Saturday, December 31, 2011

History and Fashion - BBC

History often harks back to dazzling moments rather than day-to-day drabness, argues historian Lisa Jardine.

2011 will be remembered as the year that ushered in a new age of austerity. From 4 January, when VAT increased from 17.5 to 20%, we all felt that little bit less well off, and things got worse as the year wore on.

For my generation, "austerity" is a word with a very particular ring to it, permanently associated with the rationing regulations introduced during World War II.

Sweet rationing did not end until 1953, and I have intense childhood memories of my mother counting out our scanty sweet allocation from a biscuit tin on the kitchen draining board once a week. It is probably why I am also of the generation that has an irresistibly sweet tooth to this day.
Clothes rationing had a particularly dramatic effect on how women of Britain looked in the 1940s. Items of clothing were identified by the CC41 label (civilian clothing 1941), guaranteeing that they conformed to the government's frugality regulations.

In 1942 the Making of Civilian Clothing (restriction order) was passed. This prohibited wasteful cutting of cloth, and set a list of restrictions that tailors and dressmakers had to work to. Dresses could have no more than two pockets and five buttons, six seams in the skirt of a woollen dress, two inverted or box pleats, or four knife pleats. No unnecessary decoration was allowed.

Yet, if 2011 began the age of austerity, it was also the year of Prince William and Catherine Middleton's glorious Royal Wedding. And that had everything to do with glamour and opulence - especially the wedding dress, lovingly designed in total secrecy by Sarah Burton, successor at the fashion house of Alexander McQueen. No economising there - indeed, a positive luxuriating in glamour and excess.

The dress was ivory and white satin gazar, its skirt, according to the designer, echoing an opening flower, with an abundance of pleats, buttoned with no less than 58 gazar and organza-covered buttons down the back, and a train measuring almost 3m.
I unashamedly confess to having followed every detail of that dress on the day - watched the entire wedding ceremony, gasped at the extravagance of it all, devoured every morsel of information testifying to the expense in terms of materials and labour.

I didn't queue for hours to see the dress itself at Buckingham Palace later (displayed next to the equally astounding multi-tiered wedding cake), but I have friends who did, and who tell me that the real thing lived up to all our expectations for the exquisite detail of its handmade, hand-appliqued lace. Remember, those who worked applying it had to wash their hands every 30 minutes and use a new steel needle every three hours to avoid marking the ivory silk.

In spite of the gathering economic gloom, many of us - from all walks of life and every economic bracket - embraced the pageantry and sheer opulence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's lavish wedding. We treated the bank holidays as an occasion for celebration, of coming together in the streets and in private in an outpouring of, yes, national pride. And there is plenty of historical precedent for our doing so.
In 1558, when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I succeeded her Catholic sister Mary to the throne of England, royal finances were in a parlous state. Although Elizabeth's fiscal restraint cleared the regime of debt by 1574, the costs of warfare in the later decades of the reign obliterated the surplus, and England had a debt of £350,000 at Elizabeth's death in 1603.

Against this economic background, Elizabeth used ostentation and opulence in her dress as a political tool to increase national confidence in the solvency of her regime. We know how systematic and thought-through such a strategy was, because some of the account books keeping track of the outlay of precious gems and sumptuous fabrics on important public occasions have come down to us.

One of these little books, kept by Elizabeth's senior lady-in-waiting in charge of her "Wardrobe of Robes", contains a daily inventory of outfits worn by her, and is engagingly entitled "Lost from her Majesty's back".

It details meticulously the pearls and gems individually stitched on to the queen's articles of clothing for state occasions, then painstakingly removed and checked back in to her jewellery collection afterwards. If a gem became detached in the course of the outing it had to be accounted for as a "loss" in the book, and the ladies of the royal household were held responsible for recovering it.
What this tells us is that the extraordinary outfit Queen Elizabeth wears in a classic portrait like the 1588 Armada portrait - painted to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish fleet - is no artistic exaggerationAt each intersection of patterning in her silk sleeves and kirtle a pearl or a flower-shaped jewel with diamond petals has been lovingly attached, while shoulders and gown-edge are decorated with pink silk bows, each with a jewelled flower at its centre. The effect is dazzling - a clever way of making a female monarch appear as powerful in victory as her male counterpart would have been, dressed in full armour and ready for battle.I said that Elizabeth herself lacked the means to support such display of financial extravagance. A significant way in which the queen consolidated the sense of economic security conveyed by sheer ostentation, was by means of a carefully constructed policy of gift-exchange with senior (and more personally wealthy) members of her court.

On New Year's Day each year it was customary for the English of all walks of life to exchange personal gifts. Elizabeth and her advisers organised expensive gift-giving of elaborate pieces of jewellery and exquisite articles of clothing, seeing to it that the gifts offered to her at the new year were, from year to year, increasingly extravagant, and increasingly matched to particular requirements for Elizabeth's court dress, communicated to the gift-giver well in advance.

If the gift succeeded - if the queen liked it and wore it - it had fulfilled its function of winning the queen's favour and confirming the giver's devotion and loyalty.

In exchange, each individual presenting a luxury item would receive a piece of engraved silver plate (typically in the form of cups, bowls and spoons), which because it came from the queen herself, had a "value" far beyond its intrinsic worth.

On the whole, male members of the aristocracy gave gems, while their female counterparts gave elaborately decorated clothing. The more powerful and senior the nobleman, the more intricate and ostentatious his gift.

All these gifts were negotiated with, and presented to Lady Howard, keeper of the queen's wardrobe, whose sartorial guidance and approval was sought both before and after the New Year's Day present-giving.

Today, we look back to the Age of Elizabeth I as a Golden Age, in spite of the serious economic difficulties that faced the country throughout her reign. In large part this is due to the enduring impact of those glorious, triumphalist portraits - Elizabeth resplendent in precious stones and costly fabrics, every inch of her body decked out with finery.

And it appears that our own monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is bent on following in her illustrious forebear's footsteps.

2012 is the present Queen's diamond jubilee, and she and Prince Philip, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, and Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will tour the Commonwealth in year-long celebrations.

If the spectacular array of frocks and hats worn by the Duchess of Cambridge in Canada last year is anything to go by, pictures of opulent outfits - every last detail of daywear and eveningwear - will fill tabloid newspapers throughout.

We may be in for years of economic hardship as a nation, but if history judges us by the recorded lavishness of our royal family's ceremonial outfits, perhaps ours too will look, retrospectively, like another Golden Age.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Frank Wild in final journey out of Shackleton's shadowBy Karen Bowerman - BBC 29 Dec 2011

Frank Wild was the right-hand man to Sir Ernest Shackleton, joining him on several of his Antarctic expeditions. But is he finally stepping out of the great explorer's shadow, as his ashes make a poignant journey south?

Almost 100 years ago, the famous polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out to try to be the first to cross Antarctica.

He failed, but his ill-fated expedition on the Endurance, which began in 1914, is now seen as one of history's greatest stories of survival and leadership.

But while much has been written about Shackleton, his second-in-command on that voyage, a Yorkshireman called Frank Wild, has been largely overlooked by history. At least, until now.

Wild's relatives recently accompanied him on his final journey to Antarctica, as they took his ashes to South Georgia, to rest next to the grave of Shackleton, the man he affectionately referred to as "the boss".
The 18-day voyage retraced the disastrous Endurance expedition and ended in a final reunion of two great polar explorers.

The two men shared several trips to Antarctica, including the Nimrod expedition in 1907-09 which brought them to within 100 miles of the South Pole, a record at the time.

But within weeks of setting sail in early 1915, the Endurance was trapped in ice and 10 months later it was crushed, a moment recounted by Wild in his recently re-published polar memoirs.

"It was a sickening sensation to feel the decks breaking up under one's feet, the great beams bending and snapping with a noise of heavy gun fire…

"Shackleton was on the lookout platform and everybody else in the tents when we heard him shout, 'She's going boys!'
"Running out, we were just in time to see the stern of the Endurance rise and then a quick dive and all was over… I felt as if I had lost an old friend."

Among those on board the Akademik Ioffe, the former Russian research vessel retracing the voyage, was Alexandra Shackleton, who spoke touchingly about the relationship between her famous grandfather and Frank Wild.

"My grandfather was once asked to describe various members of his expedition team, and he was quite rude about some of them.

"But he said: 'There is nothing to say about Frank Wild, he is my other self.'"
Wild's relatives, Julie George and Brian and Martin Francis, described their great uncle as a small man, about 5ft 4in (1.65m) with piercing blue eyes and an expansive chest.He was also a great disciplinarian, with a good baritone voice and a love of music. His favourite sea shanty was "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?" and he introduced the family to the song's rude verses as well.

Wild's love of music was to serve him well when the Endurance ran into trouble.

Having retrieved a banjo, and smuggled out a bottle of whisky from their sinking ship, he organised concerts - complete with liquid refreshment - to try to keep the crew's spirits up when they were forced to camp on the ice.

But faced with such extreme conditions, morale did not remain high for long. Cracks appeared in the camp and the ice began to melt.

The men realised they had no choice but to take to the sea in lifeboats in the hope of making it to Elephant Island, off the coast of Antarctica, across some of the most dangerous seas in the world.

From the deck of the Akademik Ioffe, Elephant Island looks savage - a row of snow-covered peaks rising perpendicularly out of the sea. It is too rough to land, which provides a sober reminder of the dangers Shackleton's men faced in lifeboats nearly 100 years ago.

But somehow they made it. After Shackleton and five crew members set off to seek rescue, Wild was left in charge of 21 men in temperatures as low as -45C (-49F).
They lived under two upturned boats and their meals consisted of raw seals and seaweed.

Shackleton managed to make it to South Georgia, a journey of around 800 miles.

