Brexit, Trump and Vladimir Putin’s assault on European and US democracy: The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder

img_1459Summary: A terrifying and convincing account of the assault of Russian fascists and their useful idiots upon Western democracy 

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a book that makes you fundamentally rethink your understanding of history. With The Road to Unfreedom Snyder makes us fundamentally rethink our understanding of the present.

The recent political success of far Right elements in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the US are not mere fluctuations in normal politics, Snyder argues. They are a consequence of a deliberate and aggressive foreign policy pursued by Vladimir Putin in order to undermine the systems of rule of law that underpin the democracies of the US and the European Union.

Synder argues that since 2010 Vladimir Putin has embraced a particularly Russian brand of fascism, with its pronounced homophobia, as a way in which to entrench in Russian society the kleptocracy over which he presides. This version of fascism, like those of the past, defines itself by its enemies, and for enemies Putin has chosen the European Union and the United States. Snyder notes that this is not because of anything that these have done, but rather because of what they are. The EU in particular stands as a telling contrast to the Russian Federation. Russia’s thieving oligarchs have made it the most unequal country on earth. On the other hand the EU has provided a better standard of living for its people within the frameworks of human rights and the rule of law, ideas anathema to Russian fascism.

Authoritarianism arrives, Synder notes, “not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” Hence much of Putin’s assault has been in the realm of cyber-space: weaponising systems like Facebook to direct focused, usually fictional, racist, homophobic and anti-democratic propaganda to the users in a way that distorts their perceptions and bolsters their prejudices; or surreptitiously hacking vital information systems, such as those underpinning the US and Ukrainian electoral systems. These cyber-warfare processes are assisted by an array of corrupt “assets” and “useful idiots” who publicly advocate Russia’s desired outcomes even while Putin is attacking their own countries. These include former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Polish Defence minister Antonio Macierewicz, Marin le Pen, the French Far Right leader, Nigel Farage, the disgusting former leader of the UKIP, Seumus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current communications and strategy director, and, of course, Donald Trump and many of his inner circle.

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Putin and his boy

The success of Russian disinformation can be seen in the pages of even the Guardian, which has published puff-pieces for Putin by supposedly Left-wing journalists such as Milne and John Pilger, whose opinions have been untroubled by actual reporting. It is enabled further by the refusal of British and US Republican political leaders to acknowledge the effectiveness of Putin’s undermining of their democracy.

Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations for the Guardian have turned up probable corrupt links between, in particular, the Brexit establishment and Russia. Robert Mueller‘ s investigation in the US hints at exposing further, perhaps treasonous, criminality. But, Synder notes, much of the information about Putin’s web of influence, and his destructive intent is publicly available. Putin has not made his embrace of fascism a secret, frequently citing the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin in his speeches, passing aggressive homophobic laws, trampling roughshod over rule of international law with this invasion of Ukraine, and his sneering attitude toward the corruption of the US election.

The invasion of Ukraine is something of a pivotal event in this book. The Russian processes of disinformation and cyber warfare that corrupted both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections, bringing the fascist Trump to power in spite of the popular vote against him, may have come into sharp focus with Mueller’s and Cadwalladr’s investigations. But the warning signs were there to be seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a warning that most of Europe and the US failed to heed.

That so much of this has been missed and mis-reported must arise from a lack of proper journalism commissioned by editors with sufficient international awareness to understand emergent trends and geo-politics, and conducted on the ground by investigative journalists fluent in the languages of the countries they are reporting on. Synder dedicates this book to reporters, and it is the investigative journalists of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who have provided much of the raw material upon which Synder constructs this vital history of our times.

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The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes

img_1450Summary: A spectre is haunting Europe and it is the spectre of Prussia

In this book James Hawes argues there are two Germanys. One is in the West, orientated towards Paris, Brussels and the rest of Western Europe. This part of Germany conforms to the part that was Romanised, and subsequently formed part of Charlemagne’s empire. This part is substantially Catholic and was notably resistant to Nazism in the past and the far Right and far Left in the present.

On the other hand there is Prussia: Protestant and Russian-orientated, it formed in territory that was conquered and colonised, and which, under Bismarck, conquered Western Germany to establish the German Empire. The rump of this state, which the Allies tried to bury beneath modern Poland at the end of the Second World War, still persists in the East.

To this day, Hawes argues, many of the inhabitants of Prussia continue to bear the racist attitudes of colonisers, regarding themselves as somehow “special” compared to the ordinary mass of human beings. Prussia more than any other part of Germany facilitated the rise of militarism and Nazism in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, and provides fertile ground for extremists to this day.

