Whoops!: Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay, by John Lanchester

Goldman-Sachs-46830569144Whoops! is a clear, cogent and coherent explication of how the financial crisis came about, emerging from a culture of greed and a ludicrous, supposedly rational, belief that risk could, for all intents and purposes, be eliminated from financial transactions. More frightening is that almost nothing has been done to prevent such a crisis happening again – President Obama’s modest efforts having been eviscerated by the right of his own party and nothing notable in Europe at the time of publication in 2010.i-hate-being-greedy-but

So terrifying are the implications of the situation that even the regular and excellent jokes that pepper the narrative do little to alleviate the feeling of dread that the book evokes. It is a vital book and an indictment of pusillanimous politicians and economists who have defered to greedy bankers and consequently brought devastation to millions.

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Into that Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder; and Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, by Gitta Sereny

Gitta Sereny’s subjects in these two seminal works are the war crimes and the industrialised genocides of the Nazis. But, as the prisms through which she explores these issues are the biographies of Franz Spangl and Albert Speer, she never loses sight, or lets the reader lose sight, of one of the most troubling truths about these, and all, atrocities: that the war criminals and monsters who perpetrate them are as human as any one of us.

Albert Speer on trial in Nuremberg

Albert Speer on trial in Nuremberg

Speer was, amongst other roles, Hitler’s armaments minister and Sereny’s biography of him is rich in detail regarding the management of Germany’s wartime economy and Speer’s exceptionally effective efforts in keeping it functioning in the face of Allied bombing, Nazi in-fighting and Hitlerian fantasy. Stangl was a provincial police officer, transferred into the Nazis’ early experiments of murder with their “mercy killing” programme, and finally “promoted” to manage the death camp at Treblinka. The two biographies therefore provide chilling insights into both the highest echelons of Nazism and the horrific consequence of the decisions taken there.

Franz Stangl in prison in Dusseldorf

Franz Stangl in prison in Dusseldorf

Sereny’s thorough research into her subjects included extensive interviews with both men. Almost of necessity she came to establish considerable sympathetic understanding with them. But she never lost sight of what they did. Her conversations in Dusseldorf prison with Stangl forced him, with devastating personal effect, to finally acknowledge what he had done. Speer, a much more intelligent man, arguably one with the potential for greatness, was altogether a more slippery character, and so much more sophisticated in evading, even to himself, similar acknowledgement of his measure of responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. At the end of the war he had all but deluded himself into believing that the Allies would ask him to help lead in the reconstruction of a devastated Germany.

In spite of the bleakness of the books’ subjects they are not devoid of heroism: In Into That Darkness Rudy Masarek, a leader of the Treblinka uprising, stands in telling contrast to Stangl; in the case of Speer Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the 20 July plot against Hitler, stands in juxtaposition. Though they appear only fleetingly in the pages of these books the lives of these men, with their exceptional moral and physical courage, powerfully indict the evasions of both Stangl and Speer. These were men who came from similar backgrounds but whose moral choices were diametrically opposed to everything that Stangl and Speer came to stand for.

These are amongst the most extraordinary and important works of non-fiction of the 20th Century. They are compelling studies of the descent into evil of one ordinary man and an extraordinary one. They are powerful, elegantly written, gripping and vital for understanding how close to the abyss human beings and human society still hovers.

Thirteen Days: A memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Robert Francis Kennedy

JFK lonlinessThirteen Days is Bobby Kennedy‘s memoir of the Cuban missiles crisis. It was incomplete at the time of his assassination and yet remains an arrestingly insightful work.

Bobby played a crucial role in the Cuban missiles crisis, being one of a minority of “doves” on the “ExComm” drawn together from the highest echelons of the government and military to advise the President. It was in no small part because of Bobby’s advocacy that the “doves” on ExComm won the crucial arguments to set the US strategy in relation to the crisis.

But, while being straightforward about his role, he sought in no way to present himself as the hero of the book. Rather this role is reserved for his brother Jack, the President.

In an introduction to the book Arthur Schlesinger, Jr notes that Bobby Kennedy once commented “The 10 or 12 people who had participated in all these [ExComm] discussions were bright and energetic people. We had perhaps amongst the most able in the country and if any one of half a dozen of them were President the world would have been very likely plunged into catastrophic war.

