Sunday, August 29, 2021

BOOK: Christopher Hale, "Himmler's Crusade"

Christopher Hale: Himmler's Crusade: The true story of the 1938 Nazi expedition into Tibet. London: Bantam Books, 2003, 2004. 0553814451. 592 pp.

I don't usually read the same book more than once — how could I justify doing that when there's so many unread books waiting on my shelves :] — but I decided to make an exception for this book. I bought it in 2004, relatively soon after it was published, and I remember that I read it in something like three or four days, which means that I must have enjoyed it a lot; but I found that I remembered almost nothing about its contents, and there was no blog post for me to refer to since this was before I started my blog. But as I still find the subject matter fascinating, I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to read it a second time and write a post about it.


The ‘crusade’ part of the title is clickbait — the book is actually about the German Tibet expedition of 1938–39 — but the ‘Himmler’ part is honest, as he really did support the expedition and took a keen interest in it. But the book takes a broad view of its subject, and the expedition itself occupies only slightly more than half the book, while the rest provides a generous amount of background and context and biographical information about some of the protagonists' lives before and after the expedition. On the one hand, this was all quite interesting to read and was written in a very engaging way; on the other hand I couldn't help wishing, occasionally, that there had been a little less of this extra material. But it would be ungenerous to complain about that, especially on a second reading. For example, the introductory chapter traces the history of the crackpot ideas that inspired Himmler's support of the expedition, and I couldn't help wondering if we really need to hear quite so much about the life of Madame Blavatsky, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to wonder that if I had been reading about this for the first time, and if I hadn't read two or three other books about the same subject before (e.g. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's Occult Roots of Nazism and Black Sun, though I sadly didn't get around to writing blog posts about them).

But the main protagonist of the book, reasonably enough, is not Himmler but the leader of the expedition, Ernst Schäfer. In principle he was a zoologist, but he was at least as much a hunter and adventurer as he was a scientist (pp. 98–9). He had been to Tibet twice before, in the early 1930s, in expeditions led by Brooke Dolan, a rich and hard-drinking American who was just as keen a hunter as Schäfer, and the main purpose of his expeditions seems to have been collecting animal specimens (notably including a giant panda, p. 93) for American museums. The second expedition was additionally motivated by Dolan's having to leave America until the dust settled on some of his drunken antics there (p. 104). They approached Tibet from the Chinese side, but large parts of China were in a state resembling civil war, the expedition's progress was blocked by an uncooperative governor, Dolan eventually abandoned his companions and the whole thing ended in acrimony (pp. 116–20). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schäfer was determined that next time he came to Tibet, it would be with a purely German expedition and with himself firmly in charge.

He joined the SS in 1933, like a number of young German intellectuals at that time (p. 100–1); it was something of a Faustian bargain: they got the opportunity to advance faster in their academic careers, get better support and funding for their research, but then they also got to be war criminals and participants in genocide.

Himmler was fond of all sorts of crackpot theories and in exchange for his support, Schäfer's new expedition would have to pay some attention to them: carry out anthropometric investigations on the Tibetans to see if the Aryan master race had perhaps originated there, or migrated there at some point; look for extra hardy strains of cereals that could help German agriculture during the upcoming war; and even look for evidence of Hanns Hörbiger's crazy World Ice Theory (pp. 181–2, 194).* Nevertheless Schäfer managed to resist some of Himmler's pressures and at least ended up staffing his expedition with more or less bona fide scientists; besides him there was an anthropologist, an entomologist and a geophysicist, SS officers all (p. 188).

[*See also p. 406 for some surprising indirect evidence that Schäfer himself may have taken that theory seriously...]


The new expedition was planning to enter Tibet from the south, from British India (I guess because China was in a full-blown war with Japan by then). On the one hand, neither the British nor the Tibetans were at all keen to allow any foreigners to enter Tibet (p. 219); on the other hand, the British didn't want to rebuff the German expedition too bluntly while their policy of appeasement was still in effect (pp. 227, 232). Schäfer et al. spent some time exploring Sikkim and then, by a stroke of good luck, got the Tering Raja, a member of the Sikkimese royal family now living in Tibet, to put in a good word for them with the Tibetan government, who then officially allowed Schäfer's expedition to visit Lhasa for two weeks, as long as they did no hunting and no scientific research (pp. 291–2). In practice they still did a good deal of both, but had to be a bit more discreet about it (pp. 306–7, 313, e.g. hunting with a sort of rubber “catapult”).

Once in Lhasa, Schäfer proved quite successful at lobbying the Tibetans (and the expedition anthropologist, Bruno Beger, gained a lot of goodwill by providing free medical treatment; p. 384) and, despite the efforts of the local British representatives, the expedition was allowed to stay in Tibet for another two months (which, among other things, gave them the rare opportunity to film the Tibetan new year celebrations; pp. 389–90). The Regent of Tibet even asked if he could buy some guns from Germany (p. 400)!


The expedition returned to Germany in August 1939 (p. 426) — if they had waited one month longer, they would have been interned by the British upon the outbreak of war. Schäfer subsequently toyed with the idea of yet another Tibet expedition, this time with the goal of inducing the Tibetans to start a guerilla campaign against British India (p. 444). This hare-brained scheme was, fortunately, abandoned, partly because Hitler was none too keen to dismantle the British Empire (p. 449) and partly because the scheme relied on Soviet help, so it was impossible after Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Later there were also plans for a very large and ambitious expedition to the Caucasus, which came to nothing because Germany was by then already retreating from the east (p. 477).

Schäfer joined the Ahnenerbe (the SS research organization) and became the head of its Institute for Central Asian Research; other members of the Tibet expedition joined him there. He tried to make the institute more independent (and even renamed it after Sven Hedin), but with limited success. At one point he and Ernst Krause, who had been the cameraman of the Tibet expedition, were asked to help record certain medical experiments at Dachau, but upon learning of their murderous nature, Schäfer managed to get them both out of the assignment (p. 472). Thus one gets the impression that insofar as Schäfer was complicit in the war crimes of the SS, it was not by having done anything heinous himself, but by having known that heinous things were being done by others and yet not resigning from the organization (pp. 455, 471). At the end of the war, his institute was ransacked and its collections scattered; Schäfer spent a few years in POW camps and was eventually cleared by a denazification tribunal without too much trouble (p. 482).

By contrast, his colleague Bruno Beger, the anthropologist of the Tibet expedition, was more complicit than that. At Himmler's suggestion, he began planning a study of fat-bottomed Jewish women to see if there is a connection between Jews and Hottentots; fortunately this bizarre study did not seem to proceed any further, but it shows what sort of crazy theories Himmler had the Ahnenerbe people investigate (pp. 488–9). Rather more serious is Beger's involvement in the collection of specimens for a certain Dr. August Hirt of the anatomy department at the Strasbourg University. Together with another colleague Beger went to Auschwitz, selected 115 prisoners of various races and ethnicities, and carried out anthropometric measurements on them (pp. 513–15); later their corpses, preserved in alcohol, were delivered to Strasbourg (p. 517). Beger was eventually put on trial for his involvement, in 1971, found guilty of being an “accomplice to murder”, but sentenced only to time served (pp. 493, 527). An interesting question here, I guess, is whether (some of) those particular prisoners would have survived if Beger had not selected them; this being Auschwitz, it is unlikely, but not quite impossible.

The book ends with an interesting chapter recounting Hale's meetings with people who still remembered Schäfer's expedition when he was doing research for this book in 2002. Schäfer had died in 1992, but Beger was still alive. Of the native attendants employed by the expedition, Hale found one still alive in Sikkim, and talked to the son of another, as well as to an old man who remembered seeing the expedition as a child (pp. 532–4). It's lucky that he wrote the book when he did; by now, almost twenty years later, they are probably all dead.

Errors galore!

So, as I said before, this was a very pleasant and readable book, if perhaps a tiny bit longer than I would have liked; but I do have one complaint about it: I don't remember the last time I found so many errors in a book. They are mostly minor ones, to be sure, and yet you can't help wondering — if they were so sloppy and careless about these, how much can you trust them on bigger things that you can't easily verify by yourself? Anyway, here are the ones I've noticed:

  • “a nomadic Tibetan people called the Kalmyck” (p. 53) — but surely the Kalmyks are a Mongol people, not a Tibetan people;
  • Erich von Däniken is twice described as an “Austrian hotelier” (pp. 66, 538), but he is Swiss, not Austrian;
  • the Teutoburg(er) Forest is twice misspelt as “Teutoberger” (p. 125);
  • “Signora Ciana, the wife of the Italian foreign minister” (p. 137), but he was Ciano and I don't think Italian women use special female forms of surnames the way e.g. Russians do;
  • “Himmler's Freundes” (p. 138, referring to a group of industrialists who supported Himmler), but surely it makes no sense to put two plural suffixes on the same word, first the German -e and then the English -s;
  • “After receiving his Doktorarbeit” (p. 150); this word means the dissertation, but from the context it's clear that what Hale means is the degree that one gets after writing and defending the dissertation;
  • “play a leading roll” (p. 162);
  • “Günther's Die Nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanene Aliens” (p. 167) — this should obviously be Indogermanen Asiens, but the intriguing question is how such an error could even happen; was it OCR gone wrong?
  • letze” (p. 184) should be “letzte”;
  • “Braunau am In” (p. 226) should be “Inn”;
  • Czechoslovakia is described as having a “restless mixture of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Ruthenians and, in the Sudetenland, Germans” (p. 231); how could he forget the Slovaks? o.O
  • “hair lip” (p. 246) — intriguing, but wrong;
  • “He bagged argali (wolves)” (p. 265); argali are actually sheep, so we might be dealing with a rare case of sheep in wolf's clothing :)
  • Odilo Globocnik is described as “an Austrian Croat” (p. 454); I am of course perfectly happy to foist that horrible man on the Croats, but alas, everything I've ever heard about him explains his surname as a result of Slovenian, not Croatian, ancestry;
  • Sigmund Rascher was “hanged on the gallows at Dachau [. . .] in 1944” (p. 474); but the wikipedia says that he was only arrested in 1944, kept in various camps, and then shot at Dachau shortly before liberation in 1945;
  • “Vorontersuchung” (p. 493) should be “Voruntersuchung”;
  • “Wehrissenschaftliche” (p. 499) should be “Wehrwissenschaftliche”;
  • “Goodrick-Clark” (p. 540) should be “Goodrick-Clarke”;
  • Erlebnisse diplomatischen Geheimagenten” (p. 562) is missing an eines;
  • “Euphorian” (p. 563), the publisher of Hedin's German Diary, should actually be “Euphorion”.

