John Le Carré and the Literature of Brexit
Posted: 15th January 2021
The death of the 89-year old John Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) two weeks before Christmas aroused bitter-sweet memories. There was a time when I wolfed down every new book he wrote. I think that must have started in the mid-seventies and continued until shortly before the end of the Cold War. I remember thinking that Smiley etc. must have been a bit long in the tooth by then. Once the Wall was down I couldn’t really see the dowdy, shadowy world he had created being translated into a hi-tech modern one with a range of different enemies: it must have been a crisis time for all spy-writers - the Cold War was the gift that kept giving. The removal of the Iron Curtain might have put a lot of them - at least temporarily - out of business.
My own life had changed too. In 1989 I published my first book on German history. At Christmas that year I celebrated by travelling from Vienna to Berlin via Prague, Dresden and Leipzig. On New Year’s Eve I went to a huge party at the Wall and watched people hacking holes in it. At one point a man doused it in petrol and set it alight. I felt like Wordsworth welcoming in the French Revolution: ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.’
I think I only read one Le Carré novel after that: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and that at the request of an editor who wanted a piece on Cold War Berlin. To be honest it is probably Le Carré’s best. It captures a certain mood which was well translated to the cinema screen in 1965, when Richard Burton played possibly his greatest ever role as the downbeat, hard-drinking Alec Leamas. I still watch the film, often. Alec Leamas is the perfect foil to the frankly absurd creation that is James Bond.
A few days after Le Carré’s death I saw a strange letter in the local rag that revealed the enormity of his feet: he wore size 13 shoes. It was written by a woman who used to talk to him on the Heath, where they both walked their dogs. It turned out that he lived in Well Street or nearby. And then it occurred on me that the face in the picture was familiar; that I had probably seen him recently, walking with a dog and a stick. Then I felt lonely, as if I had lost a part of my existence, and that he was some sort of estranged but still valued friend.
Not everyone felt that way. In the Telegraph he was passed over for the top slot on the obituaries page in favour of the crooks’ moll and carry-on star Barbara Windsor. Boris Johnson also eulogised our Babs, but failed to mention Le Carré. The reason for this was probably clear enough: Le Carré had been a vociferous opponent of Brexit. He was not only a former Cold Warrior, he was a linguist and a staunch European. The Brexit oligarchy has little sympathy for the pro-European older generation in the Conservative Party either. They might have said Le Carré was stuck in the past with causes and attitudes that were now meaningless, and maybe they were right. Let’s face it: I too had decided that Cold War literature was an outmoded genre.
Then my son gave me a copy of Le Carré’s last novel - Agent Running in the Field - for Christmas. I cleared my desk and for a couple of days I reverted to form: I was almost totally absorbed. One of the first things I noticed of course was that despite my misgivings, the enemy hadn’t really changed: why should it have done? Russia was still a pariah, if not THE pariah; the President of the Russian Federation is a former KGB officer who served in Dresden during the Cold War. Russians are everywhere you look, and many of those made their fortunes as the world so beautifully described by Le Carré in his earlier novels fell apart. In their hearts, however, it is not hard to imagine that many of them remain steadfast KGB-men.
I do not intend to give away the story to anyone who has yet to read the novel, but the plot revolves around Nat and Ed. Nat is a seasoned MI6-man who has been head-of-station in various places, while Ed is a gauche younger ‘media’ man who challenges him to a game of badminton in a Battersea sporting club. Somehow Nat and Ed’s games become trammelled up in the operation that Nat is leading, and which revolves around some covert surveillance focussing on a Russian oligarch.
Nat finds Ed sympathetic, maybe because they both dislike Brexit; indeed, Ed is a furious ‘Remoaner’. Nat has no fondness for Brexit either, or his boss - the Foreign Secretary, our present Prime Minister. The novel is set during Theresa May’s ministry: ‘A minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters’ says Nat, ‘A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit...’ Ed adds a warning against dependence on Trump, an ‘institutional racist’ a ‘neo-fascist’.
Nat’s dislike of Brexit is more old-school: ‘I am European born and bred. I have French, German, British and Old Russian blood in my veins and I am as much at home on the Continent of Europe as I am in Battersea.’ He is not enamoured of Trump either and nor are most of his ‘chers collègues’.
There aren’t many takers for Brexit in the novel to be honest. Nat goes to the former Carlsbad to see one of his old agents, Arkady. Arkady isn’t impressed either: ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air: “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans. No Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?
‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.’
Agent Running in the Field is not Le Carré’s best book by a long chalk. The characterisation is unconvincing. It is not at all clear why anyone is interested in the gawky Ed, least of all Nat. That he finds love seems, well, unlikely. A tiresome PC world has taken over the service (that much is almost certainly true to life); the badminton analogy failed to satisfy me, and the end descends into a sort of unseemly schmaltz...
But it is a novel about Brexit and as such Le Carré’s last minute stab at a new genre. It is quite a swansong, and on the face of it, it is no wonder that Le Carré went to his grave (in official circles at least) ‘Unwept… Without the meed of some melodious tear.’
Posted: 21st December 2020
On Thursday I said my farewell to the Mainland. We needed to pick up some wine in Calais, and set out in darkness shortly before six in the morning. The Channel Tunnel was heralded by mile upon mile upon mile of lorries parked up on the hard shoulder of the motorway, awaiting their slots in the Channel Tunnel train. For some reason they reminded me of the German tanks in the forest at the beginning of the film A Bridge Too Far. Without obvious drivers in their cabs, they were strangely menacing, but they also brought home to me the strengths and weaknesses of islands. Yes, we are hard to invade, but we are also acutely vulnerable because we produce so little of what we need to sustain us. A lot of our fresh food comes through that tunnel. Both the First and the Second World Wars demonstrated that it was quite possible to starve us and we had a proper navy to defend us then. The drivers of these apparently stranded vehicles could all be classed as heroes in their way, who have put up with this ignominy to make sure we had at least some food and drink over the festive period.
A rosy dawn broke over the Continent as we waited in the car park in Folkestone. There were not so many small vehicles heading for the continent but we were still delayed for an hour and sat in a queue while others walked their dogs around their cars in intermittent rain. With Brexit not two weeks off, maybe this would prove the last chance to visit the holiday home with Rover and Fido? Next year even humans might need visas.
We emerged on the other side to be greeted by kilometre upon kilometre of lorries laid up by the side of the road, waiting for their slots on the Channel Tunnel train. The only difference was that these lorries were frequently surrounded by packs of migrants in shabby anoraks and woolly hats, desperate to find a way to hitch a lift across the water. As we drove to the warehouse we saw roads blocked by lorries parked four abreast across the motorway. If they weren’t going to get through, no one else would either. Angry drivers tried to carve us up as we skirted the roundabouts.
The business of collecting the wine took virtually no time. Rampant Covid dictated that we had as little contact with the staff as possible. Once the van was loaded we went into Calais to a branch of the supermarket Carrefour. As we got out of the van, a French lad, dressed in much the same kit, was negotiating with three or four migrants. I wondered what he was proposing. Was he about to relieve them of their last reserves of cash?
The supermarket was almost empty which was hardly usual at this time of the year. My friend had brought a substantial list from his wife, and I needed to find someone who could help us. When we did locate someone stacking the shelves, she was the purest sweetness and light. The only item that stumped her was ‘champagne vinegar’. She led my friend off to the wine section, where there was row upon row of bottles of champagne, and threw up her arms in triumph.
The absence of customers was most noticeable when it came to seasonal foods. There were heaps of smoked salmon, boudins blancs, every conceivable form of foie gras, chocolates and bûches de Noël. Possibly as many as a dozen people were picking over the piles in a desultory sort of way. I could not see that mountain of foie gras diminishing much by the end of next week. I picked up some raw livers for myself, some vacherin Mont d’Or, and a few odds and ends, and we left. There was a crowd of migrant boys gathering around the lavatories, few people braved the picket.
We planned to get ahead of the lorries by driving though the centre of town to the mouth of the tunnel at Coquelles. Calais has never been a particularly enticing spot. In 1974 I spent a night there in the flat of one of my sister’s friends. There was a fair and we all went out to play on the dodgem cars. When I lived in Paris I used to take the train several times a year to Calais Maritime to catch the ferry. The train took four hours. Most often the boat required an hour and a half to cross the Channel, and you needed another hour and a half to get to Victoria. With all the waiting and passport checks you were lucky to manage the whole trip from the Gare du Nord in under nine hours.
Calais was badly bashed about in the war, which resulted in the destruction of 73 percent of the town. In most streets the war damage had been plugged with modern buildings. It was lunchtime, but scarcely a soul emerged from the streets of low, terrace houses. The bars and restaurants were closed. We drove along the boulevard Gambetta. Near the theatre there were a few relics of a more splendid past in the form of belle époque houses. There was an impressive Vauban-style fort, erected, I supposed, to defend the place against the English. I later learned that Fort Nieulay was actually been constructed by the English, but had indeed been rebuilt by Vauban. A few miles on, Coquelles looked more prosperous than the city centre. Sangatte, a sort of temporary home to the migrants, was only a short distance away on the coast.
We had done well: we had got out beyond the lorry traffic and joined fewer than half a dozen cars and vans waiting to use the Tunnel. And we waited, and we waited, sitting in the cab of our van while the rain pelted down, punctuated by occasional bursts of blinding sunlight. The only distraction was a near perfect rainbow. The terminal was a desert with its overpriced shops and cafés (takeaway only). We were there for some four hours before they let us onto the train. We emerged into darkness on the north bank of the straits. As we sped along the M20 lorries were banked up on the hard shoulder for some sixteen miles from Folkestone to Ashford, patiently waiting for their slots on the Channel Tunnel train.
Hitler’s New Map of Europe
Posted: 17th November 2020
Steven K. Pavlowitch: Hitler’s New Disorder: The Second World in Yugoslavia, Hurst
At the end of the First World War the Treaty of Versailles and its related treaties (St German, Trianon and Sèvres) created new states that fell apart under the hammer blows inflicted by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was no great fan of the so-called ‘principle of self-determination’ that had guided President Woodrow Wilson’s hand, and to a much lesser extent influenced other world leaders as they deliberated in 1919.
The German, Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist and Ottoman Empires broke up and several wholly new states were carved out of the pieces. As there was no treaty with Soviet Russia, the freshly-minted states of the Ukraine and White Russia and others in Russian Asia drifted back to the fold; but in the north-west, the three Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were pulled away from Russia and awarded independence. Although Germany had created a vassal state in Poland in 1917, the country was only properly revived and given a far greater land-mass at Versailles two years later. Romania was expanded at considerable cost to Hungary. Italy mopped up a few titbits in the north and north-east. Belgium was given Eupen-Malmédy, while the border was adjusted in favour of Denmark in Schleswig-Holstein. France won back Alsace and Lorraine and a lease on the German Saar.
Of the creations in east-central Europe arguably only Poland has proved a lasting success, but it is no longer where it was. To allow the Soviets to hang on to their gains east of the River Bug in 1945, it was shifted westward, obliging the German populations of East and West Prussia, Pomerania, eastern Brandenburg and Silesia to run for cover across the River Oder.
Czechoslovakia was formed out of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Ruthenia, but in Moravia and the major towns, there were Germans totalling 22 percent of the population, and the Slavic Slovaks were also unhappy with a settlement that awarded primacy to the Czechs. Yugoslavia (or the Kingdom of the South Slavs) brought together the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, not to mention Macedonians and Bosnians, across a fault line created by the limits of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. To the west they were Catholic, to the east Orthodox. In Bosnia there were Muslims too. From 1919 the designated rulers were Serbs. Politically and culturally it was a tinderbox.
Hitler was committed to redrawing the map. He dealt with Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939 and sponsored the new, independent state of Slovakia in 1940, when large amounts of Slovak territory were handed back to Germany’s ally Hungary. Yugoslavia contained half a million Germans, or more than forty percent of the population but as a major trading partner Hitler left it in peace until 1941. It was only the coup d'état of 27 March 1941 and his projected invasion of the Soviet Union that changed his approach. On 6 April Germany invaded, Hitler justifying the attack by the usual pretext - threats to the German minority.
The invasion lasted all of twelve days. Germany sustained 558 casualties. It was three-pronged: Hitler’s commanders organised the participation of his Italian and Bulgarian allies, both of whom could be expected to receive slices of Yugoslavian cake. Bulgaria cast its eyes on Macedonia (which was racially similar) and Italy claimed much of Slovenia and the Adriatic coastline, formerly part of the Venetian Empire.
The real reason for the invasion was the perceived pro-Western inclinations of the new King Peter, who promptly fled to London. Germany created a vast independent Croatia at Serbia’s expense. Croatia was to have a proper government, Serbia an administration directly controlled by the German military. In Croatia the fascist Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić styled himself ‘Poglavnik’ or ‘Führer’. The Ustasha were more inclined towards Mussolini than Hitler. For that reason Pavelić was not Germany’s first choice. He must have endeared himself to more rabid Nazis, however, by asserting that the Croats were not Slavs, but pure Aryans. Bosnia’s Muslims could be used against the Serbs and Serbia’s own nationalist ‘Chetnik’ militias. Later the SS was able to muster two entire units composed of Bosnian Muslims.
The destruction of the Settlement of Versailles was a major plank in Hitler’s foreign policy and it was for the German Foreign Office to effect the changes, creating in its place a new Europe subservient to Germany. In this Europe Jews had no place and Slavs might be considered at best helots. The Serbian administration was not too worried about the fate of its 15,000 Jews and Serbia was the first country in Nazi-dominated Europe to be designated ‘Judenrein’ or free of Jews. Serbia was, however, predictably reluctant to take a lead in the punishment of those suspected of killing or injuring German soldiers and with time German commanders adopted a draconian reprisal policy that is remembered in so many wartime massacres. It was decreed that 100 Serbs would die for every German soldier killed or fifty for each wounded man. Josip Broz Tito led the resistance with his Soviet-backed Partisans while General Dragoljub ‘Draža’ Mihailović represented the armed opposition of the government in exile.
Steven Pavlowitch has written an essential single-volume history of Yugoslavia during the period of the German occupation, but the title is a misnomer, for too often he makes ‘Hitler’ responsible for an action, rather than his military commanders. In other domains the players belonged to Ribbentrop’s Foreign Office. It was Ribbentrop’s ‘enforcer’ Edmund Veesenmayer, for example, who appointed both Pavelić in Croatia and the ‘Quisling’ General Milan Nedić to head up the administration in Serbia, yet Veesenmayer doesn’t merit a mention in the text.
After Italy concluded peace with the Allies in the summer of 1943, it was only a matter of time before the Germans were forced out. Then it became a question of who would inherit the carcase that was Yugoslavia. It was not to be the youthful King Peter, however, but Tito. Communism put Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia back together again, but only an iron fist or brutal Soviet tutelage could sustain them. ‘Velvet revolutions’ broke them asunder, and thirty years later only fragments remain.
On Managing the Past
Posted: 19th October 2020
These three new books are related by a common theme of Germany, Austria and lives blighted by Nazism and the Second World War.
Peter Frank, Growing Up With Foreigners, Pegasus, £7.99
I shall begin with a disclaimer: Peter Frank has acknowledged a nugatory contribution I made to this book which I certainly didn’t do enough to merit! It is nice of him to thank me for all that.
Frank’s book touches a raw nerve common to all of us with Central European roots who grew up in Britain after the war. Yes, my father was Irish, but I scarcely knew him, as my mother bolted with her three children and two cats when I was three. The Franks were rich, ennobled Jewish bankers, who like many upper class Viennese Jews, abandoned their faith and married Christians long before the rise of ‘eliminatory’ antisemitism might have driven them to it. After the First World War their wealth was dissipated by the Depression and the collapse of the banks. It is a theme well explored in Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt.
The fate of Frank’s Jewish grandparents was sadly predictable: his grandfather perished in Theresienstadt, his mother in the ghetto in Minsk; but with the help of undersung Quakers and Swedes, his father was able to make it to England, where he found his bride and an unlikely profession as a market gardener.
She was a Catholic Blaschke from Upper Silesia. Her mother had been a member of the minor Polish nobility. In the twentieth century her place of birth meandered between Germany and Poland. She spoke both languages, and could claim both nationalities when circumstances made it wise to do so, i.e. living in England during the war.
My chief interest in the book was the experiences of Peter Frank’s Viennese family, but it was difficult to put down when he recounted experiences of growing up not quite British in Cheshire in the lean years of the forties and fifties. He didn’t speak the idiom of his parents and cousins and they naturally gabbled in German when they didn’t want little Peter to understand. When we hear the inflammatory language of people today it is good to remember how forgiving people were towards foreigners then, when all of them could personally remember the carnage and destruction wrought by the Germans in the blitz. Although I am younger than Peter and grew up in a more sophisticated London, my world wasn’t much less bleak, nor was the poverty any easier to bear. I don’t remember rationing, and that austerity was soon mercifully dissipated by ‘swinging London’ but I never grew out of feeling strange and I don’t believe I have ever quite fitted in.
Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: One Family’s Story, Pushkin Press, £20
In Those Who Forget, we see the story from the perpetrators’ side. A Germano-French journalist looks at the skeletons in the closet. She contrasts two families and their pasts. Her grandfather was a Party member who used his position for all he could milk it for. While his wife was evacuated to the country with the children he led a gay old life in a bombed-out Mannheim attending the local cabaret and striking up a ménage-à-trois with another woman and her husband. During the American Occupation of Mannheim, Karl Schwarz proved his mettle once again as a black marketer, selling off barrels of oil he had stashed away in another part of town during the blitz. While others starved, the Schwarzes lived (as the Germans say) ‘like God in France’.
It transpired too that Karl had swindled a Jewish family called Löbmann out of their share of the oil business. Karl was able to hide under the skirts of the Adenauer Government that was lenient towards ex-Nazis. Her father - Karl’s son Volker (Géraldine Schwarz maintains it is a Nazi name) - was an Achtundsechsiger: of the generation that rose up in the student revolution of 1968. He did military service in the new Bundeswehr and adopted the right causes during his time at the university. It was as a result of these protests that the Nazis were finally rooted out of their dugouts.
The author’s French grandfather was a ‘flic’, and being a policeman naturally meant obeying orders. Her mother grew up in a suburb near Drancy where France’s Jews were concentrated before they were shipped to Auschwitz. She writes off the French resistance as largely bunk, telling us the story of the French refusal to admit their complicity in the deportations which has only really been fully revealed since the screening of Marcel Ophuls’ film Le Chagrin et la pitié in 1969. She accuses: both her German and French grandparents were ‘Mitläufer’ or ‘collabos’ - collaborators.
The book inevitably contains a lot of familiar history and we often lose track of the author’s family in the context. Géraldine Schwarz has a message: she doesn’t want us to forget. Forgetting breeds the AfD and Marine Le Pen; forgetting nurtures the preposterous rhetoric of Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage (‘We won the war’): no one should be allowed to escape from the horrors of the past. As the descendant of victims I am sympathetic, but I feel for the other side too: how many generations must elapse before the account is settled on the sins of your grandfather and great-grandfather?
I don’t think I could bear to be a sensitive sort of German. Those who forget has been translated from the French into gritty American English. For some unaccountable reason the venerable University of Freiburg in the Black Forest was allowed to escape and remains in a fully Gallic groove.
Michael Geoghegan, The Ruins of the Reich, Leitmotiv, £14.99
From what I glean from his book, Michael Geoghegan is neither victim nor perpetrator. For the past forty or so years he has been an agent for various publishers selling English-language books in Germany. He has been travelling in Germany for most of his life, from his first school exchange and his years studying Modern Languages to his occasional residence in the country of his fascination.
The Ruins of the Reich is a travel book, but I would be doing it no favours to call it that. There is a lot of history and literature in it, and good stuff too. Like me, Geoghegan is interested in the ghosts of the German Reich: dilapidated effigies of Bismarck and the Kaiser; crumbling monuments to fallen Nazis; Nazi Ordensburgen; the relics of the defunct East German state; in short everything that has been swept under the German carpet since 1945 and 1989.