The reunification of Germany in the 1990s brought together again these two quite different countries to restore the borders of Bismarck’s Empire. This reunification, Hawes argues, was not undertaken for any carefully considered reasons regarding how these two German states should best grow and develop. Rather Helmut Kohl saw that Christian Democrat support in the East would guarantee him a further term as Chancellor so he went full steam ahead for that with little thought of anything else.

The consequence has been something of a return to the pre-war arrangements between West and East: Since reunification the West subvents the impoverished East to the tune of trillions of Euros with little sign of obtaining any change in those repellent aspects of Prussian culture that have caused so many problems for Germany and the rest of Europe over the past 200 years.

Hawes notes that “what makes people vulnerable to wild scares and promises isn’t just income but culture.” And it is the culture of the peoples of the old colonial and imperial powers of Europe, such as Prussia, such as Britain, clinging to their notions of superiority and exceptionalism, that prove most susceptible to the promises of political snake-oil salesmen. Recognising this, and confronting such prejudices in Britain, Germany and elsewhere offers a more promising prospect of eroding them than the pusillanimous approach of pandering to them and insisting they must be respected when presented as “the will of the people”.

The Shortest History of Germany is a fine, lucidly written and thought-provoking account of German history covering over 2,000 years from Caesar to the present day. It packs a startling amount into a very short text, and is essential reading for all Europeans

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

934BEFDC-77C1-44A6-9EC2-6397DDDBEBF8Summary: a meditation on ethical leadership illustrated with war stories from Comey’s life as a prosecutor and his interactions with President Obama, and the moral and intellectual void that is Donald Trump. 

In the heyday of The Two Ronnies one regular, celebrated, segment involved Ronnie Corbett sitting in an armchair and telling a joke. This was never a straightforward affair. It involved Corbett taking every available digression and tangent upon the way before getting to the punchline, which he always landed neatly on at the end of the monologue.

Parts of James Comey’s book are a bit like that. There is a broad chronological structure to the book, particularly in the final chapters dealing with his time as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Obama, and Trump. But there is a strong thematic element to the earlier chapters, drawing on diverse parts of his life – from working in a grocery store, to his experiences with bullying, to the tragic death of his son – from which he draws what he believes are crucial aspects of ethical leadership.

It is the last chapters that will sell the book – and Comey does, rather satisfyingly, land a few punches on the bloated, bullying, pathetic Donald Trump, who Comey likens to some of the Mafia bosses he helped put in prison. But there is also a more serious purpose to the work – his meditation on ethical leadership – and it is this that may give the book a more enduring appeal long after Trump has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Comey writes on the second page of this book, “Doubt… is wisdom” and his discussion of some major ethical choices that he has had to deal with over his career in government go some way to illustrating this truth. These include various hard cases of obstruction of justice, confrontations with Dick Cheney over torture, and, of course how he dealt with the notorious case of Hilary Clinton’s emails, something that, when added to the systematic Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, probably cost Clinton the presidency.

Across the course of the book Comey shows how even with matters of enormous moment, perhaps particularly with them, leaders often have to act under pressure with limited information, and frequently their choices boil down to trying to discern the lesser of two evils. This reality will probably resonate with anyone who has ever led anything.

Comey notes that given the stress involved in leadership that humour and laughter are essential, not only for a release of tension but because they are indicative of self-awareness and humility. Hence he is rightly unsettled that Trump appears a completely humourless creature. For himself he makes a few wry remarks and self-depreciating jokes, but he is no Ronnie Corbett. However he is a lucid, and sometimes compelling writer, frequently highly insightful on the subject of ethical leadership, unfailingly gracious in his treatment of those he has worked with, and with some exceptionally interesting stories to tell.

Comey is a highly experienced prosecutor and he presents a strong case in defence of his choices in the course of 2016. Still, while he continues to believe the choices he made were the best he could have managed given the circumstances, he describes feeling sick at the thought that they may have contributed to the election of Trump.

Still, by way of compensation, he suggests that it was his release of a memo of a private meeting with Trump, in which Trump appears to have attempted to obstruct justice, that led to the appointment of a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, his FBI predecessor, to investigate the allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. So, while Comey may have played an unfortunate role in bringing Trump to the presidency, he may yet also have played a decisive role in removing him from it.

Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane

Summary: War is cruelty, and so is reading about it sometimes

In 1989 Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle made a short film for the BBC called Elephant. There was little dialogue, and little narrative. What there was instead was a reenactment of a series of 18 killings based on real incidents from the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The film did not seek to explain the causes of the conflict, which still had almost 10 years left to run when the film was broadcast. Nor did it endeavour to posit what political processes may be needed to end it. Instead it sought only to provide a visceral account of some killings. The cumulative effect of this relentless depiction of deliberate butchery of was one of horror.

I was reminded of that film about half way through this book, which has, as its centrepiece, an account of the siege of Kohima, a bloody portion of a wider battle on the borders of India and Myanmar in 1944. At Kohima the Japanese sought to break through Allied defences and cut loose into North Eastern India. Meanwhile a combined forced of British and South Asian troops, with limited supplies of ammunition and water attempted to thwart these plans from hastily constructed defences.

It’s tough reading: pieced together from diverse accounts of both Allied and Japanese soldiers these central chapters are essentially an anthology of killings. As with the film Elephant the effect, I found, was ultimately one of numbed horror.

I am not sure if this was the intent of Keane with this portion of the book. I found it difficult to make sense from the account of any grand, or even basic, tactical vision of either the defenders or attackers. Certainly the account he presents here reflects the experiences of the soldiers fighting for their own lives and those of their comrades. But the officers who also left accounts were tasked with managing the battle and must have had a broader perspective.

In contrast with the organised chaos of the account of the bloody fighting at Kohima Keane does go to some lengths to place the role of this siege in the wider strategic considerations of Slim, the commander to the British 14th Army, and Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia. He also does a fine job of explaining the British efforts in South East Asia in the context of the geopolitics of the time, including Churchill’s grubby imperialist pretensions.

There is much else admirable about the book, not least Keane’s efforts to bear witness to the story of the Naga allies of the British, a tribal people who stood with the British in their darkest hour at Kohima only to be betrayed by them shortly after when they were no longer needed. Admirably Keane also gives voice to the humanity and experiences of the Japanese who fought in the battle, while never overlooking their brutality and atrocities. The passages describing how the starving Japanese fared in retreat are some of the most powerful of the book.

Ultimately, perhaps as one would expect of Fergal Keane, a veteran correspondent of some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 30 years, he writes of the pity of war and the humanity of those compelled to fight. It is a book that bears witness to Sherman’s blunt observation, “War is cruelty,” and, consequently perhaps, it is at times a gruelling reading experience.

Journey Without Maps, by Graham Greene

Summary: the title is the best bit.

Journey Without Maps is Graham Greene’s account of a hike he took through West Africa in the mid 1930s. Some, notably the writer Tim Butcher, have suggested that his purpose was “espionage”, investigating reports of forced labour in Liberia by the Firestone Rubber Company on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society. So as a former Director of Anti-Slavery International, the current name of the Anti-Slavery Society, I was curious about the account.

Greene’s report on any atrocities he encountered, if ever there was one, appears to have disappeared. There is a story in Anti-Slavery’s journal of a presentation that Greene gave to an Annual General Meeting on his return to the UK, but I could find little else when I searched the archives of the organization. Still, whatever he communicated on his return was sufficient to get him declared persona non grata by Liberia, and hence posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, instead of Monrovia, as an MI6 officer during the war.

The depredations of Firestone are alluded to in this text, but not addressed directly. Instead Greene provides an episodic account of his journey, with frequent reflections on life, religion, colonialism, and “native girls’ breasts,” possibly his favourite theme in the entire book.

I came to the book as a great admirer of Greene’s writing: The Quite American, Monsignor Quixote, The Comedians and The Honorary Consul are amongst my favourite novels. Even Stamboul Train, which Greene heartily dismisses in the pages of Journey Without Maps as a potboiler dashed off for money, is an interesting, and barely disguised, meditation on the Passion of Christ.

But this book I found tiresome and uninteresting. The blurb on the cover describes it as one of the greatest travel books of the 20th Century, which rather puts me off all travel books for the rest of my life.

Greene was generally a political progressive – though not in relation to women: he was a notorious connoisseur of brothels his entire life, and one wonders if the description here of a London acquaintance who liked to order women from a Piccadilly bordello as one would a “joint of meat” betrays something of his own attitude. But in spite of his leftish and anti-colonial tendencies the language he uses in this book and the attitudes he displays to local people are tainted by the poisonous and supercilious racism of British colonialism.