One thing that is not necessarily an error, but that did strike me as odd: at one point, Hale mentions in passing that “Rock, like Hedin, was homosexual” (p. 419). I don't really know anything about Joseph Rock, but I've read enough about Hedin that I would expect to have heard about his homosexuality somewhere else as well if it were true. There seems to be quite enough evidence that he was attracted to women; see e.g. Wolfram Dirks' psychological study of Hedin, Sven Hedin — ein Mensch im Widerspruch, p. 155. I wonder what Hale's source for his assertion is; but this is one of the main downsides of the book — it is very sparse in quoting sources. There is less than one endnote per page, and often you can go several paragraphs without knowing what source exactly supports them.


• Schäfer wrote several interesting-sounding books about his expeditions, which makes me regret that my German is so rusty: Berge, Buddhas und Bären (Mountains, Buddhas, and Bears, 1933) about his first expedition, and Dach der Erde (Roof of the World, 1938) and Unbekanntes Tibet (Unknown Tibet, 1938) about the second (p. 177).

Wilhelm Filchner: Sturm über Asien: Erlebnisse eines diplomatischen Geheimagenten (Storm over Asia, 1924). A memoir by this scientist, explorer and “also a spy” (p. 75); he “produced a racy account of the Younghusband mission in Storm over Asia” (p. 303).

One of Filchner's later books did appear in English: A Scientist in Tartary: from the Hoang-ho to the Indus (1939).

Edmund Kiss wrote several volumes of “turgid fiction about Atlantis”: Frühling in Atlantis (Spring in Atlantis, 1931); Die letzte Königin von Atlantis (The Last Queen of Atlantis, 1931); Die Singschwäne aus Thule (The Singing Swans from Thule, 1939); all mentioned here on p. 184. Himmler invited Kiss to join the Ahnenerbe and tried to have him included in Schäfer's expedition, but Schäfer successfully resisted this.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's Black Sun includes brief summaries of all three novels, as well as of what seems to be a prequel, Das gläserne Meer (1930). He uses the spelling “Kiß”, which, judging by some googling, is also how it appeared on the title pages of the books themselves.

• Peter Hopkirk wrote several extremely interesting-sounding books about the exploration of Central Asia and related topics (pp. 563–4): Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (1980); Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa (1982); The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (1990); On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire (1994). The last of these is mentioned here on p. 443 with reference to the attempt by Wilhelm Waßmuß, shortly before the WW1, to instigate an anti-British uprising in Persia; which makes him a sort of German counterpart to Lawrence of Arabia.

• A few years after the present book, Hale also wrote Hitler's Foreign Executioners (2011), about the non-German Waffen SS units. Strangely, it doesn't seem to have appeared in paperback (only hardcover and kindle).


Unrelated but funny: a “miniature tableland” named the “Lingma Thang” is mentioned on p. 309. The ligma jokes practically write themselves :)

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

BOOK: George Mackay Brown, "Hawkfall and Other Stories"

George Mackay Brown: Hawkfall and Other Stories. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2004, 2010. 9781904598183. ix + 212 pp.

I first heard of George Mackay Brown about fifteen years ago, when a volume of his collected poems appeared and was favourably reviewed in the Guardian. The Guardian, of course, has always been progressive in a slightly dotty way, but back then they probably still thought of themselves as primarily a newspaper (with a website attached to it) whose target audience were people that subscribed to it somewhere in England. That gave them a certain anchor-line to sanity, and I enjoyed visiting their website to read the book reviews, the letters to the editor, and very occasionally something else about cultural or political topics. Later they came to think of themselves as primarily a website (with a newspaper attached to it) whose target audience are woke people anywhere in the (English-speaking?) world, who come to the Guardian for their daily dose of outrage at whatever it has been decided that the woke tribe should be outraged about that particular day. As a result, they ended up publishing so much unhinged lunacy that I stopped reading them long ago.

Anyway, their review of Mackay Brown's Complete Poems piqued my curiosity and I ended up buying the book, being then much more reckless than now about buying books and much less keenly appreciative of the ponderous mass of unread books piling up on my shelves. I still have his Complete Poems on a shelf somewhere, still unread, awaiting their turn. What this episode meant, however, was that when I noticed Mackay Brown's Hawkfall and Other Stories in a bookstore a couple of years ago, I recognized the name and this prompted me to buy it.

I guess that what attracted me to Mackay Brown's work was the fact that he lived pretty much his whole life on the Orkney Islands, somewhere at the remotest northern edge of the British Isles, and that all his writing is connected to these islands. This in itself makes his work seem interesting to me, since I know next to nothing about the Orkneys. But the added bonus is that the idea of a literature rooted in and centred on such a small and remote geographical area presents such a stark contrast to the predominant trends of the present time, when diversity and global homogeneity, those two sides of the same shitty coin, seem to be the only order of the day, and when most literature seems to be written, and nearly all of it seems to be published, by people who can't imagine why anyone could, or would, or should, live anywhere else than in a handful of faceless, rootless, global megalopolises.

I greatly enjoyed the stories in this book. They are short but packed with events and characters, and Mackay Brown is great at using passing references to people mentioned earlier to weave a densely interconnected web, very much like life itself. Some few are set in what would have been the present at the time they were written, but mostly they are in set the past, some in the middle ages and some in the 19th or early 20th century. You can feel all the time what a strong sense the author has for the harsh natural environment of the islands and the tough, terror-ridden life that the inhabitants eked out there. His focusing on the earlier time periods was probably a good choice, because by the mid-to-late 20th century, technological progress and social changes probably meant that the smaller islands became depopulated and on the larger ones the life was no longer different from that on the mainland by as much as in earlier times.

(Note: spoiler warnings apply for the rest of this post.)


This story is a series of five vignettes from different periods of Orkney history, with a few slight but noticeable elements connecting them and suggesting that there is a sort of continuity underlying them all. In the first section we witness the funeral of a prehistoric chief or “priest-king” and the installation of his successor. Their role is much along Frazerian lines, being committed to “perpetual virginity so that all else might be fruitful in field, in loch, in the great sea, in the marriage beds” (p. 4). At the end we see some fishermen carrying on with their work as usual, rather indifferent to these ceremonies (p. 6).

In the second scene, we see Thorfinn Sigurdson, a Norse earl of Orkney (a real person from the 11th century), return from a hunt and get involved in a Christian religious ceremony: while a bishop and several priests chant in Latin, the earl puts on a sackcloth shirt and tries to feel suitably penitent about his sins, of which he has committed plenty, but he doesn't seem to quite know how to feel repentance; he mostly just feels cold (pp. 9–10). The story seems to be set at a time when Christianity was a fairly recent introduction in the area (the wikipedia says Thorfinn was “instrumental in making Orkney and Shetland part of mainstream Christendom”).

By the third section, we're in the late 16th century, when Patrick Stewart was the earl of Orkney. He has a very cultured dinner with the French architect whom he has hired to design a new palace for him, and he shows infinite patience for the Frenchman's arrogance towards the barbarous level of civilization on the earl's court. But meanwhile, in a basement downstairs, the earl's officials are torturing an unfortunate farmer, trying to get him to give up his farm which an ancestor of his had received from Thorfinn — the same Norse earl whom we have encountered in the previous section.

In the fourth scene, it is the early 19th century and we are introduced to young laird Andrew, whose rather progressive ideas about agricultural development present a stark contrast with those of the local minister who is visiting him and whose rabid conservatism sees the spectre of the French revolution everywhere and regards every change as the first step towards anarchy. Meanwhile a peasant wedding is in progress in a nearby village, and a very lively and cheerful one too, except for the fact that the bride seems to be crying inconsolably; and sure enough, not long after midnight, a servant shows up to take her to the laird's hall. Wow — the droit de seigneur, which all the historians and debunkers never tire of assuring us has been nothing but a myth even in the darkest depths of the middle ages, is shown here as having been practised in the Orkneys as late as about 1820! What are we to make of this, and how to square it with the rather sympathetic impression that we get of the laird in the first half of this chapter?

We learn earlier in the story that many girls in that community are heavily pregnant at the time of their wedding, but not the one that is getting married today (p. 23). And we see the old woman who consoles the bride at the wedding “put her hand, last, to the bride's belly, and nodded decisively” (p. 28). Could it be then that it has been concluded, from the fact that she is still not pregnant at her wedding, that her bridegroom is infertile, and is that why it has been arranged that she would sleep with the laird? But there is a big flaw in this theory, namely that the laird did not know, until the day of the wedding, that she was not pregnant (p. 23).

