Giles MacDonogh

Home Blog Blog Archive Wine & Food Diary Books Writings Other Activites Gallery Links Contact
Blog

Surviving the Third Reich

Posted: 16th December 2014

Hans Fallada, A Stranger in My Country: The 1944 Prison Diary, Edited by Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange and translated by Allan Blunden, Polity, ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-6988-5

Rudolf Ditzen (1893 - 1947) alias Hans Fallada, was a successful German author who almost managed to weather the storm of the Third Reich. He was not politically motivated and was not tempted by emigration, nor were his books thrown on that distinguished bonfire that illuminated the Opernplatz in Berlin on 10 May 1933. He was happy to go on writing and selling for as long as he was able; but you were either with the regime or against it, and as he had no great respect for the men in power, for much of the time he was doomed to idleness or worse.

His rumbustious character was not well suited to the Third Reich. He had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and prisons all his life, and had a nagging dependence on drink, all of which was decried in the petty bourgeois, prudish world of Hitler’s Germany. Where some writers such as Ernst Wiechert tried to practise ‘inner emigration’, (he nonetheless suffered a spell in Buchenwald) Fallada was foolishly confrontational.

The Prison Diary is now published for the first time in English. It was not written as a result of some peripheral involvement in the 20 July Plot to kill Hitler but rather after a contretemps with his ex-wife Suse. A gun went off and he was locked up in the Psychiatric Prison in Strelitz. The diary was written in secret and smuggled out and there are occasional lapses of memory. Whether he was choosing to put a better spin on things or had simply forgotten the precise details is not always clear. The account begins with a dinner at Schlichter’s, one of the most famous restaurants of 1920s Berlin which somehow contrived to survive into the war years before falling victim to ‘Total War’ in 1943. He was eating with his publisher, the charismatic Ernst Rowohlt, on 27 February 1933, when the Reichstag went up in flames. Fallada believed this happened in January and that it marked the beginning of Hitler’s reign, but that had actually happened a month before. Perhaps he simply hadn’t noticed?

His novel Kleiner Mann was nun? had been a success and he was more or less financially secure; you may listen the rather good music from the screen adaptation here and the whole film is visible on YouTube. In 1933 he was renting rooms in a large house overlooking the River Spree near Berlin when he realised the Third Reich was going to be a threat to his existence too. When a man from the Nazi Winterhilfe charity came round and rattled his box at him, he sent him packing. Wise men stayed on the right side of the Party’s all-licensed thugs, particularly the SA or Sturmabteilung,until it was bloodily reined in during the Night of the Long Knives at the end of June 1934.

He thought he might acquire the house he was living in and bought off the mortgages to the advantage of the debt-ridden owners, the Sponars; but they ended up running rings around him through their connections with the big cheese in the local SA. Eavesdropping on a conversation with the assassin-turned-litterateur Ernst von Salomon provided them with enough information to hang him and the Sponars nearly succeeded in having Fallada shot ‘trying to escape’. It was only as a result of his tenacity and the intervention of another legendary publisher, Peter Suhrkamp, that he was able to extricate himself from custody and a nasty predicament. Fallada’s diary exposes the fact, however, that the Nazi tyranny was in no way all-encompassing. While on remand he was able to play his Nazi Party guard off against the Stahlhelm (Former Combatants’ League) one and in rural Germany at least, the system could still be bent a bit.

Fallada also maintains that he was able to procrastinate and avoid joining the RKK or Reich Writers’ Chamber. Theoretically at least, only paid-up members could be published and even those who were, could find that no paper was allotted for their books. Some of the best pages of the diary concern his relations with Goebbels - who controlled the film industry and all its luminaries, and Goebbels’ rivalry with buffoon Alfred Rosenberg who ran his own organisation to suppress cultural bolshevism. Goebbels held the purse strings, and was able to shower obedient writers and actors with gold. Goebbels also made sure films were rewritten to contain the necessary propaganda messages; but Hitler sometimes spoiled his games and waded in on occasion, as he did to dismiss the actor Mathias Wieman who had previously benefited from Goebbels’ protecting hand. Hitler objected to Wieman’s portrayal of a Prussian officer, and from that moment onwards the actor’s career was frozen.

Fallada eventually settled in Carwitz in Mecklenburg where he hoped he would be able to sit it out, but he was still pestered by SA men who were aware he was good for a few bob and by crooked Nazis who knew how to blackmail a man with lukewarm commitment to the regime. The worst bullies in rural communities were the schoolmasters, who could easily find out about the leanings of people in the village by canvassing guileless children. Fallada fell foul of at least two. One of these pedants also caught out the local chemist and a poor farmer who boasted having a cow that looked the spitting image of Adolf Hitler. One of them achieved the position of mayor, and that way gained control of the vital area of rationing.

Fallada’s accommodation with the regime, such as it was, made him a natural butt for the émigrés in Thomas Mann’s camp who castigated all literature produced under the jackboot, but as A Stranger in My Country makes clear, remaining in Germany was not often a cushy option.


The Marriage at Potsdam

Posted: 17th November 2014

The young German Nationalist Adolf Hitler grew up in an imaginary world of Teutonic tribes and knights and the armies of Frederick the Great. He admired Prussia, the German Sparta, a state he believed to be the polar opposite of Austria, which had expanded by wise marriages rather than feats of arms. He had dreamed of controlling Prussia and now as the new Reich Chancellor the chance was his. He chose the moment to wed his National Socialist government to its warlike spirit of on the first day of spring 1933.

As the Reichstag has been burned down on 27 February, the auditorium of the Kroll Opera House on the Königsplatz was hurriedly dressed up as the new parliament. Hitler decided, however, that the opening ceremony of the assembly elected on 5 March would be in the Garrison Church in Potsdam. The Garrison Church was the greatest monument to the Soldier King, Frederick William I. The simple Northern Baroque design was typical of the ‘old Prussia’: sober, harmonious and light. The symbolism of the building was clear. It was as austere as the Prussian army had been in its heyday, yet hung with the many standards the soldiers had taken from their enemies. ‘Their souls were bowed in humility before God and fulfilled by discipline and the love of Fatherland, not to mention the memory of a strong and soldierly Germany that was rich in civil and martial virtues which led to memories of a ruling caste that had taken Germany to greatness and to the peak of its power. Every German who entered this place was filled with these thoughts, he was moved beyond his being, and his breast filled with pride.’

The day was as well flagged as the nave of the church. Goebbels’ newspapers prepared the ground: Germany was going to lift its head. The Börsenzeitung summed it up - ‘The myth of 1918 is extinguished’. The day began at 6.30 am with a military concert in the Potsdam Lustgarten, where in the old days, foot guards had drilled beside the winter palace of the Prussian kings. The streets were hung with swastikas and imperial standards and the crowds heard the churches’ famous peal of bells ringing  Üb' immer Treu und Redlichkeit /Bis an dein kühles Grab (The music is from Mozart’s Zauberflöte: Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen. ‘be thou true and honest man, until thy dying day’). Goebbels later ordered the use of Ub’ immer Treu as the new pause signal for the shortwave radio.

Mass was celebrated for Catholics by Dr. Banasch in the town church at 10.30, but the nominal Catholics Hitler and Goebbels did not appear, using the excuse they were visiting the graves of murdered SA comrades. President Paul von Hindenburg and his fellow Protestants attended a service in the Nikolaikirche, where Dr Dibelius officiated. The sermon was drawn from Epistle to the Romans 8.31: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ The same text had been used on 4 August 1914, at the start of the Great War. Invited guests converged on the Garrison Church at 11:20. There were 100,000 visitors in Potsdam that day and men and boys in uniform lined every street. Even Richard Wagner’s grandson Wieland was present holding the flag for his Bayreuth Hitler Youth contingent. The SA, Stahlhelm and SS formed a guard of honour and Reichswehr troops stood before the church. The royal family had been reserved places, but one prominent member was absent: William II’s seat remained empty. He was in exile in Dutch Doorn and was unofficially represented by his son, the Crown Prince, in the uniform of a colonel of the Totenkopf Hussars.

Pews had been allotted to all Reichstag members with the exception of the communists but the socialists had elected not to come. The Catholics from the Zentrum were naturally there. Hindenburg arrived in a Pickelhaube sporting his Pour le Mérite medal. As he passed the Kaiser’s chair he bowed and hailed the princes with his baton. The Kaiser’s Nazi son Auwi was in SA uniform, while his brothers Eitel Fritz and Oscar represented the old soldiers’ organisation, or Stahlhelm. Göring and Goebbels greeted the princes with Nazi salutes. The service began at 12.00, with organ music and a choir directed by Professor Rüdel. Hitler appeared dressed in an ill-fitting suit like a bashful novice at Hindenburg’s side.

Hindenburg made a speech - ‘May the old spirit of this glorious place also take possession our present kin, may we be free from selfishness and party quarrel … for the benefit of a unified, free and proud Germany.’ Hitler spoke next. He told his audience that neither the Kaiser nor the Germans nor their government had wanted war in 1914. The general collapse of November 1918 had allowed Germans to accept the lie of their guilt. The elections of 5 March had restored national honour. Hindenburg and Hitler shook hands. The French ambassador, François-Poncet mistook the sign and thought the Kaiser would soon be beckoned back to Germany. There was a 21-gun salute from a battery of artillery in the Lustgarten at which point Hindenburg alone descended into the crypt to lay a wreath of Frederick the Great’s grave, while the organist Otto Becker performed a fugue on the Deutschlandlied.

The ceremony in the Garrison Church was followed by a military parade at 12:45. The band struck up again in Potsdam at six and there was a staging of Karl Lerbs’ U-Boot 116 in the town theatre. Otherwise the fun and games were transferred to Berlin. The Führer’s film unit had shot over 1,000 metres for the newsreels. The first session of the Reichstag took place at five that afternoon at the Kroll Opera House under the baton of Hermann Göring. Cameramen were installed in one of the old theatre boxes. Hitler sat among the deputies in a simple brown shirt. The Crown Prince and the diplomats had been given boxes too. That evening there was another Fackelzug in Berlin and an invitation-only gala performance of Die Meistersinger, which was to become the most frequently performed opera of the Third Reich. Wilhelm Furtwängler had been invited to conduct although he was sickening with ‘flu’. Hindenburg and Winifred Wagner were present that night and the Maestro’s daughter-in-law took heart in the well-dressed audience.


Dublin Ghosts

Posted: 16th October 2014

I was in Dublin for a friend’s birthday last weekend and I have rarely seen the place looking so good. The sun shone, the sky was blue; there was not a cloud. For the first time I felt the proximity of the Wicklow Mountains looming over the southern reaches of the city. Unlike my last visit about three years ago, when half of Grafton Street appeared to be boarded up, the pavements were bustling with an international Babel. The Dubliners were also out and the pubs so full that you had to push and shove to gain your share of the bar.

I came in from the airport on an annoying talking bus (747) that went round all the houses. The man in front issued a malodorous fart and the one behind scraped at some potato salad in a plastic box. The smell was not much better. I resolved never to take the bus again, and got out at Trinity to walk the short distance up to St. Stephen’s Green. There were so many people gawping at the buskers on Grafton Street that I ended up taking Dawson Street to avoid them, still nothing spoiled my idyll until I arrived at the place where I was due to spend the night and the porter informed me that they didn’t have a room for me. I left him to make other arrangements and stumbled back out onto the streets.

Temporarily bed-less, I tried to think where I might go, but every time I conjured up a friend’s name, I realised that he or she was either dead, or had long since quit the city. I passed the Shelburne Hotel and thought about going into the Horseshoe Bar. In the old days you were bound to find someone to put you up there but then I realised that too had become unlikely. As I strolled down Baggot Street my worries left me and I began to enjoy myself poking my nose in here and there to look at a neighbouring Georgian terrace or a striking granite doorcase. I was particularly taken by the row of plain trees running down the middle of the road just before the canal and by a little cottage at 6 Pembroke Street which you accessed via a Georgian arch and a rib-vaulted ‘Gothick’ passageway. There was a black cat posing on the doormat outside. Then I popped into O’Donahoe’s for a pint of stout.

I was looking at the small Huguenot graveyard on Baggot Street when I began to see ghosts, not their ghosts, or the phantoms of my former Dublin friends, but the ghosts of the Protestant Ascendancy. The more I looked at the plain Georgian buildings of Dublin 2, the more I realised how alien this culture was to Dublin and the Irish. The suppression of Catholic Ireland after the Reformation, the Irish revolt against Cromwell and support for James II was hardly new to me, nor were the Penal Laws and the dispossession of the Catholic Irish and their replacement by Protestant opportunists, but in this merciless sunlight it became suddenly clear how false that lovely picture of Georgian Dublin was, and how untrue to its inhabitants. Swathes of the city were knocked down after the Irish Free State was created in 1922, but it seemed to me almost surprising that they hadn’t bulldozed the lot.

I was, of course, grateful that they did not. Dinner beckoned and I put away my gloomy thoughts.

I spent the night in Buswell’s Hotel, opposite the Dail or Irish parliament. After a quick breakfast outside a café in Molesworth Street, I continued my walk by going to Merrion Square. I was struck once again by the vastness of the houses and the very subtle differences that the owners expressed by means of a doorcase or some fancy ironwork. I looked out for the former British Embassy, torched by the IRA in 1972, but it had been so well restored that I missed it. Attitudes had changed since the Republic allowed most of north Dublin to go to rot and ruin. I finished off the morning in the archaeology museum looking at the paltry relics of real Irish culture, mostly from the Bronze Age. There are scarcely any buildings in Dublin dating from before 1700 and what little remains from mediaeval times is occupied by the Protestant Church of Ireland.

I had agreed to join a friend in the afternoon who had studied at the Royal College of Surgeons and Trinity in the Sixties and he took me on a tour of his Dublin. We started at Trinity where a queue to see the Book of Kells that snaked round the quad rather dashed our enthusiasm to see it. Earlier that day I had noticed a lovely interior at the furrier Barnardo on Grafton Street with ceilings and cabinets dating from the Twenties and earlier. We went in and were shown round by a very hospitable lady who explained that the firm had been founded by the father of the famous Dr Barnardo: the creator of homes for orphaned children. We located another reasonably well-preserved interior at Weir’s the jeweller. What Marks & Spencer had done to the inside of the former Brown Thomas building was lamentable by comparison. We then went to Bewley’s for coffee. Bewley’s is largely a tourist trap these days, but the interiors and the stained glass by Harry Clarke have been respected.

The next stop was the late Georgian Royal College of Surgeons on St. Stephen’s Green, which proudly sports the scars it received during the 1916 Uprising. Inside we tried all the doors and found some of the original features my friend remembered from his student days. Fortunately the anatomy theatre was locked. It reeked of formaldehyde and I wasn’t looking forward to meeting the residents. The College has always had a liberal admissions policy that welcomed students from the Third World, even at a time when such people were exotic in Dublin and unknown in the rest of Ireland. It was odd too to see how the memories of the Ascendancy had been expunged: there was no more Regius Professor, for example even if the place was littered with medics with high-sounding British distinctions.

Further round the square was the Georgian house where, exiled from Oxford by dint of his conversion to Catholicism, John Henry Newman created the Catholic University that was to become University Colleges Dublin, Cork and Galway. It harbours a lovely neo-Byzantine church where a Saturday afternoon wedding prevented us from penetrating too deeply into the nave. There are still plenty of big Georgian town palaces on the Green, like Iveagh House, the former Guinness mansion that is now home to the Foreign Ministry, but there are also plenty of fakes too. Round the corner we went to look at what had been University College Dublin until the Eighties, and which was now a concert hall. We continued round to the east side of the Green and Hume Street, where there had been a lot of rebuilding. There were some sad, derelict houses that stank of rot.

I was told this area and Fitzwilliam Square had been Dublin’s Harley Street and medical students had often found digs here. We popped into Doheny and Nesbitt’s for the first drink of the day but the tour continued after a short break, taking in the nineteenth century parts of Dublin around the South City Markets. The markets themselves were disappointing, as they sold virtually no food, only tat. The Central Hotel was a nice small hotel with a lively bar and we went into the Carmelite Church where even at confession time on a Saturday evening, there were virtually no takers. How Ireland has changed! The Powerscourt Mansion became a posh shopping arcade years ago, but one of the great advantages of allowing people to set up stalls there has been the chance to wander around and admire the stunning plasterwork and stucco ceilings that are the secret of Dublin’s otherwise austere Georgian buildings: the luxury is within. Few if any London buildings can match the sumptuous baroque and rococo stucco of Dublin.

A case in point is the Kildare Street and University Club that has some extraordinarily good ceilings, one of the best of all being the Adam-esque bar. It is an amalgamation of a number of different institutions, one of which is an Ascendancy body that celebrates King Billy and the Protestant victories at Enniskillen and the Boyne. They have installed a couple of their pseudo-masonic chairs and other Orange Order regalia in one of the back rooms.

The tour paused for dinner, but started up again after breakfast. I had originally intended to brave the North Side where Dublin’s treasures are rather more fragmentary. This was the front line in the Fifties and Sixties when Desmond Guinness was the first man in Ireland to fight for the crumbling relics of the Ascendancy. He founded the Irish Georgian Society with this in mind. In Dublin the IGS’s finest hour was the preservation and restoration of the magnificent Georgian Mountjoy Square.

As it was, I was taken in hand. I was to be taken to Glasnevin cemetery, the Pantheon of the Republicans: the men who put an end to the Ascendancy. Apart from the obvious figures like Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, there were the worthies of 1916, Michael Collins and a host of Fenians and IRA men. More recently a monument was set up for the Irish dead in the First and Second World Wars. It was inaugurated by a member of the British Royal Family who was heckled by Republicans without the gates.

After a swift half at the Gravediggers’ Arms, a well-preserved boozer just outside the cemetery walls, I had my final treat in the Ascendancy tour: the Casino at Marino, designed by Sir William Chambers for the Earl of Charlemont as the perfect neo-classical temple in the grounds of his now suburban villa. The Casino was built on the highest point, and from there he had views across Dublin Bay to the Sugarloaf and the Wicklow Mountains. Chambers also designed Charlemont’s town house, now the Museum of Modern Art, but he never visited Dublin and the interiors were the work of Simon Vierpyl, an English-born sculptor he had met on his grand tour. It should come as no surprise that local craftsmen were responsible for the wonderful plasterwork.

I had known the Casino from pictures since my teens but it was wonderful to be able to walk around it. I had assumed it was just one room, but it is actually a fully working house with four exquisite rooms on each of its three floors. Sad though, was the history of the estate under the Republic. The building of his various properties had ruined the first earl and the Charlemonts had long since ceased to own the estate. In the Twenties much of it fell to the Church while the rest of the land was assigned to a new housing estate. There was some hope that the villa might be saved, but in the end it was levelled along with all the other treasures that the earl had scattered about his pleasure garden: a final metaphor for the history of the Ascendancy.


On The Buses:
Retreating from Mons

Posted: 15th September 2014

More than thirty years ago, I used to lead regular bus-tours of Paris by night and we all sat on a coach while I fed the passengers nuggets of French history. We would travel around the various monuments and at two or three of them, such as the Palais de Chaillot, Notre Dame or Montmartre, my Americans had the right to stretch their legs. I still recall the confusion of one old chap on the terrace of the Palais de Chaillot looking at the Eiffel Tower across the Seine and saying: ‘But I thought it leaned?’

Halfway through the tour, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in a cellar on the place du Marché Sainte Catherine in the Marais and I used to go into the kitchen and put slices of lemon over the trout heads, because my charges didn’t like the fish ‘looking at them’ while they ate. There was also a strong objection to sauté de lapin - or ‘Bugs Bunny’ - which despite the tenacity of the utterly rapacious propriétaire eventually had to be taken off the menu. Once they had dined well and drunk their all-included half-bottle of rotgut wine, I used to sell them pictures of Paris landmarks executed by me but signed by an allegedly impoverished American painter called Frank J Field. I like to feel that there are still a few of these pen-and-ink drawings languishing in dusty frames somewhere in the Midwest. One day, perhaps, ‘Field’ will be ‘discovered’.

I thought back to this former life at the beginning of the month when, at the request of a friend, I was engaged as historian to a group of forty-six members of a family ranging in age from six to eighty-six, whose grand, great-grand or great-great-grandfather Major Hubert Crichton had been killed a century ago during the British retreat from Mons. Of course it wasn’t the same at all. Back in the old days I had only Roger, the driver, who spoke not a word of English, and I had to do the rest, and this time my role was more ‘consultative’ as the family had its own leaders whose job it was to make sure everyone got on the bus on time and round up the lost sheep.

We had the best part of three days to remember the last month of Crichton’s life. He had been second-in-command of the first (and only) battalion of the Irish Guards and answerable to the Colonel, the Hon George Morris, younger brother of the Irish peer, Lord Killanin. Over the next eighty or so hours, we had to tell the story of his mobilisation - officers were recalled from leave on 30 July, five days before the BEF was committed to a non-existent French alliance - his journey to Le Havre complete with horse and final arrival at the front on 23 August, when the Irish Guards were placed in reserve at the battle on the high ground above the Irish Rifles. The Irish Guards had only been raised in 1900 and so far there had been no baptism of fire. At Mons a few men were injured, so that first blood was delayed for a few days more.

For the rest of his life, Crichton was in retreat. We followed the regiment’s path to Landrecies, where a skirmish broke out on 25 August 1914. Again the Irish Guards were cheated of a major role: it was the Coldstreams and to some extent the Grenadiers who fought off a German prod, and the Irish were billed to cover their ‘retirement’ - to use the official phrase. Unlike the Guards in 1914, we had been cooped up on our bus since being doused in a deluge climbing to the Grande Place in Mons and we were itching to get out. One of the teenage boys jumped in the canal for a dare and we missed the small memorial to the Guards’ action, where a Coldstream officer called Monck had challenged a cunning German officer who was pretending to be French. We did find a bigger monument commemorating the British army in 1918.  There was little left of the original fabric of the town: it had clearly been shelled to bits.

By now the party was slightly frazzled and we speeded up in the direction of our hotel in Villers-Cotterêts. Right and left there were immense cornfields with occasional deep ravines. The landscape was dotted with cemeteries, reminders if ever we needed them, that this land was soaked in the blood of our dead. The different headstones identified the nationalities: thin French crosses, British Portland stone slabs and doughty, grey German Maltese crosses. In one place all three armies had their neat, separate sections. We even passed the modest monument to the Battle of Malplaquet, where the Duke of Marlborough clinched a pyrrhic victory in 1709, but we sped on by: one of our number was celebrating an important birthday and a few glasses of champagne in the hotel courtyard provided the prelude to a relaxed evening.

The following morning we drove out to the place where Crichton was killed. On 1 September 1914, the Guards Brigade fought a rearguard action in the forest at Villers-Cotterêts. Their job was to hold back Kluck’s army to allow one of the two British corps that comprised the BEF to retire behind the Marne. The forest was an impossible terrain for a scrap as the undergrowth ruled out retreat via anything other than the straight ‘rides’, where soldiers were in full view of the enemy. Over 300 men were killed that day including a large number of officers, many of them scions of distinguished British families. Not only did Crichton die, but also Colonel Morris. The Brigadier, Scott-Kerr was badly injured. With many officers gone, the battle descended into a rout and in the confusion, several platoons were wiped out. Still, the Irish Guards received their baptism of fire, and the punch they inflicted gave the Germans a sufficiently bloody nose to enable the BEF to reassemble south of the Marne on 2 September.

The place where Crichton died was on the northern edge of the forest, between the villages of Vivières and Puisieux.  We got off our bus and stood at the crossroads where Aubrey Herbert MP, father-in-law to Evelyn Waugh, saw Crichton fall assembling his men to charge the enemy. Later his body was found by some French farmers and taken for burial in the little cemetery at Puisieux together with three guardsmen. In the Thirties, Crichton and the guardsmen were reburied at Montreuil-aux-Lions near Château-Thierry, but the tomb is still there. It is now used as an ossuary, I presume for those who fall foul of the French ‘concession à la perpetuité’ which requires next of kin to pay every ten, twenty or thirty years, else the bones are dug up to make way for fresh dead.

We decided to look at the place where most of the dead Guards were buried in a pit by the Germans after the battle. It was by the Rond de la Reine in the middle of the forest. We noted with interest that the family of Colonel Morris had got there before us and signed the visitors’ book. They had also left a photograph of their ancestor and in a gesture of respect to a man who by all contemporary reports smoked like a chimney, a packet of ‘The Major’ - Irish cigarettes. Then, all of a sudden, rather like the German army in September 1914, they were upon us: three carloads of Morrises, including the present Lord Killanin. It was a merry scene, a laptop came out and some previously unknown pictures of Crichton were produced. Soon we were all posing for a joint photograph. There were rumours that another of the families was also on the road that day: a large ‘Grosvenor’ bus that was plying the roads through the woods and was thought to contain a few dozen kinsmen of Lieutenant Hon J N Manners of the Grenadier Guards.

Montreuil-aux-Lions was our next port of call. The hotel had prepared a picnic, but had provided no wine so we had to stop at Leclerc in Villers-Cotterêts. Then there was the problem of the bus, which was far too big to be parked just anywhere. We eventually found a quiet spot in a field before we motored on to the Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery at Montreuil.

Here were buried a mixed bunch of British soldiers, chiefly from the Battle of the Marne, but there was also a RAF Lancaster crew that had crashed in the Second World War. A high proportion of the graves were for soldiers ‘known only to God’. Crichton’s medals were brought out, and members of the family came forward to deck the grave with roses. We had our cleric with us, former army padre Rev David Cooper, who said a short but moving memorial service before we motored gently back to Villers-Cotterêts.

The rest of the trip was reasonably sedate. We drove to Soissons on our last morning and enjoyed the cathedral with its astonishing south transept. The cathedral was badly damaged by shelling and the city almost entirely destroyed. The silver lining to the cloud was the collection of magnificent art deco buildings around the cathedral, in quality second only to those in Rheims. There was also a handy cheese shop that sold the pungent local cheese of Maroilles, that Crichton must have seen or smelled on his way to the front. Then a straw poll was taken whether we should make for Mons and another cemetery or stop in Laon for lunch. The party opted for the latter, and the sun came out for a valedictory meal on the square below the mighty west front of the cathedral, then it was back on the bus and full speed ahead to Brussels.


Two War Books

Posted: 26th August 2014

Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: the Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914, Verso.

Douglas Newton’s book examines the political crisis that ran through the last week of peace in July and August 1914. It is an important book and it shows how a small clique within the cabinet took Britain to war despite opposition from the radicals in their own party and at various times, over half the cabinet. It was a curious realignment of the party on Prime Minister Asquith’s part, and I suppose it was ultimately responsible for the ‘strange death of Liberal England.’

Asquith could bank on plenty of enthusiasm for war in the country. As Newton puts it: ‘many people looked forward to war with relish’. Crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace to await the announcement and spilled out onto the balconies of smart London clubs, baying for German blood. Despite the fact that the war had been caused by an open wound inflicted on Austro-Hungary by Serbia, made septic by Russian expansionism and French lust for revenge for 1871, Britons doggedly perceived Germany as the villain of the peace. The reasons for this are clear: Germany was Britain’s rival - strong, longing for a great colonial empire and cheeky enough to want to build strong warships and put them in bases that faced ours across the North Sea. As the MP Philip Morrell of Garsington fame put it to the House, the chief reason for going to war was ‘fear and jealousy of German ambition.’ Russia, which had been forever viewed as a byword for barbarism, was now forgiven of its sins.

The chief warmongers were Churchill, Grey and Asquith, backed by the Tories, the Tory press, The Times and a number of rabid, Francophile conservatives who gathered around the malign figure of General Sir Henry Wilson - who actually referred to their campaign to get the war started as a ‘pogrom’.

No matter what concessions the Germans made in their attempts to contain the conflict, Grey and Asquith wriggled out. Reading this book, you begin to feel sorry for the long-suffering German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky who was endlessly duped by the Foreign Office and then had to deal with the Kaiser’s mood-swings at home. Grey got cold feet at one stage and had to put back on the rails by George V, who it seems was giving his full support to his cousin Nicky and spinning his other cousin Willie a yarn. Once again the Kaiser comes across as almost guileless, although it has to be said there were almost as many warmongers and annexationists in his entourage as there were in the British elite.

A violation of Belgian neutrality was hotly longed for by the interventionists, despite the fact that it was not a casus belli. Nor did our treaty obligations require us to take action. Newton quotes Jerome K Jerome: ‘Had she (Germany) gone round the Cape of Good Hope the result would have been the same.’ It is clear that the widespread reporting of German atrocities, which depicted malevolent German squaddies gleefully skewering new-born babies on their bayonets like chefs threading meat onto kebab skewers, was also a necessary element of propaganda created to excuse precipitate action on the part of Her Majesty’s Government. Meanwhile the annexationists drew up their plans (remember this is an accusation we level at the Germans): on the day we went to war Lord Harcourt was chairing a committee in which he was recommending the absorbing of the small German Empire into our own and planning the dismemberment of Austria in favour of Italy.

Newton’s text highlights an interesting small point about the Jews, who Hitler was later to castigate for wanting to destroy Germany in the course of the war by sabotaging a German victory. In Britain the Jews were seen as siding with the Germans, and that all pacifists were closet German Jews. When the Rothschilds accused the Times of ‘hounding the country into war’, the foreign editor W T Steed, spoke of a ‘dirty German-Jewish international financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality…’

I warmly recommend this book.


Lesley Mann, And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, Icon Books.