In eighteen stylishly written chapters he explores the pre-1945 Germany that stretched from East Prussia to the Rhine and beyond. I suspect some of these journeys began with business, but had the added lustre of allowing him to pursue his voyage of discovery. He gives us frank glimpses of intimate experiences along the way, and his disappointments in love.
I had been to so many of the places he describes, and arrived at such similar conclusions that I kept wondering whether he was standing at my elbow at the time? I don’t know if the book would work the same for others but I enjoyed it very much.
Katharine Agnes Rose Bacon (1897 - 1937)
Posted: 21st September 2020
For reasons that will probably be obvious to everybody, I have been taking a considerable interest in my family tree and my maternal grandparents in particular. I never had the pleasure of knowing any of my grandparents, although the Irish ones were still around at the time of my birth. They are buried quite near to where I am sitting now: about five or ten metres away from Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.
My maternal grandfather could hardly be further away: he lies close to heaven on the other side of the world. I was told he was in the ‘Protestant’ Cemetery in mountainous Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he died in the spring of 1943. His death certificate records ‘Cemeterio donde sera sepultado’ as ‘General’ - so he might have forgone that ignominy at the last moment.
My English grandmother predeceased him by six years in leafy Surrey, breathing (with difficulty) her last in a sanatorium in Haselmere. The cause was tuberculosis. She was a couple of months short of her fortieth birthday.
Katharine Agnes Rose Bacon was born on 10 December 1937 at Pillar House, Harwell, Berkshire (now part of Oxfordshire). She was the third daughter of John Henry Frederick Bacon, a painter who was doing very nicely. The grandson of an illiterate domestic servant whose illegitimate son John Cardenall Bacon had been set up as a lithographer (probably by his natural father), John Henry Bacon occupied a huge house at 11 Queens Gate Terrace in town, and Pillar House in the country. He had been a prize winning student at the Royal Academy Schools, was one of four Catholics elected ARA and would be awarded the MVO for painting the official representations of both the coronations of Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1910. He died, aged forty-eight in 1914.
His widow and their six surviving children moved from luxury to Chiswick, supported by a grace and favour pension from the Crown; but I should stress that the information I have from now on is not easy to verify, and might be inaccurate in many details. Such is oral history.
As his name would suggest (think Cardinal Newman) John Henry had been brought up a Roman and the Bacon girls were educated at a convent in Ramsgate. I have a dim memory that Katharine might have studied at Hammersmith College of Art (her elder sister Joan took the much bolder step of reading Chemistry at Leeds). She would have left art school at the end of the Great War. What happened next is a mystery. My mother speaks of a travelling scholarship and of a spell working as a cartoonist for the Daily Express. Also in the recesses of my mind is Martin Travers, neo-baroque church architect and stained glass designer. Katharine is supposed to have worked for him. The idea is tempting: two little watercolours in my possession do slightly resemble Travers’ work.
We may not know much about what she did in the early twenties but we have more information about 1926, the year of the General Strike, when she was in Vienna. There she met a man, a Jewish man, eight years her junior and by the name of Felix Zirner. He was the third son of the former court jeweller Marton Zirner, while Felix’s mother Gisela, the ‘Old Hen’ was the daughter of the owner of Vienna’s leading fashion house, the Modehaus Zirner. What the twenty-one year old Felix got up to I cannot say. He is supposed to have made little bits of jewellery in his late father’s workshop. Anyway, the result of his meeting with Katharine was tangible enough: my mother.
It is said that Katharine fled from Vienna when she learned she was pregnant and that Felix set off in pursuit, rapidly marrying her in Paris on 26 November 1926. I have looked at the registers for every arrondisement in Paris in vain. Now my mother tells me this is not true and that they married in Vienna, so she may not have gone to Paris at all. My grandmother was already ill with her consumption and my mother tells me she was born in a sanatorium. After my mother’s birth they moved in to the old chauffeur’s house at Neueweltgasse 9 in Hietzing while my great-grandmother remained next door in the sumptuous Villa Zirner, longing for the chance to spoil her new granddaughter.
We have a rare glimpse of Katharine at this time provided by the novelist and filmmaker Gina Kaus, who had been married to Felix’s elder brother Josef until his death in action in the First World War. ‘One of ... [Gisela’s] sons was married, had a baby and lived with his family in the villa as well (sic). But his wife was an Englishwoman and had her own views on bringing up babies, including one that did not permit them being carried about for the sheer fun of it.
“My stepdaughter is a bad woman” said the ‘Old Hen’. “It’s a pretty child but I am hardly allowed even to look at it...’
My mother maintains that she remained in the chauffeur’s house until 1932, when my grandparents separated. The Zirners had been ruined by the banking crisis in 1930, the year the Old Hen died. The Villa Zirner became a school, and my mother went there for a while before being sent to a Dominican convent. For a while the two of them lived in the First Bezirk, my grandmother teaching English to make ends meet; then in 1935 Katharine took her eight-year old daughter home to England. My mother went to live with her maternal grandmother, while my grandmother went into that Haselmere nursing home from which she was never to re-emerge.
She was luckier than Felix. When the Nazis stomped in to Austria in March 1938 he had to suffer the opprobrium of being a Jew in the Third Reich. By September he had assembled his papers and was permitted to make his way to Genoa to board a ship for Chile. From Chile a train took him to La Paz, but his weak heart made life impossible there. He went to Cochabamba - a mere 2,570 metres above sea level, but that wasn’t much kinder. Endocarditis killed him in the end. He was just thirty-eight.
Selection or Free Will: Nazi Medical Ethics
Posted: 17th July 2020
Eugenics is back in fashion we hear, particularly with the sort of nerdy, far-right SPADs who have the run of Downing Street. The word actually means ‘good breeding’, deriving from the Greek ἐΰς (eǘs, “good”) and γίγνομαι (gígnomai, “breeding”) and was coined by the founding father of eugenics, the Briton Francis Galton. It should mean selecting breeding pairs of humans, but it also encompasses removing poor quality breeding stock from the chain of reproduction, in the form of chronic invalids, the congenitally insane, criminals, drunks and other anti-social beings. If we can get rid of the dross, we can breed a master race; or so the argument runs.
As regards breeding, I suspect the reason why most of us fathers procreated had very little to do with creating a master race and more to do with love, temporary attraction or just a happy or unhappy accident. If your mother had tried to put you off your beloved by telling you your prospective bride’s family had a medical history, that her father was a bugger-for-the-bottle or that her great-grandfather had been hanged for murder, I expect you might have told her to jump in the lake. For most of us, having children expressed our ‘free will’, and we were not to be dictated to by anyone else. If records had revealed your prospective breeding mate’s family had a clinical record of cancer, epilepsy, syphilis etc, I doubt many would have seen it as grounds to call the whole thing off: we would simply have kept our fingers crossed and gone ahead with announcing the banns.
How selectively you marry (if you do still formally ‘marry’) is actually an interesting study. Do you marry someone you met on Tinder (or Grinder)? Or someone you got to know at university or a friend’s dinner party, a cousin, or daughter of a family friend? Or the girl next door you inadvertently put ‘in the family way’? How much ‘selection’ was actually involved? How long did you know that person before you took the decision to seal the knot? It strikes me that the only people in Europe who used truly selective criteria were members of the landed gentry or aristocracy, in that they wanted a particular piece of land or favoured a dynastic alliance. Before the furore over the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer at least, in grand or royal families love was of secondary importance: the man could discreetly select a mistress, the woman a lover, without incurring any great social stigma. Selective breeding still applies, however, to certain immigrant communities - Marwaris marry Marwaris, members of Indian castes other members of their own caste, orthodox Jews wed orthodox Jews, for example.
The usual criticism levelled at eugenics is that the idea of selective breeding and disposing of bad genetic material, has led to some of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of medicine; and that the Nazis believed in it and used it as a pretext to allow German doctors to carry out experiments on human beings in concentration camps.
The German word ‘Rassenhygiene’ (racial hygiene) is rather more all-encompassing than ‘eugenics’. Nazis cited the obvious truth that racehorses, dogs, sheep and cattle all benefitted from selective breeding: if you spent a day at the races you wouldn’t put your money on a clapped out old nag. Himmler bred chickens and he and his like were keen to see selective breeding introduced for humans. It should be said, however, that when it comes to racehorses or Labradors, brains are not normally the primary consideration and those Nazis keenest on breeding a master race appeared even to their contemporaries as fairly pitiful examples of humanity, particularly the bright, but physically deformed Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. In Nazi Germany potential married couples had to show proof of racial hygiene and some of love's dreams might have been shattered at that point. Also anyone proved to have a record of congenital illness, be classified a simpleton or an alcoholic could simply be taken away and locked up. The other bugbear was of course race. There was to be little or no ‘miscegenation’: you could not marry outside your race. This was targeted chiefly at the Jews.
Racial hygiene was therefore not only designed to prevent the wrong people from marrying it was intended to use sterilisation to stop the wrong sort of people from breeding at all. Germany was not the first country to introduce these measures - before the seventies 60,000 sterilisations were carried out in 29 US states. In Britain the famous computer scientist Alan Turing was actually judicially castrated for homosexuality in 1952, and is believed to have taken his own life as a result.
In Nazi Germany stupid or backward people were classed as ‘Lebensunwertes Leben’ or ‘life unworthy of life’. The chronically ill or insane were ‘unnecessary eaters’ or parasites - 75,000 of whom were disposed of under the 1939 T4 Euthanasia Programme. Nazi Germany reserved its most radical eugenics for the insane. Sterilisation was first proposed during the Weimar Republic but only became law in the Third Reich, when the courts regularly decreed that criminals should be forcibly rendered barren. Castration was another possibility.
The killing of the insane was not uniquely levelled at the Jews, although it didn’t help to be Jewish. I shall not labour the point: millions of wholly sane Jews were ‘selected’ for killing too. In my own family, my Jewish grandfather’s first cousin Otto Kranz was a paranoid schizophrenic who was gassed at Schloss Hartheim near Linz. My Jewish great-aunt Ella Zirner’s lover, the gentile composer Franz Schmidt’s equally gentile first wife Karoline Perssin shared his fate, as she had also been diagnosed as insane.
Since 1945 the finger has often been pointed at doctors - physicians and surgeons - who collaborated with the policies of the Third Reich. In most if not all countries, doctors subscribe to some form of the Hippocratic Oath, which requires them to preserve life and not destroy it. During the Third Reich doctors’ ethics were challenged by ‘obeying orders’ in the instance of selecting victims for gassing on the ramp at Auschwitz, or in other instances by the purest sadism; in some cases (the most notorious would be Josef Mengele and his supervisor Ottmar von Verschuer and the experiments carried out on twins) doctors benefitted from the cheapness of life in the camps to carry out tests on living human beings. Others retrieved blood and organs from those executed in Germany’s many prisons, while psychiatrists and neurologists (both branches were rolled into one by the Nazis) were able to carry off the brains of the insane killed at Hartheim or Sonthofen.
The original Hippocratic Oath was addressed to Apollo and the Gods, and subsequent versions were sworn in a God-fearing world that recognised ‘free-will’ and the idea that only God had the right to take away life. The Third Reich did not subscribe to this thinking, nor indeed do so many doctors today. In several countries a form of voluntary euthanasia is already enshrined in statute law. Some doctors must still itch to experiment on living humans as they do on animals. Others like the fictional Dr Frankenstein long to get their hands on a good, fresh brain to carry out tests and work out how you might marry up two human beings to produce some sort of superman. Do the creatures prowling the corridors of power also advocate this? Were the Nazis wrong for making use of windfall fruit? Or were they simply one step ahead?
Posted: 15th June 2020
To talk of Nazi diplomacy is probably oxymoronic. Hitler and his gang more or less mangled the famous Clausewitzian maxim that war was the continuation of politics by other means. They negotiated by brute force or Blitzkrieg. Apart from a few specific instances such as the 1935 Naval Treaty with Britain, foreign policy was a conducted by brick walls and hissy fits which kicked off with their storming out of the League of Nations in November 1933. Other methods included dirty tricks, such as assassinating intransigent heads of government (Dollfuss) or bullying them into submission (Schuschnigg, Hácha) or simply calling the opponent’s bluff by flouting international law (reoccupying the Rhineland). Having done well at Berchtesgaden and Bad Godesberg, Hitler was furious about Munich which he put down as a defeat. He thought (and he was right) that Chamberlain had stolen the show. In his mind he had already been riding into Prague in an open-topped Mercedes.
When he was looking for friends he could be pragmatic. He was prepared to give the Baltic States to the Soviet Union for a free hand in Poland, and despite Germany’s important cultural links to the area; similarly he gave Mussolini the South Tyrol and Gorizia without heeding their ethnic German populations. To win friends he offered other gangster leaders a share of the loot: Franco was to get Gibraltar and Mussolini his ‘mare nostrum’ in the Mediterranean if they helped with Britain; Stalin could have Poland east of the Bug, Hungary, Transylvania and parts of Slovakia providing they fell in with his plans. Similar sweeteners were dangled before Romania and Bulgaria.
Hitler had little time for traditional diplomats. He inherited his foreign minister Constantin von Neurath from the previous regime and in 1938 replaced him with Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop was the owner of a drinks agency which sold such profitable brands as Pommery champagne and Johnnie Walker whisky onto the Berlin market. He had no diplomatic qualifications beyond loyalty to his master, and it showed. While he was ambassador to London he made so many gaffes that he was openly ridiculed as ‘Brickendrop’.
Ribbentrop had profited from the Weimar Constitution’s ban on noble titles to acquire the ‘von’ in his name by getting the wife of an ennobled uncle to adopt him. You could still call yourself ‘von’, ‘Freiherr’, ‘Graf’, or ‘Prinz’ but it was now just part of your name. He promised her money for this, but she was never compensated. Ribbentrop was, however, successful in negotiating the 1935 Naval Treaty with Britain which allowed Germany to formally dispense with the limits on war-shipbuilding laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. His crowning achievement was the pact with the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov that licensed Germany to overrun Poland in September 1939. To celebrate Ribbentrop’s skills, Hitler hailed the ‘RAM’ (Reichsaussenminister or Imperial Foreign Minister) as the ‘Second Bismarck’.
That Germany was not to be trusted became apparent two years later when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. When I spoke to Ribbentrop’s son Rudolf shortly before his death, he reiterated what he had said in his apologia for his father: Ribbentrop’s treaty was not intended as a cynical snare - he had believed in it and steadfastly opposed the invasion of the Soviet Union. Once the shooting started Ribbentrop was largely sidelined.
The headquarters of German diplomacy was 74 - 76 Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, where once upon a time Bismarck had dazzled the world with his diplomatic pirouettes. Hitler wanted to set the diplomats aside too as he did not trust them. A sizable number of the German Foreign Office’s staff wore the particle ‘von’ as well and Hitler instinctively disliked nobles whom he believed to be sneering at him. Ribbentrop was appointed to radicalise his department, shake it up from top to bottom, pare off the dead wood and instigate a new style of diplomacy.
Ribbentrop never fully succeeded in doing this, but he vastly expanded the ministry adding whole new departments and separating them from the old offices in the Wilhelmstrasse which was relieved of control over their Nazi rivals. In 1938, the Wilhelmstrasse employed 2,300 men, of whom 600 were diplomats. Ribbentrop brought the numbers up to nearer 10,000. He expanded the ‘German Department’ created by Stresemann and added the Radio and ‘Information’ departments, the latter to take charge of German propaganda abroad. Anything liable to enhance Ribbentrop’s celebrity grew exponentially: the staff in Protocol augmented from three to fifty and the Press Division rose from seven to 200.
In these new or expanded departments Ribbentrop bred Nazi diplomats designed for Hitler’s brave new world. Often working in tandem with the SS, these new-fangled diplomats were promoted over the heads of the foreign office proper and sent out to do the bidding of Hitler and Himmler. The head of the German Department, Martin Luther, had been a furniture remover and interior decorator previous to being talent-spotted by Ribbentrop. He later tried to topple his master, and ended up in Sachsenhausen. Meanwhile the old-school diplomats were made complicit in the actions of the regime by including their names in lists of circulating documents relative to massacres or deportation of Jews from occupied or satellite countries. Short of resignation, there was no easy way to refuse to sign or initial these letters and had a diplomat resigned, he might easily have shared Luther’s fate.
The diplomats’ dilemma should have become obvious at the Wilhelmstrasse Trial at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg that ran from 6 January 1948 to 13 April 1949 but once again they often failed to understand the real nature of Nazi totalitarianism. The trial threw the diplomats in with other civil servants who worked in other ministries like Lammers, Stuckart, Darré and Meissner. The defendant diplomats, old and new style, were Ernst von Weizsäcker, Otto von Erdmannsdorff, Gustav Adolf Steengracht von Moyland, Ernst Wörmann, Karl Ritter, Ernst Wilhelm Bohle and Edmund Veesenmeyer.
As State Secretary, Weizsäcker, the son of the former Prime Minister of Württemberg and father of a later President of the Federal Republic (another son was the famous physicist Carl Friedrich), was the biggest fish in the ministry. A former naval officer, he drew the line at working for Germany’s defeat, but maintained he did everything within his power to promote peace. It was he and Schacht who arranged for the twenty-nine-year old diplomat Adam von Trott to go to London to plead with Chamberlain to help depose Hitler. Trott used his connection to the Astors, and theirs to the Foreign Secretary Halifax to secure the interview. Chamberlain dismissed the idea of helping the German Opposition, saying that they reminded him of the Jacobites at the court of Louis XIV. After the war started, Weizsäcker despatched Trott on his unsuccessful mission to Roosevelt in Washington. The aim was to nip the war in the bud, as they knew that if Hitler could secure victories, the Germans would back him.
I could go on but I suspect few people would see him as a villain now. Weizsäcker was sentenced to seven years, but released in 1950. The biggest tariff handed out to the diplomats was that awarded to Edmund Veesenmayer, a loyal Nazi diplomat raised in the school of dirty tricks. Veesenmayer was an agent provocateur with a great list of credits to him name: he was behind the scenes in Austria before the Anschluss, Danzig just before war broke out, and in Croatia and Slovakia, where he prepared to topple governments and have them replaced by those more favourable to Germany. He even had a go at bringing the Irish Free State over to the Nazi camp. His other talent was for putting pressure on countries to ship out their Jews. He is chiefly remembered in Hungary, where he engineered a change of government in March 1944 and proceeded to arrange the shipment of 340,000 Jews to Auschwitz. He got twenty years, but was released a year after Weizsäcker in 1951. He died in his bed over a quarter of a century later.
Posted: 18th May 2020
In these pandemic times, I watch a film most nights. A few weeks back it was Tom Brown’s Schooldays in the 1951 version with John Howard Davies as Brown (the famous Oliver in Oliver Twist) and a very sober and moving Robert Newton as Dr. Arnold. Michael Hordern appears as a traditional, flog-‘em-all master and a young Max Bygraves delivers a few lines as a coachman.
About a decade ago my daughter and I watched the 2005 television film of Tom Brown with Stephen Fry playing Arnold. She was appalled. About twelve at the time, she couldn’t believe that any school would ever have been like that: so bleak, so vile and so violent. For me, however, nothing was remotely shocking; indeed, I may not have travelled up to Rugby with Max Bygraves in a coach and six (we took the motor coach from County Hall) but in virtually every other aspect school life had remained unchanged in the intervening 130 years. My first two years of secondary school were nasty, brutish and - hallelujah - short!
And my schooling was in no way grand. My mother left my father when I was three. My elder siblings were both in private institutions then; my brother in the junior school at Highgate, my sister in a pre-prep in the Brompton Road. I was making merry with the Servites in the Fulham Road nearby, but they both had to be taken out and packed off to Bousfield Primary School in the Old Brompton Road, where I too went in due course. Two years later my brother needed a secondary school and my mother was told about Woolverstone Hall near Ipswich in Suffolk.