Anyway, in the fifth scene, it is 1921 and the protagonist is a Mr. Langclett, an Orcadian shopkeeper and a descendant of the unfortunate bridegroom from the previous section. His wife died a year ago and he has fallen in love again, scandalously early and with a woman younger than himself by a scandalous number of years. He has a daughter who is a little over thirty and still unmarried and well on the way to becoming an old spinster, and he seems to be getting ready to tell her to move out of the house so he can get married to his new girlfriend. Nowadays this sort of situation would be a basis for a stepmom-themed threesome pr0n video, but in the real world of the 1920s Orkneys things are rather less salacious than that. The daughter tries to protect herself by enlisting the help of a local gossip and turning the community against his shockingly early remarriage. On the last page he seems to have changed his mind and is ready to break up with his new girlfriend; but then on the very last line he seems to be about to tell his daughter to move out anyway, so I really have no idea what he's actually going to do. In pr0n this sort of thing is called a ruined orgasm; I wonder if there's a term for it in literature? :]

What I particularly liked about this story are the numerous small details that link the five sections together. We've already seen a few: Adam, the tortured peasant in sec. 3, traces his farm back to a grant from the earl of sec. 2 (p. 15); the protagonist of sec. 5 is a descendant of the bridegroom from sec. 4 (p. 36). An antique coin brought to Mr. Langclett in sec. 5 possibly has a tenuous connection to earl Patrick from sec. 3 (p. 38).

Each section furthermore features a character with a flat nose, surely with the implication that these people are related to or even descended from each other: there's one among the fishermen in sec. 1, indifferent to the ceremonies (p. 6); there's one as a servant on Thorfinn's court in sec. 2 (p. 7); there's Adam, the victim of torture in sec. 3 (p. 17); there's the unfortunate bridegroom of sec. 4 (pp. 22, 29); but there's nobody such in sec. 5, unless we count the “broad nose” of the little “mongol” girl next door (p. 34). All these flat-nosed people are very prominently from the lower strata of society, and are indifferent to or victimized by the doings of the chiefs and earls and lairds above them. The idea, I guess, is that the elites at the top may change, rulers and kingdoms and nations and languages may come and go, but underneath all that there is a sort of continuity on the lower levels, the foundations of the social pyramid, which continue as an uninterrupted stream from the dim mists of prehistory even into Mackay's own time.

There is also the recurring mention of hawks: one is sacrificed during the ceremonies in section 1 (p. 5); earl Thorfinn has been out hawking in sec. 2 (p. 7); laird Andrew reads a religious passage mentioning a falcon falling (p. 24 — the closest we get to the title of the story, i.e. Hawkfall; I couldn't find the source of this passage by googling, and I suspect that Brown made it up himself; on the other hand, the verses quoted a little later on p. 25 are real, from William Shenstone's Pastoral Ballad); and lastly, Mr. Langclett in sec. 5 keeps a stuffed hawk in his shop (pp. 31, 42).

The Fires of Christmas

A pleasant and quite short story which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not as cozy as the title would lead you to believe. Two medieval scenes, both set at Christmas time. First we see Earl Rognvald burn down the hall of his uncle, Earl Thorfinn (the same whom we met in the previous story!), but Thorfinn manages to escape and later kills Rognvald and burns down *his* hall. The next scene is set 89 years later, in the time of Earl Paul Hakonson. One of his supporters comes to complain that his home and family were burnt down by Paul's enemies; the earl shows him favour, for which he then almost gets murdered by a jealous courtier, but he gets warned in time and manages to kill his attacker instead.

The story ends with a note that both scenes were taken from a medieval saga; the author suggests that “[t]he second drama is not so dark and hopeless as the first”, seemingly because christianity got better established on the islands in the intervening period.


This story is set on Torsay, a small island which, judging by the wikipedia, lies not in the Orkneys but in the Inner Hebrides. It consists of a sequence of short scenes that present the gradual decline of the island's population over a period of several decades starting soon after the WW1; all the younger people are moving away in search of jobs, and the old ones are gradually dying off. By the time we reach the end of the story, the school, church and general store have all shut down, and you can guess that the days of the community are pretty much numbered (pp. 70, 73–4; the wikipedia tells us that the island was inhabited until the 1960s).

The story is told from the perspective of the laird, whose financial position presents a curious parallel with the decline of the island: due to some legal restrictions he seems to be collecting almost no money in rents (p. 59), and all his income is a fixed £200 a year that he inherited from his grand-uncle. This may have been adequate (if modest) in the early post-WW1 period, but by the end of his life some 40 or so years later he is just barely scraping by, he moves his bed into his kitchen because he can't afford to heat or maintain more than one room in his house, etc. (p. 66). Another recurring character in the story is a mysterious woman named Thora, whose lifespan coincides almost exactly with the narrator's presence on the island, and who saved his life at one point by taking care of him when he had a very bad case of pneumonia (pp. 69–70).

I'm not sure what to make of the title; the wikipedia tells us that Tithonus was a Trojan prince to whom the gods granted eternal life but not eternal youth — a very unfortunate combination. Perhaps the narrator of the present story feels that his life has been stretched out too long as well.

The Fight at Greenay

A very short and rather funny story about a tavern brawl between two groups of men from two neighbouring villages. You can't help but cheer on the visiting team, because it was the locals who picked the fight for no good reason. I particularly liked the ‘what happened next’-style conclusion at the end.

The Cinquefoil

The cinquefoil or potentilla, as I have now learnt from the wikipedia, is a genus of flowers with five petals, and also a related symbol in heraldry and a type of knot in mathematics. The present story consists of five sections, presenting us scenes from the life of the people who live on the small island of Selskay. The sections are closely linked by the fact that the same characters keep recurring again and again, but at the same time each section is told from the perspective of a different person. I thought this was quite a clever device by the writer; the whole thing gives the impression of a rich and intricate tapestry which you have seen from more sides than if it had all been told by a single impersonal narrator.

I was also impressed by the variety of people we meet in this story. There's Mr. Gillespie, the clergyman, who appears on the scene as a bachelor and is promptly besieged by marriage proposals from the more solid local families, but he falls in love with Tilly, a young girl from a decidedly non-respectable family. Eventually such a scandal erupts that he is obliged to resign, moves in with Tilly's family and takes up fishing with one of her brothers.

There's the unfriendly fisherman, Gurness, who has a hard time finding a partner but can't safely operate his boat alone. Near the end of the story he gets into an epic drunken fight with Houton, his former fishing parner, and soon afterwards dies in a boating accident, leaving his property to Houton.

There's Jake Sandside, the wounded Navy veteran, who drinks away his miserable pension and then has to support himself by begging; we follow him on one of his rounds, frustrated by the fact that a rival beggar, a woman named Annie, has visited the same area shortly before him, so he gets much less alms than usual — but then it turns out she has done it for him, and she brings him the whole haul because she had heard he is ill and unable to walk.

There's Rosie, the shopkeeper's daughter, who ignores her father's plans that she should ensnare the clergyman, and marries Houton instead, even at the cost of getting estranged from her father; and we see her being commendably charitable to Jake the sailor.

The Burning Harp

It's Yuletide, 1135, and the good folk of Caithness, on the extreme northeastern tip of Scotland, are practicing their traditional holiday customs: burning down their enemies' houses along with their inhabitants. We are not told why farmer Olaf incurred their wrath, but at least the attackers are considerate enough to allow certain groups of people to escape: women and children; then the priest; and finally, after some consideration, the poet (hence the harp in the title).


This story starts in the 1860s on the small island of Norday, which, judging by some googling, seems to be fictitious and appears in some of Mackay Brown's other work as well (including the last two stories in the present volume). Young Samuel Olafson finds a sealskin on the beach, and later the same day a mysterious naked girl; it is obvious to you or me that she is a seal-woman and can't transform back into seal shape because he took her skin, but for the most part this fact does not seem to occur to the characters in the story. (I remember reading a book about the legends of seal-people in the early days of this blog; see my post from back then.) Simon and his parents take her in, assuming she is a foreign shipwreck victim; she doesn't speak and it's doubtful how much she understands when they speak to her (p. 113).

Unsurprisingly, in due time she gives birth to Simon's child, which causes a certain amount of scandal in the local church community, but they let the couple get married and do not inquire too closely into the girl's background. (One of the locals does suggest that she's a seal-woman, but this is dismissed as irrelevant pagan lore; p. 116.) By this time, she goes by the name Mara and seems to be able to speak English (p. 117); but their marriage grows cold soon.

Some seven years later, Simon brings out the nearly forgotten sealskin that he had put away all those years ago, and gives it to his elderly father as a blanket; unsurprisingly, Mara disappears very soon afterwards, having evidently taken the skin and transformed back into a seal (p. 121–3).

Their son Magnus seems to have a certain fondness for seals (p. 120), but apart from that the human element clearly predominates heavily in him. He goes to school and eventually becomes a composer and conductor of international renown, living it seems mostly on the Continent, and he has many friends in artistic circles (p. 127). He visits Norday again some time after his father's death, but finds that he has grown estranged from the islanders: “An artist must pay dearly, in terms of human tenderness, for the fragments of beauty that lie about his workshop.” (P. 126.)

But his background, as someone coming from a small Orkney island and possibly with some seal-blood in his veins, also influences him. The intellectual discussions with his European friends strike him as ultimately empty: “It was all a game, to keep sharp the wits of people who had not to contend with the primitive terrors of sea and land.” He wonders about the purpose of art, and thinks it might be to oppose the excesses of technological progress: “They [i.e. scientists and engineers] were the new priesthood; the world went down on its knees before every tawdry miracle — the phonograph, the motor car, the machine-gun, the wireless”; the artist's task is “to keep in repair the sacred web of creation — that cosmic harmony of god and beast and man and star and plant — in the name of humanity, against those who in the name of humanity are mindlessly and systematically destroying it.”

This was an interesting and pleasant story, but you might almost say it's two separate stories with too little to link them together: one about Mara the seal-woman, another about Magnus who goes from a childhood on a poor Orcadian island to international fame as an artist. Regarding the first part, I wished we could learn more about Mara's dual nature as a seal-woman, and about how her whole experience of spending so much time on land, giving birth to a human child etc. felt from her perspective. And also, if she prefers to live in the seal shape than in human shape (as seems to be evidenced by how keen she was to return to seal shape as soon as she could get the sealskin back), why do seal-people like her ever transform into human shape to begin with? But I guess the idea is that the story isn't trying to be too much of a fantasy tale and wants to focus firmly on seeing things from the humans' perspective.

