Giles MacDonogh

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Blood and Bones in the Salient

Posted: 15th November 2017

I few days ago I made my maiden visit to Ypres. It was not my first time in the battlefields of the Western Front. Once returning from a trip to Bollinger on the Marne we took a detour and ended up looking at some restored trenches north of Rheims; then in 2014 I followed the route taken by the Irish Guards at the retreat from Mons down to the forest at Villers-Cotterêts where they were bloodied in battle, but the war was fluid in the last days of August 1914, Ypres was another matter altogether. There were five Battles of Ypres, and numerous other actions in a salient that covers a bare few square miles. There can be few parts of the world as soaked in gore as this.

We were delayed by a slight mishap at the Eurostar terminal in Brussels and darkest night had descended on Flanders by the time I reached my colleagues from Zeitgeist Tours in Ypres. The only chance of dinner was a chippie in Hooge. And so it was that the meal turned out to be the inevitable Belgian staple of ‘frites’ with mayonnaise and a tinny of Jupiler’s divine beer. To add insult to injury, the bar in the hotel had closed by the time we got back.

So the next day dawned before I was able to measure the enormity of sacrifice in the Ypres Salient. The first stop was the cemetery at ‘Hyde Park Corner’ and the circular monument to the missing at Ploegsteert by Harold Chalton Bradshaw across the road, with its rather wonderful lions carved by Gilbert Ledward. Rob Schäfer showed us the grave of the Bavarian Jew Max Seller, a German soldier buried alongside soldiers of the Royal Berkshires. It was Rob who successfully lobbied to have the Star of David carved onto his tombstone.

Our next stop was Hill 80 at Wytschaete. We were shown round by the archaeologist Simon Verdegem who did the preliminary digs at this observation point behind the German lines. Simon discovered that there was a veritable fortress lying just under the earth and is now trying to raise funds to continue the excavations. Any digging in the Salient will uncover the bodies of the ‘missing’ and Simon was able to identify a Canadian soldier in 2015, when he reconnoitred the site for the first time. Below us we could see the Bayernwald, where Adolf Hitler was awarded his Iron Cross (Second Class) in 1914. We went down to visit that too. The trench in the wood is maintained, and the entrance to the mineshaft leading under the enemy trenches was clear, even if it was filled with water.

It had begun to rain in a dreary sort of way, much as it must have done often during the war. We headed back to the Hooge Crater Museum and Cafe for lunch where Rob gave me a little guided tour. It is a spectacular if macabre collection of every aspect of the war, from medals and field equipment to shells, fuses and bullets. The display cases are crammed with material in the way that I used to enjoy at the Imperial War Museum, until that was emptied out of course and new touchy feely exhibits introduced in their place. Everywhere you look in the Salient, there are these sinister trophies pulled from the soil: fragments of Pickelhauben or tin hats, unexploded ordinance, bullets or rusting buckles and cap badges. There was a large collection of them behind glass in the corridors at our hotel the Kasteelhof 'T Hooghe nearby. Every now and then some smart Alec tries to take a live shell home with him on the Eurostar. Who needs Jihadis?

After lunch we went north in the direction of Langemarck. We stopped to look at a field of cabbages at St Julien. Simon Verdegem told us that he had recently been called in to supervise at the laying of a pipe through the Salient and some sixty bodies had been found. At a rough calculation that meant the area contained several thousand unburied soldiers who were occasionally ploughed up in the corn and potato fields we trudged over that day. We stopped at Ruisseau Farm, another small British Cemetery in Langemarck that commemorates a successful attack by the Guards Division on 8 October 1917.

For me at least, the high point of the day was the German cemetery at Langemarck. While the Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries with their central cross and neat rows of white stone slabs have a sort of silent majesty, Langemarck is clearly planned as an ‘experience’ that will move and humble the visitor all at once. There is controversy about the ‘Massacre of the Innocents at Langemarck’ (1st Battle of Ypres) and the National Socialists naturally exploited the story. It was said that German schoolboys have been cut down in swathes as they marched into battle singing Deutschland über alles against rapid fire of the British Expeditionary Force. Our ‘contemptible’ little riflemen had learned to shoot very quickly in the Boer War. It is not true that the soldiers were all seventeen year-olds, however, but around 3,000 graduates were killed, at a time when graduates were few and far between, even in Germany. Their old members’ associations have set up strange, beehive-like stones within the cemetery.

The German architect made use of extant pillboxes and fashioned the graveyard in the form of a fort or redoubt. You enter through a narrow aperture between blocks of red Weser sandstone. There are mature oaks and little clusters of three basalt Maltese crosses that resemble mushrooms. The over 44,000 dead are commemorated by simple polished slabs which list the known and the unknown presumably in the sequence their bodies were brought in from the field. They read like shopping lists; ‘Corporal Fritz Schulz... 3 unknown soldiers, Lieutenant Georg Zimmermann, 4 unknown soldiers...’ We were shown a film of Hitler visiting the cemetery in May 1940, soon after the start of the War in the West. Since then some things have been moved about, such as the four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger and the famous epitaph from the poem by Heinrich Lersch: „Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben müssen!“.

Rob reminded me that I had translated the poem, but I had all but forgotten. In the end David Alton read it out. I was strangely moved:

Let me go mother, let me go,
Stop this crying, can't you understand
That we're off to defend the Fatherland.
Let me go mother, let me go,
A last kiss from your lips and a final sigh,
Germany must live even if we should die.

We are free father, we are free,
Deep in our bosoms beats a German heart.
Were we not free we could not depart.
We are free father, we are free,
Amid a storm of bullets you did yourself once cry
Germany must live even if we should die.

Calm yourself sweetheart, calm yourself.
Now I go to fall in with my squad
You should not marry a cowardly sod.
Calm yourself sweetheart, calm yourself,
If our joy be tinged with grief by and by
Germany must live even if we should die.

Now fare thee well friends, fare thee well,
If we should, for you and our future, fall
This shall be our last to you resounding call.
Now fare thee well friends, fare thee well,
A freeborn German knows the reason why:
Germany must live even if we should die.

I made a mental note to tidy up the third verse.

It had turned cold and wet again, but in places there was a dramatic sunset. We took a scenic route back to Hooge, passing the Canadian monument to the first ever gas attack, and an impressive Belgian cemetery where the gates were flanked by grieving mothers. Another British graveyard featured a tall obelisk and by the roadside near our hotel there were two graves pertaining to British Guards’ officers whose shattered bodies were thought to be somewhere in the field behind.

It was not long before we gravitated towards the hotel bar. By Jupiler I needed a beer.

Aunt Ella’s Big Store

Posted: 15th September 2017

On my recent trip to Austria I was able to carve off a few hours to visit the exhibition in the Jewish Museum in the Dorotheergasse in Vienna: Kauft bei den Juden! - ‘Buy from the Jews!’ The significance of the show for me was that one of the dozen or so department stores under examination was Modehaus Zwieback or Maison Zwieback founded by my great-great grandfather, Ludwig Zwieback in 1877. Ludwig had three daughters. After his sudden death in 1906, two of them remained silent partners in the firm while the business was carried on by Ludwig’s youngest, Ella Zirner until 1938, when like all the other department stores it was sequestered by the Nazis. Ella herself escaped to New York, where she died at the age of 91 in 1970.

Zwieback may not have been the largest of the department stores, that might have been Gerngross or Herzmansky, but it is often compared to Liberty’s in London, in that it was famous for its fabrics and Ella was a great fashion designer who also trained the next generation of Austrian modistes who flourished after the Second World War; the most famous of them being Fred Adelmüller. Ella had won first prize for piano at the Conservatoire and might have made a career of it had it not been for the fact her father had wanted her to run the firm. Later she behaved in exactly the same way towards her own son Ludwig, who wanted nothing more than to play the piano.

There were a number of Ella’s designs in the exhibition as well as some actual clothes. These include a mid-nineteenth century family wedding dress that my mother had donated to the museum. Possibly I am imagining things, but I have some memory of this little cloth of gold costume, which I don’t think was much respected by us children. It is in a safer place now. I looked carefully, despite scrupulous restoration there are still some suspicious stains on it.

Ella had a wild love life for a woman of her time. She was married within a tight family circle to my great-grandfather’s brother Alexander Zirner, and had two children by him. Her third child, Ludwig, was not Alexander’s. He was the son of her great love, the composer Franz Schmidt, a man Ludwig resembled - as the French say - ‘comme deux gouttes d’eau.’ The story goes that Schmidt had wanted to marry Ella but her father didn’t approve of a poor musician and a Gentile to boot. Schmidt later dedicated his Second Symphony to Ella and she had the text of his opera Notre Dame until it was impounded by the Gestapo: the Nazis thought very highly of Franz Schmidt. Their child, Ludwig Zirner studied under his natural father and in exile he finally had his chance to strike off his mother’s fetters and became professor of music at the state university of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He created the school of opera there and was one of the luminaries of the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts.

When Ella’s affair with Schmidt came to an end, she became the lover of the portrait painter Wilhelm Viktor Krausz. Apart from a great many photographs of Ella, there is a nice portrait of her in a blue dress in the exhibition, property of Ella’s grandson, my cousin the actor August Zirner. In another exhibit in the Zwieback room, Augi reads a description of Modehaus Zwieback from Hugo Bettauer’s novel Stadt ohne Juden - City Without Jews - of 1924. In the book, Bettauer imagined the disaster that would ensue if Vienna were to expel its Jews, something that it more or less did after 1938. Krausz’s painting looks unfinished, but he was hit-or-miss as a painter. The most famous portrait he made of Ella, Die Dame mit Rosen (lady with roses) has been lost since the war. Ella fled on Krausz’s arm shortly before the Germans crashed into France in May 1940. There is an ominous photograph in the exhibition of Modehaus Zwieback draped with swastikas.

I learned a few things about Ella that I had not known before, such as the fact she was the head of the Viennese Women’s Football Club! I also discovered that Ella was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1930 when the newspapers reported that she had taken to her bed. This is significant because it was the year in which her sister Gisela - my great-grandmother - had to sell her villa in Hietzing and my grandfather and his elder brother were more or less obliged to set up their own jewellery business as the Zirner firm - by appointment to the Emperor of Austria and the Shah of Persia - went belly up. In the exhibition there is an identity card belonging to my grandfather Felix Zirner showing that he was working as a rep for Ella.

There was also a picture of one of Ella’s models in 1910 who joined the Nazi Party illegally in 1930 and helped herself to Jewish property after 1938 - a common enough story. What was not so often the case was the fact that she got her come-uppance and was imprisoned after 1945. Ella came back after the war to see if she could get her department store back. For half a dozen years between 1951 and 1957, Modehaus Zwieback functioned again. Then she sold it and went back to New York and her lovers.

Another exhibit that comes from Augi is a spoon from the luxurious cafe that was inside the department store. After I left the exhibition I went to the Weihburggasse to see what was happening to that very cafe, which was once the restaurant, Zu den drei Husaren, one of the most famous in Europe and a firm favourite of the Duke of Windsor when he was Prince of Wales.

To my joy the doors were open and I pushed past a few Polish workers to have a look at the progress of the restoration: they were putting back the interiors they had found - the work of Friedrich Ohmann, author of the Stadtpark, and the monument to the Empress Sissy among other things; although this interior was comparatively late Ohmann - circa 1920 - he had also designed the now vanished facade of the shop in 1906. The banquettes were already in place. There was a wonderful small room with coloured glass and decorative pilasters each of which had been emblazoned with a Z for Zwieback. I met the architect who was happy to talk to me. He even invited me to the launch of the new cafe, which is due to open in the middle of October.

The exhibition runs until 19 November. There is an excellent catalogue in German and English by Astrid Peterle.

The First German Refugee Problem

Posted: 17th July 2017

Traditionally Germany's Protestants live in the north and east, and Catholics in the south and west. The percentages used to be roughly 60:40 in favour of Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists), but now there are marginally more declared Catholics than Evangelicals as forty percent of Germans make no claim to religion at all. Attitudes in Germany's regions are said to be typical: Bavarians think like Bavarians, Saxons Saxons, Mecklenburgers Mecklenburgers ('typisch bayrisch, typisch sächsisch, typisch mecklenburgisch...' etc.) and their religion will also play a part in that profile - in Catholic Bavaria in particular. Such attitudes, however, ignore the massive demographic changes wrought in 1945, when Germany was shrunk to fit into the borders dictated at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam.

Beginning that year, some 16.5 million Germans trekked back towards the remaining rump of the Fatherland, and those who survived the journey were settled wherever local authorities could find a space. That was almost always in some under-populated rural area, such as Schleswig-Holstein, where many refugees from the Prussian east found new homes. The German countryside can be deceptive as a result. Franconia is the northernmost province of the Free State of Bavaria. It was originally a collection of small secular and Church principalities and it was only tacked on to the Kingdom of the Wittelsbachs in 1806 when Napoleon Bonaparte saw fit to collapse the Holy Roman Empire. It doesn't feel very Bavarian, indeed, half of it is Protestant. There is Wine Franconia to the west and Beer Franconia to the east. People say the natives are rude and nasty, but my experience has been precisely the opposite and when I used to seek solitude eating alone in lovely Bamberg, people always went out their ways to find out where I came from or offer me a drink. As the eastern part of Franconia borders on the Czech Republic, many German-speaking Bohemians ended up settling there after the war. The reputable Bamberg Philharmonic orchestra was entirely created by musicians from the Prague-based German Philharmonic Orchestra after 1945.

A couple of decades ago I stayed in Pflaums Post Hotel in Pegnitz in Franconia. The atmosphere at Pflaums (now sadly no more) could only be described as 'high camp'. Bayreuth was only ten or fifteen minutes away and many of the leading lights of opera stayed in its suites, where there was piped Wagner and huge screens that allowed you to relax to videos of Lohengrin or Parsifal while you sprawled on Brobdingnagian beds. I was told that Luciano Pavarotti had been the first man to sleep in mine. I was surprised that the springs had survived. At some stage a door mysteriously unlocked in my bedroom and I found myself wandering through all the neighbouring suites. Each was individually decorated in the same lavish, operatic style.

When the atmosphere became too much for me I went out to explore the little town, which in its tranquillity contrasted starkly with life at the hotel. There didn't seem to be much going on, but I dimly remember a pub. I popped into a church and read the notices outside. At that moment I realised everything had been written in an unfamiliar dialect: this part of Pegnitz had become a refuge for Upper Silesians after the war, and the parish notices were written in 'Wasserpölnisch', a German-Polish patois common to the eastern borderlands before they fell to Poland in 1945. Now these Upper Silesians in Pegnitz were trying assiduously to keep the language alive. They were the ones who got away, of course: nearly half a million Upper Silesians had been isolated in their region after the war, chiefly when the 'opted' for Poland rather than Germany. The Poles liked to see Catholic Upper Silesians as their own people, and many were culturally both Polish and German in a way that few people in largely Protestant Lower Silesia were. The reason why so many German-speakers had 'opted' for Polish citizenship was that it was perceived as a means of stopping the nightly rapes and violence to which the others had been subjected who wanted to remain German. It also meant that they were not expelled from their homes and driven across the Oder-Neiße Line.

Before the German-Polish treaty of friendship of 1991, the remaining Germans in Upper Silesia experienced persecution by the Polish authorities and the German language was as good as banned. I was in Opole, the former town of Oppeln, in 1992 and met a woman who offered to pray for my soul if I gave her DM 10. The money also paid for a fairly vivid description of what life had been like for Germans in Upper Silesia since the late forties. Although Poles learned German in order to get better jobs on leaving school, her own children were discouraged from speaking German for fear of being beaten up by the police, and places in higher education - she said - were not open to them. When Poland's relations with Germany were normalised, and above all when Poland joined the EEC, young Upper Silesian Germans could find full or part-time work in Germany, even when they spoke next to no German. Friends of mine in the Mosel Valley, for example, employed them in their vineyards for the semester lasting from budburst to harvest. The rest of the year they could live on their fat at home.

Some Upper Silesians simply moved to Germany after 1989. The woman I met in Opole referred to it quaintly as 'das Reich' - or 'the Empire'. This was an unconscious allusion to Hitler's policy of 'Heim ins Reich' ('home in the Reich') which was meant to bring alienated ethnic Germans back into their own racial territory. Hitler had used it selectively, generally to get Germans out of the Soviet sphere of influence before launching Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union or to please Mussolini when he yielded up the South Tyrol and parts of German-speaking Jugoslavia in exchange for Italian support in the Mediterranean. The West German government echoed this policy when it sought to alleviate the various persecutions that took place after 1945 in Romania, Hungary, Jugoslavia and Poland.

This persecution was particularly acute in Ceausescu's Romania and many of the so-called Siebenbürger Deutsche, or 'Saxons' tried to escape to the West. Large numbers had disappeared into Soviet Russia at the end of the War. They were driven from their villages and their houses were plundered. In 1976 the Federal Republic agreed to buy the remainder out on the same basis that they acquired other Germans from across the Iron Curtain:  Romania charged around DM 10,000 for adults, 6,000 for OAPS and 4,000 for children to release them. Before 1989, some 240,000 Germans had already left, but the exodus began anew after 1990 when another 159,000 headed west, lured by the promise of creature comforts and mod cons. Laws compensating the Saxons for stolen property have been issued since, but the damage has been done. When you go to Transylvania today it is bitter-sweet to see villages and towns announced in three languages (Romanian, Hungarian and German), but the simple truth is that the birds have very largely flown. The policy had a largely detrimental effect in destroying the last vestiges of an ancient German community: there are around 15,000 Siebenbürger Deutsche left now.

I made my first journey to Transylvania in 1990 and witnessed something of the end of that Teutonic culture. We visited one of the beautiful Kirchenbürgen (fortified churches) between Brasov (Kronstadt) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt). I saw an obvious 'Saxon' girl sweeping a porch and greeted her with 'grüß Gott!' Without lifting her head from her work she replied with the same. The probability is that she and her family have left too. There are, however, some striking reminders, particularly in the lovely city of Sibiu or Hermannstadt, which is the political seat of the remarkable Klaus Iohannis or Johannis who became President of Romania in 2014. Iohannis is a former physics master who taught at the Samuel von Brukenthal Gymnasium in Sibiu before he entered politics as President of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. He became mayor of his home town in 2000. Sibiu is still the most German city in Transylvania, with its vast mediaeval Lutheran Church (services in German) and the Gymnasium where Iohannis taught is the most famous German-language school in the country. Sibiu is also the home of the Schiller Verlag, the most prominent German-language publisher in Romania. Iohannes' parents, did not stay in Romania long enough to witness their son's success: both had already taken the German shilling and emigrated to Würzburg in the Federal Republic. 

A year before my meeting with the woman in Opole, I had encountered a Prussian in Malbork, the former Marienburg, home to the magnificent red brick castle of the Teutonic Knights. I actually met him on the train crossing the Vistula. We had been watching one another for some time. He was a man in his sixties, accompanied by an obvious granddaughter who was playing with his Polish passport. He seemed interested in my book, a history of modern Danzig/Gdansk, which had a large swastika on the cover. When I got up to photograph the castle from the corridor he followed me out and addressed me in German. He had been in the SS, he told me, was captured and held as a POW in Britain. They let him go in 1947, but he determined to return to his West Prussian Heimat. Most of his family and friends had already been killed or deported, but he kept his head down and worked on the railways. He didn't want to be called Prussian - he was German - he said. Now he was retired and he was going to go to Germany, where he had been informed they would settle him in a nice modern flat.

He informed me there was a concentration of 'autochtones' in Olstyn, the former Allenstein, in the Masurian Lakes. Later in the same trip in went there for a few days and hung around the little Evangelical church until I was bearded by the pastor, a Pole who spoke fluent German. He confirmed what the SS-man had told me, adding that there were still around 200 families living in isolated farmhouses. They worshipped in his church on Sundays and were buried under the altar so as to avoid exciting too much attention from the Poles who had cleared away the tombstones around the church because they attested to the fact that Olstyn had once been a purely German town. I assume most of these 'autochtones' have now followed the SS-man back to the 'Reich'.

I don't know how many of these pockets of 'Deutschtum' still exist. The largest conglomeration of displaced Germans would be the Volga Germans in Russia. There are certainly people in Jugoslavia and the Czech Republic whose Teutonic origins are betrayed by their Germanic names, but in reality they have probably long since ceased to think of themselves as Germans. Besides Poland and Romania, only in Hungary are there still concentrations of people who went through difficult times before 1989 and who were reluctant to speak German outside their homes. Today, these German-speaking Danube 'Schwaben,' descendants of planters imported by the Empress Maria Theresa, make the country's best red wine in Villány - or indeed 'Wieland,' as they might call it in their unguarded moments.

The Island of Great Britain

Posted: 19th June 2017

In this second part of my examination of Brexit Britain I go on a bus tour to look at the country's fabric.

Oxford is magnificent. The Radcliffe Camera is not only one of the half dozen greatest buildings in Britain - it is in the top European league. The Radcliffe Square that frames it is an astonishing collection of architecture constructed from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries: St Mary's church, All Souls old and Hawksmoor, the front quad at Brasenose, the Old Schools and the Bodleian all hugger-mugger in a maze of Headington-stone-built quadrangles; and yet, if you never strayed east of Carfax or the Cornmarket, you would be forgiven from feeling that there was little to choose between Oxford and any number of provincial British cities: gimcrack 1960s shopping centres and covered malls of a more recent date, amid a few sad relics of a more ancient and more distinguished past. And in the malls and the shopping centres, the same miserable brands, the same ugly names, the same domination of philistine cupidity.

Oxford is the gateway to the Cotswolds. The sleek hills with their honey-coloured oolitic limestone cottages, it has to be said, are chiefly a delight. Our bus came to a halt in Bladon to visit a very modest, largely nineteenth century church, but the passengers wanted to admire the very unspectacular tomb of Winston Churchill. Burford was the real stop. It is a small town that is hard to fault from its Priory, former epicentre of the so-called Cotswold Set with its many grisly characters (Blair, Cameron and their oily acolytes) to the wonderful church of St John the Baptist and all the land in between. In the 15th century spandrels of a pub I found a barrel, a sign that beer had been dispensed there for five hundred years, a fabulous baroque mansion opposite had suffered the horrible fate of being converted into a Methodist chapel in 1842. Now the nonconformist churches have perished in their turn: we have no other God but mammon.

There may have been no branches of Tesco or Next in Burford, but there were plenty of twee tea rooms and antique shops. The interiors of most of the buildings had been wrecked at ground floor level at least, victims of strip lighting and modern display units. Unless you slap a Grade One listing on them, the owners are free to destroy. We proceeded to the Doubletree at Charlton Kings on the outskirts of Cheltenham. It was alleged that somewhere at its heart was an old house, but there was little hope of finding any traces of it under the layers of gaudy renovation. I think soldiers were stationed there during the war - the usual kiss of death. There was a curious hum in my closet-sized bedroom: it was like sleeping on a boat.

Next day we went to Bath via Cirencester and Tetbury. The latter looked pleasantly unspoiled. The rape of Bath took place in the sixties and seventies when the civic fathers decided it was necessary to abandon the lower town to modern commercial development. Now they can boast - as they can at Oxford or Chester or York - that they have all the same shops as everywhere else.  Still, the barbarism is fairly localised and it is easy enough to climb to Queen Square or the Royal Circus to find relief from the monstrosities that rub shoulders with the Abbey below. One eyesore is at least seventy years older than the brutal excrescences of Stall Street, and that is the Empire Hotel - a quite spectacularly insensitive building and still the tallest in the city centre. It is no longer an hotel.

Most of Bath is beautifully maintained, but Cheltenham, of which we had a tantalising glimpse the next day, has suffered a horrible decline. I suspect the retired colonels that used to make up the mainstay of its population have given up their ghosts, and that the denizens of GCHQ are rather less vociferous in their defence of the old fabric. There are clearly still lovely bits, but almost every terrace, crescent or square seems to have been marred by a later addition that pays no attention to its stylistic environment.

On the bus, the speed of our motions was dictated by ancient bladders. We needed to stop every ninety minutes to two hours. Motorway service stations became therefore an important feature. The only view we had of the famous iron bridge at Coalbrookdale, was a colour picture above a fast food outlet. Shropshire, home of the 'Lad' was just the motorway to Wales; and yet, once we had crossed the border we had a real landscape with steep hills and fast flowing rivers. Llangollen was anticlimactic, but still there was an old bridge, a pretty railway station, a few antique shops by an interesting church and mercifully few chain shops.

It became dark and stormy, rain pelted down and water spouted from crags. The few farmhouses and villages along the road were all made of slate and glistened darkly, ewes huddled with their lambs against drystone walls. We overshot Carnavon and crossed to Anglesey to go to Llanfair, but the real destination was a big Pringle outlet with bargains and reductions; a huge bazaar in the middle of a bogus Welsh village. At least I got the chance to see the Menai Bridge and the statue of the legless Marquess of Anglesey on the way back.

It continued cold and wet. A narrow gauge railway journey in a steam train proved surprisingly gripping and on the way to the station we saw the plain little house where T E Lawrence was born in Tremadog, a village laid out around the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Lawrence's birth and upbringing were eccentric by any standards. I suppose it was hardly surprising that he became such a very odd man. In the course of the day we visited Portmeirion and an old slate works. In our sixth form The Prisoner was quite a cult, with a stony-faced Patrick McGoohan fighting against his Kafkaesque destiny in Portmeirion, but later I learned that the architect Clough Williams-Ellis had a rather bold conception and actually imported a number of threatened monuments to give them a home in this really stunning bay. After the usual sub-standard hotel lunch in the hotel I saw there was a Florentine (?) fireplace incorporated into the place and wondered just how many similar gems Williams-Ellis had rescued.

The slate works was - like the railway - surprisingly interesting. Compared to the miners of the south, we hear little of these slate miners, and yet their lives were equally grim. I thought of Kropa in Slovenia, where I went once with my friend Janez Fajfar, then manager of the Vila Bled hotel, and now Bled's mayor. The people of Kropa made hobnails for the Venetian, later Austrian navy, working in the dark for half the year because of the depth of the valley. Janez produced a lovely simile, evoking them 'creeping out like crocodiles' to bask in the sun at that moment in April or May when light entered the valley for the first time. 

I have written about Carnavon recently. The Castle and the town walls are impressive and it has been pointed out to me that with their bands of variegated stone they were modelled on the walls of Constantinople as witnessed by English soldiers at the time of the 1204 Sack. There is a story told locally that the building of the new Marina deprived the town of its World's Heritage Site status. The Marina was doubtless meant both to modernise and provide facilities for young people, but it has had the benefit of keeping the big supermarkets away from the centre.  Apart from the Castle, however, and a certain quiet charm within the town walls, there is very little distinguished building to be seen.

There were plenty of boarding houses. I was fascinated by the way that the working people of the middle and north of England had developed the Welsh coast from the mid-nineteenth century: a week on the sands, staying in a boarding house; tea, bread and butter, fish and chips and rock.  There are actually quite a lot of pretty sandy beaches on the north Welsh Coast. We drove through Conway. It is a more warlike apparition than Carnavon. And within the walled town there were even Mediaeval buildings, largely lacking in the other place. Our destination was Chester. I had not been there since my teens. It was one of those moments now invariably described as an 'epiphany': I discovered the neoclassical architect Thomas Harrison. I was working on my written paper for Art History A-Level at the time, and he figured largely in my text. A few years later, Howard Colvin approved my suggestion that I should write my DPhil on the subject. I remember standing with him in his rooms at St John's, as he went through his card index to see if anyone had written anything substantial on him before. It transpired the field was wide open.  

In one way Chester had improved: the hideous police station that had necessitated the piercing of the ancient walls, and which was seated opposite Harrison's Chester Castle ensemble, was no longer there. In its place was a marginally superior circular hotel building. Elsewhere destruction had run rampant; any non-listed building behind the Rows had been torn down and replaced by a Lego blocks. Within the Rows themselves almost all the interiors had been torn out for strip lighting and branded interiors. Chester was at its worst opposite the Cathedral by the Town Hall, where a mall has been constructed with a covered market. All the surviving structures have been blighted. I had one redeeming experience for all that. I was standing outside 12 Bridge Street looking into the basement of a sports' shoe shop when I spied a 13th Century arch. Accompanied by one of my Americans I stormed in: behind the arch were six bays of a 13th century vaulted chapel. Between the columns Perspex shelves had been arranged to display plimsolls.

York was more familiar to me, there is plenty that is delightful, but I was appalled by the march of the branded barbarians for all that, who have more or less seized the entire centre of the city turning most of the Mediaeval churches into cafés and bars.  The same Lego blocks had taken the place of any unlisted buildings. As far as I could see the most disgraceful building in the city was Tesco in Goodramgate: a series of depressed concrete arches surmounted by a storey of bricks and a few more concrete arches and placed smack opposite a well-preserved terrace of 14th century shops, and just round the corner from the mega-touristy Shambles.