But he landed on the wrong side of the island and was forced to scale a mountain range, that no-one had ever climbed before, to get to a whaling station at Stromness - all in the hope that someone would be there.

Dogs barked and children ran away, says Alexandra Shackleton. The whalers knew Shackleton but did not recognise him because he was so thin and his face had been blackened by the seal blubber the crew had used as fuel for a makeshift stove.

"When the manager realised who he was, he turned away and wept. Everyone had assumed the expedition members had died."

Shackleton returned to rescue Wild and his men - although it did take him four attempts.

It was Wild's wish to be laid to rest alongside Shackleton and seven years ago a plan to fulfil that hope began to take shape.Angie Butler, author of The Quest for Frank Wild, discovered his ashes in South Africa, where he was a farmer after World War I, and made it her mission to bring them "home". This made the Wild family trip to South Georgia possible.

Shackleton's grave is in one of the most desolate places in the world, the disused whaling station of Grytviken.

It is marked by a massive slab of granite and lies in a small whalers' cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence - to keep the seals and penguins out. The whaling station resembles a scrap metal yard, full of disintegrating buildings and whaling boats that have been left to rust on the shingle shore.

Butler hands the casket symbolically to Julie George who places it in the ground.
Wild's granite ledger reads: "Frank Wild, 19 April 1873 - 19 August 1939, Shackleton's right-hand man."

As the two great explorers are reunited for a final time, the ship's horn sounds, echoing across the bay below.

While all the other graves in the cemetery point east, Shackleton's and Wild's look south, to Antarctica where, on the Akademik Ioffe a few days later, the towering, blue icebergs form a lake of glinting ice sculptures.

In the distance, there is a rumble as a tiny fragment of a massive glacier tumbles into the sea.

This is a place where man has no real influence, where nature takes its course, and where, when we go ashore, ours will be the only footprints.

"Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices," wrote Wild.

I know now what he meant. I think I can hear those little voices too.

China: Tens of thousands of ruins 'disappear' - BBC 30 Dec 2011

China says about 44,000 ancient ruins, temples and other cultural sites have disappeared.

That's the conclusion of the country's first heritage census for more than 20 years.

About a quarter of the sites that remain are in a poor state of repair.

Explaining the results, an official quoted by Chinese state media said many such sites were unprotected and had been demolished to make way for construction projects
The census, carried out by China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage, recorded the registration of 700,000 heritage sites.

Liu Xiaohe, deputy director of the survey, told state media that economic construction was the most important reason for the damage to cultural relics.

In the worst-affected region, Shaanxi province, which is the home of the terracotta warriors, the statistics indicate that more than 3,500 cultural sites have vanished.

No specific buildings or monuments were named in the census.

Correspondents say that even the iconic Great Wall of China has been threatened by erosion and unauthorised development, as conservation rules are flouted by hikers and exploited by local villagers who charge their own admission fees.

Two years ago a Qin Dynasty part of the Great Wall was said to have been damaged by miners who knocked holes in it while prospecting for gold

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Human zoos: When real people were exhibits By Hugh Schofield 27 Dec 2011

Human zoos: When real people were exhibitsBy Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

An exhibition in Paris looks at the history of so-called human zoos, that put inhabitants from foreign lands, mostly African countries, on display as article of curiosity.

Over four centuries from the first voyages of discovery, European societies developed an appetite for exhibiting exotic human "specimens" shipped back to Paris, London or Berlin for the interest and delectation of the crowd.

What started as wide-eyed curiosity on the part of observers turned into ghoulish pseudo-science in the mid-1800s, as researchers sought out physical evidence for their theory of races.

Finally, in high colonial times, hundreds of thousands of people visited "human zoos" created as part of the great international trade fairs.

Here they could watch whole villages of Kanaks or Senegalese, with real-life inhabitants paid to act out war dances or religious rituals before their colonial masters.

The story is told at the Quai Branly museum in Paris until June 2012, mainly through the display of paintings, old photographs, archive film, posters and postcards.

The aim of the exhibition is explicit - to teach how Western societies created a sense of "the other" in regard to foreign peoples, thus legitimising their eventual domination.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote
The information allows people to understand why there are still faultlines in society based on the colour of our skins."”
End Quote
Ex-footballer Liliane Thuram

"What we tried to do is conduct a kind of archaeology of the stereotype," says curator Nanette Snoep.

The display, entitled "Inventing the Savage", was the inspiration of the Caribbean-born former international footballer Liliane Thuram, who today heads his own anti-racism foundation.

"I have long been interested in slavery because of the way my own family was affected by it," says Thuram.

"It became clear to me that racism was above all an intellectual construction. And as such, it was also susceptible to de-construction.

"That's what we are trying to do with the exhibition: putting on display the information that allows people to understand why there are still faultlines in society based on the colour of our skins."

At the start, all was relatively innocent. One of the first paintings is of four Greenlanders brought to the Danish court in 1664 by a Dutch sailor. They stare out with a look as bewildered as those that must have been on the faces of their captors.

"What is fascinating is that on top of the painting are written their names. In other words, at this early stage they are seen as individuals. Exotic yes, but people," says Snoep. "It is later when the names disappear that the relationship deteriorates."

Another early portrait is of the Tahitian man called Omai, who was brought to the court of King George III in London by the explorer Joseph Banks.
In his book The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes describes Omai as "quick-witted, charming and astute. His exotic good looks… were much admired in society, especially among the more racy of the aristocratic ladies."

But describing this same portrait, Holmes adds: "It is not clear if [Omai] is Banks's companion or his trophy."

Guest or specimen? If there was room for ambiguity in the early days - when explorers and explored often found each other mutually intriguing - this disappeared with the new certainties of the colonial epoch.

The saddest emblem of the coming era was the South African Saartjie Baartman, later to be known as the Hottentot Venus. Born around 1780, she was brought to London in 1810 and put on display.

She had the genetic characteristic known as steatopygia - extremely protuberant buttocks and elongated labia - which evidently delighted the cabaret-goers of the British capital.
Later she came to Paris, and was analysed by the budding racial anthropologists. According to the exhibition catalogue, one scientist described her as having the "buttocks of a mandrill".

When she died in poverty, her skeleton was put on display. It remained on show in the Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1974. In 2002, her remains were repatriated and buried in South Africa.

"Baartman marks the start of the period of description, measurement and classification, which soon leads us to hierarchisation - the idea that there are lesser and greater races," says Snoep.

The climax of the story comes with the imperialist high noon of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

A European public fed on notions of Christian evangelism and cultural superiority was titillated by re-enactments of life in the colonies which became a regular part of international trade fairs.

Entrepreneurs put on travelling stage shows featuring Hindu rope-dancers, Arabian camel-herders, Zulu warriors or hunters from New Caledonia. Whole African villages were recreated to allow Europeans a glimpse of "primitive" living.

The most famous impresario was "Buffalo Bill" Cody whose Wild West shows - according to the exhibition organisers - were another example of racial stereotyping.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote
The story helps explain how millions of westerners were manipulated into a belief in the inequality of races”
End Quote
Voiceover on Inventing the Savage

Some 35,000 people are reckoned to have taken part in the displays. Most were paid.

"They were shows. Public entertainment. The villagers from Africa or India were acting out a role. Significantly there were barriers between the public and the performers, to reinforce the notion of separateness," says Snoep.

These ethnographic displays died out after World War II. Oddly it was Hitler who first banned them. The last was in Belgium in 1958.

The organisers of Inventing the Savage claim that these "human zoos" were seen by 1.4 billion people overall - and that they therefore played an important, and so far unacknowledged, part in the development of modern racism.

"What is left of this incredible story today?" intones the voice-over on a film which is part of the exhibition.

"A view of Africa and its people that is still contemptuous. A certain way in the West of believing oneself superior. Above all the story helps explain how millions of westerners were manipulated into a belief in the inequality of races."

Inventing the Savage provides plenty of food for thought, and there is no-one alive today who would for a minute defend the practice of human ethnographic exhibitions.
The show has been well-received but has come into some criticism for what some see as its heavy-handed didacticisim - as well as a kind of historical cherry-picking that leaves out what does not fit the message.

There is no mention for example of what the human "exhibits" themselves thought when brought to Europe. They are presented as victims, nothing more. Nor are the reactions of the audience explored. Maybe these were more complex than mere colonial self-satisfaction.

Writing in the left-wing newspaper Libération, columnist Marcela Iacub detects in the show "the frankly conservative role… of militant anti-racists and the consensus that they seek to create."

The spirit of the exhibition, she says, is a kind of "censorship, accompanied by the promotion of pedagogical, uplifting messages that will eradicate in us all those dangerous ideas that survive."

Iacub says it is ironic that it was just that kind of misguided moral superiority - the need to improve the unenlightened - that led to Europeans colonising Africa in the first place.

"In the eyes of the militant anti-racist, we are all violent, easily manipulated, barbarous, bloodthirsty, and incapable of thinking without the aid of people to teach us. In fact just like the 'savage' of old!"

Obituary: Vaclav Havel Vaclav Havel: Engineer of the Velvet Revolution - BBC 18 Dec 2011

For Vaclav Havel, and for his people, everything changed in 1989, the year of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, when he led the extraordinary display of people power which toppled the ruling communist regime.

The world watched with astonishment as, within weeks, the dissident playwright became president.

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936. His father was a successful engineer and, by his own admission, young Vaclav was a pampered child from a wealthy family.

Drama critic

But when the communists came to power he saw his family lose everything.

The new government decided the young Havel was "too bourgeois" to be allowed a secondary education.

He organised one for himself, studying at night school, while working as a laboratory technician during the day.

The year 1968 brought the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubcek, the first flowering of reform and of hope for Czechoslovakia.

Havel, now a successful playwright, could openly criticise old guard Stalinists, satirising them in drama, which won instant worldwide acclaim.