Sometime before his early and accidental death, the anglicised German novelist W G Sebald regretted the absence of fiction relative to the air-war and bombing of Germany and it is generally true that there is far less good literature about the Second World War than about the First. Lesley Mann’s novel isn’t exactly great art, but it is an honest, warts-and-all book that tells the story of the author’s war in Bomber Command and just how un-glorious and terrifying it was to fly bombers over Germany where you have only a slim chance of survival. It is significant that Mann’s book was not published in his lifetime: these were things that few people dared say and the post-war generation wouldn’t have wanted to hear.

And here it all is: not The Dambusters’ Raid but the reality of those thirty missions the teams flew before there was any hope of safely ‘flying a desk’. There was even the chance of being shot down by one of the RAF’s own Spits, but rather less danger from the inadequate flak over London - ‘the London barrage’ as it was called.  It was obvious that London was very lightly defended compared to what bombers faced on the other side and it was the theme of much joshing in the mess.

Chiefly Mann is good on ‘LMF’ or ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ and how often it routinely occurred in crews. Here Mann’s account is enhanced by a particularly good introduction by the historian Richard Overy, who informs us that frequent cases of debilitating stress were weeded out of the Force and sent off to do some demeaning office job elsewhere: a terrible humiliation in itself but one that preserved men’s lives.

I have to declare an interest here as I realise now my late father was possibly an LMF-case. I never heard his side of the story, because my mother left him when I was three and I never had the chance to speak to him again. After a spell as a squaddie in the Artists’ Rifles he was commissioned in the RAF in 1937, but he lost seniority before the war broke out as a result of some misdemeanour and was court-martialled in the spring of 1940. He spent less than a year as a civilian pilot before measuring out the rest of his war as a draftsman in a factory.

My father was the rogue-Irishman of legend, and the evidence also points to his having been thrown out of the service for punching a man called Smith. It may also have been that he slept with a brother officer’s wife, for he was good at that too. Whatever the story, he left the RAF before any significant operations began, unless by some chance he flew one of those pin-prick bombing missions against the German navy in September 1939 that were such an abject failure. His unfamiliarity with the bombing campaign didn’t stop him penning a couple of poems about the terror of ops at the end of his life. Whether he felt that fear himself is a moot point, but he was right to point it out: you only have to do the maths, as they say - fliers were required to perform thirty missions and one in two of those in Bomber Command survived.


Berlin: Reality and Illusion

Posted: 21st July 2014

After one German-speaking capital city in June, it was the turn of the other in July. I had been invited to a discussion at the Humboldt University to prepare the ground for a conference in London next year on the subject of culture in the four Allied Occupied Zones 1945-1949, for which the movers and shakers were King’s College London and the Humboldt University itself.

There is obviously a considerable difference between the two cities, not least because, despite extensive destruction in the war, Vienna appears much as it always did, while Berlin changes every time you turn your back. Some of these modifications have sought to put back elements of the city that were there before the world and cold wars. In other places a sort of muted modernism has been introduced that retains the outlines of the city that was. In others - like the Potsdamer-Platz, the authorities have chosen to allow full-throated ultra-modernism.

Transport is one area which is in a state of flux, with new S-Bahn routes replacing those I had become used to taking over the past quarter of a century. I flew into Schönefeld, which I have done but few times, but fortunately fell in with a fellow conférencier who knew the ropes and we set off together.

Our Hotel Calma was up by the Oranienburger Tor in Mitte, an area of mostly intact Biedermeyer houses on the northern reaches of the Friedrichstrasse. It was a few years since I had been there and now it seems every second building is a restaurant or cocktail bar and the few old pubs (like the Bärenschenke where I was befriended by a Stasi informer in the days before the Wall came down) have shut their doors.

It was hugely hot. The following morning the walk to the Humboldt University through the liveliest part of Mitte and over the Spree was an endurance test. It is the second time I have done a stint at Berlin’s original University. It amuses me to enter the portals of Prince Henry’s palace and find myself in the middle of East German communist chic, with plenty of grey marble and seemingly unending corridors right and left which can in no way resemble the apartments of Frederick the Great’s brother and his long-suffering bride.

On the second day of the workshop I got up early from breakfast and went along the Kupfergraben to see the state of the Schloss. Rebuilding had started, and from the gates of the University I had noticed the palace closing off the Linden as it had before it was detonated in 1950. I had seen that picture before, in 1993, when campaigners for the re-erection put up a huge model to demonstrate to the public what it would look like. I took a picture then which is in my 1997 biography of the city.

That morning I arrived in the flank of the building by the Lustgarten, but I walked round to the more famous frontage, opposite the Spree and stared at the work over the remains of the pedestal on which the last Kaiser built an enormous equestrian monument to his grandfather William I. The form of the façade was now identifiable, as were the various entrances. The dome has yet to be started. I did not know if the portal from which Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the revolution in 1918, and which has been re-housed in the old East German senate building, will eventually be taken home, or whether they intend to copy it for the new building. I walked away in an elated mood, back to the University via the Bebelplatz where I stopped to check the times of Mass at the Hedwigkirche. Looking down I found another of my fellow conférenciers sitting on the steps: a professor from the University of Leipzig. When I told him what I had been doing he was furious at the falsehood of it all: it was fake, expensive, and to rebuild the Schloss they had pulled down the East German Palace of the Republic, which was an important building in its own right, he said.

It is true that a lot of the Linden is false. Much has been recreated from the Gouverneurshaus to the brand new Bertelsmann building on the River Spree, which has taken on the form of the former military governor’s palace. This process of falsification was started by the East Germans when they reconstructed the palaces at the eastern end of the Linden, and it was they who also assembled that ghastly Disneyland that is the Nikolaiviertel. Opposite the Schloss there is currently a mock-up of Schinkel’s Bauakademie (or architectural academy) in which one corner has been put together from authentic material. Despite misgivings, however, I enjoy seeing my mental pictures of the old city assume substance, and when it is all finished - which will be in several years time - I hope I will be able to witness parts of Berlin properly as they were. No one else would have undertaken such a scheme, and I think the project is simply fabulous.

The workshop at the University ended at lunch on Friday and I took myself and my luggage off to a friend’s flat in Schöneberg in the old American Sector. Germany was playing France that night and the U-Bahn was filled with very hot-looking girls in football strip. After I dropped off my kit, I went for a walk in the Bayrische Viertel. Once again, it is an area that has preserved the vast majority of its Mietshäuser or blocks of flats. Most of them date from around 1910 and those that were unscathed by the bombing, still have pretty Jugendstil motifs and stucco decoration. Most people were sitting in a very orderly, German way at tables outside Kneipen where the publicans had invested in large screens to allow their customers to enjoy the match accompanied by beer and food. The people were well-behaved compared to our fans. Only when Germany scored its first goal did a few people come out onto the street to let off rockets.

My host and I went out to dinner, selecting a restaurant without a screen that was consequently empty. We then went to the Zoologische Garten to fetch my family, who not only contrived to be late, they managed to find their way to the left-luggage lockers and wondered why they couldn’t find me. In their absence I had my chance to study some more unruly football fans and a number of nocturnal stalwarts of the Zoo station. I was unpleasantly reminded of the night of 31 December 1989, when for want of a hotel room, I spent part of the night kipping on the floor.

With my family in tow, I became a tour-guide for the next five days. I had not realised how central Schöneberg was. It was a relatively short walk to the Viktoria-Luise-Platz and from there to the Nollendorfplatz when we met friends in the Tiergarten. Later, the tremendously useful 100 bus took us to the Linden for another look at the Schloss. We are back in much the same place on Sunday to attend Mass at the Hedwigkirche. The interior of the Palladian church which Frederick the Great constructed for his Catholic subjects was destroyed in the war and the modern replacement is very ugly. There has been a competition recently to remodel it. The Mass, on the other hand was rather lovely: the same Missa de angelis that we sing here, but the choir was infinitely better and unlike our church, the whole Mass was in Latin, not just the sung parts. After Mass we looked at the tomb of Bernhard Lichtenberg in the crypt who was arrested for instituting prayers for the Jews in 1942 and died on his way to Dachau. There is also a plaque to the Catholic leader Erich Klausener: another one of Hitler’s martyrs who was killed in the Night of the Long Knives.

The bright sunlight on the scratched monument to the book burning on the Bebelplatz made the subterranean collection of empty bookshelves even harder to see than usual: good idea, but very impractical. Thank God it doesn’t mar the square like that monstrosity on the Judenplatz in Vienna.

The route to Potsdam has changed. Now you are meant to take the S2, which seems a lot slower as it makes its way around the south of the city. Probably the best idea is to change at Wannsee, which might even save time. Also when you arrive in Potsdam the Hauptbahnhof has been set back from its old position and rehoused in a shopping mall and you are almost obliged to take a bus or tram. The joy, however, is arriving over the bridge and seeing the Stadtschloss there again in its original place. The winter palace of the Hohenzollern kings was still largely under wraps when I was in Potsdam two years ago. Now it is finished in bright red sandstone, a huge achievement. That pre-cast concrete building behind it needs to go next along with the Mercure Hotel. The Garrison Church is due to be re-erected, and maybe some of the old palace fronts on the Havel.

After a pit stop in the increasingly twee town centre, we had a look at the Friedenskirche before climbing to the terrace at Sanssouci in the heat. The one monument everyone could be made to agree to visit was the Chinese Tea House where Frederick the Great used to meet the Earl Marischal, as it is half way between Sanssouci and the aged and infirm Jacobite’s pretty home on the edge of the park. Everywhere there are comical portraits of Chinamen, parrots and monkeys playing musical instruments. An attentive and good-natured warder made me demonstrate the teahouse’s echo.

On Monday I led the inevitable Third Reich tour of the Pariser-Platz and the Wilhelmstrasse. Now finished, the Pariser-Platz is an only partly successful pastiche of the old square. I remember when there was nothing on the Soviet side of the Brandenburg Gate. Then came the Adlon which opened in 1997 with an unforgettable party: 2,000 guests in evening dress spilled out on to the square after a lavish dinner - an unimaginable sight in the old GDR. Now all the plots have been filled, abiding by the city’s instructions to keep within the scale of the original place. The DZ Bank by Frank Gehry has an exciting interior at least, and the French Embassy a curious, rusticated ground floor. Possibly the boldest building is the plate glass Academy of the Arts.

I had also never examined the memorial to the Jewish Genocide with its sea of grey stone blocks. Children of all ages were jumping from slab to slab and my son naturally joined in. Whether they take home an inkling of the enormity of the crime or just have a good time larking about I could not say. It began to rain and we moved on.

There are just two original buildings on the eastern side of the Wilhelmstrasse and the western side is still occupied by the atrocious blocks of flats erected in the last years of the East German regime. I don’t think anything can be done to make them more presentable but as the trees on the avenue grow taller you can’t see them quite so easily. They look so gimcrack that there must be a hope that they will simply fall down before long. It is hard to imagine that this was Berlin’s royal mile, lined with the palaces of the court nobility. Relief comes at the Zietenplatz where the statues of Frederick the Great’s generals have been re-erected and each one of them forms a prompt for a good anecdote.

It was almost impossible to get into the Voss-Strasse, where the south side is being reconstructed as part of the development of the Leipziger-Platz round the corner. The same dreadful GDR-blocks now cover the site of Hitler’s Chancellery and still there is nothing to indicate the whereabouts of Albert Speer’s building that was blown up by the Russians after 1945. A kindergarten stands more or less at the entrance. In the old days you could get quite close to the bunker, but that area was closed off for building as well.

The Leipziger-Platz takes its cue from the Pariser-Platz. The buildings occupy their original sites in the old octagonal space but nothing is reproduced, not even the wonderful Wertheim Department Store. We passed the old Prussian House of Lords and Göring’s Air Ministry with its evocative GDR-murals of happy workers and Young Pioneers and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Topography of Terror exhibition on the site of the Gestapo headquarters in the Prinz Albrechts Palais: a heavily damaged building that the Americans destroyed. Our tour ended watching children playing football in the park that occupies the place of the railway platforms of the vanished Anhalt Station. The only remains of the old building are three lofty arches from the façade.

On our last day I got to take my son to the Zoo. I admit that I had never been to the Berlin Zoo before. The weather was sultry and well over 30 degrees. Inside the birdhouses and the aquarium it must have been 35. Despite that I quite liked the place. It is not as magnificent as the Viennese zoo at Schönbrunn, but it knocks London Zoo into a cocked hat. It has all those animals that London lacks: elephants, rhinos, bears in profusion, wolves etc, and they all seem to have plenty of room to roam around. We watched a bored, hot, middle-aged woman feeding the big cats which was a great treat. Each one got his or her share of a freshly slaughtered goat: generally a leg, but the smaller cats received white rats and some nice-looking slices of fillet.

Our party reformed on the Museumsinsel just as the heavens opened. There was no solace to the east of the Schloss, just acre upon acre of themed concept restaurants and bars. The East German buildings have been largely torn down, but their replacements are not much cop either. We took the S-Bahn to the Savignyplatz and the rather more genteel charms of Charlottenburg. At least that was authentic Berlin, and neither good fake nor bad fake.


An Archaeologist in Vienna

Posted: 20th June 2014

I have been meaning to read Stefan Zweig’s last testament, Die Welt von Gestern (translated into English as The World of Yesterday) for some time, so when I arrived in Vienna on Thursday I dropped into Herder in the Wollzeile and bought a copy. Zweig wrote the book in his final place of exile, Petropolis in Brazil. He committed suicide as soon as he put down his pen: the world he had known, in which he had reached the stratosphere of the literary firmament, had crashed about his ears; and the city in which he had been born, once the capital of a great empire, had been reduced to a provincial German city. A few months before his death the Nazi authorities had begun the process of herding his people into camps where they could reckon with an either-or of being worked to death or being whipped away and slaughtered like cattle. Zweig was a man in despair. He had come to the end of the line.

It was a lovely warm day in Vienna and I sat down at a table in the Franziskanerplatz and read the first chapter over a glass of Gösser beer. It is striking how Zweig was the polar opposite of Hitler in everything he stood for. As he puts it himself: ‘as an Austrian, a Jew, as a writer, humanist and pacifist’. At the time of Zweig’s death there were no more Austrians - an Austrian had put an end to that. His fellow Jews were being liquidated and political control had been applied to German literature to the extent that it could only be continued in secret or in exile. Humanism was considered a joke and when the governing ideology dreamed of a new order forged by cataclysmic war, pacifism was already deemed a filthy word.

Zweig draws a picture of the world that he was born into in 1881. His father was a Jewish industrialist from Moravia who had prospered as an assimilated Jew and moved to Vienna where he lived the life of a modest millionaire. Zweig says he grew up unaware of the antisemitism of the time, but it could be that he simply refused to notice, for it was certainly there if you looked. Only a few minutes before I docked in the Franziskanerplatz I had stood beneath the effigy of Karl Lueger who had used antisemitism for political ends. Zweig is magnanimously soft on Lueger who was famously pragmatic about blaming the Jews for the Empire’s ills, but his contemporary, the German nationalist Georg von Schönerer was in deadly earnest.

My own grandfather Felix Zirner was born in Vienna in 1905 - nearly a quarter of a century after Zweig. His world was much the same. A year after Felix’s birth his maternal grandfather Ludwig Zwieback died suddenly at the age of sixty-one leaving his millions to his three daughters - my great-grandmother and her two sisters. I still have a scant handful of cousins in the city, but their prominence is no more. The physical monuments of the family’s better years are still largely there, however, if obscured by later accretions and as I padded between my hotel in the Landstraße (Metternich’s line - ‘Hier beginnt Asien’ - Asia begins here - is now particularly piquant) and the former royal palace of the Hofburg, those traces gave me food for thought.

My Zirner great-grandfather, for example, was the court jeweller not only to the Austrian emperor but also the Shah of Persia. He converted the stately building that still stands at Graben 8 in 1904. I have observed it over the years, but I am too young to recall the time immediately after the Second World War when it was a camera shop. Now it sells scent and other vanity products. Less than a decade ago, the last bit of Jugendstil fenestration was pulled out. I could see that there were no original interiors at ground floor level, but there must be some upstairs. My godfather had told me that there were five levels of cellars where his staff laboured at their benches, but I had found that hard to imagine as a child.

On my way to the Hofburg on Friday I went in and walked downstairs to see if there was anything interesting in the basement. There was the usual shallow vaulted ceiling but no more. A woman asked me if she could help. I explained about my great-grandfather. She looked at me indulgently and said there were quite normal cellars, like all Viennese buildings. I think she believed me mad.

On Saturday I carried out the same inspection of the old Modehaus Zwieback department store at Kärntnerstraße 11. This was a rather more important site. Ludwig built it in 1895, the architect being Friedrich Schön, but after his death my great-aunt Ella had it remodelled by Friedrich Ohmann, the great Jugendstil architect who designed the Stadtpark and the monument to the Empress Elisabeth (Sissy) and a great many buildings for my extended family. Ohmann’s gorgeous front can be seen here. It managed to survive the Third Reich but the magnificent double-headed eagle awarded Emperor Francis Joseph to the court purveyor Ludwig disappeared when Ella sold the shop in the 50s. Later the façade was modified and the bust of Ludwig disappeared from above the lift. I first remember it as a branch of C & A. For the last few years it has been called Espirit.

I lowered my heart into my feet and walked in. Maybe there was something in the basement. I was not pleasantly surprised, for there was nothing besides a few exposed bricks. The present owners have just three floors so it is possible there are features preserved above. Ella was Vienna’s most famous fashion designer until the thirties and kept her seamstresses in the attics behind oval windows. They seem to have been pulled out too.

The most famous urban monument of the family’s Viennese time is next door, the restaurant Zu den drei Husaren. In origin, this was the carriage drive to the Palais Arnstein, also owned by Ludwig Zwieback and his heirs. As someone explained to me recently, it was pretty well the only restaurant worthy of the name in Vienna until the nineteen-eighties. About four years ago, however, the owners pulled the plug on it and locked out the former owner and manager Uwe Kohl. For a long time there was a sign in the window saying a pipe had burst. Now that has gone along with the menu. It is all rather sad.

The restaurant opened in 1933 when Ella rented out the old tea-room to some Palffys who made the place tremendously fashionable before 1938. Then Count Paul lost heart at the arrival of the Nazis and he sold the lease to the Berlin restaurateur Otto Horcher. Later that year, all the Zwieback property was ‘arisiert’ (Aryanised) and Horcher became the owner of the walls as well.

After 1945, Zu den drei Husaren was the dining room to the Austrian President Karl Renner, who continued to eat there until his death in 1950. The following year, Otto Horcher (now living in Madrid since October 1943) sold it to a certain Baron Fördermayer who later flogged it to Kohl. I suspect that this sale was illegal, as Horcher’s acquisition of the walls cannot have had any justification in post-war Austrian law.

Not that post-war Austria cares much. On Monday I went to a wine party in the Naschmarkt. I came out of the U-Bahn at the Kettenbrückengasse just as the last stalls were cleared away. I was greeted by that same smell of dill that I associate with all Central European markets. I made small talk with a young man with a ponytail. I spoke of the dill, and the great tub of Sauerkraut that I recalled from my first visit in 1969 and which forms a two-page spread in my first book on Austrian wine published in 1992. I hope it is still there. If it is, it possibly even contains traces of the same cabbage I tasted in my teens. The boy with the pigtail looked at me with suspicion: had I - he asked - some family connection with Vienna? I told him that my mother had been born in the city, at which his eyes narrowed and he told me that he was sorry to interrupt, but he needed to speak to someone urgently. I never saw him again.

I do not wish in any way to compare my paltry talents to the genius who published his first volume of poetry as a nineteen-year old undergraduate and wrote libretti for Richard Strauss, but I suspect that if the 133-year old Stefan Zweig were to pitch up in his home town now, he would find its present denizens would show an equal lack of interest in what it was that made him leave, and what he might have done in the meantime.


Madeira M’dear

Posted: 16th May 2014

It is awful. I can’t remember the precise date of my one and only visit to Madeira. I am sure I wrote a piece for the FT about it, so I suppose their archivist would know. I think it is fair to assume it was in 1995 as the youngest wines in my tasting notes were 94s and the Blandys sold Reid’s in 1996. My hosts were the Madeira Wine Company, which was then controlled by the Symington family of Oporto. They have since relinquished most of their share so that - despite the loss of their famous hotel - the Blandy family rules the little roost once again.

Thoughts ambled back to the island when I received a copy of the second edition of Alex Liddell’s book on Madeira a few weeks ago. Due to other pressures, I had not picked it up before now. And then by chance I was looking through a pile of half-finished notebooks a few days ago and found one that contained the bones of the diary I had kept on my trip. I saw that I had been there with Andrew Jefford and Dave Broom, and that Andrew had brought his then wife, a keen gardener who wanted to see the island’s famous flowers.

We must have left very early in the morning. On the flight Dave recalled two lethal airport disasters that occurred within a month of one another in 1977 resulting in dozens of deaths. The runway had since been rebuilt; that notwithstanding, it was still a harrowing experience coming in to land.

We stayed at Cliff Bay, next door to the famous Reid’s. When we met William Blandy that night he tactfully explained that a wing of Reid’s was being refurbished, and he only had a fraction of his normal number of rooms, else he would have put us up there. Reid’s and Cliff Bay are on top of the cliffs. I went down in a lift about 100 feet to the rocky shore and swam twenty lengths in a pool at sea level, then I struggled out for a drink, finding an empty, dusty place that was labelled a ‘pub’ where I had a ‘Coral’ beer. Opposite Reid’s were two desolate old villas with their windows punched in. As you walked down the road you had to flatten yourself periodically against the wall to avoid being crushed by the traffic going in and out of Funchal. When I returned we were whisked off to the Golf Club on the other side of town where I had a dull lunch of scabbard fish cooked with bananas.

Fish was naturally what you ate on Madeira. We paid a visit to the fish market in Funchal and looked at the marvellous displays of scabbard fish and tuna. I think we also saw the little, whitewashed late Gothic cathedral. William Blandy entertained us at Reid’s that night. He was Madeira’s Mr. Big and suitably dressed in a white suit. The family owned the newspaper, the travel agency, Cliff Bay and Reid’s and plenty of land besides. One dining room insisted on black tie. Two of our number did not possess ties, let alone black bows, so we ate in the more informal Grill. Blandy told us there was good beef on the island but far too little of it.

With virtually all the wine made on the island strong and sticky, the wines at dinner were imported from the Portuguese main. There was a passable local rosé made from Tinta Negra which was pushed by the Symingtons for a while. If you were not careful you had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The second day was spent visiting different parts of the island. We went to Câmara de Lobos; at 580 metres its cliffs are among the highest in the world. The south coast of Madeira was crowded with whitewashed villas and every available space in between filled with bananas and vines. Behind it is the empty central plateau, which looked like something painted by Bosch. What charm it possessed was contributed by poios and levadas: stone terraces cut by slaves from Cabo Verde and canals that brought fresh water to the coast. There were waterfalls, grottoes and mossy banks, a few ragged sheep plus some of the brown cows so hotly recommended by Blandy.

The top Bual grape was grown in the vineyards on the north coast along with the other specialities: Sercial, Verdelho, and Malvasia. We ate in a restaurant there - winkles, octopus and parrot fish, with a Verdelho that had been vinified as a straight white and tasted thin. A lot of the grapes were still American hybrids planted after the vineyards were wiped out by phylloxera a century before. After lunch we stopped at see a caseiro who gave us a glass of Isabela or something similar. It was so raspingly sour I spat it out into a flowerpot when he wasn’t looking. Of interest, however, was the poly-culture that provided a clue to the problem of sourness in so many Madeiran wines. Madeira was hot, so why did grapes have such a problem achieving physiological ripeness? Stuck for space the islanders grow their crops under the vine canopy and benefit from the irrigation provided by the levadas. I saw potatoes, courgettes and marrows on the ground while beans clung to the stems of the vines themselves. As the canopy was thick, there was not much sun for the vegetables underneath either. It was July or August if I recall, and the grapes were as small and hard as garden peas. The Symingtons had not made themselves popular by encouraging a more modern mono-cultural vineyard at the Quinta do Furão.

There is a long account of a tasting in Funchal in the fragment. I recall I bought a couple of old vintage wines. One of them, a Bual 1958, I must still have. Possibly we left that night, as the diary then peters out abruptly.

Liddell’s book is not a travelogue but a serious monograph on Madeira wine. He certainly provides all the information that anyone might decently require and more besides. Madeira has clearly been one of the author’s passions since his student days. Passion, however, is not one of his strongest suits and while the book will be eagerly mopped up by Madeira lovers, I wonder if it will communicate that much to those about to begin a journey of discovery?

It might have been better had the author painted a bit of a general picture of the island before diving in to the minutiae of its vinous history. He quotes from the letters of William Bolton, a merchant who witnessed the changes that occurred at the time of the controversial Methuen Treaty which gave Portugal preferential trading status with Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. I remember looking at the first volume myself, and noting that one thing the islanders imported from us was sash windows!

Madeira is little more than a collection of rocks in the Atlantic, dependent on the outside world for so much of what it needs to make life liveable. And yet it has not only managed to create a unique wine, it has become among other things, a paradise for horticulturalists and a haven for valetudinarians. Maybe the next book on Madeira should think big, and bring in all three.


Heimat

Posted: 23rd April 2014

I never watched Heimat when it hit our small screens in the eighties. Then as now I had no gogglebox and in my mind I used to (with some justification I might add) confuse it with Holocaust, which came out at much the same time, moulding an entire generation with its conclusions. Also Heimat sounded like a soap opera, and I had a horror of soap operas. But a friend recently convinced me that it was good, and better still, lent me a box of the original series. I am not sure I want to go on to the second or the third, although I suppose it would be interesting to see how the village of Schabbach reacted to Reunification in 1989.

The story hinges on the life of Paul Simon, a peasant lad from a village on the Hunsrück (presumably derived from ‘dog’s back’) above the Mosel Valley. It is an area I know a little, because I have often come through it travelling from the Nahe to the Mosel. It was reputed dour: the people grow potatoes and cereals and it is wide and windswept. Then you plunge down into the Valley at Bernkastel and there are vines as far as the eye can see. They make their appearance in Heimat too but the series rarely dwells on the richer folk of the Valley.

Simon walks back from the war in 1919. His father Mathias is the local smith, his mother - ‘die Kat’ the village matriarch. Paul has been in signals and has learned about wireless technology. The rest of the family consists of the sickly brother Edouard (he has a bad lung) and a sister, Pauline. Paul is keen on the dark stranger Apollonia who has a baby by a French soldier. In the village they think Apollonia’s father must have been a Gypsy. Apollonia disappears and Paul marries Maria on the rebound. She is his first cousin and the daughter of Wiegand, the mayor and richest farmer in the village. They have two children, Anton and Ernst.

So far, it looks a bit like the beginning of a soap opera, but it is better than that. Most of the dialogue is in local dialect, which was authentic enough as far as I could determine. Authentic too is all that took place in the Simon house: the huge loaves of Landbrot, the bowls of soup or ‘Dickmilch’, the great bottles of schnapps that represent the extremely basic diet of the Hunsrücker. The area was already occupied by the French army, and we witness a few acts of protest and hear that the French have shot some Germans. All that is quite true to history.

Paul, however, is not happy with his lot. One day he goes out for a beer and never returns. He flees to America and eventually settles in Detroit where he starts Simon Electric and becomes a rich man. He tells no one why he has gone, and the village, and Maria, have to get used to life without him.

The series now focuses on Edouard, whose lung operated on by Ferdinand Sauerbruch in Berlin. Sauerbruch was the most famous surgeon on his day, and it seemed to be stretching a point to have him carve up Edouard, but never mind. Edouard tumbles into a brothel and ends up marrying the madame, Lucie. In the meantime the Nazis come to power and Lucie convinces Edouard to join the SA. Patronised by the Gauleiter - another Simon - Edouard becomes mayor of Rhaunen and builds a villa for Lucie. The villa looks circa 1900 rather than 1935, but that is a minor fault. The ambitious whoremonger Lucie has her great moment when Hitler re-militarises the Rhineland and for three whole hours the Nazi Bonzen Ley, Frick and Rosenberg occupy her gute Stube.

Edouard is a fellow traveller. He is not like old Wiegand, a bluff village Nazi, or Wiegand’s nasty son (Maria’s brother) Willfried, who joins the SS. ‘Die Kat’ is not impressed by the brown men and thinks they live ‘auf  Pump’ (on tick). She goes to see her communist nephew Fritz in Bochum in the Ruhr, where lots of poor Hunsrücker go to find work. While she is there the police arrest Fritz and take him off to a concentration camp. The policeman spouts the predictable Goebbels propaganda: that the Third Reich has brought order and prosperity. Kat takes Fritz’s daughter home with her and she becomes one of the family.

Pauline has married the jeweller Robert. Robert does well out of the persecution of the Jews because the latter are forced to shut their businesses. Now the locals buy their rings from him. In his new prosperity he invests in a hundred bottles of Mosel wine from the great 1937 vintage.

DAF men come to build the Autobahn - the Reichshohestrasse - and with them the engineer Otto Wohlleben. He is a half-Jewish ‘Mischling’ and under the Third Reich his career is blighted. Just before the Second World War breaks out, Maria becomes pregnant by Otto but then they receive word in the village that Paul is coming home. Otto is dismissed and Maria and her eldest son Anton go to Hamburg to meet Paul off the ship. Paul, however, cannot land, as he has no certificate of Aryan birth. There is a comic scene in an archive when Edouard and Willfried try to establish the family tree. The name ‘Simon’ sounds Jewish (there is an excellent Bert Simon estate in the Mosel) but Edouard reminds his Nazi cousin that the Gauleiter is also a Simon. War breaks out and Paul is forced to sail away back to America. Neither Maria nor Anton has caught sight of him.