Hats off, however, to the volunteer guides at the Minster who were a revelation (or epiphany, if you prefer). From York we had an outing to Whitby and Castle Howard. I shivered at the Abbey, but took heart at St Mary's Church, where the chief delight was perhaps not the Romanesque detail, but its wholly preserved eighteenth century interior complete with triple-decker pulpit and box pews. Whitby has been a tourist town for donkey's years, attracting trippers from the collieries who came to buy the local jet and eat fish and chips. Castle Howard is in a sorry state after its various fires and many of the buildings - including the Mausoleum - are dilapidated - but Vanbrugh and his great flourishes of English baroque are always a tonic, no matter how grey the skies.

The next day we passed through Harrogate, which was another pleasant surprise. The northern spa town was in much better nick than Cheltenham. I regretted never taking up my invitation to visit the Food Festival issued by a charming Chinese restaurant proprietress I met in Vienna. There was a lavatory stop at Bolton Priory before we crossed the Pennines. The rest of the day in the Lake District exposed me to the tourist burg of Bowness-in-Windermere: more of the same - brands and shopping opportunities, huge prices for old tat and huge crowds ready to buy it.

There were many firsts on this trip: my first visit to the Roman Baths in Bath, first time at Stonehenge and Avebury Stones (which involved driving straight through Marlborough College) and my first sight of Hadrian's Wall. I wanted to see Lanercost Priory, but that was ruled out by the paucity of, or poor quality of the lavatories. We went to Gretna instead, where there were further opportunities for shopping. Moffat seemed a nice little spa town, but the waters have long since dried up and the pump house has become a bank.

I don't associate Edinburgh with philistinism and my three or four nights there was a pleasant enough break. The university takes up a huge amount of the old city, but that does not seem to result in any better facilities, there was a dire shortage of cheap restaurants. On one of my excursions to Leith Walk I saw a seamless demolition: John Lewis was being torn down while simultaneously a new branch was being put up. The shop remained open throughout! A direct descendant of Robert Adam took us on a tour of the city, and as a result of her advice I popped into see the old Scottish Parliament with its great hammerbeam roof and portraits hidden behind the Georgian facades of the high court near St Giles's Kirk. We did a perfunctory tour of the New Town, which had been embellished by her ancestor, and ended up at Edinburgh Castle, where I had another 'first' when I passed the portals and looked around the many military museums inside. The next day I was required to visit the Royal Yacht, but that afternoon I managed a couple of hours in the National Gallery and saw the Raphaels upstairs, and the Buccleuch Leonardo for the first time.

After a short break, my trip continued to Inverness. My sister was born in a home for unmarried mothers in Pitlochry and I used imagine it as a collection of smoking chimneys from my mother's (she was actually married at the time) description of it. It is of course nothing of the sort. It is a spa town, and although I spied no branches of Costa or Prêt-à-Manger, it doesn't look so very different to Bowness. We were coming into the Scotland I plied year in, year out as a whisky writer. We headed up through the Cairngorms to the Spey, passing Dalwhinnie and coasting past a few more places where I used to check the stills and sample the drams. Inverness, however, I knew only as a way of crossing the Moray Firth, and you don't need to go into town to do that.

I had missed little. The capital of the Highlands has been more cruelly treated than the Highlanders after Culloden. There were a few good, large houses on the Old Edinburgh Road, but almost everything of any historical value in the centre has been butchered. The city was filthy and depressed with the possible exception of the other side of the River Ness, where there were some baronial hotels. The ground floor had been ripped out of the Customs and Excise building in Bridge Street and a Georgian church shorn of its nave. Only around the kirk was a little clutch of seventeenth century buildings that were reasonably well preserved. That was where I found Leakey's: an excellent second-hand bookshop housed in a former chapel. What should have been a lovely railway station had been mauled, while a shopping estate had taken up all the space to the south. And yet, people were cheerful enough and I noted plenty of young people, almost all of whom were speaking Romanian or Polish.

Why should I be surprised at the desolation I had seen? The British provinces were always a cultural backwater. I had believed that the reason for creating universities in cathedral cities in the sixties was to adjust the cultural balance in places that had been all too ready to bulldoze their historic centres after the war. In this they had been far more efficient than the Luftwaffe. In the long run, however, the presence of cultural institutions seems to have made little difference. It is not just true of Britain, Britain just had less to lose. Paris retains its sophistication, style, its small shops and street life, but much of provincial France is stone dead. Friends from out of town tell me London is a 'bubble' (another word currently in vogue) and that we (fifteen percent?) of the population fail to appreciate the legitimate grumbles of the rest - those who inhabit the moribund, soulless cultural desert that is prey to Brexit here and the National Front across the way.

The cultural aspects of Brexit have been very largely ignored, but it is not necessarily the possession or lack of money or opportunity that segregates us. The shops and malls of provincial Britain are full enough; they are well stocked with the right brands, the right soma. The people in their track suits and baseball caps look anything but undernourished. There is no semblance of the dire situation of the Thirties. They are looking for another model that is far from our continent, one that is closer to the American model. Europe means nothing to them and they resent having to understand a foreign political culture when they hardly know their own.


Posted: 10th May 2017

There was a clue in the History Today crossword puzzle this month that had the family stumped: 'According to Churchill, the southern terminus of the 'Iron Curtain' (7).' The penny finally dropped, but not before a great many other cities were pencilled into the space. It was Trieste of course, which between 1945 and 1954, went through many of the same experiences that bedevilled Berlin and Vienna, but unlike those cool northern capitals, Trieste was a seaport basking in the Mediterranean sun.

One of the reasons it took the penny so long to drop was, to my chagrin, that I have never been to Trieste: the great Austrian seaport grafted onto the roots of an ancient Italian city in the second half of the nineteenth century; or indeed to old resorts such as Pola and Abbatia on the Dalmatian Littoral where my family would have once spent their holidays away from Vienna and the suffocating Föhn wind. They were all outposts of the Venetian Empire that was subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian as one civilisation waned and another waxed. 

Trieste also lay on a cultural fault-line between an Italian world and a Slavic one. The development of the port and docks created a need for labour which attracted workers from the east, making Trieste a cosmopolitan city. After the First World War the Italians and the new 'South Slav' state of Yugoslavia both laid claims to it. As it had been one of the bribes offered to Italy to change sides in 1915, the Slavs were going to be disappointed. In 1945, however, it was not going to be so easy. The Western Allies collided with Tito's forces as they claimed the city and Tito had been making the running for them in the Balkans. As the hot war became a cold one the 'Morgan Line' was imposed and the city was divvied up between a chiefly Italian Zone A in the centre, run by the British and the Americans, and a Yugoslav Zone B in the industrial suburbs to the east. The line cut families and lands in two. Even after the final treaty was signed in 1954, there were still properties split in this way: the excellent Slovenian wine estate of Movia, for example, like many others, had vines in Italian Collio and needed to cross the border to tend them. Other producers sold their grapes to Italians for dollars.

The Cold War in Trieste is the subject of Christian Jennings' new book, which has tumbled out only a few months after his book on the Gothic Line and in some respects is a sequel, as once the Allies had broken through the German defences, it was full steam ahead to stop the Communists taking Trieste. Britain's decision to get into bed with Stalin in 1941 had been risky. It was possibly the only way to defeat the Nazis, but it would inevitably result in bringing the Bolsheviks into Central Europe.  Seeing the possibility of the Americans abandoning them while they went off in pursuit of the Japanese in the Pacific, the British toyed with 'Operation Unthinkable', a plan that foresaw continuing the war against the Soviet Union and its Yugoslav allies, if needs be turning the demobbed and disarmed German enemy into soldiers once again to fight alongside them.

Trieste makes a good subject, and there are hosts of interesting characters to explore, including Colonel Peter Wilkinson of the Special Operations Executive, whom I met once in 1990, at the launch of my book on Adam von Trott, and who gave me an instructive talk on why it was the SOE was not allowed to step in to help the German opposition assassinate Hitler.  Another colourful personality is the American lawyer-cum-soldier Colonel Alfred Bowman. These and other figures provide Flashpoint Trieste with many good anecdotes and some snatches of fine writing. Unlike his last book, it has not been awkwardly edited into American although about half way through there is a clumsy succession of 'meet withs.'

The Allied troops that approached the city were exhausted, some suffering from malaria. They hurtled into a hopeless enemy that knew its days were up. I enjoyed the story of the Kiwi soldiers entertained to horse stew by their German prisoners, and the soldiers 'liberating' alcohol from the semi-submerged wrecks in the harbour. There were the culture-boffins of the AIS (think Wilfrid Hyde-White in The Third Man) who warned soldiers against 'bad women' and communists and the tremendous story of the Intelligence Corps NCO who managed to avert a third world war after an angry Gurkha decapitated a 'Jug' (as Yugoslavs were called then). The city's hairy predicament was eventually resolved by Stalin, who withdrew his support for Tito when the latter began to overreach himself. From then on Yugoslavia was 'unaligned' and pursued its path outside the Soviet Block.

There are some glitches: once again, however, Jennings is let down by his editors. There are factual mistakes, like, for example, calling Prince Eugene of Savoy a 'Habsburg' or claiming that the port of Stettin was in Poland in 1918; but those aside, much more jarring are the very frequent repeats which mar what is an exciting sally into new ground.

The Lost World of Central Europe's Jews

Posted: 18th April 2017

I was in Austria briefly at the beginning of the month. I was there to speak at a conference in Burgenland, but I was allowed to build in a day in Vienna, my first for about three years. I stayed with my good friend and together we visited a few old haunts. One of these was the former Zu den drei Husaren in the Weihburggasse. This was Vienna's smartest restaurant until it closed a few years ago. A sign appeared in the window announcing a burst water main and months and years dragged by and no plumber came to mend it. The premises have since acquired a new owner or leaseholder (it's not clear which) and the old Modehaus Zwieback site on the Kärntnerstrasse has been gutted as well while extensive works seem to be taking place in the restaurant itself.

Zu den drei Husaren began life as the tea rooms of the department store founded by my Great Great-Grandfather Ludwig Zwieback in 1877. Ludwig died in 1906, leaving his share in the family chain of shops and substantial fortune to three daughters (the only son died in a boating accident). His youngest daughter, my Great Aunt Ella, was chosen to run the flagship in the First Bezirk. After Ludwig's death she commissioned the great Jugendstil architect Friedrich Ohmann - architect of the Stadtpark and the monument to the Empress Elisabeth - to revamp the building, installing the sumptuous new entrance and the lifts over which my ancestor's bust (now sadly disappeared) was installed in majesty. These things may be seen here: 

Ella ran the shop into the Thirties and like everyone else, suffered in the slump. The Zwiebacks' big Palais Pereira, the onetime Viennese Stock Exchange in the Weihburggasse, was heavily mortgaged to the bank and Ella granted a concession to three noblemen (the 'Three Hussars' perpetuated in the name) to open a restaurant in the tea room. It became one of the most famous in Europe and was reputedly the favourite haunt of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII. The most motivated of the hussars was Count Paul Pálffy, who soon bought out the other two. When the Nazis stomped in to the tune of the Anschluss in March 1938 it was swiftly decreed that Jews like Ella might not own property. Her 'compensation' was paid into a closed bank account that she could not touch and a year later she emigrated to New York with her younger son Ludwig. According to his autobiography, Pállfy didn't fancy running a restaurant in a Nazi Vienna and sought out Germany's leading restaurateur, Otto Horcher and voluntarily made the restaurant over to him.

So far, so good: Horcher had never been so lucky. He didn't have a bad war either, at least not until later. He ran Maxim in Paris, Zu den drei Husaren in Vienna, a number of Luftwaffe clubs and of course Horchers in Berlin. Before the war he had even had a restaurant in London's Mayfair. Then in 1943, with the bombs raining down and Total War, he decided he could go no further and loaded his staff onto a train and fled to Madrid to open a new Horcher in Retiro. It is still there, and run by his granddaughter.

After the war Zu den drei Husaren was used as a private dining room by the Austrian President Karl Renner. It came back to life in the 50s when it was sold (apparently by Horcher) to a Baron Fodermayer. At some stage the interior was covered with fifties or sixties plush. Fodermayer later sold the Husaren to the Carinthian Uwe Kohl, who had it until the affair of the broken water main. I might add that nothing is cut or dried in any part of this story. Who owned the land and who owned the lease? After 1945, Pálffy, Horcher, Ella and the Viennese Savings Bank all sought to assert their claims. The current claimant, another Carinthian named List or Liszt, has it from the Savings Bank.

We couldn't see very much when we sniffed around the courtyard of the Palais Pereira, only that the columns of the restaurant had been stripped down and covered with some sort of protective cladding. Men speaking a Slavic language popped in and out and we went across the road and had some lunch.

It was only when I got home that I spoke to my second cousin, Ella's grandson, the actor August Zirner, and he sent me some pictures of what was happening inside Zu den drei Husaren. The builders had uncovered the sixteenth century grain store that formerly belonged to Göttweig Abbey on the Danube, but more important still, they had revealed Ohmann's original decorations for the tea room. I don't know what the new proprietor intends to do next, but it is certainly an exciting moment. I hope the historical buildings people are keeping a watchful eye!

After lunch we went to see Georg Gaugusch at Jungmann & Neffe, Vienna's grandest tailor, whose old-fashioned shop is squashed between Sacher's Hotel and the Café Mozart. Gaugusch is an unusual tailor in that he is a trained chemical engineer and despite not being the slightest bit Jewish, has a consuming passion for Jewish genealogy. My friend wanted to give me the second volume of Georg's magnum opus: Wer einmal war (Who Once Was Who) which came out last year. It is a genealogy of the leading Jewish families of Central Europe in three volumes. The first came out in 2012 when I reviewed it in Standpoint. Georg was enthroned among his bales of yarn, arguing family trees with us while customers came in to be measured for suits and coats.

The third and last volume is due out in 2020. The book will count some 5,000 pages and be a memorial to a lost world of Jews who rose and prospered under the Habsburg Emperors, to the extent that many of them were ennobled - something that very rarely happened to Jews across the border in Germany. When Hitler came an entire culture was snuffed out like a candle. It is naturally the last volume that interests me most, as my people were Zirners and Zwiebacks! Georg consoles me that we are not quite the last family included: there is one other. In the meantime I intend to find out just what did happen at the Modehaus Zwieback and Zu den drei Husaren.

Theodor Fontane and the Alternative Prussia

Posted: 16th March 2017

The short-lived state of Prussia is controversial now, but before Prussians merged with the image of square-headed soldiers bayoneting babies in the opening phases of the First World War there were at least as many Borussophiles as Borussophobes. The state itself had been packed into the newly created German Empire in 1871, although the Prussian Assembly or Landtag governed territories which accounted for some two-thirds of the Imperial land mass and Prussians were still proudly Prussian, resisting any call to be Saxon, Swabian or Bavarian. The last German Kaiser, William II, was conscious of the fact he was King of Prussia as well as German Emperor, but he was perhaps less than impressed by the 'good Prussian traditions' of Spartan simplicity; living ostentatiously among his collection of three hundred or so military uniforms and preferring fast yachts and new cars to the austerity that was old Prussia. 

'Brandenburg-Prussia' was formed in the sixteenth century as a result of a marriage between the Grand Duchy of Prussia centred on Königsberg in the Baltic, and Electoral Brandenburg with its capital in Berlin - one of the least significant parts of the Holy Roman Empire prior to the Thirty Years War. Prussia contrived to become a kingdom only in 1701 after some spectacular toadying on the part of the Elector Frederick William - Frederick the Great's grandsire. Its ruler was a mealy-mouthed 'King in Prussia' until Frederick the Great raised his rank. Frederick William I was definitely a second rate monarch.

It was arguably that Frederick William's son, the 'Soldier-King,' Frederick William II, who created the Prussia of legend: with its huge army captained by an officer-caste drawn from the provincial gentry or Junkers, a meritocratic civil-service and a tight administration designed to hold down a jigsaw of territories that stretched from the Rhine to the Memel. When the Soldier-King was not exercising his passion for tall soldiers, or working out his madness on canvas, he was redesigning his father's kingdom according to Pietist principles, welcoming oppressed Protestant refugees, establishing universal state education and filling Prussian towns with simple red brick houses and churches of a type common to Holland.

Although the Soldier-King may have defined the 'real' Prussia, most Borussophiles based their fascination on Frederick William's son Frederick the Great or 'Fritz' to his German friends. Frederick was not only the victor of the Silesian and Seven Years Wars, he was the Philosopher-King, Voltaire's sparring partner, the builder of Rococo Sanssouci, and the flautist who baited Bach - there was something for almost everyone. Frederick died in 1786 and Prussian monarchs were never the same again. After 1815, Prussia became a byword for social and political reaction.

Frederick's admirers were 'Fritzists.' There were black ones and white ones. Many Prussian militarists were black Fritzists, delighting in his success in the field (although he suffered humiliating defeats too and the later Prussia often found itself on the losing side). The blackest Fritzist of all was Adolf Hitler, who from childhood rued the decadence of his native Austria and stared longingly across the River Inn to what he believed to be the vital, modern state of Germany. Of all Germans he admired the Prussians Bismarck and Frederick most. Hitler's characterisation of Fritz was a gross distortion: a 'German' King, who fought tirelessly for 'Germany' against the massed forces of the nation's oppressors and won; who sacrificed his life and personal happiness for the good of his country, and who never took a wife... Anyone who wants to see Hitler's Fritz can watch the film, Der Große König made by Goebbels' favourite director Veit Harlan in 1942, but the truth about the Francophile, Teutophobic, misanthropic, homosexual Frederick couldn't have been more different. Encouraged by Goebbels to hope for a new Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, Hitler drank deep in Carlyle's biography during those last days and the King's portrait by Anton Graf hung on the wall of the Bunker until the Red Army encircled Berlin and the Führer's pilot Hans Baur was given orders to liberate it. His picture hasn't been seen since.

Of all the white Fritzists, perhaps the most interesting is the novelist Theodor Fontane. As his name might suggest, Fontane was not even a Teuton: he descended on both sides of his family from Huguenots who had sought refuge in Prussia after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. His father was a pharmacist in Neuruppin in the Brandenburg Mark and Fontane followed him into the business. With time the chemist gravitated towards journalism and the journalist towards fiction. His first novel - Vor der Sturm - was published when Fontane was a mature fifty-nine.

Despite his late start, Fontane has left us with an interesting corpus of literature. Journalism covers not only the major events of his own lifetime - his participation in the Revolution of 1848, for example - but also what we would now call 'travel writing', with some interesting observations on England and Scotland (he was resident in London in the late 1850s); and then the novels. It has become a commonplace to label him the 'Prussian Zola,' but that is probably unhelpful: there is nothing in Fontane to rival the seamy side of Zola, the attention to detail or his interminable lists. Fontane was also a realist but in many ways more humane. He is closer to being a 'Prussian E.M. Forster' who seems to be telling us constantly that all this folly could have been avoided, if only the characters could have put two and two together.

Some of Fontane's novels are historical fiction focusing on Prussian themes like the Napoleonic Wars while the realist novels explore the seamier side of Prussian life: marital infidelity permeates L'Adultera of 1880 and his most famous novel, Effi Briest, a heart-breaking story of a bored young wife who - neglected by her ambitious and much older husband - takes a lover, and wastes away in the opprobrium following her divorce. Both books were based on cases that came up before the courts. There is often a contrast between the outmoded code of honour that governs aristocratic behaviour, and the march of the new age with its smoking factories. The duel that eliminates Effi's lover also decides the fate of the sympathetic Robert von Gordon in Cécile. Where those two novels concentrate on the upper crust, Irrungen Wirrungen deals with a love affair between the noble Prussian officer Botho and Lene, a seamstress who lives in a market garden near the Berlin Zoo. Botho eventually marries a rich cousin and Lene the preacher Gideon, but at the end Botho is constrained to admit that Gideon is a happier man than he is. A similar territory is examined in Stine.

The penury of old Prussian families comes under the loop in Die Poggenpuhls: well-connected Junkers who try hard to maintain appearances. In many instances the bourgeoisie was already richer than the nobility. Business, politics and the preoccupations of the Bildungsbürgertum forms the subject matter for Frau Jenny Treibel. Fontane's last work, Der Stechlin, is an examination of an old Junker who has become detached from the modern world of Kaiser William and is sceptical about the future, but there is plenty of observation of state religion and indeed politics in the Mark Brandenburg.

Fontane was Prussian down to his toenails. His image of Prussian life is the pendant to Adolph Menzel's paintings (or vice versa) - the realistic depictions of everyday life, conflict and industry and the sympathetic evocations of the Seven Years War. Menzel's prints of Frederick the Great's generals and battle scenes hung in many Prussian homes where Franz Kugler's popular biography of the King would have held pride of place next to the Bible in the gute Stube. Paintings like Die Tafelrunde (lost in 1945) and Das Flötenkonzert became stock images of the cultured King who relaxed his warlike mien in the company of philosophers and musicians.

Fontane's greatest tribute to his native land is the Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg of 1861. It is a collection of articles covering his various excursions to the Mark to the north of Berlin, the Uckermark and the Oderbruch to the east, and the Spreewald to the south. They present a little compendium of the 'good' Prussia that somehow avoids being hagiographical. As the historian Gordon A. Craig described the work in an Anglo-German Kauderwelsch, it is 'Sachlichkeit consorting easily with Plauderei.' It might be significant that Fontane restricts himself to the Brandenburg core - there is nothing on East Prussia, Silesia, or even Pomerania (Fontane spent his childhood in Swinemünde in the Oder Delta), where estates were larger and quasi-feudal.

A genial, charming Fritz looms large in the pages of the Wanderungen: articles deal with his imprisonment at Küstrin, his executed friend Katte's grave and modest family mansion at Wust; Frederick's general Zieten's schloss at Wustrau and the monuments associated with Crown Prince's Frederick's first command at Ruppin. Fontane's interests go back much further, however, to the time of the Slavic Wends who populated the Mark before the Germans, and who still inhabited the marshy Spreewald; to the Cistercians and the abbey-ruins of Lehnin, Zinna and Chorin; to the battles of the Great Elector against the Swedes and the field of Fehrbellin; and to the more recent Wars of Liberation against Napoleon's army and the Battle of Grossbeeren. 

It is not all warlike, far from it: Fontane studies the life and times of Albrecht Thaer who performed a role analogous to Antoine Parmentier in France, and weaned the Prussians onto potatoes, creating their simple suppers of potatoes in their skins with a dollop of quark or cottage cheese; or the famous Teltow beets beloved of Goethe; or Werder, famous for its cherries, and the favoured Sunday excursion of generations of Berliners. Fontane studied the life and oeuvre of the architect Friedrich Schinkel and the Schlosser he designed for the Hardenbergs and the Humboldts at Neuhardenberg and Tegel. He charted the idylls of the Prussian kings on the Pfaueninsel and the grave of the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist in nearby Wannsee as well as the 'peace church' at Sacrow and the artillery ranges at Jüterbog. In the Uckermark he dwelled on the history of Schloss Liebenberg, then the property of Prince Philipp zu Eulenberg, who would later (and after Fontane's death) unleash a scandal that nearly cost the Emperor his throne and would reveal quite another Prussia, the murky depths of which not even Old Stechlin would have suspected.

'My Master had poor judgment': Adrian Phillips, The King Who Had To Go (Biteback)

Posted: 23rd February 2017

A couple of decades ago I took a train down to the New Forest to see the late Sir Dudley Forwood Bt. I wanted to talk to him about the time he spent as an honorary consul at the British Embassy in Vienna. I found a charming old gentleman with twinkling eyes and we spent a long time over a shepherd's pie and a couple of bottles of claret stitching together the frantic days back in March 1938 that culminated in Sir Dudley's departure on the Zurich train, escorting some of the Rothschild children who had been secretly entrusted to his care.

Sir Dudley is chiefly remembered for being the most loyal of the Duke of Windsor's equerries. He began his service after King Edward VIII abdicated as King and took refuge at the Rothschild family estate at Enzesfeld in the Thermenregion, south of Vienna. Sir Dudley was devoted to 'David' - as his friends called the former Prince of Wales and King - but it was not blind love. As he said to me at lunch that day: 'My Master had poor judgment.'

More recently I reviewed the German journalist and historian Thomas Kielinger's biography of the present Queen for The Times. Kielinger made the important point that David's abdication had marked her most profoundly.  Queen Elisabeth would never consider ceding her place to her eldest son as a result. She believed in putting duty before all else. In the words of Frederick the Great, the monarch was merely 'the first servant of the state.' The egomaniac Uncle David provided her with an example of how not to do it: by never letting business get in the way of pleasure. Sadly for the Queen, some of her children seem to have learned little from the lessons provided by their great-uncle. 

Edward VIII might stake a claim to having been the first royal 'sleb:' he was suave and good-looking, took delight in adoring crowds, enjoyed fast cars and yachts and like Princess Diana let off the occasional embarrassing soundbite which found favour in depressed communities. The press too loomed large in the crisis, taking one side or the other, with press barons playing shady roles much as they have done recently during 'Brexit;' but as Adrian Phillips points out in his admirable and exhaustive account of the crisis, he had not the slightest commitment to responsible monarchy, and was prepared to toss it all away for the love of his dumbfoundingly dreadful choice of bride.

Mrs Simpson had to obtain a divorce first, and he needed to be crowned and that would only happen if the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and his Cabinet gave their consent to his marriage. Divorce was no easy matter in 1937, however, and the writer and MP A P Herbert was actually putting through a private members' bill at the time in a bid to make matters simpler. He had put the case for a new divorce law in his novel Holy Deadlock of 1934 pointing out the preposterous mechanisms required, that meant being 'caught' in an hotel bedroom by a private detective engaged at the petitioner's expense. While the crisis raged Mrs Simpson's second divorce might have been halted at any moment by the King's Proctor if evidence of collusion had been found (which would hardly have constituted a problem even if her husband Ernest had agreed to place the onus of guilt on himself in the hope of financial profit), or if more damning evidence came to light of her having committed adultery with the King! In the end the possibility of bargaining over granting her decree proved a useful way of getting rid of her.

David bore some resemblance to his louche cousin the German Crown Prince particularly in that he liked wild girls and dangerous riding, and just as in the case of 'Little Willie', his father tried unsuccessfully to bring him to heel. Like all British princes before the present Queen's generation, he spoke German, and was close to his cousin the Duke of Coburg, an Old Etonian who was the first of the German princes to pledge his support to the Nazis. The future German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop naturally made a beeline for David, and part of the latter's short reign corresponded with Ribbi's time as Ambassador to the Court of St James's. Phillips is perhaps a little too ready to condemn Ribbentrop's ability in business and pour scorn on the popularity of the Nazis in certain quarters in Britain, although Ribbentrop was not particularly adept at harnessing it.

Phillips' book is about the political crisis and has been thoroughly researched in the various archives. He is no gossip, and it can be dry at times. You long for the little sustaining tittle-tattle he provides, but it is sparse. When the scheming Mrs Simpson finally fled to Cannes, she left in a Buick with the unintentionally funny number plate 'CUL 547,' which allowed French journalists to 'chase her tail' all the way to the Riviera. Later when the King agreed to go, he almost left this island on board the HMS Enchantress, until someone spotted the mistake and he was carried into exile on the HMS Fury instead. One small point: Phillips' editors needed to cut out nine out of every ten uses of the verb to 'stonewall.'

As I got up to leave for London after our lunch, Sir Dudley told me he wanted to show me something in his bedroom. When he reached the bottom of the stairs he settled in a chair lift and fairly soared up to the top of the building. There were piles of papers in his commodious sleeping quarters, but the one that interested him was a photograph album. It contained pictures of the Windsors' tour of Germany in 1937. We turned the pages together: there was David and Wallis with Ley, there Himmler and here Hitler, and always somewhere nearby was the diminutive Scots Guards officer Sir Dudley with his big black moustache. If the British didn't know how to treat the King and Mrs Simpson, the Nazis did: they gave the ex-King's 'belle' the nearest thing she ever experienced to a state visit. I often wondered what had happened to that valuable document after Sir Dudley's death in 2001. A few months ago I read that it had finally changed hands for many thousands of pounds.

Eighty Years Ago in Germany

Posted: 16th January 2017

Der Hitler hat keine Frau
Der Bauer hat keine Sau
Der Metzger hat kein Fleisch
Das nennt sich nun das Dritte Reich

[No one warms the Führer's feet,
The farmer has no sow;
The butcher wails for want of meat,
They call that the Third Reich now.]

Graffiti, Mannheim, September 1936.

War was coming: in November 1936, Göring had made a speech about the government's new Four Year Plan that would redefine Nazi economic policy. Those who heard or read it came away with little doubt. Panic grew exponentially from that moment onwards. While some Nazis looked forward to a decisive 'Battle of Ragnarök' which would establish the Thousand Year Reich, exiles too believed the cloud might have a silver lining, 'the war must come, for without defeat in war, the regime cannot be toppled.'