And the art vs. science/technology/progress dichotomy at the end is, you might say, just a little too well-worn. Yet well-worn though it may be, it is still true that science and technology, while providing us with much material comfort, have deprived us of a lot of wonder and beauty. Physics and biology as a way of understanding nature have the advantage of being true, but it is idle to pretend that they have the sort of charm that could match that of the legends of the seal people. Let science be content, then, with the pride it can take in being true and useful, and not demand that we should also consider it charming and beautiful, and that we should cease to lament what it has caused us to lose.

The Girl

You might say this is hardly a story, since so little happens in it; it is more of a sketch; but is an enjoyable read nonetheless. We see a group of fishermen working on the beach, and a varied lot they are: old James tarring his boat and telling tales of dubious veracity; young Tom, who is about to emigrate to Canada and who prefers to swim and lounge about rather than help with the work; two other men getting ready to replace a plank; two twins bickering over their inheritance; the coarse Sander Groat and the pious Peter Simison. Meanwhile a girl is watching them from a meadow above and not doing anything in particular except making a wreath out of daisies; at the end of the story someone comes towards her on a motorbike.

It's a pleasant story although I can't say that I have any clear idea what, if anything, we're supposed to make of any of this. Perhaps the idea is that the fishermen represent the past, a way of life that is disappearing, while the girl who “looked down contemptuously at the fishermen” (p. 143) represents the future which will turn towards different ways of life, ways which will be less raw and more comfortable; this would be supported by the motorbike (a symbol of technological progress?) and by the fact that even the youngest of the fishermen is about to abandon their lifestyle by emigrating.

The Drowned Rose

William gets tired of teaching in the big city and accepts a job in a one-room school on the remote island of Quoylay. On his first day there he is visited by a mysterious young woman looking for someone named Johnny, but she disappears as suddenly as she arrived. William soon learns, partly from his new friend the minister and partly from his new neighbour, who is a nosy and malicious gossip, that this is in fact the ghost of Sandra, the previous schoolmistress. Even when not present in visible form, she often manifests herself through cold and the scent of roses.

While alive she was liked by everyone and eventually fell in love with a farmer named John, who unfortunately was still a married man, although his ailing wife has been taken to a hospital in the south some time ago. (She is apparently suffering from the ‘Orcadian disease’, which seems to be a variant of the winter blues; and which struck me as rather surprising given that she is from a neighbouring island herself and thus presumably used to that sort of thing. P. 154.)

Gradually the relationship between Sandra and John began to cause scandal and finally they were found drowned in the sea. The local minister explains that ghosts like hers are souls of the dead who find it difficult to accept their new condition, and thus linger for some time around the places they knew in life and re-enact their past actions, but eventually they move on and fade away.

I really enjoyed this lovely ghost story, though I couldn't help wishing that we learnt more about what really happened. Was their drowning a swimming accident, or did they commit suicide? But they don't seem to have been under *that* much pressure yet.

[This story, incidentally, is also available online: Australian Women's Weekly, 3 November 1971, pp. 79, 90, 93–5.]

The Tarn and the Rosary

This story is a series of sketches following the childhood and youth of a boy named Colm on the island of Norday. Though it is not told in the first person, we do mostly get to see everything from his perspective. Several of the scenes are set at school, where Colm is an uninterested and indifferent pupil, but he eventually finds he has a knack for expressing himself in writing (p. 176). We see his first experience with death, that of his grandfather. He goes on an excursion into the interior of the island and is strangely creeped out by the sight of a deep tarn, or small lake, there (“a sheet of dead pewter”, p. 171), and later finds similar sentiments in a poem by Wordsworth (p. 174).

Colm likes to visit and chat with the local tailor, Jock Skaill, who has a reputation for being an atheist and quite possibly a communist as well; but Jock's glorious rant against progress on p. 179 should bring tears of joy into the eyes of every reactionary.

There's an also interesting scene where Colm's father and other village men are discussing politics and current events (from the references to Ramsay Macdonald and the Irish question we can guess that this is in the interwar period; p. 179); on one particular occasion witnessed by Colm, we see one of the men deliver a grotesquely over-the-top anti-Catholic tirade (p. 182–4) — but perhaps it wasn't over the top by the standards of that time. From my perspective as a non-believer, I may dislike the Catholics but I dislike the Protestants ten times more; at least the Catholics have more picturesque churches, and their clergy wears fancier-looking dresses.

In the last scene of the story, Colm is now a grown-up and makes his living as a writer in Edinburgh. He is still in touch with old Jock, by letter. It turns out Colm has become a very ardent Catholic, for unusually artistic reasons: “my imagination tells me that it is probably so, for the reason that the incarnation is so beautiful. For all artists beauty must be truth” (p. 189). “There is nothing in literature so terrible and moving as the Passion of Christ — the imagination of man doesn't reach so far — it must have been so.” (Ibid.) This reminds me a little of that famous quote from Tertullian, ‘it is probable because it is absurd’, i.e. if someone had made it up he would have made up something more sensible than that :) Here Colm says that it is probably true because if someone had made it up he would have made it up less moving and beautiful; but I wonder if he doesn't underestimate man's imagination.

The Interrogator

This was an amazing and surprising story. The eponymous interrogator (and narrator of the story) arrives at the remote island of Norday; he is investigating the disappearance of a young woman named Vera, and we see him interviewing a series of witnesses who saw Vera on the day she went missing. The interrogator seems to be unhappy with the progress of the investigation, but combining their statements gives us a pretty thorough picture of Vera's movements that day. There's her father, surprisingly unconcerned about her disappearance; there's the boatman who ferried her across the bay from one side of the island to the other; there's Mrs. Moar, who gave Vera some food when she stopped at her farm looking tired; there's the beachcomber who saw her on the beach and later found a skeleton that might have been hers (but that can't be investigated as it has disappeared, presumably washed away by the sea); there's Theodore Hellzie, at whose farm she also stopped, but he was more concerned about his elderly mother who had just had a stroke earlier that day; apparently Vera enquired about a Norwegian fishing boat that was near the island that day, and Hellzie even saw her signalling to it. Perhaps she is not dead after all, but living somewhere in Norway?

And then comes a big surprise. At the end of the day, the beadle who had been conducting the witnesses in and out of the room during the investigation, and who also works as the local gravedigger, says: “I'd better see that they're all safely home, after their outing”, and goes to the churchyard. It turns out that this isn't a detective story after all — it's really a ghost story. Vera disappeared forty years ago, and today's witnesses were all ghosts. The narrator isn't a police investigator as I had imagined, but something more like an exorcist (complete with occasional Latin formulas, though we get them in English translation).

Finally Vera's ghost also appears, wanting to tell the truth about her disappearance; apparently neither she nor the other ghosts can get peace until then. She gives the lie to nearly all the earlier witnesses. Her father kicked her out of the house because she had got pregnant — with Theodore, as it turns out; the boatman tried to molest her; Mrs. Moar shunned her when she knocked at her farmhouse; Theodore refused to take her in, claiming that his mother's stroke was due to her worrying about Theodore's illicit relationship with Vera; and lastly, Vera didn't sail to Norway but simply committed suicide by drowning. The narrator concludes that his investigation is over but “these souls must now pass on to a higher court”.

One thing that I still don't understand, however: Theodore is among the witnesses, and seems to be just as much of a ghost as all the others, since just like them he seems to have no idea that Vera's disappearance was forty years ago. And yet unlike the other witnesses, Theodore is actually still alive (p. 211), though he is an old and shunned man now. How could the interrogator speak to the ghost of a young Theodore while the now-old Theodore is still alive?

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BOOK: Siegfried Sassoon, "The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston"

Siegried Sassoon: The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. London: Faber and Faber, 1972. [My copy is a later reprint, probably from the 1990s.] 0571099130. 656 pp.

I suppose it's inevitable that a war, being such a momentous event in the lives of people that get swept up in it, spawns a certain amount of ‘war literature’ in which these people try to grapple with their experiences; but even so, WW1 seems to have been more than usually abundant in this department. I'm not *terribly* keen to read this sort of thing, but I felt vaguely compelled to read some WW1 memoirs, mostly in the hope of understanding a bit better what it was like for the participants, and what made this war so different and more shocking than the previous ones. There seems to have been a widespread idea that this particular war represented some sort of break with the past, that wholesale changes must occur after it in pretty much every sphere of human activity, that nothing must go on like before, neither in the arts, nor in international relations, nor indeed in the very fabric of society. There have been plenty of wars before WW1 (and some since), but none seems to have shocked society in quite the same way.

Anyway, I can't say that I really understand anything about these questions any better after reading this book than before it, but then it wouldn't have been fair to the book to expect *that* from it. In any case, it was an interesting enough read, though I can't help noticing that the parts I found the most interesting were those that had the least to do with the war :) The book is a first-person narrative of the protagonist, George Sherston, presenting the story of his life from his childhood to the end of the WW1. From having a brief look at the biography of Sassoon on the wikipedia, it seems clear that Sherston's story has a great deal in common with Sassoon's own life, and it would be interesting to see which details in this book are fictional and which are autobiographical, but the present edition doesn't say anything about that; Sherston's story is presented simply as a work of fiction.

It initially appeared as three separate works — Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), and Sherston's Progress (1936) — but the story continues seamlessly from one part to the next, and the boundary between the first and the second part in particular seems completely arbitrary, so it's really better to think of the whole thing as a single work, and I think it was a great idea to publish it in a single volume the way we see here. I think it was the title of the first part that did much to persuade me to read this book, as the mention of fox-hunting hinted at the vanishing world of the British pre-war rural upper class (see my post from last year about David Cannadine's extremely interesting book about the decline of that class). In this I was not disappointed; I knew pretty much absolutely nothing about fox-hunting and the fox hunters before, and the first 1/3 or so of this book is a very nice introduction to this subject (and was, for me, the most interesting part of the whole book).