Because the Wiegands have a big farm, Willfried is dispensed with the need to fight and becomes the peasant leader or Ortsbauernführer instead. He is a stock Nazi villain but meets his match in his aunt Kat who taunts him at every opportunity. Willfried bullies the French POWs whom Kat feeds and shoots a wounded British flier.

Maria has a son, Hermann, by Otto. The elder boys go to war. Anton joins a PK or propaganda unit and learns about filming. He also films partisans being shot. Ernst is a passionate member of the Luftwaffe. Anton gets a girl called Martha pregnant in Hamburg and she joins the family too. Anton and Martha are married by ‘Ferntrauung’ a contemporary invention which meant the non-religious ceremony was conducted down the telephone while the PK-unit filmed Anton professing his vows. During the marriage Ernst flies low over the village and drops flowers for Martha.

As the war proceeds, several villagers are killed by a British bomb. Otto, who by now has met his son Hermann, is working as a bomb-disposal man, presumably because of his mixed race. He is killed defusing a bomb. Others fail to return from the war, like Pauline’s husband Robert.

The Americans arrive. There are black, gum-chewing faces outside Edouard’s villa. The villagers would have seen some of those under the French occupation too. Edouard and Lucie are kicked out and the Doughboys move in. Lucie sets about charming them and their son Horst chews gum with the best of them. The big event, however, is the return of the ‘Amerikaner’ Paul. He is now fabulously rich, but still won’t tell his people why he left or whether he has a family in Detroit. Only right at the end do we learn that Maria was the only woman in his life. His real sons are not there, but he gets to know Hermann. He goes back to America soon after his mother’s death.

The Economic Miracle is the next event. Having walked 5,000 kilometres back from captivity in Russia, Anton uses his wartime experience to build a factory making lenses and becomes wealthy. The louche Ernst had been shot down in France, but had acquired diamonds. He marries well and moves into a villa in the Mosel Valley. He is an ‘Ewiggestrige’ unable to accept the changes made to Germany by defeat. His ventures, and relationships fail. By the end he has become a great rascal: ripping out the interiors of Hunsrück farmhouses and selling them to pubs while the houses were masked with double-glazing and hideous glass doors. Having seen almost every village in Germany and Austria wrecked in this way it was painful for me to watch this episode.

The focus is now on Otto and Maria’s son Hermann. He is a bright child at the local Humanistischen, but he falls for the refugee Klärchen who is eleven years older than him. She becomes pregnant and Anton and Maria gang up to send her way. In fury Hermann leaves too. We meet him next in the sixties in Baden-Baden, the apple of his stepfather’s eye. He has become a Stockhausen-style composer and Paul funds his musical performances and provides him with electronic back-up. Anton tries to borrow money from Paul to save his factory, but Paul has little interest in his real sons.

Hermann’s symphony was performed and the villagers go to the pub to listen to it on the wireless. They are predictably scandalised. The only person who appreciates the use of nature and bird song is Hermann’s cousin Karl Glasisch, the village wag and narrator of the series. It was interesting that my eleven-year old son really fell for Glasisch, although he understood but one word in a hundred of the series.

We are now in the eighties and Maria dies. She was born in 1900, the same year as Glasisch. The family is on hand for the funeral even if Hermann comes late and all but runs over his mother’s coffin. The last episode descends into magical realism which I found not entirely convincing, but it was a useful way of tying up loose ends. At the village fair Glasisch collapses and dies and Paul seems to be on the way out too. The dead Simons are having a party in the village hall. Anton also has a fall and loses his hearing. The awful Ernst has been prevented from wrecking the family home by his father, who has turned it into a museum.

I am glad I watched Heimat at last. I was chiefly impressed by the attention to detail and by the balance: it steered away from most of the clichés that you might encounter in a history of Germany in the twentieth century and Nazism in particular was shown to have planted only shallow roots with the peasants. In the last episode Anton goes into the byre after his mother’s death and finds a colour television that he had given her as a present. She had never used it. He interrupted her preparing a pile of ceps picked in the forest. She tells him to take the box off the table as it is squashing her mushrooms. Television, she tells her eldest son, is for people who are dying. I have taken that to heart.


Wine & War: The Wine Führer

Posted: 17th March 2014

It was the old way of war to feed your army at your enemy’s expense. The defeated or conquered nation continued to succour the army of occupation. Soldiers either took what they needed or bought it from local farmers and merchants. If landowners failed to come up with the goods there were ways of making them see sense, as the French writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin makes clear in his book, La Physiologie du goût of 1825. During the Napoleonic Wars, the lawyer Brillat-Savarin had been working as secretary to the Staff of General Augereau in the Black Forest. When a local landowner feigned inability to furnish game for the table of the French officers, they responded by billeting a large number of soldiers on him. He took the hint, and their meals never wanted for succulent meats after that.

Napoleon was famous for his scorched earth approach, but others did it too. It did not make that much sense to transport provisions from home, and in so doing, denude your own people’s larder. The Nazis learned the value of the fertile Ukraine after 1941, which was not only capable of feeding the German army, there was food left over to send to the starving people of the Third Reich, even if much of it went into the stomachs of the Party élite and a little bit more was sent to Eva Braun in Berchtesgaden.

Wine and other alcoholic drinks were important too. Soldiers sometimes need encouragement to be brave. There is a long history of giving soldiers drink: the original ‘Dutch courage’ was enjoyed by English mercenaries in the sixteenth century. In the First World War, the British discovered ‘plonk’, allegedly their corruption of ‘vin blanc’. French squaddies, or poilus were given ‘pinard’ as part of their rations until very recently. Like British ‘tars’, many soldiers must have lived in a state of semi-permanent drunkenness.

There was naturally a ration of beer for German soldiers. In 1916, the Austrian Ministry of War decided to do likewise and the banker Josef Kranz (my great-uncle by marriage) was given the job of organising it. As the money did not all go where it should have done, Kranz was accused of profiteering and became the subject of a show trial; but Kranz had a trick up his sleeve: he knew a way to get his hands on Ukrainian corn to relieve the starving Austrian population. The trial blew up in the Emperor’s face and the government fell as a result.

Since the dawn of time, wine producers have known to hide their wine at the approach of enemy (and sometimes, their own) armies. When I wrote my first book on Austrian wine a quarter of a century ago, there were quite a lot of people around who remembered the approach of the Red Army in 1945. Erich Salomon in Lower Austria showed me how his father had put the bottles from the last few vintages into empty casks. The Russians tapped and hearing a hollow noise, thought them empty. After he told me the story, we settled down and drank one the bottles the elder Salomon had saved. In Gols in Burgenland, Georg Stiegelmar recalled his father sinking their best bottles into the well.

I have heard similar tales in Germany. Carl von Schubert at Maximin Grünhaus told me that the Americans took over the estate in 1945, but his grandmother, a corpulent women, used to find pretexts to go into the cellars, and would string bottles of priceless old Auslesen under her voluminous skirts before she came out again. The famous Stadtkeller in Bremen was not so lucky: the Americans made heavy inroads, but they left the ancient cask of 1648 wine, and many years later I was allowed a sip of that too.

One of the most interesting men I met in those days was the late Helmut Osberger in Straß in Lower Austria. He had also blocked up whole alleys of his cellars at the Russian approach, but he had another tale to tell, for he had been in the business of acquiring French wine for the Wehrmacht. As Osberger tried to make clear over lunch, the Germans had paid for their wine in the Second World War, albeit in devalued ‘Occupation Marks’. In his opinion the trade had been fair and square.

Of course when the Germans crashed into France in May 1940, soldiers simply helped themselves. That honeymoon did not last and soon a death sentence was handed out to some caught looting in champagne. In Rheims I was told this was rare, because in the First World War, soldiers who had helped themselves to bottles that had not yet been disgorged had rapidly felt the powerful laxative effect of the dead yeast. Their NCOs knew to warn them off it by the time the Second World War came round. The death sentences were rescinded, but a point had been made.

Once investment troops arrived in the wake of the Blitzkrieg, Germany had set up an entirely new system of provisioning for the army and the higher echelons of the Party. Four men were despatched as ‘Beauftragten für den Weinimport Frankreichs’ or wine commissars. They have gone down in French wine history as the ‘Weinführer’.

They were unusually well-chosen men. All four had an intimate family connection with France and its wine and spirit trade. The brothers Otto and Gustav Klaebisch were important wine merchants in Germany. Their family had been owners of the Cognac house of Meukow before 1914, when it had been appropriated as a ‘bien d’ennemi’ by the French government. Latterly, Otto had been with Matteüs-Müller, the German agent for Lanson champagne. He was sent to Rheims to procure champagne while Gustav went to Cognac to buy brandy.

Otto had another trump card to play. He had wedded one of the daughters of Otto Henkel, the largest sparkling wine producer in Germany. Henkel’s other daughter, Anneliese, had married Joachim von Ribbentrop, one time German rep for Mumm and Pommery (and Johnny Walker whisky too) and now Foreign Minister of the Reich. As Ribbentrop’s brother-in-law Klaebisch was pretty-well unimpeachable. Otto Klaebisch may have strutted around in a German uniform as if he owned the place, but he also knew a thing or two about champagne.

Ribbentrop’s old principal Mumm was a special issue. Many of the champagne houses had Germanic origins, one has only to think of names like Krug, Bollinger, Deutz, Roederer or Heidsieck, but Mumm had been the German outpost of the Rheingau-based sparkling wine firm of that name until 1914 when it too was appropriated by the French state. When the German army took Rheims in June 1940, a member of the Mumm family was following behind in a car with a key to his old office in his pocket. The Mumms took the firm back and remained working in Rheims until 1944, when the Germans left again, in a hurry.

Adolph Segnitz of shippers A Segnitz was despatched to the centre of the Burgundian wine trade in Beaune. Segnitz’s family had been important Bordeaux merchants and the owners of both Château Malescot-St-Exupéry and Château Chasse-Spleen in the Médoc until 1914, when both were sequestered by the French state. He spoke perfect French, and was by all reports a civilised man.

The last of the four was Heinz Bömers of Reidemeister & Ulrichs in Bremen. Bömers’ family had also been in the trade before the Great War and were the owners of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the Graves until 1914. As such Bömers was a close friend of ‘le roi de Bordeaux’, Louis Eschenauer, the Bordeaux agent for Smith-Haut-Lafitte. Eschenauer was of Alsatian origin and had many relatives in Germany, and Ribbentrop had once worked for him. The German port commander, Captain Ernst Kühnemann was Eschenauer’s nephew. Kühnemann was a Berlin wine merchant in civilian life. ‘Onkel Louis’ also owned Bordeaux’s best restaurant, Le Chapon fin and was often seen there entertaining Bömers, Kühnemann or other Germans.

The German commissars shipped an average of 320 million bottles of French wine to Germany every year of the Occupation, but their work was not always nefarious by any means. Together with Maurice Hennessy, Gustav Klaebisch preserved the precious stocks of ancient cognac so vital for blending. Between the two of them, they managed to find twenty-six million bottles for Germany. A quarter of these came from Hennessy.

Of course the Occupation was no bed of roses either. Wise merchants such as the Drouhins in Beaune walled up parts of their cellars to protect their treasures. Many buildings were requisitioned, including some famous Bordeaux châteaux. Château Haut Brion, property of the American Clarence Dillon, became a military hospital. There is a story that the Germans wanted to turn Château Loudenne, which was owned by the British firm of Gilbey, into a military brothel, but that their attempts were thwarted by a female member of the staff. Château Langoa was the home of the Anglo-Irishman Ronald Barton. His business partner Daniel Guestier convinced the German authorities that Barton was Irish not English and they did not seize the château.

The German officer corps had an unquenchable thirst for champagne. It is said that the last aircraft to land at Stalingrad brought champagne for the garrison. Maybe for that reason, the situation in Rheims and Épernay was worse than elsewhere. The Wehrmacht seized the home of Bertrand de Vogüé, the head of Veuve Clicquot. Klaebisch had to deal with a number of small acts of sabotage and the fact the Roman chalk quarries or Crayères, where the champagne was aged, were being used to store arms. De Vogüé was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted. Klaebisch ended up by running both Moet and Piper. The relationship between the Germans and the champagne houses became so fraught that the CIVC was created to deal with the Germans. Seventy years later it remains the umbrella body for champagne in Rheims.

Resistance activities muddied the waters. The military governor of Bordeaux, General Moritz von Faber du Faur (himself of French Huguenot descent) had fifty hostages shot in reprisal for the killing of a German administrative officer. After the war the French put him on trial and he was imprisoned for two years.

The Jews were naturally not in for a good time either. The German native wine trade had been very largely Jewish. Most of those had fled. Fritz Hallgarten from the Rheingau had gone to England, where, until 1940 at least, he had shipped Alsace wines to Britain as ‘Rhenish’ (which of course they were), much to the Nazis’ fury. The Vosges Mountains had been an impenetrable barrier to trade anyway and the wines of Alsace were virtually unknown in most of France before the 1960s. The Alsatians had always traded with Germany.

The few Jews in the French trade were chiefly rich château proprietors like the Rothschilds, the Sichels, part-owners of Château Palmer, or the Foulds at Château de Beychevelle. Baron Robert de Rothschild (Lafite) was the head of the Jewish consistory in Paris and wisely fled. Baron Philippe de Rothschild (Mouton) joined the British army. His first wife, née Elisabeth Pelletier de Chambure, died in Ravensbrück: the only Rothschild to perish in the war. She was not Jewish.

Two Jewish estates that were abandoned by their proprietors, Châteaux Lestage and Bel Air, were bought by Eschenauer. After the Allied landings, his nephew Kühnemann had the job of destroying the port, which he failed to do. Eschenauer interceded for the Rothschilds as well, and none of their wine was seized. Onkel Louis still spent two years in prison after 1945 and was subjected to a huge fine.

French shippers probably divided in two camps: those who shrugged their shoulders and carried on as normal and those who sported the oak and were seen as heroes later. The Beaune firm of Louis Latour, for example, refused to sell. Maurice Drouhin was sent to prison, was released, then spent the last nine months in hiding in the mediaeval buildings of the Hospices de Beaune. Not all Burgundians thought like that and the Hospices de Beaune made the German puppet Maréchal Pétain a present of a vineyard in Beaune to be known as the ‘Clos du Maréchal’. It had been owned by the Hospices since 1508. If you ask about in Beaune today, no one seems to know where the vines were.

It was not an easy time to stay afloat and a lot of firms must have gone out of business between 1940 and 1945. The harvests were dreadful, starting with the miserable 1939 and the not much better 1940 vintages. Only 1943 was half-way good. There were no men and no treatments for spraying the vines. That meant no copper sulphate or ‘bouillie bordelaise’, so mildew became rampant. It should be added that the shortage was felt just as badly on the German side of the Rhine. The horses that had previously ploughed the vineyards were packed off to Russia and never returned.

As the diaries of a writer such as Ernst Jünger show, German officers lived it up in Paris, where they drank the best wine and choicest cognac. The centre of their world was Maxim in the rue Royale. The Vaudable family had made their restaurant over to their friend Otto Horcher to manage. Horcher was also the owner of the best restaurants in Berlin and Vienna. When Horcher left in 1944, the books were in order and every bottle accounted for. Claude Terrail, owner of La Tour d’Argent, also admitted that the Germans paid for all they consumed. The Horchers went back to their estate in the Black Forest and walled up their collection of ancient cognac before the French invaders arrived. Again, many years later, I tasted that cognac in Horcher’s restaurant in Madrid.

Beaune, Bordeaux and Rheims were liberated, and the grateful citizens brought out their best wines to celebrate. As it happens, the peace that ended the war was signed in Rheims on 7 May 1945.

In Burgundy the Hospices celebrated their 500th anniversary in 1943, but the roof was blown of the ancient Clos de Vougeot during the German retreat. Similarly, the castle at Châteauneuf-du-Pape was shattered by Allied guns when the Germans installed a listening post in it.

Unlike the bombing of Assmannshausen or Schloß Johannisberg, or the American advance through the Mosel, Nahe and Rheinhessen, the war did little lasting damage to French vines. The only exception was perhaps Alsace, where Riquewhir and Ammerschwihr were more or less destroyed in the American advance. The towns were even bombed by the USAAF after the Germans had left; but during their time in the saddle, the Germans had eradicated the hybrids that had made up three-quarters of the vineyards in Alsace, leaving the region with the chance to make much better quality wines in the future. Every now and again that vaunted German efficiency had a positive effect.


Three Martyr Films of 1933

Posted: 19th February 2014

A few months after the Nazi takeover, on 14 June 1933 a film came out that showed to what depths the film industry might plunge under the Third Reich: SA Mann Brand. It was another story from the ‘Milljöh’ - the little people - this time featuring Fritz Brand (Heinz Klingenberg) and directed by Franz Seitz for Tobis. It was premiered at the Ufa Palast in Berlin. SA-Mann (stormtrooper) Brand works as a lorry driver in a Catholic part of Germany. In the evening he dons a brown shirt and a Sam Browne belt and meets his muckers to fight the communists for control of the streets. One of them has a vision and says ‘Somewhere in the future lies Germany’. Of course they are wholesome and good and shout ‘Sieg heil!’ and the Kozis are seedy and bad and say ‘Heil Moskau!’ The communist chief is called Kurow and speaks with a Russian accent. The people around him smoke like firemen, and Kurow wears poncy clothes. The communists also don’t hesitate to fire on unarmed men.

Indeed, the communists don’t play fair at all (they organise a honey trap for Brand, but he is too smart to fall for it) and the police are naturally on their side. Brand gets stick at home from his out-of-work socialist father (Otto Wernicke) and is eventually fired as a result of pressure exerted on his boss by Kurow. Capitalism and Marxism, according to Hitler, were features of the same great face. Brand’s mother has a heart of gold (mothers always do in Nazi films) and there is a kind widow neighbour who can’t afford the rent. Her husband was killed in the war and she has a charming blond son, Erich, who is about to turn sixteen. Erich dreams of joining the SA, and for his birthday he receives a uniform. Brand gives him a photograph of Hitler too: ‘Mother, our Hitler, look!’

Their landlord, Anton is a hen-pecked man whose wife Genoveve does not approve of the Nazis. When she is out Anton takes food up to Erich’s mother and waives the rent. While he does the washing up he whistles the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Genoveve asks what happened to the meat and Anton says a cat filched it.

Brand flirts with Kurow, who fills him up with vodka. Kurows says of Brand’s friends ‘Are they not all, kind, decent chaps?’ Brand tricks Kurow, finds out where he has stashed his arms and steals them. He is injured in the ensuing battle and there is the inevitable hospital scene with good, clean German doctors and nurses. Brand’s life is not, however, in danger. When he recovers, Brand leads a ‘propaganda march’ through the communist part of town. For the first time Erich is allowed to come too, but the bad Kozis open fire from a basement window, and Erich is mortally wounded. He dies in hospital: with his last words he is going to ‘Heaven, to father.’ Incidentally, the real Erich - the boy actor Rolf Wenkhaus - was killed off the coast of Ireland in 1942 at the age of twenty-five.

Meanwhile the Nazis have come to power and the elections take place on 5 March. The day of reckoning has arrived: Kurow is arrested and Brand’s old boss flees to Switzerland. Anton now finds the strength to contradict his wife and sends her down to the basement to fetch wine to celebrate; and so ends a truly dreadful film. To be fair, it seems to have received a rough ride even from the Nazi press.

Hitlerjunge Quex was a much better film.The premier took place in Munich on 11 September. It was based on the book by Karl Aloys Schenzinger which told the true story of Herbert Norkus. Norkus was killed on the night of 23-24 January 1932 in the Beusselkietz district of Moabit in Berlin. The film depicts a depressed city, of stultifying poverty where the poor choose between becoming members of communist youth organisations or the Nazis: all hailing from the same ‘milieu’. Norkus was called Heini Vollker in the film. His father, played by the great Heinrich George, is a brutal, unemployed communist who beats up his long-suffering wife. His fellow communists woo Heini with communist youth camps where there is drinking and smoking and even a little erotic potential, but Heini is intrigued by the Hitler Youth, which is camping nearby. What tempts Heini most is the order and discipline of the HJ: they wear clean uniforms, and do not smoke or drink. They cook apples, swim and sing songs. It is all very much like the Boy Scouts. The song they sing most - Unser Fahne flattert uns voran was composed by the HJ-Leader, Baldur von Schirach.

Heini talks to some of the HJ boys who want him to come over to their side. At first he knows that it would be a betrayal of his ‘Milljöh’. Then the HJ accuse him of being a spy when they see him hanging around their meeting. He proves his worth by warning them that the communists plan to kill them by setting off explosives. After that communists want his blood. They go and tell his mother they are going to kill him. In despair she tries to gas him but succeeds only in killing herself. Heini doesn’t die but he almost does. He has a long convalescence. The HJ, realising that he has done him a good turn, bring him a uniform and the money they have raised for him in a whip-round. He does not return to his brutal father, who is meanwhile convinced by a Nazi war veteran that Germany presents a higher good by comparing the beer he is drinking to English beer. This was evidently a highly sensitive issue at the time.

Heini goes to live in a HJ hostel. There is love interest there too in the form of a clean-living daughter of the doctor who treats him in hospital, the HJ seems to offer the chance to enter a new, unsullied middle-class world. Faced by treachery on the part of one of the HJ boys, who falls for the pretty, flirtatious communist girl, Heini saves the day. He is rewarded with a kiss from his Gretchen. The speed with which he acquits every task earns him the nickname of ‘Quex’: ‘quicksilver’. The communists catch him in their ‘Kietz’ however, and he is stabbed with the pen-knife he has coveted, the one that would have been his had he opted for the communist youth. The symbolism is crude. He dies singing Unser fahne flattert…

The cinematography is essentially derivative: the scene of the mounted police and the toddler blissfully eating a stolen apple is straight out of Eisenstein. In the end, the film is not unlike West Side Story: gang versus gang, social aspirations, choosing the right girl, light at the end of the tunnel, progress cut short by tragic death.

The film Hans Westmar was finally released on 13 December. It had caused Goebbels much heart-searching. It was directed by Hans Wenzler and starred Emil Lohkamp as Westmar. It was a thinly disguised life of Horst Wessel, the action taking place in 1929. At the beginning of the film Westmar is, like Wessel, a well-brought up, middle-class corps student in Vienna, where he has been befriended by a German-speaking American and his attractive daughter. When Westmar migrates back to university in Berlin, the Americans plan to pay him a call there too as the girl is smitten with Westmar.

Westmar enjoys the life of a well-born law student. He is in the Normannia and they duel (illegally) with the much posher Borussia. Westmar is not content, however, to proceed with his studies, he hears the call. He has a mission. He knows that sinister figures are trying to destroy Germany through their principal agency: the Communist Party or KPD. Behind the KPD was the deeply unpleasant figure of Kuprikoff, beautifully played by Paul Wegener, who specialised in Russians. Puffing permanently on his cheroot or slurping schnapps, Kuprikoff and his fellow communists are all bloodthirsty villains who make no secret of their intentions: to destroy Germany; but one, Comrade Voß has second thoughts, and pleads for decency. 

The propaganda side of Hans Westmar is extremely crude. Some of it looks like a cartoon version of Mein Kampf. In crowd scenes in poor parts of Berlin, orthodox Jews stand around with the communist workers, their natural bedfellows. Westmar attends a lecture and a Jewish professor tells him that borders are evil and preaches peace. Westmar is outraged. The Americans arrive in Berlin and Westmar shows them round. Everywhere English is spoken, there are Italian restaurants but German beer is unavailable. Berlin looks like any other city in the world. The American knows a pub he used to go to in his student days. It has been transformed. There is Jazz, and ladies with dark skins smoke at the bar and funny, alien-looking people dance. A fat black man gets up to do a little dance then starts singing a jazzed-up version of Die Wacht am Rhein. Westmar is insensed: he attacks the singer. ‘Deutschland, das ist ganz woanders’ He says - Germany is not here at all.

Westmar abandons his studies and goes to the working class east of the city to proselytise for the SA. His first job is as a cabbie (‘Dieser Herr Studiosus ist nun Chauffeur!’ - The undergraduate has become a taxi driver). The communists have taken a big interest in Westmar, who has been marked down as a serious enemy. Now that he has his own ‘Sturm’ or SA-regiment in Friedrichshain, Westmar comes face to face with the hated Dr. Bernhard ‘Isidore’ Weiß, the Jewish assistant commissioner of police and the SA have a rude song about him. As Westmar’s campaign to win over the workers succeeds and the KPD begins to lose votes, Kuprikoff declares ‘Hans Westmar sprach heute sein Todesurteil’ (Today Hans Westmar pronounced his own death sentence). In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Wessel’s death, Westmar is gunned down in his digs, but survives. Kuprikoff sends this thugs to finish him off in the hospital: ‘Wenn die Kommune verurteilt hat, er stirbt’ (When the Commune sentences he dies), but Westmar’s ex-communist girl warns the SA and they prevent the communists from killing him.

Westmar, however, is mortally wounded. Goebbels visits him, but he loses strength. He lies with his mother at his side as his ‘Sturm’ passes his door, one by one, to pay their last respects. He dies with the word ‘Deutschland’ on his lips. At the end of the film, we scroll forward to 30 January 1933, and the SA are marching, singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied. We see Comrade Voß raising his clenched fist in a communist salute, but then he opens his hand, and it becomes a Hitler greeting. Voß has seen the light and is now a Nazi.


Three Antisemitic Films

Posted: 15th January 2014

Some time in 1940 or before, Joseph Goebbels hit on the idea of using antisemitic films to prepare the Germans for the systematic deportation of the Jews which was almost certainly planned to coincide with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The first of these, Die Rothschilds, was released on 17 July 1940. It endeavoured to show how stateless and exploitative the Jews were, and how they managed to cheat anyone who did business with them. The film was as anti-British as it was anti-Jewish and contained some scenes that were, perhaps unconsciously, funny.

The screenplay was the work of the Czech-born Austrian Mirko Jelusich and was directed (they use the Nazi world ‘Spielleitung’) by Erich Waschneck for Ufa. The actors were of the second rank, but Carl Kuhlmann performed his role well as a melodramatic villain in the form of Nathan Rothschild. Mayer was played by Erich Ponto, who was later to become familiar to Anglo-American audiences as Dr. Winkler in The Third Man.

At the beginning of the film the audiences were reassured that they were watching historical fact. The Kurfürst or electoral prince of Hessen, anxious to get his money out of the country before the arrival of the French, takes it to Mayer Amschel (ie Rothschild). The money in question - £600,000 - is ‘blood-money’ - the payments he has received for renting out his soldiers to the British to fight their American wars. ‘Blood always pays’ says the prince.

Rothschild inhabits filthy rooms in the Frankfurt ghetto. When the prince starts at a noise, Rothschild passes it off as a ‘rat’. It is, in fact, his son James, founder the French Rothschild dynasty, hiding in a cupboard and eavesdropping. The prince drives a hard bargain over the commission. Rothschild wants five percent and keeps shouting in a stock Jewish parody ‘I’m losing out! I am ruined!’ The prince beats him down to 1.125 percent. When he gets the money back at the end of the film, the Rothschilds have taken five percent anyway. Mayer tells the prince the money will be sent to Moses Montefiore in London.

But that is just a ruse. The money is sent to Mayer’s son Nathan in London. There is a comic scene when Mayer convinces his factotum that he is not infringing religious laws by travelling on the Sabbath. It is the coach or the ship that is travelling, not the factotum: therefore the traveller is not violating the Sabbath. When the lackey arrives at Nathan’s house, Nathan is celebrating the Sabbath too, but he forgets all about it when he sees how much money he now has to play with on the exchange. He promptly buys up a huge consignment of East Indian gold.

Nathan gets the job of providing the cash required for running costs of Wellington’s Peninsula Campaign. Nathan, who is a comically inept Lothario, admires Wellington’s forte: the ‘many pretty women’ who surround him. He tries to court the beautiful Phyllis Baring, who has been cast out by her mean father for wanting to marry a penniless officer, but he is frightened off by a British bulldog. The Anglo-Irish generalissimo treats Nathan with lordly disdain, but the Jew presciently reminds him that ‘dignity costs money’.

The money required for the campaign is transferred across Napoleon’s Europe by Rothschild’s trading partners in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons, Palermo and Tunis. The Rothschilds worry about one merchant in Bordeaux with the Aryan name of Leblanc, until it transpired that he has married a Furtado. Each time the money is relayed, the dealers help themselves to a percentage. When it reaches Wellington only £5,500 of the original £10,000 is left. Wellington promptly pockets another £500 for his ‘special needs’.

The film is anxious to stress a central tenet of Nazi racial thinking, that assimilation is impossibility. The ‘Frankfurt ghetto (the Judengasse) cannot be washed away’, but Nathan enthuses about England: a land where his grandson might become a lord. James too tells Fouché that he is becoming a Frenchman - the Rothschilds are naturally funding both sides in the war, they’ll make a profit whoever wins. Not that it appears to matter much to the English plutocrats either, as long as they too make a profit. In this, and in much else, they are no better than Jews.

Throughout the film, Wellington is rendered as haughty, randy and useless. The scene of the ball in Brussels before the Battle of Quatre-Bras is in many ways similar to that shown in Dino di Laurentiis 1970 epic Waterloo, right down to the dramatic entry of the bespattered Prussian officer. He finds the British commander surrounded by adoring floosies, boasting that his units contained very few Britons. The continental allies made up the bulk of the fighting men. When the Prussian tells Wellington that their armies had lost at Ligny because Wellington had left them in the lurch, the Briton is unconcerned.

