Night of the Bayonets, by Eric Lee

Summary: Georgian-Soviet tensions coming to a bloody reckoning in the last European battle of the Second World War

In their various books both Timothy Synder and Max Hastings have endeavoured to demonstrate how the good versus evil myth so beloved of British Second World War nostalgists, rings very hollow for the peoples of central and eastern Europe. For countries like Poland and Ukraine, for example, the experience was rather to be caught between the monstrous regimes of two of the Twentieth century’s greatest murderers: Stalin and Hitler.

With Night of the Bayonets, Eric Lee focuses in on one small but hugely illuminating example of this bleak reality. 

In the early hours of 5 April 1945, Georgian soldiers serving with the Wehrmacht on the Dutch island of Texel rose up against their German comrades, butchering many of them with knives and bayonets as they slept. 

As Eric Lee explains, the Georgians may not have been enthusiastic Soviets, Georgian independence and democracy having been strangled in the cradle by the Bolsheviks. However, they were unlikely to have been enthusiastic Nazis either. Politics was probably less a factor in them turning their coats than survival. Having been captured by the Germans earlier in the war, donning the German uniform seemed one of their few chances of survival, the alternative being death by a swift bullet or by starvation and disease in a prison camp. 

With the approaching end of war however, the Georgians were pitched onto the horns of another dilemma: how would they be received back in Stalin’s USSR having served in German uniforms. Stalin had already declared surrendering Red Army solders to be traitors. The Georgians must have been aware that if they returned to the Soviet Union they would likely end up liquidated or in a Gulag. 

So, insurrection must have seemed a reasonable gamble, demonstrating their continued loyalty to the Allied cause, and by allying themselves with Dutch communists, with the cause of the Soviet Union. 

It was only after battle was joined that the Georgians found out what other resistance fighters, from Warsaw to Prague to rural France, also discovered: that they were expendable as far as the Allied high commands were concerned. As in Warsaw the Germans also realised this, and so they decided to take their time in exacting revenge on Georgian fighters and Dutch civilians alike. It was not until late May, long after VE day, that Canadian forces landed on Texel, ending the battle.

Other books – most famously Cornelius Ryan’s description of the fall of Berlin, or Stephen Harding’s account of the extraordinary action at the Schloss Itter in Austria – have claimed to be accounts of the “last” battle of the Second World War in Europe. However, Lee’s account of this “last battle” is important not as a historical curiosity, but because it also illuminates so much of contemporary Europe, not least in explaining something of the origins of the ongoing tensions between Georgia and Russia.

Night of the Bayonets is an elegantly written and important work of history, In providing a non-Anglo-American perspective on the Second World War in Europe, it may usefully punctures some of the contemporary myths of the Second World War that still pervade attitudes in the UK. For this, and for much else, it deserves a wide readership.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Summary: Yossarian’s sanity almost drives him mad.

I once had a boss who had to vacate his office in favour of his superior because the said superior had discovered that his own office was two square feet smaller than that of my boss.

Anyone familiar with the world of work will have similar stories to tell about the petty jealousies and mindless bureaucracies that can blight this aspect of our lives. But such stupidities rarely threaten our lives – unless of course you are a health care worker depending on Boris Johnson for PPE during a global pandemic.

Mindless bureaucracy and petty jealousies are rarely the central themes of fictional portrayals of war, even though they are a frequent discussion in military history: Grant and Lee’s arguments over protocol at Cold Harbour, for example, that cost the lives of so many wounded. Or General Mark Clark’s career of incompetence during the Second World War’s Italian campaign.

Catch 22 sought to remedy that however. Bureaucracy, pointless protocol, military etiquette, get rich quick schemes dominate the narrative because it is these that dominate the priorities of those who don’t have to risk their lives.

However for the novel’s anti-hero, John Yossarian, none of these things matter. He just wants to survive. Unlike his superiors, Yossarian knows what flack can do to a human body. He just wants the unrelenting terror of operations to end and to go home. However Yossarian discovers no matter how often he braves the guns of the Herman Goering division, he still has to fly. His superior’s dreams of martial glory leads him to keep pushing up the mission count in the hope that this will help him to become a general. Yossarian, like his pal the Chaplin, does not have the comfort of insanity or selfishness to cushion him from the pity of war, and so hovers perpetually on the edge of breakdown.

Catch 22 is a sprawling book, hopping amongst characters and their diverse but interconnected misadventures. Such is its complexity that George Clooney’s exceptionally fine television version of the story required robust editing of the narrative elements.

It is often described as a satire, and it certainly is rich with black comedy. But Joesph Heller was himself a veteran of 60 combat missions, like Yossarian, as a bombardier in the Italian campaign. So the horror of that experience is never far from the surface, and is something that moves centre-stage in the final chapters of the book.

Some years after Catch 22 was published a reporter put it to Heller that he had not written anything as good since. “No,” said Heller. “Neither has anyone else.”

No more evil geniuses any more

Summary: A Very British Coup

I suppose it comes from watching too much Dangermouse and James Bond as a kid: I came to expect the evil to be geniuses.

Watching Boris Johnson and his even less impressive minions like Nigel Farage, Priti Patel, Mark Francois, Andrew Bridgen, Sally Ann Hart and their ilk on television these days and I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observations on the banality of evil. 

These are people who have not gotten into power because they are positive human exemplars of looks, brains or personality. They simply hate, and they share hatreds with enough others to have an electoral base in what passes for democracy in the gerrymandered U.K.

More than any other European democracy, the UK is an elective dictatorship. Those checks and balances on the excesses of the executive as exist post-Brexit, such as the national courts and remaining international law, the British government is now openly talking about dismantling. So the only constraint on their power grab will be the speed of bureaucratic processes.