But the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed the dreams of Havel and his generation. Suddenly, his work was banned in his homeland.

He produced a series of one-act plays, which had to be performed in private homes. His underground theatre was steeped in politics, and yet Havel denied he was anything other than an artist.

Famous dissident

"I never wanted to be a political writer," he once said. "I think that good writers and good art and particularly, good theatre, is always political, not because writers and directors want to be political, but because it is something which is in the substance of theatre."

A few years later he helped found the Charter 77 movement for democratic change. By now, Vaclav Havel had become Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident.

Jailed for the alleged crime of "anti-state activity", he was kept under constant surveillance by the secret police, even when he was out of prison.

But by the end of 1989, Havel found himself discussing the future of the nation with the very people who had sent him to jail. The Communist Party was disintegrating, and democracy was taking its place.

After the 18 days of peaceful demonstrations and strikes that became known as the Velvet Revolution, the communist government was brought down.

The Velvet Revolution takes hold in 1989

In a solemn service at Prague's Roman Catholic cathedral in December 1989, Havel was duly installed as head of state. The prisoner-turned-president said afterwards that he had never felt so absurd.

Unlike previous eastern European leaders, he was refreshingly open, some would say eccentric, on occasions travelling around his vast palace on a child's scooter.

A fan of rock music, he made the American musician Frank Zappa an honorary cultural ambassador.

Havel's country divided

But the fairy tale soon went sour. Slovakian nationalists campaigned for, and won, independence. Havel's beloved country was divided into two and he was shouted down by demonstrators.

Commenting that "after every party there's a hangover", Havel resigned the presidency, only to be re-elected leader of the new Czech Republic a few months later, in January 1993.

He presided over the painful transition from communism to capitalism. Industry was privatised en masse. Foreign firms like Volkswagen started taking over and Havel criticised the corruption that accompanied the sale of huge state assets.

In his later years, Vaclav Havel was beset by bad health. He had part of a lung removed during surgery for cancer and had a number of serious bouts of pneumonia.

After stepping down at the end of his second term as president in 2003, he devoted time to supporting human rights activists around the world.

Havel also returned to writing and published a new play, Leaving, which premiered in 2008. He then, at the age of 74, made his debut as a film director, adapting Leaving for the cinema earlier this year.

He was uncomfortable with pomp and ceremony

And while he was shut out of day-to-day politics by shrewder Czech politicians, Vaclav Havel was still feted around the world as a much-admired, if rather nervous, ambassador for his country and never a natural professional politician.

Havel was uncomfortable with the pomp and ceremony which surrounded him. He longed to return to full-time writing which was, perhaps, why his people so loved and respected him.

This, after all, was the man who had not only helped destroy communist rule, but who had managed to do so without bloodshed.

How Germany's feared Scharnhorst ship was sunk in WWIIBy Claire Bowes BBC 26 Dec 2011

On 26 December 1943 one of the great sea battles of World War II took place.

Germany's most famous battleship - the Scharnhorst - was sunk by Allied forces during the Battle of the North Cape.

Norman Scarth was an 18-year-old on board the British naval destroyer HMS Matchless, which was protecting a convoy taking vital supplies to the Russian ports of the Arctic Circle.

In a BBC World Service interview he described how he witnessed the sinking of the Scharnhorst:

On Christmas Day we had been ordered to join another convoy because it was rumoured that the Scharnhorst was out.

The Scharnhorst was greatly feared. She was the most successful fighting ship of any navy during World War II and she was the bravest ship.

We were full speed at 36 knots and going through those mountainous seas.

Norman as a 17-year-old in the navy blue uniform of the Home Fleet
It was a full gale blowing. To go through that at full speed, the bow would rise in the air and come down, hover there and come down with a clatter as if on concrete; mountains of water coming all over the ship.

We were ordered to join the 10th Cruiser Squadron - HMS Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield. They had met up with the Scharnhorst and they had engaged her.

There was a brief skirmish, then the Scharnhorst broke off - she was a very fast ship - and with her superior speed she was able to get out of range.

But our vice-admiral guessed that she was heading north to attack this convoy that we had been escorting and the guess proved correct.

She had a reputation and she deserved it.

There was an awe of her reputation, the excitement that we may be able to end the career of this most dangerous threat to us, to Britain, to the Allies - and fear knowing what we were up against.

Hunted down

It was Boxing Day when we finally met up with 10th Cruiser Squadron and the Scharnhorst. She had abandoned her mission and set off for the Norwegian fjords, which was her base and safe haven.

“She had a reputation and she deserved it”

It was pitch black and we shadowed with the use of radars.

We knew that she was heading straight towards HMS Duke of York, which was cutting off her escape. She was hit by the Duke of York and was damaged and her speed was slowed.

There was the Duke of York, the Scharnhorst, the 10th Cruiser Squadron with various destroyers and another cruiser, the Jamaica.

All of us met up and all hell broke loose. Although it was pitch black the sky was lit up, bright as day, by star shells - fired into the sky like fireworks - providing brilliant light illuminating the area as broad as day.

Towards the end we had been ordered to fire a torpedo. Because the weather had eased a little I had taken up my action station as lookout on the starboard wing of the bridge.

The Scharnhorst was close and she was lit up by the star shells and by the fires aboard her. As we steamed past to fire the torpedo I was the closest man - on the wing of the bridge - to the Scharnhorst.

She looked magnificent and beautiful. I would describe her as the most beautiful fighting ship of any navy.

Gesture of defiance

She was firing with all guns still available to her. Most of the big guns were put out. They were gradually disabled one by one. As we were steaming past at full speed a 20mm cannon was firing tracer bullets from the Scharnhorst.

A 20mm cannon was like a pea-shooter compared to the other guns and it could have no part in this battle, but it was just a gesture of defiance from the sloping deck of her.

And that's one of the things that remains in my memory - a futile gesture but it was a gesture of defiance right to the very end.

“I grieve for those men every day of my life”

I can picture that man on the sloping deck of the Scharnhorst. I can picture that man to this day.

Eventually it took 14 ships of the Royal Navy to find her, trap her and sink her.

At that point it went pitch black.

The star shells had finished and I presumed the Scharnhorst had been sunk.

We set off to do another torpedo run to fire from the port side and the Scharnhorst was nowhere to be seen.

So we slowed and we soon saw many men floating in the water - most of them dead, face down in the water, but some were alive.

We switched our searchlight on and I remember our captain calling out to the men in the water "Scharnhorst gesunken?" and the reply came back "Ja, Scharnhorst gesunken", so we threw scrambling nets down and began to haul these men aboard.

Thirty-six were saved out of 2,000 men.

We then received an order from the commander-in-chief to join the Duke of York. So we switched off the searchlight, pulled up the scrambling nets and steamed away.

We could still hear voices calling from the black of that Arctic winter night, calling for help, and we were leaving those men to certain death within minutes.

It seemed a terrible thing to do and it was. But it was the right thing to do.

If we had stayed a moment too long we could have joined those unfortunate men.

I can hear those voices and I grieve for those men every day of my life.

I've even had someone accuse me of being a traitor because I praised the bravery of the German sailors.

I can imagine their feelings as that searchlight went out and they heard that ship steaming away.

I truly can imagine the feelings of those men.

Claire Bowes' interview with Norman Scarth was broadcast on the BBC World Service's Witness programme on 26 December. You can download a podcast of the programme or browse the archive.

Canadian soldier's Christmas with D-Day hero Lord Lovat - BBC News, 25 Dec 2011

Canadian soldier's Christmas with D-Day hero Lord Lovat Patrick Hennessy was posted to Scotland during World War II Continue reading the main story
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An author has uncovered details about how her grandfather spent part of Christmas Day 1941 with World War II hero Lord Lovat.
Canadian Melynda Jarratt has been examining almost 300 letters Canadian Forestry Corps cook Patrick Hennessy exchanged with his family back home.

One tells of Lord and Lady Lovat's invitation to the corps to join them at their Highlands castle.

Lord Lovat's actions at D-Day were recalled in the film The Longest Day.

Born Simon Fraser, the clan chief's best known order was to instruct Glaswegian piper Bill Millin to play the bagpipes as he came ashore at Sword Beach on 6 June 1944.

Mr Millin was unarmed as he marched up and down the beach playing Hieland Laddie.

He continued to play as his friends fell around him and later moved inland to pipe the troops to Pegasus Bridge.

In the 1962 film, which features a re-creation of Mr Millin's piping, Lord Lovat is played by actor Peter Lawford.

It also stars Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum and Henry Fonda.

Father-of-six Mr Hennessy was among hundreds of experienced woodsmen from New Brunswick, Canada, who logged Highland forests for the war effort.

Skilled in the kitchen, Mr Hennessy served as camp cook with the corps' 15 Company at Beauly, near Inverness.

His family said his time in Scotland were among the happiest years of his life.

Granddaughter Ms Jarratt has been researching his war-time stories.

She has previously written about war brides, many of them Scots who married Canadian servicemen.


Ms Jarratt said her father and other Catholic worshippers among the corps' ranks were invited to mass at the Lovat's Beaufort Castle, near Beauly.

In a letter to his wife Beatrice, who he called Bee, Mr Hennessy wrote: "This invitation we got to the castle is something rare. It was wonderful to see the lovely chapel in the castle and some lovely statues of the Blessed Virgin and the crucifix and Joseph.

"A very magnificent altar. So Bee when you look at Beaufort Castle, think I was at mass on Christmas morning December 25, 1941."

Ms Jarratt said her grandfather and his fellow soldiers would have been awe struck by the invite.

She said: "For men like Patrick, with a grade three education and who had spent most of their lives working the woods and farms of rural Canada, it must have seemed like a dream come true.

