Sunday, September 18, 2005

BOOK: Sven Hedin, "German Diary" (cont.)

[This is part 2 of this post. Part 1 appeared yesterday.]

In a conversation with Goebbels, Hedin says (p. 92): “I have no hatred for Bolshevism and actually no one can contest the right of the Russians to adopt whatever philosophy or ideology they please.” On the one hand, I of course entirely agree that people should be able to adopt whatever system they please. But on the other hand we must admit that, if it turns out that a regime is being maintained against the will of the people, the decent thing to do would be to help them change it rather than to let them keep on suffering and pretend that it's entirely their own responsibility to rid themselves of their tyrants and oppresors.

In fact Hedin has this attitude not only to communism in Russia but also to nazism in Germany. “If the Germans in the days of their power preferred Nazism to any other system, that was their concern and no one else's. If the Soviet Russians regard Bolshevism as the finest of all ideologies and ways of life, then leave them in peace and do not interfere in their internal affairs. To denounce Nazism, as was done during the war, and at the same time send up prayers in our cathedrals for the victory of the Red Army, was illogical.” (P. 109.) But there is much that is silly about this passage. If, for example, one were to feel that more good (or less harm) would proceed from the victory of the Red Army than from that of the Third Reich, it would be quite logical to pray for the former rather than for the latter. No matter how many people died in his gulags, we must admit that Stalin did not fantasize about depopulating and then colonizing entire continents, or about instituting a brutal and caste-like racial hierarchy. Even given the deplorable perversions of the system under Stalin, communism remained an infinitely nobler and more desirable ideology than nazism. But then I've written about this before; there's no use repeating myself now.

But regardless of these quibbles about the relative value of different ideologies, Hedin's comments open up that well-known question of national sovereignty. Should we say that national borders are sacred and inviolable and no matter what unspeakable horrors are being perpetrated on the other side, they are none of our business whatsoever? I don't think so. If one's neighbour is beating his wife, I think one has a moral obligation to help her. Of course he will claim that she likes it, that she wants it, but if her shrieks for help resound through the neighbourhood, we have a moral obligation to look into the matter and ascertain if everything that is being done to her is really being done with her consent and approval. Likewise, if nazism has been set up in Germany, or bolshevism in Soviet Russia, we cannot get away by simply pretending that “the Germans [...] preferred” it that way and that the “Soviet Russians” regard it as the best of all systems: nations consist of individual people, and each individual person has an opinion of his or her own. Some Germans may have preferred nazism to some other system, others not; and if the former have begun to oppress and persecute the latter, and we let them get away with it by saying that it's the Germans' own internal affair and hence none of our business — then we are reprehensible scoundrels, and richly deserve whatever bad things will happen to us once the Germans are done with oppressing each other and dedicate their energies to oppressing us.

Of course it's true that this doctrine has its problems as well; many countries would be all too glad to meddle in the affairs of their neighbours under the pretext that they are righting some wrong that is supposedly being perpetrated there. But this just means that such meddling must be carefully limited and regulated, and shouldn't be permitted to nations acting individually, but only to larger groups of nations among whom a consensus has been reached. We should force the nations of the world to agree on more than just the principle of their inviolability from external interference.

Hedin's attitude to both Tsarist and Soviet Russia is in fact remarkably positive; both have, he says, supported him in his travels (p. 107). But most of all he likes Russia as a country, for its landscape, its culture, its diversity, its sheer scale: “She fascinates by her very grandiose immensity. She impresses by her limitless extent, her distances of thousands of miles from east to west, her poverty, her wealth of Altai gold, her barbarism, her enormous population and her irresistible strength.” (P. 110.) I sometimes feel a bit of a similar sort of fondness for large and grandiose things; but I cannot help at the same time disapproving of this; it seems somehow shallow and simplistic to admire something merely because it is large. It reminds me of how as a child I often used to be fascinated by the British pound for no other reason than that it was the largest unit of currency featured in the exchange rate tables in the daily newspapers. Silly me, I gave no thought to the fact that what matters in a currency isn't the value of its unit but how well it keeps this value, how stable it is.