Nathan succeeds in running rings around the British bankers. Captain George Crayton (Herbert Wilk), the poor officer who has married Baring’s disinherited daughter Phyllis, is convinced to go to Waterloo to get news of the battle so that Nathan can continue speculating up to the very last moment. He successfully gets the bankers to believe that Napoleon has won, and then buys up all their stock. Crayton believes he will receive £5,000 for his services but it turns out that this sum has been promised to a host of shady characters too, the shadiest of the lot wins the gold. He sits out the battle in a ruined building with a Jew and some pigeons. When the Jew is frightened by the artillery fire, Crayton tells him to change his trousers.

A disillusioned Crayton returns to London with the news that the Prussians had clinched the victory and that Wellington had been losing until they arrived. No one wants to believe him and he is eventually thrown into jail. When he is released the next day, the policeman tells him ‘Truth is not always wise’. A motto made to measure for Goebbels.

The City is ruined: Baring dies of a heart attack and Crayton and Phyllis leave Britain to seek a better world elsewhere. Meanwhile Nathan cleans up, pocketing £11 million he calls the stock market crash ‘my Waterloo’. As he tells the British chancellor John Charles Herries (who did not become Chancellor until 1827), God was his ‘business partner’. When he draws a Star of David to show the branches of the family, one point is in Jerusalem. Herries asks if they have a bank there too: ‘We are all branches of Jerusalem,’ says Nathan.

As the credits appear at the end of the film, filmgoers are informed that all the Rothschilds had now left Europe. Only the British enemy remained.

The heat was considerably turned up with the release of Jud Süß on 24 September that year. Made by Goebbels’ favourite director Veit Harlan and starring his Swedish wife Kristina Söderbaum as Dorothea Sturm, together with such all-time greats as Heinrich George (Duke Karl Alexander) and Werner Krauss (Rabbi Loew, Levy - Süß’s secretary - and many other smaller roles) it was based on a screenplay by Eberhard Wolfgang Möller and Veit Harlan. Once again it purported to be a true story, this time about early 18th century Württemberg. Indeed, the Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger had written a novel based on the yarn as recently as 1925.

The film begins with the reception of a new sovereign in Stuttgart, where the reigning dukes were kept in line and starved of funds by a constitutional council - very much in opposition to the Führerprinzip! The duke, however, wants a lavish court with his own regiment of guards in parade uniforms, a ballet and plenty of willing girls. After the modest coronation there is a crowd scene reminiscent of contemporary propaganda documentaries.  As the duke’s carriage progresses through the streets, a girl is stripped to the waist for his delectation.

Josef Süß Oppenheimer (wonderfully played by Ferdinand Marian, an actor with a Jewish wife and half-Jewish daughter) is a Frankfurt Jew. He can provide the money that will allow the duke to enjoy his fantasies, but that will require the duke reversing Württemberg’s ban on Jews. Once this happens, ‘Süß’ and his filthy-looking fellows take over the state, progressively acquiring the rights to taxing the roads, salt, beer, wine and grain, and behave with the utmost cruelty towards the Swabian people. Prices go up and justice becomes arbitrary. Councillor Sturm (Eugen Klöpfer) talks about the rule of law: there is no eye for an eye in Christianity he says. Indeed, Christianity looms large: Luther’s antipathetic words on the Jews were read out. Eventually the good people rise up - strangely enough with the help of the duke’s black servant (a Turk). Only a coup d’état is capable of bringing the Jew’s reign to an end. Süß, convicted of miscegenation, is hanged in Stuttgart’s main square.

The Jews are naturally smarmy, dirty and repulsive. They speak their own patois or Kauderwelsch which negates the word order of the German language. When Oppenheimer wants to, however, he can speak word-perfect German: a sign of how cunning and corrupt he is. He is perfectly happy to lie and cheat his own people too. Oppenheimer is also a Weltbürger, a wicked cosmopolitan who occasionally slips into French, and seems to have visited every major city in Europe. He is lecherous and takes a fancy to Dorothea Sturm, whom he eventually rapes. She takes her life as a result.

The last of the trilogy was Der ewige Jude, released on 28 November 1940. This was a documentary directed by Fritz Hippler, who headed the film department at ‘ProMi’ (the Propaganda Ministry), and narrated by Harry Giese: the voice of the Deutsche Wochenschau newsreels. Once again, we are told at the outset that it is all true, but there is a remarkable admission too, that the ‘civilised’ Jews we know in Germany give us an inadequate idea of the race, and that we need to go to Poland to see the truth: civilisation, when espoused by Jews, is a mask.

We are informed there were nearly four million Jews in Poland, and they had not suffered much (sic) from the recent German invasion. Indeed, they had been back in the streets, trading only an hour after the bombing. The camera pans to a scene from a Jewish area of Warsaw. The faces are studied like so many animals in the zoo. We are now treated to several minutes of film examining the physiognomy of the Jews. The Jews, said Wagner, were a plague threatening German civilisation. Their homes were filthy, but it was not as a result of poverty: Jews choose to live in squalor just as they opted to live their lives on the street. Comments like these are similar to contemporary articles in Das schwarze Korps on the Jewish ghettoes in Poland. Germans were being prepared for the idea that Jews were sub-human. They did no useful work, they loved trading and haggling, no one forced them to it and they were cruel to ducks. The crowd scene sequence that is hard to watch now without reflecting that almost all these human beings would be murdered within four years.

Jews brought up their children to be selfish. The Jew - as Hitler had made clear in Mein Kampf - was incapable of idealism. They needed what other nations produced to trade, for they made nothing of worth themselves. In short: they were a nation of parasites.

Viewers were then subjected to a history lesson. The Jews were Orientals of mixed race. Their blood was part negro. There were no differences between tribes: they were quite the same everywhere. Their migration to places beyond the Middle East was compared to rats. The film told us how few Jews there were in the world, but how they dominated certain professions: not only commerce, medicine and the law, but also the criminal profession. Felons were overwhelmingly Jewish and they made up 98 percent of all pimps.

They were tricky. They liked to hide their Judaism by dressing up as Aryans. The film then presented a number of Jews ‘au naturel’ in their kaftans and beards before shaving them and dressing them up in Western clothes, the better to identify them. Assimilation was a myth. It was effected by cunning mimicry. Whatever they did, they remained a Fremdkörper, a‘foreign body’, a malignant bacillus… They would never achieve integration.

Then a long clip is shown from the American film The House of Rothschild of 1934. It starred Loretta Young, C. Aubrey Smith and Boris Karloff, among others.The film begins in the Rothschild house in the Judengasse in Frankfurt. The taxman arrives to find out where Mayer had salted away his money. Mayer claims to have not eaten for five days. The tax inspector smells food: ‘One of the neighbours must be having a roast’, says Mayer. Two of his children are sitting on a box containing the meat. When the inspector proceeds to tax Mayer he whines and whinges as if it would cost him his life. Apart from being Jewish, dishonest and the opposite of law-abiding, the Rothschilds’ crime is internationalism. They are ‘fatherlandless’.

Der ewige Jude also provided a hit list of Jews, from financiers such as Rothschilds, Montefiores, Warburgs, Oppenheims and Sassoons to American Jews like Felix Frankfurter, the half-Jewish Mayor of New York La Guardia and Morgenthau, to the French prime minister Leon Blum and the British Minister of War, Hore-Belisha. The Jews had been behind Weimar. They had produced the wicked police chief Bernhard ‘Isidore’ Weiß and the criminal Sklarek brothers.

Jews were quite incapable of understanding German culture. Their art was decadent (images were shown of Dadaist and Expressionist paintings). They had imposed jazz music on Germans (unflattering pictures of black singers came up). Another hit list was presented, this time of Jews in culture: Alfred Kerr - the ‘culture pope of the Weimar Republic’, Kurt Tucholsky, the sexologist Hirschfeld, and the ‘relativity-Jew’ Einstein. The stage was the Jewish ‘el dorado’: Peter Lorre was shown as a murderer pleading that his victim bore the guilt for his own death. Other members of the rogues’ gallery were Richard Tauber, Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin and Emil Ludwig.

The German people had been misled by idiotic ideas about equality. The film focussed on the Old Testament before dwelling on a Purim feast in Warsaw. Rabbis were not theologians, but political indoctrinators (!); quotations from the Talmud showed Jewish teaching to laud cunning, theft, discord and mendacity; readings from the Torah Rolls revealed contempt for non-chosen people; in short Judaism was not a religion, but a conspiracy. The audience was then warned that they might choose to avert their gaze from the scenes of ritual slaughter that were coming up - killing oxen and sheep the Kosher way. Such things had been banned by Adolf Hitler, who had decreed that animals had to be given an anaesthetic prior to slaughter (animals yes, people - particularly Jews - no). The film finishes with Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ of 30 January 1939: that international Jews would perish if they pushed Germany into another world war. The speech in the Kroll Opera House was cut to scenes of adoring crowds of blond youths.

There were no more antisemitic films made after Der ewige Jude. A planned ‘solution’ was waiting in the wings anyhow, and Goebbels didn’t need any ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ as the Jews would be scientifically eliminated this time. The films were presumably simply not popular and Goebbels had long since learned that any film had to be good first before it could work as propaganda. Strange as it might seem, the three films singled out by Goebbels as ‘great’ were Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (made by a Jew), Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo and the half-Jewish Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen.

After watching all three, I was curious, however, to watch the rest of the American film, the House of Rothschild and found that it was on YouTube. It was then that I realised that it was an anti-German film made in response to the Nazi treatment of the Jews! It was a fairly crude piece of propaganda in itself and full of historical errors, but it dawned on me as I watched on that Die Rothschilds had plagiarised the Hollywood film, to the degree that they had replicated the mistakes. That being said, everything positive in the American film became negative in the German one.

And, yes, there is a whole new book to be written.


More Dirty Pictures
Or the further Adventures of Gordon W. Gilkey

Posted: 16th December 2013

Following on from last month’s blog Marius Martens of the German Art Gallery in the Netherlands has kindly sent me more information on the Gordon Gilkey collection and just how much of it has been retained by the United States.

Here is a list of the paintings that remain in America (PDF). It confirms that the remaining canvasses etc are indeed works by German war artists, plus a handful of works by the Führer himself. Few of the painters were first-rate, although I note one by the respected Munich painter Conradin Gerhardinger. Also courtesy of Mr Martens is a list of all the works exhibited at the Great German Art Exhibitions from 1937 to 1944: this will provide hours of fun. It is worth having a look to see how few of the pictures exhibited were political.

The following Information Paper gives Washington’s response to demands to return the art works:

INFORMATION PAPER
DAMH-MDC
21 November 2001

SUBJECT: Background Information on German War Art

1. Purpose

To provide information concerning history and status of German War Art held in Central Collection, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

2. Facts

a. In 1941, Adolph Hitler ordered the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to set up a staff of selected artists to follow German military exploits. The resulting works were to hang in German army museums and to decorate the clubrooms and barracks of permanent quarters of the victorious Wehrmacht units after their successful conclusion of the war. During the war, these pictures were exhibited in Germany, Belgium, France, Norway, Italy, Austria and elsewhere for “educational and cultural purposes”.

b. In 1945, War Department Memorandum 345-45 established the Historical Properties Section, in the office of the Army Headquarters Commandant, Washington, DC. It also provided for the collection, processing, preservation and control of war paintings, photographs, maps, trophies, relics and objects of actual or potential historical interest or value produced during the present war which are or may become the property of the War Department.

c. U.S. Air Force CAPT Gordon W. Gilkey was assigned to gather paintings of German Wartime Art Program. Under the provisions of the Potsdam Agreement of 2 August 1945, subparagraph 3, Part Ill, Section A. it stated that one purpose of the occupation of Germany was "To destroy the National Socialistic Party and its affiliated and supervised organizations, to dissolve all Nazi and militaristic activity or propaganda."

d. Military Government Regulation 18.-401.5 established the right of seizure of all art relating or dedicated to the perpetuation of German Militarism or Nazism. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Office Military Government, U.S. Zone of Germany searched for nearly two years. On 20 March 1946, 8722 items of the German War Art program were shipped to the U.S. War art continued to be uncovered or was turned in to collecting points in Germany. In 1950, 241 lots of militaristic and Nazis paintings were shipped to Washington. The question of legal seizure was under discussion and an initial request for legal clarification of the status of German War Art was forwarded to JAG. Later that year, 1,659 non military and nonpolitical pictures were returned to Germany.

e. In 1977, the Federal Republic of Germany delivered an Aide Memoire to the State Department requesting the return of the WWII German Art Collection. The Department of State asked DoD to release the German War Art to appropriate officials of West German government.

f. On 12 May 1981, Congressman G. William Whitehurst introduced legislation to return "certain works of art to the Federal Republic of Germany". Press coverage began. On 23 September, panel submitted testimony before the House Armed Service Sub Committee on Investigations. On 4 November, the Bill passes the House by voice vote and was sent to the Senate.

g. On 18 March 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed PL97-155 to return "certain works of art to the Federal Republic of Germany". A selection committee met to determine which paintings were to be retained and this report was submitted to Secretary Marsh on 27 January 1983.

h. In 1986, approximately 5,850 paintings were returned to Germany. Approximately 450 paintings were retained, of which 200 were deemed to comply with the Potsdam Declaration, Allied Control Council laws and Military Government regulations which provided that the documents and objects which might tend to revitalize the Nazi spirit or German militarism would be confiscated or destroyed. These paintings are portraits of the leaders, contain the swastika or are considered overt propaganda, and include four watercolors by Adolph Hitler. The remaining 250 paintings were retained as a study collection to document both sides of actions in World War II for which the U.S. Army already had artwork, for example the Battles of Anzio and Cassino and also to show areas in which Allied Forces, not the U.S. Army, fought, such as in Scandinavia and the Russian Frontier.

i. A court case regarding the legality of possession of the Hitler watercolors was settled in 1999 with the Federal District Court finding that the watercolors are federal property and properly belong in the U.S. Army. An Appeal was heard 7 May 2001 in the Federal Appellate Court in the District of Columbia. No decision has yet been reached.

3. Current Status

a. The artwork is maintained by the Army Art Curator at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in a secure, climate-controlled area. Also maintained are photographs and negatives of the returned art to Germany.

b. Many of the paintings had been exhibited in Pentagon offices or were sent all over the country for exhibitions at Army installations, public galleries, colleges and universities. In all, hundreds of paintings were exhibited and seen by many thousands of people for nearly 30 years.

c. Since 1986, exhibition of the artwork has been limited to museum exhibitions that examine the art of the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Europe. Most recently, the Hubert Lanzinger painting of Hitler in Armor appeared in a show in Berlin, Germany commemorating 100 years of German art. Two Hitler watercolors had been scheduled to be exhibited at the Gerald Ford Library in 1998, but due to the controversy surrounding the artist, were pulled back from exhibition. Scholars and historians have been interested in the art and have writing about it in dissertations or books.

d. Images of artwork retained by the Army Art Collection have also appeared in publications and documentaries. The four watercolors have received the most press notably because of the court case and the fact that they were painted by Hitler. All the art, as with the rest of the collections, falls within the public domain and is available for reproduction purposes.

Renee Klish

In truth, painters were attached to all Hitler’s campaigns from the Polish war of 1939 onwards, but for the rest, Mrs. Klish’s account rings true. There must be, however, many more works in America, but this would appear to clear up the remaining doubts as to the Goldon W. Gilkey collection.


Dirty Pictures
Or Gordon Gilkey’s Bequest to the Land of the Free

Posted: 15th November 2013

It is sensational news that a horde of 1,406 pictures should have been located in Munich’s once arty Schwabing district (Hitler’s haunt in his Bohemian days). Pictures that we previously thought lost to the world - not to mention another little cache has been dug out since - have emerged safe and sound. Now the German authorities will labour over the difficult job of finding just who owns them, and how guilty Cornelius Gurlitt was for hiding them behind piles of fruit juice cartons and old tin cans, and occasionally flogging them.

With the slightest of anxieties, however, that I might be pouring cold water on a news story that has kept us on the edges of our seats for over a week, I should like to remind people that victorious armies have always plundered pictures, and at the precise moment when Gurlitt’s father might have been hesitating about turning in the collection of paintings he had either been given to dispose of by Goebbels, or the others he had bought à vil prix from Paris auction houses, the Soviet forces of occupation were shipping home more than 800,000 canvasses they had seized as trophies from German galleries and castles, and which they intended to house in a special museum in Moscow.

The jackboot, as they say, was on the other foot, and it wasn’t just the Russians either. In the autumn of 1945, an Oregonian painter, printmaker and art teacher in a US Army Air Force captain’s uniform, called Gordon W. Gilkey (1912-2000), arrived in Germany armed with US Military Regulation 18, and proceeded to impound any canvasses he could find painted by members of the Nazi Party. He extended his brief to anything 20th century he thought fitted the bill too. Beginning what has been described as a ‘massive treasure hunt’, he ended up shipping at least 9,000 pictures back to the US: booty which later found a home in the Pentagon.

Many of the pictures that took Gilkey’s fancy were the work of war artists who had been despatched to the front as ‘Künstler in Kriegseinsatz’ or ‘artists on war deployment’ There were around 200 of these by the end of the conflict. In 1940, the youngest was the thirty-seven year old Hans Schmitz Wiedenbrück, while at eighty-five Helmuth Liesegang was the Nestor. A special unit had been created for them by Luitpold Adam which functioned from within the war reporters’ Regiment Kurt Eggers, attached to the Waffen-SS. When Eggers was killed, the unit was placed under the command of Gunther d’Alquen, the ‘Hauptschriftführer’ (a fancy Nazi name for ‘editor’) of the SS paper, Das schwarze Korps.

Members of the regiment were issued with a Kriegsberichterausweis or war-correspondent’s pass and a pistol. They performed a three-month tour of duty at the front after which they were allowed home to draw, paint or make prints of what they had seen. The finished pictures went into a depot in Potsdam and were then sent on special travelling exhibitions. As the war was drawing to a close on 23 April 1945, Adam located a suitable hiding-place to store the collection in the Bavarian Schloß Oberfrauenau. There were 8,722 works in all. It was here that Gordon Gilkey chanced on them. He shipped them out to the US between 1945 and 1949. We know that in December 1946, 103 of the pictures from the Karl Eggers Regiment were shown in Frankfurt am Main, which was the centre of the American military administration.

Either Gilkey, or some other art-boffin in uniform, may have sent back other things than the work of German war artists. According to the weekly magazine Spiegel of 15 September 1949, some official Third Reich pictures were being exhibited in New York. The magazine reported:  ‘Two million visitors in New York saw pictures that had formerly hung in the House of Art in Munich when it was still ‘brown’. Who brought them across the ocean is a mystery to officials from the US Collecting Point.’ It is not clear exactly which pictures were shown, but the article specifically mentioned Sepp Hilz’s Wetterhexe, which was certainly not a bit of war artistry but rather depicted some mythical hocus-pocus; and to make matters more complicated, this very same picture was unearthed from a Czech monastery last year.

Gilkey was working for the army and his treasure was safe at least from the destructive zeal of the victorious Allies and OMGUS - the US Military Government. Independent of what Gilkey was doing in securing trophies for the military, OMGUS decided to destroy nearly 8,000 Third Reich paintings they deemed politically suspicious. It was all part of a process of cultural purging that saw the end of many Nazi buildings and sculptures and quite a few old Prussian ones too. In Allied eyes these were perceived as being just as bad.

In the Netherlands, Marius Martens runs the first gallery www.germanartgallery.eu in Europe to openly specialise in Nazi art. He estimates that up to ninety-five percent of the paintings executed during the twelve years of the Third Reich have already been destroyed. The vast majority of the paintings executed during the Third Reich were actually harmless: portraits, nudes, landscapes and above all peasant scenes. Some were even good. 

As far as Gilkey’s trove is concerned, he points out, six or seven thousand pictures were returned to the German Historical Museum in Berlin about twenty years ago. About a thousand more, however, have been retained by the Library of Congress which puts four or five of them on permanent show. When a German journalist demanded their return in 2004, the Library replied that the pictures were not ‘art’, so the US authorities were not required to return them.

Martens is evidently hoping that more will come to light, and it is true: caches of hidden Nazi art are occasionally unearthed. On 28 February 2012, The Daily Mail reported on an amateur art historian called Jiri Kuchar who had tracked down seven canvasses from a collection of sixteen shown at the German Art Exhibitions in Munich in 1942 and 1943. They had been purchased by Hitler to award to provincial art galleries denuded of most of their modern art and discarded by the Americans in Czechoslovakia after the war. It should be noted that Hitler did not buy them for himself: he liked few modern artists, preferring nineteenth century genre paintings of drunken monks.

After a five year search Kuchar located the missing collection in a Premonstratensian monastery in Doksany, north of Prague. He had already found seven in Zakupy Castle, one at the Military History Institute and one in the Law Faculty of the Charles University in Prague.

These were all that remained of an original lot of seventy pictures, thirty statues, a writing table and some gifts stored in a monastery in Vyssi Brod. When the monks got their monastery back after the war, they took a dim view of the paintings, which went their separate ways. One of the paintings Kuchar found in Doksany was Die Wetterhexe, adding mightily to the confusion over the fate of these Nazi chef d’oeuvres.

These tales of cupidity bring me back to Gurlitt. His father Hildebrand Gurlitt was commissioned to dispose of unwanted ‘degenerate’ pictures by the Nazi government; pictures that Hitler had ordered to be destroyed. He was told by Goebbels to turn ‘manure’ into gold. By all reports the works found in Schwabing had failed to find buyers. In theory at least, he should have owned up, either to the Nazis or to the post-war authorities, that he still had them in his possession. He might, however, have argued with himself, that the pictures were safer in his care.

In keeping quiet, he saved those paintings. The ‘decadent art’ Gurlitt was supposed to sell, only represented a fifth of the horde, however. We are told some of the rest were paintings he had bought in Paris. Others were old masters that may have been destined for Hitler’s museum in Linz. Some, however, were French Impressionists, Cubists etc and definitely not the sort of thing that the Führer wanted sullying his museum.

So who actually owns the Gurlitt pictures? I presume the degenerate art acquired by Weimar museums must still belong to the German state, as must any paintings purchased on the state’s behalf. The state nonetheless discarded them. Some of the paintings acquired in France would have been from legitimate sales, but in the cases of Jewish vendors, it was likely that the prices were unfairly influenced by the need to get out fast. Such things are hard to prove, however, and if the claim is not watertight they will remain Gurlitt’s property.

I doubt history will be too hard on Gurlitt or Gilkey. When I met an assistant curator of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg a few years ago he was quite open about the treasure taken from Germany. He said the pictures were well looked after, and that Russia would never give them back. As I said before, victorious armies take trophies: the Nazis stole heaps of paintings, so did the Russians. The greatest art thief of all was probably Napoleon, and a good many of the finest paintings in France were borne home in triumph by his armies, we admire them in French museums to this day, quite oblivious of their origins.


Coming Clean

Posted: 16th October 2013

Sönke Neitzel, ed, Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-45, with an introduction by Sir Ian Kershaw (Frontline Books 2007).

I wonder what our generals talked about when they got together in the officers’ mess in the quieter moments of the last war? I suppose they banged on a lot about hunting, fishing and shooting; a little bit about their wives, wayward sons or the tedium of marrying their daughters; or sometimes they remembered their wilder days as subalterns in India or some distant outpost of the Empire. They would have spoken a fair amount about port and claret; and only every now and then about the progress of the war, which was dismal enough in itself. German senior officers must have expounded on the subject of the wines of the Mosel and Rheingau, or about the problems of their estates in East Prussia and Silesia too, but in Tapping Hitler’s Generals, Sönke Neitzel, Professor of Modern History at the University of Mainz, has spared us that. He has focussed on the question that interests us much more today: the complicity of the Wehrmacht in the bestial crimes of the Third Reich.

His source materials are the transcripts made from the (presumably) illegal bugging of the prisoners’ quarters at Trent Park in North London, which was home to most of the high-ranking Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner before the end of hostilities. There do not seem to be many contributions from the higher echelons of the Waffen-SS, but Kurt Meyer was there, who was later tried for a war crime in Normandy of which he was almost certainly innocent and for which he was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted and he served just under ten years in a Canadian Prison. If his testimony in this book is anything to go by, it reveals him to be a decent man - more decent than many of the Wehrmacht generals who wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole.

Despite its Georgian allure, by the way, Trent Park was largely the creation of the pre-war Jewish MP, Sir Philip Sassoon. The huge wealth of the plutocratic Sassoon must have given the generals something to talk about too, but that and other more routine banalities have been largely excised from this account.

We do hear, however, something of the obsessions of German general officers: chiefly missed promotions and medals, or the failure to obtain oak leaves to their Knights’ Crosses. Many of the generals had drunk deep in the standard prejudices of the time. They looked down on Latins and Balkans, and thought the Slavic population of the Protectorate should be transplanted to Russia; but I don’t suppose our boys were any more tolerant of foreigners and they certainly would have had something to say if a middle-class Johnny appeared in the mess. The Germans worried about their pensions and what would happen to them when it was all over. Generalmajor Robert Sattler expressed a typical view when he said ‘We used to be Colonels and Generals, after the war we shall be boot-blacks and porters. We shan’t get any pension.’ The translations are rough and lumpy throughout.

Most of the time it is possible to see who was smitten with the Nazi bug and who was not. The Allies listened to the Germans’ reaction to Goebbels’ Total War rant of 18 February 1943, following the defeat at Stalingrad. The generally sound General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma thought it a ‘disgusting inflammatory speech’ and predicted the murder of Jews. General Ludwig Crüwell thought it ‘absolute rubbish’. Thoma said ‘the first half of his speech was about nothing but the Jews - the poor Jews, who have had nothing to do with all this - and then his malicious way of saying: “we will drive them out completely,” - what’s that got to do with the present war situation?’

Morale was understandably low among the prisoners. On 11 June 1943, Generalmajor Friedrich Freiherr von Broich expressed a defeatist attitude: ‘If Germany wins the war, the National Socialist system will remain and life will be impossible… Our position is impossible…’ By 9 July 1943, defeatism among the prisoners had grown so rife that Colonel General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim thought it necessary to give them a pep-talk.

Most senior German senior officers still believed themselves bound by their oath to Hitler, like the tank commander, Colonel Heinrich-Hermann von Hülsen who stated ‘his’ Führer should not be ‘pulled to pieces’ Thoma thought otherwise and on 12 September 1943, he said Hitler should be put in a padded cell.

The generals were worried about their families and the results of the Anglo-American bombing campaign. By 4 July 1944, many Germans wanted ‘revenge’ for the bombing of civilian targets. Admiral Henneke was in despair over the destruction of Munich. There was talk of the ‘WuWa’ (wonder weapon) and even of an atomic bomb, but they were disappointed by the V1: ‘it’s no damned good’ said one, while another recalled the publicity blurb ‘Wherever one of these things land, not a bird not a leaf in the trees will be left alive within a radius of 6 km.’ Thoma regretted that ‘this German midget’ Goebbels was the country’s military spokesman.

On 15-16 July 1944, two noble generals voiced their disgust at the state of Germany. Thoma felt anyone defending the place was ‘stupid, cowardly or lacking in character’ and Generalleutnant Kurt Wilhelm von Schlieben said …why have we got this impossible military leadership? Merely because that apprentice [Hitler] has his finger in everything!’

On 29 August 1944, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the former governor of Paris who had failed to enact Hitler’s orders and burn the city, recounted a visit to the Führer to his fellow POWs: ‘He gets drunk with his own speeches! I went in to the room and there he stood, a fat, broken-down old man with festering hands… they'd been a little bit grazed by the bomb, not to mention the effusive handshaking of the Gauleiters who had flocked to see him in its wake hoping to restore their dwindling stocks of courage, all shook hands with him so enthusiastically and trustingly that he got badly festering sores.’

The generals were aware that the Gestapo were committing ‘ghastly atrocities’ behind the lines, but they also knew that Colonel General Blaskowitz’s protest in 1939 ‘didn’t do him any good’. In September 1943, the POWs tried to determine when the moral rot set in. One suggested it had begun with the killing of the former Chancellor, General Schleicher in June 1934. Admiral Hennecke mentioned the concentration camps.

The concentration camps were on the agenda on 3 September 1944. Most claimed no knowledge besides gossip or rumour. Admiral Hennecke expressed the view that ‘the civilised world was horrified at the things that went on’ there. He said that he had heard little about them before he was taken prisoner. ‘There was such a lot of silly talk! Whenever you asked: “Did you see it yourself?” or “Do you really know someone?” You got the answer: “No, an uncle of Mrs so-and-so told me.”’ Another expressed the view that in peacetime the inhabitants were more or less criminals and ‘I also believe conditions weren’t so dreadful up to the outbreak of war,’ but Hennecke thought he was talking rot.

Not everybody was as clear-headed. On 20-21 September 1944, General Heinz Eberbach and his son Oberstleutnant zur See Heinz-Eugen Eberbach discussed the war. The father believed you could justify the killing of those ‘million Jews or however many it was… in the interests of our people.’ On the other had he did not approve of the killing of women and children. His son thought it wise to kill the children, but regretted the slaughter of the old people.