Woolverstone was a single-sex grammar school spread over fifty acres of parkland and around a Palladian mansion rising serenely above the River Orwell. There were 360-odd (verb sap) boys apportioned to six houses. Modelled on a traditional public school, it was founded by the Inner London Education Authority in 1951. It was a revolutionary idea: richer parents paid modest fees, the poorer ones, none. The children came from broken homes like mine or from deprived parts of the city and were thrown in with a lot of NCOs’ boys. Mens sana in corpore sano might have been the motto, as there was sport, sport and more sport. Academic standards were nonetheless high with as many as half a dozen boys going on to Cambridge every year.
Six years later it was my turn. I passed the Eleven Plus and joined my brother at Woolverstone. He was already in the second-year-sixth. I was put in his house but he was a remote, god-like figure and both he and his study-mate Hotz de Baar were to go on to Cambridge, as indeed was our head of house: the actor Mark Wing-Davey. Wing-Davey actually won a scholarship to Caius, a thing so rare that the whole school was granted a half-holiday to celebrate. If Wing-Davey had not been a god before, he was then. We all knew his best friend too: a slight boy with flashing spectacles called Ian McEwan.
The houses were named after their first housemasters. Ours, however, was called Orwell after the river, not the writer. It was said the first housemaster’s name was Mudd, and that for obvious reasons they had declined to call it Mudd House. He was succeeded by a pyknic named Thornberry. We called him ‘Stumpy’.
Stumpy didn’t like my brother. He had nicknamed him ‘Rubbish’. When he appeared in a Grenadier Guards’ tunic (remember Sergeant Pepper?) at the leavers’ dinner Stumpy humiliated him before the entire house, telling him to go back and change. In his eulogy he damned him with the faintest praise: ‘the best timpanist the house has ever had’. He failed to mention his conditional place to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge.
He was a brutal little chap who smelled of sweet sherry and was rumoured to be romantically linked to the housemaster in the neighbouring house. I am not sure that was true. I never saw any masters taking a sexual interest in us but we were forever groping one another. The prettier boys had to pretend to be girls and were subjected to squeezing and petting. Kissing, however, was quite taboo. A tall, freckly farmer’s daughter used to come to see some of us by the ha-ha. We jumped on her. She ran away, cross and bruised, but always came back for more.
Stumpy was inclined to sadism. One day he performed a prodigious feat by beating four entire forms. A turd had been found on our lavatory floor. Anyone could see the thing had been dropped from above, in fact from ceiling height and over the partition from the third and fourth-form bogs adjacent to ours. There was a gap above the cubicles and plenty of room for someone to lob a turd.
We were formed up in a queue on the stairs in our dressing gowns. It was all a bit like an updated picture of Dr. Busby beating the entire school at Westminster, except this was Woolverstone, not Westminster. We had to drop our pyjama-bottoms and gratefully receive our punishment, remembering to thank Stumpy for being kind enough to cane us before we returned to our beds.
Our chief bugbears were the second formers with whom we shared our dorm. We were on the bottom bunks with them on top. In the showers, heads were divided into first and second year, according to efficiency: if the water came out in a dribble, they were for the new boys. One day a much put-upon second-former with big ears called Andy Gus found me under a second form nozzle. He beat me bloody and I had to be admitted to sick bay with concussion. The prospect of three days off was a pleasant one until Andy Gus was ushered into the bed next to mine: Stumpy had beaten him so badly he couldn’t walk.
When we became second-formers we too bullied the new boys, There was a punishment called a ‘head rap’ that involved bringing your fist down hard on the skull of another boy, who had no right to protest. I was beginning to have problems with my peers, however. I felt I had little in common with them and I had discovered a new set in another house which centred on a boy called Pinnington (now a professor at a university in Japan, I see). We discussed books (Orwell, Greene), had a camp where we cooked beans and sausages and prowled around the hard at Pin Mill where one of our number taught us how to open windows with a penknife.
It was not done to have close friends in other houses and a persecution campaign was instigated. The first-formers were set on me and everything done to make my life as miserable as possible. Nights became orgies of violence: ‘Then falls thy shadow Cynara! The night is thine!’ The younger boys pummelled me while the others stripped off my bedclothes and befouled them in the lavs. Stumpy washed his hands of it.
It was a standard punishment to make a boy lay up the breakfast tables. Once, when it was my duty some fiend got in after me and messed up the knives and forks. Stumpy must have known this was not my work, but he still caned me, much to the pleasure of the other boys. I got the message quickly enough and I had an ally in my mother’s lover. He wanted me to go to his school, but I hadn’t a chance in hell of passing the exam. Instead I sat Common Entrance at his grandfather, the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s school, which was much easier. I excelled only in English. I just about managed the maths and French, but with one year of Latin and a few months of German, I was not able to do justice to either. The headmaster took pity on the grammar school boy and I was accorded a place.
Now I had a term and a half of torture to endure, but I still had my pals in the other house. One day towards the end of the spring term we got into a boat on the hard and stole some bottles of alcohol. These we gave to Pinnington’s older brother and his friends. They got wretchedly drunk and committed a number of outrages around the school before killing some chickens in Pin Mill. One of the chickens’ shattered heads was shoved in my mouth and unflattering comparisons made between me and the bird. I was covered in blood. That night I carefully hid my stained clothes so as not to betray the older boys.
It was my mother who saw the blood when I took the clothes home in the holidays. I begged her to say nothing, but without telling me she wrote to complain. When I went back to Woolverstone for my final term I was immediately summoned to the headmaster. I remember him telling Stumpy: ‘This will be interesting.’ There had been a litany of complaints from the farmer and others. The older boys had also attacked one of the assistant housemaster’s children. I realised my mother had set me up, but like Tom Brown I refused to incriminate the others. The headmaster had enough evidence without me and Pinnington’s brother and the others were summarily expelled.
The incident with the chicken sent a chill wind through my relationship with Pinnington and his friends but I knew a couple of boys in another house called Collins and Swithinbank. The former had bright red hair; the latter was short and fat. We used to go on long walks towards Holbrook or Tattingstone on Sundays armed with our packed lunches. Then one day Collins announced that he and Swithinbank were homosexual and asked me if I’d mind if they ‘jumped’ me? I said I very much would. We walked back to school, observing strict, anti-social distancing.
For many years I had nightmares about Woolverstone. I learned that the school had been closed down but I was uncertain as to why. And then, recently, I saw a film about its demise. After less than thirty years of life, Woolverstone had become an anachronism. Once the Red Kens and Teds became part of the furniture at County Hall, they questioned the justification for London funding a school that cost per pupil more than Eton. And it was selective. In 1977 it finally went comprehensive, closed its sixth-form and catered to boys with ‘special needs’. They wanted to make it co-ed, but that was going to cost even more; so in 1990 the gates were finally shut. It reopened as a girls’ school.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies summed up the cruelty and nastiness of pre-pubescent and pubescent boys. Some boys’ schools, however, were apparently nice, friendly places. That could not have been said of Woolverstone. At Rugby, the scene of Tom Brown’s schooldays, boys are no longer ‘roasted’ and it is now said to resemble a luxury hotel. I have many friends for whom schooldays were indeed the best days of their lives. Since the seventies most schools have been mixed, and girls have provided boys with another focus. The crass brutality I encountered at Woolverstone must have all but died out; indeed, people under the age of fifty would probably think it was a figment of my imagination.
Posted: 17th April 2020
We are all retired from the world. The lucky ones are fit and well, but we twiddle our thumbs, invent tasks and hope that we will be able to return to our former functions as soon as possible. The house needs painting, the grotto repairing; there are languages to learn, books to read and meals to cook. One distraction I have found compelling is discovering what our forefathers did in times of plague and the literature that was created out of it.
First up are the ten plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus. The third plague of lice sounds similar to typhus. The sixth plague, ‘of boils’ might be bubonic: swellings in the groin and armpits being a feature of most plagues. The swelling is called a ‘bubo’, which gives us the word ‘bubonic’. A bubonic plague is generally borne by rats and their fleas. The one that cut a swath through Athens in the 5th Century BC and killed the general Pericles, already has a familiar ring to it. That plague was meant to have come from Egypt. Unlike the Black Death, Thucydides makes no mention of rats or fleas even if many features of the malaise would point to a bubonic plague; but Thucydides mentions a hard cough as well. Neglect was billed as a major cause of death as people feared risking their lives should they visit the sick: ‘indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse; on the other (hand), if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence.’
Best suited to ministering to the sick were those who had recovered from the plague. Thucydides, like Boccaccio later, mentions people who decided to live for pleasure and threw decorum to the winds ‘no one was eager to persevere in the ideals of honour...’ The plague lasted for two years and then struck again, raging for another year. Most epidemics repeat themselves, it seems, no one has ever properly defeated the plague.
The first so-called ‘pandemic’(it affects ‘all people’) was the Justinian Plague which struck in the Eastern Roman Empire in the mid-sixth century. The pestilence is believed to have originated in the Far East and was carried by rats. ‘Buboes’ featured once again. The Black Death or Bubonic Plague of 1347 - 1351 was similar and is meant to have killed off thirty to sixty percent of Europe’s population. The Black Death also spawned at least one great work of literature in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (itself the model for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). The Decameron is a distraction: ten young people telling stories to take their minds off the death going on all around them. Some of them are notably anticlerical and bawdy. Meanwhile priests explained away the deaths as the natural fruit of dissipated lives and sin.
Boccaccio’s introduction tells us of the Florentines’ reaction to the scourge and the measures carried out to limit contagion. Not much has changed between Pericles’ Athens and today: quarantine, or isolation and extra attention to hygiene have been the two things that have been stressed from the beginning of time. Rat-concealing rubbish was cleared away and sick people were forbidden entry to the city. Isolation, flattening the curve, as we would say now, was the only cure. Again, we have not made much progress. There are still rats, and, indeed, bats.
The last major instance of the Bubonic Plague in London was 1665 - 1666 and the Great Fire which followed doubtless did an excellent job in carbonising the rats and cauterising London’s streets. Samuel Pepys’ diaries are an obvious source for information on the plague, as is Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, even if Defoe was five at the time it broke out and sixty when the book was published in 1720, the very same year that bubonic plague erupted in Marseille killing as many as a quarter of the population.
Once again it was the bubonic plague that struck Jaffa in 1799. Napoleon was apparently capable of healing a soldier by touch in the descriptive painting by Antoine-Jean Gros. It was a property of kings to rid you of an ‘evil’ and Gros’ painting was painted in 1804, the year Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Not all plagues are ‘bubonic’ there are also septicemic plagues that affect the digestive organs and pneumonic plagues that hit the lungs. Some plagues combine two or three types. Pneumonic plagues are not communicated by rats, lice or fleas but by coughing, like COVID-19. The most lethal pandemic of modern times was ‘Spanish ‘Flu’ which was first recognised in Kansas and was not in the least bit Spanish. It wiped out my Great-Grandfather in Vienna. The most famous modern representation of a plague is Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague) of 1947.
There had been an outbreak of plague in Oran in Algeria as recently as 1944 but unlike Defoe, who provides the epigram for the book, La Peste is not a documentary novel but, as the character Tarrou suggests, an existentialist reflection on life and how people approach it. Others have said that the book is about the German Occupation. Camus studies the plague meticulously, which might be why his novel has been selling like hot cakes these past few weeks.
Camus pitches a variety of characters at the reader whose approach to the sickness is wildly different. There is the Jesuit Paneloux, who preaches that the plague is the result of sin, but who changes his mind after witnessing the death of a child and dies refusing treatment for the plague; or Tarrou who expresses a wish to be a secular saint; or Rieux, who believes it is sufficient to carry out his duties as a doctor through thick and thin. The plague spares no one, it is unselective. It picks off the young and healthy just as it kills the old and useless.
It is a pneumonic-bubonic plague. This time a serum is produced, and eventually the virus is defeated. The city is liberated amid scenes of public rejoicing. Dr Rieux observes the jubilant crowd but finishes with a grim reflection: ‘because he knew something that joyful crowd did not, something that you could learn from books, that the plague bacillus neither dies nor does it ever disappear, that it can stay sleeping for decades in cupboards or piles of linen, that it is waiting patiently in rooms, cellars, suitcases, handkerchiefs and scraps of paper, and that perhaps, a day will come, for the misfortune and for the education of mankind, when the plague will awaken the rats and pack them off to die in a happy city.’
Why I am Not a Conservative
Posted: 16th March 2020
I am conservative. I don’t like novelty much or change. I grumble about many things: chiefly the Americanisation of my language, the decline of literacy, slebs, silly caps emblazoned with slogans, football, golf, supermarkets, fast food, the progressive disappearance of crafts, butchers, grocers and small shops, the eradication of local communities... these are just a few of my least favourite things.
I don’t believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. I’d be happy translated into a previous era providing there were functioning water-closets and hot and cold running water. I am not sure I’d have wanted to be born in the mid-1890s, or 1920, mind you: I’m a man of peace, one reason why I always supported our membership of the European Union, an organisation we joined in my last year at school, and which very nearly saw me out. The Treaty of Rome was borne out of the carnage of the Second World War and based on the principle of sharing resources - ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their needs’ - a socialist idea that derives a charitable message from Christianity and which - hand on heart - I can hardly say is wrong.
I grew up in a liberal household, in the sense that we believed people should enjoy freedom as long as it does not impinge upon the liberty of others. When I went up to the most political college at either of the two ancient universities, I just missed the really radical time, dubbed the ‘Kettle-Brickhill Era’ by Jacko the Bursar, when a clutch of undergraduates were sent down for daubing slogans on the walls of the new, brutalist Senior Common Room; an act of vandalism occasioned by a visit by a prominent Old Member: the Prime Minister Edward Heath. Our vintage was actually quite conservative, although Britain’s most prominent Trot, Seumas Milne came up a year later. I might add that Martin Kettle now writes eminently sensible articles in The Guardian while Christopher Brickhill seems to have had a successful career in business! Left-wing firebrands mellow with age.
I am conservative, but I don’t vote Conservative in general elections. They are an ugly, xenophobic party. I did vote for Boris in the London Mayoral election - twice, but only because I couldn’t stand Ken Livingstone with his horrid, whiney, nasal voice. I don’t vote Labour, as they place equality above liberty and drone on about a working class to which I clearly can’t belong. I vote Liberal Democrat because they have always been emphatically pro-Europe, although not so long ago and in Ed West’s constituency there was a Lib Dem MP so shockingly illiberal that I had second thoughts. In the end the choice was between the Liberals and the Monster Raving Loonies. I plumped for the Libs for Europe’s sake.
When the publishers Constable offered to send me West’s book on what it was like to be right-wing, I recalled the respect I had had for his parents. In the mid-seventies I was an avid reader of Richard West in The Spectator, then in its golden age under the editorship of Alexander Chancellor. I still recall one piece he wrote about how badly paid he was, something that alarmed the incipient man of letters in me. About thirty years ago I actually met my hero at the bar of the old Academy Club in Beak Street, and we had a drink and a short chat. I think I neglected to tell him how much solace he had given me in the past. I regret to hear he’s died.
I also read articles by West’s Irish mother Mary Kenny. To Ed West they are ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, and he and his brother the ‘kids’. He blames his father for an exaggerated love of trains, not driving a car and suggesting his wife take the laundry to a launderette, which was like the village ‘lavoir’ - a sociable place where women could gossip. I suppose my own children will complain about my not driving too, and I am worse: I never even acquired the ability to ride a bike.
Home life in Notting Hill sounds familiarly eccentric, with argumentative wine-fuelled lunches and dinners. My own equivalent of ‘Mum’ refused to be called ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’, requiring her children to use her Christian name instead. As for ‘Dad’, I last saw him when I was three. He was mentioned with a snarl, and then only as ‘Your Father’. We were called ‘You Kids’, mind you, but never nicely. This may account for the fact that ‘kid’ is another word that drives me up the wall, except when I am eating it, well-roasted in northern Portugal.
Both my parents were Catholic, and I suspect that the little Wests worshipped in the same churches that we attended as children and that our attentions wandered just the same. There, perhaps, resemblance ends. Unlike Mum, my mother was virulently anticlerical. We were dragged off to mass by a novice nun unleashed by the priest who baptised me at my father’s instigation.
So what of Ed West’s book? The central premise, that the right are the pariahs of political history looks strangely untenable in 2020. The right is not only popular, it’s bursting with life and kicking.
We live in a world where the Boris-Trump-Netanyahu-Orban-Kaczyński-Putins look set to remain for the immediate future, unless (perish the thought!) they all fall victim to Corona. A referendum in 2016 that more or less pitched left-wing cosmopolitans against right-wing nationalists, awarded 52% of votes to the latter. Last year’s general election resulted in a landslide victory for Boris Johnson.
West seems offended by the rebarbative image of the right. Political life has become much more polarised recently and West complains that lefties get the best-looking girls and the plum jobs in the press and the BBC (to me there appears to be an abundance of right-wingers in both). When we were young we disliked the extremes: they were just two bears to be baited. The left with its caucus and causes we thought absurd, and the right, congregating in the Union Society or OUCA, with their shabby tweeds, spots and spectacles, were simply repulsive. We imagined them prone to unspeakable lusts. They were also virtually indistinguishable from the Godsquadders who came banging on your door when you planned to spend a noisy afternoon in your cups (or possibly with girls). We did not join political parties. I have never even considered such a thing. We were ‘aesthetes’ who believed beauty to be the ultimate good. It is possible that our breed is now extinct.
West says a lot in this long book, but one bunch he does not discuss are home-grown ‘Tories’ although he uses the word wrongly as a synonym for Conservatives. Tories are neo-feudal conservatives who reject the Darwinist, Nietzschean foundations of new-right ideology and favour policies more likely to reconcile the nation. They number Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke and Rory the Tory. Dominic was an earnest young man in a tweed jacket when I first met him. I naturally gave him the cold-shoulder. I have tremendous admiration for him now: he is the Cato of modern British politics. It is significant that the Tories were completely purged by the Conservative leadership in 2019. I can’t think of a single one left in the Commons. It may be that the world has become too dangerous and too globalised for old-style Tories and that the measures we need to take must be more radical; but I am not sure West discusses this.
His book might be more compact. We have a blokey history of England, for example and similar disquisitions on Christianity or philosophy (a ‘guy’ called Hobbes, a ‘dude’ named Rousseau). Then there are references to all those films I haven’t seen, and a million American television series I have never watched. Not only have I been without a television since my early twenties, but I doubt I’d feel tempted either. And then there is his addiction to that other dismal science of sociology, and acres and acres of tedious statistics culled from political websites and invoked as Gospel truth.
This is only partly a book about Britain, but West does not spend much time discussing the AfD, Marine Le Pen or Giuseppe Conte. Measures to crush the perceived ‘enemies’ of our commonwealth will most likely be hatched in America. That means radical Islam and economic migrants as well as liberal, international institutions like the EU; just as the tiresome, preachy side of the left, with its ‘isms’, ‘woke’ culture and PC also originate in the US. America brings us the Alt Right, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. And their organs have opened up here in the form of Breitbart and political websites too numerous to name. Trans-Atlantic ‘Conservatism’ feeds the ERG at Westminster. West talks a lot about the influence of Edmund Burke, but mention Burke to Mark François or Andrew Bridgen and they would probably think you were being rude.
The ubiquitous Steve Bannon has emerged as a sort of global Fu Manchu, leading a panicky, sickly old right to a dynamic, ideologically-charged new right. Slightly ridiculous condottieri like Little Tommy are paid by North Americans to fight Islam. The goodies in West’s book strike me as most un-English. A reading not helped by the fact (was this at the publisher’s instance?) that the source material flits relentlessly backwards and forwards across the Atlantic (how Americans construe ‘liberal’ as a dirty word, heaven only knows?).