But Germany wasn't ready yet, and the social revolution had not yet come to an end. A sop was thrown to women in the New Year. From 1937, they were all to receive the title of 'Frau,' married or not. Yet, unmarried motherhood was still seen as grounds for dismissal from the civil service. Lebensborn was available for unmarried women prepared to have children by blond beasts. Lebensborn clinics provided pre-and post-natal facilities. Later the project accepted children with Aryan features seized in Poland and other occupied lands.

Although her role was later contested by Emmy Göring, Magda Goebbels was the unofficial Mother of the Third Reich and her secretary had to answer letters from other mothers desiring help and advice. If the petitioners were good Nazis, they received some cash. Magda and the little Goebbelses were the subjects of numerous fashion shoots and courted by various couturiers to model their creations.

On 1 January 1937 the offices of city president and Oberbürgermeister of Berlin were merged in the person of the former Angriff journalist and Goebbels-toady Julius Lippert. Lippert's euphoria might have been rapidly dispelled as Albert Speer was named Surveyor for the capital on 30 January. Finally there was a chance to build some real monuments. The first of these were to be the military technology faculty at the Polytechnic Institute in Berlin (27 November 1937) and the House of Tourism (14 June 1938). Hitler felt he could not trust Lippert with his grandiose plans: the Mayor was an 'ineffectual, an idiot, a failure, a nothing' and Berlin was to be transformed into the 'kernel of the Germanic race'. Hitler pointed to Paris: 'the most beautiful city in the world' where he admired the Garnier Opera House and the boulevards. Speer went back to the Berlin plans made by Martin Mächler between 1908 and 1920. There was to be a new VIP reception centre on the Heerstraße where Mussolini was feted later that year and the famous dome that proposed to reduce the Reichstag to a 'silly, decorated toy-box'. Work on the new layout resulted in the destruction of entire quartiers in the south of the city while the Siegessäule column and statues were removed from the Königsplatz and re-erected in the Tiergarten park, and the infamous 'Puppen' - marble effigies of Kaiser William's ancestors - were banished to a un-frequented alleyway.

Also on the first day of the New Year, Confessing Church pastors were locked out of their churches in Lübeck on orders from the bishop; any attempting to preach was subject to banishment from the city. The Confessing Church press was shut down and the Kultus Ministry prohibited students from going to churches where the incumbents were members. The detractors of the Confessing Church in the pro-Nazi German Christian movement had been fighting back: on 10 November 1936, Bishops Müller and Hossenfelder had founded the Union of German Christians in a ceremony on the Wartburg and Thuringia halted the use of the Old Testament in schools. Religion caused rifts in Hitler's government. On 30 January 1937, the fourth anniversary of the coming to power, Hitler offered Freiherr Paul von Eltz-Rübenach, Minister of Posts, the Gold Party Badge; but Eltz declined, saying he would not accept unless Hitler stopped persecuting the Catholic Church. Later his wife refused the Mutterkreuz and Eltz was briefly placed under Gestapo supervision.

On 18 January, the Ministry of Justice ordered prison governors to report on all inmates sentenced for treason or high treason one month before they were due for release. Courts occasionally delivered sentences to keep the regime's opponents out of concentration camps, although it was often the case that prisoners were delivered to the police on release, who promptly took him to a KZ. On 22 January a law was issued on the Punishment of Juvenile Offenders - they would now be subjected to racial and biological examination. As of 27 January, juvenile criminals were taken to criminal-biological collection points in Berlin, Freiburg, Münster, Leipzig, Halle, Hamburg and Königsberg.

The Jews had recently been banned from trading in cattle. On 5 February, they were back in the news when they were prohibited from hunting. Eight days later they could no longer work as notaries. On 16 February 1937, Werner Stephan sent the journalist Theodor Heuß an advance copy of Agriculture Minister Walther Darré's book Schweinemord which postulated that the mass slaughter of the pigs in 1915 was a Jewish plot, and an attempt to undermine the German economy. The lack of food in the markets led the Nazis to propose Reichs menu cards to help people make the best of what there was. On Monday they could make soup from Sunday's leftovers and an oat pudding; Tuesday meant fish baked in cabbage with potatoes; Wednesday was for milk soup, Brussels sprouts and fried potatoes; Thursday meant green spelt soup, baked heart, potatoes and salad; Friday was fish layered in Sauerkraut and chocolate pudding; Saturday proposed baked potatoes with quark; Sunday was naturally the best: oxtail soup, salsify with meat dumplings and potatoes and a coffee cream to follow. Meat figured just twice a week, and in limited quantities. Some offal, such as tongue or liver, was available during limited periods and only in certain localities.

If the German people's stomachs rumbled, this was not true of their chiefly Bavarian leaders, who were gaily feathering their nests. Ley had a new villa built in Geiselgasteig, the film-star suburb of Munich, with its own cinema and eight bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms. Hitler's old comrade-in-arms the printer Amann, built his at St Quirin on the Tegernsee. The Radio Controller Habersbrunnen had a luxurious house constructed at Bad Kreuth, while Göring, who was not short of property, bought himself a new Schloss near Prien.

On 18 February Himmler aired his views on homosexuality: Germany had lost two million men in the First World War and there were two million homosexuals in the population (calculated as one in seventeen - there were 34 million male Germans). Homosexuals had renounced their duty to the race. 'There are those homosexuals who take the view: what I do is my business, a purely private matter... The nation with many children may bid for world power and domination. A nation of good racial stock with too few children has bought a one way ticket to the grave... [Homosexuality] had to be got rid of, just as we pull out weeds and toss them on the bonfire...' Himmler turned to homosexuals in the SS: 'I have now decided on the following: in each case, these people will naturally be publicly degraded, expelled and handed over to the courts. Following completion of their punishment... they will be sent, on my orders, to a concentration camp, and they will be shot... while attempting to escape... so at least the good blood, which we have in the SS... will be kept pure.'

From 1936 to 1939, close to 30,000 men were convicted of homosexual offences. Himmler did not believe that prison could cure homosexuality, but that did not stop authorities from confining them: an estimated 10 -15,000 homosexuals were taken to KZs, and 100,000 to conventional prisons where they were seen as a part of the despised 'asphalt' culture. The Röhm Putsch was often invoked by judges when handing out sentences of one year or more (in Weimar homosexuals were often just fined). Convictions were halved after the start of the war from 7,614 in 1939 to 3,773 in 1940. On the other hand the military courts also handed out sentences. It was not common to castrate homosexuals, as this was not believed to be effective. With the Sterilisation Law of 26 June 1935, however, they could be sterilised to 'liberate them from their degenerate sex drive'. This was voluntary, in theory at least, but in practise those who refused were turned over to the Gestapo and taken into protective custody. As many as 174 men were 'voluntarily' castrated before 1939. Homosexual prisoners were generally kept isolated in single cells. They did not wear pink triangles in KZs but the nametags on their bunks were underlined in red.

On 23 February, Himmler ordered that 2,000 known professional or habitual criminals be arrested. The courts protested that they had no law to work on. Himmler regularised the situation on 14 December by creating a new form of imprisonment: Vorbeugungshaft  (preventative custody). The category of 'asocials' was defined as well, those persons who demonstrated through their behaviour, which may not in itself be criminal, that they will not accommodate themselves to community. The following examples were given: persons who through minor, repeated, infractions of the law demonstrate that they will not adapt to the natural discipline of a National Socialist state - beggars, tramps, Gypsies, whores and alcoholics with contagious diseases, particularly sexually-transmitted diseases, who evaded the measures taken by the public health authorities. The next war would have to wait a few months more - the inner enemy had to be annihilated first.

A.A. Gill

Posted: 15th December 2016

I met Adrian Gill for the first time in the spring of 1992, nearly a quarter of a century ago. In those days I still saw a bit of the potter Emma Bridgewater and her husband Matthew Rice, best known now for his exquisite illustrated books on architectural history. I still keep some pens in a lovely little box he made, each side is a different composition united under a hefty, Wren-ian cornice.

Emma and Matthew thought that Adrian might be of some use in promoting my book on Brillat-Savarin, which came out that June. I am not sure they told me who he was or how he was going to do it, but I was happy to come to dinner anyway. Matthew was a superb cook and dinner was always fascinating as he often served up something he'd shot at home in Norfolk. So I met Adrian and his then wife Amber. I also met a little Gill, a mere babe in arms. Amber naturally seemed most preoccupied with that. They struck me as decent sorts, and Adrian duly evinced a desire to write up the book and I had a copy sent off to him the next day. Later I saw he had written nice things about it in the Tatler where he had been invited to pen a column on food some months before. Amber Gill (as everybody will know by now) is better known as Amber Rudd these days, and she is our Home Secretary.

After Adrian died last week I saw that Amber had been his second wife. He had been married first to Cressida Connolly, daughter of the famous man-of-letters Cyril. I had known Cressida when she was a schoolgirl in Oxford although we fell out, quite seriously, and I have not seen her since. Her mother remarried the former Jesuit, poet and classicist Peter Levi, who wrote what was possibly the most fulsome review I have ever received for a book - come to think of it, it was for Brillat-Savarin. It occurs to me that Cressida may have introduced Adrian to Emma - as they were schoolgirls in Oxford at the same time, but I suppose he might also have been at art school with Matthew. He still described himself to me as a painter when we met that spring and he had yet to make the final leap into journalism.

I can't recall whether Adrian came to the launch of the book at 50, Albemarle Street. It was a good party: Gosset champagne from Fields, a vast, decorated festive loaf made by Jackie Lesellier together with Brillat-Savarin and other cheeses from my friend Michael Day and his Huge Cheese Company. We even induced Campbell Distillers to supply a case of Wild Turkey bourbon to make mint juleps, but I don't think anyone drank any. The bottles seemed to have disappeared into a voluminous cupboard by the end of the bash. 

The following year Adrian was translated to the Sunday Times and very soon he was one of the most famous journalists in Britain, to the degree that his outrageous remarks reverberated around London's drawing rooms for days following their first appearance and his personal life, as recounted in his columns, was as familiar to the world at large as the latest episode of the Archers. He had seized on a highly successful technique: he sold the man, not the subject matter. You read his columns to find out about him. It had been a fabulous transformation of a man who had missed so many boats by his mid-thirties. He had been a dyslexic schoolboy scarcely able to read or write, and an unsuccessful painter turned alcoholic. He filed his pieces by dictating to a copy-taker. I never saw him drink - he had put all that behind him; his fixes came in the form of strong black coffee and fags. We used to joke that the initials 'AA' stood for 'Alcoholics Anonymous', but it was possibly no less than Gospel truth.

As restaurant critic for the Sunday Times he emerged onto the same circuit as me. I had a strange brief at the FT. I was separated from my colleagues on the page by 'Japanese screens' as my editor put it. I could write about food and foreign restaurants, but no recipes and not London, and all drink excluding wine under 15 percent. I used to see Adrian at launches which were many and plentiful then and usually irrigated by oceans of free booze. It was the period when restaurant PR was largely in the hands of the late Alan Crompton-Batt, who used his bevy of gorgeous, pouting 'Batt-Girls' to lure hacks towards openings and convince them to turn in sympathetic write-ups.

Crompton-Batt was not unique: there was - for example - the late Conal Walsh, inevitably dubbed 'Anal Douche', who did PR for the Chez Gérard Group among others. Conal used to organise meetings of the Carnivores' Club, where hacks came in fancy dress (generally smeared with ketchup) to celebrate the consumption of flesh and blood and someone was generally asked to prepare a speech. I remember when it was Adrian's turn, and watching how nervous he was behind that fierce, but slightly mean exterior that often had me wondering whether he was part Sicilian. He spoke at length, tossing sheets of paper on the floor as he ran down foreign food at the expense of British, lambasting non-saturated fats like olive oil in favour of dripping. My mind went back to the pots of festering fat that used to sit on top of the chimney piece in our childhood kitchen. People said he spoke with authority about food because his brother Nick was a chef. Again it was only after his death that I learned that he took any practical interest in it and that he enjoyed cooking at home.

He was a forthright critic and his astonishing gift for words and phrases meant that much of what he wrote remained memorable. It was the first flush of 'Modern British Cuisine', a time when British chefs tended to an exaggerated belief in their own talents - if not sanctity. They were easily offended. When Gill or the other more savage critics dished them they resorted to wrapping up dead animals or other noisome things in parcels and sending them round to the transgressor. Adrian naturally wallowed in their injured pride.

As well as being restaurant critic of the Sunday Times he doubled up as the paper's television reviewer. I never understood why (beyond the extra earnings) anyone should want to do such a thing. I had always subscribed to the view that an hour spent watching television was an hour wasted. I must have challenged him, saying I'd rather read a book, but he was not having any of it: 'That's like saying you can't have sex and wank!' I didn't know then that he actually found it very hard to read a book. Television was that much easier.

With his loud support for native food he had an air of Hogarth's 'Britophil' about him then and I was surprised to learn that he had been such a passionate Remainer at the time of the June Plebiscite. Various friends expressed concern that he was scoring cheap victories when he once wrote a piece decrying German food and his finely chiselled features appeared at the top of the page peering out from under a coal scuttle helmet or a Pickelhaube.  I didn't read the piece but the next time I ran into him I asked him about it. 'But I copied the whole thing from you!' He said he had been in Weimar and had seen an article of mine framed on the wall of the Hotel Elephant and used it as the basis for his own piece. I had no idea if he was telling the truth but I had written a story or two about Weimar. Anyway, he efficiently ripped the carpet out from under my feet.

We were never great friends, but he was never nasty to me in the way he turned on so many others. I remember once when one of my children was ill and he spoke with great sincerity about what it was like to be worried about a sick child. He could be very cruel. Obituaries have cited his treatment of Mary Beard and Claire Balding. He seemed to have had an animus against the historian Andrew Roberts whom he called 'the Pink Prawn' as a result of his short stature and often florid complexion. Whenever Andrew's name came up a wicked glint appeared in Adrian's eye. On one occasion I was at the Bad Sex Awards in the old Astor mansion in St James's Square and Nancy Sladek (I think it was) asked me to find Adrian as his novel had won the prize. I found him lurking by the door near the stairs and told him I was not to let him out of my sight. At that moment Roberts arrived on the crowded landing. 'There's the Pink Prawn wearing a Guards' tie!' said Adrian (I think it was a Garrick Club tie, but what the hell), with that he reached into the thicket, grabbed Roberts by the tie knot, hoisted him up to face height, kissed him fully on the lips and tossed him back into the melee. A bemused Roberts scuttled away, his face redder than ever. 

For me there were just too many enemies of promise and I dropped out early, while Adrian went from strength to strength, from sleb to über-sleb; a proper, solid talent sustaining him to the last. The last time I saw him was in the chichi Delaunay brasserie in Aldwych two or three years ago. I had been to an execrable performable of Edward II at the National Theatre with some fellow Gavestonians and they were kind enough to treat me to dinner afterwards. I saw him sitting alone at a large table, evidently waiting for his guests. I reminded him who I was and he gave me a faltering smile and a hand to shake but I rather doubt now he even remembered me from Adam.

Two Books

Posted: 16th November 2016

I don't read historical novels as a rule. Historians are naturally suspicious of invention and speculation, their training tells them to apply themselves to the facts and discount anything that fails to conform. I am conscious, on the other hand, that it is a wide field and that Dickens, Tolstoy, Balzac or Zola all dipped into the genre in one way or other. Some historical novels are merely costume bodice-rippers of questionable authenticity while others set a fictional drama in an historical period and try to get the time, and indeed the language as close to perfection as possible. Others go the whole hog and invent an episode in the life of an historical figure. Yves Bonavero's The Nuremberg Enigma is a little bit of both.

Historians are likely to be critical and quick to pounce on events that didn't happen, unconvincing interpretations or anachronistic language and behaviour. So it was with a little trepidation that I picked up a book that covered ground I had ploughed up so many times myself.

Now I must be careful not to ruin the plot for prospective buyers, but the story begins in Hitler's Bunker in the last days of the war. The material will familiar to people who have seen the film Downfall or read any of the firsthand accounts, but Bonavero weaves an interesting twist into the story before introducing his - naturally glamorous - male and female protagonists: a young British officer in T-Force, charged with a mission to locate and requisition German technology, and a female Soviet intelligence officer engaged in much the same quest: they want above all to locate Hitler's stocks of enriched uranium. The two both have German mothers making them rather more sympathetic towards the defeated enemy than they otherwise might have been and of course, more interested in one another.

Bonavero makes it clear in an afterword that his British officer is based very largely on a real person called Michael Howard (no, not the great historian Sir Michael Howard - another one) but in the book he is called 'Peter Birkett', apparently the son of Sir Norman, later Baron Birkett, one of the British judges at Nuremberg. Birkett had a son called Michael, who died last year. He was too young to fight in the war and appears to bear no resemblance to the character in the book. Other real life figures play prominent roles, not least the late Airey Neave, who was blown up by the IRA in 1979, and who was an investigating officer at Nuremberg. There are various real Nazis such as Bormann and Fritzsche and some Americans like Colonel Andrus. Actual events (or versions of them) such as the explosion in the Grimberg coal mine in 1946, are also cleverly threaded into the plot.

Bonavero maintains the pace and keeps you guessing until the end and yet the book doesn't always live up to its promise. The suicide of a young German girl seemed to be staged for the sake of liberating Birkett from a troublesome commitment, but it didn't quite ring true and was hardly necessary.

The Nuremberg Enigma is written by a French financier long resident in Britain who was recently a mature student at Oxford. The prose is impressively terse and generally free from jarring neologisms. It was not until page 193 that I hit an anachronism in the now possibly dated American verb 'to hassle'- which was hugely overused in the seventies but I suspect was unknown to British officers in the forties. In the second half the book, Americanisms proliferate suggesting that a different editor might have been used: and so we have 'magic' and 'opaque' used verbally. The caretaker in Hitler's Bogenhausen flat wears 'suspenders' - not kinky ones (Bonavero might have missed a trick there), but the things a British officer would call 'braces'. Someone is called an 'asshole' (not an American as it happens - it's a translation of the speech of an angry Russian trying to stop his squaddies from raping the heroine), in another place Britons eat 'candy'. Field Marshal Paulus is called 'von' Paulus (a common mistake and one I've made myself). The characters drink 'dry Moselle,' which must have been rare when the better German wines were all at least slightly sweet. I suspect the few dry wines that existed would have already gone sour by the end of the war.

There are small quibbles, for I repeat: I thoroughly enjoyed the book, almost right up to the end, which I thought was a trifle weak, but then I supposed the author arranged it that way because he was already thinking of a sequel. I put the book down admonishing myself for being narrow-minded about historical fiction.

One other book preoccupied me recently and that was Josef  Nowak's Mensch auf den Acker gesät (Man Strewn on the Fields) which was recommended to me by my Twitter friend Werner Pfeiffer. Nowak was a Swabian playwright and opponent of the Nazis who had been conscripted onto an anti-aircraft battery, where as an Italian speaker, he acted as an interpreter between the commander and his largely Italian team. In the spring of 1945 he was taken prisoner by the Americans and delivered to the notorious Rhine Meadows. The book was originally published in 1956.

I have written about the brutal Rhine Meadow camps in After the Reich but I did not know Nowak's account. The author adds a deal of literary seasoning, as if he wanted us all to know that he was an educated man. During one of the bitterest late winters and springs in recent history, the prisoners (essentially anyone apprehended wearing uniform) were obliged to sleep on the naked earth dressed in the rags they were wearing. Some of them dug foxholes with any implements they could lay their hands on. These often collapsed, burying their inmates, and frequently killing them. Food was occasionally tossed into the pens, sometimes American rations in tins, or raw lentils or haricot beans which had the most catastrophic effects on their digestions. Quite often they went for days without receiving anything at all. They naturally perished in droves. They were also beaten and robbed by their guards. Like many other former POWs, Nowak says the American blacks behaved with more decency than the whites.

The account is not without humour and is interspersed with anecdotes about the author's past. Particularly bitter sweet was the moment, after weeks of waiting, when the Germans received their first bread. They were hoping for some dark rye, or a crispy wholemeal loaf - the excellent, filling bread for which their country is still so famous. Instead they got a half-inch thick slice of American Wonderfloaf! It was a painful anticlimax.

Nowak dislikes the suggestion that Germans were only suffering the treatment they had meted out to so many others, notably the Jews and protests that he knew nothing of the Final Solution. They were being punished for something they didn't do and had had no power to prevent. Once the Allied Zones came into force, the camp passed into the hands of the British, who administered the camps with greater fairness. The food improved, and they were even allowed to attend Mass. After the humiliation of the Fragebogen or Questionnaire and interrogation by German Jews in British uniforms, the small fry - Nowak included - were discharged into the jagged remnants of their land. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Gothic Line

Posted: 17th October 2016

Christian Jennings, At War on the Gothic Line: Fighting in Italy 1944-45, Osprey 2016. ISBN 978 1 47282 164 5

The Italian Theatre in the Second World War is well worth a study as it tends to escape the attention lavished on the Western and Eastern Fronts, or indeed the war in the Far East. The Anglo-Americans landed in Sicily in July 1943. The Italian Army surrendered, the King sued for peace and Mussolini was imprisoned on Gran Sasso - all of which promised a rapid solution, but any hopes of reaching the Alps or making a stab at the German underbelly were trounced when Musso was liberated by commandos led by the daredevil Otto Skorzeny. The Germans swiftly occupied the country, shipping any reluctant Italian soldiers home to work as helots for the Reich and Mussolini formed a new Fascist army with the leftovers. Allied progress soon ground to a halt before St Benedict's original abbey at Monte Cassino which was eventually destroyed by bombs on orders issued by the New Zealander General Bernard Freyberg, but even that act of appalling and unnecessary barbarism failed to transform the stalemate into a fast-moving campaign.

When the war drew to a close in May 1945, an Allied force culled from eleven nations had yet to reach the Alps. This was partly explained by Italy's rugged, mountainous terrain, but rather more by superior German tactics. Even when times looked increasingly bleak for the Germans after their defeat at Stalingrad, the progress of the Allies in Italy was able to raise a hollow laugh back in Berlin. 

It had taken until the spring of 1944 to break out of the Campania. Rome (which the Allies bombed fifty times) was liberated on 4 June and the armies headed north towards Tuscany and the Po Valley. For seven months, the Allies were all but halted at the 'Gothic Line' which stretched across the mountains from the marble quarries of Carrara on the Mediterranean, to just south of Bologna and on to Rimini on the Adriatic. It was the 'Gotenstellung,' by the way, or 'Line of the Goths' - and nothing whatsoever to do with pointed arches, as I had always fondly believed. The Germans had had plenty of time to dig in with the help of slave labour, and their positions were almost impregnable. One suspects if it hadn't been for their disasters in all the other theatres of war, the Allies would have never have got through to the Po. Jennings' book examines the battles that took place along the line - Gemmano, Croce, Coriano and Rimini - and the good, bad and the ugly among the Allied military leadership. The one who comes out worse is the British Generalissimo Sir Oliver Leese.

The British do one or two things well, however: they took Venice without firing a shot, and celebrated by driving jeeps round St Mark's Square; and they freed Chioggia, across the lagoon, or rather the multi-national Popski's Private Army did. The late travel pundit Alan Whicker 'liberated' the German army's petty cash. 

At War On The Gothic Line is an odd book in many ways. It is constructed by focusing on a number of individual case studies. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but Jennings has chosen some obscure warriors who don't always provide a coherent picture, and he uses them unevenly. While some get pages and pages, others only receive a little bite at the narrative. His heroes are a 'Nisei' (Japanese born in America) and a black American 'Buffalo' soldier, some Canadians and a Christian Indian from Bombay. We get a little detail of a British SOE officer and a few Italian partisans.  At first I thought we might have a German account, as a torch is shined at one young soldier, but very little more is said about him although we do learn about the monsters in the SS. Greeks, Poles and Brazilians fought on the Gothic Line as well: perhaps we should have had a bit more about them? 

I presume the bias towards North American soldiers is a reflection of the fact it is an American book. This is odd too, as on the face of it the author (and the publisher Osprey) appear to be stock British. I can only assume that the British publisher bought the rights from St Martin's in New York who had called the tune as far as content and editing was concerned. For that reason the book abounds in 'high' schools, 'gottens', talking 'with', people going to the 'bathroom' in cafés (most Italians lacked bathrooms at home at the time - I don't suppose there were many in cafés), 'gas' stations and trucks intuiting in the dirt. All of which mars what looks like a very promising book with a plethora of excellent maps, and one or two exciting snatches of prose. The author even talks of men shredded like 'liver kicked through a colander' - a powerful simile.

Quite beside the discomforting language, the editing is a nightmare: there are huge numbers of repeats - not only of words but also of information. Some of the text, however interesting (the disastrous Dieppe Raid, for example) needed to be cut. Then there is a peculiar assertion that the German General Ernst-Günther Baade had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford on a 'sports scholarship'. Now I know some Rhodes Scholars are more famous for their legs than their brains, but they are always admitted to the university to read an academic discipline, even if they cannot always make head or tail of it. Some are even quite bright, like the General Fridolin von Senger und Ettelin who faced Freyberg at Monte Cassino, and protected the Abbey while he could. Still, it is an informed and informative account of a neglected field, even if it could have done with a bit more spit and polish.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

Posted: 15th September 2016

At the beginning of August 1936, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung was published with a nine-page pullout section in German, English and French for those coming to the Games. Its cover showed the former actress and cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl physically steering her handsome cameraman Guzzi Lantscher towards the right angles. Inside, there were the secrets of the filming: underwater shots, the regatta, the use of wheelchairs to prevent blurring; Guzzi strapped to the duckboard of a car to record the riding events; or submerged in a ditch to film the long-jump; and the enormous ladder constructed at the Avus to snap the marathon. The magazine showed the various races competing too: blond, sallow, tawny and black; a group of Indians in hats and turbans; a German woman arm in arm with two men: one Argentinian, the other Japanese. In the café in the Olympic village was a hirsute long-distance runner from India; a German barber was photographed shaving an African athlete.

Ideological issues had been laid aside while it was hoped that foreign money would come rolling in. The Games began formally on 1 August and the Bayreuth Festival Chorus was in Berlin for the opening ceremony. They sang the hymn composed by Richard Strauss for the occasion together with Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. As Prussian Minister President, Hermann Göring laid a wreath at the War Memorial in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden while in the Lustgarten nearby, the Hitler Youth greeted the runner delivering the Olympic Flame. At midday there was a reception in the Chancellery where Hitler announced the results of the German archaeological dig at Olympia. The Via Triumphalis was opened: it followed a route traced by Unter den Linden, the Charlottenburger Chaussee and the Knie, and led to the Stadium and Spandau.

The Games began in earnest on 2 August. The writer Jochen Klepper felt 'National Socialism has to take the propaganda value of the Games seriously...The crowds alone make a great impression. But the foreigners remain almost completely in the background; only the size of foreign cars was imposing. The atmosphere was that of a non-political popular celebration.' As a former theology student, Klepper must have been relieved that there were two religious ceremonies before the athletes came under starter's orders - Protestant and Catholic.

On the Pariser Platz, the flags of fifty-three nations were illuminated on huge masts while the Schloßfreiheit was decorated with Olympic banners. There were receptions in the royal Schloß with visits by the Crown Princes of Sweden, Greece and Italy. Klepper thought they might have displayed a little more solidarity with Germany's deposed Hohenzollern rulers, but there was the pleasure of seeing the old palace brought to life again with the show of candles in the windows. The mediaeval Grüne Hut tower, then oldest part of the palace, was a lantern among the trees. 'The night concealed everything that was ugly. On the Linden, Berlin had never been so beautiful... the standards on the Arsenal, the flags behind the Olympic Bowl - that was miles away from sport, propaganda, bias, frivolity, as it was in ancient times... this evening's walk on Unter den Linden was therefore the most immense walk I can remember having taken! All comparisons fail me... The first impression was musical, not pictorial... though no band was playing...'

Joseph Goebbels told foreign journalists 'We did not intend to place Potemkin Villages before your eyes. You may freely move around in Germany among our people. Like this you can observe the Germans at work and as they celebrate the Games; you will see how the people have become better and happier... I ask you to consider in what a [terrible] condition we had to take over this country and to keep in mind the incredible crisis that we had to overcome during the last three and a half years.' Goebbels would have been excited about the new wireless on offer, a transistor radio with batteries called an Olimpiakoffer which allowed you to listen to the Games anywhere. It cost a steep RM 160. A new transmitter was constructed at Zeesen to cope with demand.

