The Volunteer: the true story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz, by Jack Fairweather

Witold Pilecki

In the vastness of the Second World War, one fact contends for the title of most startling of all, and it is this: Polish officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz.

It is true that, when he first agreed to the assignment in 1940, he probably could not have conceived of the scale of the risk and abject horror that he would encounter there. After all he took this intelligence mission specifically to find out what was going on in this secretive German facility. But having seen what was happening he still stayed for three years, risking his life every day in a effort to build a resistance movement there and to alert the outside world to what was happening.

A veteran of both the 1920 Poland-Russia war and the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany Witold was a brave man with no illusions about war. But he had never seen anything like Auschwitz. No one had.

The reports that Witold sent to the resistance in Warsaw and to the Allies in London detailed something unprecedented in human history: the construction of an industrialised programme of mass murder. In the shadow of this Witold’s organisation gathered intelligence and, where they could, assassinated Nazis. But Witold also realised that kindness was resistance in that every time someone shared meagre food or helped a fellow prisoner it was a refusal to accept the dehumanisation that the Nazis intended for them.

Even seeing the Nazi atrocities against Jews, political prisoners and Russian prisoners of war with his own eyes Witold could barely comprehend it so vast and irrational was that killing. But the Allied High Commands who refused to respond to Witold’s pleas for direct action against this genocide have no such excuse. The cumulative evidence provided to them at enormous cost by the Polish Home Army and the Jewish Agency can have left little doubt as to what was happening. But thousands of miles away from the death cries of Jewish women and children and the stink of incinerated human flesh Churchill and Roosevelt found plenty of excuses for inaction.

Witold eventually escaped to make a direct appeal to the Home Army for military support to an uprising in Auschwitz. But by this stage they too were preoccupied with other things, most particularly their plans for an uprising in Warsaw to reassert Polish independence at war’s end. So the courageous resistance network that Witold had built up in Auschwitz was left hanging, eventually to be liquidated by the SS.

Witold died knowing that his mission to Auschwitz had been a failure. Furthermore as someone who was regarded as a traitor by the Stalinist authorities who replaced the Nazis the full details of what he did were also covered up until the fall of the Soviet Union. But, as Witold said before his death,”I tried to live my life in such a fashion so that in my last hour, I would be happy rather than fearful. I find happiness in knowing that the fight was worth it.”

Jack Fairweather’s book is a superb, and superbly gripping, tribute to this man of conscience and action who the butchers of history tried to erase. In spite of his failures Witold’s life stands as an enormous indictment of all those who fail to use the power that they have to diminish human suffering.

The Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company, by William Dalrymple

Summary: a gripping account of the most hostile corporate takeover in history – the East India Company’s bloody seizure of the Mughal Empire

The East India Company was established in 1600 to facilitate trade between England and South Asia. New markets were desperately needed, then as now, following England’s hubristic decision to politically separate itself from its natural economic hinterland in mainland Europe.

The East India Company eventually established trading posts in the Mughal empire, at the time probably the wealthiest state in the world. By the mid-18th Century however cracks began to show in that empire as it lost territory to the south and came under attack from other powerful states in the north: Persia even sacked Delhi in the late 1730s.

By this stage the East India Company was already in possession of an army from earlier conflicts with the French in the region so it soon became drawn into these wars, first as a king-maker allying itself to different south Asian factions, then seizing the opportunity to take the whole state for itself. In other words the British subjugation of India began, literally, as the most hostile of corporate takeovers.

The cataclysm that British rule represented for ordinary south Asians, something still substantially under appreciated in Britain itself, was the subject of Shashi Tharoor’s excoriating Inglorious Empire. Dalrymple traces the origins of this to the general lack of concern by the English for their newly acquired subjects. Rather they viewed their new conquests as “a pirate views a galleon”, and plundered with murderous abandon.

Even the onset of famine in Bengal as a consequence of East India Company depredations did nothing to blunt their extraordinary rapaciousness. The state continued to be looted to provide riches for the Company officers and dividends to English shareholders with no thought of humanitarian relief for their victims. In the end it is estimated that up to 10 million people were starved to death.

In The Anarchy Dalrymple provides a fine narrative account of the establishment of the East India Company and its conquest of India. He draws not only on European sources for this but also Asian ones. Hence he provides a fine and nuanced portrait of an Indian society before, during and after its destruction by the mercenaries of the East India Company, notably Clive.