West became politically aware after 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall appeared to discredit socialism. Capitalism was clearly the only answer, a pitiless, survival-of-the-fittest attitude that would triumph over those sharing, egalitarian, benefit cultures dictated by post-war reconstruction. Few of us oldies who spent their early days nodding off during the homily at the Carmelites in Church Street are really pitiless, and I know that West isn’t either. You don’t need a religious grounding to be accessible to sentimentality, even when it contradicts your political ideals. The new right appears to require us to be cold and heatless, but I like to think most of us are simply not that nasty.
West doesn’t talk too much about Brexit. Brexit was a coup. It overturned a status quo that had reigned in Britain for half a century. West’s Conservatives are radicals, revolutionaries inspired by alien political thinking. In Britain a weak Prime Minister is at the mercy of his unelected ‘spads’: younger men steeped not only in neo-con ideas, but also eugenics, a science largely discredited by the Third Reich. West doesn’t really tell us what he thinks about this, but I suspect not much: he is quite right-on about some things and not really conservative at all.
In Deepest France
Posted: 17th February 2020
I have returned from my first visit to our largest neighbour since our so-called ‘liberation’. Paris was mercifully functioning on both occasions I crossed it, but public transport reveals how much the city has been open to immigration from its former colonies. When I lived there, Paris’s urban poor was mostly from the Maghreb. Now Sub-Saharan Africa seems to account for the bulk. Down in the Ventoux where I was heading, in Carpentras, the former Jewish banking capital of the Avignon Papacy, the immigrant population is mostly made up of the descendants of the North African ‘Harkis’ who fought for France in the wars of independence. Many of them still live in a symbiotic relationship with the descendants of the ‘Pieds Noirs’: Arabic-speaking whites who returned from Africa at Independence and who bought up significant amounts of the land in the Midi in the sixties. The Harkis till the soil and build the méchouis roasting whole lambs on pied noir properties whenever a family feast is deemed in order.
Paris was always hugely overcrowded, but France is still a big, empty country; at least twice as big as the United Kingdom and with a population of about the same. After the Second World War people living in small towns and villages flocked to Paris and the other industrial centres. There are a few really big cities: swollen by recent immigration: Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse are all over a million now, but much of the rest is made up of very modest-sized towns from which much of the life has been sucked in recent years. Most amenities in the form of small shops have gone as the French rush to mop up the cheaper goods and poorer quality on offer at suburban supermarkets. In the past generation, the vacuum caused by the departure of French villagers has been filled by foreign devils: hundreds of thousands of British, Dutch, Germans and Swedes who are looking for the good life in abandoned farm and manor houses and have become a force to be reckoned with in the local economy.
Provence is not always the most receptive place. The people have a reputation for being cold towards this foreign invasion. Anyone who chooses to put down roots in France has to reckon with the fact they may be the butt of measures generated by a power-hungry mayor or municipal council, and may be well advised to cultivate contacts among the natives to make his or her life easier. That will involve gauging the elements of power within French communities, which might lie in the person of the notaire who signs off all property deals or the village pharmacist who shells out pills and medical advice in the absence of surgeries.
These days I am just a visitor, but I rarely find the locals unpleasant or unhelpful even in Provence. It does - of course - help to know the language. Setting out the day after my arrival in search of some veal kidneys, we stopped at the small supermarket in Mazan. I thought the idea of finding the kidneys there frankly unlikely, but most of the butchery or cheese counters in these places are franchises and sometimes they can be good. He had one, and prepared it well, but one was not enough: we needed two or three.
We went on to Brunet, the good butcher-cum-charcutier in Carpentras. She sighed: this is what happens when you close down all the butchers’ shops, she said. Sometimes the places limp on for a year or two, then like the restaurants they shut down: there is simply not enough passing trade to sustain them. As it turned out, she had none, but rang the butcher in Pernes, but he was also was all out of veal kidneys. An executive decision was made: the kidney would be a starter. I bought a rabbit. As she prepared it for me I had to tell her whether I wanted kidneys, liver and heart. I said yes to all three (the estate’s feral cat Boudicea would have the heart) but no to the lungs. This led to an interesting discussion of local dishes and dialects. I left a more instructed man than when I went in.
The following day was almost wholly taken up by a boar. Boars are quite a feature of life on the Mainland, where they lay waste to vineyards and orchards and rustics eagerly await the season when they might get their guns and their revenge by shooting a few. The meat is rarely available for cash, but is shared out among the hunters or bartered for wine, truffles, fruit or vegetables. If you kill a boar on someone else’s land, the polite thing to do is to leave a bit for your host. The haunch I had been marinating in the estate wine for two days was just that.
The mistral had blown all day on Friday, but on Saturday the wind dropped and we had one of those lovely warm winter days when the sun lights up the almond blossoms and little flowers spring from the soil. I had things to get from the market in Pernes: lavender-scented soap and honey among others. Half-term had rid the market of half its traders, but the German-speaking cheese man was there and he’d been joined by a man from Düsseldorf who made coffee on his stall. Later we went to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which is surely unique among small towns in the Department of the Vaucluse in that it has fully established itself on the tourist map as a centre for (generally overpriced) antiques.
We looked at some ravishing things. France’s size, wealth and cultural superiority until the eighteenth century at least, means that there is a lot more to sell, but it was all well beyond my pocket. We dropped down at a table at Le Jardin du Quai, a restaurant in the middle of warehouses stuffed full of antiques owned by the affable Daniel Hébet, whose black Labrador promptly settled at my feet. Suddenly France became the stuff of dreams again: sun, generosity of spirit, a cold beer, some complimentary plates of tapenade and radishes; plans were laid to come again.
That night there was dinner in the new place at the bottom of the hill. The joint was heaving. It had been Valentine’s Day the day before but this was different: people were simply eating out with their families as they had always done. The menu was good value, the wines chiefly local and there was a buzz about the place. It won’t last, of course, but it was good to see a spark of life in la vieille for all that.
Digging Up Bordeaux
Posted: 20th January 2020
I can’t be the only author out there who has incomplete manuscripts lying around, or rather, lurking in my Word files. I might compare my study - a little fancifully I admit - to Scapa Flow after the incursion of a rogue U-Boot: there are seaworthy vessels; a few damaged but salvageable ships; one of two prows peeking up above the water line; and other ships gone fully to the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker.
The hulks in question are in reality mostly fragments: a book decommissioned when I was half-way through writing it and another that was trashed on completion - and it’s a pretty massive MS too. There is a novel - which I have always been in two minds about and another work of fiction that went under during a viral attack, and to the best of my knowledge was lost for good, as the agent billed to represent it promptly had an accident and fell downstairs and died; and there is another book that I wrote even before I acquired a computer and which lives in a spatchcocked box under piles of dusty papers.
It was there that I eventually found it a few weeks ago, when I was asked to contribute a chapter on the Wild Geese to a book on Bordeaux. The MS was to be my doctoral dissertation and the earliest pieces of research it contains, undertaken chiefly in Bordeaux and Paris, dated from 1980. The thesis had been squared with the authorities: I had my supervisor - the Vice-President of the University of Paris IV, whose seminars I attended at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes études - and together we had been along to the ‘équivalence’ office in the old Sorbonne building to learn if I qualified. I was told that as soon as I had confirmation of my M.A. in 1982 I could begin my doctorat de troisième cycle. So far so good: I set to work.
The idea was to look at the Irish colony in Bordeaux - both Catholic and Protestant - see how they consorted together and what were their links with the mother country. The subject was actually quite close to my supervisor’s heart, as it involved ‘prosopography’ or collective biography. The eighteenth century belonged mostly to the Catholics - descendants of the Wild Geese who had fled with the armies of King James II after the Battle of Aughrim; the nineteenth century was dominated by Ascendancy Protestants who lived the lives of, well, Ascendancy Protestants. It was an idea that originated in discussions with the master of my college, the distinguished English Revolutionary historian Christopher Hill.
Plans changed and I was back in England from the start of 1985 but I still had my notes even if I lacked the financial means to submit the dissertation at a British university, which would have meant signing up for a doctoral programme. French universities were free. The present typescript must have been written in 1985 or 1986 and I was definitely looking to place it with a publisher as a book. I occasionally made presents of sheaves of notes to interested parties in Bordeaux. One well-known deuxième-cru-château-owner sent me a couple of cases of his wine in exchange. Later he called me to say he’d lost his notes and could I send them again. He sent me another case of wine. Then I saw what had happened: my notes turned up in a book published by a journalist in Ireland about Irish châteaux in Bordeaux! The château-owner must have handed them to the author of the book; that was when he lost them.
So when I was asked to write this chapter, my first task was to locate the text. There had been a copy, but I had given that to the late Nick Faith who had handed it on to someone else. When I finally put my hand on the box, I opened it with some trepidation: was this even going to be readable? And did I ever have anything important to say on the subject? What I found was a proper antique: an MS typed on thin sheets on an old-fashioned typewriter with lots of rewriting over thick layers of Tipp-Ex (remember that?). The numbers for the bibliographical notes had been entered by hand. Most of the detail I had forgotten, so I had the rare pleasure of reading my own work with the critical eye of a mature writer, and finding it not at all bad.
And in many ways writing was harder then. Not only was there the business with the Tipp-Ex, cutting and pasting was just that: cutting (with a pair of scissors) and pasting (with a pot of ink). Some of my early books were submitted with a few bits of hand-written scrawl here and there. This was tolerated by editors and setters at the time but in the nineties they began to insist that all manuscripts be submitted on computer files that could be fed directly into the publisher’s system. My old mediaeval history tutor, the late Maurice Keen never learned to type. At the end of his life he had to hand his hand-written scripts to some middle-aged lady to process them before they were submitted to his publisher.
Checking facts and figures was a huge job then. If you couldn’t find what you needed in the British Library it meant you might have to make a day of it and go to the Bodleian or the Cambridge University Library. Sometimes the book you needed wasn’t even here in Britain, and you had to take a list of queries to Paris or even Bordeaux when you next had the chance. Now a lot of the stuff I require is actually on the Internet, not just a number of useful family trees that sort out the ‘alliances’ between various immigrant families, but also references to some promising-looking Irish archives that I would have to look at if the book were ever to be published in toto.
But the ease of finding things on the Internet can also be a curse. Cutting and pasting takes no time at all, and plagiarism is rife. There has been an explosion of doctorates on quite spurious subjects that has caused hyperinflation in academic titles... but to mention it could just be sour grapes on my part, as my dissertation went down with all hands.
Posted: 16th December 2019
The last few weeks have been marked by clan gatherings. First there was a MacDonogh lunch, at which a long-lost half-sister mustered not only a half-brother and his children, but her own children and grandchildren. I had long adhered to the view that my family was damned, but there was much conviviality on this occasion and the sight of a plethora of nieces, nephews, great nieces and great-nephews gave me renewed hope.
And there was another lunch at the Shelburne Club, an event bequeathed by a kind woman who died recently and who had worked for a number of publishers as a book editor. I was aware of the relationship between us, but her son wanted me to tell the thirty or so people around the table just how we two were connected. The explanation was simple: we shared a great-aunt, and not just any great-aunt, but the novelist and screenwriter Gina Kaus. Gina had been married to both my great-uncle Josef Zirner and his great-uncle Eduard Frischauer. Zirner was her first husband, Frischauer her last. In between she had two children (her only offspring) by Otto Kaus. This was Vienna as it was before the Final Solution. Now people called Kaus, Zirner and Frischauer are thinly represented in the city. They have been scattered far and wide. The American journalist Micky Kaus is Gina’s grandson.
Gina’s father was a bit of a lad, and sired a daughter by Johann Sebastian Richter’s Jewish wife Ludmilla; Richter was in prison at the time Stephanie was conceived. By a succession of curious circumstances this quite ordinary child became not only Princess Stephanie zu Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingfürst but also one of Hitler’s closest female friends. The Führer didn’t know she was Jewish. He gave her the Gold Party Badge and sent her off on spying missions. In 1939 she eloped with her lover, Hitler’s former commanding officer Fritz Wiedemann and settled in San Francisco. Gina left the same year for Los Angeles. I could write reams about Gina and Stephanie, but I shall save that for another day. The real purpose of this blog is to write about Fred Uhlman.
My host at the Shelburne Club, Gina’s other great-nephew, introduced me to Caroline Compton and explained to me that Caroline was Uhlman’s daughter. Uhlman’s name rang a little bell and as luck would have it, Caroline had been seated on my right at lunch.
I knew of Uhlman vaguely as a painter. When I looked him up again I found his canvasses slightly primitive. They were chiefly landscapes, but there is an interesting folder published by Cape after the war depicting Uhlman and his fellow prisoners (my Godfather Alphons Barb was one of them) when he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man in 1940. Jews like Uhlman had to muck in with various Nazi waiters and hotel managers.
Uhlman was born Manfred Uhlmann in Stuttgart, a member of a rich and socially-assured Jewish family. He went to the Eberhard-Ludwigs Gymnasium (i.e. grammar school) in Stuttgart and then on to study law at Freiburg, Munich and Tübingen universities, becoming a doctor of law in 1925. He was part of a duelling fraternity as a student, but gravitated to the left and towards the socialist Kurt Schumacher. In 1933 he fled first to Paris then to Spain, where he met his wife Diana, the daughter of the former British Cabinet minister Sir Henry Page Croft (later Lord Croft). In 1936 they went back to England together where they settled on Downshire Hill in Hampstead and befriended painters like Oscar Kokoschka, Berthold Viertel and Kurt Schwitters, as well as the writer Stefan Zweig.
I had a nagging feeling that I had also seen a copy of a novel by Uhlman. Later that afternoon I found it staring me in the face: a book, long spread-eagled on top of the bathroom cupboard: L’Ami retrouvé by Fred Uhlman. It was the French translation of his novel Reunion. I suppose it had been left there by my daughter, who had abandoned it a few pages in. I rescued it and took it into my study to read.
Reunion is really a novella, and a very German one too in that it abides by the formula of the Bildungsroman that points the spotlight at the growing man. In this case it pitches Hans Schwarz, a young Jewish boy, against the ineffably grand Graf Conrad von Hohenfels. Schwarz could be Uhlman, and the school is a smart Humanistisches Gymnasium in Stuttgart like his, where the boys existed on a diet comprised largely of Latin and Greek. Hans’s father is a respected physician whose only quarrel with Christianity is that he could not understand why God the Father could have been so cruel as to allow his only begotten son to die so painfully on the cross. His mother was scarcely any more pious, and gave money to all causes, Jewish and Christian alike.
Hans’s father has a violent argument with a Zionist, and compared the idea of reclaiming Palestine to Italians demanding Germany because the Romans had occupied bits of it at the beginning of the first millennium. The Schwarz family were Swabians before anything else, then Germans. Their Jewishness came further down the list. Hans’s father had won the Iron Cross First Class in the Great War which he hung above his bed together with his officer’s sword and next to a picture of Goethe’s house in Weimar.
The chief difference between Uhlman and his hero is that Schwarz is about ten years younger and the action begins in 1932, a year before the Nazis come to power. Hans is lonely at school before the arrival of Conrad, whose family were the stuff of legend in Swabia. Conrad’s father is a diplomat, and as Schwarz learns later his mother is a fanatical Nazi. After a slow start, the boys become good friends, walk home from school together, go on little exploratory trips and pore over one another’s books and cabinets of Roman and Greek curiosities.
When the Nazis achieve power the friendship between Hans and Conrad falters and dies. Hans leaves on a Kinderstransport and goes to America to become a lawyer. His father gasses himself and kills his mother at the same time. Hans avoids Germans and German, even refusing to read his first love, the poet Hölderlin. Although he acknowledges that he still speaks German, the mere memory of the language is enough to ‘rub salt into his wounds’.
The school ‘reunion’ of the title takes the form of a request for funds from his old school to build a war memorial. It comes with a tally of those killed in the war. Twenty-six boys out of forty-six in his class had perished. Hans hesitates before turning to see what had happened to Conrad, only to find that he had been executed for his part in the 20 July Plot to kill Hitler.
Reunion was made into a film in 1989. The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter. I haven’t seen it, but I can imagine it would make a good film in the way that other Pinter script, The Go-Between, did not. The Go-Between was a complex book, and Pinter framed the ‘commercial’ theme, the love interest, rather than dwelling on the real story of how the boy Leo’s life had been wrecked by the ill-matched lovers. Reunion, by comparison, makes a very simple point about Germany, the Third Reich and the Jews, but makes it very well.
Death and the Nile
Posted: 18th November 2019
I have been reading the letters of Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered the hieroglyphs and opened the doors to a proper scientific study of Ancient Egypt. I don’t know if the time he spent on the Nile hastened his death, but he died at the very early age of forty-two and his name is deservedly commemorated in a street near the Sorbonne in Paris and plenty of others elsewhere.
Champollion’s letters reminded me of my own one and only trip to Egypt and Nile cruise, which occurred in 2001, shortly after the episode of the Twin Towers. Four years before dozens of tourists had been massacred in the Valley of the Kings. Such things made both visitors and the Egyptian authorities nervous, to say the least. Tourism accounted for a substantial percentage of the country’s GDP.
I was hardly unaffected. While I was purchasing a bottle of malt whisky in Heathrow Airport I spotted a man whom I was convinced was preparing to carve up an air hostess at the very least. I gave him a very wide berth. When I boarded my aircraft, however, I found him sitting in the seat next to mine demurely reading the Economist. I wondered what I’d do if he suddenly turned violent but in the end he caused fewer problems than the in-flight entertainment: The Mummy Returns with Rachel Weisz was certainly one of the worst films I have ever seen.
By the time I had filled out various forms in Cairo Airport and taken a taxi to Mena House, it was already two o’clock in the morning, but I thought I deserved a nightcap before I went to bed. I threw open the shutters and walked out onto my balcony where a dim, pale yellow moonlight bathed the Pyramids of Geza, and the odd camel gambolled around the base of Cheops. It was a sacred moment; one never to be forgotten.
Champollion first glimpsed Geza from a boat arriving from Alexandria on 19 September 1828: ‘... at seven, when the haze had lifted, we saw the great monuments to our right and, though they were eight miles away from us, we could already sense their colossal size...’ ‘Seen from a certain angle, they look like a huddle of three tall, rocky peaks around whose soaring summits several types of birds of prey glide ceaselessly.’ I spent the next days in Cairo, revelling in the exquisite detail of Ancient Egyptian jewellery in the Cairo Museum and satisfying an abiding longing to see the Coptic Museum and churches. I took in the Sphinx and various mosques, and spent an evening with my friend, the late Paul von Maltzahn who had been installed as the German Ambassador to Egypt. A performance of Aida under the Pyramids was denied me: it had been cancelled again after the events in New York.
I had come for the Nile and after Cairo I flew to Aswan to join my steamer, heading in low over the magnificent temple of Abu Simnel in which Champollion had laboured to copy the bas-reliefs and hieroglyphs. Since the creation of the new dam in 1952, it has become harder to get to the remains which lie up against the Sudanese Border. We had to make do with Philae - also the name of our vessel - where Champollion was laid low with gout. We took small boats from Aswan to reach the temple island. I remember graffiti carved into the stones, some of it dating back to Champollion’s time if not before.
Our journey took us on to Kom Ombo with its mummified crocodiles and Edfu: one of the best preserved of all the temples and the model for many mills, theatres and cinemas constructed by nineteenth and twentieth century British architects. With the threat of terrorism at its peak, we were not many: a couple of Americans and rather larger posses of Germans and Belgians. The food was not great on board ship. In Cairo I had looked in vain for pigeons, a typically Egyptian gastronomic treat I had remembered from reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The chef obliged one night. They were stuffed with something, possibly cracked wheat?