There were plenty of parties: The gala was at the Opera House with a performance by the ballet company. King Boris of Bulgaria attended and Göring and Goebbels shared a box with their respective wives. There was a reception at the Chancellery in the presence of the Swedish Crown Prince; Mussolini's sons Vittorio and Bruno were entertained by Göring; there was also lunch at the Chancellery on the 4th at which Wagner's two granddaughters were the only females present. Goebbels gave his main party on the Pfaueninsel on Wannsee Lake. 'Several thousand people were invited to an evening dinner, reception and ballet... The guests crossed from the mainland on a bridge thrown across the water and held fast by men in boats along the sides. On the island were innumerable lanes through the trees and hills, back laced overhead with many-coloured little lanterns and lined with young page girls in tights. In an open space, tables were laid and a stage set for the dancing. Overhead were lanterns and... tremendous artificial butterflies lighted from within. The tables were elaborately set with many wine glasses and an endless course dinner which included all the expensive delicacies. Towards the end of the dinner there were fireworks on a grandiose scale... ending in a terrific roar and red explosion that called to mind the gigantic bombardment...' Many of the diplomats found this in bad taste. Later the girls performed some sort of revue. There was a deal of twittering about the cost and the following Sunday the island was thrown open to the grand public, with the same decorations. Ribbentrop gave a more sedate party at his Dahlem home.

There was more music composed for the Games, with commissions from Egk and Orff and of course, Strauss. Strauss, thought his Olympic Hymn 'something for the mob.' He was 'a man who utterly despises sport'. Werner March's vast stadium accommodated 100,000 people with 35,000 standing but it filled up within 45 minutes on the first day. Pictures show a sea of outstretched arms. According to the popular press, the sporting heroes of the Games were the German hurdler Alfred Dompert, the Dutch swimmer Ria Mastenbroek, the American decathlon athlete Glen Morris, Dorothy Poynton, the American diver, the pentathlon athlete Hauptmann Gotthard Handrik, Gerhard Stöck with his javelin; the half-Jewish Hungarian lady fencer Ilona Schacherer-Elek, the Japanese marathon-runner Kitei Son, Trebisonda Valla who won the 80 metre hurdles and saluted with the Hitler Grüß, the hurdlers Forest Towns and Lord Burghley, the swimmer Ferenc Csik and the Japanese pole-vaulter Shuhei Nishida. After the threats from the Olympic Committee, the half-Jewish German fencer Helene Mayer participated in the Olympics. No mention was made of Jesse Owens.

Even if it had no official status, flying was very much on the menu at the time of the Olympics with teams of 'Kunstflieger' from all over Europe meeting at Berlin's airfields in Tempelhof and Rangsdorf. The most distinguished German pilot was Gerd Achgelis. The prizes were naturally distributed by Colonel-General Göring, the Reich's most famous flyer. HJ boys had brought model planes to the display too. There was also a mass parachute jump from nine aircraft. The women pilots, Hanna Reitsch, Vera von Bissing and Liesel Bach were present. Hanna Reitsch retained the first prize for women's glider piloting. The Reichs Sports Leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten had applied to have gliding included in the sports performed at the Tokyo Olympics in 1940.

Martha Dodd had her father the US ambassador's seat for half the games and was able to study Hitler from close up - 'when Owens or other coloured competitors from America won, he was conveniently out of his box. Being absent, Hitler never had to shake Owen's hand. One day the American flag went up at least five times... Hitler saluted with arm outstretched and with a dour expression on his face. However, if a German would win, his enthusiasm and good humour were boundless and he would spring to his feet with wild and childish joy.'  The American writer Thomas Wolfe was in the diplomatic box at the Games and just behind Hitler. When Owens won a conspicuous victory 'Tom let out a war-whoop. Hitler twisted in his seat, looked down, attempting to locate the miscreant, and frowned angrily.' Germany still won the games, and by a huge margin of a third more medals than their nearest competitor, the United States.

Wolfe was full of enthusiasm for Germany and was consequently much loved by the Nazis. He came first in 1935 and settled in the Romanisches Café, which had become a sad place since the onset of the Third Reich, but his presence there gave the Bohemians courage to return. Martha says that the scales fell from his eyes on the second visit. He was published by Rowohlt and he and his publisher used to spend evenings drinking. Gradually, Wolfe realised how evil German society had become and he determined to stay away.

Hans von Lehndorff thought otherwise. He admitted that it was a wonderful time: 'seen from the outside, in the mid-thirties, Berlin lived through one of its golden ages which peaked with the 1936 Olympiad.' Indeed, it was possibly the last time Berlin was a party city before 1989. There were dances in the evenings and Lehndorff, then a medical student, met people whose parents had waltzed with his parents at the balls of the Kaiser's time. He felt that he belonged to the age and the city and particularly recalled the Geldern Ball, where the Hungarian bandleader Barnabas von Geczy performed his 'Puszta Fox'. Helmuth James von Moltke did not enjoy himself and had as low an opinion of sport as Strauss. He found the vulgarity that summer stifling. Writing to his wife Freya he said, 'Berlin is frightful. A solid mass is pushing its way down Unter den Linden to look at the decorations. And what people! I never knew the likes of them existed. Probably these are the people who are National Socialists because I don't know them either.'

Emmy Göring later reported the strain of the Games. She only got to the stadium twice, but she had lunch with the American flyer Lindbergh and his wife. Martha reported that one day Göring had shown off his lion cub to the Lindberghs, but that cub had urinated on his brilliant white uniform. Shortly afterwards, the Zoo received a present of a lion cub. On the closing evening of the Olympiad, Göring had the restaurateur Horcher arrange his party in the garden of his ministry where he had a whole eighteenth century village built in miniature.  The Görings transformed the space into a Munich October Festival. There were tents with Munich beer and sausages and roast chickens, and shooting galleries at which prizes could be won, not to mention roundabouts and a giant wheel. Emmy was already an accepted part of the social scene and had to entertain diplomats at their residence on the Leipziger-Platz. She was very informal - fitting for the actress she was - and would perch on the arms of the chairs of her guests, referring to her husband by his first name and talking about the Christmas present he had promised her. 'She fulfils her role with enough dignity...' On the wall there were Cranachs 'stolen from the museum'.

For the Nazis to retain the Games had been a coup. They desperately needed foreign currency. In the end they earned RM 9 million from a turnout of 3.77 million spectators. Following the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws there had been the threat of a renewed American boycott and the Nazi government considered asking the Belgian Henri de Baillet-Latour to intercede on their behalf. There was a rumour that the American Olympic Committee chairman, Avery Brundage had claimed that Jews were not suppressed in Nazi Germany and that black athletes had been no better treated in the Los Angeles Olympics. No sensational acts of anti-Jewish persecution were committed during the Games, but the war went on if a certain pragmatism was discernable. In the Harz Mountains, the local tourist board warned hoteliers to be lenient towards Jewish tourists. Jews were still being tried for miscegenation and their vulnerability was a boon to blackmailers. An SA man and employee of the antisemitic magazine Der Stürmer arranged meetings between Jews and willing Aryan girls. One Jewish old-soldier caught in a honey trap was threatened with a concentration camp. He promptly committed suicide.

Signs forbidding entry to Jews to parks and buildings might have been taken down along with the showcases for Der Stürmer, but the heavy hand of the regime was still in evidence elsewhere. Hans Lehndorff's mother was arrested and interrogated at Gestapo HQ for failing to give a 'German greeting' when the Olympic torch arrived in Berlin. The general feeling about Germany in the Olympic year was that it was cheap, clean and wholesome. The student Howard Smith arrived from New Orleans. He was enthralled. In a student hostel he could eat like a prince for 50 Pfennigs: 'On first glance, Germany was overwhelmingly attractive, and first impressions disarmed many a hardy anti-Nazi before he could lift his lance for attack. He searched Hamburg for slums and found none. 'People looked good. Nobody was in rags... They were well dressed... and they were well fed. The impression was of order, cleanliness and prosperity.'

Klepper noted in his diary on 17 August, 1936, 'Yesterday, when the loudspeaker, relayed the sound of the Olympic Bell over the monstrous life of the luxurious, rich and mysteriously lively Kurfürstendamm, or so it has become, I said to Hanni "If it were not too overdramatic, one could say, that was perhaps the death knell of Europe." It pierces you over and over again, misfortune stands before your eyes and it cannot be avoided. Then these easy words are broadcast to the carefree thousands "I summon the youth of the world to Tokyo in 1940." What lies ahead...!'

Hitler the Zionist?

Posted: 16th August 2016

A few months ago, the former Mayor of London, 'Red' Ken Livingstone, got himself into deep water for suggesting that Hitler had been a Zionist. A certain number of Labour Party politicians supported his views, some of them from the Muslim wing of the Party, who for eminently comprehensible reasons resent the treatment of their coreligionists in Israel. Indeed, it is hard not to agree with them all when the brutality of Netanyahu's regime is laid before our eyes. Ken and his friends have every right to make the loudest possible protest against the actions of the Israeli Government.

The easiest way to make something disreputable is to associate it with Hitler and Nazism. Ken knows this well: he has had the accusation of antisemitism levelled at him more than once. The reason why Ken decided Hitler was a 'Zionist' was because he had approved the Haavara Agreement of August 1933 which permitted tens of thousands of Jews to emigrate to Palestine before September 1939 under a complicated arrangement that allowed them to take most of their belongings with them providing they participated in a deal to ship goods from Germany to the then British Mandate.

Hitler hated the Jews and his followers mostly did the same. The idea of shipping the Jews out, lock, stock and barrel cropped up several times during the Third Reich and Hitler certainly would not have objected. Madagascar was suggested, a project only abandoned in 1940 when, it is said, it was stymied by the reluctance of the British to make peace. Hitler was keen that they should go as far away from Germany as possible, but he thought Zionism a swindle. As he wrote in Mein Kampf: 'Jews do not think about the idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine at all with the idea of living in it, but they want to assure themselves of their own right to majesty and grab the organisations possessed by other states. [A Jewish state] would be a base for international world crime, a place of refuge for convicted toe-rags and a university for crooks.'

Hitler wrote those words in 1924, seven years after the British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour had encouraged Jews to look to Palestine as a homeland. As Hitler suggests, 'Zionism' was a nationalist doctrine. It is associated with Theodor Herzl and came into being around the turn of the century, at the same time as the subject peoples of many multi-national empires were calling for nation states of their own. Jews had already begun to settle in the Holy Land again before the First World War. Until something akin to civil war broke out between Jews and Arabs in the autumn of 1936, many took the opportunity of starting new lives in the British Mandate. Some of those first settlers were Central and Eastern European 'Zionists.' Many European Jews, however, were unattracted to the idea of becoming pioneers in a Jewish homeland, and preferred their more comfortable lives at home in Vienna or Berlin. These educated, middle-class, German-speaking Jews were the ones Hitler liked least.

Hitler did not take long to get round to dealing with the Jews after he achieved power on 30 January 1933. The probably accidental destruction of the Reichstag on 27 February gave him the excuse he was looking for to wipe out his opponents on the left. The left-wing parties contained many Jews. The Enabling Act passed on 23 March meant he could promulgate decrees without recourse to parliament. That same day, the British Daily Express led with the headline 'Judea declares war on Germany. Jews of all the world unite in action.' It called for a boycott of German goods in retaliation for as yet unofficial attempts to starve out Jewish businesses. The official German boycott of Jewish shops staged on 1 April was billed as a response to this threat to control Germany from outside: one of the Führer's chief bugbears.

Hitler thought economics another swindle. He was committed to the idea of 'autarky': as much as possible Germany had to live on its own fat and not import commodities. Precious foreign currency was only to be used for something really important - 'guns before butter'.  In its limited way Haavara was all to the good: it allowed him to offload Jews in Palestine together with German timber and cars and import some fresh fruit in return. Behind autarky was the idea of stopping Jews getting in by the back door: 'International stock exchange capitalism was not only the greatest force driving [the world] to war, but after the end of the fighting it will still not permit the hell to be transformed into peace.' He wrote in Mein Kampf. The depression that crippled post-war Germany was a planned manoeuvre. 'The battle against international finance and loan capital has become the most important point in the programme of the German nation's struggle for economic independence and freedom...' The Jew was 'a proper bloodsucker that attaches itself to the body of an unhappy nation...' If there were such things as halfway decent Jews, thought Hitler, they were Zionists, for at least they were not intending to remain in Germany.

It was Hitler's intention from the start to push the Jews out of the German economy, indeed out of every area of German public life. The West rose to the challenge with its own boycott of German goods. There were large-scale public protests in New York with its big Jewish population. German ships were mobbed in the harbour and swastikas hauled down, and Hollywood joined in the fun by making anti-German films like The Rothschilds in 1934.

Hitler was not master in his own house until August 1934 and the death of President von Hindenburg, and even then, there were those around him who felt it incumbent on them to warn him of the economic consequences of his actions. So it was, for example, with the 1936 Olympiad which was supposed to yield large amounts of foreign currency. It was essential that the Jew-baiting be suspended while there were tourists in Germany. Brutality towards the Jews was making Germany a poorer place. The summer before the Olympics, the Minister of Economics Hjalmar Schacht, had delivered a cautious warning to Nazi thugs at Königsberg. The Nuremberg Laws of September that year were perceived as a means of defining the position of Jews in Germany and stopping acts of random violence.

Hermann Göring took over many of Schacht's functions when he became Plenipotentiary for the Four Year Plan in 1936, but Göring was also aware of the need to trade required some tolerance of the Jews both within and without Germany. At first his advisors had been able to rein Hitler in and make him conscious of international disapproval, but with time the more virulent Nazis, chiefly Joseph Goebbels, were able to win Hitler over. It was Goebbels who organised the 1938 Kristallnacht which destroyed pretty well any remaining chance of Germany pursuing international trade. Göring was furious when he learned how much the action had cost, until he was consoled by Heydrich's suggestion that they could make the Jews pay for the damage. Shortly afterwards Schacht was sacked as President of the Reichsbank and Hitler made his grisly prophecy about the destruction of the Jews on 30 January 1939 as warning to the boycotteers. Germany slid towards war.

By the time that happened Haavara had run right out of steam: the only Jews officially allowed to enter Palestine by then arrived on tourist visas, and accidentally on purpose made for the hills before it was time to leave. The Nazi Jewish 'expert' Adolf Eichmann tried with difficulty to push Austrian Jews towards Palestine after March 1938, but came up against the British Mandate that was seeking to appease the Arabs. When Germany offered her Jews to the rest of the world at the Evian Conference that year, there were few takers.

Hitler does not seem to have been much concerned with the minutiae of the Haavara accord but there is no earthly reason why he would have objected to it. If the agreement makes him a Zionist, however, I must be a Dutchman, for Hitler was certainly no champion of Jewish nationalism. Ken has doubtless adopted the Arab term 'Zionist' to designate 'Israeli' and all that pertains to the state of Israel, but the original meaning has acquired all the gloss of seventy years of Israeli history - all of which has occurred since Hitler's death.

Somewhere in the middle of the controversy launched by Ken's claims, the former Mayor acquired an unlikely champion in Norman Finkelstein, author of the famous opuscule The Holocaust Industry of 2000, about how American Jews and the state of Israel between them have exploited Hitler's destruction of the Jews to their own mostly financial ends and to prevent criticism of the violence committed by Israeli leaders against their Palestinian people. Professor Finkelstein defended Ken, attributing his thinking to some learned tome. I suspect that Finkelstein was being indulgent, but then by virtue of being a Jew himself he has become the unimpeachable apologist of all those who are critical of Israel. When Ken was asked to clarify his views on Hitler the Zionist he was unable to give an accurate date for his accession to power. There was a pot-boiler published in the eighties which attributed huge importance to the Haavara Agreement, and I suspect that Ken possibly thumbed through that.

It is useful, of course, that people chip away at historical monoliths in this way not least because it requires us all to check our facts with respect the more arcane bits of history. Most of the standard sources on the Third Reich are silent about Haavara which nonetheless allowed 50,000 German Jews to escape to Palestine, and take substantial amounts of their property with them. It was not in any way the worst thing that happened in that dismal time.

Fortunes High and Low in Venice

Posted: 15th July 2016

At the beginning of the month we all went to Venice. My wife, son and I left from Gatwick, while my daughter travelled across the Alps from Vienna and met us on the Grand Canal. It was not my first time, but I hardly qualify as an old Venice-hand. I have been twice before, coincidentally both times in 1993, in those distant days before I put down roots.

My first visit was in April that year. My paper had decided I should attend a cookery course at the Gritti Hotel. It was a select crew: I remember a Swedish doctor and his daughter. He was a nutritionist and a disciple of Linus Pauling with interesting ideas about vitamin C; and there was the editor of a Canadian lifestyle magazine who used to knock back grappa with me in Haig's Bar. In the mornings we watched the chef making gnocchi and risotti, then we ate the lesson for lunch; and after that we were free. The only drawback was that I had agreed to assess Hans Georg Reuth's biography of Goebbels for a publisher, which meant I had to spend an hour a day turning pages in my little suite overlooking the Campiello Traghetto before I could escape and explore. As well as the piece on the cookery school, I managed to put together another on eating out, as well as a third on the Rialto Market - part of a series we were doing at the time. It was a good time to be a hack.

The traghetto was jolly useful: the boat that crossed to Dorsoduro from bang outside my door provided a nifty getaway from the madding crowds that swarmed in the lanes between San Marco and the Accademia. I often persevered, however, and made it as far as the Gheto in the west and Arsenale in the east, and explored to the north as far as Giannipolo, looking at all the churches and paintings I could. I stood on the Accademia Bridge at sunset and listened to Wagner's Träume on my walkman, knowing that the master had died not so far away in the Ca' Vendramin Calergi. I even took the vaporetto to Giudecca, although much that I found there was of Venice's slummier, brickish skirt, besides the obvious splendours of Palladio.

I am sure I didn't know that I would be back in Venice in October that year. My second sojourn occurred as a short-ish pause in a marathon that would have me taking a dozen flights in two weeks. I was in Scotland first, where a scattering of snow had already dusted the horns of the Highland cattle, when I arrived at Marco Polo Airport and walked toward my transport on the lagoon, it was 21 degrees and a balmy evening. The flight had been notable too: I had brandished a letter from All'Italia to obtain my boarding pass. The woman behind the counter at Heathrow looked so angry I asked her if there were something wrong? She looked at me with utter disdain and hissed 'VIP!'

For once that status meant something. I sat at the front of the aircraft talking to a famous Israeli architect-cum-sculptor. When we are about to land, an air hostess appeared and asked me if I would like to sit in the cockpit. My new friend instantly piped up 'I'm his assistant, can I come too?' 'No, just 'im!' snapped the air hostess.

The pilots welcomed me and I sat down on the jump seat just behind them and we flew in low over the city's tile roofs. It was a glorious sight. I couldn't work my seatbelt, but I kept mum and landed in Venice sitting in the cockpit with my belt artfully arranged across my lap.

I had been asked to judge the Premio Marco Polo, or at least the wine element of the prize. I recall my fellow British judge was Richard Mayson. We stayed at the Metropole on the Riva degli Schiavoni. I have vague memories of a German judge, but the one who sticks in my mind was a slight man from Canada who wrote about wine, he told me, but who was otherwise a professional bass baritone. The judging was not arduous, and we were given treats. One day we went to Murano and Burano on a schooner. We must have lunched on the latter because I remember a small glass of the island's famously rare and expensive wine being given to me, which proved to be fragola: made from American hybrid grapes. On the way back I asked the baritone if he knew Reynaldo Hahn's Venetian songs. He did, and without much prompting he sang a couple of them as we turned the corner towards the Grand Canal - a quite unforgettable experience.

And the organisers topped up my experiences of eating out in Venice, by taking me to I Gondolieri in Dorsoduro, which I had eyed up the time before and failed to get into. On my first trip I had naturally sampled the Gritti, and the Daniele, as well as more recherché places like Il Corte Sconta and cheap standbys such as the perennial La Madonna, but the meal I had at I Gondolieri remains the best I have eaten in the city.

It is the moment to return to reality then, and the present time. For VIP read budget airline, and two hours sitting on the tarmac in Gatwick. I was four rows behind my wife and son and tried to interest my spooning neighbours in moving to their seats. They had a window like me and I tried to tempt them: 'When you come into land you will be able to see the whole city!' 'Na, we've been to Venice before,' Said the girl, who promptly returned to nibbling her lover's ear.

Instead of the Gritti, we had a B&B called Ca' Celestia in Castello. In fact it was most of a house and nicely off the beaten track in the piazza containing the local archives and up against the walls of the Arsenale. Only the bravest doubletons of tourists were ever seen in our square, either coming from the east to reach the Arsenale or heading up from the quay to get to the church of S Francesco della Vigna. There was a little shopping street with a couple of bakers to the south and a local bar that stayed open late-ish on the way to the Arsenale. I missed those late nights in Haig's Bar, which I think must have moved away from the Gritti, but my daughter had come with some bottles of wine, and we stayed up after dinner and played a few hands of cards in our little kitchen-cum-dining room.

The real deluge of tourists that renders Venice almost impossible for four months of the year, concentrates in the lanes and alleyways between San Marco and the Rialto. Given there are just two bridges over the Grand Canal before you reach the railway station, the thoroughfares become so clogged that it is hard to stop and see anything beyond dense clutches of humanity armed with selfie-sticks strategically placed on the tops of bridges or posing in front of the best-known views. We heaved a sigh of relief every time we reached the square of Santa Maria della Formosa, where the crowds began to thin out, and beyond that Giannipolo. In Barbaria de le Tole and Calle Larga Giacinto Gallina there were plenty of reasonable trattorie where primi cost anything between €8 and €15. Thin local wine could be had for as little as €10 a litre.

When it's 30 degrees in the sun Venice on a shoestring can fray the toughest nerves. Galleries are expensive. Tickets for two adults and two children for the Accademia cost as much as a decent meal. Churches are 'cool', as I kept telling my son, but I did not get the impression he was convinced. I hope the next time he goes to Venice he'll be a little more open to the Bellinis, Titians and Tiepolos and complain a little less about his feet.

It was only partly a holiday and after four days my family scattered to the four winds and I moved into the inaptly named Belle Epoque hotel by the railway station. Some of our number might have had lovely rooms (at least one person had a ceiling all in mirrors), but for the first time in my life I had a hotel room without a window, and the only place where I could stand up straight was occupied by my bed! Fortunately the shower had a sort of shelf in it which I could sit on, else I would have smashed my head against a beam every time I had soap in my eyes. This was home for me for the next three nights while I was in Venice for a conference organised by King's College London on culture under periods of military occupation. During the day we met in the piano nobile of the city's university - the late gothic palace of the Ca' Foscari, with its spectacular views onto the Grand Canal and in the evening there were light-hearted discussions around the al fresco dining tables of various restaurants in the city. It was another side to the city, and one I had not seen before.

On the first day of the conference, however, I learned that my Easyjet flight had been cancelled and that I was now required to leave to city on Saturday at a heart-snapping 6.55 am, rather than a more relaxing 12.05 pm. Not for me the dignified departure that on the lagoon-bound vaporetto (but I suppose I should be happy that it was not Gustav von Aschenbach's either), instead I shared taxi that took to metalled roads. At least the airplane left on time and I thank heaven for this smallest of mercies.

The European Union and My Part in its Story

Posted: 15th June 2016

It is 15 June and the Plebiscite on whether we leave the European Union is a little more than a week away. There is an ever-more apparent possibility that the Leave campaign will win the day, and we British Europeans will have to put away more than 43 years of peaceful and cooperative history, corresponding to my entire adult life, not to mention the lives of my children.

Conflict has been behind the history of the EU almost from the beginning. The last German Kaiser expressed some airy-fairy support for it in his more 'liberal' regime, during the chancellorship of Caprivi, but the first person to seriously advocate a European union was the French foreign minister Aristide Briand. That was after the appalling carnage of the First World War, which also led to a growth of pacifism and a call for disarmament. The latter proved a mixed blessing: German revanchisme, kindled by the Versailles Treaty, meant that anything other than a short respite from violence was unlikely. As Boris Johnson has told us, Hitler united much of Europe, as did Caesar and Napoleon before him. Hitler wasn't interested in a political settlement for the conquered lands, however. He discussed it with Rommel on one occasion and declared that the time was not right. Several Vichy French politicians were struck by the de facto existence of a united Europe during the Occupation, however, and some of them thought this was a good thing.

It was the wasteland of the immediate post-war years that made politicians redouble their efforts to unite Europe. The first move to create a Common Market was the 1951 European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which came shortly after the establishment of the German Federal Republic and was facilitated by the German Chancellor Adenauer's good relations with Charles de Gaulle. Germany and France had buried the hatchet. The Treaty of Rome followed in 1957. The countries involved - France, Germany, Italy and Benelux - agreed for the need to pool resources, create a customs union and abolish borders between member states. Political union was aired then and there, as was a defence union, but military cooperation was rejected for the time being. Since 1948, Europe already had NATO, a Cold War military alliance which committed the United States to defend a weak and exhausted Europe against potential Soviet aggression. The business of keeping ourselves from one another's throats was left to us. The establishment of the Common Market was a step towards making the chance of another war in Western and Central Europe unlikely. Sixty years later most European states still enjoy amicable relations - longer than any time in modern and probably even mediaeval history.

Britain was no less exhausted than the next country. We had survived, but survived only as a result of our friends. The last time we could fully stand on our own two feet was in around 1900, when we were still possessed of an empire on which the sun never set and a navy twice as big as our nearest rival's. At that point there were voices for turning the Empire into some sort of community. The most famous of these was that of Joseph Chamberlain, the father of the statesmen Austen and Neville. The notion was inevitably based on the dominions, which could provide the agricultural produce that the Motherland so seriously lacked. Cecil Rhodes was an enthusiastic supporter, but he took the idea a step further and included all white Anglo-Saxon (or plain Saxon) races when he created his Rhodes Trust, and as a result Americans and Germans were to be given scholarships to study at the university that he had so enthusiastically attended as a mature student. Another Chamberlain, Houston Stewart, who married one of Wagner's daughters and was later guru to Adolf Hitler, took these ideas even further.

I suppose that the Commonwealth of 1949 was also influenced by this idea that Britain could in some way rely on the children it had nurtured around the world, but it proved a weak bond, a sort of Old Boys' Association for ex-colonies and very few of them wanted to subsidise the school after they left, beyond organising the occasional cricket match. The Dominions did provide invaluable assistance in the First and Second World Wars, but for the bedraggled and indebted Britain of 1945, they were not overly useful beyond creating places of refuge: Britons emigrated in large numbers - not just '£10 Poms' going to Australia but people looking for a new life in New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.

America and Soviet Russia had been our best friends in the war, but Russia was an odd bedfellow and not to be trusted, and the United States contained many powerful voices that were more than keen to see Britain cut down to size. America was committed to NATO, but they were not at all in favour of our retaining our empire. Anyone who doubted this or believed in the continuation of a 'special relationship' had only to observe the Suez Crisis in 1956 when the US left us and the French in the lurch. The French - another possessor of a vast empire - signed the Treaty of Rome the following year. In 1966 they turned their backs on NATO.

Abandoned by everyone else, the British waited until 1961 when together with Ireland, Norway and Denmark they applied to join the Common Market: not a business club then, but the caring, sharing proto-political union. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had made his 'winds of change' speech the year before. The empire was now a thing of the past, but de Gaulle thought (probably quite rightly as all the recent kerfuffle about Turkey has shown - Britain was being pushed to admit Turkey by the US) that Britain would still be a Trojan Horse for the Americans and vetoed us.  A new application was filed by Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1967. The wheels ground slowly and it was Edward Heath's Conservative administration that undertook the negotiations, leading to Britain's formal entry into the Common Market at the beginning of 1973.

I was still at school then, but in my last year. Britain seemed to be rising from the doldrums. My first memories of the fifties are of grinding poverty - shortages, smog, filth and foul food. Then we picked up a bit with the Swinging Sixties when a modicum of post-war prosperity was perceptible. Schoolfriends and I used to 'hang out' in the King's Road and look at pretty ladies in revealing dresses, but it was also the time of Devaluation ('the pound in your pocket has never been stronger') and at the end of the decade our ancient currency was abolished and replaced by 'new pounds and pence,' which I utterly loathed.

I had followed the negotiations with the Common Market from Wilson's time, and now I watched a red-faced Heath speaking pig French on the television, looking for all the world like a big pork sausage. The Mainland was a very distant prospect for boys like me, even if well-heeled Brits braved currency restrictions to pootle down to the Loire and eat decent food that was not on the cards for us: we didn't have two pence to rub together, old or new. Ours was a 'broken home,' what is now called a 'single-parent family.' I never knew much about my Irish father, he was long gone, but I was aware that my mother was exotic, having come from Austria in the Thirties. Her English mother had died soon after, leaving her to all intents and purposes an orphan, and a foreign one. She did not become British until she swore the Oath of Allegiance in 1945. While I was still a babe in arms, there was I trip to Honfleur, but I have no record of that beyond a murky photograph. When I was nine or ten, my mother bolted to Italy with us and we lodged for a while above some oxen in a village near Montevarchi in Tuscany. I recall a day trip (can it have been just a day, the boat train took all of eight hours?) to Paris, with me in grey flannel shorts and my mother in a mini-skirt (I can still visualise the ribald gestures made by French cheminots) and a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg where I ate my first ever ripe peach.