The book starts somewhere at the very end of the 19th century (see the mention of 1896 on p. 24). George Sherston is a boy who lost his parents early and is being raised his aunt Evelyn, who lives somewhere deep in the English countryside. The world we see in the first few chapters strikes me as having probably more in common with Tolkien's Shire than with anything that exists there today. Aunt Evelyn is perhaps not extravagantly rich by the standards of the upper class of the time, and I think the house she lives in is really a house and not a palace (which seem to have often been called “houses” by the English upper classes), but she has an independent income large enough to employ some three maids, a groom, and a stable-boy. As George has inherited a similar income from his parents, he has little reason to care about getting an education or a career, and his aunt doesn't seem to particularly mind this (he ends up attending Cambridge for some time, but doesn't graduate).

His chief interest in life are country sports, especially fox-hunting, but also cricket and (later) golf. In this he is encouraged by his groom, Dixon, who realizes that his best bet to come closer to the hunting world himself is by encouraging George to take up hunting. It was quite interesting to follow George's gradual development as a hunter. At first he has little idea what he is supposed to be doing, and suffers considerably from a lack of self-confidence, but his zest for the sport never wavers, and gradually he becomes thoroughly familiar with it. He does not shy from expenses that his income can just barely support; he buys a horse, and then another better one, and later I think still another one; and if no good hunting is going on close to where he lives, he endures long bicycle trips and train rides if it helps him get to an area with a better hunt — the logistics of getting himself, his horse, and possibly his groom to the other side of the county are not exactly trivial.


Fox-hunting has always struck me as a perfectly ridiculous sport, and this hasn't really changed after my reading this book. It seems to consist mostly of riding around the countryside jumping over hedges and fences. Supposedly there are dogs involved somewhere, and there might even be a fox that they're chasing after, but the hunters, judging by what we see of George here, seem to often have only the most distant and tenuous connection with these animals. Their biggest foe is in fact not the fox, but the farmer who puts barbed wire into his hedge and who kills foxes by more practical means which do not involve a large body of bizarrely-attired gentry traipsing around the countryside on horseback (“that sanctimonious old vulpicide”, p. 120 :)))). Wilde surely had a point in describing fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”.

And yet, I can't really bring myself to have anything against the practice. It may be a bit silly, but there's something charming about the very idea of something as silly as this going on. I vaguely remember, while visiting London more than twenty years ago, that I saw some people protesting against fox-hunting, and I read somewhere that they later successfully managed to get it outlawed. I suppose their excuse was that it's cruel to the fox; but I suspect that the real reason was that the activists disliked the fact that rich people were having fun. But surely the solution to that is to abolish the rich people, not to abolish fox-hunting. And they have only grown richer since then; what good will your prohibition of fox-hunting do when you tolerate the existence of a class of global bazillionaires who are rich and powerful enough to start personal space colonization projects? It would have been far better if they were hunting foxes instead.

George is not, admittedly, entirely wrapped up in fox-hunting. He also likes to read, and is particularly fond of fine 18th-century editions, but he goes about it in a scattershot way and it isn't exactly obvious from this that he would later become a prominent writer and poet (if we accept for the moment that Sherston is just a thinly-disguised Sassoon).


I suppose many people today would criticize George for leading such a narrow, unambitious life. His world is limited, not even to England, but pretty much to just one county of it. He goes rarely even to London, and when he does it's mostly to buy hunting clothes and gear. He has no interest whatever in the world abroad. “Europe was nothing but a name to me. I couldn't even bring myself to read about it in the daily paper.” (P. 176.) “Had there been no Great War I might quite conceivably have remained on English soil till I was buried in it. Others have done the same, so why not Sherston?” (P. 563.) As I said, many people would probably criticize him for this. Heck, in the book itself, his lawyer and trust fund guardian criticizes him heavily for not finishing his studies and taking up a career. For all I know, perhaps Sassoon himself, later in life, disapproved of the narrow horizons of his youth. (“It looks rather paltry”, p. 201.)

And yet, and yet — how wonderful this sort of life seems! How nice it would be to live like this, content and happy in a small and homely world, a familiar place filled with things and *people* that you are used to! Perhaps the biggest crime wrought by the WW1 was that it reached all the way in to people like Sherston, thickly cocooned deep in the heart of merrie old England though they were, and tore them mercilessly out of their cozy environment, flinging them into open, into the din and chaos and turmoil not only of the war, but of modernity, into a windy world of instability and change, in which the calm and tranquility of their pre-war lives would remain forever impossible. But perhaps it is unfair to blame all this on the WW1; these changes would have happened sooner or later anyway, due to technological progress, but WW1 came at a time when it could act as a catalyst to make them happen faster and therefore come across as even more shocking than they would otherwise have been.


Once the war breaks out, the book gets considerably less interesting. George joins the army early on, first as an ordinary soldier in the Yeomanry, a sort of reserve unit, but he then feels obliged to find a way to get to the front lines earlier, and gets himself commissioned as an officer in an infantry regiment of the regular army (pp. 228–31). A retired captain whom he got to know through fox-hunting puts in a good word for George with his old regiment, and between that and the fact that George is (by class) a gentleman, getting a commission was apparently a completely trivial matter (he became a second liutenant, which seems to be the lowest officer rank).

There are several fine passages illustrating the simple, trusting patriotism of the generation who volunteered for the army in such large numbers in 1914. “To him, as to me, the War was inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage [. . .] was the essential tragedy of the War, which, as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.” (P. 230.) “[H]e had arrived at manhood in the nick of time to serve his country in what he naturally assumed to be a just and glorious war. [. . .] he was a shining epitome his unembittered generation which gladly gave itself to the German shells and machine-guns” (p. 241).

Soon George is in France with his regiment. They are being rotated between periods in the trenches on the actual front line and much safer periods in the rear, billeted in houses and barns and the like in various French villages (p. 263). At one point George gets a safer job as a transport officer, but eventually turns it down (p. 274). By the time Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man ends, in early 1916, most of George's friends whom we got to know earlier in the book have been killed (including Dixon, his old groom, who had enlisted by pretending to be eight years below his real age; pp. 228, 267).

The narrative of George's war experience struck me as somewhat picaresque; one damn random thing after another — which, I suppose, is realistic enough. Even he himself says that “it could be tedious and repetitional for an ordinary Infantry Officer like myself” (p. 407). Occasionally their routine is interrupted by a bigger push or raid towards the enemy trenches, which generally doesn't accomplish anything much, exactly as you'd expect on the Western Front (p. 307). In July 1916 he is also involved in the Battle of the Somme. Eventually he falls sick with enteritis and is sent to England for a few months to recover (p. 367); he even manages to get some hunting done.

By the time he is back with his unit, in early 1917, he finds that most of his old comrades from 1916 are dead and gone, and in the ranks the enthusiastic volunteers of 1914 were by then mostly replaced by decidedly unenthusiastic recent draftees. He gets injured in the shoulder during the Battle of Arras (p. 445) and gets sent back to England again. By then he feels, like it seems many WW1 soldiers did, that the civilians back home don't and can't understand the war the way the soldiers did (pp. 421, 451, 464). He spends some time staying in the mansion of an elderly aristocratic couple who voluntarily take reconvalescing officers as guests (p. 460).


In mid-1917, there was much talk about “war aims”. I remember reading a little about this elsewhere before; were each country to publish its war aims, it could be a first step towards a negotiated peace. Many, however, were against committing to any definite war aims; the only aim, they would say, should be to win the war and then take what they could from the defeated enemy. George cannot help noticing that Britain had entered the war ostensibly to liberate “gallant little Belgium” but now they seem to be fighting mostly for things such as British control over the oil wells of Mesopotamia (p. 475). War, in short, is being unfairly prolonged because the original defensive war aims have been quietly replaced by aggresive ones (p. 496).

He establishes contact with peace activists, including a philosopher named Thornton Tyrrell who seems to be a very thinly disguised version of Bertrand Russell (pp. 477–8); and following their advice, he writes a defiant anti-war statement (p. 496) and sends it to his commanding officer. The hope seems to be that the resulting court-martial and the publicity surrounding it (pp. 505–7) could be used to draw attention to the cause of peace, and that such a statement would have much more weight coming from a wounded and decorated veteran than from random pacifist intellectuals who had spent the whole war safe in England (p. 483).

The army, however, proves to be a fairly cunning institution. The officers dealing with George's case are not at all keen to arrest him and let him turn himself into a martyr, and would rather treat his gesture as a medical issue, a nervous breakdown caused by shell-shock. Eventualy a friend persuades him that the army would simply shut him up in a lunatic asylum for the rest of the war if he remains obstinate (p. 512), and George finally gives in and is transferred to a hospital for soldiers suffering from shell-shock. He spends a good deal of time playing golf (p. 524) and thinking about his position; he decides that, since his original intention of pacifist activism has been thwarted, the only decent thing to do is to return into action and not accept a safe posting in Britain: “I would rather be killed than survive as one who had ‘wangled’ his way through by saying that the War ought to stop” (p. 549).

He spends some time in Ireland, where his Depot (“a place where recruits are assembled before being sent to active units”, says the wiktionary) has been moved due to the Troubles (p. 558). This at least gives him plenty of opportunities for hunting, and there is a very funny scene where the hunt is cancelled due to rain and they spend the whole day visiting an interminable succession of friends instead, getting more and more drunk with each visit :) (pp. 577–82).