"We don't know exactly what happened that day, how many soldiers were invited and what was said to the Canadians by the Lord and Lady - research in the Library and Archives Canada this spring will tell the full story.

"In all likelihood, the Canadians were left star-struck by their hosts and the opulent interior of a grand Scottish castle with two giant ballrooms and its own private chapel, a scene right out of the 'pictures' - as the movies were called then."

Remembering Nagasaki and Hiroshima - Wall Street Journal/ Dec 23 2011


KASHIWA, Japan—The struggle to understand the health consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown carries an eerie echo of Japan's past: The nation is still debating who is a victim of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

On Wednesday, in the latest in a series of high-profile lawsuits, four of five people who were exposed to radiation from the bombings—but weren't present at the actual blasts—won official recognition as victims. Until recent years, Japan held that only people who experienced the actual blasts at close range were victims, because secondary radiation posed negligible danger.

This debate resonates today because many potential victims of the Fukushima disaster will have received only secondary radiation, for instance from eating tainted food or inhaling dust.

Which is one reason why Takashi Asahina, 79 years old, says he recently brought a megaphone to the train station in Kashiwa—a town on high alert because radiation "hot spots" from Fukushima have been found here, 120 miles away.

As commuters hustled by in a winter shower, Mr. Asahina warned passing mothers to keep children sheltered from the rain and advised anyone who would listen to track their radiation exposure. "Radiation effects won't show up immediately," he said. "Don't take down your guard."

It's a lesson Mr. Asahina says he learned from his own years-long court battle to gain recognition as a Hiroshima victim. He wasn't near the hypocenter, or ground zero, for the blast in August 1945, but went there two days later, putting him in a category known as "early entrants." A cancer survivor, he was recognized as a victim only in 2008.

"I think the court cases will serve as a great textbook for people in Fukushima," Mr. Asahina said in an interview. "For so long, the government rejected the notion of internal exposure," he said, referring to the ingesting of radioactive material.

There are some emerging indications that the impact of the Fukushima disaster on public health may not be as severe as some have feared. Researchers at Hirosaki University, north of Fukushima City, surveyed 5,000 affected residents at shelters in the area between March 15 and June 20 and found only 10 people with relatively high exposure levels; they weren't high enough to need decontamination.
Still, there is little science on long-term health consequences of low-level radiation. In fact, Fukushima provides the world one of the few opportunities to start filling the scientific gap.

For years after the World War II bombings, Japan kept its criteria for victim status vague, never stating one way or the other whether internal exposure (or other conditions) qualified. But before 2008, virtually all "early entrants" to the bombed areas were denied benefits, according to a health-ministry official.

Vast studies of Japan's hibakusha, "the people exposed to bombs," provide a foundation of the scientific understanding of radiation's human effects. These studies today are the basis for global nuclear-safety standards.

But hibakusha studies focused on people exposed most intensively to the blasts. They gave minimal attention to people a few miles from the blast or who visited the hypocenters later, and to people exposed over time from tainted food, rain or snow.

The 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine deepened the understanding of internal exposure. When thyroid cancer surged among children there, it was traced to contaminated cows' milk they had consumed. Still, Chernobyl data covers only a quarter-century—not enough time to study radiation's full effects—and the information isn't extensive or consistent enough, Japanese and U.S. experts say.
Critics argue that the lack of research on low-level or internal exposure means today's policies may downplay the health risks, whether for bomb survivors or for people near power plants.

"The government has always underestimated the impact of radiation exposure," says Shoji Sawada, a Hiroshima survivor and retired nuclear physicist who advocates for greater attention to the bombs' health effects.

There are big differences, of course, between the bombs and Fukushima. Estimates vary, but 150,000 to nearly 250,000 people died in the blasts. People within 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) received an average 200 millisieverts of radiation, according to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima.

By contrast, exposure for three of the most affected towns in Fukushima were less than 5 millisieverts for 97% of the population, according to Fukushima Prefecture. A spokesman for Fukushima Daiichi's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., says the company isn't aware of any local residents or plant workers sickened from exposure. The spokesman says Tepco believes government officials have taken the appropriate steps to protect citizens.

The power plant, however, released more radiation than either bomb because it contained much more radioactive material.

Tatsuhiko Kodama, a physician and head of the Radioisotope Center at Tokyo University, has criticized Japan for not providing children in Fukushima enough protection from internal exposure. "We must strategize on the assumption that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, like Chernobyl, released radiation equal to several dozen nuclear bombs and created far larger amounts of fallout," he said at a July parliamentary session.
The government has said Fukushima released cesium-137 in an amount 168 times larger than that of the Hiroshima bomb. It released about half the amount of Chernobyl, experts said. The cesium, with a half-life of 30 years, is likely the main long-term health threat from Fukushima, although prevailing winds during the March accident blew most of it out to sea.

Japanese officials admit that missteps may have exposed people to radiation. "We apologize deeply for the residents in the nearby areas who have been exposed," Yukio Edano, a minister overseeing the nuclear industry, said at a parliamentary committee meeting last month. He said the government will provide health checkups "continuously for the affected residents."

The government defends its standards, suggesting that people may have overreacted to the risk of low-level exposure. "We need to look at what exactly the impact on people's day-to-day life will be from an additional exposure of one or two millisieverts," says Goshi Hosono, state minister in charge of the Fukushima accident. "We may still need to ask people to continue with their lives after taking into account such impact."
Two years after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American occupation in 1947 launched studies of survivors. The studies continue today under the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, or RERF, funded by the U.S. and Japan.

Over decades, some 120,000 survivors were tracked. Exposure was based on people's distance from the blasts, adjusted for whether they were shielded by a building, for instance.

The research didn't take into account the effects of fallout over time, and "didn't encompass the impact of internal exposure," for the most part, says Takanobu Teramoto, RERF's permanent director. "We didn't have data on people's detailed behaviors that would have allowed us to estimate that."

For decades, Japan's official conclusion from the study was that about 1% of the 400,000 hibakusha had radiation-induced problems, and the government compensated them. Among the 99% of hibakusha deemed unaffected were tens of thousands who lived a few miles from the hypocenters, or those who, like the megaphone-wielding Mr. Asahina, were "early entrants."

When hibakusha claiming just low-level exposure started seeking compensation in the 1960s, they faced a kind of Catch-22: They were told there was no conclusive evidence to prove health effects, because low-level exposure hadn't been studied. Many claimed ailments similar to people who had been hit directly by the blast: hair loss, bleeding and, years later, cancer, cataracts and heart problems.

They took to the courts, launching a remarkable decades-long debate—part scientific, part legal—over low-level radiation risks. The cases offer some of the most comprehensive records assembled on a question today at the heart of assessing Fukushima's potential danger.

The movement built slowly. But in 2000, the Supreme Court sided with a Nagasaki woman who linked her partial paralysis to exposure and proximity to the blast, some 2.5 kilometers away. The court also ruled the government should consider compensating hibakusha who received low-level radiation at greater distances.

That ruling opened the gates. Since 2006, about 300 hibakusha have won in 30 class-action suits nationwide.

In many, judges ruled "early entrants" should also get benefits. In effect, this was the first official acknowledgment that internal exposure could cause health problems, given that these people weren't exposed to the blasts, but to later fallout.

In 2008 Japan eased its criteria for survivor benefits, granting them to people with certain health problems who were within 3.5 kilometers of the epicenters, compared to 1-to-2 kilometers previously. In addition, "early entrants" who went near hypocenters within 100 hours of the bombings are now included.

Now, just as the court cases are winding down, debate over Fukushima is building. Discovery of radiation in autumn rice crops from Fukushima has put people on alert. The government is expected soon to unveil a timeline for the return of residents evacuated from the 20-kilometer zone around the nuclear plant.

In making key decisions, Tokyo has relied on guidelines from a Canada-based scientific body, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, that used the Hiroshima-Nagasaki studies as a cornerstone.

Many radiation experts say a population will face a measurable cancer increase only if exposed to doses defined as 100 millisieverts or more in a short period. The commission suggests a policy of limiting people's exposure after a nuclear accident to the "lower part of the 1-20 millisievert-per-year band." As the Fukushima disaster unfolded, these guidelines shaped Tokyo's decision to evacuate areas with estimated annual exposure above 20 millisieverts, the government has said.

The ICRP guidelines don't come from firsthand studies of exposure at those levels, but are extrapolated from the much higher exposure levels from the bombs. In Japan, 300 out of 1,000 deaths annually are cancer-caused. If the population is exposed to 100 millisieverts of radiation, it would rise to an estimated 305, according to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences of Japan, partly as victims tend to develop cancer earlier than the general public.

But some medical experts argue that's just guesswork. One theory: Extended low-level exposure might actually be more hazardous than a one-time blast if a brief, high dose just kills cells, whereas internal exposure could damage them even at low levels, ultimately causing cancer. Other experts say it's simply prudent to use extra caution on low-level exposure, since little data exists.

The ICRP guidelines reflect the "general consensus of scientific experts," says Michiaki Kai, a professor at Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences and ICRP committee member. "It is true the risk is uncertain for very low-level radiation. The question is how to respond to that uncertainty. It's an ethical question, not a scientific one." Should people stay away "until radiation levels return to zero?" he asks. "Or shall we allow them to go home before that so they can resume their lives?"

Dale Preston, an American researcher of hibakusha at RERF for more than two decades, says the studies demonstrated radiation exposure did increase cancer risk even at low doses, but in proportion to the dose size. "In no analyses was there any evidence of larger-than-expected risks at low doses," he says.

Several experts and advocates from the fight over Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now joining the Fukushima debate.

Shuntaro Hida, a doctor at a Hiroshima hospital at the time of the bombing who has treated more than 6,000 survivors, was the key expert witness in a class-action suit in Osaka that concluded in 2006. There he described in detail the symptoms of "early entrants" and told the story of a young woman who entered Hiroshima a week after the bombing, searching for her husband, who quickly died from hemorrhaging.