When my brother and sister had flown the coop there were more trips for me: Austria when I was fourteen, to see my mother's birthplace; Spain when I was fifteen, to stay with a woman in the English colony in Javea, who brought her own ham out in tins, because Spanish ham was 'no good.' Some jealousy blew up between the two women and we scarpered to Barcelona, which I loved: the seedy port, the Ramblas and its market full of queer shellfish and more ripe peaches. The next year we made our way through France to meet my sister in the Languedoc. I saw old Lyon and its gothic and renaissance buildings and loved them too.

That was the sum total of my knowledge of the Continent before I left school, but in the run up to going to university I spent five months in Paris and a few short weeks in Munich, and that naturally did much to expand my horizons. In Paris I lied about my age and got a job in a language school. They kept sending me off to obtain a residence permit but I knew that any official papers would show me up, so I prevaricated for as long as I could. There was a huge air of officialdom there which ran counter to my experience of being my British castle at home (although the Metropolitan Police seemed to be always stopping me on some pretext or other). You needed to carry 100 francs on you else you could be arrested for vagrancy: most of the time I could have killed for 100 francs. In Munich I failed to secure enough hours of teaching to live on, and missing wild parties in London, I cashed in my chips.

That was 1975 and the year of the last European Plebiscite. I spent much of the summer beside a swimming pool in Dorset where my unwilling host (it wasn't him I'd come to see) was campaigning for the equivalent of Remain. He was the principal employer in a small town and he wanted to export his clay to the Mainland. The election placed Mrs Thatcher and Woy Jenkins on one wide (she in a dress made up of national flags) and Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (as he then was) and Enoch Powell on the other. I don't think anyone doubted the outcome.

For most of us young people, being members of the Common Market was a quite natural progression that had been simply delayed by the unsympathetic figure of de Gaulle. I went up to university that October. Of course the Common Market had its detractors. In my college there was a rabidly xenophobic scout (we had men to make our beds and clean our rooms in those days) called George, who used to amuse us with songs of his own composition. One which I still sing from time to time was on the subject of the Common Market. The line I remember best went: 'Oh we'll all get right well boozed/ on Portuguese vin rouge/ now the Common Market's come to stay with you!' No one dared tell George that Portugal was not a member, or that the Portuguese for red wine was 'vinho tinto.'

Once I had done my exams, I got back on the boat-train and returned to Paris. I remained there for another six and a half years. That experience, more than anything, made me a committed Mainlander. Yes, there was bureaucracy (I never did get that carte de séjour) and I had to get used to the 'magistral' style of French higher education so different to the more liberal, hands-on tradition that had fed me until then, and yet there was a certain rigour. The French were still incontestably culturally supreme in Europe, and it was a country with a massive army and striking nuclear capacity, as well as an utter contempt for the pretensions of its neighbour to the north.

My affection for the Mainland was and remains cultural. This was my Europe, a continent of shared aspirations, of kindred traditions, languages and literary development; a continent that had come close to destroying itself by accentuating differences rather than finding common causes. The Common Market had embraced those causes. There was above all hope for the young. I met students doing language courses at British universities who got to grips with a year of teaching and learning. Some sank, some swam. It was only after 1989, when the Iron Curtain came down that I really began to see the possibilities of a large, open continent when I met a young man in Sofia who was teaching at the university there. He had done his first degree in Vienna, had studied in Kiev, and was now hoping to go to Oxford to do his doctorate, as he wanted to take the All Souls exam. How the world had changed for the better, I thought: 1973 meant Europe, while 1989 signalled the end of repressive communism in the eastern half of our continent. These were, and remain the high-watermarks of my life.

The England I returned to in 1985 was a different place. For a start the so-called 'establishment' had ceased to exist. The end of empire required institutions to adapt or go to the wall. Mrs Thatcher began the process and Tony Blair enthusiastically pursued it. Schools, universities, the civil service, the law, the armed forces and parliament all had to change. Much that I had loved of the traditional Britain disappeared. As a second-generation Briton who had come of age on the cusp of the old world there were many paths that were barred to me now if I refused to fall in with the new order. This process, it should be stressed, had come about as a result of power that had been waning since 1900, and not, as some people might think now, from the Common Market, then EEC, later EU. Other former imperial states suffered broadly the same process, if anything, France's decline has been abject than our own.

I suspect that most of the rank-and-file Leave campaigners are more animated by a fear of what might happen as a consequence of unbridled immigration than any abstruse arguments about sovereignty (which in terms of our ability to feed and defend ourselves we lost long ago) or budgets (where people swallow any mendacious figures they are given). They are right to be worried. Just as I rued the day I saw the end of so many institutions I believed to hold the charm of British life, they see their own worlds going under in a welter of multiculturalism. Here in my parish of Kentish Town I cannot say I have any desire to embrace the Somali ladies in their nun-like costumes who ply the streets, and their husbands would surely knife me if I did. When I go to the Commercial Road in the East End, I can see no difference between there and the Middle East, except that the Middle East is generally cleaner and sunnier. Their culture is simply not my culture: my culture is a European culture; I think they should come only if they can assimilate, but I should add that they do not come from the Mainland, but mostly from our old empire. The Brussels bogey is simply not to blame.

Of course there are Brexit people who have thought long and hard about leaving the EU, and among them some very bright and persuasive men and women. Many, however, are starry-eyed historical romantics who think that by eliminating the EU and Brussels we will return to some sort of golden age: Britain will be white again, Protestant, free of foreign interference, rule the waves, call the tune and stand up for all those values that have typified our nation since the Reformation. I confess that I am also a romantic, but somehow I cannot see this happening after a century of folly and decline. To believe that a post-Brexit Britain will once again resume its primacy in the world is a delusion and a dangerous one. After the euphoria of 24 June these romantics may well end up suffering a very nasty hangover.


Posted: 16th May 2016

About thirty years ago I made considerable inroads into the Rougon-Macquart series of novels before I gave up. Germinal had been a set text in Theodor Zeldin's Further Subject option on French Literature and Society which I had taken as an undergraduate, and at some point I had read Thérèse Raquin (which is not a Rougon-Macquart novel), so while I was living in Paris I thought I'd do the rest of the score. I can't remember exactly why I grew tired of reading Zola, but it may be that I found him less enchanting than my favourite writer - Balzac.

Zola clearly learned a lot from Balzac. Both chose to write about a period in recent French history and create characters who pop up time and time again. In Zola's case this was an extended family, while in Balzac's the field is much, much wider. When you read Zola you also miss the wry humour and the skilful characterisation of the older writer, where you watch how people cunningly bury their revolutionary pasts at the restoration of the French monarchy and try to act as if nothing untoward has happened. In Zola you observe how the industrial revolution crushes and dehumanises the lives of ordinary French workers while it advances the prospects of louche capitalists and crooks. Zola was all about the message as well: his huge, stinging indictment of the seedy Second Empire, which finally expires, riddled with syphilis with his prostitute novel Nana (French defeat at the Battle of Sedan also carries off old Monsieur Rougon in Le Docteur Pascal); but there is too much polemic, not to mention too many loopy theories, not least the hereditary nature of alcoholism, to render any of his figures lovable.

Zola sat down and wrote out his list of characters before he started work, and the Rougon-Macquart series is much more cleverly constructed than the Comédie humaine. We can observe the progression of certain characters much better than say Balzac's Vautrin or Lucien de Rubempré. Zola's Claude Lantier, for example, we meet as a boy in L'Assommoir, but he quickly leaves the scene as he has the luck to find a patron who sends him to school back in Provence. He does not witness the terrible fate of his mother. He crops up next in Le Ventre de Paris and becomes the one real friend to the hapless Florent. Then he gets his own novel in L'Oeuvre where Zola caricatures his erstwhile friend Cézanne - as a damning a character assassination as you will ever find. As it is Zola, he piles on the agony. I once lent the book to a Bulgarian friend who was missing his young son (also by chance called Emile) while he worked on his doctorate in Paris. He returned the volume to me in disgust: he had not been able to read any further than the passage in which Lantier decides to paint the corpse of his dead boy, a scene stretched out over pages and pages. Claude's brother, Etienne, becomes a railway engineer and is the hero of La Bête humaine, while his sister is the firework let off at the end of the imperial garden party, who implodes at the end of her own novel, Nana.

Zola's descriptions are as riveting as they are interminable, but sometimes (like the death of Claude Lantier's son), they are too much to bear. In La Joie de vivre there is a scene of childbirth that is as grotesque as anything you might stumble across in modern feminist literature. I recently translated the passage from Germinal for a book on testicles, where abused female workers castrate a (fortunately already dead) man. I felt a very strong need for drink when I finished that. Some of these long-drawn out descriptions, however, are as delightful as they are informative, such as the birthday feast in L'Assommoir, but you are aware that something nasty is brewing up and all happiness is likely to be cancelled out by the time you reach the next chapter. People in Zola are essentially vile, and nothing pleasant happens to anyone for very long.

Zola was a journalist by training, and he put that to excellent use in his novels. Many modern writers try to get inside their characters by learning about different walks of life, but none took it quite as seriously as Zola who prepared a meticulous dossier before he began. When Zola studies a pork butcher, you really learn all there is to know about sausages. The restaurants and dance halls mentioned in the texts all existed at the time of writing. The same could be said about every branch of life tackled in the series, from metal-working and roofing, to driving trains, medicine, stock jobbing or mining. L'Assommoir, for example, is also written in argot, and I wonder whether it was not the first novel to attempt to accurately record the big-city slang of its day? French slang has moved on since, and school editions now carry an extensive list of useful footnotes that served me as much as I am sure they serve them. And then there is the transformation of Paris, the building of the huge and magnificent Central Markets or Les Halles, that were demolished in the 1960s, and more important still, the replanning of Paris under the Prefect, Baron Haussmann, which gradually cleared away the picturesque slums of the mediaeval city and replaced them with the great limestone facades that characterise the boulevards to this day. The Rougon-Macquart is an absolute gift for historians and linguists working on mid-nineteenth century France.

Although he does lay it on with a trowel, Zola is nonetheless a powerful writer who carries his audience with him. He is calling for social justice, and you are acutely conscious of how little security people had before Bismarck began to sell the packages that we now take for granted, items that would become pensions, unemployment benefits, paid leave not to mention compulsory primary and secondary education. In Zola's pitiless Second Empire, just as in Dickens' London, one slip, one false move, one debilitating accident, even a glass too many, and you end up rotting like a beast in the mire.

Book Review: Jeremy Lewis, David Astor (Jonathan Cape £25)

Posted: 15th April 2016

On the 3rd of March I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Jeremy Lewis's biography of David Astor at the In-And-Out Club at 4 St. James's Square. The Club occupies one of the few remaining London town palaces and the sumptuous upstairs ballroom I now automatically associate with the Bad Sex Awards which hold their annual romp there. We revellers possibly forget that this was once the home of Waldorf, Viscount Astor, the Anglophile American millionaire whose family had made a dazzling fortune from their chain of hotels, and his equally American wife Nancy: the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. It was in this house that their second son David was born on 5 March 1912.

Waldorf acquired the Observer newspaper, which David Astor both owned and edited and transformed into a highbrow (if not 'high table') Sunday in the forties. Had I ever been on the staff, I might have recognised many of the illustrious heads who came that night, but I did manage to shake a few hands and exchange a few words some of them, most of them were over eighty and a few well past ninety.

In his speech, and again in the preface, Lewis described the Godpaternal role I played in the writing of the book. It was not such a big thing: I knew that one of Astor's sons-in-law had been sitting on the project for some time, and I had been more recently informed by another of Astor's protégées, Patsy Meehan, that he had put the work to one side, and that the family was looking for someone else to finish it. I had not considered Astor's life a fitting subject for my pen and when I talked to Lewis at a party some time later I mentioned the possibility to him. He seemed a more suitable candidate as he had written so much about the world of publishing and newspapers. Lewis grabbed at the idea, and here - its genesis temporarily impeded by a bout of cancer from which Lewis has fortunately made a full recovery - was the book in all its glory. It is a fine achievement, not least because he has dealt with all the egos and super-egos that had to be smoothed and polished along the way, but also because it is so elegantly turned out.

In fact I met Astor long after he had ceased to have anything more to do with the Observer. I was writing a life of his erstwhile German friend Adam von Trott and I realised that I would need his help. I must have started working on the book in the spring of 1987, but it was a long time before I felt I had read enough about the subject to write to Astor. As it was I stumbled, a perfect Parsifal, into a festering quarrel which had been simmering since 1939, and which had become even more pestilential since the publication of Christopher Sykes's life of Trott - Troubled Loyalty - in 1969. As Lewis makes clear, despite having arranged for Sykes to write it, Astor hated the book, and did all he could to scuttle it. The old guard composed of Trott's Oxford 'friends' mostly rallied to Sykes, who thought Trott's brain addled by reading too much Hegel and who suspected the aristocratic German of being a closet Nazi; partly because he was (for one reason or another) unable to make himself clear and partly because he exhibited a patriotic love for his country, and no one could comprehend why anyone could have any affection for a country like Germany.

For my own part, my criticism of Sykes was rather more down to earth: Trott was a man who had sacrificed his life to redeem the image of his country, which had been perverted by Hitler. Sykes's book was dull and plodding: an unforgivable waste of a good subject. The thesis Trott wrote on Hegel at the age of twenty-one was worth a paragraph at the most. Sykes clearly found Trott's loopy elder brother Werner far more engaging than the subject he had been commissioned to write about.

Astor must have licked his lips at the prospect of my writing a new biography and willingly passed me on to the pro-Trott party that had formed just after the war. Depleted now, it was chiefly represented by Trott's widow Clarita in Berlin, and the Bielenbergs - Peter and Christabel - in Ireland There was also Trott's Oxford lover, Diana Hopkinson (née Hubback) in Wiltshire who invited me to lunch and still seemed quite besotted with her dead friend. Most of the anti-Trotts, such as Richard Crossman, Maurice Bowra, John Wheeler-Bennett, Stephen Spender and Sykes himself, were already dead, but Isaiah Berlin was still alive and gave me a nice word to put on the back of my book, even if his heart was far from in it. I even had a jolly letter from an ancient Harold Acton, who had known Trott in China. A. L. Rowse wrote as well. He had had a crush on Trott and wrote doubtful poems about his friend's severed head after his hanging in Plötzensee Prison. The tone of his letter was surprisingly mild and he even signed off 'your fellow Celt'. Another committed foe, Shiela Grant Duff, was not so forgiving. She didn't like it to be known that she had had an affair with Trott. When I made it clear that she had, she threatened to sue me.

Astor himself was extremely helpful, although at first he was pretty stiff. My experience of former Fleet Street editors was limited to discussing Jesse Norman with the German émigré Fredy Fisher at the FT. As I left Astor's house he would ask me if I needed to use the ... then he would hesitate for a few seconds while he located a lost word he imagined might put me at my ease. He would finally blurt out 'Would you like to use the toilet? 'Sometimes he would be monosyllabic during our sessions, reminding me of tutorials with his contemporary and my tutor at his (and my) old Oxford college: Christopher Hill. I readily understood that he was subject to bouts of depression. After a while our little meetings at his house in St Ann's Terrace became more friendly, even conspiratorial. From time to time he was positively loquacious, discoursing pithily and at length. On one occasion he brought in an elderly Countess Spinelli for me to meet, who had been born a member of the Warburg banking family, and told me in advance to compare her profile to the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti in Berlin. She had known Trott in Hamburg and New York, but it was not a successful lunch: her memory failed her.

Astor's wife Bridget was a gentle presence then and on other occasions. He did not find it easy with women. As Lewis brings out in his biography, Astor had been mauled in childhood by his mother's domineering personality. The redoubtable Christabel Bielenberg, who had known Nancy, told me an amusing story about the time when Astor's mother had heard a wireless broadcast about GI brides featuring a miserable, lachrymose woman from Lancashire who was being maltreated by her husband in Virginia. Lady Astor was already planning a trip back to her native state. Once she arrived she took out the Rolls and went round to the address she had garnered for this unfortunate British girl: 'get in', she commanded: 'you're going home!'

Astor was shy and failed to get much out of his undergraduate years, leaving Oxford without a degree. Trott seems to have been a 'coup de foudre' for Astor when he met him at Balliol. Trott was undeniably opportunistic in a charming sort of way and could see all sorts of potential in a friendship with Waldorf Astor's son: this was the opulent household where he might meet the 'naked fakir' Gandhi, whom he greatly admired. Unable to take German money out of the country, Nancy bought him clothes and called him the 'little Trott', though he was six foot four and she almost a midget. Trott's relationship with Astor matured just before the outbreak of war when the German used his well-connected British friend in the nicest possible way to arrange meetings with everyone he deemed of importance in Britain. The foreign minister, Halifax, he met at the Astors' country place, Cliveden. Halifax then arranged for him to be ushered in to talk to Chamberlain in Downing Street.

Trott was working for the German Opposition by then, taking orders for Weizsäcker at the Foreign Office and Schacht. Astor flew to Berlin to impress Hitler's liaison with the Foreign Office, the relatively genial and simple Nazi, Walther Hewel, but Trott also made sure Astor saw the other face of the regime and took him out to view Sachsenhausen concentration camp, from the outside at least. After war broke out, Trott was sent on a mission to America, but the Oxford don Maurice Bowra took it on himself to warn his friend Felix Frankfurter that Trott was a dangerous Nazi and Frankfurter prevented Roosevelt from seeing him, scuppering all the well-laid plans of the Opposition. Roosevelt personally ordered Herbert Hoover to have Trott tailed throughout the time he was in the US. The mechanics and subterfuges of this Opposition mission were well-known to Astor and were covered in the Freedom-of-Information files I obtained in Washington and used in later editions of A Good German, but Lewis does not appear to have consulted these. Astor was still very much in contact with his friend until the spring of 1940 when Trott returned to Germany and his fate.

Astor was a rich man but one who lived a modest life and was capable of great acts of generosity. Our conversations were forever interrupted by the telephone. Astor would turn his head to me and smile, place a hand over the receiver and say 'Frank Longford'. Lord Longford always wanted his support to save the soul of some allegedly repentant prisoner, often the 'Moors Murderer' Myra Hindley. His sponsorship of George Orwell is well known: he found him a cottage on the Hebridean island of Jura, where the Astors had a shooting estate and having ensured that he had the peace and quiet to write 1984, looked after him while he was dying. Orwell was buried near Astor's manor house at Sutton Courtenay. He heard that Trott had been executed when recovering from a war wound in Italy. Astor was profoundly affected and would remain so all his life, utterly convinced the better man had died. When the conflict ended he located Trott's widow, Clarita, whose daughters had been temporarily taken from her by the SS and renamed while she had been put in prison with the other resistance wives. He had Clarita brought to Switzerland to recover. He remained devoted to her and she to him. When Clarita refused me the use of a photograph, because Adam was wearing the 'Geflügel' (Party badge), I raised the matter with Astor. I obtained my picture as a result. The relationship between Astor and Clarita might also have been helped by the fact that Clarita later trained to become a psychoanalyst: Astor was a patient of Anna Freud's and used to undergo analysis every morning on the way to work.

As a reward for my labours, I suppose, Astor asked me to stay at his ravishing house in Sutton Courtenay in (old) Berkshire. It all seems distant now, but I recall he asked me to fetch wine from the cellar for dinner. He apologised for making me do it, saying that he had been brought up a Christian Scientist and had no knowledge of drink. His mother had detested alcohol almost as much as she loathed Roman Catholics. My book was already in proof, and Astor congratulated me on the snappy title. He had only recently given up trying to get me to delay publication. I don't imagine he approved of it much, but at least it was a positive study, where Sykes had been largely negative. There have been other books since, and they have all been positive. The spirit of Sykes and the old guard has been properly buried.

There was a house party at Sutton Courtenay that weekend: Richard Cockett, who was working on a study of Astor's editorship of the Observer and Patsy Meehan, who had studied the German Opposition for her book The Unnecessary War were there too. It must have been the late autumn of 1989 and it poured with rain non-stop so that I never got a good view of the house from the Thames, despite going for a walk with Astor and finding one or two sodden field mushrooms in the garden. I wanted to see the famous mediaeval bits of the house, and now I can't remember if I got my way. I recall I got on badly with Astor's daughter Nancy who liked to meditate, and her fiancé, who appeared from Oxford on Sunday, where he was a Rhodes Scholar from South Africa. He had decided to attend Mass at Saint Aloysius first, he said, before he drove over. So there was another Catholic there, but not a soul mate. He was the same man who started, but never fished David Astor's biography. For the rest, my memory is silent. Somewhere out there, at the top of the bookshelves, there must be a diary gathering dust.

Problems with The Netaji

Posted: 15th March 2016

Book Review: Romain Hayes, Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany - Politics, Intelligence and Propaganda 1941-43 (Hurst 2011)

Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) was the third most important figure in the Indian Nationalist movement after Gandhi and Nehru. Utterly passionate both in his belief in Indian independence and his hatred of the British Empire, he suffered no fewer than eleven periods of detention in British prisons before he escaped from India to lead his campaign from Nazi Germany. Once he became aware that the Japanese were more likely to liberate India than the Germans, he arranged to travel back to Asia in a submarine. He was given far more credence in Japan than he had ever received in Berlin or Rome. As soon as he returned to the region he became their puppet Indian ruler in exile.  He died three days after the end of the war on 18 August 1945, when his aircraft crashed in Formosa (now Taiwan), although many of his supporters thought that he survived the accident and there are possibly a few who think that Elvis-like, Bose lives on to this day.

Indians, Bengalis in particular, love Bose. If you go to Calcutta there are little souvenir busts of him in his green coat on sale in all the shops along Chowringhee. For the rest of us, Bose is a hard man to love. Although he flirted with Fascism, and liked to use the title of 'Netaji' ('leader'- as in 'der Führer', 'il Duce' or 'el Caudillo'), he had had second thoughts about it by the time the Second World War broke out. He remained more at home with authoritarian systems of government than democratic rule and had a distinct penchant for military uniforms and the 'cult of personality'. Escaping from British India in January 1941, Bose's first hope was to secure help from Stalin's Russia, but in this he was spurned, and using the alias of 'Orlando Mazzotta' (he continued to pose as 'Mazzotta' all the time he was in Berlin) he headed for Hitler's Germany. He might have been better off with Mussolini, whose brand of totalitarianism was less stamped by racial prejudice than Hitler's, but he had personal reasons for wanting to be in Central Europe: he had met an Austrian woman called Emilie Schenkl in Vienna in the Thirties and married her. She bore him a daughter called Anita who is still alive and a distinguished university professor.

Indeed, had he headed for Rome, it might have been easier to redeem his reputation after the war, but Germany was more powerful and Bose was prepared to ally himself with the devil to see the end of the British Raj. As Romain Hayes points out in this short and pithy study of Bose's German sojourn, he made a good impression on Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels, only Ribbentrop had reservations, but by then Ribbentrop's foreign policy was largely discredited by Hitler's determination to destroy the Soviet Union. Ribbentrop considered the 1939 German-Soviet alliance to be his major achievement after his failure to secure a pact with Britain during the time he was Ambassador to the Court of Saint James's.

Hayes does not dwell much on Bose's personality, and perhaps that is all to the good. He liked to be called 'Excellency' and flounced out of one Berlin hotel when the porter refused to comply. He could be petty and spiteful and was distinctly arrogant. When the Netaji reached Kabul, for example, a journey that began in a car that was still lovingly preserved is the entrance bay to his house in Calcutta when I visited the place some years back, Bose 'though weary from days of walking, was suddenly overwhelmed with joyful energy; jumping in the air, he exclaimed. "Here I kick George VI," then, gurgling with happiness, "Here I spit on the face of the Viceroy."' (A Good German, 220)

Bose was nurturing a grievance against Hitler as a result of a pejorative passage in Mein Kampf about India and her aspirations to independence. It was one of his personal missions to have the passage amended or suppressed. Hitler, on the other hand, did not take this ill even if he did feel that India was not ready for self-government. On the other hand, he and others pointed out that Germany was not militarily in the position to foment an uprising in India although any action that might tie down Britain's might in the Subcontinent was evidently good news. Following the abortive 'Cripps Mission' in March 1942, in which the Cabinet minister Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to appease the nationalists in India with vague promises of dominion status, Bose's broadcasts from Berlin added fat to the conflagration that was to become the 'Quit India' movement, described as the biggest threat to the Raj since the 1857 Mutiny. At this point even Gandhi sat up and watched, and expressed some measured praised towards Bose, who at last seemed to be getting results. Gandhi had been chiefly contemptuous before then.

My own interest in Bose dates back more than a quarter of a century to the time when I was writing my book on Adam von Trott and the German opposition to Hitler; revised Kindle edition here. Trott was placed in charge of Bose within the Indian Department of the German Foreign Office. There were considerable advantages for Trott in this minding brief, for he now had a plurality of roles which meant several desks and the possibility of getting waylaid travelling between them. He was given a car to get round Berlin and his trips abroad could always be passed off as having something to do with Bose's Indian business and the INLA, the armed legion that was being created to return Indian POWs to the field to fight for the Germans. In short, Bose provided cover for Trott's tireless attempts to interest foreign governments in the plans laid by the German opposition.

Hayes quotes me and others as saying that Trott disliked Bose, and leaves it very much at that. Bose was almost certainly unaware that Trott was playing a double game and I don't suppose he allowed the German to influence his thinking one jot. Bose's folies de grandeur seem to have annoyed both Trott and his friend and colleague Alexander Werth. The Bengali had to be taken to Heydrich's 'Salon Kitty' brothel on occasion until a plush villa was found for him and he could send for Emilie to join him from Vienna. She seems to have been reminiscent of Natasha in Chekhov's Three Sisters: 'Trott and I ourselves bought the furniture together [wrote Werth] and we took an exceptionally malicious pleasure in making Fräulein Schenkl's bedroom as ugly as possible. She was the typical product of the Second World War, the baggage in fact of any war. She got permanently on our nerves with her risible desires which we and later Bose had to satisfy with such regularity. As a result of Indian sensitivity in personal affairs, and especially in erotic matters, we had to take care that in all things the wishes of Fräulein Schenkl be fulfilled for the first month of their Berlin existence. What we took amiss, though never let on to them, was the fact, that they were well aware of too, that we were in no position to refuse' (ibid 227-228). Trott's department had to make sure that Emilie wanted for nothing.

Trott was a man of the left, and had no particular reason to wish to see Britain continuing to wield power in India, but the scuttling of the Cripps Mission and the chaos created by the Quit India movement must have caused him some pain, not least because Cripps have been a loyal friend to him and supporter in his abortive dealings with the British government at the outbreak of war. The British Secret Service was well aware of Bose's involvement in the Quit India movement and monitored the propaganda broadcasts he made from Berlin. When I wrote A Good German I wanted to know whether MI6 was also aware that the former Rhodes Scholar Adam von Trott was permanently attached to Bose and whether that in any way influenced the very negative British official attitudes to Trott that dogged him during the war and sullied his reputation thereafter? I am sorry to say that the intelligence people had removed the relevant files, and alas, there is no information on this matter in Hayes book either. I suppose I might find out one day?

The Home Life of Our Own Dear Führer
Book Review: Despina Stratigakos, Hitler At Home, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015)

Posted: 15th February 2016

I was looking forward to reading this book. I had imagined something about the history of interior architecture and decoration encompassing Hitler's several residences; from the formal spaces of Speer's New Chancellery in Berlin to his faux rustique country mansion, the Berghof in Berchtesgaden, passing by his flat in Munich-Bogenhausen and others, such as his pied-à-terre in Haus Elefant in Weimar or even his various apartments in his campaign headquarters in Germany and the Ukraine.

Hitler maintained two very separate personae: a public man who apparently loved animals and children and who had forsaken domestic bliss for the sake of the ailing German nation and a private Hitler who lived in a palatial style surrounded by a hand-picked group of cronies and kept a mistress locked up in his country place in Berchtesgaden. A book on Hitler's buildings could tell us a lot about that man and should take us back to the eternal question: how much did Germans know? Every effort was made to stop them from discovering the banal truth about their leader's home life.

If you want to get closer to the man, Hitler, I am sorry to say that it will not be from reading this book. Detail is thin on the ground, apart from the titbit that his bathroom cupboard contained castor oil - probably there to help him deal with his revolting diet.

This book is rather an incoherent polemic and only tangentially about architecture or interior design. According to Despina Stratigakos Hitler's interiors were created to make 'Hitler seem both warmer and less queer' and imbue him with the 'right balance of heterosexual masculinity'.