Champollion found hot mutton pâtés served with soured milk and seemed to be permanently excited at the sight of crocodiles in the hope that he might get one to eat. The party’s bullets, however, merely bounced off the crocs’ tough hides. One day in Luxor he procured a chunk which they were all set to consume at a dinner party in the Tomb of Sethos I, but by the time the chef rolled up his sleeves it had become putrid. Champollion describes a wonderful feast with a whole stuffed sheep preceded by mezes and liberal toasts of date liqueur fired off while Greek musicians played Marlborough s’en va-t-en guerre (to the music of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow). His expedition also had the advantage over mine by having plentiful supplies of Nuits St-Georges. Paul von Maltzahn had warned me against the local wine which came in three colours. Over a glass of hock from Langwerth von Simmern at the Embassy he told me to stick to the rosé, as it was the least bad. Thank God I had that whisky.
Champollion first encountered truly transcendent architecture in Luxor which he called ‘The Paris of Egypt’. He felt ruins such as the Temple of Karnac fully outshone anything the Greeks had left behind: ‘we in Europe are no more than Lilliputians and no other ancient or modern people has achieved a level of architecture that is so sublime, so large, so grandiose as the ancient Egyptians did’. Champollion returned to Paris with his trunks packed with treasures, but in his letters he reveals himself as an early conservationist who railed against Lord Elgin and the removal of the Dendera Zodiac. He was not impressed by the Copts either who had turned the temples into churches and covered their ancestors’ bas-reliefs with plaster bearing Christian images.
In Luxor I had to find a costume for a shipboard party, and bought a long smock and a fez, both of which are still with me. Somewhere too is the Nubian hat and fiddle I obtained in Aswan for my infant daughter. There was plenty of entertainment, with whirling dervishes and belly dancers livening up our evenings. I looked around for some other presents for home. There were rather lovely alabaster vases in the shops that reproduced the shapes of those in the bas-reliefs. I summoned up the courage to ring a bell and started trying to haggle: ‘Look, times are hard.’ said the man with an American accent. ‘The price is the price.’
The east bank of the Nile was for the living, the west for the dead. Champollion explored the Valley of the Kings where the Pharaohs were buried: ‘... an arid valley encased by extremely high rocks sliced in peaks or by completely eroded mountains... With the exception of a few serpents and lizards no animals haunt this valley of death...’ Death was still the theme when I visited as well: there were many more armed soldiers in the valley than tourists.
My Nile journey ended in Luxor. I never saw Memphis or the Pyramids of Sakkara. Instead I was taken across the desert on a bus to Hurghada on the Red Sea. It was a long journey and at some point we all got out for refreshments. An Egyptian soldier stood at my elbow with a submachine gun at the ready lest a terrorist choose to interrupt me. The paint was still wet at the Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh, when I arrived and I was the sole guest. That night I was serenaded by a small orchestra as I ate severely alone. I flew back to Cairo and Mena House the next day. Later that evening I started my journey home, a trip that took just a few hours. Champollion had taken as many months.
The Marquise of O
Posted: 15th October 2019
Heinrich von Kleist is possibly the most Prussian of German writers, more even so than the ‘Borussophile’ Theodor Fontane, who admired the Prussians profoundly but who, in a novel like Effi Briest, was still ready to question the wisdom of the Prussian code of honour. Born in 1777 into a noble family more distinguished on the battlefield than the lecture hall, Kleist served his king in the wars against Revolutionary France before attending the small university at Frankfurt an der Oder, where he fell under the influence of the writings of Immanuel Kant.
After Prussia’s defeat at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806, Kleist was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the French Jura. He was released in 1807 and once back in Berlin he turned his pen against the French, writing a series of excoriating articles and pamphlets. Finally, in 1811, despair at the continued French occupation of Prussia led him to commit a bizarre double-suicide together with the terminally ill Henrietta Vogel near the Wannsee lake. He was only thirty-four. Had he survived who knows what a corpus of work he might have left behind? This tomb is still there, tucked away in a small public park opposite the S-Bahn Station and generally decked with a fresh bunch of flowers.
Kleist wrote a small number of brilliant plays including the uncharacteristically light-hearted comedy, The Broken Jug. His most challenging drama was The Prince of Homburg, which seems in places to define the idea of duty as enshrined in ‘Prussianism’. Kleist was also the author of a clutch of novellas, such Michael Kohlhaas, where Kohlhaas’s quest for justice becomes so extreme that he ends up compromising his case. The Marquise of O is another: the story of a young north Italian widow, who is rescued by a Russian count from certain rape at the hands of his own soldiers during the siege of her home town and who, despite her respite, begins to feel symptoms she knows only too well as the mother of several small children.
The Count, who has had the men summarily shot, demands her hand in marriage. The Marquise - Juliette - consults both a doctor and a midwife. When the latter confirms her worst suspicions, Juliette asks whether the Midwife knew of cases where women had become pregnant without having had sex. The midwife replies cheekily that she can think of only one - the Virgin Mary. When her parents learn of her ‘condition’, they banish her from the house, initially believing that she is being dishonest and that she knows who the father of the child is. Her mother, however, produces a failsafe stratagem to test her innocence and Juliette is reconciled to her father is a scene that is, well, distinctly kinky. In the meantime Juliette places an advertisement in the local paper asking for the author of the child to come forward so that she might marry him. It would be unfair for me to reveal more as there must be many who have yet to read the novella.
The story of the unfortunate Marquise has been retranslated by the former publisher and Germanist Nicholas Jacobs for the Pushkin Press and now appears in a slim but elegant volume that is the perfect size for a jacket pocket or handbag. It is not the first English-language translation of The Marquise of O, but Jacobs translates the rather sparse - Spartan even - language of the original to perfection. Those of us who read German rarely look at translations, and it hardly needs saying that people who don’t are unlikely to do what I have done and compare the translation to the original. I note with pride that he has used as his text, the same East German Aufbau Verlag edition that I have on my shelves.
I was grateful to the Pushkin Press for reminding me of The Marquise of O and remembered that I also possessed the Erich Rohmer film from 1976 which I promptly re-watched. The film is quite stark as well and in most places religiously faithful to the text. The Russian Count is predictably brilliantly played by the late Bruno Ganz, while the Marquise is portrayed by the German actress Edith Clever. What is really striking about the film is the attention to detail: every shot is a composition of great beauty, and an evocation of the interior architecture and fashions of the last years of the eighteenth century. The cinematographer was the Spaniard Néstor Almendros, the acknowledged master of natural light. Rohmer particularly favoured him, as did François Truffaut - it was Almendros who filmed his best-selling The Last Metro. Later Almendros went to Hollywood and was behind the camera for box-office successes like Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.
In what seems a lifetime ago I knew Almendros in Paris, where he had made his home. He was a quiet, modest man who refused to accept the idea that he was in any way exceptional. On at least one occasion I dined with him in a little local restaurant. It was a huge pleasure just to listen to him talking about his experiences. Like Kleist he was taken away from us long before his time: Almendros died of AIDS in New York in 1992 at the age of sixty-one.
A Biography of a Nobody?
Posted: 16th September 2019
From where I sit I can see perhaps fifty books with ‘Hitler’ in the title. Publishers like the name: it is supposed to sell, like putting a swastika on the cover: Hitler plus swastika is a double hit. I can’t complain much: I am responsible for one of them and I translated another.
Only a few of them are biographies of Hitler. I have Bullock and Kershaw and one or two that sank before they were even spotted on the horizon of Third Reich scholarship. I also possess bits of Hitler by Thomas Weber or Hugh Trevor-Roper: his early life and last days. Missing are some of the German ones, such as Fest and the new one by Volker Ulrich. I have books on his taste in interior decoration, books on his books, books on his speeches; you name it, I’ve got it. And now I’ve added to this mighty collection with a thousand-page paving-stone from Peter Longerich: his new biography, which follows on from a clutch of very highly regarded books on the Third Reich, including lives of Himmler and Goebbels.
So why write a new life of Hitler? There can be lots of good reasons: to peddle a new slant, accommodate new research, air newly discovered documents, or simply to synthesise new arguments. Hitler has come a long way after all, since Alan Bullock first sought to apply an historian’s eye to the case in 1952. Before his ‘Study in Tyranny’ there had been a lot of dodgy exile histories and propaganda, and other assessments that had sprung from post-war tribunals. The man himself was often lacking from the accounts.
And he still is, in some respects. Despite all we know about the Third Reich, we are still short on information on what made its progenitor tick. He lied, he romanticised his story, and later others told fibs too about him to make a shortish, dark, plebeian man with black hair and blue eyes appear to resemble a composite portrait of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick the Great and Bismarck. Peeling back the layers of untruth to get to the real Hitler can be very hard. He was, by all accounts, a strange man: one in a million, or one in fifty million? A German nationalist from Upper Austria fearful that his culture was about to swallowed up by the Slavs across the border, who drank at the spring of Central European antisemitism - that he was - but there were plenty more; and they weren’t all dreamers like Adolf, who walked around Linz frittering away his days concocting plans for huge neo-baroque buildings until his fantasies were shattered by a frankly unimpressed art school in Vienna whose teachers told him he had failed to make the grade, twice. Nor were all those German nationalists prudes like Adolf, whose relations with women are still a closed book; or most un-German Bohemians like Adolf, who rose at lunchtime, and delivered rambling monologues to anyone who was unlucky enough to find themselves in his company in the early hours of the morning. As people have observed, Adolf was hardly Teutonic at all. In some lights he appears like some vicious potentate from One Thousand and One Nights.
He was, it seems, musical, and very fond of Wagner. There were plenty of devotees of Wagner around, and even a few who peddled Wagnerian aesthetics, but not so many who secretly listened to Lehár, and worse than Lehár (Lehár is actually very good): simple popular music of the time. Adolf was a man who lauded pure German culture and watched Hollywood films hidden away from the public gaze in Berchtesgaden. Witnesses attest to a fondness for detective novels. Anyone who rumbled him was likely to be despatched to the Eastern Front. He was a cranky vegetarian who stuffed himself with lentils and cream buns and foreswore beer and wine but... who, after Stalingrad, swallowed schnapps to steady his shaking hand; and (let’s face it) Adolf was also a man with a monumental vision, with an idea (however deluded) that he knew more about strategy than all the generals in the Great General Staff and one with a conviction that he could lead Germany to a stupendous victory and establish a thousand year empire in eastern Europe. This was no ordinary man; ordinary men don’t do this.
Now it is possible that Adolf was none of these things, that he had no vision, that he was a just a chancer, a gambler; and there is a school of thought that says that the man who hid himself away in Berchtesgaden with Eva, stuffing himself with chocolates and listening to the inane prattle of her fellow Munich shop girls, his quack doctor, his drunken court photographer and a few adjutants selected for their ability to nod in the right places, was just that; but a chancer or gambler who hoodwinks seventy million people, is no ordinary man either. When he succeeded in doing that he ceased to be a nobody and became a public menace, a threat to world order; Hagen, not Siegfried.
Longerich claims, and repeats his claim that Hitler was a nobody, although he does occasionally delve into the home life of our dear King Adolf he concentrates on the world around the tyrant. Hitler is reduced to a metaphor. Instead of a biography of Hitler, Longerich has written an excellent short (960 odd pages) history of the Third Reich. The book has many virtues, but it won’t reveal anything more about the man Adolf than we already know.
And so we move from fact to fiction, or at least fiction that may be based on fact. I confess I know very little about Nazi occupied Antwerp beyond the undeniable truth that the Flemish part of Belgium was sometimes moved to accommodate Hitler and the German invaders, but then so were the Walloons. If there was a difference it was that Flemish people might have perceived themselves as a little more ‘racially’ akin to Germans than French-speaking Walloons.
Antwerp was and is the centre of the diamond trade and as such was and is a city with a large Jewish population. Occupied Antwerp and a former policeman haunted by his past is the subject of Jeroen Olyslaegers novel Will. The hero, Wilfried Wils, is not only a policeman, he is a poet tormented by an inner voice he calls ‘Angelo’. The poet-policeman’s command of reality is sometimes feeble, but I don’t want to give too much away here, as it is a good plot and packs a few surprises. Like many people in challenging times Will finds himself hunting with the hounds and running with the hare, something that gets him into trouble with his colleagues and superiors then, and with the moral backlash later. The character of Wils is meant to be based on Olyslaegers’ grandfather who was just such a collaborating policeman.
The novel has been well translated by David Colmer. It is racy, punchy and very coarse. There are plenty of allusions to Brueghel and it is the earthiness of the painter that comes across again and again. For the historian there is a lot of well-studied detail and the author is very good at painting the louche mood of Antwerp during the Occupation. It is entertaining and sometimes genuinely funny. I loved the moment when Will borrows a prized collection of German classics from a Flemish fascist to distract a Jew that he has hidden in a cellar. I couldn’t recommend Will more highly, and I suspect we might hear quite a bit more from Olyslaegers.
Posted: 23rd August 2019
When I was in Brittany at the end of last month, my host lent me Marc Bloch’s L’étrange défaite (translated as Strange Defeat) about the collapse of the French army in 1940. It is an important book and a gripping read, not least because it was written by someone who was also an eye-witness to the events. Bloch had fought in the Great War and was recalled to the colours as a captain in the General Staff in 1939. He was assigned the task of organising fuel for French motorised divisions at the front and found himself mired in chaos and demoralisation from day one.
In civilian life, Bloch was a professional historian and no mean historian either: together with Lucien Febvre he founded the Annales School - possibly the most important historical movement of the century. To some extent we were all brought up his disciples. The Annales School taught us to work in archives, use primary sources and not base our writings on cobbling together the arguments of other historians. Annales historians studied social history at all levels, stressing the importance of mentalities and everyday lives. It would be hard to imagine a British historian with a similar clout, but then we tend to distrust theorists. I can only think of Lewis Namier, who was actually a Polish Jew, but who managed to change the way we looked at the history of British politics.
In addition to his other achievements, Marc Bloch was an undisputed hero. Again, I struggle to think of other examples of historian-heroes. The distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard (happily still with us at the age of ninety-six) won an MC at Anzio, but it is one thing to display valour on the field of battle and quite another, at the age of fifty-seven, to play an important role in the secret battle against the invaders of your country and subsequently die for your country.
Bloch witnessed the whole process of France’s humiliation from mobilisation to Dunkirk, where he was taken off by the British and returned via Plymouth and Cherbourg, landing behind French lines to rally the army. He was in Rennes, in Brittany when the Armistice was signed on 2 July. With the position of Jews increasingly dangerous in the north he went south to Vichy in mufti. He was subsequently relieved of his functions as a Jew before returning to his day-job of teaching, this time at the University of Strasbourg which was translated to Clermont-Ferrand after Alsace was returned to Germany. He later taught at Montpellier until the machinations of an antisemitic rector drove him out. From that moment onwards he was fully dedicated to the resistance until his arrest on 8 March 1944, just three months before D-Day.
Bloch was subjected to various tortures. The Gestapo broke his wrist and smashed his ribs before plunging him into an icy bath. He was taken to Lyon’s Monluc Prison in a coma. On 16 June 1944, he and a number of others were taken away to be executed. One of them, a seventeen-year old boy, was crying. Bloch comforted him: ‘They are going to shoot us’ he told him, ‘don’t be frightened. They won’t hurt us... It’s all over quickly.’ Marc Bloch was the first to be killed. As he fell he shouted ‘Vive la France!’
Just this once, Bloch wrote his account of the French defeat without reference to archival sources. Nor did he ever see this work published: it was written in a Vichy France that was little disposed to upset her conquerors. Bloch was not only determined to resist the Germans, he was a Jew struggling to hold on to his professorship. The text has a freshness all its own. Historians often make very good and sympathetic writers. I have only to think of Richard Cobb (who would have made a wonderful novelist) or AJP Taylor, whose autobiography succeeds in being both moving and funny. Bloch was another historian who wrote with commendable fluency.
Strange Defeat was written between July and September 1940. Naturally he draws attention to some of the obvious drawbacks of French strategy, such as imagining that France could take refuge behind the imperfect, incomplete Maginot Line system of defences. Psychology also looms large: despondency and defeatism were very probably the result of the very recent Great War, which had affected every household in France. Neither the French, not the British for that matter, were mentally ready to fight another war. Bloch has a lot to say about ancient generals who refused to accept the way tactics had changed since the last debacle. They based their thinking on a static war. As such they continued to spout the lessons they had imbibed at the Ecole de Guerre. As Bloch points out, their reluctance to alter their approach was all the more reprehensible given they had had eight months to absorb the way the Germans had dealt with the Poles and change tactics accordingly.
Superior officers come in for a pasting: ‘the incapacity of command’ is writ large. The Germans refused to do what they wanted them to do. The surprises, that are the key to tactics, were all the enemies’ shock and fire - none came from the French side. The Germans kept turning up in the ‘wrong place’ and cutting off the French army. French equipment was outdated, their tanks out-classed, they made insufficient use of motorcycles. There weren’t enough aircraft, lorries or motor-vehicles... Later, Bloch corrects himself: France did have enough, but not at the front: they were under lock and key behind the lines. The French fortified a broad front, but the Germans simply drove their columns down the roads, which were faster and easier to repair. Above all defeatism meant that the French failed to use Danton’s old trick and call the nation to arm against the invader. When the French collapsed, they fell in an undignified heap and lay there prostrate for four years of humiliating occupation.
Bloch is also critical of the British and of the lack of cooperation between the two armies. He was writing at a time when the British were unpopular in France. Dunkirk rankled. The French Army had been made to wait, cover the retreat and was then only carried off, seemingly as an afterthought.
Had Bloch survived I feel certain that he might have wanted to tackle some of the other causes of French defeat in 1940. Strange Defeat misses out much of the German factor: for him the defeat is the fault of the French. The German victory on the other hand was spellbinding and no amount of blaming France or its allies can explain why, in just six weeks, Germany was able to trounce the numerically superior armies of France, Britain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg with only minimal casualties. It wasn’t just that the Western Allies were piss-poor (which they undeniably were), it was also that Germany was bloody good. As Bloch points out, the Germans fought a modern war, while the French adhered to ‘yesterday’s, or the day before yesterday’s’ strategy.
France’s sickness was to a degree founded on victory in 1918. The Germans had learned from defeat to adapt and actually benefitted from the punitive clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. They had lost their General Staff and most of their officers and men. They were banned from having tanks and aircraft. They had had to rebuild from scratch, creating a professional cadre that could at any given moment spawn a proper modern army from an embryo. It was that revitalised army, freed from many cumbersome traditions that so soundly defeated France.
Posted: 17th July 2019
Looking for a book to read a week or so ago I reached into my shelves and pulled out Rüdiger Safranksi’s biography of ETA Hoffmann. There were none of the usual pencil markings in the text and so I could only assume it had not been read. In the back, however, were a couple of railway tickets. One told me I had travelled from Frankfurt Airport to Würzburg on 30 April 2001, and the second showed I had gone from Bamberg to Berlin on 2 May. I presume I must have bought the book in Würzburg or Bamberg, most likely the latter.
I like finding things in books: they provide tantalising bits of information, even when I left them there myself! So why did I buy this fat book on Hoffmann? I think I was looking for a literary project, and that this seemed like a good one. I almost certainly went from Würzburg to Bamberg because of Hoffmann, who spent five years there between 1808 and 1813. Somewhere I will also have a diary which will provide me with the missing information.
I recall that I mentioned the idea to the late and great publisher George Weidenfeld at a launch party in his flat overlooking the Thames at Chelsea. He thought it was a wonderful project and pointed to the top shelf of his library and a book that he believed was the only one in the English language. ‘Not a good book’, he added. It had been published as long ago as the late forties. As I recall his encouragement was unique. Hoffmann is a level-two German writer, after the obvious ones like Goethe, Schiller or Thomas Mann. There are biographies of Goethe etc, but apparently even they are hard to sell. As one very friendly publisher told me ‘Frankly Giles, even if you proposed a life of Goethe, we’d have problems accepting it.’ They couldn’t see much money coming in. I gave the project a little push here and there, but no one showed any interest and I gave up.
