cold-blooded murder, it's hard to think of hunting of other animals as much better than murder. Just as in the case of hunting a human, it can in no way be said that the contest is equal or fair, nor can it be said that the quarry in any sense deserves to die. Of course this does not mean that I think hunting should be altogether abolished, but it should be reduced as much as possible. For instance, if the population of some species of animals has reached unsustainably high levels, I wouldn't mind if the hunters shoot some of them; otherwise the population will sooner or later reduce itself though disease and lack of food, so in the end many individual animals will be just as dead as if they had been shot by a hunder. But often people with vested interest will claim that a population is excessive even though it in fact isn't, just so they can justify further culling; thus even hunting of species whose populations are unsustainably high should be kept to a minimum and organized so that nobody profits from it (so that nobody has an interest in providing false data to justify more hunting).

In a few places, Pope mentiones jokes from the Nazi era, for example this one about a fat and corrupt Munich functionary named Christian Weber. He was visiting a gallery with portraits of Nazi leaders, and was outraged to see that his own portrait made him look like a pig. It turned out, of course, to be a mirror (p. 30). — In my opinion one of the few good things about corrupt and totalitarian regimes is that they are good sources of jokes. I know that jokes are also told about politicians in democratic countries, but they somehow don't seem to have quite the same savour. On the web one can find excellent large collections of Soviet jokes, (e.g. this one), but it seems that German jokes from the Nazi era are much less common. Either there are fewer of them because the period also (thankfully) lasted a shorter time, or there hasn't been as much interest in preserving, recording and publishing them, or there may be a grain of truth in the accusations that Germans have an underdeveloped sense of humour (“German humour is no laughing matter”, as they say; but I doubt it; there may be brief periods of time less favourable to the development of jokes than others, and there may be individual sections of society that are on average less likely to appreciate jokes than others (Victorian-era matrons come to mind), but in general I think that a sense of humour is such a basic and common human characteristic that no nation as a whole can be said to be genuinely deficient in it for a sustained period of time). Anyway, one of the nice things about Pope's book is that it contains at least a few jokes and humorous anecdotes from the Nazi era. See e.g. pp. 215-18, 225-7, 246. A comedian said: “I don't understand why Dachau Concentration Camp is guarded so carefully. It has barbed-wire and high-voltage fences, a moat, machine-gun nests, and very high walls. Yet if I wanted to, I could get inside Dachau without the slightest effort!” (P. 216.)

Pope met Lindbergh in 1937; “[m]y conversation with the famous flyer [...] left me convinced that he was no Nazi sympathizer” (p. 205-6).

However, it shouldn't be thought that the whole book consists of nothing but lurid rumours. In fact, as a whole it was more neutral than I initially expected. Chapter 13 is particularly interesting as it presents his journalistic work, his efforts to obtain news and other information as quickly as possible; he recounts how he reported on Ludendorff's death (pp. 121-2), conventions of the German “Foreign Organization” (pp. 179-80; the organization included, among others, many German-American Nazi sympathizers), Nuremberg rallies (pp. 188-9), Chamberlain's visit of Hitler in Berchtesgaden (pp. 192-3), the Munich appeasement conference of 1938 (p. 199), the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (p. 200). Diplomatic channels are slow and he was sometimes able to provide diplomats with news before they could receive them from their superiors (p. 196). The German people did not wish war, weren't happy about the Czech crisis in 1938 and were extremely happy when Chamberlain's appeasement policy avoided war for the time being (pp. 195, 200).

There are several passages showing how important it was to him and the other reporters to be the first to report on a particular story or piece or news; even if just by a few minutes! See e.g. pp. 121-20, 160, 199-200. I must admit that I don't entirely understand this hurry; a newspaper is only published once or perhaps twice a day, so reporting some piece of news a few minutes or even hours late cannot make much of a difference. Perhaps Reuters, of which Pope was a correspondent, also supplied news to radio stations, who might report news many times a day and would thus be more interested in really fresh news.