There was a lot of Pilate-like hand-washing. On 21-22 December 1944, Choltitz uttered ‘When civilians at home say to me: ‘You generals are to blame,’ I say: ‘We? We didn’t vote for him, it’s you who always voted for him. We can’t do anything about it if he’s become legally Supreme Commander. We can’t mutiny. You know! Well then, who is to mutiny? The Army knew it wouldn’t work that way. This ‘Putsch’ of 20 July will be regarded as an event of historic significance. Those 1,500 men, hanged by these criminals, will all get a memorial dedicated to them, for they were the only patriotic, resolute and ‘ready to act’ men that we had. For they foresaw the utter desolation we were being led into, if things went on as they were.’

On 1 January 1945, Hitler delivered his New Year address to the nation, and dragged up the ‘All Powerful’, who would not allow the just cause to be defeated. The generals observed he was quieter than usual and did not shout once. Some thought his voice had been faked. Others picked up on the word ‘Providence’. ‘It keeps cropping up, in fact it’s become settled there with him: “We survive as many things: such a people and such a leader, who has patently been preserved by Providence, can never perish.”’ There was little faith in his people’s militia or Volkssturm among the officers. The generals thought he should have brought his divisions up to strength without creating new ones. Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth alluded to the tyranny suffered by his fellow Germans: ‘The people, which he holds in rein with concentration camp, torture and prison!’

By 15-17 January 1945, the dénouement was at hand. Schlieben accepted now that there would be massive territorial changes, but the nobleman couldn’t help slipping into a little Adelstolz: ‘everything we have built up since the time of Frederick the Great: Silesia, East Prussia, the Rhineland. Everything on account of one Austrian corporal.’ Even the hope that the Allies might fall out was becoming daily dimmer.

By late January 1945, the generals were becoming more realistic about Germany’s fate but some still swallowed the idea that Bolshevism was a massive Jewish plot. It was as if they had all read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that fraudulent tract that fuelled Hitler’s conspiracy theory. The sometimes sensible Generals Ramcke and von Schlieben at Trent Park were in agreement that Hitler had been right about the ‘great Jewish danger’.

In his annual speech commemorating his coming to power or ‘Machtergreifung’ of 30 January 1944, Hitler mentioned the fate of the eastern provinces in his speech. The POWs were aghast that their families had been simply written off by Hitler and Goebbels.

In general there is a mocking tone whenever devout Nazis are mentioned. On 28 April, Generalmajor Gerhart Franz made fun of the zealous General Hübner and his ‘fliegendes Standgericht’ or flying court martial, which Hitler had created to stem the tide of defeatism in the army. Franz had crossed the Rhine at Speyer and gone to Karlsdorf where he was told to await Hübner. In Franz’s account, Hübner entered the room and said ‘I am the Führer’s flying court martial… and I have the authority to shoot officers, including generals, on the spot, if I ascertain that anything has been neglected or not carried out’. Franz said he was smoking a good Havana at the time: ‘Sir, I am at your disposal; you can shoot me if you wish.’ Hübner replied: ‘I have brought everything along; two officers and a firing squad consisting of twelve men…’

Franz succeeded in convincing Hübner that the OKW had received false reports. Hübner took away Franz’s map to show the Führer himself. ‘He said I should not be shot, whereupon I said: “Orderly, bring me a bottle of champagne.”’ Before he left, Hübner told Franz ‘Believe me it gives me great satisfaction to shoot a general who has been proved to have neglected his duty.’

After Hitler’s death, the prisoners are aware that the Allies wouldn’t deal with Himmler, which was why they were allowing Dönitz and Busch to take over the new government in Flensburg. None approved of Himmler. There were still some, however, who were confused about Hitler even then (and who didn’t believe him dead): ‘The Führer is by no means the greatest scoundrel, the greatest criminal.’ ‘He is certainly not’

Probably the most important part of the book concerns the war crimes attributed to the Wehrmacht. These range from shooting commissars, killing hostages, allowing POWs to die thought hard labour, starvation or by shooting them, and finally to turning a blind eye to the murder of the Jews. On 10 July 1943, for example,

Generalleutnant Georg Neuffer speculated: ‘What will they say when they find our graves in Poland? The OGPU [Russian secret service] can’t have done anything worse than that. I myself have seen a convoy at Ludowice near Minisk; I must say it was frightful, a horrible sight. There were lorries full of men, women and children - quite small children. It is ghastly, this picture. The women, the little children who were, of course, absolutely unsuspecting - frightful! Of course, I didn’t watch while they were being murdered. German police stood about with tommy-guns, and - do you know what they had there? Lithuanians, or fellows like that, in brown uniform, did it. The German Jews were also sent to the Minsk district, and were gradually killed off, so far as they survived the other treatment - I mean housing and food and so on. It was done like this: when Jews were taken away from Frankfurt - they were only notified immediately beforehand - they were allowed to take only a little with them, a hundred marks, otherwise nothing, and then the hundred marks would be demanded from them at the station to pay the fare, But these things are so well known - if that ever gets known in the world at large - that’s why I was so surprised that we got so frightfully worked up over the Katyn case!’

On 21 October 1943, an unidentified voice says ‘Well, nobody objects to the fact that everybody plays his part in the war and so on, but I am convinced that no educated, thinking person considers it right the way we have behaved towards the Jews, the Poles and the Czechs and towards the people of opposite views in the concentration camps.’ Plenty of his brother officers, however, disagreed with him. On the other hand, as Generalmajor Gerhard Bassenge stated two months later, there was a good exchange of information among the prisoners - they were not only swapping stories, they were being fed information by the Allies: ‘We were never so well-informed as we are here.’ Three days later the officers returned to the theme. Oberstleutnant Kurt Köhncke said he had to believe it, but could not express an opinion because he had not been there, while Colonel Hans Reimann said he’d heard all about it from a senior police officer on a train.

That same day Neuffer mentioned a Russian trial of some Germans in Kharkov that was ‘unpleasant for Hitler’. From 15 to 18 December 1943, Hauptmann Wilhelm Langheld and SS-Untersturmführer Hans Ritz together with Reinhard Retzlaff of the Secret Field Police were tried for murdering Russian civilians (i.e. Jews) in a mobile gas chamber. They were condemned to death and publicly hanged. The trial was filmed and a transcript was made available in several languages.

On 2 February 1944, Neuffer discussed the treatment of Frankfurt Jews. ‘For instance for fun they would drive train-loads of Jews out - in the winter - and in wooded country - I know from v[on] Broich, you can ask him yourself - Oppenheim, that famous Frankfurt Jew, who had those racing stables, they stopped the train, made him and the others get out and chased them into the woods in the bitter cold… they [the Allies] have no idea what really happened.’

Bassenge replied ‘That Oppenheim was the man who, during the Great War, established one of the largest military reserve-hospitals we had in Germany…’ As it was, the victim that day was not the famous Oppenheim, or his children, who were half-Jewish Mischlinge, but there were plenty of other Jews in Frankfurt called Oppenheim.

On 2-4 August 1944, the officers had made it clear to themselves at least, that the responsibility for the war crimes lay with the SS. Generalmajor Robert Sattler went back to the Polish campaign and the dismissal of Generals Blaskowitz and Georg von Küchler (although Küchler was actually dismissed for criticising the dismissal of Colonel General von Fritsch on bogus charges of homosexuality in 1938). Küchler had severely punished some SS men who had committed murder. ‘Thereupon there was a hell of a row and after that the SS got their special court, that is, SS men could be had up only before SS courts martial…’ Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck chimed in that he had tried to court martial a Leibstandarte bandleader who had shot ‘so many Jews in a mad lust for blood’, but he was taken out of the army’s jurisdiction and returned to his bandstand.

In the same discussion, Colonel Reimann dwelled on the treatment of Russian POWs who were starved and beaten to death by the thousand and were being shipped out in cattle trucks. He had come across a student ‘a man with spectacles’ who had been directing railway traffic for weeks but couldn’t stand it any more. Children had thrown pumpkins into the trucks, something that occasioned such a ‘terrific din’ that they assumed it was the sound of the prisoners killing one another to get at the food.

On 16-17 September 1944, Thoma told his comrades of an incident involving a captain who had shot an entire family of Russian peasants in his cups. Thoma had been determined to have the man executed along with his accomplice, but they were officers and the matter had to be referred to High Command and the Führer. Hitler refused to authorise the death sentence, but both men were nonetheless sent to a punishment company.

Generalleutnant Rudiger von Heyking arrived at Trent Park after 23 September 1944, having been captured in Boulogne. He reported the speech Himmler made to the generals at Sonthofen on 5 May in which he had made it fairly clear that the orders for the Final Solution had been issued from above: ‘Well, gentlemen’ the Reichsführer SS had said, ‘as to this “Jewish Question”, I can only say that the orders were given and I carry out orders.’

On 28 December 1944, they returned to the theme of dealing with war crimes. Generalleutnant Heinrich Kittel said that anyone who complained about he activities of the murderers was ‘simply undermined. They can’t maintain their position. Some dirty work is started, an anonymous letter is written Semper aliquid haeret. Now and again you are compelled to take drastic action to catch one of these fellows. At every attack which you make upon a certain class in our state administration, you get in return three or four unfounded, either anonymous or somehow raked together counter-blows.’ Still Kittel did not believe Hitler was conscious of these crimes, even if he agreed that Himmler was well aware of what was going on. Kittel also knew about Auschwitz, even if he was a little vague on the details: ‘In Upper Silesia they simply slaughtered the people systematically. They were gassed in a big hall.’ He said the gassings had stopped in the spring of that year. Generalleutnant Hans Schaefer wanted to know who had been responsible. Kittel didn’t know: ‘There’s the greatest secrecy about all those things.’

Generalmajor Johannes Bruhn was talking about the Polish atrocities again and why the commanding officers said nothing at the time. Silence was obtained in the form of bribes: ‘They’ve probably given them money and an estate, and tied their hands in that way. Or else the commanding officers had got annoyed and said: “That’s nothing to do with me; leave me in peace.”’ Others were brought off with promotions or decorations.

In March 1945, Choltitz described a visit to Gauleiter Röver (who died in May 1942) in Oldenburg. Röver congratulated Choltitz on commanding the Oldenburg Regiment and asked how things were in the field. Choltitz said he replied ‘Well, the soldiers’ morale is high, everything is in order. It’s just the home front that doesn’t satisfy our men.’ When Röver asked why not, Choltitz said ‘Well, we can’t stand this shooting of the Jews… we won’t stand for the persecution of the churches and religious houses.’ In Catholic south Oldenburg, nuns and monks were being turned out of their convents. Choltitz said Röver began shouting ‘like a madman: ‘What! Is that what your men are concerned about? It’s incredible! The Führer gave orders, shouting at me furiously, that a report be sent to him every day in which not at least a thousand Jews were shot.’

At this time Graf Rothkirch explained that ‘All gassing institutions are in Poland, near Lvov… Actually we washed our hands of it all because these atrocities took place in a military area.’ A Dr Lasch, governor of Lvov, had told him of the shooting of Jews while they were attending an opera in the city. Apparently the bodies were still lying around in the scene of the crime as a squad had been sent up with petrol to burn them: ‘so that their bodies shan’t be discovered… There’s bound to be loose talk about it afterwards.’ Rothkirch reported that the men sent to eliminate the bodies would be shot in turn. At Kutno, the local SS leader offered to put on a demonstration for him.

On 16-19 March, the POWs also talked about the killing of the lunatics in the asylums. Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth had a brother who was a doctor in an asylum in Nuremberg: ‘The people knew where they were being taken.’

On 24 March, Graf Rothkirch described another attempt to interest a higher authority in the massacres of students, nobles and estate owners taking place under the noses of the Wehrmacht during the 1939 Polish campaign. He went to see General Alfred von Vollard-Bockelberg to protest. Vollard-Bockelberg insisted it had to be done ‘because students are the most dangerous people of all… If we win the war it won’t matter…

Generalmajor Walter Bruns held forth: he had been trying to save 1,500 Jews in Riga, who were part of a work detail. A man called Werner Altemeyer had orders to kill them and told Bruns these were Hitler’s orders. Bruns had been up to see the pits where the Jews were killed lying down ‘like sardines in a tin.’ Later the same Altemeyer showed him a further order that instituted more discreet killing in the future.

In comparison to their German counterparts, British generals might appear have been a pack of well-born dunderheads, but they were comparatively harmless. I know the British committed the odd atrocity here and there: they certainly killed POWs when they got in the way, and the military manual allowed them the option of shooting hostages (although I am not sure anybody availed himself of the right), but this was on a massively different scale to the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. It is only when you include the carpet-bombing of German cities that the comparison is more-or-less valid, but then the Germans bombed us too. It seems clear that the Trent Park prisoners were not personally responsible for the killing of the Jews even if many were aware that it was happening and some even approved. What comes across most clearly in these transcripts is a terrible lack of moral fibre among most of the officers, many of whom had soaked up Nazi propaganda over the years to the degree that they had lost contact with humanity.


The Land of Wide Horizons

Posted: 16th September 2013

I only made it to the Russian part of the former East Prussia once. That was in 1991. I had met a geography professor called Pawel in Warsaw, a friend-of-a-friend in Bulgaria. Pawel knew a woman called Jadwiga who had a business in a one-horse town north-east of Warsaw called Ostrołęka. She had started a joint-venture in Kaliningrad. Joint-ventures were very much the thing then.

It was a devil of a business getting a visa from the Soviet consulate. I was given an appointment for the following week and I used the time to go looking for the traces of Prussian Danzig, Marienburg and Allenstein before I returned to Warsaw. I argued with a consular official about what I hoped to achieve in Kaliningrad. Finally, very angry and £10 worse off, he signed the necessary papers and that night Pawel and I set out for Ostrołęka.

The next morning we left in Jadwiga’s Mercedes and crossed the Russian border somewhere north of the town formerly known as Bartenstein. The Russian border guards seemed satisfied with my credentials at least: I was posing as a businessman keen to invest money in this God-forsaken corner of the crumbling Soviet Empire.

It had been my ambition to go to East Prussia for years and I kept my eyes pealed as we drove towards the former Königsberg. The province was massively overcrowded with shabby Russians queuing for buses along every road. Every now and then I had a glimpse of some old stones, a rotting cottage, a corner of a dilapidated manor, a disused church.

Kaliningrad was a horror. Pawel said it looked like any provincial Russian city. We had to dump our bags at a pre-booked hotel which claimed they had never heard of us, but a small bribe jogged their memories. Then Pawel scattered coins from the balcony and shouted to the children below in Russian to bring us bread and milk. The hotel was in a terrible collection of concrete buildings on the outskirts. We stopped at a canteen for filthy coffee and someone gave us a dried fish that made your mouth so salty you had to drink half a bottle of vodka to take the taste away.

We took a bus to the city centre. The only survivals were the railway station, the gutted cathedral with its monument to Kant, and a building they told me was the former Gestapo HQ - which had served an analogous role in the Soviet Union. We were packed like sardines in the bus, and when Pawel slipped off, I was unable to get to the door. A local woman noticing my distress tried to move the big hulk who was blocking my path. Only when she had hit him half a dozen times on the ear did he shake his head in disbelief and step to one side. I seized my moment and got off.

Pawel, I might add, was reliving his youth as a Moscow student as well as trying to get his own back on the hated Russians. He refused to pay on the buses. On our second journey he was caught by an inspector who fined him on the spot. I was struck by the fact that if I stood in the central reservation near the machine that clipped your tickets, other passengers would reach their tickets over to you to insert them. For a brief moment I felt like a proper Kaliningrader.

We found a sort of flea market housed in a large ruined building. I dreamed of locating a few old German watches but there was only junk. The traders told us there were seven Germans living in the city who had taken over one of the churches and were holding services. We had no luck locating them, but in the suburbs there were whole streets of neat, German houses, still with their Gothic street-signs and there was the odd wartime advertisement still clinging to the walls.

Somewhere on the remains of the city’s red brick fortifications there was a tower housing a dismal museum devoted to amber. At a stall outside I bought some cufflinks. We went to the old resort of Rauschen with some local boys, friends of Jadwiga’s. On the way I saw a large area of barracks buildings most of which were still Biedermeyer in style and which were occupied by teams of slouching squaddies. I learned that everything was for sale from Kalashnikov rifles to tanks. We stopped at a ruined fort. A major battle had been fought there in 1945. The boys said that they had simply bricked up the dead at the end of the scrap, and the soldiers’ remains were still inside.

The lads wanted to show me Göring’s house in Rauschen, but I knew that Göring had bought the large estate of Cadinen from the former Kaiser and that was south of Königsberg, not north. Rauschen was a pretty little seaside town, where middle-class Königsbergers had their summer homes. The wooden houses were now gaily painted and presumably prized by the Nomenklatura. The cliffs tumbled down to the sands of the Samland coast. There was nothing grandiose enough in Rauschen to appeal to Göring.

The lads were all native to the province. Their grandfathers had arrived with the armies of 1945, and their parents had been born there. They said East Prussia had always been Russian, only the Germans had captured it for a while before the Red Army took it back.

That night we went to dinner in one of the city’s three restaurants. The one in an old air raid shelter was already full. It was popular with the elderly Germans who pitched up on tour buses to revisit the world they had lost. Ours was upstairs, possibly above a garage. I can’t remember whether the boys came too, but I do recall dancing a ‘slow’ with Jadwiga. The place was full of dodgy characters buying arms from the barracks: every form of sleazeball you might imagine in a low dive in Kabul or Guatamala. That naturally meant a lot of teenaged whores had gathered there too. Jadwiga ordered champanski, keta and mushrooms with soured cream and everything else on the menu that might have been edible. A young prostitute sat opposite me at another table and pouted. When I ignored her she stood up and pulled her skirt right above her head. I found the gesture so silly I laughed. My scorn had a dramatic effect: she leafed over to our table, grabbed the tablecloth and pulled it clean off, sending everything crashing to the floor. She was bustled out and we ordered fresh food. Nothing cost very much in Kaliningrad, I suspect, not even the whores.

I am permitting myself these little reminiscences because Derek Tully in Bermuda has sent me Hans Graf von Lehndorff’s book Menschen, Pferde, weites Land (Men, Horses, Broad Horizons) about his childhood and youth in East Prussia. Lehndorff is chiefly known for his grisly experiences of the Russian occupation in 1945, which led him to write his East Prussian Diary - one of the most moving books I have ever read and one crying out for a new edition.

As the title of Lehndorff’s book implies, East Prussia was the land of the horse, and he was to the manor born. The first ten years of his life were spent on a state stud farm on the Elbe near Torgau, then his father was appointed to head the famous stud at Trakehnen near Gumbinnen in East Prussia and he returned to the land of the Lehndorffs. Despite his impeccable lineage, the young count experienced the bad times of the Turnip Winter of 1917 and Hyper Inflation in the early twenties. His mother, a daughter of that arch-plotter Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, made custard from peach leaves and fed them pond mussels. Pond mussels, concluded Lehndorff were simply disgusting, even when you put them through the mincer. When a pig was slaughtered there was belly pork on dry bread, but a ‘sausage soup’ was made from the broth left over from cooking Frankfurters. It sounds thin stuff. The dogs seem to have had a better deal: they were fed on dried horsemeat.

Much of the book is about horses and the many studs and racetracks - private or otherwise - that littered the province before 1945. When it is not about horses, it is about hunting. For me, the best passages concerned personalities: Lehndorff’s grandfather, ‘der Januschauer’ was close to Field Marshal, later President Hindenburg, and largely responsible for the disastrous sacking of Chancellor Brüning and the appointment of Adolf Hitler in January 1933. The Januschauer backed the wrong horse this time, and soon his friend Theodor Düsterberg was behind bars, but he was able to bend Hindenburg’s ear one last time, and have him released.

The portrait of the Januschauer is necessarily an affectionate one, as is that of the author’s bachelor cousin, Carol von Lehndorff, who lived in the principal Lehndorff seat of Steinort near Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ at Rastenburg. Carol was an eccentric man, and the descriptions of the house parties in the vast, gloomy mansion are very warm. They remind you too, that upper-class society continued to function even in the Hitler-years, and that 1936 in Berlin was not only the year of the Olympiad, it was a time of balls and dances, which Lehndorff as a young medical student enjoyed to the full. A few years later many of his friends and relatives were implicated in the 20 July Plot, and were strung up on gibbets. Lehndorff became the last of his line. He made up for it by producing several heirs; but heirs who would never inherit Steinort or any of the other Lehndorff properties for that matter.

Indeed, Lehndorff comes across as far less ingénue than in his East Prussian Diary, and far more able to defend himself. By the end of the book the war has begun and Lehndorff was working as a surgeon in Insterburg. The Gestapo persisted in sending him Gypsies for sterilisation. The men would arrive with a label round their necks saying that they were to be castrated and sent back to Gestapo HQ. Lehndorff turned the label round and wrote on the other side that he was no longer allowed to perform these operations, as he had received firm instructions that for the duration of the war he was only to treat sick people.

Lehndorff’s fate is documented in the East Prussian Diary. While the physical evidence of seven centuries of Teutons was largely blotted out in 1945, both Trakehnen and Steinort seem to have miraculously survived in some form, although the latter lost all its contents, even the manuscript of Ernst Ahasverus Lehndorff’s diary (he was the Prussian Pepys at the court of Frederick the Great). My departure from East Prussia was mercifully easier than Lehndorff’s. I spent my last night sharing a room with Pawel, who snored; and Lazarus-like I took up my bed and walked. I elected to sleep in the corridor.

Despite the receptionist’s pessimistic pronouncements, I don’t think there was anything else in the building, except for a large and noisy mosquito, which kept me company for the rest of the night. We must have left at about lunchtime. All was fine until we reached the border, but this time the guards studied at my papers with interest and a telephone call was made.

I waited in the back of Jadwiga’s car. Playing with a bottle of beer called ‘Königstor’, the only thing with a German name I had found in the city of the Teutonic Knights. A sleek character in a leather jacket arrived from nowhere and called me over. I got out of the car. He spoke fluent English and asked me what I had seen in Kaliningrad and what had been of interest. Had I found anything worth investing in? I was beginning to twig. I pointed to the beer: ‘Perhaps we could develop the brewing?’

‘That beer is disgusting. You must be joking!’

‘Yes, you’re right. What you need is more hotels and restaurants to deal with tourists. I can help you there.’

He brightened: ‘And you will need an interpreter when that happens?’ Now I understood his game.

‘Yes I will, someone who speaks English as well as you. Write down your telephone number on this piece of paper.’ I said, smoothing out the back of my hotel bill. He obliged. My last sight of East Prussia was him, smiling and waving, as Jadwiga’s car lurched towards the frontier.


August 1914

Posted: 19th August 2013

On 21 March 1934, Adolf Hitler staged a symbolic marriage ceremony between himself, representing National Socialism, and President Paul von Hindenburg - the personification of Prussianism - in Prussia’s holiest shrine: the Garrison Church at Potsdam. Appearing a bit like a sinister version of the two Ronnies, Hitler accompanied by the lofty Field Marshal entered the church that contained the mortal remains of both Frederick the Great and his father, and after a few pat words from Hindenburg, Adolf rose to the rostrum.

Hitler proceeded to affirm that no one in Germany - not the Kaiser, the army nor the people - had wanted war in August 1914. It was - as he had been saying vociferously since his political debut in 1919 - a rotten lie. It was of course the lie on which the punitive clauses of the Treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain were founded, and it was also, according to Hitler, the lie on which the dreadful ‘system’ - Hitler’s euphemism for the Weimar Republic - had been established. The Prusso-German army, unbeaten in the field, had been sullied and disgraced, but Hitler had arisen to redeem its honour. The first job was to eradicate the ‘guilt-lie’. Of course, Hitler’s policy would mean leading Germany on a course towards another world war. And in this instance, there would be no doubt as to who had initiated it.

With the centenary of the First World War rolling up, there is much talk of the causes of the Great War and if Twitter is anything to go by, there are still plenty of people out there who believe that the onus of blame lies squarely with Germany. Now, it is clearly nonsense to say that no one in Germany wanted war in 1914. There was a large party of hawks in the Wilhelmstrasse (foreign office) and even more in the General Staff (where you might be surprised at the absence of hawks). There were, as we know from influential books published by Fritz Fischer half a century ago, industrialists who were keen to annex territories and profit from new supplies of raw materials, just as there were soldiers, politicians and members of the royal family (notably the Crown Prince and the Empress Dona) who believed that by winning a war they would stave off calls for political reform at home. It was, however, in the nature of government in pre-First World War Germany, that none of these could actually put their desires into practice until they had the Chancellor or better still the Emperor on their side, and neither Bethmann-Hollweg nor William was keen on war.

Now that the countdown has begun, books are appearing that rehearse the diplomatic Tohuwabohu that preceded the bloodshed, and it appears that several of these virtually absolve Germany of blame. Having a few days off with my family in Dorset, I took Sean McMeekin’s July 1914 - Countdown to War away with me to look at all this argy-bargy once again, and what a fascinating account it is.

The war, in case anyone needs reminding, was caused by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a terrorist trained and backed by a Serbian government that was quite blatant its aggressive attitude to its neighbour. Austria wanted retribution, and sought backing from its ally, Germany. Encouraged by his hawks, the German Emperor approved a swift, punitive raid against Belgrade, but Austria dragged its heels until Serbia had managed to bring in its patron, Russia. Russia then quietly mobilised against Austria and Germany and - as McMeekin makes clear - brought in the revanchiste French led by its Lorrainois president Poincaré, who on top of his open hostility to Germany, had pocketed Russian bribes. It should be said perhaps that Germany had appropriated half of Lorraine in 1871, following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War.

Meanwhile the Kaiser had left for his annual Norwegian cruise and was largely out of earshot. It is remarkable how guileless the Germans were throughout all these machinations: the naked Russian desire for war, the ‘secret’ mobilisation (which was only secret if you were too lazy or partisan to find out), the French preparations and attempts to mislead Britain, the Austrian shilly-shallying, the Serbian cheek - knowing they had friends in high places; and finally the German discomfort, as their inept chancellor tried to work out what was going on. The key issue for all Germany’s enemies was to make it look as if Germany was the aggressor and by doing so, lure Britain into the war on their side.

Britain, preoccupied with Irish Home Rule and a mutinous army was, it seems, ruled by politicians every bit as inept as the Germans. The army command had pledged support to the French without telling the Cabinet, while Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was so gung-ho he actually mobilised the fleet without even telling the prime minister, Herbert Asquith. Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office was a perfect sphinx, not letting anyone know, it seemed, if Britain had any treaty obligations until the last moment (when it became clear that it did not). When it seemed that the Cabinet would split, causing his ministry to fall, Asquith showed his hand to protect he French Channel Coast. The mere British people, it appears, were as bellicose as the French, Russians and Germans: the scrap was popular and the Germans (rather than the Austrians, the Serbians, the Russians or the French) apparently deserved their come-uppance for all sorts of real or imagined wrongs.

In the end the Germans walked into a trap laid by its own General Staff and violated neutral Belgium in their attempts to encircle the French army; thereby providing Britain with the necessary pretext to join forces with France and Russia. They fell hook, line and sinker. As McMeekin writes: ‘the Germans went into it kicking and screaming as the Austrian noose snapped shut around their necks.’

In McMeekin’s book (he is not alone here), Germany comes fairly low down on the list of warmongers, after Serbia, Austria, Russia and France, and there would in all probability have been no war had Britain called France or Russia to order, which is what Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser wanted it to do. So how exactly did Germany become the villain of the peace in the eyes of so many, then and now?

It appears that superior guile may be part of it. McMeekin demonstrates how many gaps there are in the post-war records, and this skilful editing of the archives is also backed up by a universal desire to shift the blame for the carnage. After the war, Germans were generally keen to implicate the Kaiser who had done an unforgivable thing and lost a battle (and indeed a war) and who was living abroad in exile where he had difficulty in making his voice heard.

As the full horror of the war became apparent, every combatant nation wanted to make sure that the blame redounded on their enemies. Hitler may have had a point that Germany lacked the skilful wartime propaganda of Britain, which was run by the gutter press barons.  He was a considerable admirer of the way they managed to portray the Germans as the sole culprits and made them not only the scapegoats for the diplomatic cock-up that caused the war but also cast them as a bunch of nun-raping, child-butchering savages. At Versailles, France and Britain considered it vital that the defeated Central Powers should shoulder all the guilt for the tragedy. None of the victors wanted to be found with so much blood on their hands.


John Ferguson

Posted:15th July 2013

My friend John ‘Johnny’ Ferguson died earlier this year. I had put out a call for a next-of-kin, so that I could write in commiseration, but I have drawn stumps and I shall write a little appraisal of him here instead.

I met John by chance in the mid-eighties after my return from Paris. I had been taken on by a funny little free magazine called Midweek to write a column called ‘Trencherman’s Travels’. Midweek was actually just a compendium of advertisements with a few articles at the front. I always characterised it as being a bit like Greenland: some small settlements in the south and beyond a vast empty continent full of ice and tundra.

My contribution was a fortnightly column accompanied by an illustration (not by me) featuring the Trencherman at work. He wore a boater and blazer and was naturally a little on the portly side. The Trencherman was very loosely based on the historical figure of Grimod de La Reynière. My biography of the Revolutionary food critic came out at this time. It has now become so rare that not even Amazon possesses a copy. But there is one for sale from Abe Books.

At the beginning I took my brief very seriously and poked my nose into all the delis and butcher’s shops I could find, but after a while a bit of journalistic license crept in and the Trencherman got into terrible scrapes as he tried to find the best food in every corner of the capital. Some of his more raucous escapades uncovered the fact that Midweek not only had readers but they could become irate when provoked.

The man who dreamed up this glutton was a sleek, red-faced former theatre critic called Bill Williamson. He was assisted by a brassy, red-headed Scots woman called Trudy Culross, while the subbing was done by a pale, if not pasty Irishman in his early twenties called John Ferguson, who - I think - knew the Irish owner of the publication through his father, a successful builder in Sligo.

