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.

Not even past: establishing the foundations of a New Ireland

Summary: A prerequisite for Sinn Fein being permitted to join a coalition government in Dublin should simply be that they agree to the establishment of, and full cooperation with, a truth commission on the Troubles.Image result for kingsmill massacre

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Writing 2,500 years ago about a civil war in Greece, Thucydides, the first great historian of that war between Athens and Sparta, made a vital observation: ‘The people make their recollections fit with their sufferings”.

Given the unchanging realities of war and human nature, what was true then is true now. Hence recollections of the Troubles reflect the sufferings of those recalling them. For example, Britons remember with justifiable grief and anger the civilians slaughtered in the Birmingham and Guildford bombings. But many still cherish the paratroopers who similarly slaughtered and injured so many unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy and Derry.

As with so many other things to do with their history, most Britons are blissfully unaware of their security forces subsequent collusion with Protestant, “Loyalist” paramilitaries who acted as proxies in the commission of later atrocities, such as the Miami Showband massacre.

Loyalist paramilitaries when they called their ceasefire did express “abject and true remorse” for the sufferings of the innocents that they had caused. But elements of their community still clearly cherish the memory of some of the worst perpetrators of that hurt, and still celebrate the pain caused.

Irish “Republicans” keep bright the memory of British and Loyalist atrocities but grow irritable at the mention of their own murderous attacks, particularly those on Irish civilians such as Kingsmill, Enniskillen, and La Mon. Their peevishness is perhaps at its greatest when reminded of the savagery of their post-ceasefire butchery of Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn.

Of course, war crimes such as these and brutality by those inured to war are as old as war itself. But when selective memory is practiced in relation to a civil war, then it impedes the possibility of reconciliation and reunification in its aftermath.

It is the very nature of a civil war that after the guns fall silent the belligerents have to continue living together with those they have so grievously injured. The Good Friday Agreement was an effort to establish a basis on which this could happen. With Brexit striking at the very foundations of this peace settlement new constitutional possibilities must be contemplated, including that of Irish reunification. But true Irish reunification depends on uniting people, not just political territories. Without honesty about not just what each side endured but also what they inflicted then such true reunification becomes impossible.

The ideal of Irish reunification has suffered some quite serious blows in recent weeks with the crass celebrations by some victorious Sinn Fein candidates in the recent Irish general election. Singing “Up the ‘RA” on such occasions demonstrates a spectacular insensitivity to a section of the Irish population who suffered at the hands of the IRA during the Troubles but who must now consent to reunification if a New Ireland is to become a reality.

Martin McGuinness, notably in a speech he gave at the peace centre in Warrington, did show considerable moral courage in confronting the pain caused by IRA operations. Implicitly in that speech he recognised that even a just war is an evil thing.

But, like those Brexiters whose only knowledge of the Second World War comes from watching The Dambusters, many of today’s Sinn Féin activists’ attitude to the Troubles is, appositely enough, troubling. They seem to regard their armed struggle not as a regrettable necessity,  but rather as a moral good and those involved in it as beyond reproach. This is a similarity they have with the British Conservative party who resent the idea that British armed forces should be held to basic human rights standards.

The post-election negotiations to form a new Irish government may yet see Sinn Féin entering government, possibly even holding the office of Taoiseach. Former armed rebels entering the government of an Irish state which they hitherto opposed is hardly an unprecedented departure in history. Fianna Fáil did it. Clann na Poblachta did it. The Workers’ Party did it. Sinn Fein has already done it in Belfast.

But with a senior role in government comes responsibility. And one of the principle responsibilities of Irish government over the next decade is going to be exploring the possibility of Irish reunification and, hopefully, establishing a process by which such unification can happen.

This will be an impossible task for Sinn Féin to lead so long as they continue to refuse to face up to the full truth of their history including its most unpalatable aspects and the unremitting pain that they have inflicted on so many hundreds of their compatriots.

Many of the other parties elected to the Dail have refused to contemplate entering government alongside Sinn Fein such is the distaste that they feel at their history. But the logic of the peace process demands that Sinn Fein should have the opportunity to participate in government should the electorate so deem it.

This is a circle that can only be squared if Sinn Fein faces the truth of its history and ceases revelling in silly songs and slogans. In other words, a prerequisite for Sinn Fein entering government in Dublin should be its agreement that the government establish, and Sinn Fein cooperate fully with, a truth commission, modelled on the South African precedent.

Facing the truth about oneself is always a difficult thing. But, if nothing else, over the past decades Sinn Fein leaders and supporters have demonstrated considerable courage. However, it still remains to be seen whether they have the fortitude to move beyond their current posturing self-righteousness to help establish a process to properly remember our collective past and establish an agreed account of it that acknowledges all our sufferings and not just those of any particular  partisan faction.

After all, a new and reunited Ireland needs a foundation of shared truths.

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.

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”.

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman

Summary: exquisitely written and utterly gripping account of the first weeks of the First World War

My friend Caitlin, a state-level chess champion in her US high school days, once gave me the best tip ever for playing the game: “Remember,” she said, “it’s not just about what you are planning to do, but what your opponent is planning to do as well.”