Dalrymple seems to have something of a soft spot for Warren Hastings, a successor to Clive, who in spite of his complicity with this larcenous enterprise, was something of an Indiaphile. He also brings to new audiences the careers of major India figures such as Tipu Sultan, and casts new light on the careers of figures whose infamy is now largely forgotten, such as Richard Wellesley, brother of the more famous Arthur, Duke of Wellington.

It is said that the curse of the Irish is we remember everything, while the curse of the English is they remember nothing. As England prepares to cut itself loose again from Europe, this is a portion of their history which they should learn urgently. It will help them understand better why India will likely seek to eat them raw in future trade negations.

In these coming days…: a few tentative predictions

Summary: The 2020s will see – Scotland become independent; a border poll in Ireland; the future of the planet hinging on the next US general election and decisive EU action; and England getting blue passports

New decades are as good an excuse as any for a time of reflection and rumination on what the coming years may bring. Unfortunately, even after what was for many a disastrous 2019, the signs of hope are few on the ground.

Australia is on fire. This is a mere portent of what global warming will bring, particularly now that Donald Trump has sought to tear up the already insufficient Paris Agreement on climate change.

Even if the world soon takes sufficient action to stave off the civilisation-ending threat of global warming the consequences in the global south are still likely to be catastrophic, creating impoverishment as delicate ecosystems are upended. This, in turn, will drive increased migration and render migrants open to new vulnerabilities, not least the threats of trafficking and enslavement. We already see this, perhaps a harbinger of worse to come, in the situation of Nigerian and other migrants whose efforts to reach Europe lead them only to abuse and exploitation in the slave markets of Libya.

We see this also on the southern border of the US where Trump’s family separation policies regarding migrants have led to considerable trauma and abuse of affected children. While they remain separated from their families and in a system with such a poor culture of child protection this certainly increases future risks of trafficking for those children.

Elsewhere, Trump continues to spread death: To distract from his pending impeachment for criminal acts, he began this new decade with a criminal act of war on Iran. He followed this up with threats of further war crimes, which, he claimed, were meant to prevent war. He may even have believed that. But the consequences are likely to be renewed conflagration in a region which was already looking dangerous following Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and his trashing of the Iran nuclear deal.

The legendary war correspondent Martha Gelhorn once asserted that stupidity can be criminal. Trump is a human embodiment of that insight. Trump understands the Middle East in the way that he understands climate change and that is about equivalent to a chimp’s understanding of astrophysics.

Nevertheless lack of understanding has never been regarded by the morbidly stupid as a barrier to action. We are likely to be treated to new displays of that truth as English fantasies of Empire 2.0 collide with the realities of contemporary politics, not least the nature of trade negotiations with the world’s most powerful markets, specifically the EU, the US, India and China.

Many far-Right British politicians speak of a post-Brexit US trade deal as if it will be some massive favour done to the UK by their ideological cousins currently occupying the White House. They overlook the role of Congress in ratification of trade deals, and indeed the fact that US national interest will inevitably play a role in the terms of any deal agreed.

Thus has it always been. Even at moments of existential crisis, such as during the Second World War when, as Max Hastings points out in his biography of Churchill, “American policy throughout the war emphasised the importance of strengthening its trading position vis-à-vis Britain…The embattled British began to receive direct aid, through Lend-Lease, only when the last of their gold and foreign assets had been surrendered… Lend-Lease came with ruthless conditions constraining British overseas trade, so stringent that London had to plead with Washington for minimal concession enabling them to pay for Argentine meat, vital to feeding Britain’s people.”

The UK will be an abject supplicant in all future trade talks. Neither its national interest nor its ideological alignment will matter much to their opposing trade negotiators who will be operating on mandates to maximise the benefits for their own countries.

This is a likely price of Brexit. But Brexit has never been about British prosperity. Rather it represents a dangerous turning away from liberal democracy in the UK to something altogether more authoritarian.

This has always been implicit in Brexit, which is, after all, the repudiation of the body of international law that represents EU membership. But that is just the beginning. Brexit opens the gateway not just to deregulation in relation to human and employment rights and environmental standards, but also to the possibility of removing the constraints of liberalism on government, including the basic principles of democracy and rule of law that are prerequisites for EU membership.

So where does that leave us? What logical progression is likely to follow from the upsurge of the far-Right across the North Atlantic?

One of the most likely upshots is a renewed push for Scottish independence. Remember that a decisive argument against Scottish independence in 2014 was continued membership of the EU. Such is the contempt with which Scotland has been treated in the Brexit process that the prospect of Scotland as an independent nation with its own seat at the EU Council of Minsters is likely to prove irresistible when the next referendum is called. Whether that happens peacefully or whether Boris Johnson tries to repress the demand for an independence referendum remains to be seen.