Trudy rapidly achieved notoriety by writing a novel about having sex on a camel (‘one hump or two?’) and was elevated to work on a women’s magazine. When that happened John went up a notch to assistant editor. He was even ‘acting editor’ for a while until they located a replacement in the austere Saint-Just look-alike Steve Platt, who later found a more suitable post as editor of the New Statesman. Steve Platt seems to have disappeared from this world. He has been replaced by Owen Jones. Sometimes I suspect they are one and the same.

While it lasted, Midweek was a decent billet. I met Minty Clinch and her husband and many more of the very good people whom Bill recruited. Two of his stars were the ‘Men Who Know’: Martin Plimmer and Michael Magenis, who later occasionally brought me in on their Saturday morning pitch on Loose Ends with the great Ned Sherrin. There was also the lovely Sam Norman, daughter of Barry, who remained a close friend of John’s, I think to the end.

I suppose I must have lasted about a year to eighteen months all told, until some unhappy butcher or grocer managed to convince the owner that he would lose some precious advertising if I were retained any longer.

The person I was closest to at Midweek was John. John had studied (was it French or Spanish, or both?) at University College Dublin. I suppose that Midweek was his first job. John loved the anarchic side of the Trencherman and was wickedly encouraging. You don’t often find subs like that.

He lived in a basement flat near the Arsenal Football Ground with his college sweetheart Eithna, who was pale and raven-haired like John (although a lot, lot smaller). There were other flatmates, but over the years I have mislaid their names. They liked to sit around playing guitars and singing rhythm and blues, which involved John putting on an American accent - a convention in rhythm and blues, he told me. It sounded a bit silly to my ears.

John was very uxorious when it came to Eithna and lived in a constant anxiety that she would run off with ‘that pillock’ (as he described her boss). I think that did actually happen in the end and it may have been one of the reasons that contributed to his going back to Dublin. Another person I used to see with John was his younger sister Ciara, who apparently had a profound loathing for me (‘She hates your guts’). She later went to work for the Irish Independent.

We spent a lot of time together exploring pubs and other watering holes in Islington before John took to his heels and returned to Ireland. He said he was going to make money by desktop publishing or advertising, but I see from the Internet that he used to review films and write them too, collaborating for a while with Neil Jordan when the Celtic Tiger established its own successful studios.

Whenever I went to Dublin in the nineties, I saw or stayed with John in his various flats in Dublin 2. On one occasion I remember him pleading with me to have another drink with him. It was four in the morning and I had an eight o’clock flight home. I was staying at Jury’s Inn in Ballsbridge, where the delightful manager Tom O’Connell had once again put the penthouse suite at my disposal, a space so vast that I don’t think I ever visited all the rooms. John seemed very put out when I said no.

On another occasion I went to a dinner party at Terry Keane’s - the mistress of the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey. After a fearsome argument with the architect Sam Stephenson whose monstrous creations had despoiled Dublin, I got back to John’s flat in Pembroke Street at about six in the morning. I must have pressed the wrong bell because his landlady threatened to call ‘the Garda’. John let me in and went back to bed. He didn’t seem too frightened of the Garda.

On yet another occasion, maybe after my one dinner with Haughey himself, we all went back to Michael O’Shaughnessy’s flat opposite the back door of the Shelburne in Grafton Street and made very merry. Possibly even Ciara was there. On second thoughts I think that might have been another time. Haughey, by the way, had been a more than generous host, not only had he plied me with Cristal and 1969 Yquem, he had offered to appoint me ‘Gauleiter’ (his word), after Ireland reconquered Britain.

Once or twice I saw John when he came here and we would go to the Toucan in Soho and drink Guinness, but latterly we failed to meet up. I’d get a call and a vague arrangement, but nothing came of it. He went off to live in Galway for a while, and endeavoured to get me involved in a literary festival in Lisdoonvarna. He was very fond of Egan’s Bar in Liscannor, which was in MacDonogh country - as he hastened to remind me - and was forever trying to make me accompany him on one of his trips to the west. The prospect was tempting, not only for the chance of spending some time with John, but also for the open cases of top Bordeaux wine I recall littering the floor.

Earlier this year I learned by a roundabout route that John had cancer of the bile duct; that it was inoperable and he was dying. He was fifty. He had a long-term lover whom he intended to marry before he died and was going to serve Gay McGuinness’s wine from the Domaine des Anges at the wedding. I am told that the wedding did indeed happen. It must have been very close to the end. I am hugely sorry I was not there to say goodbye.


Tales of the Transylvanian Woods

Posted: 17th June 2013

Twenty-one or twenty-two years ago - I forget which - but just months after the fall of Ceauşescu, I went on a wine trip to Romania, accompanied by - among others - Malcolm ‘Superplonk’ Glück and Leslie ‘Dirty Den’ Grantham. Grantham was then moonlighting from East Enders by writing a wine column for the Sunday Mirror.

The revolution that had disposed of the butcher and his fiend-like queen had been just a partial one. As a Romanian said to me recently, it removed the regime’s first division to make way for the second and the third. This was well borne-out by my introduction to Romania: a shirty customs official who wanted me to open my bag for his perusal. It struck me that he might have been a re-deployed Securitate-man - one of Ceauşescu’s hired thugs.

‘Open it yourself’, I said laughing. ‘It’s not locked.’

I don’t think he was used to people challenging him let alone laughing in his face: ‘Open it!’ He barked.

‘Open it yourself.’ I said.

As an invitee of his government I felt neither brave nor foolhardy, but reasonably secure. He made a gesture of disgust towards my bag then he barked again: ‘You had better go careful in Romania!’

Again I laughed. I laughed because it was almost exactly the line Harry Lime’s friend, the sinister Romanian Popescu uttered in The Third Man: ‘Nice girl that, but she ought to go careful in Vienna…’

The ex-Securitate man was livid: as I picked up my bag he clicked his heels and gave me a Nazi salute. I restrained myself from talking of pots and kettles and quickly left the airport. ‘Den’, or Leslie, was being mobbed by lovesick British aid-workers and we needed to make a fast getaway.

After a night in Bucharest and a tasting-stop in Dealul Mare, we crossed the Carpathians and caught a glimpse of Bran Castle. We were already in Transylvania - Dracula-country. At Braşov-Kronstadt we paused for a meal in a Chinese restaurant on the majestic main square then continued on our way to Sibiu or Hermannstadt.

Even for those of us who have never read Bram Stoker’s novel, Transylvania exerts a power over all our imaginations. We all know the silhouette of Bran Castle from half a dozen lurid Ingrid Pitt bodice-rippers. Romanians, on the other hand, are more than wary of Dracula-hunters, and for students of old Europe like myself, Transylvania has another meaning as the last remaining part of Europe to exhibit the old jumble of races that used to predominate east of the River Oder.

Kronstadt and Hermannstadt are two of the seven fortified towns that provide the region’s German name: the ‘Siebenbürgen’. The Magyars settled Germans on the western slopes of the Carpathians in the high Middle Ages: hard-working Rhinelanders who could farm and fight and defend Christianity all at once. In their villages they erected fortified churches or ‘Kirchenbürgen’, identifiable by their high towers with galleries where the villagers could keep watch for unwelcome turban-touting strangers coming from the east. 

I remember seeing a young girl in Tracht sweeping the porch and shouting ‘Grüß Gott!’ at her. Without looking up she called out ‘Grüß Gott!’ There were about 100,000 Siebenbürger Sachsen in Transylvania then, down from 350,000 at the end of the war. The figure is now lower than 20,000. They were lured away by the bounties offered by the German Federal Republic, which literally bought them out one by one, thereby destroying an ancient community by offering these estranged Teutons the chance of mod cons in Stuttgart or Munich.

It is true that they had suffered after the war, when some were shipped off to the gulags and their property was confiscated. They had blotted their copybook by being too enchanted by Hitler who re-drew the border in 1940, awarding the northern part of the Siebenbürgen to Hungary. Transylvania had been part of Greater Hungary (which had many German-filled pockets) for a millennium until the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, when it was detached and given to Romania. Romania had again courted the Western Allies by switching sides at the end of the Second World War, which meant that the entire region was granted to Romania in 1947.

On my previous visit we spent a night in Sibiu and were able to explore the town. I was expecting it to be free from tourists, but there was still a large party of Japanese people in the hotel lobby, I presumed on a themed Dracula or Ceauşescu tour. Sibiu struck me then as one of the loveliest small towns in Europe. I had no reason to change that view when I arrived in the second week of June this year.

There was a theatre festival running and the enormous main (Piaţa Mare) square was milling with merry people. There on my left was the Catholic church where I had observed Masses given in Hungarian and German and all around, the houses had high storage attics with ‘eyes’ that are meant to be a feature of Saxon dwellings. One house was emblazoned with a plaque in German celebrating a forgotten ‘progressive poet’. The Buchhandlung Schiller was sadly closed: I was looking for a good book on the history of the Siebenbürgen.

Hotels like the Römische Kaiser and the Hotel am Ring brought home the fact that we were now at the eastern end of the old Austrian Empire. The town hall is a great Baroque palace. It is the seat of the Bürgermeister of mayor, Klaus Johannis, a Saxon who Sabine Hentzsch, the former head of the Goethe Institute in Bucharest now in London, described to me as the most charismatic politician in Romania.

We walked into the second vast square (Piaţa Mica) dominated by the Council Tower, which was filled with bookstalls. There to the side, overlooking the shingle roofs of the lower town was the big gothic evangelical church, the centre of Saxon Hermannstadt. Opposite was a gothic building of 1502 with an elaborate carved door surround. Another, baroque church was farther off, while the Orthodox, Romanian cathedral was away from the centre of town. The pecking order changes from town to town in Transylvania. Here in Sibiu it was traditionally the Germans who set the tone, followed by the Hungarians and the Romanians. The Gypsies always come last, even if Sibiu possesses both a Gypsy King and Emperor.

There were works going on outside the Samuel von Brukenthal Gymnasium, the town’s principal German school and workers had placed one of their yellow hard hats on the head of the statue of the Georg Daniel Teutsch, a sort of Siebenbürger Lord Macaulay and the nineteenth century chronicler of the Saxons. Because of the three races that jostled for power in Transylvania, there is always a plethora of churches, schools and other institutions asserting the Germans are better than the Romanians or the Hungarians superior to both. 

After we landed at Sibiu airport were actually taken to the Astra Open Air museum near our Hilton Hotel established in Ceauşescu’s time. As he eliminated the countries historic villages, he was kind enough to make a collection of individual buildings. To qualify, the house or farm had to be connected with a cottage industry such as potting, milling, herding or winemaking. The re-erected buildings are scattered over a site of more than 100 hectares, and equipped with carafes of local palinca or schnapps we were loaded onto horse traps for a tour.

The next morning we drove to Sebeş or Mühlbach. Along the way the villages were announced in Romanian, Hungarian and German, now that most of the latter at least, had left. I fancied you could tell sometimes what the predominant race had been: when they were neat and tidy and had high gates, the inhabitants had been Saxon. The houses themselves, gables towards the street, were almost identical to those you can still find in formerly Hungarian Burgenland, in the far east of present-day Austria.

The storks had returned to their nests and every now and then not just the parents, but also a brace of chicks would stare down at us as we came by. Most of the people we saw on the road were Gypsies whose houses were among the smallest and most decrepit, even if they were sometimes gaily painted. Our driver pointed out that there were different orders: such as those, like those who wear white turbans in Rajasthan, go from village to village to mend pots and pans. These Transylvanian tinkers were far less alluring, but the girls often sported lovely, brightly-coloured costumes. Most of them drove around on carts with rubber wheels propelled by shire horses.

That they are not popular is an understatement. One Romanian I met went so far as to say Hitler’s friend Ion Antonescu, who murdered about 300,000 Jews, was not so bad, because he had also killed Gypsies. These are the people British-UKIP leader Nigel Farage pleases to call ‘Romanians’. They appear desperately poor and live in their time-honoured way by barter. We did not see many working in the vineyards. The only Gypsy I observed in any form of employment was a woman cleaning rooms at an hotel.  

Out in the vines near Sebeş we visited Constantin Cheşculescu, a Romanian who had spent a couple of decades living in Wembley, where he had developed a passion for Indian food. Cheşculescu not only has a guesthouse with an excellent restaurant (touch of Indian spicing in a venison goulash) but he owns a leather factory called ‘Carla Rossini’ and an English Riding School. We were given a demonstration of the skills of a mounted bowman that was anything but ‘English’: riding an Arab stallion called Zorro, he riddled a bale of straw with arrows before he and Zorro took a bow and headed back to the stable.

I was there for wine (more of this in my Wine & Food Diary at the end of the month), but one pleasure of walking in the vineyards was the abundance of birds and wild flowers. One of my companions was a trained botanist and she identified some vetches I might have taken for orchids, beautiful wild sage and Carpathian pinks. The other Ruritanian pleasure was the constant presence of wandering shepherds with their flocks accompanied by a brace of sheepdogs. The ewes presumably perfume their milk with the same flowers, giving a special character to the ubiquitous brinjal cheese or the ricotta-like Urda which is made from the whey. At gloaming the ewes are herded into pens for milking. There they spend the night and the dogs alert shepherds to any possible attack by wolves or bears. Some of the ewes are taken to the higher pastures of the Carpathians for the summer months, although I was told they cheated a bit and drove them up in lorries.

Sheep rustling was the source of several fortunes in the immediate post-Ceauşescu years. As in neighbouring Bulgaria, the males are consumed only in the early spring, but demand for bigger animals from Turkey meant that profits could be made, not only from buying up male lambs from shepherds but by using the vast reserves in the state farms. The result appears to have been the creation of one branch of the new Transylvanian oligarchy.

The other source of money in the region is the European Union, which has paid for a great many improvements not only to the formerly clapped out state farms and collectives, which are now almost all in private hands, but also by providing massive loans to start up some very big wineries. These investments undoubtedly provide employment for locals, as does the wide-ranging road-building project that is currently scattering ugly motorway viaducts all over the previously unspoiled landscape. EU largesse occasionally finds itself going into the pockets of men who did not seem short of money to start with, but this is an old story and by no means confined to east-central Europe.

For the last two nights of my short visit, I stayed in the Castelul Bethlen, a proper Transylvanian castle with four pepperpot towers and a high-pitched roof built for the Hungarian Bethlens in around 1570. It changed hands two hundred years later when it passed to the Hallers, who got it back after the Revolution. A few years ago it was acquired by Claudiu Necşulescu who also owns the massive Jidvei winery. Necşulescu uses it as a guesthouse. The Hallers took their clobber with them when they left, but Necşulescu has appointed a woman to track down good pieces of Transylvanian furniture. She has found some excellent things, such as the two gothic chairs beside the bearskins outside my bedroom.

It is a wonderful place to stay, not just for the thrill of the castle, but also for the view of the hills and woods all around. It was not hard to imagine bats penetrating the three windows in my tower bedroom. Perhaps for that reason I kept them closed. I should add that this sort of joke has worn thin with the locals, something that was clear when we got back to the airport at Sibiu. I looked in vain for an evocative souvenir of Transylvania to take back to my children, but there was nothing: no Dracula, no vampires; not even a bulb of local garlic. The only thing I found was among a small selection of airport books: a single copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but sadly, in a Romanian translation.


Young Adolf

Posted: 15th May 2013

The late Richard Cobb had a particular aversion to Robespierre, whom he compared to a ‘Welsh Methodist’. He warned friends and tutees against men who lived in boarding houses and dined alone at tables d’hôte, silently observing the people at their table, noting their conversations for some time in the distant future when they might be of use.

Cobb was a wonderful historian of the French Revolution, but had he erred into the Third Reich he would have found a similar phenomenon in Adolf Hitler. I had never looked at August Kubizek’s memoir of his youthful Friend Hitler before, but having read it now, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly to those who want to watch the seeds germinating in what was to become Hitler’s world view.

In the introduction to the Frontline edition, Sir Ian Kershaw sagely warns us to take some of Kubizek’s memories with a pinch of salt: he appears to remember dialogues thirty years after the event and pads out his text with quotations for Mein Kampf. Kershaw also points to the slightly suspicious circumstances that led Kubizek to write the book: it had been commissioned as part of a hagiography to show what a genius the Führer had been from his earliest days. When Kubizek took up his pen again after the demise of the Third Reich, there was evidence to suggest a ghostwriter had been engaged, as the text was a great deal more lucid than one might have expected. Still, pace Sir Ian, there is a lot here that can explain the mind-set of the mature Hitler and it is essential reading.

The author, August ‘Gustl’ Kubizek was Adolf’s only friend. He was an upholsterer’s son from Linz with a passion and talent for music who met the future Führer in the gods at the concert hall in Linz in November 1904. Hitler was fifteen, and on the verge of dropping out of the Realschule in Steyr. His stubborn sense that he knew better than anyone else had already infuriated his schoolmasters. Kubizek reproduces his school reports. He had had to re-sit two classes and was particularly bad at French, the language he takes such pains to condemn in the pages of Mein Kampf.

He was rather stiff and formal and had a petty-bourgeois insistence on decorum when it came to anything that might impinge on his dignity. In this, his character was very different to his half-brother and sister - the older children of Alois Hiedler or Hitler. I can only imagine that Adolf and his younger sister Paula derived their individuality from their mother, Hiedler’s third wife, Klara Pölzl. With time Adolf and Gustl went for walks together around the town and countryside, while Hitler rehearsed speeches and gestures and addressed poor Kubizek like a public meeting. It is interesting but unsurprising that Kubizek reveals Hitler to have suffered from bouts of depression.

Hitler had a passion for a young, blond girl called Stephanie, whom he worshipped from afar. Together with her widowed mother, she performed her passagiato through the streets of the provincial city and the friends would take up position where they could see her pass, hoping that she might deign to smile at her admirer. She was often in the company of young officers, and Hitler voiced his contempt for such people. He never met Stephanie, but despite being utterly obsessed, he could think of no dignified way to approach her. He learned that she danced, but he loathed dancing and that didn’t help. In desperation he hatched a scheme for a joint suicide in the Danube. This pitiful episode must shed some light on Hitler’s later passion for his niece Geli Raubal and her grim fate

Kubizek suggests that Hitler once sent Stephanie an unsigned letter, but here the evidence is thin. Historians have exulted in her Jewish-sounding surname ‘Isak’, but she can’t have been Jewish: she lived out the Third Reich in Vienna untroubled by her former worshipper’s myrmidons.

Adolf’s father had died two years before he met Gustl, and Hitler, his mother and younger sister lived in a tiny flat across the river from Linz. His father had been a customs’ officer with a rank equivalent to an army captain. The peasant boy from the backward Waldviertel had become a local worthy blasting out his opinions, beer mug in hand, from his Stammtisch at the inn. After his death the Hitlers had to make do with a small pension, but later Adolf received a legacy which allowed him to go to Vienna and escape his guardian Josef Mayrhofer’s impertinent suggestion that the great genius should become a baker. The size of that legacy is in dispute: Kershaw thinks it rather bigger than Hitler leads us to believe in Mein Kampf.

Kubizek was a talented viola player and with Hitler’s encouragement he was able to give up being an upholsterer and study conducting at the conservatory in Vienna. They had been brought together by their passion for Wagner, who combined the glories of his music with the legends of the Germans and their gods; those deities that he mopped up so avidly in every book he could find on the subject.

Hitler honoured Wagner above all other Germans. After seeing Lohengrin ten times in Vienna he knew the score by heart. He was even prepared to watch and praise Mahler conducting it. He was less dogmatic about his antisemitism then and he read the musicologist Guido Adler, whose daughter later became a victim of his regime. He even tolerated Mendelssohn: at least he wasn’t one of those hated foreign composers like Verdi. Kubizek is naturally at this best in his treatment of Hitler the wannabe musician. He was an outstanding singer, but lacked the discipline to practise an instrument and Paula’s investment in a piano was all for nought as he would not learn his scales. Later he went on a fruitless quest to find the instruments used by the original German tribes. He was on safe ground there as no one could tell him how to play them.

For all that was nonsensical about Hitler’s idea that he was a natural musician, he could field some innovative ideas even then. Struck by the fact that only the moneyed could go to concerts, he conceived the idea of touring orchestras making great music available to ordinary folk. When the prosaic Gustl asked who would pay, Hitler eventually admitted that ‘businessmen’ would have to foot the bill. He remained true to the idea, and great orchestras performed in factories during the Third Reich.

By the time Kubizek joined Hitler in Vienna, the latter had developed a powerful interest in politics and was wont to sit in on the debates at the parliament, as he recounts in Mein Kampf. He was soon unsatisfied. As a German nationalist he was appalled by the multi-lingual sessions. Linz was a much more German city than cosmopolitan Vienna, but it was close to the border with Bohemia, where there were frequent explosions of anger against the German minority in towns like Budweis (famous for a beer that rivalled even Pilsner from nearby Pilsen). Hitler hated the Bohemian Czechs. Ethnic Germans like the Hiedlers felt embattled, even in Linz, and the same Dr Pötsch he extols in Mein Kampf was not just a history master at his school, but a city councillor who spoke up for the Germans and against Czechs and Jews.

You expect a book like Kubizek’s to provide an idea of the emerging thinking of the future leader. It is not disappointing and shows there to be a remarkable consistency in Hitler’s ideas. Early on, Adolf is taken up with social schemes that might improve the lot of the poor. He is interested in ridding the world of beggars, for example. Young Hitler thought in terms of social legislation. Later beggars would be classed as ‘asocials’ and sent to the camps. Kubizek is forthright in telling us that Hitler’s father and many of his schoolmasters were antisemites and describes his friend pouring scorn on a synagogue in Linz. He suggests that the gradual dawning of his hatred of Jews in Mein Kampf is a sham. Kubizek demonstrates that Hitler was unwilling to accept women in higher education and was ungracious when Gustl used their shared digs to give them extra tuition.

He may have already been an antisemite, but he was not yet as rabid as he was to become. He appreciated the efforts made by Dr Bloch to treat his mother when she was dying of cancer, and a protective aegis was thrown over the physician when German troops entered Linz in 1938.

Hitler imagined himself as a monumental painter and later as an architect. When asked what he doing in Vienna he claimed to be studying architecture. We have all seen his watercolours, the curiously warped perspectives which would have provided rich pickings for a psychoanalyst. While he loved a certain style of neo-renaissance architecture, building was also an excuse to reform society from the bottom upwards. You wonder, reading Kubizek, whether this interest in the social aspects of architecture was what attracted him to Albert Speer.

Hitler’s first fantasies concerned his home town: Linz, which he thought needed radical replanning. Some of this actually occurred later, and Hitler was able to see his project for a new Danube bridge come to fruition as he had designed it before the First World War. It was enriched by some grandiloquent sculptural groups which have now been taken down or destroyed. As we know, Hitler was not a conservationist either. He wanted to tinker with everything. In 1907, he went to Vienna and began making plans for the capital too. The slums would be pulled down and replaced by model housing schemes. In all this he revealed the ‘idealist’ that is clear in the pages of Mein Kampf. He refused to be taught and thought teachers an abomination. All his reading served to confirm what he already believed; otherwise books were of no interest.

Hitler’s life was remarkably austere. He ate little more than bread and milk. When Kubizek arrived to join him in 29 Stumpergasse near the commercial Mariahilfestrasse, he had laid on a bit of sausage too, but his friend had pork rolls in his bag, so there was a feast. Hitler was still eating meat then, but in all likelihood, he didn’t have the means to do it often. If Gustl made any money from teaching, he would buy his friend what he really liked: cakes. He could even stomach the presence of a Jew, providing there was a cake to eat. His Robespierre-like contempt for frivolity extended to the Viennese love of inns and wine: he drank nothing stronger than milk and woe betide anyone who smoked.

Sexually peaking, Hitler was an utter prude. Once when he and Kubizek went to look for a new room, a woman flashed her breasts at him. He couldn’t get down the stairs fast enough. Thereafter she was ‘Frau Potiphar’, a biblical reference that demonstrates a thorough grounding in the Catechism. He and his friend did, however, go to look at the prostitutes on the Spittalberg once (for scientific study) and one girl obliged by taking off her shirt when they peered through the window. The friends were entertained to tea in the Hotel Kummer by a homosexual man. Adolf was more alert to their host’s inclinations than Gustl was.

Hitler already believed people should marry early. He condemned sexual experiment and abjured masturbation. One of the pleasures of watching operas in the gods at the opera house was that women were not allowed in, but Kubizek says he was always attractive to the opposite sex, possibly because he seemed so aloof.

There were some ideas, however, which were cast aside as he grew older, such as his contempt for both the army and capital. He had fallen for the life of a soldier by 1914. He still hated capitalists when he wrote Mein Kampf, but he was convinced to drop that part of his programme before he came to power. He was a pragmatist too.

After their close shave with Frau Potiphar, the friends decided to remain with the Czech Frau Zachrays: one Bohemian woman Hitler tolerated. After they had moved their beds and a grand piano into the sunless room there was a no more than a few square feet to move around in, and Adolf, needed all of that for pacing and ranting. Gustl had to climb into bed to get out of the way while Hitler strode back and forth into the early hours of the morning. He was often very rude to his friend, who seems to have had the patience of a saint. When Gustl rose to attend his classes, Adolf could not be moved. He had already developed the habit of rising at lunchtime that he was to retain to the end of his life. Kubizek later admitted that Hitler was unbalanced, but he may not have been aware of this at the time.

Hitler was very loath to confess that his endless reading had nothing to do with any form of formal course. He was slow to reveal to his friend he had been rejected by the Academy of Painting. The Conservatory had taken his protégée Gustl and he didn’t believe Gustl to be his equal. He ranted in fury against the men who spurned him.

With Gustl’s earnings from teaching, they went on expeditions. They visited the Wachau, but Adolf was more interested in the great baroque monastery at Melk than the local wine. Adolf and Gustl climbed Lower Austria’s highest peak, the Rax near Semmering, and were caught in the rain on the way down. They were forced to spend the night in a hut. Gustl made his friend strip naked so he could dry his clothes: it is a poignant thought - a naked, vulnerable Adolf Hitler responding to the matronly concern of his only friend. ‘I must assert categorically that Adolf, in physical as well as sexual respects, was absolutely normal.’ Kubizek writes, and he probably speaks with authority here.

Some of the most farcical incidents in the book concern Hitler’s indomitable creative urges: he wrote poems to his lady-love, ‘composed’ (if that’s the word) an opera called Wieland der Schmied, and wrote turgid plays and short stories about the Germanic gods (or rather bits of them, before he wandered onto another project). Of the literary explosion that was taking place in Vienna at the same time, Hitler appears to have had no inkling, possibly because so many of its luminaries were Jews. Sometimes, Hitler is so out of touch with reality that he reminds you of Uncle Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace.

In a grotesque way, Kubizek’s book is quite funny and you wonder why no one has written a play about the miserable life of the odd couple in the Stumpergasse. There was an Austrian film about Hitler’s unrequited love for Stephanie, but I think there is more meat on this bone.

But while it is hard to suppress a snigger at this utterly preposterous character, you are conscious that these were just the beginnings of a man who was later to cause the greatest tragedy that has befallen our world in modern times, and like Robespierre before him, Hitler was able to take revenge on all of those who laughed at him; on everyone he knew or imagined to have stood in his way. The next time you see someone eating a cake and drinking a glass of milk in a shabby boarding house, give him a wide berth and run.


Clarita von Trott

Posted: 15th April 2013

Clarita died on Maundy Thursday. She was ninety-five.

We met first nearly a quarter of a century ago, in the autumn of 1988. I had been visiting wine producers in the Mosel Valley and had flown up from Frankfurt to Berlin. I found some cheap digs in the Lietzenburgerstraße in Wilmersdorf and then took the U-Bahn down to Dahlem.

I arrived clanking bottles of wine - not very good wine - as most of it had been given to me by the Moselland cooperative in Kues. This must have alarmed the serious, sober and rather shy Clarita, but she once she had recovered she told me that her son-in-law, Urs Müller-Plantenberg was interested in wine and he might consent to drink it.

The year before, I had been commissioned by Quartet Books to write a biography of Clarita’s late husband, Adam von Trott zu Solz. Trott had been the foreign policy guru of the younger German resisters and was hanged on 26 August 1944, following the failure of the 20 July Plot.

At the time I had had no idea what deep waters I was sailing into. When I met David Astor, former owner-editor of the Observer, he was kind enough to warn me that Trott was still a controversial figure, and that his old Oxford friends had inflicted so much damage to his reputation during the war that it was proving extremely difficult to resurrect.

Astor did what he could. He introduced me to people who had known Trott like Ingrid Warburg and Christabel Bielenberg and I corresponded with other survivors. Some of his detractors, like Frank Roberts, Harold Acton and Isaiah Berlin, gave me evasive answers. Most of the real villains of the piece were already dead: Maurice Bowra, Richard Crossman, John Wheeler-Bennett. I didn’t contact A.L. Rowse, but he wrote me a surprisingly generous letter after the book was published. I hadn’t been kind to him at all and had poked fun at an erotic poem he had written about Trott’s severed head.

The problem I faced dated back to the summer of 1939 when Bowra and Trott met in Bowra’s rooms at Wadham. Trott had expressed the view that some revision of the Germany’s eastern borders to accommodate the Germans cut off by the Treaty of Versailles might wean the people off their support for Hitler. Bowra then got it into his head that Trott was a Nazi and warned the American Justice Secretary Felix Frankfurter to that effect. He did this because he knew Trott had been selected to undertake an important mission for the German Opposition and hoped to speak to the President. Frankfurter informed Roosevelt of what Bowra had told him. Roosevelt not only refused to see Trott, he gave orders to have Trott tailed. J. Edgar Hoover was not impressed when his agents informed him that Trott was a socialist. They might have liked him more had he really been a Nazi.