Next (by now it's February 1918) Sherston is sent to Egypt and Palestine, but before he can get involved in any real fighting against the Turks he is transferred to France again, since the situation there has apparently deteriorated and needs reinforcements (pp. 597–600). By now, seeing little point in the war, the most Sherston can do is focus on taking good care of the men under his command (p. 618). Even then, in the summer of 1918, nobody has any idea that the war would be over in a few months (p. 633). Eventually George gets wounded again, by friendly fire (p. 649); he is sent to England again to recover, and that is where his war experience ends.


I found the ending of the book somewhat abrupt, and couldn't help wondering a little how Sherston's, or rather Sassoon's, story continues, how he ended up becoming a writer and poet, and how his opinions of the war and of pacifism developed in subsequent years. And of course, as always with anti-WW1 writings, I'm not quite sure what the author would have liked to have been done instead, and whether that would have actually been any better. Should Britain have let Germany overrun Belgium and have her way with France? Or gone to war for a couple of years to protect Belgium and help France, but then concluded a negotiated peace in 1916 or '17, which would presumably have meant a status quo ante in the west and a free hand for Germany in the east? Or is the alternative scenario that pacifists envisioned a still more counterfactual one in which anti-war sentiment prevails not only in Britain but also in Germany, and the war doesn't take place at all? All these things strike me as either too unrealistic or as worse than what ended up actually happening.

But anyway, I guess that any such counterfactual scenarios aren't really the point of a book like this. It is simply the record of the author's war experience and the development of his feelings on the subject; but the part that I liked best about it was the glimpse it provides into the vanished world of pre-war rural England, when Sherston was a happy young fox-hunter without the slightest care for what happens beyond the edges of his county. Being lured in by one topic and then ending up walking away happily having read about another — it's not a bad outcome from a book.

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

BOOK: John Keay, "The Honourable Company"

John Keay: The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1991. 0006380727. xx + 475 pp.

My experience with this book was much like that with Keay's India: A History, which I read a couple of years ago (see my post from back then): I didn't enjoy reading it as much as I had hoped I would, not due to any fault of the author's, but simply because it turned out that I wasn't quite as interested in the subject matter as I thought I would be.

As so often happens with histories — and so rarely with fiction — there are too many persons for me to be willing to take the trouble to keep track of them all in my mind, so I often had only the vaguest idea of who this captain or that factor was and how exactly he fits into the story. What also confused me a little is that the story isn't told in a strictly chronological order, but sometimes jumps backwards a little to cover the same period but in a different geographical area; but I'm not saying that that's a bad idea — it's probably the best way to organize a book about a subject like this.

In fact the author, as far as I can tell, did an excellent job. His style is engaging and vigorous, he keeps the story moving along at all times, he has an eye for the illuminating anecdote, and he is generous with short but vivid quotations from primary sources, complete with their original wonky early modern spelling and everything. If I found the book a bit boring to read, it isn't his fault at all.

And he has clearly read widely, not only in the primary sources, but also in the work of the 19th- and 20th-century historians, with whom he often engages in minor polemics. It seems that many of these earlier authors, writing as they did in the heyday of the British Empire, of which India was of course the crown jewel, regarded the history of the East India Company as little more than an unimportant prelude to what really mattered, i.e. the British Empire in India as it emerged in the 19th century. They were interested in the Company only insofar as its activities led to the emergence of this Empire. With Keay it is precisely the opposite. You can see that he is writing a book about the East India Company and by golly, he is going to stick to that; he has very little interest in what the Company did or didn't make possible for the Empire, and he brings the story to a surprisingly sudden close as soon as the Company sinks into irrelevance in the early 19th century.

Not that there's anything wrong with that — actually I liked his approach, as the British Empire in India is probably covered a lot more often in a lot more other books, so by focusing on the Company itself he could cover some less familiar ground and increase the chances of bringing new information to the reader. I myself certainly knew almost nothing about the Company before reading this book, so from that point of view it made for a very informative read.


It was not the first trading company in England, but it had some important innovations relative to earlier ones, such as the Levant Company (whose goal, by the way, had also been to import Far Eastern goods into England, except that it tried to do this overland across the Middle East rather than by sea; p. 13): those merely provided a regulatory framework within which its members “formed individual syndicates to raise capital and trade on their own account” (p. 27). By contrast, the East India Company itself raised capital from its members and then used it to operate trading voyages. But there was still one important difference compared to modern joint-stock corporations: the capital was raised for each voyage separately, and profits were likewise calculated and dividends paid out for each voyage separately. This had various downsides; e.g. after an unsuccessful voyage, it was hard to raise capital for the next one; and since voyages lasted several years and a new one was sent off before the last one had returned, they sometimes had agents representing several different voyages operating in some Eastern city at the same time and treating each other as rivals. The idea of having a stock of capital covering several voyages only came a few decades later (p. 99), and a permanent stock later still (p. 128).

As someone vaguely used to thinking of the East India Company as the entity whereby the British conquered the huge territory of India, I couldn't help being somewhat surprised by how modest its beginnings were. Its initial interests, in the early 17th century, were not so much in India but in the “Spice Islands”, the Banda archipelago in present-day Indonesia; and far from conquering (sub)continents, the best they could manage was to get some local sultan to grant them a plot of land for a “factory” (i.e. a trading agency and warehouse). They were mostly driven out of this early phase of the spice trade by the Dutch (pp. 50–1; the infamous Amboina massacre belongs to this period), and entered a period of decline (pp. 117–18). The Dutch had a much stronger naval presence in the Far East through their own East India Company, which was “a state venture” (p. 120), unlike the English one, which was mostly just an association of private merchants.

Another recurring problem that the English were facing was the balance of trade; they were importing spices and the like, but had to pay them with gold and silver since they couldn't export their own products there — unsurprisingly there wasn't much demand for woolen cloth in the sweltering jungles of India and southeast Asia (p. 74). Admittedly, this wasn't as much of a problem as some people feared at the time, since the English could recover some gold by re-exporting spices to other European countries at a profit (pp. 119–20). Their exports to the East really only began to grow in the early 19th century, by which time England was able to offer industrially produced (and therefore cheap) cotton cloth (p. 451).

In the early days, the Company occasionally paid dividends in kind, i.e. in pepper instead of money. Investors with the right connections could then try to increase their profit by exporting this pepper to the Continent instead of selling it in England (p. 64).


I was interested to learn that the three great cities from which British influence eventually spread into India — Madras, Calcutta, Bombay* — which are of course even greater cities now — aren't actually ancient Indian cities as I imagined; their history pretty much begins with the Company. Around 1640 they built a fort near a village called Madraspatnam, and the city of Madras grew out of that (pp. 68–9). Similarly, in 1687 they built a factory and base near a village called Kalighat, and Calcutta grew out of this (p. 156). Bombay seems to have been started by the Portuguese and was a settlement of no particular importance when its territory came under English rule as part of a dowry when Charles II married a Portuguese princess; the Company leased it from him in 1668 (p. 130).

[*This is also why, even in the 19th century, you still found British India divided into three “presidencies”: Bengal, Bombay, Madras. In the old Company days, a “president” was the chief factor (agent) in a given region; pp. 48, 99.]


One of the most important features of the Company was its monopoly on the import of goods into England from areas east of Africa. But this did not prevent various rivals (or “interlopers” as they seem to have been called) from trying to get a piece of the action. Whenever the Company's royal charter came up for renewal, there were debates on whether it would not be better for the country if the monopoly were abolished (pp. 170, 174–8). One William Courteen managed to get a charter for a rival company trading to Portuguese ports in the East in 1636 (p. 122), but it soon came to nothing. Later interlopers tried to get around the monopoly by acquiring charters from increasingly implausible European countries such as Austria, Poland, and Sweden (pp. 237–9).

It was easier to rival the Company in “country trade”, i.e. trade that started and ended in the East without reaching Europe at any point, as this doesn't seem to have been covered by its monopoly. The Company also allowed its employees to be involved in this (“private trade”) as a way to supplement their otherwise miserably low salaries (p. 172).

Eventually critics of the Company's monopoly and its corrupt business practices got the Parliament to approve a “New Company” (p. 182; in 1698), but the Old Company avoided getting shut down thanks to successful counter-lobbying, so that for a time both companies existed (p. 190); they merged in 1708 (p. 212).


Initially the Company was content to be just a trading company, but towards the end of the 17th century it began taking an interest in acquiring bits of territory and building fortifications, as India was increasingly unstable due to the Moghul Empire disintegrating (pp. 141–2, 243). They even had a short war against Aurangzeb, the last really powerful ruler of that empire, but they were easily defeated (p. 146). From one of his successors, Farrukhsiyar, the Company managed to obtain a farman or decree conferring various important trading rights and privileges upon it (in 1716; pp. 229, 232), an important step towards the expansion of their influence. (Keay comments that “the Company's timing had been impeccable”, as earlier emperors were too strong and would not have issued such a farman while the subsequent ones were too weak to do so; p. 231.)

For example, the farman exempted the Company from internal customs duties, but the Company interpreted this so broadly that it even began selling “passes” conferring this exemption upon any other merchant who cared to buy a pass (p. 235). Once the Company got strong enough to enforce this interpretation, they were able to deprive the nearby Nawab (governor) of Bengal of much of his revenue.


As the various European countries were often at war with one another, this also spilled into their emerging colonies in other parts of the word. Here in this book we repeatedly find the English fighting against nearby French or Dutch outposts, and usually succeeding in capturing some of their territory, but they were then often obliged to return it at the end of the war under the terms of the peace treaty concluded between their governments back in Europe.

From the middle of the 18th century, these wars also sped up the transformation of the Company from a mostly private trading organization focused on commerce to a mostly government-like organization focused on holding territory and gathering revenue (pp. 272–3). For example, there was a lot of fighting against the French near Madras as a result of the War of the Austrian Succession. As there was by then no firm Indian state in control of the area, both the British and the French often allied with opposite sides in various local power-struggles and were rewarded with “territories and revenues [. . .] not by right of conquest and at the expense of their enemies but by right of cession and at the expense of their allies” (p. 287–9). By then European armies were definitely better than Indian ones in various technical and organizational ways, having made much progress in the past one or two centuries (p. 291).