And you can see right away that he's a geographer: “All this external framework, this impressiveness and beauty still remains and could never be wiped out by the November Revolution of 1917 simply because it is dependent on geographical, meteorological and physical conditions, natural laws that remain untouched by even the most radical political upheavals.” (P. 110.) Incidentally, it's interesting that he refers to it as the “November revolution”. Of course it was November in the Gregorian calendar, but still almost everyone calls it the October revolution. Google finds 9020 hits for “November revolution” and 131000 for “October revolution”.

On Himmler, p. 121: “He had none of the look of a cruel and ruthless despot and might just as well have been an elementary school teacher from some provincial town.” I've often heard such comparisons about Himmler. Perhaps it's because of his glasses. Besides, there does often seem to be a certain pedantic air about him. Hedin and Himmler discussed Schäfer's recent expedition to Tibet (p. 122) and plans for Schäfer's future work (pp. 166–7). Hedin also tried to talk to Himmler about better treatment of Jews and Poles (p. 123), but of course didn't get anywhere with it. These sort of things are one of the more annoying aspects of Hedin and of this book. Here he was dealing with people who thought nothing of waging agressive war, oppressing and murdering people by the millions, etc., etc., and what the heck did Hedin imagine? That he would come, knock at the door, strike up a conversation and oh, by the way, Herr Reichsführer, you really could be treating those Jews and Poles a bit better — and that this would have any effect? How on earth did he expect that these silly personal diplomacy efforts of his could make any difference whatsoever? After the Nazis had shown such dedication to their goals, such utter lack of conscience and scrupulousness, how could he imagine that they would let any odd Swedish explorer persuade them to change their course? There is really, as others have observed about this book, either some incredible naïveté here, or some remarkable arrogance.

During another visit to Himmler, he tried to ask for more lenient treatment of an imprisoned Habsburg Archduke, but Himmler was as immovable as a wall: “There can be no question of treating the great with leniency while the ordinary people are treated with severity.” (P. 168.) This attitude would be in fact commendable — oppressing everybody in the same way is, in my opinion, more decent than oppressing just the poor while treating the rich leniently. But I don't think that Himmler and the SS were anywhere nearly so scrupulously impartial and incorruptible as Himmler would like to make it appear in this conversation.

Here's another silly observation from August 1940 (p. 131): “A few days previously Col. Charles Lindbergh had made a speech describing how on a recent visit to Europe he had found the British too rich and the Germans too poor. The injustice was one of the forces that made for war. There must be a levelling out. He was right: 70 million Britons in Europe and the Dominions owned one quarter of the earth's surface whereas 80 million Germans did not possess a single square mile outside the frontiers of Germany. So that it was not unreasonable of the Germans to demand their African colonies back.” I wonder if it's true that ordinary Britons were significantly better off than ordinary Germans. It's true that James Gerard did mention something like that in the time of the first world war; perhaps the difference was still there in the 1940s. But anyway, to say that 70 million Britons owned one quarter of the earth's surface is patently ridiculous. It makes about as much sense as saying that Bill Gates and me together own a gazillion dollars. Yes we do, but what use is it to me? And what use was the fact that Britain ruled over India and Uganda and Nigeria to some impoverished British farmer, or an overexploited British worker? The colonies were undoubtedly good for the wealthy classes of people, and for those who made their careers in the colonial administration and in the army; but for the bulk of the people, the colonies didn't do anything good except give them the occasional excuse for a bout of flag-waving jingoism. — Anyway, Lindbergh talks about a “leveling out”; not that I disagree — I love leveling out! But I'm surprised that a right-wing person such as Lindbergh didn't realize that this idea is rank communism pure and simple. If he had suggested such a thing ten years later, I'm sure that Sen. McCarthy would start grilling him in no time. :-) But anyhow, the only decent thing to do in that situation would be to require the British to give up their colonies just like the Germans had given up theirs. What bloody business do the Germans have possessing land outsides the frontiers of Germany, or the British outside the frontiers of Britain? Lindberg talks about injustice, but that is like seeing a robber complain about injustice because his colleague had acquired more loot than himself! I suppose we shouldn't be too hard on Hedin, for he was of course a product of his times, and those were times when it was still widely accepted that the developed countries should rule over the rest of the world, and imperialism hadn't yet become the dirty word it is now. But anyway, it is still impressive to see how he completely overlooks the absurdity of the situation in which we are arguing how to divide the colonies between Britain and Germany, while not sparing a single thought to the opinions of the people who actually inhabit the territories that are being divided.