I still think Hoffmann would make a great book. It would be to some extent the story of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann or the Tales of Hoffmann, one of the most popular operas ever written. That was based on a play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré entitled Les Contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann. Of course Offenbach’s opera uses a great deal of hyperbole and poetic license, but the story is there, and the details of Hoffmann’s life are mostly directly derived from three or four of his tales or novellas. Hoffmann himself, with his hopeless love affairs and his devotion to the bottle, is fairly well observed.
So who was ETA Hoffmann? Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776-1822 - he changed his third Christian name to ‘Amadeus’ in honour of Mozart) was a Prussian jurist, writer, composer, theatre director and artist. He was born in Königsberg in East Prussia, now Kaliningrad in the Russian of oblast of that same name. The second of two surviving boys from a family of lawyers, his elder brother was properly insane and it is not hard to see Hoffmann as a man whose genius sat on the knife edge between sanity and madness. Soon after Ernst’s birth his parents’ marriage broke up. His father went to practise law in Insterburg on the then Russian border and his mother moved back into her family home. Hoffmann was brought up by his uncles and aunts, fantastical figures who crop up in his later stories.
After attending the local university - the Albertina - where Kant was the greatest ‘fleuron’ of his age, Hoffmann became a judge, but an indomitable, rebellious spirit kept him from rising on the bench, that and a habit of falling in love with unsuitable women. One of these passions had him whisked off to Glogau (now Polish Głogow) in Silesia at the end of his time at university. There the stock Prussian Calvinist was inspired by the baroque, Catholic churches of the town. A visit to the royal art gallery in Dresden introduced him to great art for the first time, and fed his talent as a painter and draughtsman. Possibly it went to his head, for when he was completing his pupillage in Posen (Polish Poznan), he decided to publish caricatures of the great and good of the garrison. This didn’t go down well at all, and Hoffmann was punished by being transferred to the one-horse town of Plock (Płock). Before he took up his position there he married a Polish girl, Michalina (‘Mischa’) Rorer by whom he had a single daughter, Cäcilia, who died in infancy.
Relief came in 1804 when he was appointed to head the bench in ‘South Prussian’ Warsaw. Warsaw had fallen to Prussia with the Third Polish Partition of 1795. Hoffmann divided his time between his professional duties in the courts and putting on plays at a local theatre which he also decorated with murals and ceiling paintings. It was the time when, among others, he discovered the works of the Spanish playwright Calderon.
One of his tasks was to provide surnames for the city’s Jewish community, which up till then had not required such embellishments. Hoffmann took his work seriously: one day a soubrette brought him flowers, and all the Jews were given flower names; the next he ate an interesting fish for lunch and the Jews were all awarded fish names; on the third he was hungover after dining with a Prussian colonel and the Jews were all named after guns, shells and artillery pieces. On the fourth day no Jews turned up.
Hoffmann was happy in Warsaw, where he made friends with another jurist, the Jewish-born Julius Hitzig in memory of whose daughter Hoffmann he was to write the Nutcracker and the Mouse King; but the idyll came to an end with Prussia’s defeat at the Battle of Jena in 1806. Prussia lost its Polish colonies and Hoffmann his job. After two years of penury in Berlin, Hoffmann arrived in the lovely city of Bamberg in Franconia to manage the Rose Theatre. He was already drinking heavily, as he confided to a diary in which he wrote his German partly in Greek characters to prevent his wife from understanding it. The Greek alphabet also concealed his frequent use of prostitutes. He had begun writing music in Berlin and now he became a critic too, writing his notices for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. He championed not only the music of Mozart, but also Beethoven. In 1809 he penned his first successful short story: Der Ritter Gluck about the appearance of the composer Gluck’s ghost.
But Hoffmann’s time in Bamberg was bedevilled by a passion for a private pupil, the fourteen-year old Julia Marc - who was possessed of a beautiful voice. Her mother was not exactly enraptured by the idea of her daughter performing the role of muse to this thirty-three year old, impecunious, drunken, married man and she swiftly portioned her daughter off to a member of the local bourgeoisie. Hoffmann was disgusted, and worked off his anger in a tale of Berganza, a talking dog who bites a fairly transparent parody of his graceless rival.
After an interlude in which he found himself caught up in the wash of the Napoleonic wars in Leipzig and Dresden, Hoffmann returned to Berlin and the bench. This time he served on the Kammergericht, Prussia’s highest court while he was able to put on his opera Undine at the Schauspielhaus. In the evenings he met up with his friend the actor Ludwig Devrient at the wine house Lutter und Wagner and drank champagne. The friends took to shouting ‘Give me a cup of sack, rogue!’ (Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, Scene 4) - or rather ‘Gib mir ein Glas Sekt, Schurke!’ whenever they needed a top up. It is the probable origin of ‘Sekt’, which means sparkling wine in German.
Hoffmann was the talk of the town: novels and novellas like Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixirs), Der goldene Topf (The Golden Pot), Klein Zaches (Little Zach) and Kater Murr (Tomcat Murr) guaranteed his place both in the forefront of German romantic literature, but also as one of the fathers of magical realism, for Hoffmann’s fiction was always construed as a means of escaping from the humdrum to some higher, magical world - just as little Marie does in the Nutcracker.
This escapist literature was not the only medium in which he excelled, however: Hoffmann was a satirist on a par with Swift, and inspired by the trials of liberals in reactionary Prussia, he wrote a parody of the Chief of Police Kramptz in Meister Floh (Master Flea). Unfortunately the Police Chief recognised himself: Hoffmann was to be exiled once again; this time to the little town of Insterburg in East Prussia where his father had once vegetated as a lawyer. He never got there. He died of syphilis in Berlin on 25 June 1822 at the age of just forty-six.
Besides the body of fiction he has left us and few quirky, but interesting paintings and drawings, Hoffmann wrote a reasonable corpus of music, and it has often to musicians that he has spoken most directly. His inspiration is chiefly associated with Robert Schumann, whose Kreisleriana was inspired by Hoffmann’s conductor in his remarkable novel Kater Murr. In the novel the Kreisler writes his memoires, while his cat, Murr, uses the back of the paper to write his own. The result is an extraordinary text where the cat’s thoughts form the counterpoint to the composer’s. Hoffmann’s direct influence extends much further than Schumann to Wagner (Meister Martin), Tchaikovsky (the Nutcracker), Delibes (Coppélia) and Hindemith (Cardillac), and naturally Offenbach too.
Simon Linnell (1956 - 2019)
Posted: 17th June 2019
Simon died in the early hours of 2 June. He had been in Morocco, no one knows quite why. After a few weeks he flew back to Gatwick. Scotland, where he lived, being another flight away, he checked into a hotel. Here he fell ill. The hotel alerted East Surrey Hospital. The doctors saw he had only days to live: his heart was failing and his kidneys had already given up the ghost.
At first he was lucid, he even drank a little of the bottle of whisky he had smuggled in. He mentioned various names and we received regular bulletins, but he died the very day I was planning to visit him with a friend. He had never wanted for company and was surrounded by bevies of the faithful, right up to the moment he expired.
My friendship with Simon began in 1976, and the beginning of my second year at Oxford. We were founder members of the Piers Gaveston Society, a club that remains as notorious as ever. The creators of the Gaveston were Philip Ruttley and Dave Rampersad, the former a Swiss who had stayed on to do a doctorate at Oriel, the latter a Trinidadian come from Cambridge to write a dissertation on colonial history. They recruited my then best friend Jeremy Howard. Howard brought me onboard and I believe it was Ruttley who proposed Simon. Ruttley had second thoughts about his doctorate and stood down before the first ‘Synod’ in Hilary 1977. He was replaced as Keeper of the Poker by my friend, the Canadian Geoffrey Chambers.
Then and now, the Gaveston was all about giving risqué parties. Simon and I were in charge of drinks and we made the cocktails for the termly synod. Each cocktail was named after one of the six office-holders, one of these being the Custodian of the Anals. We always took great care to make the ‘Anals’ cocktail a suitably revolting colour.
Simon and I hit it off from the first and we were inseparable that year. I soon learned his story: he was adopted and claimed to be the illegitimate son of an Irish peer who had been taken in by a Catholic couple in Lancashire. Simon had a sister called Lisa, eighteen months younger than him. Her origins were as obscure as his. At the reception that followed his funeral her twin daughters agreed that Lisa looked quite like Simon.
It is a mystery that remains to be solved. Simon’s nieces said that he had never made any attempt to find out who his real parents were. His adoptive father and mother sounded quite saintly. He had attended the seminary at Ushaw in County Durham and had considered the priesthood, but in the end didn’t feel he had a vocation and worked in business instead. Simon always spoke of his adoptive parents with respect. I recall once his mother sent him a box of white shirts. Simon wore them all term, until they were far from white, adding that he wanted to ‘to show you all that I have a mother.’ The shirts became a part of his Bohemian chic along with the usual tattered foulard or boa.
His adoptive parents sent him to top schools. Simon had come up to New College to read English from the Benedictines at Downside Abbey bringing a wealth of stories about dirty monks. He was extremely bright, but had no real taste for study. He was taught Anglo-Saxon by the novelist A N Wilson, and it is hardly surprising they got on well. Anne Barton, the Shakespeare scholar who tutored him in his second year was less forgiving. It was astonishing he survived to take Schools. Modern Oxford would probably have never let him in, and if they had, they would certainly have thrown him out.
He could be sharp. I was keen a girl that year, and watching me waiting for her to arrive he complimented me drily on my performance as a cat on a hot tin roof. He was up for any play, good or bad. I remember a particularly crass adaption of Stoker’s Dracula, with Simon as the Count and a Design for Living with some Americans from Princeton who were doing a course in North Oxford. We all loved Coward - Simon in particular. He used to call ‘Time and Again’ my song. I was not involved in university acting, but once we were asked to perform the back-up for a pop group called the ‘Crutchfumblers’ in the Newman Rooms. We took our brief literally, and many walked out.
He could be very drunk indeed and long before most of us had even thought about our first drink. On one occasion following her election as Leader of the Opposition, Mrs Thatcher appeared in Oxford to open a branch of Oxfam in the Broad: civic dignitaries, aldermen swinging their chains of office and hacks from the local press lined up behind ropes on either side of the entrance. Simon pushed his way through their ranks and arms outstretched like a child imitating a Spitfire, he stopped in the doorway and refused to budge. There was a prolonged stand-off while officials tried to coax him away, but he stayed put at one end of the crowd with Mrs Thatcher waiting at the other. Meanwhile the Kiwi Paul Halloran, later of Private Eye, was shouting from the back of the crowd ‘Maggie, they’re pulling your tit: it’s been open for weeks!’
The one and only time I received a (in justification, unannounced) visit from my school contemporary, the famous lawyer Anthony Julius, he found me sitting with Simon under a tree outside Staircase XIV, a bottle parked between us. Julius marched off in disgust and I haven’t seen him since. In the evenings Simon liked the Berni in the Cornmarket. The wine list consisted of six bottles. We’d order all six.
In the summer of 1977 it was New College’s turn to put on the Commem Ball. The ball committee asked me to do the poster, paying me £15, which was £10 short of the price of a double ticket. I managed to find another tenner somewhere and was able to bring my girl. Too late I learned that I had the privilege of having Simon’s filthy room in Holywell as my ‘sitting out room.’ It might have been an honour, but I think it was also a ruse on his part not to have to tidy up before the end of term.
I saw a bit less of Simon in my third year. I had nowhere to live at first. For a while I slept on sofas. The porter’s lodge put out a story that I was living in a tent on Port Meadow. Sometimes I put two chairs together in the JCR and Ray, the steward used to come and wake me up in the morning with a cup of coffee. Then I had the use of a place in Walton Street for a while, followed by a horrid little room off the Iffley Road, before I finally settled in a house by the roundabout at the very top of the Banbury Road. Simon could not have been further away, up on Headington Hill: the last stop before London.
I went straight to Paris at the end of my time. Simon gravitated towards London where he hoped to achieve glory on the stage, although he did come and see me on at least one occasion. I was living with Tim Hunt in the rue des Boulangers. We drank and sang a lot. He seemed happy. When Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, Simon’s failure to be the next Laurence Olivier but three was blamed on the woman he had prevented from getting into the Oxfam Shop in the Broad. ‘The Thatcher government’ seemed to justify dividing up the day into three eight-hour shifts between the sheets. It was possible he was depressed, but it was a feature of Simon’s protracted naps that he came round at the oddest times. Lord Justice Jackson (or ‘Paddy’ - as he was then), alluded to this in the wonderful eulogy he delivered at Simon’s funeral. When he woke up he would inevitably cook himself a proper meal - meat and two veg - at three or four o’clock in the morning. Paddy mentioned that on one occasion when Simon was living with him he turned on the gas in the oven but forgot to light it. When he reappeared with a fag in his mouth he blew up half the kitchen. A bedraggled Simon appeared at Paddy’s bedside minus his eye-brows and ‘half his nose’.
If you invited Simon to dinner he often stayed the night and that meant waking up to him cooking an omelette at four a.m. When he finally left he’d insist on taking the leftovers - a carcass or something like that - to make soup (even if you had plans for it yourself). On one occasion he was arrested for drunken behavior and was found to be in possession of a mangled, half-chewed duck. The police didn’t press charges: they were too keen to get rid of him, and the duck.
Simon was kept alive by a wide circle of largely New College friends who forgave him both his outrages and his inability to get up, but even their patience snapped sometimes. A female friend I saw at the funeral admitted she had once called the police to evict him. Spare rooms filled up with children and Simon eventually found a council flat in a tower block in Walthamstow in which he lived for many years. I have a vague memory of unfurnished rooms and a huge collection of airport novels, which he loved and he made good money reviewing them for the broadsheets.
I don’t know why (even if I have my suspicions) Simon failed to capitalise on the connections he had made at Oxford. He was a good friend of Jeremy Mortimer’s and a contemporary of Richard Curtis’s. The latter in particular acted as a sort of fly-paper to all that passed for thespian talent at Oxford in those days: Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny, Philip Franks; the musicians Howard Goodall and Philip Pope, and later Hugh Grant and Imogen Stubbs. Simon, it seems, never got a look in.
The problem was the Equity card, and how to get one. Actors needed the card to obtain work. He did a few one-man shows in pubs, Eddy Canfor-Dumas told me he had written the one culled from Dostoevsky I saw in Kilburn. He was liked by Northampton Rep and often performed there. There was some Ödön von Horvath in Camberwell. The missing Equity card finally drove him to acting school at E15. He learned all sorts of methods that to some extent mitigated the more histrionic style of his Oxford years. He also acquired his first steady ‘occasionally requited’ (to use his phrase) love. This ended badly, however, when despair made him swallow a bottle of bleach or cleaning fluid, I suspect permanently weakening his vital organs.
Simon stayed largely the same, but we moved on, generally because we had families. I may have lasted longer than some, but I too stopped seeing Simon after his 40th birthday. He wanted me to buy him a special present in Berlin. I didn’t object to that but as the present had to be consumed in Berlin he also expected me to fly him out and put him up. I demurred. I lost no sleep over the fact he didn’t invite me to the birthday party he held jointly with a friend in Oxford. My life was changing dramatically: I too was about to become a father.
I last saw him about ten years ago at a close friend’s family party at an old music hall in the East End. It was already late, but he wanted to hear all my news. I needed to get back to pay off a babysitter. With time Simon had found bits of work, including television, but he never made it big time as an actor. In some ways he was in greater demand as a book reviewer. He moved to a croft in a hamlet north of Glasgow, where he was popular with the locals in the pub, who used to deposit pheasants on his doorstep. He also worked with a local theatre group - the Walking Theatre Company who had the highest regard for him and the experience that he was able to offer.
Simon left no children. There is as yet no physical monument, no corpus of work, no collection of writings, no sets of DVDs that we can pick up to remember him; but as his funeral near the runway of Gatwick Airport (where his death trauma began) amply demonstrated, he bequeathed to all of us who had known him a superabundance of cherished memories, some tragic, but mostly comic, and we will miss him hugely to the end of our days. After all, Simon was part of us all. He was our youth.
Posted: 15th May 2019
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange von mir nichts vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben.
(I have now come unstuck from the world/With which I once wasted so much time/ It has been so long since it has learned my news/It might well believe I am now dead.)
These lines by Friedrich Rückert, so beautifully set to music by Mahler, seem to sum up my present position to a tee; but it is not just that the world has heard nothing from me, I have heard nothing from the world, and most of the time it is because I don’t want to know about something to which I cannot usefully respond.
And so it was with Nick’s death. I had not heard anything from him or about him for a very long time and I began to fear the worst and the worst proved true. When I finally looked, I found the end had occurred all of six months before and no one had thought to tell me.
Born on 6 July 1933, Nick was a generation older than me and the others who went into wine writing in the eighties. He used to describe himself as a ‘Geordie,’ I don’t know why. Maybe his mother was from Newcastle? The one proper obituary I found (Christian Wolmar in the Guardian) says he was born in London, the son of an evidently prosperous Jewish furniture manufacturer who sent him to Harrow. Nick was pretty quiet about Harrow, but it slipped out at unguarded moments. I am not sure he enjoyed the experience much: he was virulent in his condemnation of public schools, describing them expensive ‘finishing schools’. I don’t think his own children were sent down that road. I recall him imitating one of his sons: ‘Dad’ he would whine, ‘Dad’... drawing out the ‘a’. He clearly loved his children, but he said they were exasperated by him.
He told me he had done National Service as a subaltern in the Royal Artillery, I assume that was before he went up to Magdelen College Oxford where he read History. He came down with a viva’d First. With characteristic self-deprecation, he used to tell the story that they had awarded him a First simply to get him out of the room, regretting bitterly they had interrupted his last long vac to have him give more precise answers to the questions posed in the exam.
From Wolmar I learn too that his father Philip Faith died just before Nick finished Schools, and that he had had to take over the reins of his father’s business. Once divested of his family firm, Nick was briefly involved in films before going into journalism. He moved from writing about industry to commenting on business and from the Economist to the Sunday Times’ Insight team. He was a successful hack. Even at the end of his life he used to pride himself on having at least three commissioning editors he could rely upon to print his copy. And then there were the books, of which he must have penned at least a couple of dozen. Opus one seems to have been a work on road safety published in 1968. Most of his early books were about business and transport: trains (which he loved), boats and aircraft. There was even one about the Wankel engine. Wine, however, occupied a special place in his heart. He managed to get all the best commissions when it came to wine - particularly writing about top Bordeaux châteaux. Cognac became a personal fief, and he produced all manner of guides to it and keep them constantly updated.
I must have half a dozen of his wine books. The first one I read was The Wine Masters (1978), a study of the 1974 Bordeaux Wine Scandal. I chanced on the book in Paris and loved every word of it. The pages were filled with the antics of the crooks that Nick seemed to like so much. For me it was an eye-opener and breathed life into the project I was working on the late seventies and early eighties. I must have met Nick not long after I returned to Britain. I remember the launch of his excellent Story of Champagne in 1988 and the speech he made thanking the various PR women present for providing so much vintage champagne on his fifty-fifth birthday. It was an excellent party.
Once we got to know one another there was a degree of complicity, and he kept an avuncular eye on me. He was always supportive of my various projects: all the more so because like him I wrote about things other than wine. He allowed himself to be sucked into the wine world, however, and at one stage he was roped into becoming Chairman or President of the Circle of Wine Writers. He found an Augean Stables, filled with a lot of superannuated members who hardly brought credit to the club. On one memorable occasion he penned an e.mail to a friendly member carelessly describing a notorious drunkard as a notorious drunkard, and then clicked on ‘reply all’. The notorious drunk was not best pleased and Nick had to give him money to stop him from taking the matter to court.