Chapter 15, “Nazi Morals”, is also quite interesting. The Nazi party consciously encouraged the erosion of traditional standards of sexual propriety and morality, realizing that “[a]n unhampered sex life is the outlet least dangerous to the regime [...] It is also the cheapest luxury, requiring no imported raw materials” (p. 231). (Incidentally, this last observation reminds me of the well-known limerick that ends with “Here's one thing the bastards can't ration”. :-)) Many of the Nazi leaders were also themselves inclined towards promiscuity (p. 230). This loosening of the morals particularly affected teenagers and young adults, and was one of the ways in which the authorities tried to attract them to join the Nazi organizations (pp. 229, 236). An unfortunate consequence of this was an increase in sex-related crimes (p. 235) and teenage pregnancy (p. 236-7). The weakening of family ties was partly also due to the fact that people were encouraged to enroll in various Nazi organizations, the activities in which left them little time to spend with other family members; what is more, children were encouraged to act as spies, denouncing their parents if they criticized the regime (p. 229). “The mainspring of Nazi sex policy is, of course, the drive for an increased population.” (P. 239.) This led to the introduction of various laws and taxes which discouraged people from remaining single (p. 239), prohibited contraceptives (p. 237) and abortion (p. 238), etc. Himmler recommended his SS-men that, as bearing children is a woman's “loftiest task”, they should look up women whose husbands have been drafted into the army: “Since their husbands are not in a position to become fathers, offer the women your services in the name of Germany's future.” (P. 240.) However, even if the number of births increased, many babies were weak due to “Nazi food rationing, overworked German mothers, medical malpractice” etc. (p. 242). “Although homosexuality is severely punished, Nazi authorities as yet have failed to legislate against the friendships of women.” Thus, some women, not wishing to have children, “have diverted their libido to their own, safe sex” (p. 242).

My own impression after reading this chapter about Nazi sexual morality is highly ambivalent. On the one hand I naturally always approve of any loosening of sexual morality and any removal of obstacles and inhibitions. On the other hand I am always opposed to population growth, and find the Nazis' fixation with child-bearing deplorable, and I strongly disapprove of their persecution of contraception and homosexuality. It is also regrettable that sex has been offered to people as a way of making their lives not better but merely less bad, i.e. to make their miserable lives of long working hours, food rationing, no freedom of political expression, etc., easier to put up with. It always makes me sad to see that a ruling class has found a way to buy the obedience of the exploited lower classes through a simple bread-and-circuses policy, as in this case; it reduces the likelihood that the lower classes will rebel against their regime, but without such a revolt no decent system worth living in can ever be established.

It is well known that Hitler was very fond of Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow, but it seems that in Nazi Germany this operetta was usually performed in a version that included generous amounts of female nudity (p. 7). And in 1939, Hitler commissioned a new version of the opera Tannhäuser with extra gratuitious nudity (“a nude girl posing as ‘Europa’ on a bull” and “a living, unclad Leda with her swan”; p. 138). Pope disagrees with the common belief that Hitler was not interested in women; apparently he often had one-night stands with actresses (p. 11-12, 137).

The last chapter (ch. 16, “Hitler Breaks His Toys”) shows that there are many signs that Hitler and his regime are unpopular among the Bavarians, who dislike “its Prussian nature” (p. 243), its persecution of Catholicism (see e.g. ch. 6), regimentation of all spheres of life, rationing of food, sending people to war, etc. In fact one of the reasons why Hitler plunged Germany into war was to suppress dissent more easily and to make the people rally behind him, as people are wont to do in times of war even if their leaders are otherwise unpopular (p. 243-4). Anti-Hitler sentiment was also present in the army, both among officers (p. 247) and ordinary soldiers (p. 249).

Wikipedia's article on Blitzkrieg mentions that “Though ‘blitzkrieg’ is a German word meaning ‘lightning war’, the word did not originate from within the German military. It was first used by a journalist in the American newsmagazine Time describing the 1939 German invasion of Poland.” Blitzkrieg occurs several times in Pope's book (which was first published in 1941), but one occurrence that I find particularly intriguing is on p. 255, where Pope is quoting a German who was concerned about his sons' fate in the war: “I'm afraid my sons won't be so fortunate in Hitler's damned blitzkrieg!” Perhaps the German did not use the word blitzkried and it was introduced only by Pope when translating the sentence into English; but if it was already used in German, this would suggest that the word has been present in everyday German language in late 1939 when the quoted conversation took place (and the speaker in question probably didn't have access to English-language magazines).

All in all, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Except for some of the wilder rumours, much of it seems to be quite reasonable and probably not far from the truth (as far as I can evaluate such things, of course; for example, ch. 15 on Nazi morals agrees substantially with the section “The Politics of Self-Righteousness” in Michael Burleigh's excellent recent book The Third Reich: A New History; a book, incidentally, which I enjoyed immensely, although I hated Burleigh's unnecessarily pompous and ostentatious vocabulary and his evident relish in airing his conservative political opinions). Perhaps I should read some of William Shirer's books at some point — he was another American journalist who worked in Nazi Germany for many years and later wrote several very well known books about subjects related to WW2 and Nazi Germany. And when it comes to journalists' memoirs from the Nazi period, I'll certainly have to read Bella Fromm's Blood and Banquets at some point. Alas, so many books, so little time.

It seems that not very many web pages mention Pope. According to this one, he was born in New York City on March 17, 1910; according to this one, he studied at Cornell and died in Bonita Springs, Florida, on October 4, 1995.