Now 94 years old, Mr. Hida is again in the spotlight. He says he received calls from more than 50 readers of his recent book on internal radiation exposure—mostly from anxious mothers—after Fukushima. One woman was frantic that cesium was detected in her breast milk, he says. Others worried that their children's nosebleeds or canker sores were tied to radiation.

"I say to them, once radiation enters your body, there is no reversing it, and that there is no medicine," Mr. Hida says. "I tell them, now it's up to them to have a positive attitude."

Mr. Asahina, the Hiroshima survivor, says he brought his megaphone to the train station because he fears people will do what he did as a young man and simply avoid the issue of radiation exposure. As a 13-year-old middle-school student, he approached the hypocenter two days after the blast, he says, to look for bodies of his classmates. He found only buttons and belts.

Soon Mr. Asahina showed symptoms of acute radiation sickness, including hair loss and bleeding gums. But once the moment passed, he says, he tried to forget those days, despite years of health problems, until his cancer finally struck.

"We Japanese tend to look the other way when something really awful happens," Mr. Asahina says. "We need to learn to face it."

—Robert Lee Hotz contributed to this article.
Write to Yuka Hayashi at

Tyranny and Indifference: Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il (Wall Street Journal)

As cosmic coincidences go, the deaths of Václav Havel and Kim Jong Il in the same week the U.S. pulled the last of its troops out of Iraq is hard to ignore. Havel made the exposure of tyranny the great task of his life. Kim was tyranny personified. And the war in Iraq was the bruising leap over the wall of global indifference behind which all tyrannies subsist.

The power of indifference is something I first understood from Havel himself after interviewing him, over a beer, in the gardens of Prague's Czernin Palace. The occasion was a June 2007 conference of international dissidents that he co-chaired with Israel's Natan Sharansky. I asked him about his views on the war in Iraq. He had once supported it, but now he was more tentative. The rationale, he said, had not been "well-articulated." The timing of the invasion was "questionable." As in the 1960s, the U.S. risked becoming an emblem of William Fulbright's "arrogance of power."

Then Havel stopped himself and, as he seemed wont to do, put the train of his thought in reverse. "The world," he concluded, "could not be indifferent forever to a murderer like Saddam Hussein."

Here was the nub of the matter when it came to the invasion of Iraq. Never mind the faulty human or technical intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction: The real WMD, better known as Saddam Hussein, was always hiding in plain sight. Over the course of 25 years he and his henchmen gassed, assassinated, machine-gunned and otherwise murdered somewhere between one million and two million people. That's a big number, the equivalent of a dozen or so Hiroshimas.

Yet because most of the victims were Kurds, Shiites, marsh Arabs, Iranians and Kuwaitis, the question was why it should matter to the West—anymore than, say, the butcheries in the Congo matter. Opponents of the war argued that it should not: that there was no emergency; that no supreme national interest was at stake; that humanitarian interventions needed to be carried out consistently or not at all. Failing those tests, they concluded, guaranteed that the war was folly from the start.

If Havel's now-celebrated career means anything, however, it is to beware that facile conclusion. In his great 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless," written just as his career as a dissident had begun in earnest with his signing of the Charter 77 manifesto, he warned against "the attractions of mass indifference" and the "general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity." Havel feared that one's indifference to the question of the freedom of others would ultimately result in a well-fed indifference to the question of one's own freedom.

"A big danger of our world today is obsession," he told the conference the day of our interview. "An even bigger danger is indifference."

All this was Havel's way of saying that political extremism—whether of the Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden variety—would flourish if free people did not actively resist the temptation to acquiesce to it in the name of "peace," or some other go-along-to-get-along slogan.

A proper attitude may not have required physical belligerency, he believed, and it could easily incorporate diplomacy. But it did require a constant posture of spiritual belligerency—a refusal to accept that a regime like Saddam's or Kim's was just a normal fact of life, beyond the reach of moral examination. In the context of Cold War Czechoslovakia, Havel called it a matter of "living in truth." In the context of countries like North Korea, Russia or Iran, Havel told me it was also a matter of truth-telling. "We can talk to every ruler," he said, "but first of all it is necessary to tell the truth."

What does it take to "tell the truth," as Havel saw it?

In his case, a great deal of courage, including a willingness to spend years of his life in prison or working the menial jobs to which the regime sentenced him. The real mystery is why, in free societies where few journalists and politicians are ever at serious risk of reprisal, truth-telling seems to be in relatively short supply. North Korea is a vast modern-day Auschwitz. Yet when George W. Bush named Pyongyang to the Axis of Evil, it was Mr. Bush who was roundly mocked. Note the balance of contempt in the New York Times' write-up of Kim's death from Sunday night:

"President George W. Bush called [Kim] a 'pygmy.' . . . Yet those who met him were surprised by his serious demeanor and his knowledge of events beyond the hermit kingdom he controlled." O, misunderstood Dear Leader, if only we had known you better.

It says something about the force of Havel's personality and ideas that his life did, in the end, have a fairy-tale ending. That is a triumph for the West. It is a triumph for the West, too, that for all the opposition to the Iraq War, a noose was put around Saddam's neck.

But it also says something that Kim died in his proverbial bed, thanks in part to global acquiescence in, and considerable tangible support for, his rule. That's a testament to what our indifference continues to achieve for tyranny, and a poor way of honoring the memory of Václav Havel


Vaclav Havel - Foreign Policy Journal 2011

The death of Vaclav Havel on December 18, 2011, last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, has brought accolades from media pundits and political and plutocratic luminaries for the role he played in the dismantling of the Soviet bloc. Given that the Warsaw Pact was the only geopolitical entity that constrained American global hegemony Havel’s contribution to its demise is lauded as a great victory for “democracy” and “freedom.” However, those are words that are used by many regimes and systems, no matter what their character, and have been euphemisms since the time of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for post-war international reconstruction in the image desired by the USA, for the subordination of all nations, peoples and cultures to everything that is conjured by the word “America"

Havel is said to have been an idealistic opponent of the consumerist ethic, yet what is one to think of an individual who allowed himself to be mentored and patronized by the likes of George Soros, and flitted about among the luminaries of plutocracy? His critique of “The West” was perceptive, stating:

There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another…. I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honor one another, just as we are.[1]
Yet such fine sentiments were antithetical to the world-view and aims of the people and organization that used him and now honor him. Like the much lauded Gorbachev, Havel became an icon of manufactured dissent in the interests of international capital that pull the strings behind the façade of “democracy.” The “velvet revolutions” that were instigated, funded and planned by the Soros network, National Endowment for Democracy, and others, were a prelude to the same types of revolt that continue to be inflicted upon the former Soviet bloc states and that are still taking place under the mantle of the “Arab Spring.”

Charter 77, Plastic People of the Universe & the Politics of “Rootless Cosmopolitanism”

The rot that was eating away within the Warsaw Pact was organizationally focused on groups such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland. These groups were instigated and funded by the network of currency speculator George Soros and an array of subversive, largely US-based and Government connected think tanks. When Charter 77 was co-founded by Havel in 1977, its manifesto was published by the Western media by pre-arrangement, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Corriere della Sera, The Times of London, and Le Monde.[2] Charter 77 was supported from outside Czechoslovakia by the Charter 77 Foundation based in Stockholm.
The Charter 77 manifesto was drafted and a movement formed after the imprisonment of fans of the rock band, Plastic People of the Universe. It is significant that this was catalyst for what became the “velvet revolution.” Kulturkampf is a major part of the globalist offensive to the extent that at the very beginnings of the Cold War the CIA recruited sundry disaffected anti-Soviet socialists, and in particular Trotskyites, into the Congress for Cultural Freedom to try and subvert the Soviet bloc and impose “American” values over the world in the name of “freedom of artistic expression.” Their favored mediums were Abstract Expressionism and jazz.[3] The Congress was established under the figurehead of Professor Sidney Hook, a “lifelong Menshevik” who had organized a committee for the defense of Leon Trotsky at the time of the Moscow Trials, and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. Other Congress luminaries included Bertram Russell, the pacifist CND guru who had sought a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the USSR in the interests of “peace.” The Congress promoted the type of art that had been exposed as subversive “rootless cosmopolitanism” by Stalin, et al., who correctly perceived it as part of a political offensive.[4] This globalist kulturkampf has been described by neocon military strategist Ralph Peters, who worked at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, and elsewhere, stating that, “We are entering a new American century, in which we will become still wealthier, culturally more lethal, and increasingly powerful.” Peters outlined a strategy for subverting nations and peoples reticent about entering the “new American century,” by way of Hollywood, the pop icon, and the dazzle of technology,[5] imposing a type of soft servitude over the world of the type described in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Just how significant this kulturkampf in the service of globalization is, and not merely as a matter of “free expression,” and individualistic “personal choice” of “taste,” etc., can be seen in the role the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) played in serving as a catalyst for the “velvet revolution.” The band is acknowledged as musically “unremarkable” yet its backers ensured that it became politically remarkable. Their origins go back to the orchestrated revolt in Czechoslovakia in 1968.[6] The band obtained the assistance of Canadian music teacher Paul Wilson, the resident in Czechoslovakia. They became the “fathers of the Czech musical underground.”[7]

One commentator states that “an entire community of Czech dissidents sprung up around the band.” According to bassist and founding member Milan Hlavsa:

The Plastic People emerged just as dozens and hundreds of other bands—we just loved rock’n’roll and wanted to be famous. We were too young to have a clear artistic ambition. All we did was pure intuition: no political notions or ambitions at all.[8]