Nowadays, with history as a discipline being largely dominated by the woke movement, the prevailing view of British presence in India seems to be that promoted by the Indians themselves, according to which India had been a land of peace and plenty until the evil Britons showed up in Bengal, did nothing but plunder it for the next two or three centuries, and turned it into a land of poverty and famine. So I was quite interested to see a different view here in Keay's book. The way he presents things, government, either that of the Moghuls or of the various local rulers that followed in the wake of the decline of the Moghul empire, was already focused more or less entirely on tax collection, with nobody at any point in the ruling hierarchy having any notion that the purpose of the government might be to do anything for the people paying all those taxes. “Government was simply a euphemism for oppression under the imperial sanction of Moghul authority” (p. 292); “Moghul government amounted to little more than revenue management” (p. 377). In view of this, it isn't exactly obvious that the Company was oppressing or plundering its territories any worse than their previous Indian rulers had done.


In Bengal, the Company's abuse of the customs exemptions got it into conflicts with the Nawab of Bengal, who even captured Calcutta at one point (1756; the Black Hole of Calcutta belongs to this episode, p. 304). Later there was also fighting with the French as a result of the Seven Years' War (pp. 311–14, 339–44); the French were largely pushed out of India. The British supported a palace coup against the Nawab of Bengal and, after defeating his forces in the Battle of Plassey, the new Nawab (and the subsequent ones) was little more than their puppet (pp. 316–19, 370–2) and much of his revenues went towards paying the various sums he had promised to the British in exchange for their support. Robert Clive and other prominent British officials became fabulously wealthy in the process (p. 320–1).

As a result of all this, the Company was now practically in control of Bengal and acted more like a government than a business there (p. 331), but they were still doing a lot of trading elsewhere, notably in China, as the English were becoming a tea-drinking nation (p. 349). But the Company as a business wasn't terribly prosperous despite all this; revenues from Bengal weren't as high as had been hoped, maintaining its armies and administrators there was expensive, it was hard to export anything to China to balance out the imports of tea from there, and meanwhile the shareholders were pressing the Company to pay out increasingly high dividends (pp. 367, 378).

Traditionally the Company had been under the control of its directors who were mostly interested in trade, but now its “nabobs” (high-ranking employees who got rich in the process of territorial expansion) had the upper hand (p. 380). The general public in Britain got the impression that the Company's administration of its Indian territories was corrupt and oppressive (p. 382), and it was not far from there to the idea that the British government would do a better job of it. The government gained an increasing influence over the Company, partly by lending it money, partly by suitable provisions being inserted in various acts of parliament (pp. 384–5).

Even at this late stage, the Company was still involved in all sorts of interesting activities. We find it sending missions and expeditions to Tibet (pp. 423–4), Vietnam (pp. 425–8), Penang (p. 429), and New Guinea (p. 441). In an effort to finally find something to export to China, it even sponsored an expedition to Alaska, as there was apparently a great demand for otter furs in China. This led to the interesting question of whether Alaska counts as east or west of England for the purposes of the Company's monopoly; but then the question became moot as the Government founded a new “King George Sound Company” (pp. 432–4).


By 1785, the Company could be described as “a quasi-state department” (p. 391), at least in its role in administration of territories in India. As a trading company it continued for a few more decades; its monopoly was watered down in 1793 (p. 439) and abolished for the India trade in 1813 (p. 393) and for the China trade in 1833 (p. 456). But even this last step, in a sense, was just a formality; for example, it had been possible to bypass its China monopoly by trading in two steps, first between London and Singapore (which counted as India trade and was thus free of monopoly) and then between Singapore and Canton (which counted as “country trade” and thus also free of monopoly); p. 454. Part of the pressure for abolishing the monopoly came from British textile manufacturers, who by then could mass-produce cheap cotton goods and felt that the Company had effectively been using its monopoly to protect Indian weavers from this competition (pp. 451–2).

The Company was “finally wound up” in 1873 (p. 393), but what exactly it was doing between the loss of its monopolies and this final winding up, Keay does not tell us; perhaps it was doing nothing at all.


Apropos of nothing in particular: Captain William Heath, who visited Canton in the late 17th century, writes: “The abominable sin of sodomy is tolerated here, and all over China, and so is buggery, which they use both with beasts and fowls, in so much that Europeans do not care to eat duck except what they bring up themselves, either from the egg or from small ducklings.” (P. 206.) Talk about secret sauce :))))

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Sunday, July 11, 2021

BOOK: Howard Smith, "Last Train from Berlin"

Howard K. Smith: Last Train from Berlin. London: The Cresset Press, 1942. vii + 266 pp.

Smith was an American journalist who reported from Germany during the first two years of the WW2, while the United States was (in principle) still neutral. He published this book in 1942, after his return to the USA. I found it an interesting read, but I have much the same complaint as with Arvid Fredborg's Behind the Steel Wall, which I read a few years ago: I wish there was more about what it was like to work as a journalist in wartime Germany, and less about how the war was going, what the internal dynamics of the Third Reich were, and the like — I can read these latter things in the work of any number of later historians who are in a much better position to see the whole picture than someone living in the middle of those events had been. The problem, of course, is that the readers in 1942 very reasonably had exactly the opposite preferences than me in these matters, and authors like Smith and Fredborg wrote for them, not for the likes of me. Still, I enjoyed the book a lot; Smith not only observed things, but also thought about them a good deal, and I found something interesting on practically every other page.


Smith first visited Germany in 1936; he had just graduated from college and wanted to travel in Europe a bit before settling down, and he went to Germany because it was cheapest (p. 1). But he also wanted to find out how the Nazi system worked in Germany; he was surprised by how heavily militarized everything in Germany had already become by then (pp. 6–7), and it was clear that an enourmous amount of resources were being dedicated to rearmament (while the standards of living of the civilian population had actually declined since the Nazi takeover of power; p. 12). From this, Smith concluded that the regime was inevitably on a course for war.

In 1937–39, he spent two years at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship (pp. 22–8); he was impressed by how keenly the students were involved in political clubs, and he himself seems to have spent more time on activism for the Labour Club than on studying. When war started, he was pleasantly surprised to see that Britain was actually going to stand up to Hitler this time (p. 28), but was disappointed by how uninspired British propaganda was (pp. 31–2). He got himself a job with the United Press and went to Berlin in January 1940 (pp. 28, 30).

There are a couple of odd insults at Hitler's expense that I haven't seen before. I know that his very modest artistic career led some people so mockingly refer to him as a housepainter and the like, but Smith upgrades this to “a second-rate, psychopathic carpenter with a third-rate intellect” (p. 16) and “a wall-paper hanger” (p. 29)!

Interesting factoid of the day: Hitler's half-brother Alois (from their father's second marriage — Adolf was from the third) was running a “little restaurant” in Berlin (pp. 46, 105).


Since the war was going well for Germany for the first couple of years, the Nazi regime was bursting with self-confidence and didn't supervise the foreign reporters as closely as later (p. 34). After the first air-raids against Berlin, they were allowed to report freely as the Germans wanted to show how insignificant the damage had been; but as the raids grew more serious, the reporters' access was correspondingly reduced (pp. 43–4).

American reporters were treated particularly well in the first year or so of the war, as Germany still hoped that America would stay neutral; but Smith says that despite these efforts they were not in the least bit favourable to the Nazis (pp. 35–6). But as the U.S. supported Britain more and more, the Nazis became increasingly anti-American; Roosevelt took the place of Churchill as the big bogeyman of their propaganda (p. 153), and American reporters in Germany were increasingly harassed by the Nazi authorities. Some of them (notably Richard Hottelet) were imprisoned for months at a time, without any definite charges being brought against them (pp. 166–7); the offices of the United Press, where Smith worked, were raided by the Gestapo for no real reason other than to intimidate them (pp. 160–6). Despite this pressure, many of them persisted in Berlin, considering that sort of risks to simply be a part of journalism (pp. 169, 172).

To me one of the most interesting things about journalists' memoirs is to see some glimpses of how they work. Smith says he was surprised by the Nazi invasion of Norway, but in hindsight he saw there had been many signs pointing to it (e.g. masses of mountain troops passing through Berlin on the way north), and he resolved to pay more attention next time (pp. 39–40). For example, he tracked the regime's attitude towards Soviet Union by watching anti-Soviet books disappear from the German bookstores in 1939 and then re-emerge in 1941 (pp. 46–7), a hint that the Nazis were planning to make a move against the Soviet Union. Various other signs and rumours soon followed (pp. 48–9).

He had been surprised, and dismayed, by the German military successes of 1940, and in early 1941 he had almost quit his job and left Germany, but then decided to stay when he saw that an attack on Soviet Union seemed to be brewing (pp. 45–6).

There's an interesting chapter about the momentous occasion on October 9, 1941, when Hitler's press chief, Dr. Otto Dietrich, stepped before the gathered reporters and announced that the Soviet Union was as good as defeated (pp. 60, 62–3). He was supposed to announce the successful progress of a new German offensive started a week or so before, but he seems to have got a little carried away, perhaps because he knew that some major good news were sorely needed by the German public, which was getting weary of the war in view of the fact that the Soviet Union wasn't showing any signs of imminent collapse, contrary to many confident predictions made at the start of the German invasion of Russia (p. 71). The American reporters figured that Dietrich's statement was probably true, since a lie of that magnitude would come to light soon enough and cause him enormous embarrassment (p. 63). The German public, too, was tremendously elated (although Goebbels prudently prevented the German press from quoting Dietrich's statements directly, p. 65, and had the triumphalism toned down over the next few days, p. 77), and began dreaming of the prosperity and opportunities that would soon open up in the forthcoming German colonial empire in the East (p. 76). Soon, of course, reality began to set in and the regime's media lost all credibility with the German public (pp. 78–80).