One thing that surprised me in this book is how we hear, over and over again, that Hitler's chief goal in the first years of the war (before he began the attack on the Soviet Union) was to stop the British influence over continental Europe: “I must have the continent. [...] England's control over the mainland of Europe has had its day. It is over now.” (Hitler on p. 43.) “Yet he [Hitler before the war] had on certain occasions cast jibes at Britain's eternal efforts to Balkanise Europe” (p. 47). What a ridiculous complaint. Why single out Britain for criticism here? It's not like they were the first to realize that “divide and conquer” is a good idea. Nobody wants their rivals to be united and strong. “It is not our intention to crush any Power—merely to exclude England from the continent of Europe” (minister Rust on p. 119). “He [Hitler in a Reichstag speech, 19 July 1940] demanded unrestricted freedom of movement on the European continent and the return of the African colonies. But England refused.” (p. 129). “[A] German official told me that [...] Hitler [...] was willing to have peace on condition that Britain abandoned her suzarainty [sic] over Europe” and returned the former German colonies (p. 135). “England believes that she can treat Europe like another Balkans, but she is wrong. [...] They have treated Germany and Europe as though they were Balkan countries.” (Hitler on p. 179.) All of these statements sound like ridiculous paranoia — actually they border on complete lunacy. I have never yet heard of this supposed tremendous influence of Britain on continental Europe during the interwar period. And if anybody's quest for influence on the continent justifies the use of words such as “control” and “suzerainty”, it is surely not Britain's but that of Nazi Germany.

Another silly thing about the Nazis is their obsession with the press in foreign countries, particularly with what the press is saying about Germany. I guess they were thinking that, since they had total control over their own press and used it to its maximum potential to brainwash their own population, every other country must necessarily be the same, and thus listening to the tone of the newspaper reports is equivalent to discussing that country's foreign policy with its diplomats and statesmen. Anyway, this is just silly. The first thing they would do upon meeting somebody from this or that small country is to start whining that the press of that country has lately been attacking Germany, yadda yadda yadda. Examples of this may be found on pp. 42, 55, 96, 140, 158, 170, 180, 197, 244.

In a few passages Hedin gives his thoughts on the German plans for the future. He was sure that Germany did not intend to attack the U.S.; “No, Hitler's object was, in the main, to weld all Europe into one block against England. He began where Napoleon ended.” (P. 135.) Various Nazi officials told him that in the German post-war Europe, there would be a customs union (pp. 139, 141, 204), the freedom of the press would be limited (p. 140), but there would be no pressure on e.g. Sweden to adopt National Socialism (which Hedin often worried about: pp. 141, 158). In a conversation with von Weizsäcker, Hedin describes his own exceedingly starry-eyed hopes for the post-war period, including: “ ‘[...] the peace and balance of the world will be firmer and more enduring if all the peoples of the world [...] are content and safe from tyranny. [...]’ Weizsäcker: ‘Yes, you are right. That is my opinion too.’ ” Well, maybe they were just being diplomatic to each other.