Oxford dons wielded power then! Bowra scuttled the negotiations. In Washington John Wheeler-Bennett was still Trott’s friend, but when the wind changed in Churchill’s favour he dropped his erstwhile master Halifax and joined the Political Intelligence Department. At that point he too abjured his friend Trott. Roberts and Crossman (the latter in a mind-bogglingly supercilious memo addressed to Anthony Eden, which Eden quoted in the House of Commons) both wrote incredibly facetious things about Trott that only came to light in the eighties. The only influential people who wholeheartedly stood by him were Astor (who was then too young to count) and Stafford Cripps, who had left the Cabinet to become Ambassador to Moscow. This may have been as a result of Churchill’s dislike of him: ‘there by the grace of God, goes God.’ That was Churchill’s view of Cripps.

For decades, Clarita von Trott had borne her burden with superhuman fortitude: the hanging of her husband, her own imprisonment, the brief abduction and renaming of her children, and finally this mealy-mouthed contempt on the part of her late husband’s Oxford friends: people whom he honoured and who rewarded his friendship with distrust, mockery or outright betrayal.

After Clarita qualified as a doctor in the mid-fifties, she started to assemble the Berichte or reports that were eventually published as her tribute to Adam in 1994. Several people were involved in getting the material, but a major role was played by Trott’s old friend from Hamburg days, the Anglo-Irishwoman Christabel Bielenberg. Chris later told me some very funny stories about the interviews, particularly about Rowse. At a prearranged time every evening Rowse used to call his cats in Cornwall from his rooms in All Souls. The housekeeper answered and passed the receiver over to the pussies. Rowse would then meow to each of them in turn.

Bowra had relented and apologised by the mid-fifties, but it still wasn’t clear what a hugely negative role he’d played until the passing of the American Freedom of Information Act brought the relevant files to light. Chris Bielenberg spoke to Christopher Hill, who had also talked to Trott in the summer of 1939 and tried unsuccessfully to work out what he was up to. It was unfortunate that Cripps had died as early as 1952. Both Chris and Astor were hoping for a biography that would wipe the slate clean, but Trott’s reputation seemed to get worse rather than better: he appeared in the popular press as a high-ranking spy given access to the Foreign Minister at Cliveden (Astor’s father’s house) and who had wormed his way into the presence of Neville Chamberlain. In their view, he was - of course - a Nazi.

I think it was Astor who interested Christopher Sykes in the idea of doing a biography of Trott. Sykes was a well-known biographer and he was given access to Clarita’s Berichte. The resulting book appeared in 1969. He had had problems coming to grips with Trott’s character and dwelled for an eternity on his immature doctoral dissertation on Hegel’s philosophy of law. He seemed to have preferred Trott’s dotty elder brother Werner to his subject. Both Clarita and Astor were unhappy with the book and wanted Sykes to revise it. The most they managed to effect was to get some changes made to the German edition, which was translated by Elke Atcherley, née Langbehn, the daughter of another victim of Nazi injustice.

The next biographer on the scene was Henry Malone, who was in Germany with the American army education corps. He started a doctorate on Trott, but fourteen years later he had only reached 1938, when Trott, who died aged just thirty-five, was twenty-nine. The doctorate was converted into a book published in 1986 by the Siedler Verlag in Berlin. Malone had successfully refuted the charges against Trott, but someone needed to take the story on to 1944.

That was where I came in. I took home plenty of material when I left Berlin that autumn, and in the spring of 1989, I was back working in Clarita’s drawing room again. She left me in peace with a pot of coffee and went into her surgery where she treated schizophrenics. Every now and then I had the impression that I was being psychoanalysed too, in the nicest possible way. And once I thought I had actually gone mad when I drank too much of her coffee and the room began to lurch. She was nervous by nature, but this condition became acute when she thought she had to make me lunch. She didn’t like having to cook for someone who had made an occasional crust as a restaurant critic.

I put the book together that summer. I saw some of Trott’s lady friends and avoided a few more who wanted to blacken his memory. I met survivors from the German Opposition too. At one point I went to stay with the Bielenbergs at Munny House in Carlow in Ireland. Chris drank half a bottle of whisky (her usual ration) and went to bed after dinner. When she retired Peter fetched a handful of bottles of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon in his huge fist and sat down to tell me about life in the Third Reich. It was gripping stuff, but I had such a hangover the next day I could remember only the half of it.

Although David Astor played no formal role in the production of my book, I thought it wise to show him the script. I think Clarita saw it too and expressed her reservations to David. She was worried, for example, that I wanted to use a picture of Trott wearing Nazi party insignia, the ‘Geflügel’ (the ‘fowl’) she called it, but she was anxious it would incite people into calling him a Nazi again. I had taken pains to explain why he had joined the Party. It was a vital part of his double game.

Astor wanted me to postpone publication, but I was keen to get on with other projects, so the book went to press. After a few delays (during which the Berlin Wall came crashing down) A Good German appeared in January 1990.

David Astor was almost certainly right that it would have been a better book if I had spent a little more time on it, but it was generally well received for all that. Attitudes had shifted, and people in Britain were now ready for a reappraisal. Clarita was astonished. She had only known people who had come to her with projects and either done nothing, done the wrong thing, or spent an unconscionable amount of time finishing - or not finishing - them. ‘With you’ She said, ‘One moment you are here, the next moment there is a book!’

We remained friends and Clarita was always one of my first ports of call when I arrived in Berlin. I had dinner with her, for example, on 20 June 1991, the night when Bundestag deputies voted to make Berlin capital of Germany again. In 1994, I spoke at a seminar at the evangelical theological college in Hofgeismar to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Trott’s death. That year a second edition of my book A Good German appeared, with a new Afterword narrating the failure of the American trip written from the 900 pages of documents I had culled from the American archives. Bowra’s disastrous role, and that of Wheeler-Bennett too, was now crystal-clear.

When my daughter was born in 1997, Clarita paid us a visit in my flat in the Kentish Town Road and bounced Isolde on her knee while she sang her a German nursery rhyme. She liked these little songs. She once sang me one in Mecklenburger Platt about the famous fruit pudding - Rote Grütze.

I had got to know her children, grandchildren and eventually, great-grandchildren too. I often stayed with the Müller-Plantenbergs in the Cosimaplatz in Friedenau on my trips to Berlin and discovered the beauty of the lakes of the Mark Brandenburg with them and their sociologist friend Klaus Meschkat. Until 1989, they had been out-of-bounds in the East. I am sure they disapproved of many things I wrote after the Trott book, particularly about Prussia, the treatment of Germans under the Allied Occupation or the 1968 Student Revolution, in which Urs had played a prominent role, but they never said as much.

At least three more books have been written on Adam von Trott since mine appeared. They have all presented him in a positive light. To some extent Clarita could put her feet up. She stopped working and eventually her annual Christmas family newsletter was wound up as it had become too much of an effort. The last time I saw Clarita was in late July 2005. I was giving a lecture on Nazi food policy at a seminar at the Humboldt University and I took my family to Berlin with me. We stayed with Urs and Clarita Müller-Plantenberg and had a memorable lunch with the older Clarita and her grandson Niko in the garden of a Chinese restaurant nearby. By that time my son was nearly three, and it was a joy to see her try to make friends with him too. I had remained slightly in awe of her, and all that she had gone through. As I watched my children with her in that sunny garden, I thought of what an incredible story she would have had to tell them, if only they had been old enough to listen.


Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist

Posted: 15th March 2013

It was sad but inevitable: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist has died. He was the last of the 20 July conspirators, and had achieved the ripe old age of ninety where so many of his fellow plotters fell victim to the hangman’s noose while still in their twenties and thirties. He was a brave man, but for me, the real hero has always been his father, Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin.

I first wrote about Kleist-Schmenzin in my biography of Adam von Trott. Trott was loath to acknowledge there was any good in the East-Elbian Junkers, but when he met Kleist-Schmenzin in Pomerania in the winter of 1934, he changed his mind: ‘I have met with human greatness in struggle which made my heart jump with joy and pride’ he wrote. The elder Kleist was already in trouble with the Nazis when Trott was introduced to him. He had taken the trouble to plough through Mein Kampf and after meeting Hitler in 1932, he had a shrewd idea of what he meant for Germany. The result was a pamphlet - Nationalsozialismus - eine Gefahr (National Socialism - A Danger) which went through two editions. ‘This madness must be destroyed’ he wrote, ‘it is a danger for the nation and an enemy of selfless patriotic ideas.’

When the Nazis came to power, Kleist-Schmenzin was marked man. He was imprisoned first in April 1933 for resisting attempts to hang a swastika from the tower of the local church and there was an attempt to include him in the tally of victims on the Night of the Long Knives the following year. Despite his notoriety, he undertook a dangerous mission to England in August 1938, to try to interest the British in a military plot to remove Hitler. He met Churchill at Chartwell and convinced him to write a letter of support for the conspirators which was shipped back to Germany in a diplomatic bag. Churchill forgot all about it once he achieved power in 1940.

Kleist-Schmenzin gave his son every encouragement and his blessing when it was explained that he might lose his life as the result of his clandestine activities. He could imagine no better death for his son. It was obvious that Kleist-Schmenzin would be rounded up in the wake of the 20 July. His trial came up before the Nazi hanging judge Roland Freisler on 3 February 1945. Asked how he pleaded to the charge, he told the court, ‘‘Jawohl, I have been committing high treason with all the means at my disposal since 30 January 1933. I have never made any bones about my fight against Hitler and National Socialism. I hold this fight as ordained by God, and God alone will be my judge.’

As fate would have it, there was an air-raid and the entire human contents of the court - judges, lawyers and defendants - was removed to the cellar. The courthouse received a direct hit dislodging a beam that smashed Freisler’s skull. Kleist-Schmenzin was not spared, however, and he was eventually sentenced to death on 15 March 1945. The execution was carried out on 9 April, just a couple of weeks before the Russians entered Berlin. Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin went to his death calm and radiant, the very image of a virtuous Prussian.

I had been thinking about Pomeranians quite a bit recently (no, not those nasty little dogs). Ingeborg Ryals book The Tears of War tells the story of the Russian occupation from the point of view of a teenager in what is now the far-eastern part of Vorpommern: the small chunk of the province between Stettin and Lübeck that remains in Germany. It is the by now familiar horror story of rape, arbitrary violence and enslavement, but dare I say it, less nasty than some, possibly because, being west of the Oder, this land had always been earmarked to remain German.

Her book is one of a number of recent accounts of the post-war ordeal in what were once Prussia’s eastern territories, another is Günter Nitsch’s Weeds Like Us. Nitsch writes about his childhood in East Prussia after the arrival of the Russians. It is a feature of both books that they cover the time when there was some sort of accommodation between the Russians occupiers and the German occupied. The violence calmed down, a bit, and in Nitsch’s case, schools opened and the new overlords began to look after the Germans in a rudimentary sort of way.

Nitsch also deals with the difficulties of fitting into a West German society that looked down on him as a refugee and to some extent looks down on these easterners to this day: western Germans still appear to be in denial when it comes to the demographic changes wrought by the arrival of millions of their fellow countrymen after 1945. I believe there are now more Protestants than Catholics in Munich, but you would be hard-pressed to see it if you went there.

I recommend both books, but neither Nitsch nor Ingeborg Ryals paints a picture as stirring or as tragic as Käthe von Normann in her Tagebuch aus Pommern (Pomeranian Diary), nor indeed, anything like Hans von Lehndorff’s East Prussian Diary, one of the most moving accounts of the trials of the human soul ever written. Lehndorff’s cousin Heinrich von Lehndorff had been a fellow conspirator and comrade-in-arms of Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist. He managed to escape his Nazi tormenters, but was recaptured and executed. Hans was a surgeon in the hospital in Königsberg. He witnessed the Russian takeover of the city and later escaped to the west. It is long out of print and needs to be republished.


We’re with the Woolwich

Posted: 15th February 2013

On Tuesday morning I was heading for home from Inverness Airport when my host made a quick detour to show me the outer cordon of Fort George, an enormous Vaubanesque castle still inhabited by the remains of the Black Watch - even if the only squaddies I saw that morning looked less like Highlanders than South Sea Islanders. The architecture looked a hundred years out of date but it was an impressive sight overlooking the Moray Firth, challenging any new pretenders with plans to stir up the clans.

Once I was safely on board I mused on the various military sites that had impressed me over the years. There were so many, like the big Dutch East Indian fort at Galle in Sri Lanka, which I mentioned last month, or the eerily romantic, partly ruinous Barrackpore on the banks of the Ganges. I stumbled about its ruins in the monsoon, pushing aside the cows that were sheltering among the peeling Greek Doric columns.

Closer to home, there were those fragments of Prussian militarism, such as Königsberg or Russian Kaliningrad, as it is now. When I finally made it in 1991, the centre of the city with its royal castle had been bulldozed, but to the north the neoclassical barracks were still there, just like the ring of red brick Gothic forts that formed the city’s outer defences. In 1945, the forts had held out for three months against the Red Army. Prussian elite units like the First Footguards and Totenkopf Hussars were just a memory. Their successors were the slovenly Russians who were ready to sell you a Kalashnikov or possibly a tank for a few dollars. Bigger deals were made in the city’s three restaurants where teenaged whores hoisted their skirts to strike their share of the bargain.

On the other side of the former German Empire, I recall the Route de Strasbourg, the great long street of barracks buildings punctuated by a lone Sherman tank, that led to the ugly Motel Azure in Colmar. They must have been built from 1871 when France ceded Alsace to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Like the Russians in Kaliningrad, the nationality of their denizens had changed. There seemed to be no shortage of wolf-whistling poilus in 1984. Now that France has scrapped national service, I wonder if either soldiers or buildings are still there.

In Berlin, the Americans had taken over the former Prussian Kadettenanstalt in Lichterfelde and renamed it the Andrews Barracks. I always wondered if the American servicemen were aware of the sinister history of their lodgings: it was there that the former cadet Hermann Göring had a few dozen SA men gunned down in 1934, on the Night of the Long Knives.

Once I had the privilege of touring old Russian bases in East Germany with Thomas Blake, an extraordinary American who was selling them off for golf courses and luxury hotels. At one site, he showed me the nuclear weapons store. The door was secured with a piece of wire, like a tractor shed or a cowstall. He had the former Prussian artillery ranges at Jüterbog in his portfolio, and I was able to tour the gun emplacements and the National Socialist academy or ‘Napola’ that had been set up near the Cistercian abbey of Zinna.

In some countries armies improvise. In Portugal, the soldiers took over the monasteries when the orders were banished in the first half of the nineteenth century. I found to my dismay that if you lost yourself in reverie in Tomar, you were likely to be roused to reality by a lewd comment from a soldier peering out of the frame of an exquisite Manueline window. I could go on and mention the sweeter side of regimental life, such as the officers’ mess above the theatre at Simla where Kipling and his sister used to perform amateur dramatics; or the pretty ‘casino’ (in both French and German an officers’ mess) on the esplanade at Montpelier... In truth, there is a wealth of lovely military buildings all over the world.

London too has some military buildings. I don’t just mean Greenwich or Chelsea Hospital or the Duke of York’s Headquarters nearby. There is the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in the Tower, for example, or Wellington Barracks, which was heavily bombed but still presents a fine Greek Doric façade to Birdcage Walk - Doric being the favoured order of military architects. For Guards’ officers on duty there is a lovely mess in St James’s Palace. Chelsea was always grim, and is, I think no more. There is the drab barracks building in Albany Street that I pass several times a week on the bus and until last year there was a barracks in St John’s Wood, which was sold to an Indian businessman for a staggering £250 million.

I suspected that the horses that passed our house from time to time, led by a few mounted troopers in khaki coats, came from St John’s Wood. They arrived before eight, announced by a faint but rapid clippity-clop as dozens of hooves hit the tarmac. The noise rose to a crescendo as they passed our door. Then the sound petered out as they disappeared up towards the Heath with a police car bringing up the rear. It sounded like the Nibelung forge in Das Rheingold. If I am right we will not see them again: the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery has returned to its original home in Woolwich.

Woolwich is London’s real cantonment and I am embarrassed to have to admit as a born-and-bred Londoner that I cannot recall ever having been there. It has to be said that it does not enjoy the reputation of being a pleasant place, there was a savage murder there only the day before yesterday, and when I did jury service at the Old Bailey I suffered two whole weeks of accounts of nasty, brutal behaviour committed by yobs in Woolwich.

But the borough has its treasures, as is borne out by Woolwich edited by Peter Guillery: the latest volume to emerge from the Survey of London (Volume 48, published by Yale University Press of New Haven and London). It is an exquisite piece of work, illustrated in colour throughout and with the most detailed maps imaginable. At the core of the book are the four military sites that created and still inform the borough: the dockyard founded in Henry VIII’s time, the Arsenal (now better known for the football team it spawned), the artillery barracks and the former Royal Military Academy.

It was the depth of the Thames’ water downstream from Greenwich Palace that led to the building of the dockyard, and the Great Harry - possibly the biggest warship in Europe in 1515. The Ropeyard came next. The docks flourished in the eighteenth century, but they were closed in the nineteenth and the business transferred to Chatham. There are some vestiges such as Clock House and Trinity Stairs, but the dock basins have now been accommodated into modern housing estates.

The Royal Arsenal has fared a little better. It began life as the Royal Brass Foundry providing guns and munitions for the artillery in the early eighteenth century. Later Building 40 became Britain’s first Royal Military Academy. This was formerly attributed to Vanbrugh, but it seems it was the work of Brigadier Michael Richards who borrowed elements from Hawksmoor. All in all there is a large quadrangle of impressive Georgian buildings, but the utilitarian purpose of the arsenal has meant that much has been added and much taken away. The Germans made their contribution in the form of twenty-five raids and then Britain’s diminishing role in the world did the rest: in 1967 the Arsenal was closed.

More barracks buildings were built up the hill from 1774, as Woolwich became increasingly associated with the Gunners. The most interesting feature of this is James Wyatt’s Triumphal arch of 1805-6. Parts of the barracks complex have been preserved, including the sumptuous officers’ mess, and the remains of a High Victorian Garrison Church.

Wyatt was also the architect of the last of the four elements: the Royal Military Academy, which was rehoused in its own Tudor-Gothic complex of buildings on Woolwich Common in 1803-6. The core, reminiscent of the White Tower, was extended in the middle of the nineteenth century. The RMA was closed in 1939, when Woolwich was merged with Sandhurst.

Empires expire, and with their decease goes the need to provide armies and materiel for its far-flung stations. Woolwich was never going to be left to become a romantic ruin like Barrackpore or preserved in aspic like Galle, but there is something bitter-sweet about learning that the former military hub of the British Empire should now be best remembered for bloody street crime, a long absent football team and an insurance company.


Tales of Old Ceylon

Posted: 15th January 2013

I have been to Sri Lanka twice, for one reason or another. I am sorry to say I don’t suppose the opportunity will arise again. The first time I went to write about tea. It was in the early nineties. In London, tea expert David Panter had organised a number of appointments for me. So I attended an auction in Colombo and was driven out to the hills at gloaming, encountering a horde of elephants on the road: a memorable sight in that rosy half-light. I had been allotted a driver to take me to various gardens between Adam’s Peak and Mount Pedro. I still have vivid memories of the trip: my driver taking pity on me in the heat and bringing me a king coconut to quench my thirst as we stopped in a squalid village where clean water was impossible to obtain; the tea garden (was it called Bannockburn?) where they left a box of tiny ‘Kendal’ strawberries in my room - quite the best I have ever eaten; and the beautiful black and yellow salamander who lived on my bedroom ceiling and ate the mosquitoes who might otherwise have eaten me 

‘Ceylon tea’ (they believed the country’s old name was more marketable when it came to tea and banking) was a cosy world dominated by polite, well brought up boys who had attended one or other of the British-style public schools on the island. They all wore ties and were all passionate about cricket. I went to the Planters’ Club in the hill station at Nuwara Eliya and met Chris Worthington, an expat-Englishman who was the only man to make cheese on the island. He had been there since 1958 and had no reason to go home. I see he still makes it: a Gouda type with various flavourings.

That night I stayed with the Eurasian planter Ralph and his ravishing Chinese wife. Ralph plied me with whisky until I could scarcely stand then drove me back to the club for more. It must have been one of the most dangerous drives I have ever undertaken. It was quite a distance along mountain roads. I was so blotto I scarcely noticed the sheer drop below the passenger-seat window. We talked about the war. Ralph had just got back. He had been conscripted as a Tamil-speaking interpreter. All the planters spoke Tamil to their coolies. If I recall, the plantation Tamils had come from India in the nineteenth century, and only occasionally made common cause with the indigenous secessionist Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula.

The next day I woke with a sore head to eat a breakfast of hoppers dosed with a curry that gave the impression of liquid fire. The obscene grunts of a myna hidden in a shrub did nothing to alleviate my suffering. Ralph made me try toddy - possibly the most disgusting thing I have ever put in my mouth; and that did no good either. Then his driver took me back to Colombo via Candy where I saw a six-foot monitor lizard ambling across a suburban road. Cars screeched to a halt before this monster, which was in no hurry. When it reached the pavement on the other side it knocked over a dustbin in its quest for food. Back at the Galle Face Hotel I drew a picture of it on my napkin so that the waiter could identify it. I needed reassurance: I had half believed I was seeing things.

The Galle Face was a wonder in itself: a magnificent survivor from the 1860s with the grandest ballroom in the Far East. It was quite shabby and allegedly populated by voracious rats which would eat the leather strap off your watch during the night. Not only had the owner pinned up nauseating little moral sentences all over the place to tell his guests how to behave, the curries were so hot you could scarcely push them past your lips let alone digest them; but there were consolations such as the magnificent views out over the Indian Ocean from the pool and the airy arcade where lunch and drinks were served. The view was at its best at sunset when you could watch the parting sun in a blaze of colours with the cool comfort of a glass of gin and lime in your hand. There was better beer and mercifully bland sausages at the Alt Heidelberg opposite, but you ventured out of the hotel at your peril: within seconds you were offered the services of a dozen ‘Lankan girls’ - sisters, mothers, aunts. Once my intransigence resulted in an offer of a ‘Lankan boy’; and they say an Englishman’s reputation goes before him.

You could hail a taxi or a three-wheeler but that didn’t solve the problem: you were then the driver’s captive. When I took a three-wheeler to Cargills, outwardly at least - a doughty Colonial department store like the now vanished London emporiums Gamages and Pontings - to buy a pair of scissors, the driver took infinite pains in his efforts to convince me I required the services of his aunt or sister, but when I appeared unmoved he tried another tack and showed me a suppurating wound on his chest instead. The civil war was smouldering, buildings in the city centre had a nasty habit of blowing up and killing scores of people, and I suppose I should not have expected the country to be showing its best.

Indeed, later that day I met a British naval type by the pool who was able to demonstrate just how rich Sri Lanka might have been had it not been for the fact that so much of its GDP was spent on arms.

Colombo wore a different face in the districts to the south. I visited an old friend for tea in a huge colonial villa. He introduced me to the Sri-Lankan born novelist Michael Ondaatje who had just won the Booker Prize and was using part of his earnings to endow some literary project in Sri Lanka. The Ondaatjes are part-Burgher, descendants of the Dutch, who colonised the island between the Portuguese and the British.

The second time I visited the country was in January 1997. I was supposed to attend a cookery festival in the Maldives with Anton Mosimann (who never turned up!) and I thought I’d stop off in Sri Lanka on the way. Again I stayed at the Galle Face and made a few more daring forays into the centre of Colombo looking for relics of the Dutch colonisation. I had taken a shine to VOC china, the tableware of the Dutch East India Company. Then I went south to Galle on the south coast, staying in the New Oriental Hotel in the old Dutch fort.

The famous Burgher owner of the hotel, Nesta Brohier, had died recently, but so far nothing had changed: the ‘NOH’ was decidedly primitive. The water in the showers was cold (it was hot outside so the shock was short-lived) and antiquated, moth-eaten nets failed to preserve you from the mosquitoes. To the hotel’s credit, however, the public rooms were lovely with their teak floorboards, whitewashed walls, old furniture and chandeliers. The NOH also possessed the prettiest pool I had ever seen: not huge, but big enough, and shaded by low hanging, aromatic frangipani trees in which lived colonies of chameleons.

I was generally alone in the pool, but sometimes if I got up late I encountered a revolting character I cast as a New York gallery-owner. He operated from a room in the garden and was never in for dinner, returning, shagged out from some sordid brothel in the town in the early hours of the morning. He rose shortly before lunch when he would stand with a saturnine grin on his face, up to his waist in water at the shallow end of the pool, puffing on a fat cigar.

At dinner one night I saw a party order wine - an unheard of thing in Sri Lanka then. A Paul Masson ‘jug’ was found somewhere and plunged into a magnificent solid silver wine cooler with great pomp. The usual sister-sellers (and the others who catered for the many pederasts in the hotel) formed a pack in the road outside the hotel and followed you if you chose to take a walk round the ramparts. This was a pity as the fort is a wonderful example of Dutch military architecture and the views out to sea are sublime. In such moments you want to be alone with your thoughts and the beauty of nature, not pestered by pimps.

The food at the NOH was nothing to write home about and one night I took a taxi to an exotic restaurant on the other side of the harbour which offered a French menu, at least, that’s what they said. One dish I had to try was ‘Marins Mouillés’ (sodden sailors). I think this was their version of Moules marinière.

The NOH is just a memory now. The building has become a chichi resort hotel called ‘Amangalla’. The pictures on the website show a quite different pool.

These memories of Sri Lanka were occasioned by a book I read at the new year: Village Life in the Forties by Arcadius (Shelton A. Gunaratne): simple tales of life in a village not far inland from Galle seventy years ago which were originally published in the sixties in an English-language paper in Colombo. The publishers, iUniverse Inc. in Bloomington are a self-publishing unit within the Penguin Group.

The stories are so-so, village life of Buddhist folk who lives were largely untouched by the British colonial administration. One or two villagers see the world courtesy of the Second World War but for most of them, the universe ended at Galle. Indeed, when some black African soldiers arrive in the village the children think that they are cannibals come to eat them. It is written in that rather pompous English which you sometimes find in the Indian sub-continent, which has its own charm (always use a literary word if you can find one), only in this instance Arcadius seems to have problems putting his fingers on the right prepositions.

We all complain that there are no editors on modern books, but Village Life has suffered from too much attention in an attempt to make it digestible for a modern American readership: not only are all the Singhalese words translated in parentheses on the page when these elucidations might have been more elegantly conveyed to the bottom as footnotes, we read of ‘sixth graders’ (what is a sixth grader?), and ‘students’ at the local primary school, who don’t do homework for their schoolmasters and mistresses, but perform ‘studies’ for unisex ‘teachers’. None of this can be appropriate language for Ceylon in the 1940s.

At one point the editor has excised the word ‘negro’ and substituted the risible expression ‘native African’. It reminded me that, when I was a nipper, it was much ruder to call a man a ‘native’ than to say ‘negro’: ‘native’ was synonymous with ‘savage’. Village Life had a frail constitution. It couldn’t bear too much surgery and the editor’s knife has killed it almost as surely as that interior designer has wrecked the NOH.


Time to Disestablish the Church of England

Posted: 17th December 2012

There is an old Oxford witticism, now branded obscure, that asks ‘Why is the Church of England like Turl Street?’ The answer is: ‘because it goes from the High to the Broad and runs straight past Jesus.’

For the benefit of those who don’t know Oxford, the ‘High’ and the ‘Broad’ are streets like the Turl and Jesus is a college, in this instance, one formerly frequented by Welshmen - but that is by the by.

Traditionally speaking, the Church of England was separated into High, Broad and Low. The High Church was all ‘smells and bells’, robes, ritual and Anglo-Catholicism. It was the wing that made the Roman Church look austere. The Broad Church was the liberal, intellectual, all-things-to-all-men branch which is paramount today. The Low Church was not represented at Oxford (there was no ‘Low Street’): it was the closest to pure Evangelical Protestantism: dull, ugly, worthy and anti-Catholic.

Throughout my life I have been told to lay off the subject of the Church of England: it is not my church, they say, and its glories, and follies, are hardly relevant to my make-up or beliefs. Even my condemnation of the Low Church would have been branded presumptuous. It is false, however, to say that it is not my affair: in my childhood and youth at least, the ‘Established Church’ represented an important adjunct to the still tangible ‘establishment’ for which I, as a Roman, was a just-tolerated outsider.

Although I did not attend a school that abided by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, we sang Anglican hymns with gusto. As anyone who has attended a post-Second Vatican Council Mass and witnessed the pathetic attempts to get Catholic congregations to sing will confirm, the Devil has the best tunes.

And I loved architecture from the first and England’s rich stock of mediaeval cathedrals and churches had fallen to the Church of England at the Reformation. Once the iconoclasts had done their dread work the Protestants had made them all their own. The often mean and dingy buildings allocated for my worship paled into insignificance beside them.

Later, I attended an Oxford college which had gone over to the Protestant reformers like the rest and which - I assume - despite all it might say on its Website, is still at heart an Anglican foundation. Catholics and other non-Thirty-Nine Articlers were rare birds then. We had been tolerated only since 1871 and some of our priests might well have preferred we chose less ‘Godless’ colleges than these traditional founts of Anglican orthodoxy.