That the world did not get plunged into such a catastrophic war is in large part a measure of the extraordinary calmness of Jack in his deliberations and, above all, his startling moral courage in being prepared to face down his military advisers who wanted to bomb Cuba and invade as first response to the discovery of the missile sites. Bobby commented on their attitude in the book, “I thought, as I listened, of the many times I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.” Afterwards Jack told his friend Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid the feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn”.

It’s good advice not just for a political leader dealing with the military but also for one dealing with any professional group, particularly police and security forces, and indeed for any leader dealing with those claiming “expert” knowledge. A key theme of the book is the importance of debate and disagreement in decision making, as a process of obtaining the best options to even the most horrendous challenge and avoiding the sort of “groupthink” that can lead one unquestioningly towards stupid and undesirable choices.

Reading this book as the carnage of the 2014 war in Gaza seems to have begun again, it is striking how, in spite of being faced with a genuine existential threat to their country and the world, as opposed to the substantially imaginary one posed by Hamas to Israel currently, Jack and Bobby were hugely concerned with the thought of inflicting casualties.Listening to military proposals for a sneak attack on Cuba, Bobby passed a note to his brother, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbour.”  Both knew that bloodshed would lead to the situation spiralling out of control, and Jack and Bobby were both familiar enough with the military, and with the human consequences of war,to take this matter lightly. They knew that the lives of untold millions who had neither voted for them nor even heard of them depended on their decisions. So they weighed carefully the consequences of every choice, both immediate and long term. Jack in particular was always striving to empathise with Khrushchev’s position and to give him ways in which he also could exit the quagmire in which they found themselves. Ultimately Jack, again displaying enormous moral courage, took the considerable political risk of instructing Bobby to make a secret offer of withdrawing Nato missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal of their missiles from Cuba.

Aside from the drama of the story the book is teeming with insights on war, politics, decision making, and the moral courage that is fundamental to leadership, and filled with vivid scenes: after the crisis is passed,  Jack remains in his office is sitting at his desk writing a letter to the widow of the American pilot killed in the course of the crisis.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr called the book a minor classic. He was right. It’s a short but extraordinary work that will bear rereading.

Ireland, 1912- 1985: Politics and Society, by Joseph J Lee

Ireland, 1912 – 1985 is a wonderfully opinionated, highly entertaining and deeply erudite history of Ireland from the beginning of the Home Rule Crisis to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

It is certainly the best single volume history of 20th century Ireland. Each chapter contains much that is novel and insightful even for those familiar with the periods under discussion. The author’s comparisons of Ireland to other countries on the periphery of Europe which obtained independence at about the same time, such as Finland and Poland, lifts the book out of any risk of parochialism: This approach places Irish history in its European context and allows for a more clear sighted assessment of what we, as a nation, can be proud of as well as what we have failed at and where we should be ashamed. Prof Lee is scathing in his judgements of the lazy and stupid, from political leaders through academics to journalists, but is highly sympathetic to those ordinary people, particularly Northern nationalists, who have found themselves on the losing side of history.

A work of genius.

The Final Run, by Tommy Steele

The singer and artist Tommy Steele, who was the author of the Final Run,  told the story that sometime after the second world war he discovered that his grandfather had been one of a group of Churchill lookalikes used to disguise and decoy the movements of the real wartime prime minister – an idea famously used in Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle has landed”. Taking this as a starting point he builds a very efficient thriller to imagine how such ruses could have been used to effect a pause in the German advance on Dunkirk.

Steele displays an impressive cold-heartedness in his imagining of how such a plot might play out. The historical liberties he takes never lose sight of either the ruthless efficiency or sadism of the Nazis.

The book compares favourably to the work of, for example, Higgins – not great literature but fine entertainment: a war thriller that does exactly what it says on the tin.

Boycotts in the history of human rights struggles

The growing calls for boycotts of Israel and Israeli goods led me to reflect over the past couple of days on the role of boycotts in the struggle for human rights. 