One of the main reasons for Hedin's continual visits to various German functionaries was to find out their opinions and intentions regarding Sweden, and to use whatever influence he imagined he had to encourage them to respect its neutrality. During the war between Russia and Finland he also tried to encourage the Germans to support Finland in some way, but of course those were the days of the Russo-German non-aggression pact, so the Germans refused to do anything. Anyway, in some of these conversations Hedin comes across as exceedingly sycophantic, particularly when asking questions alog the lines of: what will be the role assigned to Sweden in the new order of the Nazi-dominated post-war Europe? Here is Hedin on p. 157, again talking to von Weizsäcker: “Sweden is the oldest Kingdom in Europe and Sweden has never been conquered. The Swedes are the purest Germans in Europe. Our national individuality, our national character and our respect for the law, are all qualities which should constitute useful assets in a New Europe, and ought to be held up as an example to other countries.” Yuck. The damned authoritarian more-German-than-the-Germans-themselves racist prick. He repeats more or less the same things in a conversation with Hitler on pp. 180–1 (dripping with unctuousness: “What part, Herr Reichskanzler, do you consider that Sweden and Finland would play in the restoration and reordering of Europe?”), and concludes on p. 182: “The Swedes with their great past are a proud, patriotic and self-reliant people. Our workers maintain that they are democrats, but in actual fact adn without suspecting it themselves they are all of them aristocrats. I am sure that the future will be bright and happy for both our nations.” (Way to go! Encourage the workers to be selfish and self-reliant individualists, which will make sure they won't form unions and will thus be more easily exploited by the capitalists! Aristocrats my ass. The damned anti-democratic old fool.) He also discusses Sweden's post-war fate with Ribbentrop: “Permit me, Herr Reichsminister, to question you once more with regard to what you believe will be the part allotted to my own country in the proposed reorganization of Europe. For my own part I do not believe for a moment that Germany will exercise any pressure after the war, or interfere in any way with our ancient freedom and national individuality.” (Pp. 196–7.) He has another similar conversation with Ribbentrop's press chief, a certain Dr Schmidt (p. 221).

A nice pun from pp. 142–3: “Some humorous gentleman told us the story of how Reich Chancellor von Bülow had once been invited to a teachers' meeting. As he entered the hall he had said: ‘Ich habe Säle gesehen voller als dieser und auch leerer als dieser, aber ich habe niemals einen Saal voller Lehrer gesehen’.”

The story of the demise of the Justus Perthes Geographical Institute in Gotha at the end of the war, told on p. 163, is also quite interesting. Hedin's atlas of Central Asia was being prepared for publication there; he tells on pp. 164–5 of the subsequent efforts to have it published elsewhere. According to Meyer and Brysac (ch. 21, pp. 527–8): “With Hedin's cooperation, the [U.S.] Army Map Service incorporated the Swede's findings in its regular series of maps at a scale of one to one million. Subsequent satellite photos taken for NASA confirmed the essential accuracy of Hedin's maps”. According to an entry in the LOC catalogue, the atlas was eventually published in Stockholm in 1966.

From a conversation with one Steengracht from the German foreign ministry in 1940 (p. 201): “He wondered whether it might not be possible for me to go and see Hitler a little more often, as the effect it had on him was as though a window had been opened and he were able to breathe air from a world with which he never otherwise came into contact.

I don't want to appear too critical of Hedin; many of his efforts were quite well-intentioned and some also achieved good results. It is possible that his talks with Ribbentrop had some influence in dissuading the Germans from closing the Norwegian embassy in Stockholm after they had occupied Norway in 1940 (p. 202). He also joined in the appeals to the Germans to pardon several Norwegians whom they had sentenced to death and various prison sentences because of espionage (pp. 204–17). He was also involved in efforts “to try to save unfortunate Jews from being transported to Poland, or to help Germans, Swedes or Norwegians who in our opinion had been unjustly sent to concentration camps.” (P. 219; although the last sentence has the unfortunate implication that he felt that sending people to concentration camps can be just in at least some cases.) He also put in a good word for his German publisher, Brockhaus, when the company was threatened with restrictions due to shortages in 1942 (see pp. 237, where the subsequent fate of the Brockhaus publishing house is also described; it apparently managed to survive both the war and the post-war occupation reasonably well). He also helped two English prisoners of war in Germany, who had become acquainted with his niece through the Oxford movement (pp. 147–8).