In the aftermath of Scottish independence the call for a border poll in Ireland is likely to also become irresistible. The outcome of such a poll is unpredictable. But it is possible that with a sufficiently generous constitutional offer, including Irish re-entry to the Commonwealth, sufficient Unionists could be persuaded that their future is brighter being welcomed into a reunited Ireland in the EU, rather continue to be regarded as an embarrassment to the rump UK, already a vassal to the US.

The role of England in this coming decade remains to be seen. In the past the UK, on occasion at least, has been an important advocate for effective humanitarian response across the world, often leveraging its position in the EU to maximise its international relevance. But this, sadly, appears to be passing: Outside the UK nobody really noticed when Boris Johnson refused to interrupt his Caribbean holidays to lead the UK’s response following the assassination of Suleimani. The UK is becoming less and less relevant in international affairs. Following Brexit and the breakup of the UK, England is likely to become increasingly irrelevant.

For the rest of the world, it seems likely the Vladimir Putin’s assault on liberal democracy will continue. Donald Trump is clearly counting on that delivering him the 2020 election. After that Trump would probably lose interest in the Middle East again, at least for a while. However the consequences of his 2020 actions could well reverberate in bloodshed across the region that would inevitably spill onto European streets.

But there is some hope. I’ve no strong opinion on current candidates for the Democratic nomination in the US, but it is heartening that one, Bernie Sanders, has introduced into the Democratic primaries ideas for peace in the Middle East based not just on the need for security but also on the ideals of justice, not least for Palestinians. Democrats’ proposals for a Green New Deal could also lead to a transformation of the world’s largest economy into something that is ecologically sustainable. In short the outcome of the next US general election will be decisive for the future of the planet.

And the EU still matters. It brings with it the potential for considerable collective action on the environment, social justice, and human rights standards in international trade. It still represents the most successful peace project in human history, one that has made war between the member states “not just unthinkable but materially impossible.” Perhaps someday, if we don’t destroy the planet, this will become a model for peace in the Middle East?

Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

Summary: the extraordinary first volume of Caro’s planned five volume biography of LBJ

The Path to Power is volume one of Robert Caro’s celebrated, multi-volume biography of

Lyndon Johnson – four volumes have already been published with a fifth planned. This one covers Johnson’s career from birth to the outbreak of the Second World War, including his election to Congress and his first, failed, Senate run.

Nevertheless in spite of its mammoth size this is not a book that I would ever describe as “sprawling”. For all its numerous, fascinating, digressions – into Texas social history or politics, for example, or concise biographies of Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, or Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives and sometime patron of Lyndon – Caro never once loses sight of the central purpose of his work, which is to try to explain Lyndon Johnson. Hence any digressions that he makes are provided to establish a context from which better understanding can be derived.

Johnson was not a very nice man. But he was a fascinating one with an extraordinary impulse for power, an awesome appetite for hard work, and a fundamental grasp of political campaigning, both for himself and, as described in this book, as a leader of Democratic national election campaigning. (It’s a pity that some of the clowns leading Labour’s disastrous December 2019 election campaign did not spend some time studying this book to learn some of the basics of winning elections.)

In the course of his career he did much good and some extraordinary evil. But he never for a moment seems to have been motivated by anything other than a desire for self promotion. Despite coming from a Texas Liberal tradition – both his father and Rayburn were unequivocal men of the Left, Johnson was not by any means wedded to these ideals. Over the course of his career he shifted from Left to Right and back again depending on the prevailing political winds and which alliances he felt would most probably advance his self interest.

Such calculation was not restricted to his professional life. His marriage to Lady Bird seemed to have been wholly functional, its purpose to obtain for him a rich wife whose family might help bankroll his political campaigns. All of his relationships, with one exception, seem to have been developed with the sole consideration of how they would advance his political career.

The sole exception was his affair with Alice Glass, the wife of one of his most important political backers. Johnson simply could not resist Alice in spite of the damage that it would have caused him had Alice’s husband discovered the true nature of their relationship. Lady Bird had, of course, to live with the humiliating knowledge of the affair, conducted with no concern whatsoever for her feelings.

Alice, in fact, seems to have been the only woman Johnson ever loved. So there is a sort of Karmic justice that towards the end of her life Alice had wanted to destroy all her correspondence with Johnson. She was afraid that her children would discover not that she had an affair, but that she had one with the man most responsible for the US’s murderous involvement in Vietnam.