By that time I was writing less and less about wine and I saw less of Nick. I recall meeting him for coffee at the British Library at about the time his book on the Canadian drinks magnates, the Bronfmans came out. We had something to swop, but I can’t remember what it was. I ran into him a couple of years later when I found him eating alone at the Reform Club, where he managed the wine list.
The last time we spoke was on the telephone in 2014. I was trying to unravel the family life of Christine Valette in Saint Emilion for an obituary. I thought she must have been his sort of woman, but he sounded vague, and claimed he didn’t know her. I was worried about him and mentioned this to a close friend of his when I ran into her at a memorial service. She said that he was still very much on the ball. This is confirmed by Wolmar, who says he was in the middle of writing an article when he died. He even managed to bring out a history of the Channel Tunnel in 2018, which must have been published at around the same time.
Nick was living on his own by the time I got to know him. He was twenty-two (and she twenty) when he married Rosamond Arnold-Forster in 1955. She must have been an Oxford contemporary. They were terribly young. She was the daughter of a naval officer and they had four children. Rosamond Faith went on to become a published mediaeval historian and taught at Oxford. Nick and his wife were divorced in 2000 although I think Nick had flown the coop long before. His wife was not, I believe, Jewish. Nick did not give the impression of being religious although he would describe himself to me as a ‘yid’, ‘skid’ or ‘kyke’ from time to time, but then again, he knew I was also partly Jewish. His sense of humour was defiantly puerile. He teased, but was usually in the side of the angels.
Indeed, although Nick made light of it, I think there must have been some rancour at home. One of his sons changed his name, adopting either his mother’s or his wife’s. Unshackled, Nick moved into Oz Clarke’s old flat in Islington when Oz decamped to Fulham. Nick was now free to develop his passions for hard-bitten PR ladies. There was a certain type, and Nick’s new women invariably conformed to type.
Despite his patrician education, Nick remained a political firebrand. He was a rigid Labour voter. According to Wolmar he supported Brexit but, in his contrarian style, he could not abide Jeremy Corbyn. While he was warm and friendly, he was seldom intimate. He erected a screen of self-mockery and effectively concealed himself behind it. Although he lived very near me for much of the time, I never went to his flat even if I couldn’t count how many times we shared a taxi back to Islington together after wine trade dinners.
I am sorry that I shall never have Nick’s news again.
The Lavender Ladies of Somerville
Posted: 16th April 2019
Last month I went on my third ever demo. I missed one last year because I was on a ship sailing down the Rhine. Our numbers have been called into question and I certainly couldn’t tell you precisely how many there were, only that it took one and a quarter hours to walk from Grosvenor House to the Dorchester, which would normally take me five minutes. The previous time I marched it took only three-quarters of an hour.
While we members of the metropolitan élite, the establishment, stumbled forward in the crowd, certain in my case that this gesture would be ignored like every other one, there was plenty of time to look at the banners and placards, some of which were quite witty. The more basic ones contained portraits or effigies: the severed head of Nigel Farage, a hairless man whom I took to be Damian Green at first but who, in retrospect, I think was Rupert Murdoch, lots of pictures of David Cameron and rude remarks about Eton, some pigs in provocative postures and of course thousands of pictures of Theresa May.
Naturally I see quite a lot of images of Theresa now but it still strikes me as remarkable that this gawky, beaky, timid girl should have become the reason why I am prepared to shuffle from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square to stand up for the beliefs I have held all my adult life. I remember teasing her about something in the Union Bar, and then getting that stubborn, spiteful look we have all come to know so well. Had I got any closer I am sure I would have been rewarded with a scratch even deeper than the one on Jean-Claude Juncker’s face. She was my opponent in the one paper speech I made in the Union Debating Chamber, in Trinity Term 1978. I remember very little about either my speech or her riposte. It was a frivolous motion and I had almost certainly drunk too much Pimms beforehand. I haven’t seen Theresa in the flesh since that day.
Normally I would have kept well away from the Union, it wasn’t my sort of place at all. I blame the Bear, a contemporary of mine who did every one of those eager things you were supposed to do when you went up. He joined all the political parties, wrote for the university newspaper (the Cherwell) and it goes without saying that he beavered (if a bear may beaver) around the Union. One day we were both in a friend’s room in Somerville (then an all-girls college just as ours was just for boys) and the friend showed us some grotty invitation cards she had been given by a well-meaning aunt. They were mauve and embossed in gold and evidently quite embarrassing, but the Bear’s eyes twinkled, for he had already dreamed up a scheme for how to dispose of them: the Lavender Ladies of Somerville would give a fancy dress party at the Randolph Hotel.
Before we knew it he jotted down a list of people he’d met at the Union adding a few more he had encountered in our college. We addressed them and popped them in the pigeon post. Of course it wasn’t going to be a real party, it was a hoax, but students were prepared to go to virtually anything if they thought there would be free drink and we would be able to watch the fun from the back gate of our college, which afforded an excellent view of the Randolph. We were able to congratulate ourselves on a considerable success as quite a lot of people turned up in elaborate costumes and went away again looking cross.
A few days later the Bear introduced me to the Union Bar. Somewhere in the crowd I heard a piercing shriek and before I could take cover a tall, thin Asian woman was standing before me screaming ‘What do you mean by asking me to some non-existent party?’ It was Benazir Bhutto, whom I hadn’t met before. It was obvious that she wasn’t really angry, and rather more intrigued than anything else. A few days later there was a knock at my door in the horrid modern staircase by the back gate (our vantage point). I opened it to see her and Damian Green they had come to pay me a call.
I can see them both, sitting on my bed, teasing me. I sat on a chair with my back to my desk while Damian bobbed around giggling like the cat who’d got the cream. I ran into Benazir several more times that term. In the Union Bar she’d slip me a fiver and tell me to buy us both a drink and occasionally we’d go for a spin in an open-topped sports car she called ‘Baby’.
Just before we went down for the Christmas break she gave me her telephone number at the Pakistani Ambassador’s House in St John’s Wood. The ambassador’s wife was her aunt. I was too shy to call and I had a taxing job in a rough City bar and that took up many of my evenings. Then she rang. I held the receiver at arm’s length: ‘Why did you take my (expletive deleted) telephone number? To stick on your wall?’ She invited me to join her Valkyries and go to see The Sound of Music,but I didn’t want to see the Sound of Music. I still don’t. So she invited me to join them for dinner afterwards.
I should explain that the Valkyries was my name for her protection mob. There were about a dozen girls who formed a thick cordon around her on most occasions, I think to prevent her from getting up to mischief. From Theresa’s later utterances on the subject you might imagine she was one of them, but I don’t recall her being there, certainly not that night. I arrived before them, and a considerate flunky in pyjamas showed me up to a plush flat at the top of the house and handed me a decanter filled with whisky. I remember a rather good buffet supper downstairs and some cauliflower cheese enhanced with masala spices; and that is all.
Benazir and I became good friends, but when her father got into trouble she went home and I never saw her again. Years later I had a surprise invitation to her engagement party, but sadly I couldn’t go. I regret that profoundly now, particularly when I think of her gruesome fate.
Of course I saw a lot more of Damian, who was in my college. Damian not only shone academically, he succeeded at the Union, becoming its President in Michaelmas 1977, like Benazir two terms before. The Union in those days was chiefly a place where grammar school boys and girls took their first steps up the ladder to success. There was nothing posh about the Union Presidency in those days, probably the only exception was the Amplefordian Richard Norton, now Lord Grantley, a UKIP hereditary peer who was President in Michaelmas 1976. If you wanted to get on in life you hung around the Union Bar making friends who would elect you to Library Committee, and then you could run for one of the three major offices that would sparkle on your CV later. For me they were just so many boars to be baited. Sometimes they bought you drink thinking you were a member and therefore a potential voter. I was only a member for one term, and that at the insistence of Alan Duncan who got fed up with seeing me climbing over the garden wall.
Damian and I were never huge pals but we were definitely friendly. I recall I tried to get Barry Humphries to speak at the Union during his presidency. Humphries lived near me in London and I had had dinner with him and his wife and discovered a man of enormous wit and erudition, the contrast to his Edna Everage persona could not have been more striking.
I have seen Damian fewer than a dozen times these past forty years. He rose to become Deputy Prime Minister before coming crashing down again in a recent scandal we can all recall. He appears to have fallen foul of the police. For the past few months he has been Theresa’s eminence grise, the sole politician regularly admitted to her presence, devising her stratagems, thwarting her enemies, helping her cling on despite all those gravitational forces that should otherwise pull her down. Such were my thoughts as I soldiered on towards Parliament Square, just one in a million established élitists thwarting the People’s Will.
Resistance in the Third Reich
Posted: 18th March 2019
In these worrying times when many of our received values are up for grabs and forms of political representation have become utterly confused in the public mind, it seem natural to revisit the Third Reich and the failure of the German democracy. Although Germany succumbed to Hitler, during most of the period from 1933 to 1945, there was an opposition working in the shadows. Resistance to a totalitarian state is particularly risky: if you are caught you will either end up in something like a concentration camp, or swinging from a rope; and opposition becomes that much more problematic in time of war when it is all too easy to accuse an opponent of undermining his country while it struggles to survive. We need to be clear, however that the Nazis arrived in power democratically. Despite their setback in the elections of November 1932, one in three Germans voted for them and they remained the largest party in the Reichstag. Their leader was a natural choice for chancellor.
The failure of any one party to achieve a majority meant that Germany had been ruled by decree since 1929. Abiding by the Weimar Constitution, chancellors and cabinets were approved by President Paul von Hindenburg. His opposition to the idea of appointing the ‘Bohemian Corporal’ - as he called him - was eroded by his bosom friend, the former Chancellor Franz von Papen and Adolf Hitler was chosen as Chancellor of the Weimar Republic on 30 January 1933. He brought just two other Nazis into the government with him: Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick. The other members were Vice-Chancellor Papen’s appointees.
According to Papen’s plan, these Nazis would be just three sausages floating in a national conservative stew, but events came to Hitler’s rescue as early as 27 February when a demented Dutch communist set fire to the Reichstag. Now the Nazis had an excuse to bring out their SA paramilitaries to help the police round up communists. Anyone who was thought to oppose them was beaten and tortured in makeshift torture chambers. On 23 March the Enabling Act allowed Hitler to dispense with parliamentary democracy. Only the Social Democrats resisted, limply. Opposition political parties were banned in July.
But Hitler was still not fully master in his own house. At any time the increasingly doddery Hindenburg might have dismissed him, especially if the army, or his favourite Papen put pressure on him to act. As it turned out, the beginning of an opposition was already developing in Papen’s kitchen cabinet, particularly in the person of conservative Edgar Jung. Jung and possibly Papen himself were keen to replace National Socialism with the clerical style of fascism enshrined in the Austrian Corporate State. A return to Christian morality loomed large in their thinking. On 30 June 1934, Hitler was frightened enough of what Papen might do to unleash the furies in the form of his SS Praetorians. He feared Hindenburg might bring out the army and depose him. Papen’s clique was murdered: Jung and Herbert von Bose, as well as the popular leader of Catholic Action, Erich Klausener. Victims also included Hitler’s Nazi rival Gregor Strasser and the former Chancellor General Kurt von Schleicher. Schleicher and Strasser may or may not have been considering a move to oust him. Hitler also threw a sop to the army, and through them, Hindenburg. The army was worried that Hitler was planning to merge the SA Brownshirts with the regular Reichswehr or even supplant it. Hitler had Ernst Röhm and the SA leaders slaughtered. A month later a reportedly gaga Hindenburg was dead and Hitler and his Nazis became indisputable masters of Germany.
Germany was comparatively calm in the mid-thirties. The numbers of people in concentration camps dwindled. When political prisoners were released they were ‘convinced’ not to speak of their experiences. Although there were occasional ‘spontaneous’ actions against Jews, the Nuremberg Laws were actually an attempt to create a legal framework to the ‘Jewish Problem’ by attempting to define a ‘Jew’ and the various levels of ‘part-Jew’. With the communists out of the way and the socialists lacking any political base there was little in the way of active opposition. Adam von Trott zu Solz, when not immersed in his legal studies, tried to find like-minded opponents of the regime. He made contacts with a few communists, but most of the opposition he encountered was in the now banned student corps associations and represented national conservatives who found Hitler’s style little to their taste.
All that changed when Hitler revealed his hand to the leading generals on 5 November 1937. He wanted to launch wars to secure ‘living space’ for the German people. The army had no particular reason to dislike Hitler that that stage: he had eliminated the threat of the SA and revived national service, but building Germany’s military up to what it had been was taking time. In the early months of 1938, Hitler was convinced to dismiss both his Minister of War Werner von Blomberg and his army chief Werner von Fritsch. Blomberg had remarried a woman with a dodgy past. Fritsch was removed on trumped up charges of homosexuality. Hitler now revealed his plans to tear up the post-war Treaty of Versailles which had removed 27,000 square miles of Germany’s territory and dictated the size and power of its army.
The army’s outrage at Fritsch’s departure led to the Third Reich’s first organised resistance movement. It centred on Colonel Hans Oster at the Abwehr or Military Intelligence; but it wasn’t just the atrocious treatment of Fritsch, it was Hitler’s military adventures that ruptured the alliance between the Nazis and the national conservatives. The army leaders did not think themselves ready to reclaim the lost regions parts of Germany let alone support Hitler’s more wide-reaching plans. The Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck believed the generals should resign en masse, although in the end, only he did. The crisis, on the other hand saw a coming together of military and civilian elements with a project to arrest Hitler which was only thwarted by Chamberlain’s flight to Munich.
The same plot, with a similar cast was revived the following year. Wise men realised that successful campaigns would diminish the chances of removing Hitler. The restoration of Germany’s pre-First World War frontiers, the merger with Austria and the rescue of the Sudeten Germans trapped in Czecho-Slovakia were not unpopular moves. The danger was more the kudos that Hitler would gain by shaking off the punitive clauses of the Peace Treaty. With this in mind, members of the German elite woke up to the need to prevent war, sending emissaries to Britain and the United States both to elicit support and to encourage both Chamberlain and Roosevelt to show sufficient muscle to make Hitler stand down. This was the origin of Adam von Trott’s meeting with Chamberlain in London in July 1939 and the abortive trip to Washington later that year when he was prevented from meeting Roosevelt.
The war went ahead. The Polish Campaign was short and sharp and allowed the Germans to restore their eastern borders. Behind the lines the SS killed Jews, priests, noblemen and intellectuals. There was anger in army high command, civilians exchanged shocked letters but nothing was done to bring them to book. Much worse for Hitler’s opponents was the stunning series of victories in the first half of 1940. After subduing the Danes and Norwegians, Hitler’s armies knocked out the Dutch, Belgians, French, British and Luxembourgeois in just six weeks and with minimal loss to themselves. Few people say this, but it is hard to find a comparable victory in ancient or modern history. Hitler’s opponents were aware that it would be impossible to incite a popular revolt while Germany basked in glory.
The ‘Siegfriede’ (the ‘peace of victory’) lasted a year before the Russian Campaign kicked off. It ran to ground after six months, and the subsequent war of attrition was a more favourable climate for resistance. It was here that Henning von Tresckow operated as chief General Staff officer attached to Army Group C. With his team of younger officers Tresckow was behind a whole series of bold attempts on Hitler’s life that were dogged by poor luck not to mention the Führer’s extraordinary sixth sense that seemed to keep him out of danger.
On the civilian front, the older opposition figures around the former Mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, were joined by the younger men of the Kreisau Circle. With time the Kreisauers led by Helmut James von Moltke numbered civil servants, diplomats, trade union leaders, socialist politicians and churchmen, both Protestant and Catholic. Their meetings set out to design a post-war Germany rather than plan Hitler’s death. By the end of 1943, Heydrich’s SD were able to break up the group of conspirators around the Abwehr, and very soon the net tightened yet again and more and more of Hitler’s opponents were arrested, including Moltke.
With little or nothing in the way of transport, constant disruptive bombing by the Allies not to mention the Gestapo and their narks poised to report on them, it wasn’t easy to plot against the regime. Those caught doing so were tortured and executed. Adam von Trott’s friend Peter Bielenberg once described to me the problems of communication in Germany during the war. From his base in Graudenz in West Prussia he needed to book a call early in the morning in order to speak to his wife Christabel in the Black Forrest late that night.
For soldiers planning a coup d’état, the problem was getting close enough to Hitler to kill him. He kept irregular hours, spent his time in his various bunkers or hidden from the masses among his court in Berchtesgaden. When Claus von Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin the autumn of 1943 he seemed to be the man to galvanise the various factions, young and old, but it was not until June 1944 that he was admitted to Hitler’s conferences as General Staff officer to General Friedrich Fromm commanding the Reserve Army.
Stauffenberg was an impressive figure but the injuries he had sustained in North Africa made him less than ideal to carry out the assassination: he had lost one eye, one hand and two fingers from the remaining one. His inability to prime both packets of explosive was just one of many reasons why the attempt on 20 July 1944 did not succeed. Nearly 5,000 people were executed in the wake of the plot, including ten percent of the General Staff. Given that fewer than 200 people had any real knowledge of the plan, The SD was clearly taking no chances: anyone with any connection to the opposition was liable to arrest, and possibly execution. The slaughter removed many great minds who would have contributed to post-war Germany.
Some would argue that the failure was for the best: had Hitler been killed, it would have given rise to the accusation that the opposition had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’. Germany, they say, needed to drink the cup down to the dregs. Had Hitler been removed in July 1944 and Germany lost the war, the resisters would have been seen as traitors who brought about the country’s downfall.
On the other hand Hitler’s crimes would have come to light, and it would have taken a considerable effort of will to explain them away. Redeeming the Germans has been linked to the recognition of these crimes. It has been very largely successful. In this post-war re-education, the story of the men and women who resisted Hitler from within has been a crucial factor in returning them to the pale of civilisation.
‘It’s Just France’
Posted: 26th February 2019
To borrow a word from French, for the past quarter century I go to a friend’s domain in Provence twice a year to ‘oxigenise’; spending a few days each time at an altitude of a thousand to fifteen hundred feet in full sight of Mont Ventoux and soaking up any sun that happens to be on offer. It is one of the most beautiful places I know and there is a magic moment at gloaming when the sun sets and the lights go on in the villages to the north: Caromb, Bédouin and Crillon-le-Brave, looking like little beads of pearls below the crimson sky.
In his kindly way, my host occasionally offers me a permanent position as a hermit on the estate. In return for lodging, I would keep a small number of hogs and chickens, and possibly a few goats with an eye to cheese. I would also be in charge of an ass, but the precise role of the ass has yet to be defined, other than providing manure for the vines, of course.
As an unabashed Francophile I am tempted. I first spent an extended period in Paris after leaving school in 1973, and after coming down from Oxford I was resident another six and a half years. I certainly couldn’t tell you how much time I have spent there since, but a great deal for certain, and that love of France has meant that both my children attended French schools and have both been brought up to speak French.
For that reason, perhaps, what pains France pains me. The country took the wrong direction I feel, all the way back in 1981 at the time when François Mitterand became president and pursued a policy of leading it towards a form of utopian socialism that could never be achieved except by destroying the French way of life. The thirty-five hour week was a disaster from which France has still to extricate itself. In the nearly thirty-five years since I left Paris, many things that I loved have disappeared, from many family restaurants and small shops, to the understanding of good quality and craftsmanship.
Just like Britain, France is seduced by the American model and risks losing its traditional way of life. With the exception of Paris, French people are generally even more inelegantly dressed than the British. People of all ages are getting fat, something that was unimaginable a generation ago. In the provinces the infrastructure has collapsed making it impossible to live without a car. People now have to take to their vehicles to stock up at supermarkets selling goods every bit as shoddy and mass-produced as the ones we have over here.