As with so many things about chess, Caitlin’s tip is important more generally in life. And Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August shows how it is, perhaps, most vital of all in war.

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War many brilliant generals across Europe developed many different plans that would grant them decisive victory. Unfortunately these plans tended to rely on opponents behaving in a way that would conform most helpfully with planners’ ambitions.

For example, the German High Command did not anticipate that King Albert of Belgium would actively resist Germany’s brutal invasion of his country. Nor did they expect Tsar Nicholas to uphold his treaty obligations to his Western Allies by mobilising Russian forces. And, as the fighting of the first weeks of the war unfolded, they did not expect the garrison of Paris to sally from the city to attack their flanks and initiate battle on the Marne.

As these things happened, quite contrary to the expectations of the shinny Schlieffen plan that had for so long promised swift victory to Germany over France, the Western offensive of the Germans crumpled into the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches.

Much of the focus of The Guns of August is on the machinations of the various high commands as their hopes collide with the realities of European politics on the battlefield. But Tuchman also gives human faces to the warlords who led their countries.

The book has its heroes, notably King Albert who, of all his royal contemporaries, was the only one, Tuchman notes, who achieved personal greatness. Of the other generals it is perhaps Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who comes out of Tuchman’s account worst, as a remarkably hesitant and ineffectual commander.

When they finally met in London in 1922 Michael Collins found French, who he had once tried to kill, a charming and engaging man. It is a sobering thought that it may well be humans’ finest qualities that render them of least utility in war. In other words, as Chaucer realised, the myth of the “perfect, gentle knight” is just that: a myth.

The Guns of August quickly established itself as a modern classic shortly after its publication in 1962. It is a deserved reputation. The book is an elegantly written, gripping, and enormously erudite account of the first weeks of the First World War, ending abruptly, in an echo of Thucydides, on the eve of the critical Battle of the Marne.

Perhaps it is also a book that helped to save the world. Jack Kennedy read it shortly after its publication and, himself a veteran of confused battles and command bungling, was impressed by a key theme of the book – the miscalculations and errors that led to war and battlefield disaster. So, a few months later, during the desperate days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, Kennedy made very sure to constantly wonder about what his opponents – in Washington, Moscow and Havana – were planning to do.

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Summary: a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of murder on its victims and perpetrators. One of the finest books ever about the Troubles in the North of Ireland.

In 1972 the IRA kidnapped Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten. She was never seen alive by her family again. In 2013, following storms, her remains were discovered where they had been buried on Shelling Hill beach in County Louth. She had been killed by a single gunshot to the head.

Jean McConville’s murder by the IRA, on the trumped up excuse that she was informing to the British, was hardly out of the ordinary. Others were also disappeared. Hundreds of innocent non-combatants were killed by the IRA, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately. Hundreds more were killed by British Crown Forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. But the IRA’s decision to adopt the tactics of a South American dictatorship and disappear Jean, telling her children that she had abandoned them and that she was a tout, has made Jean’s tragedy one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles.

It is saying something about the richness and quality of this book that Radden Keefe’s final uncovering of the truth of Jean’s last hours and the name of the person who fired the fatal shot is not necessarily the book’s most important aspect.

Say Nothing draws in part on the “Belfast Project” of Boston College – an attempt at an oral history project on the Troubles so botched that it was easily portrayed, with some justice, as an effort by critics of Gerry Adams to give other critics an opportunity to give vent to their spleen towards him for his imagined betrayal of them by his involvement in the Peace Process. When it was finally subpoenaed by the police it provided them with a rich source of intelligence on historical crimes.

Carefully triangulating the Belfast Project material with his own research and interviews, Radden Keefe focuses on the lives of three of those involved in Jean’s death – IRA members Brendan Hughes, Dolours Price and Gerry Adams – and on the dreadful consequences of the killing on Jean’s children. The result is a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of the squalid, intimate war known on the Troubles on the lives of both its combatants and victims.

Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes were in many ways hugely impressive people: idealistic, extraordinarily brave and self-sacrificing – both endured time on hunger strike, Dolours being tortured through force feeding over a protracted period. But this book details how even these most admirable of human virtues can be twisted in war to enable savagely evil acts.

Both Price and Hughes ended their lives embittered opponents of the Irish Peace Process. They believed that what they had done in war could not be justified by the peace deal that their former commanding officer, Gerry Adams, had signed up to. While they were wrong about the Peace Process they were both probably right that many of their actions could never be justified, not least because so much of their armed struggle was pointless.

On the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998 Seamus Mallon, Deputy Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), described that agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” It’s a line that rankles the Provos to this day. Mallon was referring to a power-sharing agreement in 1974 that had similar constitutional provisions to the GFA, but which Sinn Fein and the IRA, along with the far-Right Democratic Unionist Party, had opposed. This led, in part, to the bloody continuance of war for another two decades until we ended up in more or less the same place.

