What is past is prologue: Warsaw 1920 – Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe, by Adam Zamoyski

Summary: a brief but clear and gripping account of one of the pivotal battles of European history

This is a fine, concise account of the war between the Soviet Union and Poland in 1920 and particularly the climatic battle of Warsaw. The book focuses primarily on Józef Pilsudski, the Polish head of state who commanded Polish forces in the war and was architect of the victory, conceiving of a manoeuvre, highly reminiscent of Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae, that led to the Soviet rout. However the author also recognizes the pivotal role played by General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Poland’s Second World War leader until his assassination by the Soviets (probably by the British traitor Guy Burgess using the agency of MI6), in the defeat of the Red Army on the Vistula.

Zamoyski argues that Stalin, who was part of the Soviet Army devastated by the Poles in 1920, developed a pathological hatred of the Poles as a result of this that culminated in his massacre of Polish prisoners of war in Katyn. Interestingly this is the motive that Putin also ascribed to Stalin when he finally publicly acknowledged Soviet responsibility for the Katyn atrocity. Hence the book reads, ultimately, as a prologue to an even greater tragedy, when many of the actors in this drama were cruelly murdered and Poland itself dismembered by the Nazi-Soviet alliance.

In spite of that this is a gripping work on a pivotal and ill remembered aspect of history.

The greatest movie ever made: Casablanca

Rick Casablanca

Washed up in Casablanca early in the Second World War, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, runs a bar and tries to forget his previous political commitment. All this changes when Elsa (Ingrid Bergman), a woman from his past, turns up in town with Victor Laslo (Paul Henreid), a Czech leader of the Resistance, both on the run from the Nazis and in need of help to evade them further.

If you don’t fall in love with the movie Casablanca when you see it there is, in my humble opinion, something wrong with your soul. It is a film that has just about everything: some great humour, some great songs, a poignant love story, political commitment, and it is a cracking wartime thriller to boot. It is one of the most quotable films in movie history (“Round up the usual suspects!”), but the wise cracking does not overshadow some powerful emotion: the La Marseilles scene, when the refugee clientele of Rick’s bar, many of them Jewish in real life, drown out the singing of the German soldiers, I still find one of the most electrifying in cinema history.

Louis and StrasserTo add another level to this, the villian of the movie, Major Strasser, was played by the great Conrad Veight, himself a German and a committed anti-Nazi who fled Germany with his Jewish wife to continue the struggle, raising funds for the war effort by making movies such as Casablanca.

The movie began as just another run of the mill production but somehow, not least through great casting and superb writing, it turned into something magical. It is brilliant at just about every level, and like any classic bears up to repeated viewing. It is a sublime piece of work, possibly the most joyously brilliant film ever made.

Greeneland at its most bleak and exquisite: The Third Man

Joseph Cotton

At the end of the Second World War Holly Martens (Joseph Cotton), a hack Western writer, arrives in Vienna on the promise of a job from his childhood friend Harry Lime. On his arrival in Vienna however he discovers that Harry is dead and being buried that very morning. Dissatisfied by the police explanations of what happened to his friend Holly starts clumsily poking around himself.

The Third Man is based on a Graham Greene story, but Greene was gracious enough to say that the movie is a better version of the story than the subsequent novella. Part of the reason for this was the presence of Orson Welles, adding both his considerable charisma to the film as well as his writing skills, most notably on the famous “cuckoo clock” speech by which his character explains his view of morality to Holly.

ThirdMan_2_L
The novel is written from the perspective of a military police investigator Calloway (Trevor Howard). The movie, however, takes Holly’s perspective and communicates brilliantly his sense of disorientation in an unfamiliar city – every camera angle is slightly off-kilter – and of isolation – just about everyone speaks (unsubtitled) German.

On top of all of this the cinematography of post war Vienna, reaching a climax in the sewers of the city, is exquisite and the zither soundtrack is a stroke of genius.

This is a funny, beautiful, exciting and bleak work of cinema, replete with Greene’s trademark concerns of morality, Catholicism and betrayal. It is probably the greatest British movie every made and another contender for my list of greatest final scenes of all time.