Among other things, I was hoping to learn a lot more about Gerdy Troost, the widow of Hitler's first court architect Paul, who died in 1934 leaving behind the plans for many of the major Nazi monuments in Munich. Gerdy, together with Leni Riefenstahl, Hanna Reitsch, Winifred Wagner and Gertud Scholtz-Klink, was one of a handful of overachieving women in the Third Reich; females whose influence far exceeded their contemporary equivalents here in Britain. There is a proper chapter on her at least, and we hear that her partner Leonhard Gall was at least as important a designer of Hitler's interiors as Gerdy was and that the architect Alois Degano was mostly responsible for the exterior cladding of the Berghof in Berchtesgaden and indeed almost all the other buildings in Hitler's Alpine compound. Gerdy was besotted with Hitler, whom she compared to Kant, Plato, Luther and Meister Eckhart all in one, but in her defence, she did apparently use her influence to spare the odd Jew. One of the author's sillier theses is that Hitler was a closet homosexual but she makes a more cogent case for Gerdy Troost being a lesbian. She was a great deal younger than her husband by whom she had no children and after Paul's death she moved in with a woman and remained faithful to her until the end.

Whatever problems beset the manuscript, the editors have not been kind to this book either. I assume it was at their insistence that German street names were translated into English? 'Prince Regent Square', for example, was where the German Leader lived when he wasn't stomping up 'Wilhelm Street' in Berlin. I wondered why they had not had the courage of their own convictions and gone the whole hog with 'William Street'. In other examples, the German name is unaccountably maintained, as in the Königsplatz (King's Square) in Munich. What would this patronising attitude produce in Paris, I wondered? In June 1940, we could have Hitler strolling down Elysian Fields Avenue to see the site of the Tilemakers' Palace?  There is a lot of PC-pussyfooting besides: 'Neger' are translated as 'African Americans': how Hitler might have laughed at that! The most shocking piece of illiteracy of all, however, is the consistent spelling of 'G.I.s' as 'G.I.'s' complete with what Germans term the 'idiot apostrophe.'

I accept that it is an article of faith that women be referred to by their surnames, a distinction previously reserved for domestic servants, criminals and old-fashioned British public schoolboys ('good old Snodgrass scored three tries in the match against Harrow'). All well and good, but here Paul Troost gets miserably entangled with his wife Gerdy so that you look desperately for a male or female personal pronoun to set you right. Mere dates don't help, as the narrative is all higgledy-piggledy.  'Raubal' sometimes refers to Hitler's ill-fated niece 'Geli' (short for Angela) and at others to another Angela, his half-sister (Geli's mother). 'Wagner' turns out to be mostly Friedelind or her mother Winifred, and only seldom Richard. On another occasion I found Gerdy writing to 'Hess' and assumed it was Rudolf. I was wrong, it was an Alice Hess and I think no relation.

Every now and then the author reminds us dutifully that Hitler was a monster and while he was relaxing in an elegant, Gerdy-Troost-designed arm chair, mass-murder was being committed in the east. I could almost hear the words being whispered in her ear, 'I think you must tell the readers...' Another very annoying tick is constantly translating sums of money into the income of a poor boilermaker or rich bankers: once, or twice, is quite enough.

Some howlers have inevitably crept in too. We learn that all Jewish men were incarcerated after Kristallnacht in 1938 (the figure was under 30,000) but when this is discussed later, the true figure emerges. When Hitler was elected chancellor, the President, Hindenburg was living in the chancellor's palace while his presidential palace was being renovated. Hitler was accommodated in a modern wing, which he disliked. This is garbled at first mention but again rectified later. Still, we do learn about the earlier refitting of the chancellery, before Speer made a clean sweep of it and redesigned the building. I wondered why the author left out the rather meaty dispute over Paul Mathias Padua's Leda and the Swan, in which Gerdy had to decide whether the picture was actually pornographic. The prudish Hitler is said to have left the decision to his favourite woman.

The best parts of this book deal with the various articles written about Hitler's lifestyle in American and British glossy magazines in an attempt to humanise the Führer as well as an extensive discourse on the fate of the Berchtesgaden complex after the war. I think these sections are only tangentially relevant to the subject of the book, but they were interesting for all that and certainly much more instructive than any of her gender-obsessed gobbledygook. However, if you are looking to learn something about art or architecture in Hitler's palaces and minor residences, this book is not for you.

Book Review: Astrid Lindgren: Diaries 1939-1945

Posted: 18th January 2016

Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) was a famous Swedish children's book author. I didn't read her books as a child, perhaps they were earmarked for girls, but then again, there were few if any children's books in the maternal home. My wife was familiar with them, on the other hand and my daughter has fond memories of reading Pippi Longstocking. Astrid Lindgren's grown-up war diaries were published in Stockholm in May and in a German translation in the autumn and it was their popularity there which moved me to buy them. Since then the rights to the English translation have been acquired by the Pushkin Press and the book is due to appear sometime this year.

Astrid Lindgren had started life on a local newspaper and subsequently worked as a secretary. She had a son out of wedlock then married her boss Sture, later father of her surviving daughter Karin; but Sture was unfaithful and took to the bottle, which contributed to his early demise. Some of this domestic unhappiness surfaces in the text and there is plenty about her life and the trials and blessings of bringing up children.

She was only beginning to have some success as a children's writer when this volume comes to an end. She was a keen observer of Germany and an occasional critic of Swedish neutrality who had access to secret information through her wartime work as a post office censor. It was chiefly this that attracted me. I had some familiarity with Sweden's war from my book on Adam von Trott. Trott made several visits to Sweden during that time, where he tried to interest the Western Allies in various schemes proposed by the German Opposition. What I hoped to find was a neutral, objective voice on the war and all that came with it.

Certainly the objective voice is there and much of it echoes the Swedish press. Articles that interested her were cut out and stuck into the diary. These are reproduced in facsimile in the very handsome German edition. She is aware of Germany's peace offer to Britain, for example, in October 1939 and I doubt many people in this country knew as much. There is a deal of concern about Finland, which spent the first phase of the war fighting the Soviet Union on its own, although after the summer of 1941 it had German help, which meant Britain declared war on her. Finland was Swedish until 1809 and parts of Finland are still Swedish speaking; ties were therefore close. Norway was also historically part of Sweden, and the German invasion of Denmark and Norway was keenly felt. Sweden, however, would not budge from her policy of neutrality and continued to supply Nazi Germany with vital raw materials and allow its soldiers to cross her land. Germany possessed their own Swedish harbour and from time to time sank Swedish vessels by mistake. Sweden had little success in taking Germany to task over these outrages.

While the bad men of Nazism are always perceived as evil I don't think at any point in the diary do the Russians receive a better press. Astrid Lindgren's worries about the expansion of the Soviet Union begin with their occupation of the Baltic States at the end of the German Campaign in Poland. Not only did she fear Bolshevism, but she saw Soviet rule as a return to barbarism. It seems that the rapes, so widespread during the Red Army's march west after 1944, had already begun in Finland in 1939. Her anxiety for Sweden and neighbouring lands becomes acute when the Soviet Union turned the tables on Germany at the beginning of 1944.

The continent swiftly began to starve and Astrid Lindgren writes down all that she can glean from the Swedish papers. Sweden was the land of Cockaigne by comparison. Some foods were rationed (coffee, sugar and butter were scarce) but the author lists impressive spreads at family feasts, luxuries such as lobster and goose liver that would have been unimaginable in Wartime Britain, let alone the countries that suffered most: Greece, Belgium, France or even Germany - at least with the exception of a few well-placed profiteers.

She is fully aware of the destruction of the Jews noting the 'deportation' of the Viennese Jews in the spring of 1940. When the Barbarossa Campaign was launched in the summer of 1941 she records that the Berlin Jews were despatched to ghettoes in Poland to live behind barbed wire and where they received half the rations of the rest of the population. She found information on all these things in Sweden.

When a thousand Norwegian Jews were sent off in December 1942, she writes it is to certain death. In the middle of 1944 she believed that the Germans had ceased to cover up for the fact that they were wiping out the Jews. Clearly there were Swedes who were sympathetic. Even in Stockholm a notice went up outside a bookshop telling Jews and half-Jews that they were not allowed to enter. There were also Jewish refugees in Stockholm and the bigger towns and they may have been unwelcome to some.  As many as 6,000 Danish Jews sought refuge in Sweden when orders were issued to round them up. She says the Germans did nothing to stop them leaving.

King Christian is seen as a good egg: there was no Yellow Star in Denmark because he said he'd be the first to wear one, and when the German authorities threatened to fly a swastika over Amalienborg Castle, he said he would personally pull it down. The Yellow Star was never enforced and the flag never went up.

When she hears of the Dambusters' Raid in May 1943, she says it was a Jew who tipped off the RAF and thought more repressive measures would follow. The smashing of the dams, she reports, caused the deaths of 200,000 civilians. That figure probably originated in Goebbels' ProMi - the downside of relying on official press agencies.

Her figure is around a hundred times too high, but she also records the lethal bombing of Rome in July that year which wiped out a whole quartier of the city and the horrendous destruction of Hamburg, and both were real enough. She is perspicacious about events: Hess's flight was clearly intended to bring Britain to an understanding with Germany before the war began against the Soviet Union. She has no illusions about who killed the Polish officers dug up at Katyn and elsewhere. Early on in the war she notes that German belief in victory was minimal. So it remained.

In the end Astrid Lindgren defends Swedish neutrality if not entirely wholeheartedly. She notes on the positive side that that Sweden had received 100,000 Danish and Norwegian refugees and thereby saved their lives. She certainly despised all the important Nazis, but confessed she could not hate all Germans. In that she was possibly a typical Swede, as north Germans and Swedes share many traits. Swedish neutrality meant that Astrid Lindgren could enjoy the best of both worlds such as Hollywood films. She particularly liked the propaganda film Mrs Miniver, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. It was written by Georg Fröschl, a Viennese Jew who was incidentally my great-uncle Josef's best friend - he was present when Uncle Josef died of his wounds in 1915. The film was designed to show Americans in particular how the plucky British were suffering as they fought Nazi Germany all on their own. The fair-minded Astrid Lindgren thought the Germans should have had the chance to see it too.

Hogarth's Portrait of Frederick the Great
Bernd Krysmanski: The Only True Likeness of Frederick the Great is by William Hogarth

Posted: 15th December 2015

Frederick the Great was famously coy about sitting for painters. The only vaguely authentic portrait we have of him as King of Prussia is the one by the Brunswick court painter, Johann Georg Ziesenis which embellishes the cover of my biography. He allowed this one to happen at the insistence of his sister, Charlotte. Other painters were told that, if they wanted his likeness, they would have to make drawings of him while he reviewed troops in the Lustgarten at Potsdam.

Antoine Pesne, the French-born court artist active in Frederick's father's time, did some flattering pictures of him as Crown Prince, painted during the carefree days of his court in Rheinsberg. After Frederick ascended the throne in 1740, Pesne continued to produce them, but Frederick granted him no special sittings and he relied on his old sketches. The best-known portraits, those by Anton Graff (1781) and Johann Heinrich Christian Franke have to be assumed to be untrustworthy likenesses that capture only his slightly protruding eyes, a feature common to members of the Hanoverian royal house.

One reason why Frederick might have been touchy about painters was that he was ugly, and his most striking feature was a large, knobbly, aquiline nose. This may be properly observed in the death mask taken by Johann Eckstein on 17 August 1786; but where is the picture that describes the Prussian king 'warts and all'? According to the German art historian and Hogarth scholar Bernd Krysmanski, it is in a most unlikely place: Scene Four of William Hogarth's cycle Marriage à la mode.

Look for yourself: using the useful navigating and magnifying tool on the National Gallery Site go to the left of the picture and focus on the flute player with the big nose. To make the caricature more piquant, Hogarth has placed a painting of Zeus disguised as an eagle abducting Ganymede on the wall behind him, his great beak homing in on the lad's groin. The name of the lovely boy Ganymede was later corrupted to give us the word 'catamite' and it was a persistent rumour throughout Europe that the Prussian king was homosexual. The eagle is, of course, also the heraldic device of Prussia and Frederick was well-known both as a flautist and composer of music for the flute. The flute and playing the flute are also suggestive of penises and oral sex, etc., etc.. Krysmanski suggests that the whole left hand side of the painting is thematically homosexual.

That all looks fine and dandy, except: when if ever did the British painter and engraver get the chance to sketch the King of Prussia? This was a monarch who only ventured out of his German-speaking Central European world to make a single, sneaky trip across the Rhine to French-occupied, largely German-speaking Strasbourg.

Krysmanski has worked that one out too and dwells on the subject at length in his bilingual (an excellent English translation follows the German text) book. Hogarth learned all about Frederick's homosexual proclivities from the engraver Georg Friedrich Schmidt during his trip to Paris in 1743. Schmidt had once been commissioned to make a portrait of Frederick the Great. Schmidt was actually a printmaker and Hogarth was looking for engravers to work on the plates for marriage à la mode. Krysmanski assumes that Schmidt must have shown Hogarth sketches of Frederick, complete with beaky nose and receding forehead. It appears that Schmidt might have had similar sexual tastes to Frederick and Krysmanski proposes that there might have been some sort of relationship between Schmidt and the king.

Hogarth represented Frederick in two other places, as Krysmanski points out. He also tells us that the identity of the flautist is traditionally ascribed to Karl Friedrich Weidemann but he makes a fairly good case for Frederick, or an allusion to Frederick at least. What might militate against his interpretation is the fact that Frederick was pretty popular in Britain at the time: Prussia was fighting British battles and bringing home resounding victories; the 'Protestant' king, was trouncing the Catholic powers of Austria and France; and Frederick was championed by his populist first cousin Frederick Prince of Wales. Frederick had sent his Hanoverian cousin his portrait by Pesne as a wedding present, a picture that is still in the Royal Collection. As for Hogarth, he was 'Britophil', the staunch British patriot.

Still, it is tempting to believe Krysmanski's interpretation which is even more delicious, when one thinks, that Hitler breathed his last in an underground bunker where the only redeeming feature was an inadequate portrait of his hero Fritz, while, unbeknown to him, the real Frederick was gaily fingering his flute in marriage à la mode.

Book Review: Mark Riebling, Church of Spies - The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler, Basic Books, New York

Posted: 16th November 2015

The Vatican may have plans to canonise him, but Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) is someone the liberal establishment loves to hate. At the very least, the man who was pope throughout the Second World War stands accused of offering no help to the victims of Nazism, essentially the Jews, and many are convinced he was a closet Nazi. On social media a photograph of him shaking the Führer's hand on the latter's birthday is a hardy perennial. He has even received a doubtful accolade of an English-language biography with the no-two-ways-about-it title Hitler's Pope.

Some of us have always dissented from this negative view. Anyone who has looked closely at the history of the German Opposition will have come across the role played by members of the Catholic orders and Catholic divines, both before and after the war broke out, not just within Military Intelligence or the Abwehr but also in the Kreisau Circle that revolved around Helmuth James von Moltke. Some (not all) of the Catholic bishops maintained a rigorous opposition to the regime and one in particular - Clemens Galen in Münster - denounced the government repeatedly from his pulpit, thereby inspiring open resistance in the case of the Scholl family in Munich and others. Samizdat editions of Galen's homilies were circulated widely after 1941. All these Catholic bishops acted with Pacelli's blessing.

As secretary of state to the excellent, anti-fascist pope Pius XI (Ambrogio Ratti), Pacelli framed the important encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ('with burning anxiety') which protested against the Nazi show trials that raged throughout 1935, 1936 and 1937 aimed at removing the Church from its work in education. When war broke out in 1939, Pacelli laboured to end it behind the scenes. His fluent German and former position as papal nuncio in Germany and made him sympathetic to prominent German Catholics and Protestants alike. Anyone who had any doubts about Pacelli's part in encouraging opposition needed to go no further than Josef 'Ochsensepp' ('Joe the Ox') Müller's autobiography: Bis zur letzten Konsequenz. Ein Leben für Frieden und Freiheit  (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich 1975).

Now, in a timely study, the American historian Mark Riebling has entered the lists and written a book in English setting out the Catholic opposition to Hitler and the pope's role within it. It is in some ways an old fashioned, American book, with lots of colour and scene-setting, but the dramatic effects seem to be justified by the sources, and it is a ripping good read.

Riebling wants to answer the question why Pius XII has earned this unjustified opprobrium for himself? His detractors generally start with the Concordat Pacelli drafted in July 1933. Hitler was not head of state (that was Paul von Hindenburg) and the deal was negotiated by his Catholic Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen. The Concordat was meant to confirm the rights of Germany's 20 million Catholics in the light of previous persecution, notably Bismarck's Kulturkampf. The Church agreed to avoid meddling in politics and as a reward the state would allow its clerics to minister to their congregations without interference. Pacelli saw Hitler's appointment with foreboding, however, adding that it was 'more ominous... than a victory by the socialist left.'

Pacelli knew what was happening in Germany. He had a little clique of German advisors in the Vatican. The most important among them was the Bavarian Jesuit Robert Leiber who had the pope's ear twice a day. Another was the Catholic former politician, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas. They were both important contacts for the Catholic lawyer Müller, the Abwehr's contact man with the Vatican.

As Riebling points out, Pacelli's problem was that he could not appear biased in any way because he represented Catholics 'of all nations', but by October 1939 he felt compelled to issue an encyclical bemoaning the slaughter of Polish Catholics in the Six Weeks War. Summi pontificatus began by denouncing the attacks on Jews and stressed the 'unity of the human race.' When Pacelli heard about the gassings in Auschwitz he 'wept like a child.' His attitudes to Nazism were clear to commentators at the time. Sending messages through Müller, he encouraged attempts to assassinate Hitler. Killing a mountebank or heretic could be justified by the Church's teaching, but he could hardly air that openly not least because Pacelli was also largely a prisoner within fascist Italy. When he ventured out of the minute Vatican State his car was pushed and jeered by Blackshirts. Once the Germans occupied Rome there were plans to take Pacelli prisoner, it was Goebbels who dissuaded Hitler, telling him imprisoning the pope would cause problems among German Catholics.

One of the indictments against Pacelli is the accusation that he turned his back on the plight of the Roman Jews, 1,007 of whom were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, just fifteen of them survived to the bitter end. During that time, however, as Riebling makes clear, 477 Jews were hiding in the Vatican, and another 4,238 were concealed in Roman monasteries and convents. Around five sixths of the Roman Jews escaped death.

Doctrinally, the idea that the Catholic Church was antisemitic makes little sense. Individual priests or prelates might have been ill-disposed towards Jews, and either seen them as racially inferior or as the descendants of the killers of Christ; but as Galen repeatedly pointed out, racial theory ran counter to everything the Church stood for. The Church knew nothing of race or blood. If a Jew converted to Catholicism, he was no longer a Jew, he was a Catholic and allowed to take communion and receive absolution just like any other man or woman.

Church of Spies is a very American book and I was often trounced by Riebling's vocabulary. I am aware that an ass is not always a donkey, but I have never seen a singular 'panty' before. My vocabulary has been enriched! I had never encountered a 'crosshairs,' or a 'cutout' (no, it has nothing to do with making models). There are a few too many errors, however, resulting from inadequate proof reading - the spelling of Kristallnacht is one. The Dominican Father Odilo Braun is oddly characterised as 'Odlio' throughout. Alfred Delp is described as Jesuit novice in 1942, when he had been a priest since 1937. Galen was ordained bishop in 1933, not 1921. Edgar Jung was not Klausener's deputy but Papen's speechwriter. It was Keitel who dubbed Hitler 'the greatest warlord of all time,' not Hitler himself. The shooting of Heydrich's assassins appears to take place in Prague Cathedral, until it is later explained that this was the 'orthodox' cathedral, not the more obvious Catholic one. Fabian von Schlabrendorff is described as Henning von Tresckow's 'deputy' - he was his adjutant. Sophie Scholl helped her brother distribute leaflets in Munich University, but she was not the leader of the group by any means. Rommel celebrated his wife's birthday at home in Württemberg on 6 June 1944, not in Berlin. 'Bogislaw' von Bonin's name is misspelled as is 'Martin' Niemöller's. The Allies were not close to the Rhine in September 1944, they didn't reach it until March 1945. He makes too much of Rösch saying 'grüß Gott!' to Moltke - all Bavarians say that. He doesn't tell us why Hitler and Eva Braun were all dressed up on 30 April 1945. It would have helped to know it was their wedding day. Vassili Kokorin was apparently both Molotov and Stalin's nephew. Most sources agree he was the latter. Harold Alexander appears as an American-sounding 'Marshall (sic) Alexander' and a few lines later a more proper British Field Marshal Harold Alexander. Riebling's interpretation of the abduction of the British agents Stevens and Payne-Best won't be acceptable to many historians either.

Still, despite those small glitches I found it an excellent, racy account of the Catholic Church's role in the resistance to Hitler and a useful corrective to some of the wilder accusations levelled at Pius XII.

Antisemitism and James Joyce's Ulysses

Posted: 15th October 2015

I generally panic when I have to catch a plane, not because I have any fear of flying, rather that I may end up reading the in-flight magazine for want of anything of anything else. When I prepared to fly to Dublin in July I quickly put my hand into the bookshelf downstairs to see if there was something suitable and pulled out Ulysses - how appropriate, I thought: I'll take that.

I was obviously not expecting light reading. I had tried before, some time in my twenties and had jumped ship on page 129. This time I made slow progress, only finishing the book a few days ago. My lack of enthusiasm took its toll on the brittle, yellowing Penguin paperback: it fell apart in Termonfeckin and I had to glue it back together again when I got home. Then it was struck by the Mistral in Provence which picked it up off the garden table and rudely tossed it into a lavender bush, thereby splitting it up into a dozen fragile sections.

I was, I thought, slightly better equipped intellectually the second time round: I had acquired a reasonable knowledge of Dublin's topography that allowed me to chart Leopold Bloom's progress through its streets; I was more cognisant of the Dublin idiom, which meant I could cut through a few of the linguistic knots and most of Joyce's quotations came from languages I could manage myself; lastly I was reasonably well versed in the Latin Mass, which crops up all over the place in the text either in verrem or parody.

I do not intend to pronounce on Ulysses as a work of literature - I am wholly unqualified to do that, but I was struck from the first by the antisemitism that pervades the text. I should add that this is not necessarily Joyce's antisemitism, but the prejudice expressed by the characters in the story and provoked by the peregrinations of Joyce's Odysseus - Bloom. Joyce gives a full airing to the mood at the time the book was conceived, during the First World War, a conflict widely believed to have been provoked by Jews hoping to gain from the resulting chaos. After 1918, the popularity of the fraudulent conspiracy theory circulated by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion convinced many people that Jews were hell-bent on destroying Europe in the interests of world domination. Two of the book's most prominent fans were the German Kaiser and Adolf Hitler. Many parts of Europe had also been flooded with Jewish migrants who headed west to escape from the pogroms in Russia and Russian Poland. These poor, 'Kaftanjuden' (kaftan Jews), were visible in a way that the Jewish financiers of the nineteenth century had been invisible to the majority of the population.

So, very early on in the book, the Englishman Haines tells Buck Mulligan that Britain was falling into the hands of German Jews. The schoolmaster Garrett Deasy says much the same, but reassures Stephen Dedalus that Ireland had never persecuted the Jews, for the simple reason that Ireland had never let them in.

But they had let in Bloom. Bloom may be Ulysses, but he also bears a resemblance to Ahasverus, the Wandering Jew, the man who allegedly tormented Christ as he carried his cross, earning the rebuke "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day." As Bloom makes his epic journey through the streets of Dublin he is prey to endless jibes and whispers. You sense the distaste whenever he enters the room. He is there on sufferance; he is a 'Sheeny'. He is randy - an apparent attribute of Jews - and dogs sniff at 'Luitpold Blumenduft' ('scent of flowers') because he gives off a 'queer odour' - which is another. He is a dodgy businessman making a pittance here and there, who goes to gather in his 'shekels' after the race meet:

'Moses, Moses, King of the Jews
Wiped his arse on the Daily News.'

Other Jews also appear in the pages of Ulysses and they are not always as nicely treated as Bloom. The brothel madame, Bella Cohen, for example, is given unflattering Semitic features: a moustache, an olive complexion, a tendency to sweat and a big nose.

Joyce, however, makes Bloom a sympathetic character even if he is a little morally grubby here and there. He is able to remind his detractors that Christ was a Jew and his small library contains a copy of Gustav Freytag's Soll und Haben. a famously antisemitic novel. Joyce also plays tricks on the reader in an old-fashioned way, by slowly revealing the fact that Bloom is not actually a Jew! His mother was at least half Gentile. The clues are laid out early on, when we see Bloom in church. Later we hear about his foreskin and the fact that he was baptised, twice - once as a Protestant and the second time as a Catholic. So Bloom is a Mischling and as a fellow Mischling I know that Mischlinge are neither fish nor fowl. The Jews generally disown them. They find a begrudging Ithaca in the arms of the Church.

The best joke of all is that Joyce keeps the reader guessing about Molly Bloom, the daughter of an army major and born in Gibraltar. Molly's mother was called Lunita Laredo and we are told that her maternity lessened  her value on the marriage market. Some have argued that Laredo is a Sephardic name and Molly herself says that she is 'Jewish-looking' and that was why Bloom liked her in the first place. Of course it could be that she is half-Gypsy, but Jews make up a large percentage of the Gibraltarian population. When I visited the rock colony a few years back there were still four functioning synagogues.

Of course, pointing out the incidences of antisemitism in Ulysses can be dangerous (to Joyce that is). Not so long ago my school contemporary Anthony Julius earned enduring literary fame for exposing T S Eliot as an antisemite and doubtless had him struck off various school curricula as a result; what schools make of the abundant racialism in Hemingway is anybody's guess. We hardly need to be told about Ezra Pound, but I seem to recall there are some uncharitable remarks in D H Lawrence, and certainly Evelyn Waugh's Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold contains a few more. For the most part these taunts are what the Germans call 'Salonantisemitismus' (drawing room antisemitism, or the antisemitism of polite society) and probably a long way from the 'eliminatory antisemitism' coined by Daniel Goldhagen - which apparently led ordinary Germans to want Jews exterminated en masse. Salonantisemitismus is more like the sort of comments I used to hear uttered by my great-aunts in the presence of my half-Jewish mother (they were perfectly well aware that their sister had married outside the faith): 'Sorry about the flowers, I know, they don't look nice, I had to buy them from the Jew'.

Now I shall return to my German books, which have piled up in my absence. It may be a little while before I broach Finnegan's Wake.

A Day Trip to Cambridge

Posted: 17th August 2015

The summer is a long, dark ordeal these days, occasionally illuminated by excursions. Last week I agreed to take my children to Cambridge as they had never been, and one of them at least, might have been interested in applying for a place to study there. As they always tell you: one must cover for all eventualities.

Now, I don't know Cambridge that well. My mother had a funny, yellow-skinned old uncle who had been in the Indian Civil Service where he was 'commensal' (it means you can eat at the same table) with a maharajah and wouldn't speak to her. He had read law at Trinity Hall in the twenties or thirties. More important, my brother was an undergraduate there in the sixties and I visited him two or three times in his various rooms and digs, but I was only twelve when he went up and it was hardly a proper insight. I remember a modern room, on the far side of the Cam, in a place where one of the two bombs had fallen on Cambridge during the war leaving a small, round hole in the lawn, but my memory fades after that.

When I was seventeen he took me up to look at the city. We stayed in the flat the pointilliste painter Jon Harris occupied above a restaurant in Green Street and we did the King Street Run. That involved drinking eight pints of strong beer (Greene King Abbot) in a limited period of time. There had been eight pubs in King Street, but three had recently been demolished, which meant doubling back for three of the pints. I think I was violently sick and later came out in a rash. He also introduced me to the sights of the city, when we weren't steeped in beer. We quickly spent all our money and tried hitch-hiking back to London without success (I must have looked a fright with my rash). Eventually we asked the police in Baldock for a cell for the night. They were not buying, and put us on a Green Line Bus, telling us that you could charge the fares to a relative. We charged them to my father, whom my mother had left when I was three and I hadn't seen since. He must have paid, for we heard no more about it.

Most of the brighter boys at my school went to Cambridge and I did once visit a brilliant scientist from my year who had won a scholarship to Trinity. He filled me with drink and took me punting. I woke up to find his hand in my trousers. I must have been to Cambridge a few times in my own student days. I recall once taking advantage of the departing college rugby club coach. The team was playing an away match and I snatched the chance to visit a female friend I had acquired in Paris. Since then visits to Cambridge have normally had practical purposes, as often as not consulting books or papers in the University Library; and once I went there to finesse some photographs of the Kaiser in Norway from their manic depressive owner.

Still, I have to say I remembered the place quite well. I felt that we needed to visit ten colleges to do the place justice. I was a little worried that they were all going to impose huge levies on anyone visiting the colleges, but as it turned out, few colleges charge visitors. We arrived late morning and took the long road in from the station. Cambridge has one big advantage over Oxford in that the site itself is not so constricted. The colleges to the east had room to stretch out and those on the Cam were able to colonise areas on the far side of the river. As a result, perhaps, Cambridge colleges are much larger than their Oxford equivalents and I feel much grander, judging by the size of the masters' lodges and the number of amenities that seem to be reserved for the fellows alone; but then, I could be very wrong.