Jean and some of her children

Peace has been good to Gerry Adams – the man who, as an IRA commander, according to Price and Hughes, ordered the death and disappearance of Jean. He is now something of an elder statesman, basking in the glow of the Peace Process and apparently untroubled by his bloody IRA past. Of course he always denies having been a member of the IRA, a barefaced lie that stoked the fury and deepened the embitterment of both Price and Hughes, subordinates who had only been following his orders.

Both Price and Hughes went to early graves consumed by the guilt and trauma of what they had done to Jean and others like her. Doubtless when they died they were still trying to convince themselves of the rightness of their actions. Doubtless also they tried not to think of the consequences of their actions on Jean’s children: Her lonely murder at night on the shores of the Irish Sea led to the break up of the family, the institutionalisation of several of her children, and the devastation of the lives of that next generation.

Say Nothing is a remarkable work of journalism and history. It is one of the finest books ever written on the Troubles. It is vital reading for anyone glib about the value of the Peace Process or with any romantic illusions about revolutionary war.

Nights in Armour, by Sam Thompson

Summary: a fine novel of ordinary people at war and the horrendous consequences of violence

There’s an echo of Hill Street Blues, the seminal 1980s cop show, in this book. Like that series this book also encompasses a teeming cast of characters, police of all ranks and paramilitaries, to paint a portrait of what it was like to be a peeler in the North of Ireland in the shadow of the 1981 hunger strikes.

Thompson does not paint a heroic picture. His characters are flawed. Some are bigots. Some are fearful. All are human, living cheek by jowl with violence and death. Traffic accidents, riots, assassinations, attacks on themselves all take their toll as the British Government’s “Ulsterisation” increasingly places them in the forefront of the conflict and hence on the receiving end of the paramilitary offensive.

Thompson’s descriptions of violence are particularly striking. A former cop himself he writes these with the forensic clarity of someone who has seen what firearms and explosives do to human beings and human bodies.

Nights in Armour is a fine novel of war in all its ghastliness. It should be read by every young Irish person with romantic notions of what the Troubles were actually like. And it should be read by every English politician prepared to jeopardise the fragile peace in Ireland for their ludicrous dreams of reclaiming faded British imperial grandeur.

Shadowplay: Behind the lines and under fire – the inside story of Europe’s last war, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a fine journalistic account of war and power politics in the Balkans

img_1613The war correspondent is something of a non-fiction counterpart to crime novels’ gumshoe: a guide through the dark and bloody places that most of us would never dream of personally approaching but still are fascinated by from a few steps removed. Journalistic accounts of war also provide even the most venial of hacks the opportunity to present themselves as heroes of their narratives.

Tim Marshall, author of an outstanding book on geo-politics, Prisoners of Geography, avoids that particular egocentric trap by casting himself very much as the anti-hero. Here he is generally the blundering foreigner dependent on his savvy Serbian colleagues to obtain understanding and avoid dangers.

It is a generous approach and illuminates with flashes of warmth and friendship this, often bleak, account of bloodshed and power politics during the war in Kosovo and the democratic revolution in Serbia.

After the Second World War,” Marshall notes, “the West Europeans gradually invented the European Union as their attempt to prevent them from killing each other again. The Serbs and their neighbours had Yugoslavia, Communism and Tito. The EU survived, and the other three didn’t. When Tito died, the ties that bound their neighbours, almost as brothers, frayed and then snapped.

Marshall may, on occasion, display a regard for the British Army that can really only be shown by someone who has never had their country occupied by them. But otherwise he is impressively clear-sighted about the atrocities and bloody blundering of all sides in these wars, including NATO.

Like much of history, this is not a book with a happy ending. Both Serbia and Kosovo currently sit outside the European Union, their economic and democratic development stunted, with many of their young people abandoning their countries in the hope for a better life elsewhere. Neither will be admitted so long as there is a continuing “bilateral dispute” between them.

This seems rather short-sighted however. Both the UK and Ireland entered the EU in 1973 with a de-facto “bilateral dispute” relating to the North of Ireland, and it was common membership that provided the framework for ultimate resolution of that “dispute” with the Good Friday Agreement – something Brexit now fundamentally threatens. Given Europe’s abject failures in relation to the Balkan wars of the 1990s perhaps we should relook at the opportunities for enduring peace that all the Balkan nations accession the the EU could provide.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”: on Where Eagles Dare, by Geoff Dyer

This is a book that is so silly in its concept that it’s actually brilliant. It is a scene by scene discussion of the movie Where Eagles Dare, a movie that has somehow come to occupy a “unique place in the consciousness” of the author.

The book reminded me in a strange way of another film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film pretended to be a whimsical farce, but ended up touching quite profoundly upon life and history. In this book, Where Eagles Dare allows the author to entertainingly digress on all manner of subjects, from Richard Burton’s drinking, to Mary Ure’s pioneering work as action heroine – a proto-Buffy, if you will – to Clint Eastwood character’s disturbingly sadistic preference for killing with a knife when in possession of a perfectly good silencer. In the course of this the author also touches upon youthful hope, life, and war.

I’m never going to be 15 again watching this for the first time with my family at Christmas. But this book brought back the memory of that pleasure, if only for a fleeting moment.