The Path to Power is a gripping book, elegantly written and displaying an extraordinary depth of research. It is a matter of unspeakable pleasure to know that I have at least three more volumes of this work to read.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

Summary: myth as a prophesy of war

In the Greek Myths, Robert Graves provides a sprawling and comprehensive survey of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. The approach is mostly “chronological” though some portions, such as Agamemnon’s return and the vengeance of Orestes, are placed in the narrative before temporally subsequent ones, such as the sack of Troy.

Many of these stories are now perhaps best known from classical literature such as Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus or Sophocles. But here Graves tries to be true to their oral origins, acknowledging that there are a variety of versions of the stories, including differences in some of the reported names of the characters and indeed in some of the stories’ conclusions: Some say that Theseus felt bad about abandoning Ariadne, for example; or some say that Iphigenia was rescued by the goddess Artemis, not trussed up and slaughtered like a goat by her own father.

These stories have been cleaned up over the years, often for children, by the likes of Charles Kingsley or Roger Lancelyn Green. But here the “heroes” are as they were – an array of bloody men, and a few bloody women, from an era when the only balm from trauma was the facade of martial glory.

Hence it is difficult to see the story of Theseus as anything other than the story of an idealistic young man descending into increased horror and cruelty as a result of a career of killing that he enters in the hope of fame and glory. Heracles comes across as little more than a psychopath: extraordinary that someone should decide to make a Disney cartoon out of that one. Odysseus is clever and brave, but also venial, untrustworthy and brutal, breaking his word to those Trojans to whom he promised protection, and personally murdering Hector’s infant son, amongst other vile and treacherous deeds in his career of war and wandering,

Perhaps this volume makes better sense as a work of reference than an a work of narrative. But, taken in total, these stories give a shockingly stark portrayal of the effects of violence and warfare on both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps this was part of their appeal to Graves, himself a veteran of the carnage of the First World War.

Neither the Trojan War nor the wars of the Twentieth Century seem to have done much to dispel the attraction to war for a certain class of human. So in telling these stories, as well as his own war experiences elsewhere, Graves may have realised that he was also heir to Cassandra, the princess of Troy, gifted with the power of perfect prophesy and cursed with the knowledge that even her most desperate warnings would never to be heeded no matter how menacing the approaching “smell of blood”.

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerned by Irish business involvement in rights violations

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

Ireland appeared before the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in early December in Geneva. The Committee was considering the consolidated fifth to ninth reports submitted by Ireland. As previously mentioned on the blog, several civil society submissions to the Committee had raised the issue of the potential involvement of Irish businesses in violations of human rights, including those entailing racial discrimination.

During the session, members of the Committee asked the Irish government delegation about measures being taken to address business and human rights issues, including most prominently the connections between Irish companies and the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia:

The Irish delegation was given the opportunity to respond to the Committee on this issue, as live-tweeted by my colleagues at the Irish Centre for Human Rights:

The Concluding Observations of the Committee have now been published (in advance form). They include strong recommendations on a range…

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To Kill the Truth, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a twisty Washington thriller for our troubled times

Maggie Costello, Sam Bourne’s recurrent trouble-shooting hero, is taking some time out as a student following the events of her previous outing in To Kill The President. But she is called back into political service by a friend – the new governor of Virginia, concerned now about the murder of a Civil War historian coinciding with a trial initiated by a charlatan intent on denying that slavery ever actually existed in the United States.

It quickly transpires that these events are just the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg as a shadowy Right-Wing organisation begins attacking the great libraries of the world, intent on destroying the pesky facts that tend to undermine their Brexit-level crazy views of the world.

Bourne, otherwise known as the Guardian’s former Washington correspondent Jonathan Freedland, is highly adept at crafting a satisfying, twisty thriller. But To Kill the Truth is more than that. It is an engaging meditation on the uses and abuses of history, the tension in conflicted societies between justice and peace, and how facts no longer “mark out the public square for honest debate” but are themselves the subject of partisan dispute. These are timely topics given how buffoons like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump wear their contempt for the truth as a badge of pride.

With Maggie Costello, Bourne has created an engaging hero for these troubled times – not just a woman of action, but a woman of principle too and an intellectual who thinks her way through problems when others are in thrall to emotion. She’s a reminder of what the world could be, if passions were more often tamed by reason, and humanity prized more than prejudice.