Mandela

Office wallsHanging on the wall of my very messy office are two portraits, one of Abraham Lincoln, and the other of Nelson Mandela. This is because they both showed that even the most entrenched and hateful systems based on discrimination, violence and racism could be overcome with courage, determination and decency.

Mandela rightly pointed out that “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” But, unfortunately poverty cannot be overcome until slavery and apartheid have been eradicated: Mandela dealt with apartheid in South Africa, but it endures against Dalits and minorities in India and other parts of South Asia, and slavery endures across the world.

We need people at the top to draw inspiration from Mandela to take political action to eradicate slavery. Unfortunately, many politicians pay lip service to his achievements but lack the guts to emulate them, preferring bland platitudes to effective action on issues like slavery.

Still, even when things seem bleakest and the brutality of contemporary slavery practices most intractable I sometimes reflect on the odds which Mandela overcame in ending apartheid and re-forging a new nation in South Africa. We also must endure in the struggle and trust that decency and courage will ultimately triumph over the greed and racism that keeps 21 million people enslaved across the world.

War and its consequences: Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound

on-another-mans-wound“On another man’s wound” is generally regarded as the only personal account by an Irish War of Independence commander that has true literary merit. It is a beautifully written and gripping narrative of O’Malley’s experiences from 1916 to 1921. The book is packed with incident from initial observations on the 1916 rebellion to guerrilla action in the South, to his capture in Kilkenny, subsequent torture, and his participation in the only successful escape from Kilmainham gaol in Dublin. Along the way there are interesting pen portraits of many of the leading figures of the time including Erskine Childers, Liam Lynch, and, not least, Michael Collins.

At its heart the book is a remarkably honest account of the brutalising effects of war: Towards the end O’Malley describes unflinchingly his decision to murder three captured British soldiers just before the Truce. The effect is both chilling and moving: O’Malley’s literary acheivement is to show how his personal experiences are representative of all soldiers in war, which can transform idealistic youth into diminished and bloody men in a pattern that is repeated through history and across the world to this day.

As such the book retains a relevance beyond it geographic and historical contexts: It speaks a truth that should be remembered by all contemplating sending young people to kill and die on behalf of some cherished cause, particularly if the closest the decision-makers have been to war is an Oxford PPE course or a London law chambers.

President Michael D. Higgins on business and human rights

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

Before he was elected President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins was an active Labour politician and served as a member of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Human Rights. In 2008, the Sub-Committee devoted some attention to the role of the private sector in relation to human rights. Michael D. Higgins was somewhat pessimistic in his views, remarking during the session on the absence of notable progress in this area:

I am at a loss to identify any great achievements of the ethical globalisation movement, to which reference has been made. It reminds me uncomfortably — perhaps I am wrong — of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which I encountered for the first time when it was present at the United Nations conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The council had no difficulty in signing up to the concept of sustainability. The chair was the vice…

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A German Odyssey: Field Gray by Philip Kerr (A Bernie Gunther novel)

I had not come across Bernie Gunther before this book, the seventh in a series but one that stands up very well on its own.

The jacket note describes the book as relating to Gunther being press ganged into working for the French intelligence service to identify a war criminal. But this is merely an element in a plot that sprawls across 23 years, taking in the rise of the Nazis, the occupation of France, the invasion of Ukraine, the battle of Konigsberg and the fate of German prisoners in Russian hands after the war. Heydrich and Graham Greene have walk on parts in the novel along with a variety of other real people.

To say the novel is a thriller may be true, but it is not like any other thriller I have read. It is also part war story and a meditation on German history in general and its war and war crimes on the Eastern front in particular. This historical aspect of the story is compelling enough in itself, but a dramatic arc is also established across the book through the relationship relationship between Gunther and another real individual co-opted into the narrative Erich Mielke, a veteran German communist.

In the Russian camps a character alludes to the Odyssey, and this more than Raymond Chandler is the template upon which this story plays out. Gunther here is a wise cracking Odyesseus, brilliantly cunning but, after the war, cursed to wander the world remembering his Penelope as he searches for his home.