Despite the quaint expressions of naiveté by Hlavsa it was precisely the type of youthful nihilism that the CIA and plutocrats had been promoting in the West in the form of the “New Left” as a means of manipulating and channeling pseudo-dissent. It followed the formulae that had been prescribed by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and which is championed still by strategists such as Ralph Peters. It is precisely why Stalin and other Soviet leaders and theoreticians sought to expose the political ramifications of “rootless cosmopolitanism,” and why Trotsky had formulated the theory in his 1938 art manifesto, Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.[9]

Although the band’s professional license was revoked by the Government in 1970 they hedged around the regulations, and their music was released in the West. Lyrics for the “non-political” PPU were written by “Czech dissident poet Egon Bondy.”[10] What emerged around PPU was a so-called “Second Culture” or “Other Culture” which played at Music Festivals. There were arrests, but apart from a few, due to “international protests” most were released. Canadian Paul Wilson was expelled. The official indictment accused the bands of “extreme vulgarity with an anti-socialist and an anti-social impact, most of them extolling nihilism, decadence and clericalism.”[11]

It was in support of this cultural nihilism that Charter 77 emerged as a movement, with Havel as the figurehead, Havel stating that PPU were defending “life’s intrinsic desire to express itself freely, in its own authentic and sovereign way.”[12] Havel began selecting lyrics for PPU. This supposedly “non-political,” innocent, artistic free expression has since been described by The New York Times as being “wild, angry and incendiary,” and “darkly subversive.” The Soviet authorities described them in more measured terms. The NY Times enthused that PPU “helped change the future direction of a nation.” The NY Times states:

Vaclav Havel, the music-loving former Czech president and dissident who championed the band’s cause when several members were imprisoned in 1976 for disturbing the peace, credits it with inspiring Charter 77, the manifesto demanding human rights that laid the groundwork for the 1989 revolution. “The case against a group of young people who simply wanted to live in their own way,” he recalled, “was an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom.”[13]

It was, stated Bilefsky, “the ultimate rock ’n’ roll rebellion.”[14] In other words, the Soviet authorities were right in their suspicions. It is the same cultural nihilism that is pumped out by the corporates and promoted as a control mechanism in the West under the banal guise of “freedom.”

Paul Wilson reminisced that it was through music that the puerile ideals of manipulated Western youth were introduced to their Czechoslovak counterparts:

One of the things that was very marked in the 1960s was that although intellectuals found it very hard to get a hold of books it was very easy for kids to be right on top of things because records were brought in and the music was broadcast over Voice of America and other radio stations. So, there was a very current music scene here, with a lot of knock-off bands and a lot of fans of different groups just the way you’d find them in the West. The other thing, too, is that the Prague music scene, very early, attracted the attention of the western press, because for them the existence of rock bands in a communist country was a sign of change.[15]

Note that the Voice of America and other US agencies were promoting this movement.
Charter 77 & Soros

It was against this background that the Charter 77 Foundation was established in Stockholm. Soros relates that he had funded this since 1981. The movement “sprung into operation inside Czechoslovakia armed like Pallas Athena,” in 1989. Soros hastened to the country, and with Charter founder F Janouch, set up committees in Prague, Brno and Bratislava, and “I put $1 million at their disposal.” He then began paying the staffs of the Civic Forum party and the newspaper Lidove Noviny by currency speculation. Soros states that together with Prince Kari Schwarzenberg, a supporter of the Charter 77 Foundation, and acting President Marian Calfa, “we all agreed that it was imperative to have Vaclav Havel elected president by the current rubber-stamp parliament.”[16]

Havel, like Gorbachev, was duly recognized for services rendered. An exhibition in his honor was established at Columbia University in 2006, with support from luminaries such as Soros, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton,[17] Richard Holbrooke, et al.[18] Havel served on the Board of Directors of Soros’ Drug Policy Alliance, designed to liberalize laws on narcotics, which might be viewed as part of the Soros agenda for undermining the stability of societies that are targeted for globalization, as part of a “liberal” and “progressive” agenda. One is here again reminded of the use of a narcotic, “Soma,” to keep the citizens docile in Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World; another cause that can moreover be portrayed as “radical” and “anti-Establishment,” while serving the “Establishment.” Among members on the “US Honorary Board” are such “progressives” and “humanitarians” as Former Secretary of State George P Schultz, and former Reserve Bank Chairman Paul Volcker. The “International Honorary Board” includes, apart from Havel, Richard Branson, Sting, and Ruth Dreifuss.[19]

Havel became a member of the globalist elite, in attendance at their international conclaves for reshaping the post-Soviet world. One of these is the Club of Madrid,[20] one of many globalist think tanks that are designed to arrive at consensus on global governance among the self-chosen rulers. The Club of Madrid is a grant-making foundation set up in 2004 to raise funds for causes that promote the plutocratic version of “democracy.”[21] As one would expect, the omnipresent Soros is among the Club “President’s Circle of Donors.”[22] Havel was also an “Honorary Chair” of Freedom Now, a globalist organization with a cross-over of membership with the US globalist think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations.[23]

National Endowment for Democracy

Of particular interest is Havel’s association with the Congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established in 1983 by Act of Congress. Havel is esteemed by NED, an organization intended to take over the role of the CIA in sponsoring “regime change.” NED was conceived by veteran Trotskyites whose hatred of the USSR turned many—including Trotsky’s widow Sedova—into rabid Cold Warriors, and from there into the present clique of neocons. NED was the brainchild of Tom Kahnm, International Affairs Director of the AFL-CIO. He was a veteran of the Shachtmanite faction of US Trotskyism, which pursued an avidly anti-Soviet line. He had joined the Young Socialist League, the youth wing of Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League,[24] and the Young People’s Socialist League, which he continued to support until his death in 1992. Kahn was impressed by the Shachtmanite opposition to the USSR as the primary obstacle to world socialism.[25] At the outset of the Cold War Max Shachtman set his course, declaring: “In spite of all the differences that still exist among them, the capitalist world under American imperialist leadership and drive is developing an increasingly solid front against Russian imperialism.”[26]

In 2004 Havel received the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFCR) “Civil Society Vision Award,” and was on the occasion eulogized by NED’s founding President, veteran Social Democrat Carl Gershman. AFCR appears close to globalism. Its Officers include former US Government functionaries such as Thomas Dine, of Radio Free Europe. The Treasurer and co-Director, Hana Callaghan, is a former advisor to Goldman Sachs.[27] Zbigniew Brzezinski, the rabidly anti-Soviet and Russophobic former US National Security, presently with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is an AFCR “adviser,” as is fellow Russophobe, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Another is Michal Novack of the neocon American Enterprise Institute.[28] Havel is listed as a sponsor of AFCR, along with George W Bush; former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; James D. Wolfensohn, of the World Bank; Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State. On the AFCR “Wall of Honor,” along with Havel are many corporates, including American International Group; Goldman, Sachs & Co.; Citigroup; J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.; David Rockefeller…[29]

In 2007 Havel received NED’s “Democracy Service Medal.” [30]

NED, like Soros, had been a major factor in the “velvet revolutions” throughout the Warsaw Pact states. This is termed by NED as “cross-border work” and had its origins “in a conference that was sponsored by the Polish-Czech-Slovak Solidarity Foundation in Wroclaw in early November of 1989.” According to Gershman:

That conference was the culmination of collaborative meetings and joint activities of Solidarity and the Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland and the Charter 77 dissidents in Czechoslovakia that began in October 1981, shortly before the declaration of Martial Law, and continued throughout the 1980s with gatherings on the “green border” of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the Karkonosze Mountains. The purpose of the Wroclaw conference was to support from the base of the new Polish democracy the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia in the hope that a similar breakthrough could be achieved there. Vaclav Havel was later to credit the conference and the cultural festival that accompanied it with helping to inspire the Velvet Revolution that occurred less than two weeks later.[31]

Gershman alludes to NED’s role in sponsoring the subversion that spread from Poland to Czechoslovakia:

It became clear to me from the many discussions I had with Polish activists in the aftermath of 1989 that they had a very firm and clearly thought through determination to support democracy in Poland’s immediate neighborhood and in the larger geopolitical sphere that once constituted the Soviet Bloc. This determination was partly based on moral considerations, since these activists had received support in their struggle from the NED, the AFL-CIO and others in the U.S. and Europe and felt an obligation to extend similar support to those still striving for democracy.[32]

Gershman states that this “cross border work” continues, and reaches today throughout the former Soviet Union in providing training. Havel rendered invaluable services to this offensive against the Soviet bloc, and was feted by the globalist elite during his lifetime, and is now being eulogized in death. His legacy is claimed by Gershman, et al, as inspiration for a new crop of “velvet revolutions” designed to eliminate whatever resistance remains to America’s version of the “new world order.”


[1] Philip K Howard, “Vaclav Havel’s Critique of the West,” The Atlantic, December 20, 2011,

[2] “Charter 77 After 30 Years,” The National Security Archive, The George Washington University,

[3] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the world of arts and letters (New York: The New Press, 1999). Also see the CIA website: “Cultural Cold War: Origins of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, 1949-50”;

[4] F Chernov, “Bourgeois Cosmopolitanism and its reactionary role,” Bolshevik: Theoretical and Political Magazine of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) ACP(B), Issue #5, 15 March 1949, pp. 30-41.

[5] Ralph Peters, “Constant Conflict”, Parameters, Summer 1997, 4-14.


[7] Ibid.

[8] R Unterberger, “The Plastic People of the Universe,”

[9] L Trotsky, Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, July 25 1938.

[10] R Unterberger, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] D Bilefsky, “Czech’s Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People, The NY Times, November 15, 2009,

[14] Ibid.

[15] J Velinger, “The Impact of the Plastic People on a Communist Universe,” Radio Praha, May 31, 2005,

[16] G Soros, Underwriting Democracy: Encouraging Free Enterprise & Democratic Reform Among the Soviets & in Eastern Europe (Jackson, TN: Public Affairs, 2004), pp. 26-27.

