The Vanquished: why the First World War failed to end, by Robert Gerwarth

Summary: a fine, at times horrific, survey of the aftermath of the First World War in Central and Eastern Europe, vital for all Europeans with an interest in the future of our continent

The First World War did not end in 1918. It merely transmuted into a bloody set of interlocking independence struggles and civil wars that racked Europe from Ireland to Russia until 1923.

In this violence lay the seeds of the war that engulfed Europe in 1939. Indeed, as Robert Gerwarth notes in this fine, if necessarily at times horrific, survey of this period in central and Eastern Europe, many of the individuals who brought Europe to its nadir in the 1940s began their murderous careers in the bloody struggles of these years.

In this context Ireland’s bloody independence struggle appears almost civilised in comparison with some of the savagery that the rest of the continent experienced. The atrocities in single weeks in, for example, Turkey, Russia or Ukraine regularly dwarfed the worst that Ireland saw in any given year of its revolutionary period.

The seeds of wider cataclysm in the 1940s were fertilised by the harsh peace terms imposed on the defeated Central Powers in the Versailles Settlement. These treated the democratic revolutionaries of Germany and Austria who helped to bring an end to the fighting on the Western front as if they were the Prussian and Hapsburg militarists who had initiated the bloodshed in 1914.

Given their inauspicious beginnings, it is small wonder then that so many of the liberal democracies established in the ruins of empire at the beginnings of the 1920s collapsed into authoritarianism even before the rise of Nazism that plunged Europe into renewed fratricide. Indeed, as Joe Lee pointed out a few decades ago in his extraordinary book, Ireland 1912-85, Politics and Society, it is not an inconsiderable achievement that, for all its flaws, Ireland did not follow a similar path.

As so many in England now aim to rip up the systems of cooperation that are the foundations of peace in Europe, it is worth remembering the savagery that ordinary people can descend to in times of civil war – and all these European wars were civil wars. Of course if so many in England had a knowledge of war and history greater than that gleaned from watching The Dambusters, perhaps we would not be at this dark juncture.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris

Summary: Robert Harris on bleak, civilisation collapsing form

In March 2007 the singer Rhianna released the song Umbrella. This led many to believe, as the TV presenter Rick Edwards (I think) put it, that she was a voodoo devil woman whose song was directly responsible for the wettest, most miserable summer in living memory.

Now I’m not saying that Robert Harris is a warlock. But in 2019 he published The Second Sleep, a book about the aftermath of civilisation’s collapse, in which he mentions that such a collapse may be brought about by, amongst other things, a drug resistant pandemic.

Can it be a coincidence that I write this from a pandemic lockdown?

Some people may be curious to know that the Second Sleep is about a young priest’s investigation in the far, post-event, future into the mysterious death of an older priest. Some may also be interested that it is perhaps Harris’ bleakest book since his story of Nazism triumphant, Fatherland. Like that book The Second Sleep is an elegantly written and gripping thriller in which the initial death proves to be but the loose thread that unravels the veil covering a much greater monstrosity. Some may be interested to know that the other ways in which Harris postulates that civilisation may collapse are nuclear war, climate change, an asteroid strike, a super-volcano eruption (I think he means Yellowstone), or generalised information technology failure.

But all that is beside the point. Robert Harris has cursed us. He is the Rhianna of the Covid-19 generation.

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.

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”.

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.