Downing was the first stop. I have always liked the Wilkins buildings, with their neo-Greek detail, although only two ranges are from 1800. Emmanuel came next. It is a lovely place, and we walked round the gardens with its lake and admired the huge carp. I tend to judge colleges by the people I know who have been to them. Apart from my New York publisher, I could only think of the boy we called the 'Moors Murderer', a friend from school who was forever being thwarted in his desire to become a physician. At school they said his maths was too bad and made him study modern languages; at Cambridge they said his modern languages were too good and would not let him change to medicine. I later learned he had been thrown in the lake during a May Ball. He was not put out, fighting back the ravening carp, he had climbed out and continued dancing in his sodden dinner jacket with the sticklebacks struggling in his pockets. He never did become a medic: I looked him up recently - he was an environmental health officer. I don't suppose his languages help much.

We went to Christ's next and admired the master's little window overlooking the chapel, and the mediaeval detail in his lodge. At the end of the garden we found an outdoor swimming pool. This was a first for me: lakes and ponds are one thing, but the luxury of a proper pool quite another. The Moors Murderer should have gone there: he would not have had to fight it out with the carp.

We cut through the much mutilated market to Trinity Street. The Greek restaurant in Rose Crescent where one of my brother's more stylish contemporaries used to dance with a glass of ouzo on his head, had become a takeaway. I mentioned this to a woman in the market, who said I was showing my age. In Green Street, the place where I stayed was now a Thai restaurant, but the artist Harris was still there, living upstairs as he had been for fifty years. As chance would have it, the house is now owned by one of my best friends, who refers to Harris as his 'squatter'.

We popped into my brother's college: Caius. In Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, Dr. Caius is a figure of fun, a Welsh windbag; but whatever he was to Shakespeare, he transformed a moribund college and added all its little renaissance flourishes, although most went when the place was insensitively rebuilt by Waterhouse in the nineteenth century. I looked in vain for the chalked-up graffiti 'necessitas' above the lavatory, the purported fourth gate built by Dr. Caius to chart the path of an undergraduate from matriculation to honours. Perhaps the joke's worn stale - or fallen victim to the mixing of the college like the strange ritual surrounding the singing of the 'Gordouli' in my own college?

My brother committed an 'indiscretion' at Caius, thereby making an enemy of his tutor, the formidable John Casey, idol of the new right. As I walked through the courts with my children I had a distinct feeling that I was being watched, that there were signs on the faces of the college staff that they might have spotted a family resemblance. I was happy when we were out in King's Parade again. There I was able to point out the 'Devil's leap': the narrow isthmus between Senate House and Caius that my brother used to jump in order to enter the college after midnight. The distance is not more than two metres, but it is still three floors up. It is hard to see how he climbed up the front of Senate House to get to the narrow ledge and we wondered why he didn't climb up the front of Caius instead?

Cambridge was another world then. Colleges locked their gates early, women had to be out of the all-boys' institutions in good time and there was strictly no hunky-bunky. Now that the colleges are mixed and sixty or seventy percent of the student body is female, there is no need of such rules. Real men have become so rare they might as well be big game.

King's was the first college we had to pay for. They have a souvenir shop on the other side of King's Parade where tickets may be obtained, and then you cannot enter through the main gate. It is certainly worth the money. The chapel is not only by far the best building in either university (and these two collegiate institutions are unique to the world), it is one of the greatest in the British Isles. I vaguely remembered the furore caused by the raising of the marble floor in the choir to show off the Rubens Adoration of the Magi but it seems a small thing now. I had forgotten how glorious were the choir stalls.

Much like the tale of William of Wykeham, who founded Winchester College and New College Oxford as a collective educational package, Henry VI founded Eton and King's, thereby starving the army in France. 'Wykehamists' were meant to go up to New College and Etonians were supposed to graduate to King's. A Wykehamist is virtually unknown at New College now and, as I understand it, it is now much harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an Etonian to be elected to King's. Oxford and Cambridge Colleges all have twins. I think King's is coupled with New College for obvious reasons. I cannot explain for the life of me why my own college (Balliol) is linked to St. John's; politically and intellectually (but not architecturally), it is much closer to King's.

Apart from the Gibbs Building and possibly Wilkins' exotic screen along King's Parade, the rest of King's is rather dull. I had not really understood why until I looked at Simon Bradley's revised edition of the Pevsner for Cambridgeshire: the college shifted south in the nineteenth century, discarding its fifteenth century ranges to the university. They are now the Old Schools quadrangle behind Senate House.

We walked down to the Backs where students were earning extra cash by punting tourists on the Cam and I thanked God that my children had no desire to follow suit. The sleek lawns, the treading of which is a privilege reserved to the dons alone, were being used as props by gaggles of Japanese trippers. The porters seemed to be turning a blind eye. We came out through the front gate. I had a commission from the same friend who owned houses in Green Street to photograph an ancestor's tomb in St. Bene't's Churchyard. The sarcophagus was not at the front and not inside the church and we assumed it must have been behind, in land recently appropriated by Corpus. Some boys were coming out of Corpus's postern gate and they kindly let us in. There was the tomb and I duly took a snapshot. We were now able to make our way out through the lovely old court at Corpus, surely one of the prettiest in Cambridge.

By now it was well past lunchtime. We saw one of the places recommended to us, Loch Fyne, opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. It turned out to be a good choice. There was a menu for two courses at £10.95 which was more than adequate and my son, who won't eat fish, was placated with a steak and a crème brûlée (another Cambridge invention). My memory of the Loch Fyne goes back to its commercial beginnings and the late Johnny Noble: a hard-drinking mucker of my  friend, the tellychef Jennifer Paterson. Johnny used to insist that the rule forbidding spirit-quaffing with oysters was balderdash, not least because he was a heavy whisky drinker with no fondness for wine. On one occasion he tried to prove his point by throwing a party at the Polish Hearth Club in London where his guests would be required to wash down their oysters with whisky. At the last moment the organisers lost their nerve and brought in lots of white wine as an alternative. The only person I recall drinking whisky with oysters that evening was Johnny Noble himself.

It was pouring when we finished lunch. We ran across the road into Peterhouse. Of all the colleges at Cambridge besides Caius, I have probably known more people connected with Peterhouse than any other and I half expected some of them to spill out onto the court. It was August, however, and I am sure they were on bicycling holidays on the Danube or lying among the sand dunes of Lido. We admired the more ancient buildings and spent a long time in the hall, taking refuge from the rain. The chef explained to us how he managed to feed so many students given the size of the place: another indication of how ballistically the number of students in Oxford and Cambridge colleges has risen since the eighties.

We rushed over the road to Pembroke to look at the Wren chapel and then dodged parties of Japanese tourists with low-slung umbrellas on our way to Queens. My daughter has a friend who is going up to Queens and she wanted to see what it looked like. It was the second college to charge an entrance fee, but as a little gem it is quite understandable it might want to earn some extra income from its looks.  I had promised to take my children to their maternal grandfather's college, Trinity which also charged a small fee. It is here that you see a scale that completely dwarfs Oxford, and it is hard not to be impressed by the Pantheon that acts as an antechamber to the chapel. We were disbarred from the hall and library, but a proper bulldog in a bowler allowed us to look at the latter from the Backs.

We walked across the Cam. We had not planned to go to John's as it is a grotty college and they also overcharge for admission. It was difficult not to be awestruck, however, by the avenue of trees that stretches back from the gates on the west bank of the river, giving the impression of a drive leading up to a fabulous mansion. Cambridge becomes urban again at Magdelene, another pretty old college with a mediaeval front court on the west bank of the Cam. It used to be the most socially-exclusive college in the university and someone told me recently that was still the case. I found that hard to believe, given everything else I'd heard about Cambridge in the last few decades.

Now we were footsore and stopped for a cup of tea in a caff with quaintly misspelled menus. We decided we would do just two more colleges before walking back to the station. Sidney Sussex I had to see, not because of the the presence of the Lord Protector's head but because of Simon Bradley's assertion that it and St Catharine's were 'the least attractive of the old colleges of the old universities.' It was indeed a gloomy looking place, and I had to reflect too that, barring Cromwell, I could think of no one who had studied there.

Our day ended, therefore with Jesus, which seemed fair enough and that made a baker's dozen. It had started to shower again, off and on, but then I don't associate either Oxford or Cambridge with good weather, you get what you're given. We rushed down the passageway to the gates of the former nunnery to get out of the rain. It is one of the most enchanting colleges of all, with its monastic church, sturdy Romanesque piers and the mediaeval quadrangle that abuts it. The Turner Prize Committee seemed to have beaten us to it, however, and covered the lawns with a collection of baffling modern sculptures, but just beyond the porter's lodge was a bronze mare, perhaps an allusion to a notorious former undergraduate? Who knows?

On our way back we passed the sad remains of King Street, where I had come to grief all those years before, and it brought back a host of unwelcome memories, but I consoled myself in the lines of  a little ditty I had heard then: 'You will as sooner see a sober man at Jesus as a gentleman at John's.' Somehow, that gave me heart.

Carol Clark

Posted: 13th July 2015

Carol Clark, Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford  died in the arms of her only son on the 20th of June at the age of seventy-four. She had suffered a stroke a few days before while singing at a leaver's concert. It was typical of her to give body and soul to a college event.

We still talk endlessly about Oxford firsts, particularly where women are concerned, Carol was another of them. She was the first female fellow of Balliol in over seven centuries, indeed she was the first female fellow of any of the ancient Oxford colleges. Balliol was a radical place then, if any college was going to break the mould, it was going to be Balliol.

That was back in 1973, two years before I came up as an undergraduate to what remained for its junior members at least an all-male institution. I had already heard news of Carol from my sister, who was at Somerville (incidentally Carol's own college). She told me that the great French Revolutionary historian Richard Cobb had insisted on Carol receiving the fellowship. He was evidently pleased with his choice because he had inveigled her into some sort of perilous chair-hopping game around the Senior Common Room and told my sister all about it after a tutorial.

A tutor in Modern languages was another novelty for Balliol and I can only suppose that it was forced on the college by an increasing number of options to study for combined honours in subjects such as History and French. It was a while before more Modern Languages tutors were elected, and by that stage the undergraduate population was mixed and there was a demand for language specialists.

I read Modern History and I have no idea whether Carol was perceived as a great scholar or not, nor would it be my place to judge. I believe she did her doctorate on Montaigne. Years later I was drawn into a series of symposia on Dionysiac themes - organised by another Balliol man, Redmond O'Hanlon - which took place in various locations in the south of France (over three years I contributed papers on John Locke as an oenologist, Brillat-Savarin on wine and ETA Hoffmann on intoxication). Carol came once and gave a fruity lecture on Rabelais. I see that she also published translations of Baudelaire, Proust and Rostand as well as a useful Beginner's Guide to French Literature.

I am not sure whether it is still true, but the college then was a very tight-knit community and everyone knew everyone. There were around a hundred new faces each year, and when you totted up the fellows, the emeritus fellows, college lecturers and academic hangers-on, there must have been a hundred of them too. You found a 'studenty' atmosphere in the JCR Bar but the place where undergraduates and dons mingled and cross-fertilised was the Buttery under the Hall, the domain in those days of the redoubtable Lionel Peart, an ex-publican from Botley who had ventured out of Oxford just once in his life, to Scapa Flow during the war.

In the evening before Hall, you could listen to tremendously distinguished people in the Buttery discussing academic matters, gossiping or reminiscing. I used to lap up the stories of Sir Edgar Williams, for example. He was Warden of Rhodes House and had been Montgomery's Chief of Staff at El Alamein. The nicer dons took a keen interest in the more prominent undergraduates. They were not always the brightest, but they were usually the suavest and most politically acute. All academic institutions get drunk on success after all, and in the end examination class-lists are just statistics. This interest in the sleeker students was particularly true of faculties such as Classics, History and perhaps English probably because this was the most likely pool to provide the leaders of a future generation. For some reason the PPE dons remained quite aloof and were utterly self-obsessed to the degree that they passed on some of their teaching to graduate students. Very few scientists were skilled in small talk so, you didn't meet them either. I was generally invited to the end-of-term parties given by the classics tutors, for example, as well as by the history dons. Carol too was always on tap. She thoroughly enjoyed parties.

She was about fifteen years older than us but we often asked her to our houghleys as well. I remember she was pretty unshockable. I recall complaining to her about the injustice of the female orgasm and the fact that it lasted twice as long as the male version. She simply giggled. She might have been the product of a Glaswegian convent but she was certainly no prude.

I went down in 1978 and I don't know if I saw much of Carol again until I returned to live in England in 1985. After that she must have entertained me to lunch occasionally in the SCR where I could watch the faintly comical spectacle of a clique of dons shuffling their seats to get as far away from me as possible. From a promising undergraduate I had graduated to a sort of pariah.

The reason for this was debt. I had blotted my copybook in my second year and had to be bailed out. Some of the senior members were for sending me down, but the Master, the historian Christopher Hill, would not hear of this and I remained in college under his aegis. From then on, however, I had to make regular and ignominious reports to the Dean on the state of my finances and tell him how much I had spent and on what. One of those dons who clearly believed it an impertinence on my part to appear at their table was that very same Dean and on the last occasion I lunched with Carol in college, I was intercepted by a scout who was lying in wait for me as made my way out through the Front Quad and summoned me to see the Dean in his rooms.

I found him sitting in his decanal chair, wearing his decanal mien and angrily tapping his fingers on the desk. He got straight to the point: I still owed the college money. The sum was smaller than I had imagined and I wrote him out a cheque to settle. I knew the Dean of old and his behaviour came as no surprise. I thought no more about the matter until the next day when I collected my post from the doormat. There was a letter from Carol at Balliol. It contained a cheque for the same sum I had given the Dean.

It transpired that as soon as I left his rooms, the Dean had hot-footed over to the SCR bearing my cheque aloft in triumph. Carol witnessed the scene and felt humiliated. I was, she wrote, her guest, and his behaviour had been an affront to her dignity. She had no idea if I could afford to pay the bill and had sent me the cheque just in case.

I naturally tore it up, but I never forgot her gesture, and to this day I cannot imagine any of my own tutors doing anything nearly so compassionate.

She wrote that in future we had better have lunch outside the college, but I am not sure we ever did. The Dean's little victory had left a bitter taste that never really went away. Carol mentioned it the very last time I saw her. Nor did I have so  much business in Oxford after that and I came to Balliol only for the dinners given in memory of Richard Cobb in the Old Senior Common Room. Once I arrived early and felt I would kill time in a pub, but all the places in the Broad looked so beery and boisterous that I decided to go into Balliol and have a gin and French in the Buttery.

The inner sanctum, from which the majestic Lionel had operated all those years before, was closed and locked, but Carol was patrolling the outer room with its beer taps. She seemed surprised to see me. I explained I had come for the Cobb Dinner and she was put out that she had not been told about it. The guest-list was limited to a 'fronde' of historians and few classicists led by the Mediaeval historian Maurice Keen who did not like the way the university was going. Many had chosen early retirement. Richard Cobb's name had become a rallying cry for the good old days.

We had a drink and she tried to assure me - as other friendly fellows did too - that the place had not changed, but I observed that she was actually teaching while we had our chat, and that she would occasionally cast an eye over the progress of three girls who were beavering away on unseens in the corner. The scene was quite remote from anything I had witnessed in my day.

That last time I saw Carol was at Maurice Keen's memorial service in Hall in January 2013. After she became emeritus in 2004 she had moved to Paris, but she told me that she did not think the City of Light was a suitable place to die in. She had come back to cover for a tutor at Merton who was on sabbatical. We spoke a bit about my daughter and she offered to give her some guidance. I am sorry now that I never did anything about that. I gather that once she had finished her two terms at Merton she did quite a lot of teaching and was frequently to be seen tripping around the Back Quad as of old.

I don't suppose that I was hugely important to Carol, but she meant a lot to me. She was outgoing without giving anything vital away. Her life had had its tough moments. Her husband died two years before she was elected a fellow of Balliol. She had a young son by him and I think I remember a lover, who seemed nice enough, but he remained on the sidelines and said little. That she had a big heart was perhaps due to her Italian mother. She was ever sensible and although she was ready to laud the fundamental changes that had occurred at the university, and which had brought her into the college in the first place, I did not get the impression she fell in with the nonsense that infects university life today. I shall miss her greatly. Once again I feel that we had more to talk about and I kick myself for not making enough of an effort to have that one last chat that might well have wiped the slate clean.

Decisions at Potsdam

Posted: 17th June 2015

Michael Neiberg, Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe (Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-07525-6)

After several false starts, the anti-Hitlerian coalition of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States pulled it off and Germany was utterly and unquestionably defeated when its armies laid down their arms on 8 May 1945. There were to be no doubts, no ifs and no buts: the stricken enemy would now have to accept what terms were offered - lump them or leave them. Once Germany was both chastened and impotent, it was time for these three queer bedfellows to see how they were going to administer the peace. Communist Russia naturally approached the problem in a different way to the capitalist states of Britain and America and there was some more bargaining to be done. Churchill had been keen to take more territory than had been agreed at the conference Yalta in February and use those extra portions of German land as bargaining blocks. The new and unschooled American President, Truman, who had been dropped into world affairs when Roosevelt died on 12 April, was going to play straight. Stalin, for his part, also wanted more, not less than had been apportioned to him at Yalta and was not likely to be sympathetic to Churchill.

Stalin was also reluctant to allow the Western Allies to take up the positions agreed in February. Each victor was to administer a zone representing more or less a third of Germany (championed by the British, the French were later begrudgingly elected to the club but Britain and America had to cut out some slices from their own cakes to create a zone for them). The sticking point was Berlin, which had fallen to the Red Army on 2 May. In theory, that too was to be divided up into Allied sectors, but it was more than a month before the Western powers were allowed into the German capital, by which time the Soviets had ransacked everything they could lay their hands on and taken anything that might have been of interest. Stalin saw the occupation now for what he could get out of it. He wanted booty, trophies, cash and security.

On 5 June came the Declaration of Defeat and the Assumption of Sovereignty which created a structure for the four-nation administration. The West was only admitted to Berlin once their armies had complied with the demarcations set out at Yalta, which meant essentially that they had to retreat behind the Elbe. Churchill lost his bargaining counters before the national leaders (the French were excluded) were convoked to a conference from 17 July to 2 August aimed at ironing out present problems. The Soviets were to play host. Berlin was the natural location, but the Prussian and German capital did not possess a single undamaged building of sufficient size or status, so the leaders were convened in nearby Potsdam instead.

On the agenda was denazification, demilitarisation, and decentralisation; but the first task of the Potsdam Conference was to define German territory. The Western Allies settled on the pre-1937 borders, while Stalin held to a bizarre formula of 'Germany is what it is now'. It was already clear at Yalta that Germany would receive a new eastern border and that the fate of Königsberg and East Prussia would be quickly decided. Stalin wanted another ice-free port and that meant Königsberg and half of East Prussia. The other half he was happy to award to the Poles. He also wanted all of Poland east of the Curzon Line, which meant evicting millions of Poles who lived there. Poland would be compensated with German land and the German populations deported. He had all the cards in his own hand, and no matter how hard the Western leaders tried, he yielded on nothing. Despite Truman, Churchilll and Attlee arguing for the 1937 borders, Germany lost 21% of the territory it possessed before Hitler started his rampage.

This fraught Potsdam meeting is the subject of Michael Neiberg's new book. It is engagingly written (a comparative rarity now) and very prescient when it comes to the comparatively clueless Truman. Washington sniggered at the obscure Boy from Missouri at first but he found his feet and often displayed sound good sense. On the other hand, Truman was not nearly as amenable to Churchill as Roosevelt had been, and the for the time being at least, kept the British prime minister at arm's length.

Neiberg is distinctly tough on Churchill - which might come as a shock to Churchill-worshippers in Britain and elsewhere, but that is no bad thing. Churchill must have been aware of his desperate gamble after May 1940. It was wonderful to have Roosevelt's support, but there was every chance that the US would present Britain with a crippling bill at the end of the war, and that the very many Americans who loathed the British Empire and all it stood for would be rubbing their hands with glee at the crippled and bankrupt Britain of May 1945. 'Finis britanniae' was an excellent excuse to break out the bourbon.

Some of the absurdities of Conference Potsdam make good reading too: the Soviets were incredulous at the idea of Churchill having to contest an election (and lose it) in the middle of the talks and simply could not fathom the fact he had to abide by the decisions of an electorate. When Churchill failed to return, Stalin had had to make do with the socialist Attlee. He was not at all pleased and took to his bed. Not least, I suppose, because he had lost a good drinking partner.

A lot of irritating slip ups gnaw at the authority of Neiberg's argument: in the first few pages we hear that the First World War had eliminated Europe's most powerful monarchies (he has forgotten Britain?); that Franz Ferdinand (heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary) was a 'relatively obscure' archduke; that the German Crown Prince had never lived in his Potsdam palace (it was his home from 1917-1919 and from 1923-1944); and that Nemmersdorf, scene of the horrible massacre in October 1944, was a town, not a village.

Neiberg is not strong on Germany. I wondered whether he had been to Potsdam or seen that Babelsberg, where the leaders were lodged, has only a tangential connection with the 'Residenz' or that the reason the statesmen were lodged in Babelsberg was because one of the few places where there were big, undamaged houses was in the 'Prussian Hollywood'. Much worse, however, is Neiberg's repeated contention that Potsdam was undamaged, or later in the book, relatively undamaged, in the Second World War, when the entire centre including the Royal Palace and the Garrison Church was reduced to rubble on 14 April 1945!

Neiberg tells us the Poles stood to lose the Silesian coalfields (to whom? They had them from Germany); that Königsberg sat in 'ethnically Polish and Lithuanian' territory (possibly true before the thirteenth century?); that many of the fleeing Germans had arrived since 1939 (some had but nine million hadn't); and that Berlin's seaport, Stettin, on the west bank of the Oder and only snaffled up for Poland at Potsdam, was also populated by 'ethnic' Germans.

The problem with the book, however, is not limited to small factual errors. There is no proper discussion of JCS 1067, the last remnant of Morgenthau Plan with its projected 'pastoralisation' of Germany or the issues relating to removing all manifestations of Nazism and militarism together with making arrangements for denazification. JCS 1067 led the Americans to indulge in a small orgy of destruction of 'Nazi' works of art, for example. Churchill's admittedly ineffective rearguard action over Poland is belittled and Bevin's fierce opposition to Stalin hardly touched. The West argued for Germany retaining the part of Silesia that lay between the two branches of the River Neisse. This would have left 2.8 million Germans in their homes; but the Soviets insisted on placing the border on the Western Neisse. Neiberg thinks this resulted from confusion, but I doubt it. I suspect Churchill's policy was cogent, but he simply could do nothing to save the Germans from their fate given the fact that Stalin was sitting on the land and that he was not going to get up.

Neiberg tries to link Potsdam to the Conference at Versailles that settled the First World War and makes out Potsdam succeeded because it was more pragmatic, but Potsdam had very limited objectives. It was not about creating a blueprint for a new Europe, but rather about defining Germany's borders, settling immediate issues regarding Germany and Austria and ascertaining whether Russia was going to join the Allied team in the Far East.

He makes some good points in his conclusion about the Americanisation of Europe in 1945, but time and time again he overrates Potsdam, which deferred all major decisions to a conference called in Paris the following year. By the time the conference opened, the Cold War had broken out and Germany was struck from the agenda. Virtually nothing was decided at Potsdam and there never was a conference convened to settle the country's long term, at least not before 1989 and German Reunification.

Dietrich von Hildebrand

Posted: 15th May 2015

Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, translated and edited by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, Image Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-385-34751-8.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was the only son of the sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand whose monumental fountains embellished the Bavarian capital in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Dietrich was a Catholic philosopher of strong faith and opinions and had an impressive sense of moral rectitude which made it impossible for him to accept Nazism, even in its mildest form. Fearing for his life, he emigrated to Vienna in 1933, and was required to leave again in 1938. John Henry Crosby and his son John F Crosby have rendered a huge service by bringing us an edited English-language version of some of Hildebrand's writings and the passages of autobiography that make up the bulk of the work which now appear in print for the first time. They reveal something of the earliest moral resistance to Hitler's regime.

Hildebrand had no truck with the idea of 'collectivism' that reared its head after the First World War and gained admirers on both the left and right. The right-wing version was of course fascism, which proposed the creation of a 'national community' or 'Volksgemeinschaft' in his native Germany. The individual, with his God-given free will was to be negated by a quasi-tyrannical society that not only pried into his soul but regulated his every action. In Germany, the National Community was only open to those of the Aryan race and the Jews were not only excluded, they were to become the principal enemy of the community.

Many members of the Catholic Church were also attracted to the idea that fascism could improve their lives too, and help provide some social cement after the chaotic Weimar years. Some Catholic priests and prelates supported Hitler at first because they thought he would protect them from the Godless communists. At first Hitler sprinkled his speeches with references to God and Providence for this very reason. Hildebrand did not tolerate compromises of this sort and quickly perceived in the Nazi Party a tremendous danger to Church and people. He was opposed to the Concordat signed between Germany and the Vatican the summer of 1933, in which the Church reaffirmed existing arrangements to keep its distance from the German political scene in return for guarantees from the National Socialists. Hildebrand was aware the Concordat wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

The bones of this collective idea, and the vital notion of the supremacy of the state came from Hegel. It is unlikely that Hitler ever ploughed through Hegel's works and his knowledge of the 'dialectic' was almost certainly garnered from his small knowledge of Socialist thought, which was itself largely based on Hegel.

Like many people all over Germany and particularly in the 'Free State' of Bavaria, Hildebrand put his faith in the rule of law at first, which he hoped would prevent Hitler from carrying out his more outlandish ideas. Hildebrand was sensitive about the plight of the Jews, not least because his paternal grandmother had been Jewish. He was also close to the Bavarian royal house which was in the firing line as far as the Nazis were concerned. For a while, it looked as if some semblance of normality would continue, but after the Reichstag Fire and the election of 5 March 1933, all that was swept away and Hildebrand was forced to slip across the border, first to Florence, where his family owned a house, and then to Austria where Hildebrand fell in with the Chancellor Dollfuss and was given a post at the university.

Much of the rest of the published text deals with Austria under Dollfuss and his successor Schuschnigg. Hildebrand was indulgent towards the clerical-fascist Corporate State created by Dollfuss which had - albeit in a less malign form - all the spurious trappings of Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, from its youth groups and paramilitaries right down to its little concentration camp at Wöllersdorf. On the other hand, it is true to say that Austria did not persecute its Jews and given the furious explosion of hatred that occurred after the Corporate State fell on 11 March 1938, it must have been only the men at the top that prevented the mere Austrians from satisfying their lust for rapine and murder.

Hildebrand was on good terms with the Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, who was to become the controversial Pope Pius XII in 1939 and his papers record the Cardinal's clear anti-Nazi stance and intolerance of German racial policy. The Church could not justify antisemitism, and German racial theory was unacceptable to Catholic doctrine. No priest could deny communion to a member of the Church, whatever his race, nor could he refuse to instruct any man or woman who sought to enter the Church.

That racial theory was heretical had been made clear in no uncertain terms by Clemens von Galen, the new Bishop of Münster, but Hildebrand does not mention this, nor does he report in depth on the terrible persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany which reached its apogee between 1935 and 1937 when Hitler and Goebbels staged a number of show trials of priests and monks in a bid to divest the Church of its role in educating children.

When the Nazis crashed into Austria in the spring of 1938, there would be little mercy shown for Austrian Catholics either. With the exception perhaps of Gföllner in Linz, Austrian bishops proved even more craven than their German counterparts. On Rose Sunday in October 1938, however, the treatment of Catholics finally forced Cardinal Innitzer to take a stand, prompting the largest popular demonstration against the regime to occur in the course of the Third Reich. By that time Hildebrand had wisely moved on. He had taken himself off to Switzerland and after a period in France, emigrated to the US where he taught until his retirement in 1960.

On the Decline of Jewish Aunts

Posted: 17th April 2015

I don’t know if anyone studies Austrian literature here any more? My daughter is doing one short book for German A-Level and in the unlikely event of her reading German at university she would face a year or two of more grammar before she could accede to the basic works of Goethe and Schiller that were broached at school a generation ago. Most of the course would be taken up with filling in the gaps in the mainstream syllabus, and would leave little room for Austro-Hungarian writers such as Werfel or Musil, although Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig have been discovered in translation recently. I suspect anyone really wanting to learn about Austrian writers would have to go to an Austrian university.

Does anyone here read Friedrich Torberg, for example? Like Werfel, Roth and Zweig he was Jewish. Like the rest, he emigrated but unlike most, he returned and resumed his place at the Stammtisch of his favourite café. In Die Tante Jolesch at least, he wrote amusingly about the old Jewish world. There is an English version but it must have been very challenging to the translator, particularly as much of the text is taken up with the way Jews in different parts of the Empire distorted the German language. I am reminded of the Welsh pseud Probert (played by the late Richard Attenborough) in Sidney Gilliat’s film Only Two Can Play of 1962 - and based on Kingsley Amis’s book That Uncertain Feeling. Probert says he is thinking of putting Joyce’s Ulysses into Welsh ‘but how do you translate the values?’