[17] “Havel at Columbia,”


[19] Drug Policy Alliance,

Dreifuss is a Swiss Social Democrat.

[20] Club of Madrid, Members,


[22] “Partners & collaborators,”

[23] Freedom Now, “Honorary co-Chairs,

[24] Rachelle Horowitz, “Tom Kahn and the Fight for Democracy: A Political Portrait and Personal Recollection,” Dissent Magazine, pp. 238-239.

[25] Ibid. p 211.

[26]Max Shachtman, “Stalinism on the Decline: Tito versus Stalin, The Beginning of the End of the Russian Empire,” New International, Vol.XIV No.6, August 1948, 172-178.

[27] AFCR, “Officers,”

[28] AFCR “Advisers,”



[31] C Gershman, “Giving Solidarity to the World,” “At the symposium ‘Solidarity and the Future of Democratization’ Georgetown University – Washington, D.C.,” May 19, 2009,

[32] Ibid.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Day of Hitler's Death: Even Now, New Glimpses: NY Times

The Day of Hitler's Death: Even Now, New Glimpses


Published: May 4, 1995

BERLIN, May 3— Fifty years ago this week, with his "thousand-year Reich" in ruins, Hitler committed suicide, ending a life that may have brought more suffering to more people than any other in history.

Because no clearly identifiable corpse was known to have been found, uncertainty about Hitler's fate persisted for years. But in recent weeks, new information has emerged that not only proves conclusively that the Nazi dictator killed himself in his underground bunker, but also illuminates details of the hours immediately before and after his death as well as the way the Soviets disposed of his remains a quarter-century later.

On April 28, Hitler received news that Mussolini had been captured by Partisans, shot and hanged upside-down in a Milan plaza. Determined to cheat his enemies, Hitler resolved to commit suicide, and ordered aides to burn his body beyond recognition afterward.

"My Fuhrer, why don't you go to the troops as a soldier?" his secretary, Traudl Junge, asked him.

"I can't do that," Hitler replied. "None of my people are prepared to shoot me, and I won't fall into the Russians' hands alive."

Hitler awoke early on the morning of April 30 and spoke with his private pilot, Hans Baur, who reported that he had prepared a plane capable of making a long-distance flight. He suggested that Hitler flee to Argentina, Japan, Greenland, Manchuria or Jerusalem, where admirers were supposedly ready to spirit him to a hideout in the Sahara.

Hitler declined the offer, and a few hours later dictated his final testament to Miss Junge.

"During these last three decades, all my thoughts and actions, and my entire life, have been moved solely by the love and fidelity I feel for my people," he said. "This has given me the strength to make the most difficult of decisions, the like of which no mortal has ever made before."

After finishing his dictation, Hitler and his wife of two days, Eva Braun, retired to their sitting room. At 3:30, a shot rang out. Artur Axmann, a Hitler Youth leader, entered the room moments later.

"Adolf Hitler sat on the right side of the sofa," Mr. Axmann recalled in one of several interviews he has given in recent weeks. "His upper body was leaning slightly to the side, with the head slumping down. His forehead and face were very white, and a trickle of blood was flowing down.

"I saw Eva Braun next to Hitler on the sofa. Her eyes were closed. There was no movement. She had poisoned herself, and appeared to be sleeping."

Aides took the two bodies outside, doused them with gasoline and burned them, continuing until they had used about 50 gallons.

In recent interviews, retired Soviet intelligence officers have confirmed what they refused to confirm for years: that they found and identified Hitler's remains. One officer, Gen. Leonid Siomonchuk, who later rose to the rank of general in the K.G.B., told German interviewers that he was present when Hitler's dentist was ordered to examine the corpse.

"At the beginning he was a bit shocked, unable to speak," General Siomonchuk recalled. "Then he said, 'Hitler is dead.' "

A document newly obtained from long-closed archives in Moscow includes an order that Hitler's remains be burned and that the ashes be dumped in the Elbe River.

A part of what may be Hitler's skull, with bullet hole, was removed before the cremation and shipped to Moscow. Before German television cameras, a Russian archivist, Alzha Borkovich, recently unwrapped it and held it in her hand.

"To tell you the truth," she said, "my hand is shaking

The Return of Mein Kampf

The Return of Mein Kampf


VIENNA — In Vienna’s leafy Augarten Park stand two enormous flak towers — vestiges of World War II. Beige and hulking, with walls four feet thick, they are as imposing as they are ugly. Impossible to ignore, they force a conversation.

European Pressphoto Agency

The other day, at a café nearby, the historian Herwig Czech was talking about another World War II relic, much smaller but far more fearsome: “Mein Kampf.” Adolf Hitler’s personal-political 700-plus-page screed, the text that provided the opening overture and background music for the racist ideology of the Nazi period, enters the public domain in 2015. At that point, there will no longer be any legal control over its distribution.

This already scares a lot of people. “There are those who say, oh, it’s passé,” said the historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a colleague of Czech’s and an organizer of a conference held last month in Paris to discuss the implications of freely distributing “Mein Kampf.” “But my students tell me they find it engaging. It still ‘speaks’ in the psychoanalytic sense of the word.” And, he said, “It still sells.”

Limiting free speech is anathema to many Americans, but throughout Europe it has seemed like a proper means of shoring up democracy against the threat of fascism. In the immediate postwar period, nearly all European governments passed such restrictions on free speech. “It was believed we needed the laws to keep the lunatic fringe right at bay,” Czech explains.

In 1947, Austria adopted the Verbotsgesetz — or “Prohibition Act” — banning the Nazi Party and criminalizing the celebration, promotion, or adulation of Nazi ideology; in the 1990s, it was amended to prohibit Holocaust denial. (It was under this law that the English writer David Irving was jailed a few years ago for denying the existence of the gas chambers.) Distributing and displaying Nazi paraphernalia is forbidden here. Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Lithuania — all these countries also criminalize revisionism and restrict various forms of speech and publications about the Holocaust. And for nearly 70 years, the German state of Bavaria, which holds the copyright for “Mein Kampf,” has fought heartily against the book’s publication in any country where it is possible to fight it.

But now the rationale behind these restrictions is being questioned. While they may have helped limit the widespread distribution of “Mein Kampf” in Europe, repressive tactics of this kind have not aged well in the Internet era. (The book was never fully blocked anyway: in the 1980s, the U.S. Army sold it in some of its “Stars and Stripes” shops across Germany. And libraries often held copies.) Preventing a book’s publication today is largely a symbolic move.

“Mein Kampf” is widely available, in its entirety, across the Web. It has been a hit in Japan and Turkey in recent years; it has sold briskly in South America and the Middle East; and it has shown up, like a nefarious inspiration, in such ugly places as the rantings of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. By 2008, an estimated 70,000,000 copies had been put into circulation since the book was first published in 1925, according to, a consortium of academics and activists. In other words, the restrictions on its publication may have enabled a kind of willful ignorance, a means of not recognizing the continued impact of the book’s ideas on society.

And so as Europe faces the end of the copyright on one of the most painful texts of the 20th century, some people now believe that the best course of action is not to extend the ban, but to publish “Mein Kampf” with extensive annotations that explain how the book was used and what it wrought — that recognize its continued presence. “Our idea is a zero-censorship effort,” says Philippe Coen, a French attorney at the forefront of, which organized the recent conference in Paris. He, like Dreyfus, favors the pedagogical approach to the publication of Hitler’s manifesto.

As the war’s last eyewitnesses die out, Coen warns, new ways must be learned to ward off the ideology behind the text without being afraid of the text itself.

Adolf and Eva - NY Times

Adolf and Eva


Published: November 16, 2011

Hitler could not have wished for a better girlfriend. In this first full-scale biography of Eva Braun, the German historian Heike B. Görtemaker examines the known sources for Braun’s life and emerges with a highly readable and consistent portrait of an ordinary woman who loved sports, fashion and jazz; and who was, without a doubt, utterly devoted to the man history has seen as “evil incarnate.”

In “Eva Braun: Life With Hitler,” Görtemaker asks whether it is useful for a nuanced picture of Hitler to show him in his off-hours, a man like other men, putting on his trousers one leg at a time. She thinks that it is, and that the “demonization” of Hitler has been an impediment to a fuller understanding of him and of the Nazi phenomenon. Through Braun, she believes, a new perspective on Hitler will open. And she writes that Braun’s “ ‘normality’ at the center of this atmosphere of ‘evil’ is like an anachronism that brings this evil into relief and shows it in a new light.” One wonders if the quotation marks are strictly necessary.

One day in 1929, in Munich, 40-year-old Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, paid a visit to the shop of his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. It was here that he first met Hoffmann’s new employee, pretty, blond, blue-eyed, 17-year-old Eva Braun. Hitler was quite taken; Eva was naturally impressed with the leader of this up-and-coming national movement.

Eva was a lower-middle-class girl, one of three sisters, of purely Aryan descent (Hitler had her family investigated for Jewish taint). Probably Eva wished for marriage, but this was not to be, at least not for 16 years. Hitler had another bride: “I am married to the German people and their fate! . . . No, I cannot marry, I must not,” he often said in one form or another. A secret girlfriend was another matter.

But what about the sex? It has been theorized that Hitler was heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, impotent. A coprophilia fetish has been mentioned. In fact, no one really knows. Görtemaker believes that Hitler’s sexuality was in the conventional range. There is a 20-page diary fragment attributed to Braun, but Görtemaker, a cautious historian who never claims more for her subject than the evidence will bear, warns us that the diary may not be authentic. Still, she quotes an entry in which Braun mentions “two marvelously beautiful hours with him until midnight.”