Basically, the health of English democracy will be determined by how much and how quickly the government can undermine it in the next four years. So, the only saving grace of Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is that he is inordinately lazy. So he might, on his own, not get around to many things. With the energetically deluded Dominic Cummings pulling the strings, however, this may change.

Even in the most notorious of dictatorships, authoritarianism can creep slowly. Mugabe’s power grab in Zimbabwe was a protracted but relentless affair, done in concert with the scapegoating of portions of the population, starting with the Ndebele, and, later, with the settler farmers.

Boris Johnson has based his political career on scapegoating too: first the European Union, now impoverished migrants trying to cross the English Channel. “Look”, he says, probably astonished that so much of the English population remains gullible enough to swallow his charlatanism whole, “these are the ones who are the causes of your problems, not me! Not the policies me and my pals have advocated and implemented for decades, not the incompetence I have shown in the face of a public health crisis.”

It is in moments like this that journalism’s role in defending democracy becomes most critical. But by fetishizing a notion of “balance” it is possible for even well-meaning media professionals to become cogs in a process aimed at obscuring the true causes of contemporary poverty and conflict. If, like the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the press chooses in the name of “balance” to print the politicians’ legends while knowing they are untrue, then they become mere henchmen to government, not journalists.

Without sufficient critical appraisal of the Johnson circus’ shenanigans, people can become distracted by the performances. Then they may more easily overlook the growing stench of corruption and cronyism coming from the Prime Minister’s circle as lucrative contracts are awarded to school pals, and foreign intelligence agencies are tolerated in their murder and injury of British citizens because they donate to the Conservative party.

In 1944, the then US vice president Henry Wallace argued that in America fascism could come to power under the auspices of “Americanism.” In England authoritarianism is likely to come to power under the auspices of a form of “patriotism” in which intolerance is practiced in the name of toleration, and the wholesale destruction of human and civil rights accomplished in the name of “British values.”

Those who bring their country to this nadir will, of course, be too stupid to appreciate the irony.

John Hume: reflections on a life well lived

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.- Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

One of my earliest memories is watching a neighbour being shot. Another was of almost being caught, while on my way to primary school, in a culvert bomb attack launched by the IRA on the British army. The brother of a classmate was murdered by the SAS. A few years ago, I discovered that a bunch of loyalist paramilitaries had planned to massacre the children and staff of my Belleeks primary school. Fortunately for all of us, this was called off. Some war crimes were even too much for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

I repeat these brushes with violence not to suggest that I am special in any way, but because these were typical life experiences for people living in the North of Ireland during the 70s and 80s. Indeed I was very lucky. Aside from a nasty kicking I once got from Shinners for having the temerity to canvas for the SDLP in West Belfast, my family was notably unscathed by the squalid little war that engulfed the North until John Hume finally managed to organise its ending.

I met John Hume a couple of times, but I doubt he ever remembered my name. I was a minor student activist in the SDLP, gone after a couple of years and never to return. So, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things that, from the first moment I heard of them, I was in favour of the Hume-Adams talks. It was, it seemed to me, an honourable effort towards peace and the logical extension of the philosophy of dialogue and persuasion that Hume had always advocated and that I had bought into early.

It is true that I did not think that the peace it ultimately brought would lead to Sinn Fein’s regrettable electoral ascendancy, as other more astute observers, such as Seamus Mallon, feared. But even in retrospect I think it a price worth paying. As has been said before: there are people alive today because of what Hume did to obtain peace. As Hume argued at the time, that is more important than the electoral success of any party.

Since his death some commentators have not even been able to wait until Hume was at rest in his grave before resurrecting the attacks that they began on him when he first sat down to talk with the Provos and that bore so heavily on him throughout those ghastly days. The thrust of their attack remains: because the peace process is imperfect, it is reprehensible. 

It is easy to be glib about war when it is not something that is likely to cut short your life or that of someone you love. That is something that the relatives of those butchered at Greysteel understood when one of their daughters told Hume they had prayed over her father’s coffin that he would be successful in his efforts with the Provos so that other families would not have to suffer as they had. 

Today it’s easy to indulge in the sort of maudlin glorifications beloved by Sinn Fein and the British Establishment of those who have taken up arms on their behalf. But I remember war too well to buy that nonsense. Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the Miami Showband massacre, Kingsmill, the Shankill Butchers, La Mon, Enniskillen, may be selectively remembered still. But they were just larger examples of the “exchange of murders”, as Malachi O’Doherty once accurately described them, that typified the conflict.

In truth I’ve never found war anything other than a squalid matter, whether practiced in the North of Ireland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Angola. The scales of conflict in each place were different. But across the globe and through history each have in common that they enmesh ordinary people in systems of increasingly brutal inhumanity towards other people. This is true for just and unjust wars alike.

Of course as Bono noted in his bleak, beautiful lament for those massacred at Omagh, “hope and history don’t rhyme”. But they do have an assonance: a half rhyme.

Even a failed poet like me knows that the line “sometimes hope and history are in assonance” doesn’t have the quality of Heaney’s phrase or that of Bono. But that is where we are, and it is better than where we were. Musicians no longer have to worry about being targeted for playing to the “wrong” crowds. Dog fanciers no longer have to worry about being burned to death while having an evening out. Protesters for civil rights do not have to worry about being shot down in the streets by a foreign army. 

John Hume understood that imperfect peace is preferable to any war. His monumental life’s achievement in wresting that from the most nihilistic of conflicts is but another stepping-stone to a better society, to a better agreed society. 

It is for the rest of us to continue that journey now, remembering, as John Hume showed us, that no matter how bleak the moment, or imperfect the circumstances, if we put the sweat in, we also can overcome.