The ‘Aunt Jolesch’ of the title is a metaphor for that lost world and a cue to tell stories about the Central Europe that was utterly and irretrievably destroyed by the malign effects of rabid nationalism. Torberg’s Jews came from Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Brünn (now Brno) and began to congregate in Vienna after 1848, and even more so after 1867. Their achievement was extraordinary. As Torberg points out, they were there for less than a century but in that time they became emancipated members of the community, who dressed and spoke (mostly) like Gentiles and took on a leading role not only in the professions, but (much to the provincial Upper Austrian prude Hitler’s disgust) in the arts as well. Despite restrictive numeri clausi,by 1914, a large percentage of Vienna’s artists, writers, medics, lawyers and politicians were Jews and throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire they punched above their weight.

They were proud of their achievements and the assimilation that had washed them clean their humbler origins. They despised those Jews who still reeked of the ghetto and failed to speak the lingua franca of the Empire - German. Torberg points up the irony here, in that many of them only mastered their own forms of German, and a Jew from Brünn or Prague was instantly recognisable by his linguistic idiosyncrasies. When he was in exile in Zurich, he used to take his shoes to a cobbler who was the only man he ever met who spoke Swiss German with a Czech accent.

Torberg was thirty when Hitler’s men stomped into the city. His family had its roots in Prague and Budapest, so he had had a wider view of the years following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. His Prague family suffered rudely: incarcerated by the Nazis as Jews from 1941, those who were lucky enough to survive were roughly expelled as Germans in 1945. It is a mild understatement to say the Czechs were less than sentimental about the fate of their Jews.

The first part of Tante Jolesch is taken up with some of the comic traits of the Jews, the way they avoided Umlauts, their approaches to life, love, sport and food. In Prague, the richer, German-speaking Jews congregated around Wenceslas Square, while the German-speaking Gentiles - most of who hailed from the Sudeten regions, put the River Moldava between them and the Semites. This central Prague community was the ‘haute-juiverie’ many of whom had been ennobled by an Emperor remarkably tolerant of his Jews. They were not all rich. Franz Werfel’s father was a modest glove merchant and they struggled a bit at the hands of the Czechs following the creation of the Czecho-Slovak state, as I learned when I translated the book about the pianist and Theresienstadt-survivor Alice Herz-Sommer who died last year, but they still had their organ in the Prager Tagblatt and recourse to the German conservatory and opera house and German schools and universities.

They were snobbish about the Czech provinces. Mährisch (Moravian) Ostrau (Ostrava) had nightlife, but all the other ‘Mährisch’ towns were known collectively as ‘Moravian-Suicide’. Over the border in Poland, Lemberg (Lvov/Lviv), on the other hand, was a proper metropolis. The social cement was the coffee house, where men gathered in the evening. In Prague this was the Café Continental on the Graben (Prague streets still had alternative German names). Here they gossiped (among other things) about the local Jewish Lotharios, such as a Dr Keller who, when told by a potential victim sex was unavailable, replied: ‘Dearest lady, when it comes to Platonic love, I am impotent.’ There is an episode too about the stud Fritz Krása which makes you smile, until you are recall where you had heard the name before: Fritz’s brother Hans was the composer of the children’s opera Brundibar. He was murdered in Auschwitz.

Torberg graduated to Vienna and writes nostalgically about the ‘Sommerfrische’ the summer break when so many families went to Bad Ischl or Baden bei Wien while husbands stayed in Vienna to look after the shop, joining their wives at weekends. Prosperous Jews aped the manners of the Gentiles, with their clubs and country houses and their tennis tournaments. Torberg was loyal to the old Café Herrenhof, which closed in 1960. It was largely kept open at the end for two old émigrés who sat with their backs to one another, and had not spoken since before the war.

The book is of course bitter sweet. The Jews had to leave or face the consequences. Torberg is particularly good on the ubiquitous ‘Herr Kohn’ who haunted the backstreets of Paris, Bordeaux or Lisbon and who knew how to find or fix up papers or which Caribbean island still admitted baptised or unbaptised Jews. Once in the United Stated, the writer Alfred Polgar summed up the feeling of alienation. He was, he said, ‘grateful and unhappy’. Torberg writes about a Frau Zwicker who was disconsolate and sat watching the Hudson flow past her window. When asked how she liked New York she replied ‘how should I be happy in the Balkans?’

He went to Hollywood with many others, ‘Purkersdorf with palm trees,’ where he was part of the ghetto composed of the great and good of the emigration, a stellar cast including Arnold Schoenberg, Hedy Lamarr and Erich Korngold. There he knew my own great-aunt Gina Kaus, and was patronised by Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma (sometime Mahler-Gropius). After the war, Torberg made his way slowly back to Vienna, to sit among the dwarves who had made off with the last remnants of a vanished universe and with his robust humour and humanity, to communicate with the spirits.

‘Thorax’ and the Chancellery Horses

Posted: 16th March 2015

An unusual story has come my way. I offered it around the papers a bit, but no one found it as interesting as I did, so I have put it here instead.

It concerns Hitler’s new Chancellery in Berlin, which was built to Albert Speer’s designs in just nine months in 1938 and opened its portals to the ‘select few’ on Göring’s birthday, 12 January 1939.

Naturally Hitler wanted the best for his palace. The sheer scale of the place would make a significant contribution to the Guinness Book of Records. At 146 metres, the Hall of Mirrors was a little over twice as long as its equivalent in Versailles and at the end of a penitential marble corridor, visitors reached Hitler’s Study, an intimidating 27 metres by 14.5 and nearly ten metres high. It contained his desk and his collections of Frederick the Great and Bismarck artefacts. Hitler patronised modern German artists too, providing they conformed to his vision of the genre. The tapestries were by Göring’s pet, Werner Peiner, and in the Dining Room some vast neo-Claudian canvases were the work of Hermann Gradl, one of the Führer’s two favourite contemporary painters. The mosaics in the Hall were the work of Hermann Kaspar and outside, Arno Breker designed the two monumental figures that flanked the entrance from the cour d’honneur.

Auguste Maillol’s friend Breker was the ‘Sculptor Laureate’ of the Third Reich, but The Viennese Josef Thorak came a close second. He was known as ‘Thorax’ from his predilection for male and female nudes with rippling muscles and square jaws striking heroic poses. He was also a dab hand at horses. Speer designed his 22 metre-high studio at Baldhan in Bavaria, which was a gift from a grateful state. It is a monument in itself. His works were so enormous, that there is a story of a patron who could not locate him among the warriors and stallions in his Brobdingnagian workplace and finally turned to an assistant in despair only to be told he would find the Maestro in the horse’s ear.

Thorak may not have been a Nazi. Many artists of the period were simply opportunists - he joined the Party late, in 1943. His most important commissions were a very mannered Judgement of Paris in four pieces as well as more restrained portraits of Hitler, Mussolini and Todt. For the Märzfelde he produced effigies of Bismarck and Frederick the Great. Such was his position within the hierarchy that he also carved the monument to Hitler’s new Reichsautobahn. His works were largely destroyed after 1945 and he returned to Austria, kept his head low and executed religious works. Almost the only place where you might see Thorak’s work exhibited today is in the Mirabell Gardens across the border in Salzburg.

It would have been strange, given Thorak’s position in the Nazi artistic hierarchy, had he not received a commission to embellish the Chancellery. As it transpires, he did. Casts were made of the two monumental horses he created for the Märzfelde and installed on the terrace on the Garden Front, just outside Hitler’s Study. They can be seen in situ here. At the end of the war the contents of the Chancellery were dispersed or destroyed - some by bombs, others maliciously as works of Nazi art. Anything that fell into American hands was likely to be pulped. OMGUS (Office of Military Government in Germany - US) was committed to removing all relics of Nazism from the country. Good or bad, they trashed around 8,000 paintings and sculptures and removed nearly 9,000 to Washington where they were lodged in the Pentagon. Ironically, the latter survived, although they were generally second-rate works painted by war artists belonging to the Propaganda Companies of the SS.

As for the Soviets, they stole the best part of a million works of art and took them back to Russia. We must assume that very little of this was executed between 1933 and 1945. It was perhaps these Nazi pieces that were left to fester in the Soviet Zone. Thorak’s nags, together with two works by Breker and two more by the sculptor Fritz Klimsch designed for the Chancellery Garden, were taken to the barracks in the East German town of Ebersfelde and placed on the sports field. Here they remained until three months after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, when, I am informed, a gentleman arrived with a suitcase or a chequebook and offered to take them away. None of the sculptures has been seen since, but I am reliably informed they have found their way into the collections of a leading German industrialist.

The question is now, who owns the sculptures? They were commissioned by a Chancellor of the German Reich and I can only presume they belong to his successors in the Federal German Government. Neither the Americans nor the culture boffins in Berlin are likely to destroy them now, but I would be surprised if they were exactly enthusiastic about having them back. There are no public galleries in Germany displaying Third Reich art and the nearest you might come to it would be the German Historical Museum in Berlin. What does seem clear, however, is that they do not belong to the industrialist who is sitting on them now.

The value of the horses is estimated at €5 million.

The Bombing of Dresden in Context

Posted: 17th February 2015

The Saint Valentine’s Day raids that wiped out the centre of Dresden on 13 and 14 February 1945 were not an isolated act, but part of a continuing bombing campaign that focussed on the remaining undamaged German towns and cities as well as revisiting those places already pulverised by earlier attacks. The Americans bombed by day, the British by night. In the meantime Germany was getting smaller daily with the Allies moving in slowly from east and west.

Even if much of the German army fought valiantly to the last, ‘Fortress Germany’ was an edifice without a roof, betrayed, some felt, by the inefficacity of Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe. In the East, the Soviet Armies began their offensive in the New Year and had surrounded the Prussian coronation city of Königsberg by 12 February when the beleaguered Königsberger laid a wreath on the peaceful philosopher Kant’s grave, to celebrate the anniversary of his death. There was less and less to eat. Shops that had been boarded up were broken open by the authorities and what was in them distributed, but in other cases people took the matter into their own hands. The Treks by which Germans in the eastern regions endeavoured to reach safety west of the River Oder were halted. With so much going on elsewhere, it was not until 15 February that the journalist Ursula von Kardorff heard the news of the weekend’s events in Dresden. There had been as many as half a million chiefly Silesian refugees in the city and talk of 50,000 dead. The destruction of German culture was not lost on Goebbels: another opera house went under, the second Semper building, together with the Saxon royal Schloss, the famous Frauenkirche and the Catholic court church.

Ursula and her friend Bärchen had succeeded in escaping from Berlin and were installed in Augsburg in Bavaria by 18 February. Despite instructions to the contrary, Bärchen had come with six cases, a radio transmitter and a hatbox. The others on the train were cross, but Bärchen placated them with cigarettes, tea and rolls. There was a definite rivalry in tragedy. The line ‘We have lost more than you’ was often aired. Whenever the train stopped, people tried to climb in through the windows. The bombers followed them to Augsburg and there were raids on both 20 and 22 February. There were thought to be 7,000 enemy aircraft over Germany selecting targets at will.

Ruth Andreas-Friedrich and her friends were adapting as Berliners adapted, and many other Germans besides. They went into the cellar for the American raid in the morning and then back again for the British one in the evening. ‘The English make it certain that we get no sleep.’ They had had the news from Dresden now, of people running ‘like burning torches through the streets or stuck fast in molten asphalt.’ Ten days after the Dresden raid, however, on 23 February, the RAF struck again in the small and ancient town of Pforzheim in the Black Forest in what was proportionally speaking the most murderous aerial attack in any theatre of the Second World War. Aircraft dropped 1,551 bombs, a hundred more than they had visited on the much larger city of Cologne. It was one of fewer than a score of proper firestorms and the heat so intense that victims were sucked into the inferno.

The man in charge of Pforzheim’s fire brigade was Lieutenant Colonel Siegert, who had been Inspector of the Imperial Air Force in the Great War. The British bombers, however, started more fires than he was able to put out. All in all, some 4.5 square kilometres of Pforzheim were destroyed and around 20,000 people, or a third of the inhabitants. At Nagasaki the ratio was closer to one in seven.  Bodies simply combusted in the heat, there was nothing left of them. The master bomber on the raid, the South African Ted Swales, was shot down on his way home. He was awarded a posthumous VC.

On 27 February, Augsburg was attacked again. Ursula was in a cellar with a lot of cocky Hitler Youth boys and their girls. As the raid got heavier they went down on their knees in a circle on the ground and clutched at one another, ducking at every heavy blast and becoming hysterical. They ended up praying. Five bombs hit the hotel and none of the doors closed any more. There was nothing left to eat in the city, no radios worked and no alarms. On 28 February in Berlin, the RAF was even trying Goebbels’ patience. ‘Cursed Englishmen’ and their fast, whining Mosquito aircraft had robbed him of the few hours of sleep that were more necessary than ever now. In truth, Harris was frustrated by Berlin, which he had failed to ‘Hamburgisieren’. German losses were always disappointingly light - roughly twice the number of dead among the attacking air crews. That night they dropped 1,554 tons of explosive on Mainz, but it had been hit too often before and as Harris knew, ruins did not burn well. Compared to Pforzheim only a modest 1122 perished that night in Mainz. The Red Army had now entered Breslau and there was house-to-house fighting on the southern outskirts. The Soviets had attacked Pomerania by air, the USAAF raided Saxony, while the British hit traffic knots in the Ruhr. American bombers came up from Italy to blitz Salzburg.

In the light of the sinking of refugee ships such as the Steuben and the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nitsch family had decided not to take their places on the steamers leaving Pillau, but to go to a relative’s house in Bieskobnicken instead. They hoped that the Russians would not treat them too harshly. They found a room for the thirteen of them on a farm. The house was filled with Germans trying to make it to the west, some of them sent up by the army from Pillau, but they were all offered hospitality by the Wittkes, the farmer and his wife. Bieskobnicken had already fallen to the Red Army once in February, but the Wehrmacht had beaten them back. A squad of twenty-five soldiers was stationed outside with a mobile ack-ack gun.

As far as the Anglo-American air war was concerned, Goebbels secretly admitted ‘we are completely defenceless’ and placed the blame with Göring. It was beneath him to apologise for the Luftwaffe chief. Goebbels the Shakespeare-lover quoted Hamlet: ‘The rest is silence.’ The Anglo-Americans were now in his hometown of Rheydt and they had also reached the outskirts of Trier on the Rhine. The street battles persisted in Breslau, as well as air attacks on Vienna and Ulm. On 2 March Düsseldorf and Cologne came within reach of Allied artillery. The British targeted Mannheim, Ludwigshafen and Dortmund and American four-engine bombers attacked Marburg. ‘The situation in the west becomes increasingly menacing’ (!!) wrote Goebbels. Hitler had suggested evacuation to Denmark. The war had destroyed around six million houses so far, of the 23 million there had been in 1939. Nine million others were in a poor state. There were other parts of the machine that still functioned: Speer was busy clearing the roads to free up traffic and the Rhodes Scholar Schwerin von Krosigk had come up with a project for finance reform.

On Saturday 3 March 1945, Käthe von Normann learned that the signals unit quartered in her manor house near Greifenberg in eastern Pomerania had been ordered to fall back. They were allowed to take two civilians with them. Käthe had already discharged her trainee cooks and housemaids. She packed off the estate’s secretary and her mother, who was to find safety in Mecklenburg. Since the beginning of February ‘swarms’ of refugees had filed past the house with their horse-drawn wagons piled high and asked for shelter for the night. She had set up primitive arrangements for them in the house itself and in the barn. There remained the sheep-pen and the byre. There were often hundreds of them. She handed out tickets to those who needed milk for their children. For days there had been no electricity and the telephone lines were down. That day, Churchill visited the Western Front and made an old-fashioned speech about Huns while his Foreign Secretary, Eden spoke of the cession of East Prussia to Poland. Even as late as a beginning of March, there were those who expressed their confidence in the regime. ‘Even if Berlin falls, we never have to be afraid of a terrible end. After the wild celebrations of the others, we will carry victory, which now seems to have become almost impossible, back to our country. First of all, what counts now is to hold back the flood. And the counterforce has already been set in motion. Just as I believe in you, I believe in our victory, in our future, and in our happiness.’

Goebbels decided it was going to be necessary to fall back behind the Rhine. To date, 17 million people had been evacuated. Some Gaue were 400 percent over-populated. Gauleiter Stuckart was busy pulling people out of Eastern Pomerania as the Soviets advanced. That meant another 800,000 on the march and the best way was to use ships, as the Soviet advance had already crossed the main roads. There was to be no evacuation in the west.

One person who was not allowed to leave Pomerania was Käthe von Normann. Two local Nazi officials came to see her that morning to make sure she was aware of the fact. Frau von Blanckenburg-Rottnow had attempted a trek on the first, and Herr von Sydow-Zemlin was about to leave but Frau von Blanckenburg had been apprehended and sent back to her estate. The maximum penalty for leaving before the order was given was death. Six Russian prisoners, who had absconded on the 2nd, had turned up ‘drunk with joy’ at the back door. They received a quantity of sausage from a freshly slaughtered hog. The sound of the guns was coming ever closer and clouds of smoke were rising from Plathe. That evening she bathed the children by candlelight. They lay down on their beds fully clothed.

A small American bridgehead had been established on the west bank of the Rhine opposite Düsseldorf. There was house-to-house fighting in Trier. Air attacks hit Stuttgart and Wiesbaden and American bombers targeted Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Hanover, Brunswick, Bielefeld, Hildesheim and Erfurt while British aircraft pulverised Dortmund. Goebbels was upset that Germans actually fraternised with the enemy. ‘A difficult problem is arising now, that our population in the Anglo-American-conquered Western areas is behaving in a relatively favourable way towards them. I hadn’t actually expected that... But we need always to take into consideration that these people have suffered severely as a result of the air war and that they have been completely numbed. It can also been taken as read that when they have recovered they will go back to their old attitudes. Whatever, the Anglo-Americans treat their approaches with extraordinary demands. They are completely aware that the friendliness they meet is a sort of cupboard love.’

New Me 262 jets were to be sent up as fighters to deal with the Allied bombers, but they were too few in number to have much effect. In Pomerania, Frau von Normann could hear bombs going off in Greifenberg. She lost her boys for a while. They had had to lie in the mud to escape a low-flying Russian plane. At lunchtime a local farmer reported that Russian tanks were on the main road. Later that day the first Russians arrived. Meanwhile the British were on the road to Wesel. The bridges had been blown up in the Lower Rhine. There was fighting just west of Cologne. Goebbels was ashamed that Rheydt had fallen; and that they had received the Americans with white flags  ‘I find that hard to credit, and above all, that one of these white flags should be hanging from the house of my own birth’.

The Soviets had caught the Nazi Governor of Warsaw, Ludwig Fischer, Goebbels thought he might have had the strength of character to kill himself. ‘Where are our fighters?’ On Wednesday 6 March, the Red Army was heading for the Baltic coast at Cammin, east of the Oder. They had split the front between the Oder and Königsberg. The Americans were on the River Ruwer, had penetrated Cologne to the Westbahnhof and crossed the Rhine using the un-blown bridge at Remagen. On the west bank of the Oder, Ingeborg Vetter and her family had become used to the long stream of refugees from the east and the task of feeding them with a little soup. The Soviets reached the coast on 7 March. There was an unsuccessful attack on the cathedral city of Frauenburg in East Prussia. In Cologne the fighting was taking place 100 metres west of the Dom.

Guderian had informed the foreign press in Berlin about the Russian atrocities. Goebbels was coming back from the front at Görlitz. The damage from bombing to Chemnitz seemed so serious that help needed to be sent. Keitel had found 110 trains to evacuate the army commands at OKW and OKH. ‘The journey through Berlin for me is quite shocking.’ Wrote Goebbels, ‘It’s been quite a long time since I had seen the field of ruins that the Reichs capital had been turned into, but everywhere you see barricades popping up like mushrooms... On the way we passed trek upon trek, above all Germans from the Black Sea.’

He took heart that there had been no destruction in Mecklenburg where the war was hardly noticeable. The enemy was heading for Koblenz. The generals were trying to set up a defensive line along the Mosel. Magdeburg and Dessau had been singled out for destruction again on the 7th - the Allied air commanders picked them out like chocolates from a box. ‘In Dessau extensive fires broke out [after the raid] and the greater part of the city had been burned to the ground.’

The Wehrmacht was still fighting from block to block in Breslau. Küstrin was under attack with its famous fortress on the right bank of the Oder. The Red Army had entered from the north and now controlled the streets. In the west, the Anglo-Americans were targeting the railway line from Cologne to Bonn. In the West bad weather had apparently put paid to air attacks, but the Americans had attacked cities in Hesse and the Ruhr, while the British had concentrated on Cassel, the centre of which had been destroyed by a fire-storm that killed 10,000 people. Canadian forces were in the middle of a three-day battle for Xanten which would culminate in the destruction of both the extensive remains of the Roman city and the Cathedral. A similar fate awaited Wesel and Emmerich.

On 11 March, Goebbels conceded there was not much more to destroy in the towns close to the Western Front. A few blocks of houses were reconquered in Fortress Breslau on the 12th. The British were apparently boasting of the numbers of refugees they killed in Dresden. Goebbels had called it ‘our last Kulturstadt’. When the gem-like city of Würzburg was destroyed by the Americans on 16 March, he changed his tune and Würzburg adopted that role. The Propaganda Chief took stock of the Germans: the success of the bombing ‘made the people completely disheartened’. The news of the Soviet atrocities had been disseminated. Goebbels hoped that they would fight harder if they knew what they were in for. There was about to be a serious problem of subsistence.

Meanwhile the destruction from the air continued unabated. The USAAF carried out a raid at the apparent bidding of the Russians on the 12th. The Soviets demanded the destruction of the Pomeranian coastal town of Swinemünde, which was swollen with refugees trying to cross the Oder Delta to reach the west. The Americans dropped 1,609 tons of explosive on the town from 671 bombers escorted by around 400 fighters. Between 8,000 and 23,000 people were killed in the ‘massacre’. The higher figure represents more or less the official number for those killed in Dresden.

Trouble at Dachau

Posted: 15th January 2015

Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s First Victims, and One Man’s Race for Justice, The Bodley Head, £16.99.

A few years ago, Timothy Ryback produced an interesting book on Hitler’s reading based on the surviving volumes from his library retained by the Library of Congress in Washington. His latest is another relatively short book on the early days of Dachau, soon after it was established as the model for a new generation of SS-run concentration camps following the SA’s ‘wild’ camps that functioned as all-licensed torture chambers after Hitler’s accession to power on 30 January 1933.

Ryback’s book tells the story of Josef Hartinger, an assistant state prosecutor in Munich and his attempts to bring some SS-men to justice for murders committed behind the barbed wire at Dachau. Knowing what we do now, such efforts would seem otiose, and the fact that Himmler pulled the plug on his investigations will come as no surprise, but in those first months of Nazi power, many people fondly imagined that Hitler would safeguard the rule of law and at its best, Hitler’s First Victims is a useful book for all the detail it gives on the Bavarian Free State at the beginning of the Nazi era, and the incredulity of some high-principled Bavarians at seeing how rapidly legal safeguards were scrapped. Many people still clung to the idea that Nazi Germany was not an arbitrary tyranny. German law made provision for Schutzhaft or ‘protective custody’, which meant suspects could be imprisoned without trial for short periods. The Nazis abused this law to put all the enemies of the state into concentration camps. Germany retained its courts, however, together with its legal system and even quite late in the Third Reich, lawyers demanded the application of the Penal Code in the course of prosecuting those accused of treason. Freisler’s People’s Court was caught out for not possessing copies of the Code, and at least one defendant was acquitted after he showed that evidence had been obtained illegally by torture. Hans Frank, Hitler’s generally repulsive satrap in the ‘General Gouvernement’ (Poland), often expressed his dismay at the seeing the erosion of German law.

The premise that the four killings carried out on 12 April signalled the start of the destruction of the Jews is clearly wrong, however. The first major law of the Third Reich was pronounced in President Hindenburg’s name on 4 February: the Decree for the Protection of the German People limited the freedom of assembly and press. The edict unleashed ferocious acts of terror. Gangs broke up election meetings and shot political opponents. A house belonging to a SD family in a Berlin suburb was torched and Göring as Prussian Minister President ordered that the police should take the side of the Nazis in the event of a brawl.

Using the pretext of stretched resources, Göring announced the recruitment of Hilfspolizei or police auxiliaries on 22 February. Only members of the SS, SA and the old soldiers’ league or Stahlhelm were admissible. Under the command of Berlin’s SA-leader, Graf Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, 200 ‘old and trusted’ SA men moved into the old storehouse at 178 Friedrichstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg to stamp out Marxism in whatever shape or form it took and to confiscate all weapons and propaganda. Every police station was also to receive an additional 100 to 150 armed SA men. Berlin suddenly had to contend with 1500 to 2000 ruffians who were a law unto themselves. By April they had locked up 25,000 enemies of the state in ‘wild’ camps and prisons in Prussia alone. By the end of the year about 100,000 people had been arrested and 500-600 people had lost their lives.

As the Nazis knew all too well, there were lots of left-wing Jews and many of these were arrested, beaten up and a few were killed in the violence that followed the Nazi assumption of power. The bloodletting took on a new resonance after the burning of the Reichstag on 27 February. In distant Königsberg, five political figures were killed on 27 March, including the Jewish businessman Neufeld, owner of the firm of Sonnenfeld. The purge was principally directed at communists and socialists, however, and it was they who made up the bulk of the concentration camp population before 1938, when other categories of prisoners were introduced. On 18 March 1933, the regime claimed its first Jewish victim in Siegbert Kindermann, an apprentice baker, who was beaten to death in the Hedemannstraße in Berlin because he complained to the police that the Nazis had attacked him. Other Jews killed at the time were the lawyer Günther Joachim, who died in a wild camp and the notary Kurt Lange was found floating in the Wannsee. Also killed were Moritz Anfang, nephew of the owner of the Berliner Tageblatt, Hans Lachmann-Mosse and the writer Arthur Landsberger. When a camp was created at Oranienburg, there was a ‘Jewish Company’.

Nor could the Nazis have been expected to be kind to any Jews that they rounded up. Hitler and the others had been abundantly clear about that even if they had made promises to Hindenburg, a few little accidents were bound to happen. For Himmler, spilling ‘bad blood’ was one of the primary objectives of his concentration camps.

The main action against the Jews for the time being was concentrated on removing them from German economic life. The Nazis took offence at the informal boycotting of German products in Britain and America and used this as a pretext to hold their own boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April. The action was not a great success and merely worsened the state’s balance of payments. After that the pot was left to simmer until 1935 when the Nuremberg Laws removed most of the Jews’ remaining civil rights.

The book jumps around a lot, which gnaws at the clear desire to provide a dramatic, page-turning account. We keep returning to a report drawn up after the German Revolution of 1918-1919, which was both savage and savagely quashed. It is unrelentingly American in style (I hadn’t realised that the preterite of to spit was ‘spit’), when the Times is mentioned, it is the New York Times, and lawyers have ‘perfect scores’ in their exams (I was left wondering what this translated - summa cum laude? Exams were not ‘scored’ then). American idioms I can live with, but not the sloppy editing that the book underwent (or rather didn’t) at Knopf in New York, which published the original edition in October last year.  There are endless repeats: In the course of seven lines, we learn three times that Karl Wintersberger was on the brink of retirement. One of the victims had been suffering from a bout of ‘chronic bronchitis.’ The American journalist Edgar Mowrer’s name is repeatedly misspelled, Hilmar Wäckerle has ‘fair-haired confidence’ (?) and strikes ‘iconic’ poses, livestock becomes ‘living stock’ etc. I wondered how Hartinger, as a junior officer, could be ‘promoted’ to sergeant, until I realised a ‘junior officer’ was an NCO. I longed to hear more about Dr. Delwin Katz, a Jewish physician who was voluntarily practising at Dachau and later murdered, or the communist Hans Beimler’s dramatic escape from the camp the night before he was due to be killed. He was supposed to have strangled a guard on the way out and made it to safety in Moscow before dying in the Battle for Madrid in 1936. We hear nothing of the alleged strangling.

Ryback has written another book about Dachau which I have yet to read, so he is aware that the camp changed its spots several times in the course of its twelve-year history. These four Jewish deaths of 1933 can be no more than an isolated incident and for the next few years, the death toll was comparatively light. Dachau’s real first encounter with the destruction of the Jewish race occurred after the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938. From then on, the Jews’ torment scarcely abated before liberation in May 1945.

Blog entries posted before 2015 can now be found in the Blog Archive.