I reckon Anti-Slavery International can (just about) claim credit for the idea of the boycott: in the 1790s: our predecessors in the Committee for the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade advocated boycotting slave-produced sugar as part of the campaign to end slavery.

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The boycott was later introduced to Ireland by one of the greatest of all Irish leaders, Charles Stewart Parnell, in the midst of the agitation for land reform in the late 19th Century. He was desperate to obtain an effective means of non-violent resistance that would harness the energies of his movement and head off potential for violence as the conflict intensified. Shortly after proposing the idea it was put into impressive effect against the eponymous Captain Boycott in Mayo and his name has stuck to the tactic.

 

Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell

When delivered effectively boycotts can still be potent weapons. But they are also often blunt instruments: They can and do cause hurt to those they are launched in sympathy with as well as their oppressors. During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa activists were clear that boycotts of South African goods would also harm black South Africans alongside the racist clique running the country. However they judged that the level of harm would be marginal compared to what they were already suffering and the damage to white economic interests would be disproportionately higher.

Given the risks of harm to intended beneficiaries the boycott, as a weapon in the struggle for human rights, must be one of last resort. Anti-Slavery, in consultation with colleagues in Uzbekistan, judges that the state-sponsored child slavery practices in the cotton sector there warrant a boycott. There have also been suggestions of a boycott of the Qatar 2022 World Cup because of the routine use of forced labour by that country in the construction of the venues and infrastructure for that event. However the ideal would be that international pressure on the Qatari authorities would lead to increased opportunities for decent work for the tens of thousands of South Asian workers who have sought employment there as a potential route out of poverty.

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The conflict in Israel/Palestine arguably dwarfs these examples in terms of complexity. But if Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories continues to convince the world that that government has chosen the path of apartheid rather than peace, as former US President Jimmy Carter feared, then many may feel that the conditions necessary to justify a boycott have been met. Perhaps this prospect may eventually open the minds of the Israeli government to alternative policy responses to their illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and their siege of Gaza, imageaway from their current predominantly narrow, military ones. As the Palestinians pose little military threat to Israel there is little chance of a just peace deal being formed to resolve the military conflict. But the moral revulsion that Israel’s disproportionate assault on Gaza has provoked in much of the world, and their continued flouting of international law, may ultimately bring about a comprehensive boycott of the country and with that an increasing economic threat. Ultimately that may demand more just resolution of the conflict with the Palestinian people before international opprobrium becomes intolerable.

Michael Collins: The Lost Leader, by Margery Forester

Michael_CollinsMargery Forester’s “Michael Collins: The Lost Leader” was generally regarded as the definitive biography of Collins until Tim Pat Coogan’s more recent work. Where Coogan excels on the military aspects of Collins career, particularly the conduct of the intelligence war, Forester offers a more personal picture, with much of her work based on family papers. The result is a fine readable account of Collins life, with the sections from the truce to Collins’ death particularly gripping.

Forester notes how Collins mentioned to one of his colleagues during his final tour of Cork, that “Dev” – Eamon deValera, the anti-treaty political leader – was rumoured to be in the same locality. She doesn’t explore the theory that this is exactly why Collins himself was there – to explore options for peace. Unfortunately breakdown in intermediaries meant that this effort ended in the tragedy of Collins’ own death.

She also subscribes somewhat to the theory of youthful impetuosity and lack of field craft as principle factors contributing to Collins death at Beal na mBlath, wishing that he had acquiesed in Emmet Dalton’s instruction to Collins’ driver to “Drive like hell” through the ambush when the first shots hit, rather than stop and fight. Accounts elsewhere from other members of Collins’ party, state that the road was strewn with broken bottles ahead of the dray that blocked the convoy’s way. This suggests that Collins may have been more tactically astute than he has previously be given credit for, in ordering the halt rather than, in an attempt to run the ambush, risking catastrophic damage to the tires of the vehicles and rendering the entire convoy sitting ducks in the midst of hostile countryside.

Whatever the circumstances the abiding tragedy of Collins’ death is well conveyed in this book which shows his growth from impetuous youth to effective revolutionary to statesman in a few short years, and leaves the reader with the aching wonder of what might have been achieved had he lived.