In those years of the Nazis’ rise to power, Hitler didn’t have much time for Eva; he had a lot on his mind. There were the Reichs­tag elections to win, the chancellorship to obtain, the masses to whip up, the Jews to persecute. (Just by the way, Hitler’s rise to absolute power was thanks, in part, to the Soviet Comintern policy of pitting German Communists against Social Democrats, thus splitting the vote on the left.)

While Hitler was away from Munich, Eva lived with her parents, worked at Hoffmann’s photo studio and waited for her admirer’s occasional visits. She was not always patient. There is evidence, Görtemaker says, that she tried to kill herself in 1932, and tried again three years later when she feared that Hitler’s interest was flagging. Braun’s first attempt reminded Hitler that his half-niece, Geli Raubal, who had lived with him and to whom he had been devoted in some way, actually did kill herself in 1931. He was moved to remark about Braun, “Now I must look after her” because something like this “mustn’t happen again.” Braun’s second attempt in 1935 spurred Hitler to provide her with her own apartment in Munich, and give her permission to spend more time in his presence.

Did Braun “share the political positions and basic worldview of her lover”? Görtemaker asks. The question is rhetorical. Why wouldn’t she? If only by osmosis, why wouldn’t this young, quite ordinary girl accept the opinions of her lover, of her boss and of her father, who was also a Nazi Party member? What Hitler believed, large numbers of Germans came to believe: that Germany could not live in peace unless the traitorous Jewish Bolshevik bankers were exterminated, and that Germany’s hegemony had to be extended to the west and to the east. As Rudolf Hess’s wife, Ilse, wrote in the early days of the Nazis: “To put it in the clean and plain and negative terms appropriate to the movement, we are anti-Semites. Consistently, rigorously, without exceptions!” In September 1935, Braun, who was generally left in Munich, was allowed to attend the Nazi Party convention in Nuremberg, where she witnessed the passing of the Nuremberg laws depriving Jews of German citizenship and forbidding their participation in civic life.

Görtemaker is often compelled to phrases like “we can only speculate,” “no authenticated information about,” “the final truth, however, remains unknown.” It is true that all personal letters and documents between Braun and Hitler were destroyed on Hitler’s orders in the last days of the war, and that specific information is to be found only in the memoirs and testimony of those who served him — and who, when the war was lost, served themselves. But Görtemaker shows that by early 1936 Braun’s position with Hitler was “unassailable.” At the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat in the cloud-swirled Bavarian Alps, she had her own little apartment, next to Hitler’s bedroom, and was accepted by his intimates as mistress of the house. At meals, she sat at Hitler’s left. She felt secure enough to rebuke Hitler for being late to dinner, and to indicate when she thought he had talked enough. She enjoyed swimming and skiing. She loved fashion and changed her clothes several times a day. She took photographs and home movies of Hitler and his guests (which can be seen on YouTube) and generally behaved as though she were at home.

And then, on Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Görtemaker is in no doubt that Braun knew of his plans. He seems to have talked freely about them at the Berghof. During the course of the conflict, at least until close to the end, she seems to have been unconcerned, taking her annual trip to Italy while Hitler was conducting the war on the Eastern Front. Even as the war turned against Germany, Hitler, according to Goebbels, was praising his companion’s “calm, intelligent and objective way of being.” Not until 1944, when the Red Army had reached Warsaw, did Braun make her will.

Eva Braun loved Hitler; of that there can be no doubt. In the spring of 1945, when the war was clearly lost, she rushed to Berlin to be with him in his bunker, to marry him, to commit suicide with him at the moment when the Red Army reached the Reichstag. But knowing that there was genuine love in Hitler’s life, even a sort of domestic existence, do we see Hitler’s “evil” in a new light, as Görtemaker suggests we will? Or do we know, as we have always known, that evil walks among us; that no monster (or his friends and lovers) thinks himself monstrous, no madman thinks himself mad; and that, as the filmmaker Jean Renoir once said: “The really terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.”

Dorothy Gallagher’s biography of Lillian Hellman will be published next year.

A version of this review appeared in print on November 20, 2011, on page BR24 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Adolf and Eva.

WWII Book Review - Max Hastings The World At War

World War II, From the Ground Up


Published: November 17, 2011

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Do we really need another history of World War II? The book market is overflowing with them, and new ones seem to appear at almost weekly intervals. Vast though the conflict was, we probably know more about it than any other war in history. Sir Max Hastings, author of this latest survey, has already written no fewer than eight books about key campaigns and personalities of the war. Has he got anything new to say?

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U.S. Navy, via Associated Press

A photo taken aboard the American Aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, September 1944.


The World at War, 1939-1945

By Max Hastings

Illustrated. 729 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35

The answer is, emphatically, yes. “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” sums up and surpasses all his previous publications: a new, original and necessary history, in many ways the crowning of a life’s work. A professional war correspondent who has personally witnessed armed conflicts in Vietnam, the Falkland Islands and other danger zones, Hastings has a sober, unromantic and realistic view of battle that puts him into a different category from the armchair generals whose gung-ho, schoolboy attitude to war fills the pages of a great majority of military histories. He writes with grace, fluency and authority. “Inferno” offers an account of the war that concentrates on the lived experience of the men and women who took part in it. On almost every page there is memorable and arresting material from interviews, diaries, letters, memoirs and personal documents of many kinds. The huge cast of characters and witnesses gives the book an almost Tolstoyan sweep, as it ranges across the world, from Dunkirk to Iwo Jima, Stalingrad to Guadalcanal.

Hastings is at his absolute best when he is describing battle scenes, both on land and at sea. Deftly chosen quotations are effortlessly integrated into the narratives, providing color and making the action come alive. They are supplemented where appropriate with clear and informative maps and easily digestible statistics. This is at its core very much a military history, despite the space devoted to the experiences of civilians. Brisk assessments are delivered on the competence or (mostly) incompetence of leading generals and the performance of their troops; in the book’s concluding chapter, Hastings pronounces his verdicts, rather like a senior general handing out medals at the end of a campaign: Montgomery was a highly competent professional who lacked the touch of genius needed for him to be numbered among the great commanders; MacArthur was a brilliant self-publicist, but outclassed as a general by the now-forgotten Lucian Truscott; Rommel was fatally compromised by his disregard for logistics; Georgi Zhukov was a superb commander in 1944, but his storming of Berlin the following spring was brutish and clumsy.

Hastings argues that the navies of the United Kingdom and the United States were their best fighting forces; he thinks the armies of the two Allied powers were mostly no match for the ruthless fighting prowess of the Germans and Japanese, whose willingness to sacrifice themselves contrasted with the care taken by Allied generals to minimize casualties among their own men. Red Army troops behaved in a manner not unlike that of the Germans, their reckless disregard for their own safety driven on by the knowledge that the Soviet secret police would shoot them if they hesitated. What shifted the balance in favor of the Allies in the end was America’s industrial might, which by 1943 was supplying enormous quantities of munitions and equipment without which the Red Army’s victory would have taken far longer to achieve.

Germans, Russians and Japanese soldiers and civilians get their say in this book as well as Americans and British. Ninety percent of German troops killed in the war died on the Eastern Front, and Hastings gives this fact appropriately expansive treatment. He is as hard on the racism, complacency and incompetence of the British in the face of the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore as he is on the cruelty and brutality of the Japanese Army as it tortured, raped and massacred its way across China, Indonesia and Malaya. As the British fled, denying Asians access to evacuation ships to make room for themselves, the young Singaporean politician, Lee Kwan Yew, exclaimed: “That is the end of the British Empire.” Millions of people died of hunger, disease and mass murder under German rule in Europe, but millions died too from starvation in India under British rule
Yet Hastings is not always so evenhanded in his coverage. In describing the invasion, conquest and division of Poland by Hitler and Stalin in 1939, for example, he devotes considerable space to the Soviet arrest, deportation and murder of Poles in their zone of occupation, but says little about the mass imprisonment, deportation, enslavement and murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles by the Nazis. His brilliant and evocative account of the “winter war,” in which Finland defended itself with surprising effectiveness against Stalin’s invasion in 1939-40, outclasses his somewhat perfunctory narrative of the Polish campaign. And his skillful touch can fail him when it comes to dealing with nonmilitary aspects of the war. There are too many sweeping generalizations about national character. The Poles have a “propensity for fantasy,” for example, while “Britain’s antimilitarist tradition was a source of pride to its people.” Neither claim is true; indeed, British national culture in the 1930s was suffused with celebratory memories of national military victories in Europe and across the British Empire, while pacifism was the province of only a tiny minority.
On occasion, too, the military historian’s propensity to judge everything in terms of military effectiveness can lead Hastings astray. “One of Hitler’s greatest mistakes,” he writes, “from the viewpoint of his own interests, was that he attempted to reshape the eastern lands that fell under his suzerainty in accordance with Nazi ideology while still fighting the war.” Nazi brutality certainly alienated many Ukrainians and others whose resentment at years of murderous Soviet exploitation made them ready to welcome the Germans when they arrived in 1941; but for Hitler, of course, the exploitation and extermination of Slav “subhumans” was one of the major purposes of the war.

And the chapter on the Holocaust is among the weaker ones in the book. Hastings sees the annihilation of the Jews as a military mistake, but in fact it did not entail “diverting scarce manpower and transport to a program of mass murder while the outcome of the war still hung in the balance,” at least not on any significant scale. The “euthanasia” campaign in which Hitler ordered the murder of 70,000 mentally ill or handicapped Germans was not directed exclusively against “inmates of psychiatric units,” but actually began with the forcible removal of thousands of children from their parental homes. These are minor objections, however. As military history in the round, conveying to a 21st-century readership the human experience of this greatest and most savage of human conflicts in history, “Inferno” is superb.

Richard J. Evans is the Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge and the president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of “The Third Reich at War