When the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement started up fourteen weeks back, I was sympathetic. I have experienced first hand the terrible disadvantages of living in la France profonde. They have made their point, however, and not only was the fuel tax scrapped but there was a significant increase made to the minimum wage. Since then they have reverted to a form of mindless thuggery like the sans-culottes of the Revolution: destroying public buildings and private property as well as beating up policemen for the sheer hell of it or to spite the President they elected with such enthusiasm not so many months ago. It seems les gilets jaunes have their right and left wings but the balance seems to be more to the right than the left, to the degree that the Front national led by Marine Le Pen seems to have disappeared from the political stage.
Still, I still feel a buzz when I go to France and these days it is a great deal easier. French technological advances in the seventies and eighties did that for us. Instead of an hour and a half on the Boat Train from Victoria, a choppy crossing on a ferry stinking of vomit and disinfectant, followed by over four hours from Calais to Paris, the journey has been reduced to two-and-a-quarter hours on Eurostar. On my biannual Provencal jaunts I meet my friends for lunch in a restaurant opposite the Gare de Lyon before getting on the TGV to Avignon. The journey takes another two-and-three-quarter hours, and there is even a connecting train to take you on to Carpentras. When I used to visit friends in Provence in the old days I’d travel overnight. On 1 November I left a cold wet Paris at ten or eleven and arrived in sunny Fréjus at seven the following morning.
The collapse of rural France is less striking in the south, but over a quarter of a century I have become aware of the changes around that sleepy little corner of the Ventoux. The only physical change has been the construction of three new council estates and an ancillary supermarket or two along the D942 between Carpentras and Mormoiron. Carpentras is the local ‘city’ which has fewer than 30,000 inhabitants. Its population is largely North African in origin, many of them ‘Harkis’ who fought for France during the struggle for independence in the Maghreb. Harkis and old white colonial ‘pieds noirs’ continue to live cheek by jowl: many pied noir farms and vineyards in the south of France are worked by harkis who also build North African style barbeques or méchouis on high days and holy days. In Carpentras, however, the North Africans look sadly alienated and severely idle.
In the time of the Comtat Venassain Carpentras was the banking capital of the Papacy and the Jews were allowed to settle there, hence the ancient synagogue that draws tourists to the city. The desecration of the Jewish cemetery in 1990 meant that the Jews and other middle-class Carpentrassiens moved out to more genteel towns such as Pernes and St Didier.
There are a couple of decent shopping streets in Carpentras and a big market on Friday that spills out of the car park into the local streets, but good restaurants struggle to survive as little goes on there after dark. The nearest conurbation to the domain is Mormoiron, a ‘village’ with around 2,000 inhabitants. Over the years I have seen the commercial side of Mormoiron evaporate. There is an apology for a market on Sunday morning. There were two bakers, two butchers and a grocer. One of the bakers has set up on selling in brought-in stock on the D942. The butchers have both gone. There is a new bar but a long-promised restaurant-cum-hotel has failed to materialise. The only really prospering business is Pascale the pharmacist, who in his spare time is an authority on Burgundian wine.
The population of Mazan is three times the size of Mormoiron. There are plenty of shops scattered along the line of its ancient walls but it too has lost something. The butcher closes down with alarming regularity but there is a decent meat counter in the small ‘U’ supermarket. Le Siècle, the friendly bar formerly run by Irish-educated Jerôme has been sold. Its former proprietor now spends half the year making wine in Argentina. There is a clutch of restaurants, including a cheerful long-established pizzeria occupying the vaults of the mediaeval hospital which is popular with the locals.
Recently we have explored Villes sur Auzon a bit more. It tends to fill up with elderly Dutch cyclists at certain times of the year who can be a shock to the system in their latex plus-twos and torsos plastered with advertisements, but there is a nice little cafe where we gathered the other day and watched the progress of the trials against Eric Drouot and the other sans-culottes of the gilet-jaune movement. The real attraction is the artisan baker who makes the best bread this side of Pernes and whose wares can be seen proving in the room next door. The other Friday she celebrated the local tradition by having puff pastry fish for sale, filled with brandade de morue: an emulsion of salt cod.
Otherwise the other local villages like Blauvac boast little more than a restaurant (with frequent changes of proprietor) or at best a baker (Malemort). The most exciting place for miles around is Pernes-les-Fontaines. Pernes somehow contrives to be quite stylish and there are a few antique shops, a wonderful baker with an ancient oven and a new seafood restaurant selling Irish crab! We go to Pernes chiefly for the Saturday market and stop for a coffee afterwards up by the river gate where one of the chief attractions is a pair of come-hitherish asses.
Places like sunny Pernes with its fountains and jolly market traders make you forget the decline of rural France, but sadly it is not often long before you are reminded of just how bloody the country can be. On Monday I returned to Avignon from my four-day stay to hear a four-hour delay announced on the TGV. The fact the train limped past such tourist attractions as the Côte-d’Or and the Rocher de Solutré was little compensation for missing my connection in Paris. I had to stand in a long queue under the Gare de Lyon to obtain a metro ticket and when I arrived at the machine found it accepted neither coins nor my debit card. A nice middle-aged woman obtained a ticket for me with a smile while I let off steam. Another woman who had been on the same train from Aix reassured me that it had not been Drouot and his sans-culottes who had destroyed the train, and that it was not the first time the line had been knocked out by power-failure either: ‘enfin Monsieur, il s’agit de la France!’ ‘It’s just France!’
Posted: 16th January 2019
Sometime after 1867, when Jews were accorded equal rights under the new Austro-Hungarian Constitution cum customs union, the cloth merchant Ludwig Zwieback arrived in Vienna from the little Hungarian town of Bonyhad to make his fortune. He worked as an agent, popping back and forth to Hungary while his wife, sometimes in Vienna, at others in Hungary, delivered their five children, expiring with the birth of their last, Ella in 1878. A year before Ella was born Ludwig and his brother Emmanuel founded the emporium Ludwig Zwieback & Brüder in the busy Mariahilferstrasse, the main route from the old centre of the city out to the new Westbahnhof Station and the old road to the royal summer palace at Schönbrunn.
The emporium was to be one of those new-fangled large spaces modelled on the department stores that had grown up in London and Paris, where customers could buy cloth or clothes. Later department stores expanded to sell a broader range of goods. The big store had become more and more a feature of Western towns and cities by the 1850s. Balzac wrote about them in César Birotteau (1837) and Zola included one in his collective portrait of the Second Empire with his novel Au Bonheur des dames of 1883. Ludwig ran his department store with his brothers for twenty years and branches appeared all over the Mariahilferstrasse, then he decided to go it alone.
In 1891 he opened a luxury business in the Palais Equitable opposite St Stephen’s Cathedral. This drew fire from the notorious antisemite Georg von Schönerer, one of Hitler’s seminal influences, who accused him of exploiting his workers. He was not there long. In 1895 he moved into a new building on the corner of the Kärntner Strasse and Weihburgasse: Vienna’s Bond Street. The eight-storey building by the Hungarian architect Friedrich Schön employed 187 staff while another 150 workers laboured in the attics and basement. It was distant enough from to the rag-trade corner of Vienna around the Judengasse.
Ludwig’s new store was going to be the grandest fashion house in the city. Comparisons were made with Liberty in London while later observers deemed it the most ‘Parisian’ of all Vienna’s department stores. In the ten years before his early death in 1906, Ludwig succeeded beyond all measure. He bought the old stock exchange in the Palais Arnstein in the Weihburggasse. He was made a Commercial Councillor to the Emperor and Zwiebacks was appointed a purveyor to the court. He died leaving a fortune of 2.3 million gold crowns to his three surviving children - together with a tidy sum to his mistress. He was one of the richest men in the city.
Ludwig divided the bulk of his estate up equally among his three daughters, but the youngest, Ella, was the favourite. Her husband, the jeweller Alexander Zirner, became the managing director of Zwiebacks and she played an important role in the administration. Her sisters Gisela and Malwida were silent partners. Ella took over, lock, stock and barrel when Alexander died in 1924. Their marriage had been on the rocks for some time and he had been living in the Imperial Hotel 150 metres from his wife’s city flat next door to the Bristol Hotel in the Ringstrasse.
Ella was certainly the most spirited and talented of the three girls. Gisela compliantly married another man from Bonyhad: Alexander Zirner’s elder brother - Marton Zirner, court jeweller both to the Habsburgs and the Shah of Persia and later President of the 190,000-strong Jewish Community. Malwida chose the lawyer Siegmund Kranz, the brother of Vienna’s Mr Big, Josef Kranz. She had a box at the opera and moved in Jewish high society from her palatial apartment in the Palais Leitenberger on the Ringstrasse. On the other hand Ella won first prize for piano at the Conservatory and left to her own devices she would have married Franz Schmidt, one of the best pianists of his day and the cellist who played the solos in the court orchestra whom she had met at music school. Ludwig wouldn’t hear of it: not only was Schmidt penniless, he was a Gentile.
Ella didn’t forget Schmidt, and after having two children in close succession by Alexander her third arrived six years later. Born in 1906, the year her father died, Ludwig Zirner was actually Schmidt’s son. Schmidt’s career had not stood still since he joined the Court Orchestra. His opera Notre Dame was finished that year and he made Ella a present of the score. Seven years later his Second Symphony was first performed. It was dedicated to Ella, who celebrated its triumph by commissioning a series of paintings by the painter Anselm Seligmann to decorate her music room on the Ringstrasse.
Although Ella never gave up the piano and performed at charity concerts in the twenties, she is chiefly remembered for her contribution to the visual arts. As a designer she became the queen of Viennese fashion, in the early days at least, she even modelled the clothes herself. As a result the Modehaus (fashion house) or Maison Zwieback became the best known source of fashionable ladies’ clothes in Austria. She also had her finger on the pulse of art nouveau Vienna. In 1906 she had the ground floor of the department store rebuilt to honour her late father. The architect she chose was Friedrich Ohmann, the man who had transformed the City Park and the embankments of the Wien River. Ohmann did a wonderful job. In 1922 he was called back to redesign the tea rooms. These have recently been restored to their former glory. They are the only one of the shop’s interiors to survive.
The First World War was the first big test for Zwieback as Austrians suffered from considerable hardship, even famine. In 1916, Friedrich Adler, a cousin of the Zirners, shot and killed the Prime Minister Graf Stürgkh as he ate his lunch in the Neue Markt. Ella’s nephew, the budding conductor and cavalry ensign Josef Zirner, was killed in the Bukovina. He died in the arms of his best friend George Fröschel, the Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter who wrote Waterloo Bridge, Random Harvest and Mrs Miniver. His widow, who later made her name as the feminist writer and Hollywood screenwriter Gina Kaus, moved in with her mother-in-law: Ella’s sister Gisela.
The widow Gina Zirner went to work in the court jeweller’s shop in the Graben. It was there that she met Josef Kranz, brother to Malwida’s husband Siegmund. Josef was still officially married (to another ‘Gisela’) but he wanted Gina to be his mistress, but she agreed only if he would adopt her as his daughter. The Zirner family, the curious relationship between Gina and Kranz and the merry dance she led him, was turned into the background for a novel called Die Schwestern Kleh (The Kleh Sisters/Her Sister’s Secret). The book was filmed twice: first as Conflit in Paris in 1938 and later as Her Sister’s Secret in Hollywood in 1946. Shortly after Gina moved in with Kranz, the banker was arraigned in the most sensational show trial of the war.
Gisela’s husband Marton Zirner died at the age of sixty in 1918, a victim of the Spanish Flu. When the war ended revolution was followed by economic collapse, but Ella held her own: Zwieback was still the height of fashion in the twenties. Not only did the ladies of high society go there to shop, they frequented the tea room, the restaurant and the American Bar. Ella was now seen on the arm of the royal painter Viktor Krausz, who painted at least two portraits of her and one of her son Ludwig in a sailor suit that became a popular postcard.
Ella added to her notoriety by her chairmanship of the women’s football club, her charity concerts and her clientele of titled ladies. She had a house in Mauer and an estate in Croatia where her guests were fetched from the station by a coach driven by a team of white horses. There were plans to build holiday accommodation for Zwieback workers on the estate. Zwieback’s pre-eminence is confirmed by Hugo Bettauer’s novel Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews) of 1924. The following year the book was made into a film. This time Zwieback became ‘Bisquit’ - a reference to the fact that in German ‘Zwieback’ means ‘rusk’. Bettauer describes the elegant store and the fastidious clientele. In the book Ella is forced to flee to Brussels and the place goes to the dogs. Instead of coming for fittings for beautiful creations by Ella, notably fat women come in to have their clothes taken out to accommodate their expanding girths.
All customers want is Tracht - ethnic costumes, and the smart restaurant is turned into a smoky beer cellar. The creator of this nightmare vision, Bettauer was shot and killed by a Nazi Party member in 1925. His prophecy was to become true when Vienna was declared ‘Judenrein’ (free of Jews) during the Third Reich.
It was in 1924 that Ella’s sister Malvida Kranz died. The whole family had converted to Catholicism twenty years before. Malwida was not lucky with her children either. The oldest boy Otto fought in the First World War. He became a drug addict and a paranoid schizophrenic and was in and out of the Otto Wagner’s magnificent psychiatric hospital Am Steinhof throughout the thirties. When the Nazis arrived they showed him no mercy and gassed him in Schloss Hartheim. The same fate awaited Franz Schmidt’s first wife Karoline, who also went insane.
The second boy Herbert was in a cavalry school at the end of the war. He went into business in Zagreb before emigrating to Argentina. Her most talented child was Erhard, who was a musical prodigy, going to Arnold Schoenberg for private lessons in Mödling from the age of fifteen. He was an organist and premiered a number of important avant-garde works in the twenties. In 1932 he got a shopgirl pregnant and a child was born secretly in Paris. The following year he disappeared off the face of the earth. Erhard was not the only member of the family to study with Schoenberg. Josef Kranz’s illegitimate son Hans Swarowsky went to the father of atonal music a year after his first cousin and later studied with Alban Berg.
A guidebook to Vienna published in 1927 made it clear ‘The lines and colours worn by the majority of Viennese women are actually designed by (Ella).’ The author praised Ella’s ambition and taste, but Ella’s world was shattered by the economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash and the failure of the Austrian Bodencreditanstalt bank. She took to her bed. Gisela had to close the court jeweller Zirner on the Graben and sell the Villa Zirner in Hietzing. The elegant Konditorei in the Weihburggasse was rented out to two count Palffys and a baron Sonjok or the ‘Three Hussars’ to create a restaurant that was to be Vienna’s finest off and on until it ceased trading a decade or so ago. Ella limped on by mortgaging the vast Palais Arnstein-Pereira to the city savings bank.
By the mid-thirties Ludwig had joined her at Zwiebacks. He was unaware of his paternity, and trained under his natural father at the Academy - as it had now become, and he its president. Ella would not allow Ludwig to become a musician. A newspaper article in a communist daily drew attention to the boy’s exploitation by his mother. Ella replied that he got twenty Schillings a day and free food. It was also admitted that he had to address his mother formally as ‘Sie’ when in the presence of employees. Ludwig only managed to become a musician once he had broken loose from his mother in New York.
The First World War, Inflation and the Wall Street Crash put paid to the other Zwieback operations and their successors in the Mariahilferstrasse, together with the Zwieback concessions in Budapest and Carlsbad, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Graz. Ella just about kept an even keel until the arrival of the Nazis on 13 March 1938. In April the new brooms decided that Jews could not own property any more. Ella was forced to sell to her creditors, while her tenant Paul Palffy at Zu den drei Husaren offered his successful business to Otto Horcher, the restaurant tsar of the Third Reich, who operated it until he took his entire chain to Madrid in 1943.
Ella was now the last of the Zwieback girls. Her sister Gisela expired in 1930, three years after her daughter Kati who died in childbirth above Simla in India. Kati’s child suffered from cerebral palsy. The boy was known as ‘Martin Ray’. He was quite incapable of even lifting his head. During the war he was shifted to a Jewish Collection House in the Second District to be taken to Auschwitz but expired before the transport was organised.
In 1938, Gisela’s youngest son Felix was able to procure travel documents and sailed to Bolivia via Chile. He left in September. On 9 November the synagogue opposite the Villa Zirner was gutted by fire in the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ - a pogrom against the Jews. For a short time Bolivia was receptive to Jewish refugees. Felix’s first cousin, Otto Braun was working with the Patiño family and the Bolivian ‘Schindler’ Moritz Hochschild to train Jews to become farmers. Felix’s weak heart prevented him from benefitting from the scheme. He died at the age of thirty-eight in 1943 in Cochabamba and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery there.
He might have been slightly luckier than his elder brother Walter, who was arrested and deported on the second Dachau transport in May 1938. From an overcrowded Dachau he was translated to the new camp at Buchenwald in September. After the communist Peter Forster’s escape and recapture, he and the other prisoners were forced to watch his execution on the Appellplatz on Christmas night1938. The men stood in the snow for twelve hours as a result of which Walter lost fingers and toes and ultimately a leg from frostbite.
His Protestant Bavarian wife divorced him, and he was released from Buchenwald that spring, possibly as a result of the amnesty that marked Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. He converted to Catholicism in the Augustinerkirche in Vienna, leaving for South America via Switzerland and taking the same perilous route that Gina had taken with her two children the previous March.
Ella left for France with Krausz, whose wife had committed suicide. The ‘compensation’ that Ella was given for the forced sale of her property was paid into a closed account that she could not touch. She got out in the nick of time and survived the war in New York by making fabric flowers. Ludwig left Europe before his mother, sailing in February 1939 from Cherbourg. Shortly before he left, SS officers called at his door and demanded the score of Schmidt’s Notre Dame. Ludwig fetched the music, but tore out the title page on which Schmidt had written an affectionate dedication to his mother. He never learned who had tipped off the SS.
Ludwig had managed Zwieback’s and found work in Orbach’s department store in New York until he joined the US army as a musician. He married the half-Viennese Jew, half-English Protestant Laura Wärndorfer, whose uncle Fritz Wärndorfer, the one-time owner of Klimt’s painting Pallas Athene. In 1902, Fritz had commissioned the Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design the music room of the Viennese apartment he shared with Laura’s father August. Later Mackintosh’s wife Margaret contributed a frieze. In 1903 Fritz created the Wiener Werkstätte in imitation of the Guild of Handicraft and the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.
As for Schmidt, his second wife Margarethe Jirasek, was an enthusiastic Nazi, which may have had some bearing on his decision to accept a commission from Austria’s new masters to write Eine Deutsche Aufersteheung (A German Revival): a hymn of praise to the Anschluss. Schmidt never finished the work. He died in February 1939. A commission from the one-armed Jewish pianist Paul Wittgenstein arrived at much the same time, and was acquitted. It is improbable that Schmidt’s heart was in the Nazi piece. He was aware he had a Jewish son.
In the main the Zwiebacks and the Zirners suffered less than many European Jewish families in the Second World War. Only one family group was almost wholly expunged, and those were the Budapest Zirners, the descendants of Marton’s brother Sigmund who ran the jewellery business in Vaci Utca. They fell victim to the Nazi razzia in 1944. Most were slaughtered in Auschwitz, others in more ad hoc massacres. Just one Zirner, Livia survived the ordeal.
In 1951, Ella successfully petitioned the municipal authorities in Vienna for the return of the Modehaus, but she failed to get back the Palais Arnstein or Zu den drei Husaren, which was the private dining room of the President of the Republic Karl Renner until 1950 when Otto Horcher (quite illegally) sold it to a Baron Födermeyer. In 1957 Ella cashed in the family shop for four million schillings and returned to New York. After the war he managed a coffee plantation in El Salvador, but he missed Vienna terribly, the music in particular. He made two visits to Europe: once in 1957, and the second in 1961. At the time of his death he was making plans to go home for good. After Krausz’s death Ella took lovers, right up to the time of her death at the age of ninety-two in 1970. The last of the Zwieback money was left to the ultimate fancy man, who dumped her body at the gates of a pauper’s morgue and disappeared. He has never been seen since.
Blog entries posted before 2019 can now be found in the Blog Archive.