In April 1941 (p. 218) “[a]n interesting piece of news was that the Danish Minister in Washington, Herr Kauffman [...] had handed over control of Greenland to the U.S.A. but that the Copenhagen Government had refused to ratify this.” Well, I guess this is not surprising; Denmark was under German occupation and the Germans would probably be outraged to see Denmark support their enemies the Americans in this way. But still it's a bit curious that just a simple ambassador can supposedly hand over control of a part of his country's territory. Even Hitler, when he wanted to gobble up what had been left of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, at least had the decorum to browbeat the president and the prime minister rather than just an ambassador... I guess the Danes did it this way to try satisfying both sides: the Americans would get to use Greenland for their military purposes, while the Danish government could have the excuse that the transfer was arranged by their ambassador and that they don't support it (but they knew quite well that nobody could expect them to do anything concrete about it — they were occupied by Germany after all).

Curiously, at some point in April 1941 the Germans suggested to him that he visit the U.S. and try persuading the American leaders to stay out of the war. Sensibly enough, he refused. “They must have had pretty exaggerated ideas of my capabilities.” (P. 220.)

“On 9th October [1941] came the Press Chief's, Dietrich's, unfortunate conference for the foreign Press in which he declared that Russia was beaten, the Russian Army lost, her reserves beyond the Urals inadequate;” (p. 227) — surely one of the greatest examples ever of counting one's chickens before they are hatched.

It's interesting that the Japanese are often referred to as “Japs” (e.g. on pp. 228, 230, 235). I always thought that “Japs” is a rather derogatory term, and I wouldn't expect a writer with axis sympathies to use it. Otherwise Hedin doesn't express any prejudice or contempt towards the Japanese. Perhaps the “Japs” are just a translator's quirk.

In June 1942, the Germans informed him that they intended to establish an institute for the exploration of Central Asia, and that it would bear Hedin's name. Hedin suggested that it should be named after some German explorer instead, but was told that his refusal might be “misunderstood” and would offend various important institutions and personages (such as Himmler), so he gave in (p. 233). See Hale's book, pp. 462–3, for more details about the background of this and about Schäfer's efforts to obtain Hedin's approval; and see chapters 14–16 in Hale's book for more about the activities of the institute, some of which were fairly unsavoury (e.g. pp. 479, 511, 518). See also Meyer and Brysac, ch. 21, p. 525.

Hedin talks to several notable Germans (Funk, p. 236; Weizsäcker, p. 243; Keitel, pp. 246–7) about the methods used by the German civil authorities in occupied Norway; they all agree that their policy is mistaken and hurts German interests by arousing hatred towards Germany, but think that it is too late to change anything, particularly as Hitler refuses to change his mind (pp. 236).

In the autumn of 1941, he was trying to publish a book about the U.S., and negotiations for an American edition were under way with the Hearst company. The problem arose of how to get the manuscript to America quickly enough to allow the book to be published before the U.S. entered the war. Hedin proposed to send the entire 30000-word book as a telegram, even at his own expense if necessary. However, Hearst advised against this, and eventually the war broke out before the book could be published in the U.S. (P. 249.) It was published in Germany as Amerika im Kampfe der Kontinente. The Library of Congress catalogue also mentions French, Dutch and Swedish editions (all from 1943–4), but no English ones.