Father of US government, grandfather of emancipation: Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton

Alexander HamiltonA truly outstanding, elegantly written, warts and all, biography of a facinating individual. It throws light not only on Hamilton’s life and death at the hands of Aaron Burr, the US Vice President, but also on the Revolutionary war, the drafting of the US constitution, the establishment of US government and finance, and the beginnings of the fault lines that divide US politics to this day: On the one hand the Federalists with their strongly nationalist view of the US and the importance of federal government; on the other hand the Republicans with their promotion of “states rights” and nonsensical fantasies about small government and citizen farmers. Along the way we learn of the first sex scandal in US political history and the strange mores and tragic consequences of the late 18th century duelling culture.

The divisions at this period in US history were described in short-hand by the attitudes to the French Revolution. However it is interesting that while Hamilton and the Federalists were generally Anglophile and deeply distressed by the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, they seem to have been little troubled by the exercise of British power, which between 1796 and 1798 massacred more people in Ireland than died in the entire three years of the French Terror – there is not a single mention of this sanguinary episode of European history in the book.

Towards the end of the book Chernow notes how many of the Republican “slave holding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villanized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth”.

Countering this tendency in histography Chernow casts Jefferson as villian of the piece, even more so than the murderous Burr, for professing himself an abolitionist but, unlike Washington, never freeing his own slaves and advocating both an economy that was only sustainable through the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and a polity that facilitated and rewarded slavery.

In contrast it is clear from Chernow’s work that, in addition to establishing US credit and effective government, a central part of Hamilton’s political project was building in the US an economic system that could not only be sustained without slavery but could also contribute its eradication. While the elimination of slavery ultimately took a civil war Hamilton’s work did provide the North the economic capacity to destroy the slave holding south 60 years after his death. For this, I would argue, that if Lincoln was the “father” of emancipation Hamilton could perhaps be regarded as its “grandfather”.

Chernow makes the argument that, with Washington, Hamilton, for all his faults, was the greatest of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Chernow describes him as the “father of US government”. On the basis of the evidence he presents it is a difficult argument to refute, and, in this time of Tea Party lunacy, his life and achievements are worth celebrating again.

Remembering properly the central event of European history: TImothy Synder’s Bloodlands

Timothy Synder strives with this book to repudiate the anonymity of the mass murders of the twentieth century, reminding the readers that each death represenented an individual human being with all the flaws and hopes of any reader.

Central to his achievement is his taking of a holistic approach to the atrocities, considering not just the policies of Hitler and Stalin separately but in interaction, and considering the Jewish, Polish, Ukranian and Belarusian tragedies in their totality rather than in isolation. This approach is perhaps best exemplified by his consideration of the Warsaw uprisings: here the distinctively Jewish character of the 1943 Ghetto uprising is recognised but not to the exclusion of its Polish character, as demonstrated by the alliance between the Ghetto fighters and the Home Army. Likewise the Jewish contribution to the 1944 Warsaw uprising is discussed: For example after the Home Army liberated the Warsaw concentration camp many of the Jewish slave labourers joined the Home Army, “fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with ‘complete indifference to life or death'”. (p. 302)

This approach also draws out some uncomfortable ambiguities: Tuvia Bielski, for example, is one of the incontrovertable heroes of the book. His exploits, depicted in the film “Defiance”, saved hundreds of Jewish lives in what is now Belarus. In order to do this he established an alliance with Soviet partisans, which ultimately meant he, a former Polish soldier, was directly involved in the suppression of the Home Army by the invading Soviets in 1944(something not depicted in “Defiance”).

In consciously repudiating more simplistic narratives Snyder make a profoundly important point: horrendous as the history of this time and this place is, it is a central episode of human history. Presuming that this was the work of monsters threatens that we may blunder into perpetrating such atrocities again.

This is a hugely important book: an awesomely impressive research undertaking resulting in an exemplary work of history, beautifully written, horrific and deeply moving by turns. It should be read be everyone with an interest in humanity itself.