By the way, you've got to love mid-20th-century slang: by attacking the Soviet Union, “[s]heerly on the bases of geography and numbers Hitler had pulled a boner.” (P. 52.)


One interesting change that Smith describes as occurring in 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, was the massive and surprisingly fast decline in the amount and quality of food and consumer goods available to the German population (p. 96). During the times of easy victories in the first couple of years of the war, Germany was able to cover its deficiencies by looting the resources of the occupied countries (p. 85), but these were being looted too quickly (for a time there had actually been a kind of unnatural prosperity in Germany; p. 86), and had been largely exhausted by the time the German invasion of the Soviet Union began.

Smith describes the various ways in which the Nazis tried to cope with the resulting shortages: for example, first they reduced the meat rations; then, fearing the bad effects on morale of further reductions, they simply supplied less meat to shops and restaurants without officially decreasing the rations (p. 89), resulting in massive queueing as people tried to buy meat before the shops ran out. Various other foodstuffs were replaced by ersatz versions concocted with foul-smelling chemicals of dubious nutritional value (p. 93). The territorial gains made in Russia in the first few months after the invasion didn't really help either, as the Soviets had evacuated all industry to the east before retreating (p. 104).

All this led to an overall air of seediness and a decline in industrial production (pp. 100, 103). “I never thought it was possible for a country to go so universally trashy so quickly.” (P. 116.) The people's health declined, they turned pale, weary and irritable, and resorted widely to drugs and patent medicines in an effort to regain some energy (pp. 119–21). The seediness even extended to government: “the whole Nazi civil government is in a state of unbelievable chaos” (p. 125) because Hitler and the other bigwigs largely lost interest in anything but military affairs.

Smith makes an interesting observation that by late 1941, most Germans weren't supporting the Nazi regime out of any real enthusiasm for it any more, but because they were afraid what would happen to them if Germany lost the war (a fear which Nazi propaganda, of course, was very keen to stoke; p. 123). The only section of the population that still believed zealously in the Nazi system were the children, who had been exposed to its propaganda full-time all their lives (pp. 127–8) and to whom the regime had always taken special care to appeal (p. 225).

There's an interesting chapter on the development of the Nazi anti-Jewish policy. Smith begins with the observation that “when people become discontented, they can get angry at one of two things: at conditions, or at people. The one reaction is generally that of maturity; the other, of immaturity.” (P. 130.) This latter reaction is often deliberately encouraged by the ruling elites to give the people an easy scapegoat for their problems, and Smith points out that this was the basis both of anti-Semitism in Germany as well as of the anti-black activities of the KKK in America (p. 130). Anti-Jewish propaganda and persecution actually slackened a little in the first couple of years of the war, when the German people were pretty content due to the string of easy victories, but it was ramped up again once the campaign against the Soviet Union started to go badly (p. 132). By late 1941 the Jews still remaining in Berlin were being ‘resettled’ to the East (pp. 138–40). Smith's understanding was that they were mostly being taken to occupied Soviet territories to be worked to death building roads and the like (p. 140). Of course we now know that a lot of Jews were killed outright without being put to work, but most of that would have started in 1942 (e.g. the Wannsee Conference was in January 1942), after Smith's departure from Germany.

When the requirement for Jews to wear the star of David on their clothes was introduced in September 1941, it proved unpopular with the German public; and the authorities apparently tried to justify it with the bizarre fake claim that the U.S. authorities had similarly forced German-Americans to wear a swastika on their clothes :S (pp. 146–7). What is also interesting is that apparently the Nazi authorities didn't make this latter claim openly and officially, but had their low-level officials put it into circulation amongst the public as a rumour (p. 147).

It is deplorably popular nowadays amongst libertarians and other such vermin to claim that nazism was a form of socialism — iT's RiGhT tHeRe In ThE nAmE, bRo! — and I was glad to see that Smith doesn't go in for that sort of nonsense in the least. “Too many observers have allowed themselves to be fooled by the fact that, for reasons of expediency, Hitler chose to call his party the National Socialist German Workers Party” (p. 181), but his mass support during the years of his rise to power really came from the small bourgeoisie, the lower middle class, much more than from the proletariat; and if you look at the practical results of Nazi policies, the only class that really benefited from them was the topmost layer of capitalists. “The state is allegedly national ‘Socialist’, but for a socialist state it maintains the finest, fattest crop of unadulterated plutocrats you ever dreamed of.” (P. 125.) “In actual fact, Nazism is the most reactionary and vicious form of capitalism hat has ever existed” (p. 179). The economy was controlled by a system of boards that consisted mostly of the biggest capitalists in their respective branches of the economy, and their profits flourished enormously; meanwhile the workers found their wages and their standards of life decline steadily from year to year; and the petite bourgeoisie — the small business owners, shopkeepers and the like — found themselves squeezed out of the market by big business even harder than before Hitler's rise to power (pp. 182–4, 188). Nazism “is not socialism, but a form of capitalism that is virtually feudalistic in safeguards granted to and preserved for the wealthy, as well as in the total servitude it demands of those who possess nothing but their hands and brains to work with.” (P. 184.) The SA, being the mass organization through which a certain kind of revolutionary aspirations of the lower middle class could perhaps express themselves, was gradually sidelined by Hitler and, in August 1941, as good as shut down for all practical purposes (pp. 190–2). The disappointment of the lower middle class can be summarized in the bitter joke: “What is the difference between Germany and Russia? In Russia the weather is colder.” (P. 195.)

Smith's departure from Germany was not without a touch of excitement. Relations between the U.S. and Germany had been deteriorating for some time and by late 1941 it was almost impossible for journalists like him to work. The German authorities stepped up their pressure and, no longer content merely with censoring them, increasingly tried to pressure them into including actual German propaganda talking-points in their reports and broadcasts (p. 259). At that point Smith decided to quit and return to America, but the Nazi authorities refused to let him leave unless his employer, the CBS, sent a replacement, evidently to function as a hostage to prevent Smith from badmouthing the Nazis after returning to America! (P. 260.) Fortunately the Germans allowed Smith to leave once the CBS promised to send someone, without waiting for that someone to actually arrive. Smith crossed the border into Switzerland in the morning of December 7, 1941 (see pp. 264–5 for a wonderful description of the contrast between the bleak, dreary Berlin and the peaceful and prosperous Switzerland; it was like stepping from a black-and-white movie to a colour one). In the evening of the same day, Pearl Harbor was attacked; had Smith waited but half a day longer, it would have been impossible for him to leave Germany.


Smith concludes the book with a couple of chapters discussing how nazism might be defeated. There was some internal opposition, coming from the communists (with whom a lot of German workers still sympathized; p. 203), the catholic church (p. 205), and the traditional Prussian officer class (p. 209); but in Smith's view it was unlikely that any of these would topple the regime from within. Besides, Hitler had protected himself well by building up institutions such as the Gestapo and (as a sort of counterweight to the army) the Waffen-SS, both of which were absolutely loyal to him (pp. 213, 226). Apparently Himmler even suggested setting up an SS air force and navy, but Hitler did not adopt this plan (p. 218).

As for defeating Nazi Germany from outside, Smith says that the situation actually looked fairly promising. As of his writing, probably in early 1942, Germany was clearly getting badly exhausted in her unsuccessful attempts to defeat the Soviet Union, and was meanwhile also facing a lot of resistance in other occupied territories (pp. 230–1). Smith expresses admiration for the tenacity of the Soviet defense (p. 240), and says the democratic Allies should emulate the Soviets' commitment to total war: “there is still too much slack in our war effort” (p. 239). He even finds a good word for the pre-war purges in the Soviet army: “Had Russia not ‘liquidated’ a few thousand officers and bureaucrats, there is little doubt that the Red Army would have collapsed in two months, and left us holding a bag, many times bigger, containing Hitler and all Europe, and most of Asia. Had we liquidated a few, the war might never have happened.” (P. 240).

But his boldest suggestion is to carry out sweeping social and economical reforms in the Allied countries as a way of giving the German public a vision of what a better post-war order might look like (p. 247). Countries like the U.S., Smith says, had mostly achieved “political democracy [. . .] in which each individual possesses one unit of political power”, but they were far from the state of “economic democracy [. . .] in which each individual has approximately one unit of economic power” (p. 250). This inequality in turn leads to political inequality because the rich people can influence the political process far out of proportion to their numbers. He ends with some concrete proposals: nationalize the mines and the arms industry, and give independence to the colonies, immediately where possible, or in at most five years (p. 253).

I was really pleasantly surprised to see such openly leftist ideas, as I wouldn't have expected anyone but dreary boring Marxist doctrinaires advocating such things back then, and it's clear enough that Smith is not one of those — it's obvious from the style of the book if nothing else, for it is the style of your typical hard-boiled, red-blooded 1940s American journalist. Anyway, as we now know, some of his ideas would in fact get implemented, though in a massively watered-down form; there was some nationalization of industries in the first few decades after the war (probably more so in Europe than in the U.S., though), and the colonies did eventually get their independence, though not as quickly or as smoothly as he had suggested. Alas, the forces of capital then rallied again and we now live in a more unequal society than at any point in the last hundred years.


  • Stephen Roberts: The House that Hitler Built (1937). [Also an updated edition in 1938.] Mentioned here on p. 123: “as nearly perfect a picture of that strange complicated mechanism [i.e. the Nazi system] as it was in peace time, as it is possible for a human to draw.”
  • Jan Valtin: Out of the Night (1940). An autobiographical work of somewhat doubtful authenticity, mentioned here on p. 228.

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