Hedin ends the book by quoting a sentence from a letter that Hitler had sent him regarding Hedin's book about America: “This war will go down in history as President Roosevelt's war” (p. 252). Hedin doesn't seem to disagree or disapprove of this. But this looks like another of these supremely silly opinions that this book is so full of. Firstly, the sentence cannot be taken as referring to the war in the Pacific, because the U.S. was attacked there and had no choice about entering the war or not. Thus it can only refer to the war in Europe. But this war was started by Germany in 1939; or maybe the German propagandists of that time would say that it was started by Poland (shame on her for refusing to bow down to all the unreasonable German demands), or by Britain and France (shame on them for actually standing by their promise to help Poland), but even they couldn't say that the war was caused or encouraged by America. In fact Roosevelt sent letters to both the Germans and the Poles in August 1939, urging them to pursue a peaceful solution, but of course nothing came of this as the Germans didn't want a reasonable and peacefully negotiated solution. Thus (and surely even Hitler would have to agree with this) the only war that Roosevelt can be said to have started while being at least theoretically able to avoid it is the war against Germany, into which the U.S. entered in December 1941. But even here the initiative was on Hitler's side. In the spring of 1941, he himself had proposed to the Japanese foreign minister that “Germany would intervene immediately in case of a conflict Japan–America, for the strength of the three Pact powers was their common action.” (Ian Kershaw, Nemesis, ch. 8, sec. V, p. 364). On 11 December, he entered into an agreement with the Japanese that neither side would conclude a separate peace with the U.S.; thus, by attacking the U.S., Germany could make sure to keep Japan involved in the war (ibid., ch. 9, sec. VI, pp. 444–5). Germany declared war on the U.S. the very same day (ibid., p. 446); besides, Hitler could hardly contain himself: he had ordered the U-boats into attack as early as December 8 (ibid., p. 445). “Certain, as he had been for many months, that Roosevelt was just looking for the chance to intervene in the European conflict, Hitler thought that his declaration was merely anticipating the inevitable and, in any case, formalizing what was in effect already the situation” (ibid., p. 446).

The text occasionally contains footnotes with translations of various short German phrases and sentences. The strange thing is that, particularly near the beginning of the book, these footnotes are not always set at the bottom of the page; on p. 6 there is a ‘footnote’ right between the lines of a paragraph of normal text, immediately below the footnote reference; on the next page there is a normal footnote at the bottom of the page; and then on p. 11 the footnote appears at the end of the paragraph that contains the footnote reference.

The book contains quite a few typos, e.g. “Batlic” (p. 76), “suzarainty” (p. 135), “is would have been better” (p. 137), “jouurneys” (p. 163).

Incidentally, it's interesting how often the name of the publisher, “Euphorion”, is misspelt “Euphorian” (in Hale's bibliography, p. 563; and in Anne de Courcy's Diana Mosley, pp. 291, 294, 410; as well as in the description of the eBay auction where I bought the book). I guess it's because “Euphorion” doesn't have any obvious meaning (although it sounds plausible enough to me; like a kind of Greek personal name), while “Euphorian” seems to be an ordinary enough adjective derived from “euphoria”. Anyway, if you look at the publisher's logo on the dust jacket and the title page, it's quite clear that “Euphorion” is the correct spelling. Incidentally, a bit of searching on ABE shows that the name is not at all so uncommon; there seems to exist at the present time a publisher named Euphorion in Frankfurt, and there was also one in Berlin in the 1920s. The latter one seems particularly interesting; they apparently published many fancy artsy bibliophile-type books on the subject of arts and belles lettres. This is one of the rare occasions when I'm glad that I don't understand German well enough: at least I won't lust after their books.


  • Hedin's Germany and the World Peace (London: Hutchinson, 1937), mentioned here on pp. 14–15, 24, etc., looks like it might be interesting for much the same reasons as the German Diary. Unfortunately it seems to be just as scarce.
  • Another Hedin's book: Chiang Kaishek, Marshal of China (1939). P. 33.
  • Henry Fielding Hall's books about Burma, esp. The Soul of a People (1898). (Pp. 117–8.)


Blogger Social Democracy Now said...

'I wonder if it's true that ordinary Britons were significantly better off than ordinary Germans.'

I strongly doubt it - by the late 1930s most widely-travelled commentators said that ordinary people in Europe were best off in Germany, second only to Sweden.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006 4:47:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Interesting. I agree about Britain, the impression I got from Orwell's novels that take place in the 1930s is that it must have been fairly glum. As for Germany, I guess that the Nazi efforts to kickstart the economy through public spending and the rearmament programme must have had some effects after all. But from what I've heard, that course was not really economically sustainable without eventually leading to expansion or war.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006 9:09:00 PM  

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