I think he probably grew out of much of this: his later work is marked by much greater subtly and maturity. Perhaps the visit to West Africa ultimately helped him find this: an introduction by Paul Theroux notes that Greene himself in later life described this journey as life changing. But while, as a text, it may be important for biographers, I find little to recommend it.

Munich, by Robert Harris

Summary: a tense journey to the heart of banal darkness

As Hitler masses his troops on the border with Czechoslovakia, threatening an invasion that will draw Britain and France into a general European conflagration, Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister contemplates how to avoid war. Surely the sacrifice of a small nation to a tyranny is a reasonable price to pay?

As the leaders of Germany and Britain circle each other two relatively low level civil servants on either side, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, one-time friends at Oxford, begin to renew contact in a bid to avert what is coming.

Harris’ latest thriller is based around the infamous 1938 international conference in Munich. But its most powerful theme for me was the empathetic exploration of the nascent German Resistance. Hartmann, a character who bears a striking resemblance, physically and biographically, to the real Resistance leader Adam von Trott, seems a little mad to his old friend Legat. But Hartmann has seen the true face of Nazism and understands the “power of unreason” that has gripped Germany. So he does not share the British delusions that Hitler is just another politician who reasonable men can do reasonable business with.

Harris has written “counter factual” thrillers, such as “Fatherland” set in a 1960s Germany in which Hitler has won the war, as well as ones more scrupulously rooted in fact, such as the superb “An Officer and a Spy” about the Dreyfus Affair. Consequently one isn’t too sure exactly how this particular story is going to turn out.

The result is a fine and tense exploration of this historical moment, and how even the best of motives can result in the most catastrophic of consequences.

Saladin: the life, the legend, and the Islamic Empire, by John Man

Summary: An entertaining biography of the great Kurdish leader who, in the midst of war, introduced chivalry to the West

When a European army took Jerusalem in 1099 at the climax of the First Crusade, the slaughter of Muslim combatants and of Muslim and Jewish non-combatants, women, children and men, was so great that it was said the conquerors’ horses waded up to their bridles in blood. A century later when Saladin retook the city for Islam there was no such carnage. Instead Saladin allowed most of the city’s Christian population to depart in peace after paying a ransom.

Of course, as a man of his times, Saladin was not always so merciful. After inflicting a crushing defeat on Crusader forces at the battle of Hattin, Saladin had the Hospitaller and Templar survivors executed by inexperienced swordsmen whose clumsy hacking to death of the prisoners provided much sanguinary amusement for his more experienced troops.

John Man’s fast-paced, entertaining and informative biography of the great Muslim leader recounts the life and times of this legendary Kurd from relatively humble origins to enormous military and political power in spite of the the efforts of an obscure Islamic sect, the Assassins, to kill him. Over time Saladin managed to unite much of the hitherto squabbling Sunni Islamic world, welding them into a sufficient force to be able to confront the disparate Crusader states.

The peak of Saladin’s career, the battle of Hattin, opened the way to Jerusalem for him, but did not deliver him the prize. One of the few Crusader survivors of the battle was the knight Balian of Ibelin, who afterwards sought refuge in the city of Tyre while Saladin began his moves towards Jerusalem. This is where Balian’s wife resided.

Man recounts the story of how Balian sought a parole from Saladin to go and retrieve his wife, which Saladin granted. On entering Jerusalem the citizens begged Balian to remain and lead the defence of the city. Given their desperate state – most of Jerusalem’s garrison had been killed at Hattin – Balian sent a message to Saladin asking to be released from his parole, a request which Saladin again granted.

This story is one of many – alongside, for example, the one of how Saladin, in the midst of battle, sent two horses to King Richard to replace the one that had been just killed beneath him – that are frequently presented to demonstrate Saladin’s enormous chivalry. However it has always struck me as evidence of something perhaps more intriguing.

Man notes how Crusader and Muslim populations lived so close to each other that trade and even friendship often grew up. This story seems to suggest to me that what actually happened may have been less to do with abstract chivalry and more to do with a politically astute commitment to mercy. Perhaps what was really going on was an arrangement between Saladin and his friend Balian to mount a defence of Jerusalem that, after a decent show, could lead to a negotiated surrender of the city to the Muslim forces without the necessity of storm and the inevitable massacre that would result.

Whatever the underlying truth this is what ultimately happened. And the contrast between the atrocities of the Crusaders and the vastly more moderate approach of Saladin has helped to rightfully make the Muslim leader such an enduring legend in the hundreds of years since his death.