Throughout my life, the majority of my friends have been Anglicans, and their births, marriages and deaths, as well as the births of their children - and my Godchildren - have come under the aegis of the ‘established’ church. These occasions used to take place with pomp and majesty, but in recent years the calibre of the Anglican priesthood has so greatly diminished I have grown to dread its services which now seem utterly devoid of any form of spirituality.

Thirty-Nine-Articler friends used to be vociferous in stressing that I was not fully capable of understanding the history of England because I did not subscribe to its church. On one memorable occasion, ordering a plate of roast beef and a bottle of claret in the George Hotel in Stamford, and in a roseate glow derived by the proximity of such local worthies as Lord Burghley and Mrs Thatcher, one of them went so far as to accuse me and the two other Catholics present of treason, because, he averred, we owed our loyalty first and foremost to the Pope, and not the Crown.

Sadly for him, his state of grace was quickly shattered. Yes, beef as red as the blood of a Catholic martyr emerged from under a dome the magnitude of which might well have been compared to St Paul’s Cathedral, but, then looking up from his plate, he was struck dumb by the sight of the man who had propelled the trolley through the ancient, dark panelled dining room: he was very tall, very lean and very black. In a brief, apoplectic moment, the diptych of Burghley House and the Maid of Grantham deserted him, possibly forever.

That was in 1986 and England was changing fast. First Mrs Thatcher then Tony Blair, would succeed in altering its appearance beyond recognition. The Empire created by Good Queen Bess had already vanished by the mid-sixties, and the armed forces that patrolled it whittled down to nothing; since then the aristocracy has become a meaningless bauble to the degree that no one now seems to know how to construe its sonorous titles; the old families have been ejected from a House of Lords that is become a den of time-serving wide-boys and worse, while the law lords have been banished to an American-sounding ‘Supreme Court’; the Lord Chancellor has been tipped out of his woolsack and his office reinterpreted as the chief executive of a modern Ministry of Justice; the schools and universities that swelled in the first half of the nineteenth century to create the cadres of the Empire have survived by becoming global ‘brands’, or gone to the wall. They too shun the families that endowed and patronised them in their heyday, just as Oxford and Cambridge colleges no longer admit these grandees, who by some weird twist of fate, are now more frequently to be found in the lecture theatres of Leeds and Newcastle.

When that body we called the ‘Establishment’ - a traditional, hereditary elite - expired at much the same time as that memorable evening in Stamford, no one even bothered to write its obituary; but (and here’s a big but) the Anglican Church did survive and remained ‘established’, even if it was no longer capable of mustering a spirited boo to a lame goose - something sadly borne out by its flaccid response to the Israeli siege of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem or the election of Gene Robinson to an Episcopalian bishopric in the United States.

The Church of England has been much in the news: not just did it seem to have a terrible time choosing a new spiritual leader, it has been subject to a sadistic Kulturkampf by David Cameron who has been courting the substantial pink vote and realises that he has nothing to fear from offending Christians, as those few devout Anglicans who remain in the shires would rather defect to Rome en masse than vote for the Millipede. More recently, it seems, he has performed a U-turn faced by a rebellion from his own backbenchers, and has come up with a formula that makes it ‘illegal’ for the Church of England to marry same-sex couples. I assume this is a bid to thwart any attempt to challenge the Anglican Church in the European Court. I hope for his sake it works else he might have a few modern martyrs on his hands.

If that was not bad enough, the decision taken by its synod, to defer the election of women bishops caused a number of MPs to make bullying speeches and threats against the traditional clergy, as if it were they, the Parliamentarians, who decided the policy of the national church.

In a way this is inevitable: the Church of England is a political creation, and these latter-day Thomas Cromwells are simply evoking the role of the small clique who introduced the Reformation and made England a Protestant nation in the first place. As head of state, the Queen (ie the Camarão) governs the church and Parliament controls its purse strings.

The Anglican Church seems to have been fairly levelheaded about the idea of homosexual marriage. Like the Catholic Church, it is subject to Canon Law. Catholics and their potential brides or grooms, must submit to examination before a priest consents to marry them. No priest is obliged to perform the sacrament if he feels the couple misunderstands the principles of Christian marriage and the vital role played by procreation or that the bond between a man and woman is itself a metaphor for the union of Christ and his church. Marriage is not about putting on a jolly frock and having a merry party.

On the subject of women bishops, the Anglicans seem to be dogmatically dodgier. Even if he attributed a big role to them, Jesus did not command the Marys to preach, but the Apostles, and that memorable dozen has consecrated its successors - or bishops - in perpetuity. The Anglican Church is a Catholic church and subscribes to the notion of the Apostolic Succession. Electing women bishops (which has already taken place in some parts of the Anglican Communion) would surely make a nonsense of this. It all begins to look like so much expedient based on the dwindling number of suitable male candidates for ordination, and a growing number of female ones, which led to a decision to ordain women twenty years ago. They have been treading water ever since. It is hardly surprising that these priestesses resent what they see as a ‘stained-glass ceiling’ blocking their ascent to the episcopate.

But surely Jesus’ teaching is immutable, seemingly untouched by the expedients brought on by changing circumstance? If it is not possible to find suitable candidates for ordination then should operations not be scaled down? From what I see less than twenty percent of this country admits to Anglicanism and yet the Church of England struggles to maintain a ministry in every parish. Isn’t about time we disestablished the Church of England? At least that might have the added advantage of getting Westminster off their backs and with the end of the established church, the Prime Minister could make marriage the unique province of the state and oblige all couples of whatever sex or persuasion to marry in registry offices, thereby leaving Christians to go through their religious nuptials later, as is the case elsewhere. Catholic and Anglican priests would only accept to wed those who fulfilled their criteria as enshrined in Canon Law. That way everyone could be happy. For the time being it seems that in its confusion the Church of England is still running straight past Jesus, but, then again, it is none of my business.


The Treasure’s in Storage

Posted: 14th November 2012

When I was a boy a kindly man called George Naish entered our lives. I can’t remember precisely how he met my mother, but I believe now she must have gone to him to pursue some bee she had in her bonnet about the Cyclades. George was forever spurting out ‘Cyclades!’ when he saw her; and the word was accompanied by an access of snorting and guffawing while his long beak would whip up and down like a trout on a fly-fishing rod and his face light up with glee.

There was nothing malicious in this ribbing. George took an interest in us all, even if he mostly doted on my sister. His marriage was childless and he and his wife had adopted two boys, but I suspect he had hankered after a daughter and that was where she came in. He gave her books, supplying her with the expensive bound volumes of Bishop Stubbs’ Charters and other dusty tomes she needed before she went up to Oxford to read history in 1972. There was a drawback to this relationship in that she was required to help crew his beautiful old yacht at weekends. The boat was moored on the Hamble, and most of the time, ‘crewing’ meant sanding masts, varnishing decks and sleeping in uncomfortable bunks punctuated by stultifying lunches and dinners in the Jolly Sailor pub on the shore at Bursledon. I am glad to say that I was only occasionally invited, although once a year there was a chance of a rather more exciting lunch followed by strawberries and whipped cream aboard Nelson’s flagship Victory in Portsmouth Harbour. The hosts were the Society for Nautical Research. George presided.

In London, he invited us to dinner on Tuesdays at the Escargot in Greek Street. It was the favourite haunt of Francis Bacon and other bohemians and I remember the painter sitting behind a Brobdingnagian (or so it seemed to me at the time) bottle of red wine opposite us. The walls were covered with rough planking, stained dark yellow from generations of cigarette smoke and hung with saucy French prints. As we arrived there was a glass of Chambéry at the bar, then Jones the waiter would usher us to a table at the back to eat the restaurant’s old-fashioned cuisine bourgeoise. I was very young but insisted on ordering snails, frogs’ legs or canard à l’orange causing more cataclysms of mirth from George and with the inevitable result: I had to haul myself up the long ironwork staircase to the lavatory to throw up.

George died in 1977, and it was years before I saw the Escargot again. I was not pleased: some philistine had bought the place and everything that had given it atmosphere was gone, not least Francis Bacon.

In case you have been wondering, this blog is about ignorance and philistinism and what it is doing to culture in our museums. George had had a good war, ending up a lieutenant commander hunting enemy submarines; but both before and after the conflict, he had been on the staff of the National Maritime Museum rising to the position of Keeper in 1969. George’s patronage of my family meant that we occasionally bearded him in his lair in Greenwich, and I can remember how excited I was about the minute detail of the different models of ships, principally warships, that made up a large part of the collection.

A few years ago I went to the National Maritime Museum with my children. I was profoundly shocked. I found no trace of the models, and apart from two rooms dedicated to Nelson, you might have been excused for leaving the premises without an inkling of what the Royal Navy had been, or how, as the most powerful force of its kind in the world, it had patrolled and defended the ‘Empire on which sun never sets’. The museum had become the standard touchy-feely experience for children. I assumed the directors had decided that children might not know about the Royal Navy, Great Britain or the Empire, and that it was perhaps better that they should remain in ignorance of such monstrous things.

I could not disagree more: for better or for worse, the Royal Navy and the Empire is our heritage and the heritage of all those who are progressively assimilated into our culture. Our children need to know what it stood for and touring children need to learn something of the land they are visiting.

There was another museum that possessed an exquisite collection of model boats: the Science Museum in South Ken. This was one of the first ports of call for my son, who is about the same age as I was when I got to know George. On his last visit, however, the gallery was closed and my wife and son were informed that the exhibits had been put ‘in storage’, as a new interactive gallery was about to be installed in their place. Joseph came home bitterly disappointed.

It was a feeling he was going to have to get used to: the next to go was the National Army Museum in Chelsea. The current director seems to have started at the bottom by turning the basement into an indoor playground, which means that display cabinets dedicated to the archers of Hundred Years War, the exhibits showing the New Model Army and the king’s cavaliers, as well as all the terribly good models and plans of the War of the Spanish Succession (Blenheim, Malplaquet etc.) have joined the model ships in ‘storage’.

One wonders when the reforming broom will reach the magnificent working model of the battlefield at Waterloo, or the little one of Rorke’s Drift? I have often chanced on parties of schoolchildren staring in wonder at the life-sized model of a Zulu warrior, and their schoolmistresses stammering through an embarrassed (and fallacious) explanation. I can only suppose he is next for the chop. Joseph loves the place, but is true that you don’t see so many people there: chiefly school parties and packs of obese teenagers in corps fatigues. Maybe the new director thinks she can push up numbers by luring mothers in from the cold and rain, and softly introducing the notion of siege warfare by letting the nippers play on a bouncy castle?

As a nine-year-old military history buff, the other place Joseph used to love was the Imperial War Museum, but last week, when my wife took him there, the basement had been gutted, and they were told that something more ‘relevant’ was about to be installed: about coming to terms with loss and the war in Afghanistan. The offending objects had - you guessed it - been placed in ‘storage’.

It seems extraordinary to say, that two world wars which killed well over a million British and commonwealth soldiers, not to mention more than fifty million civilians, should be deemed ‘irrelevant’ by the museum directors; and so soon after the prime minister allotted fifty million pounds to tell us what the First World War was about. It is hard to imagine a single family that was not affected in some way. And the basement was an excellent education. I remember being co-opted by my daughter’s form-mistress to guide her class round the museum a few years ago: the vitrines told the story down to the most minute detail and I had no problem holding the attention of my charges.

The process of ‘rationalising’ museums is not new. It started in my teens, when Roy Strong started deforesting that wonderful jungle that was the V & A and isolating single exhibits in vast open spaces in the interest of clarity. I didn’t go to the V & A for clarity, but the marvellously haphazard nature of it all, which meant your eyes could fall on one exquisite object and you could spend hours captive to its charms.

Looking at his list of publications, I see now what I didn’t know then: George Naish was quite a scholar. It is good to be reminded that museums are also about scholarship and only where it is appropriate, should they labour to make that scholarship accessible to children. Museums are not kindergartens, nor are they seminaries for instruction in political propaganda.

And I wonder if there is some kindly millionaire who would like to acquire all those treasures that are now apparently in storage. Why? He or she might finally open a museum for them. It would surely be the best in Britain. 


Maurice Keen

Posted: 15th October 2012

It was Tom Jaine who alerted me to the mediaeval historian Maurice Keen’s death last month when we were together in Abergavenny. The passing of such seminal figures is always a sad occasion: the thought that you will never hear their voices or indeed heed their wisdom again; but in Maurice’s case there is something more: he was my last link to Balliol. The book now closes.

Don’t get me wrong: I still have friends who were my fellow undergraduates at the college, but that is not quite the same. Like me they have changed, grown up, adapted; while Maurice always seemed to be a pole; as the Carthusians put it - a fixed cross in a fast-moving world:stat crux dum volvitur orbis.

Maurice may have given an initial impression of being a caricature of an Oxford don, but he was more complex. ‘Don’t treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home…’ Says Cousin Jasper in Brideshead Revisited. Maurice was no clergyman; he had too pronounced a wicked streak for that. If any of my Balliol tutors behaved like a kindly priest it was John Prest, who worried about whether we were warm enough in bed. The Greek tutor Oswyn Murray once wittily described Maurice as ‘a figment of Balliol’s imagination’. Apparently without desire to become Master or take up some chair of mediaeval history that was his by rights, and despite the tremendous accolades he received for his books, he remained a tutorial fellow of Balliol for nearly forty years and never aspired to anything else. He gave up writing relatively early. When I asked him about this lack of ambition twenty years ago he said ‘I have become middle-aged’ (although he was in his late fifties at the time). More recently he told me ‘I have become lazy’. Which meant he’d rather go fishing than write books.

Maurice could play down his age because he always looked like a little boy. It was hard to imagine that the man who shook my hand when I came up in 1975 was already over forty. I was frightened of Maurice then. I was not one of those self-assured major public schoolboys and I felt he was more at home with them. Indeed, I learned quickly that he was the senior member of the Gridiron Club - or ‘Grid’ - where well-heeled public schoolboys gathered above a shoe shop near Carfax. I neither understood nor enjoyed the arid and theoretical nature of the mediaeval history which took up the rest of my first year after Prelims. On one occasion I fell asleep during one of his tutorials - an unpardonable sin - and in a sense quite an achievement given the sharp and wonky springs poking into my buttocks from his capsized sofa and the captivating performance of the great mediaevalist puffing on his fags, bleating in his distinctly ovine way or getting down on all fours to straighten out his favourite rug depicting the Spithead Review of 1914. I put my somnolence down to the length and verbosity of my tutorial partner’s essay, but it might just have been that I hadn’t been to bed.

I had got it into my head that I wanted to change to English. English students appeared to have a better life. There was lots of acting, the girls were prettier and huge numbers of them seemed to get Firsts; but how could I explain that to Maurice given that I knew that he had come up to read English and switched to History, and it was his mediaeval history that was sticking in my throat. In the end I never had the nerve to mention it.

In my third term I decided I wanted to go down for a year and become a mercenary. There was some small civil war going in Africa and young men were being signed up in London for large fees. This time I told Maurice. He became quite angry and informed me that I would make a ‘very bad mercenary’. The matter was closed.

Maurice’s politics were reassuring. He represented the right wing of the Balliol’s history tutors. Donald Pennington (who never taught me) and the Master, Christopher Hill, were decidedly to the left. Colin Lucas claimed to be a socialist, but he was surely of the Bollinger sort. I never learned anything of John Prest’s views. Two years before, Maurice had had Richard Cobb to keep him company, championing the public schools over the comprehensives, resisting the admission of women and decrying the antics of the ‘Trots’ among the undergraduate body, but Richard had emigrated to Wuggins to become Professor of Modern History. There were no more wine-soaked evenings in Cobb’s rooms on Staircase XXI, with Richard on the balcony overlooking St Giles’s doing loud imitations of General de Gaulle for the benefit of bemused passers-by.

Maurice had a stooge in his old scout - or college servant - George. George was a fierce West Country man, a campaigner for an independent Wessex with a talent for writing songs. He used to appear at the Victorian Society evenings and curse Edward Heath’s Britain in his compositions. I remember a fragment of one. It was called Now the Common Market’s Come to Stay with You:

Now we’ll all get right well boozed
On Portuguese vin rouge,
Now the Common Market’s come to stay with you!

(‘vin’ was rhymed with tin. It would have been a waste of time explaining to George that the Portuguese for red wine was ‘vinho tinto’ for it didn’t scan either). George was always ready to fight for the cause of traditional values against the encroachments of modernisers. Once in hall we pointed out that an American Rhodes Scholar was wearing a hat, a privilege then accorded only to girls. George didn’t need any more encouragement, nor did he mince words: he shot round the table exclaiming ‘You look like a c*** in that hat!’

I started slipping into debt soon after I went up. I was on a ‘maximum grant’ but my mother was slow to fill in the forms and it was always nearer the end of term when I received my cheque. That meant I was permanently on the ‘cross list’ and had to beg for ‘battels books’ from Brigadier Jacko the Bursar. In my third year my mother’s income went up and I received a smaller cheque, but she refused to make up the difference.

My response was to borrow, but by my third year the sum I owed the college had reached an intolerable level and they asked me to pay up. My moral tutor, Colin Lucas, was on sabbatical, and Maurice had to manage the debt crisis. Meetings were held in my friend Geoffrey Chambers’ rooms, as I was not living in, or indeed living anywhere - I couldn’t afford the rent.

Geoffrey retired discretely into his bedroom while Maurice informed me strictly I was in statu pupillari and subject to decisions taken by the college on my behalf. After he left Geoffrey re-emerged. He had been listening behind the door: ‘He wants you to say your mother is mad’ and added that he had had the impression that the college thought I was Pennyfeather from Waugh’s Decline and Fall: ‘someone of no importance.’

I would not budge however, and prepared to quit. I wrote a note to the Master, rather archly quoting Luther (I now know Luther never said this) ‘Hier werde ich stehen, ich kann nicht anders’. I had a note back by return: ‘So long as I am Master, you will not leave this college.’ It was Christopher Hill, not Maurice who pulled me back from the brink.

When I was awarded a decent, if unspectacular degree I had a note from Maurice telling me that he was strengthened in his conviction that I would make a ‘very good mercenary’. This inconsistency I noted elsewhere. He had a story about the number of Wykehamists in the Garden Quad in New College when he came up: Winchester boys were supposed to go to their sister foundation at New College. Later he told me the same story to prove how few Wykehamists there had been at New College in 1954: ergo those who had been admitted were housed in the Garden Quad. I suppose it was an instance of the old Oxford idea that you can present a subject any way you want - however loopily - as long as you argue it well.

I went to live in Paris after I went down, although I occasionally returned for parties. Once Maurice found me celebrating at breakfast-time in the Garden Quad dressed in full Arab rig and accused me of trying to get my children into Balliol.

In Oxford he was a hard man to miss. For some reason that was never explained to me, he always seemed to be at the railway station waiting to meet a man off a train. When I finally moved back to England in 1985 I must have collided with him there and he asked me what had made me return. I told him about a girl: ‘How very nineteenth century of you Giles, to leave England for debt and Paris for matrimony.’

Once I began to receive commissions for books, Maurice became conspiratorial, even suggesting ideas, such as looking at the life of Little Willie of Prussia. He, and later the French tutor Carol Clark, used to invite me to lunch in the Senior Common Room. I had the impression that Maurice did this less for the pleasure of seeing me than for the effect it had on the other fellows who had not forgotten or forgiven my peccadilloes, and who never did. I think he liked to see them squirming, shuffling up to the other end of the table to get away from me. It appealed to his sense of humour.

Maurice’s appearance declined over the years. His clothes - the tweed coat and flannel shirt - became increasingly threadbare. On formal occasions, he adopted father’s tattered velvet gown. Harold Keen had been a professorial fellow of the college, and a subject of great pride to Maurice. He still wore Duckers’ brogues, which always cost the earth, but remained on a war footing with his shoelaces. Retying them gave him the chance, however, to turn his head up at you and survey you with his piercing blue eyes.

The price of cigarettes rose and he took up the pipe. Some time in the eighties I found him outside Bodley trying desperately to keep it smoking: ‘I am having tutorials from the chemistry tutor’, he explained.

When the invitations to the Senior Common Room dried up, my sole contact with the college was through the Richard Cobb Dinners arranged by Maurice and David Gilmour. These were like the meetings of a fronde: malcontents who had taken early retirement from the university together with a sprinkling of emeritus fellows and a few biggish names from London. We celebrated Cobb’s puckish wit and the world that was before Big Brother, Big Nanny or Big Nun decided what you were allowed to say or think. The last of these I was asked to was in 2007. I had been trying to get hold of Maurice to talk about Lord Michael Pratt, who had died recently but Maurice had been in hospital after a haemorrhage in his colon and I had failed to spot him at Michael’s memorial service. He sat me next to him at dinner and turned his blue eyes on me saying:

‘I gather you have a son! When is he coming to Balliol?’
I explained that Joseph was only five. ‘Oh dear. I shall be ninety!’

He had clearly changed his mind about my trying to get my children into Balliol. Son or no son, it would have been nice if Maurice had lived a bit longer. We had had our ups and downs but I had understood by then that he was one of the last (maybe actually the last?) of his race: a don who felt that his relationship to his tutees was for life; and now he is dead.


Fear of the New in Berlin and Abergavenny

Posted: 17th September 2012

It’s been a busy month so far, and looks like staying the course. A fortnight ago I was in Berlin at the invitation of the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft to give a lecture on Frederick the Great and Britain in the rococo splendours of Schloß Charlottenburg. And as luck would have it, there was a VDP tasting at the Gemälde Galerie on the Potsdamer Straße the night before, which gave me a chance to review some of the top German wines from what is clearly going to be a spectacular 2011 vintage.

I had not been in Berlin since 2005, a fact which gave me a queasy feeling as the aircraft landed at Tegel Airport. My history of the city appeared as long ago as 1997, and is probably terribly dated given the way the place has filled out since the Wall fell. It wasn’t just the book that was dated: I was frightened I wouldn’t recognise Berlin, but I was reassured, however, as the bus took me through the familiar sights of Charlottenburg on my short journey to the Zoo Station. I walked on to my hotel from there observing that West Berlin looked much the same.

The VDP had booked a room for me at the Hotel Castor in the Fuggerstraße. I had forgotten that the area around the Nollendorfplatz had become Berlin’s homosexual quartier, which meant not only the inevitable profusion of kinky bars but also a host of quirky small shops selling anything from wine to antiques. I stopped for a Hefeweizen on the pavement terrace of a dimly lit bar. At the next table an elderly man was sound asleep with a glass of water at his elbow. Over the next two days I saw him again and again, always in the same place, always with a glass of water: mostly he snoozed amid a gaggle of other men, but every now and then I spotted him awake and vociferous. The local children clearly knew him well and shouted ‘wach auf!’ at him from their bicycles as they rode past.

Coming early for the tasting gave me the chance to revisit Potsdam before my lecture, but being Tuesday, the big Frederick the Great exhibition at the Neues Palais was closed. My trip was far from wasted, however, as I was able to see the outside of the Stadtschloß for the first time. The Schloß where Frederick the Great spent his winter months, as his father and grandfather had done before him, was blown up in 1960, ten years after communist vandals destroyed the palace in Berlin, but it appears that quite large amounts of fabric were preserved and these are being eked out and used as cladding for the concrete building that will be Brandenburg’s new regional assembly. A local businessman - Hasso Plattner - has donated huge sums to see the return of the palace to its rightful place.

It is true that I had caught a glimpse of the gatehouse a few years ago, but now the vast building is complete it provides a sense to Potsdam, which previously lacked a focal point. Until it reappeared, Potsdam was like Versailles denuded of the palace of the Sun King: a nonsense. The crumbling 1960s quadrangle next door is clearly scheduled for demolition. Let us hope that the high-rise Hotel Mercure, built in the last years of the ancien régime as an ‘Interhotel’ will suffer the same fate: it is now the city’s most prominent eyesore.

I walked round the building site examining baroque capitals and columns that had been delivered in crates from some factory. I should imagine these craftsmen are kept busy: not only Potsdam is to have its Schloß again but work is beginning on its vast counterpart in Berlin. Then there is the Herrenhausen palace in Hanover, which is due to be finished in 2014, and the Garrison Church in Potsdam, which the communists blew up in 1968. These replicas would be unimaginable in Britain where it seems unlikely that we well ever see even the mighty Euston Arch rise again, even when we have relocated the original stones at the bottom of an east London waterway.

This sort of rebuilding is second nature to the Germans. That evening Hartmut Dorgerloh, the man in charge of the Prussian heritage organisation, explained to me that the reconstructed parts of Schloß Charlottenburg would close soon, as it turns out that  the facsimile made to replace the damaged sections after the war is already in need of extensive restoration. It was in one of these rebuilt rooms - the Weiße Saal - that I gave my talk. Then we repaired to Don Camillo, an excellent Italian restaurant which has been a pillar of Charlottenburg life since it opened in 1979, and has altered little despite the cataclysmic events that reshaped all our lives just ten years later.

Last weekend I was in Abergavenny for the Food Festival where I was billed to perform a double act with Tom Jaine talking about the history and consumption of offal. Again it had been a long time since I had been there: not since Franco Taruschio gave up the Walnut Tree Inn in fact. It was the Walnut Tree that put the town on the gastronomic map: a simple pub where Franco cooked up dishes from the Italian Marches together with his gleanings from old cookery books and a few Thai flourishes that he added to the menu after he and his wife Anne adopted a little Thai girl. Elisabeth David famously said it was her favourite place in Britain. After Franco retired in 2000, the Walnut Tree languished a bit, but now it has been taken over by Shaun Hill, it has a chef big enough to wear Franco’s boots.

The Festival seemed a remarkably joyful occasion and it was not only a pleasure to eat at the Walnut Tree again, but also to see all the old friends who kept tumbling out of the crowd.  My mind was very quickly was put at rest.


Adieu Austria

Posted: 15th August 2012

Last month I received a call to tell me there had been a reshuffle at the World Wine Awards and that they had decided to relieve me of the chairmanship of the jury for Austria. For the time being, at least, I retain Germany.

Such moments are not really bitter-sweet: they are just plain bitter. In this instance my departure brings to an end a close involvement with Austrian wine of more than twenty years; a relationship that started in the wake of the 1985 Wine Scandal when Austria was the laughing-stock of the world and which has ended at a time when almost all knowledgeable commentators would agree that the country makes some of the best wines money can buy.

It is ironic that I had no desire whatsoever to become involved with Austria back then - it was all an accident. Some time in 1989, I was telephoned by a friend who had been commissioned to write a book on Austrian wine. She explained that she had no German, and knew nothing about food, and that wine history and food represented fifty percent of the projected book: could I help her out?

I was less than enthusiastic, but I had a meeting with a man called Patrick Skinner at his office in Pimlico. Skinner represented Austrian wine in Britain and after we had discussed terms, he gave me a bottle of Stiegelmar (now Juris) 1987 Pinot Noir which I found surprisingly good.

I heard no more about the book, but that Christmas I went to Vienna for the second time in my life. The city was to be the springboard for a tour of the Velvet Revolutions of Central Europe. After flying back to Vienna from Berlin on New Years Day 1990, I had dinner with friends at Corso in the Bristol Hotel. I remember boggling at the long list of native wines, none of which meant the slightest thing to me - with the exception of the Stiegelmar Pinot Noir, that is.

Meanwhile Skinner had sold his business to Geoffrey Kelly, and later that year Geoffrey asked me to go out to Vienna to tell Austrian winemakers about selling onto the British market. I enquired about the book. Geoffrey didn’t seem to know much about it but it transpired that the marketing body in Austria (ÖWM) were aware of it, so a longer stay was arranged for me so that I might use the extensive library at the wine school in Klosterneuburg and find out more about Austrian food by visiting markets and restaurants.

That trip was arranged for mid-January 1991. I remember it vividly: I read my half-Austrian friend Richard Bassett’s short book The Austrians on the aircraft. Richard’s rather negative attitudes did nothing to put my mind at ease, something which immediately struck the ÖWM’s marketing manager Fritz Ascher when he met me at the airport in Schwechat. At that stage I had only a vague idea of my own family’s Austrian history, but I was suspicious, and it showed. Ascher, on the other hand, was not the sort to let that lie: he too was partly Jewish, and he was a genial, hospitable man with a talent for putting people at ease.

The ÖWM had lodged me in that great barracks-like Astoria Hotel on the Kärntnerstrasse. Before dinner I lay in the bath listening to the street musicians below. I ate that night with Fritz and his boss Walter Kutscher at Zu den drei Husaren (sadly closed these past four years) in the Weihburggasse nearby. Kutscher explained the famous brain dumplings that were the speciality of the house. I had no notion then that my family had owned the restaurant and the department store next door until 1938. Vienna was slow to reveal its hand - at least as far as I was concerned.

I stuck to my side of the bargain, and that spring I produced the two sections of the book I had agreed to write. These were sent to the publishers, Mitchell-Beazley in London. My friend also sent in her chapters, but the editor decided she didn’t like them and asked her to rewrite them. My friend refused: she had had enough of wine and had recently accepted the editorship of a music magazine. We had arrived at a temporary impasse.

The ÖWM looked around to see if them could recruit someone else to pen the wine chapters. My mind was on other things: I was busy writing a book of historical essays on Prussia which was proving challenging, but I nonetheless wanted to see my Austrian work come to light. None of the candidates was suitable. Remember sitting over a drink with Fritz and Dorli Muhr while we went through the list. In the end I said I could do the extra work. They seem to have been hoping that I would do just that, so, as the First Gulf War erupted in the Middle East, and sharing an Air France airplane with just one other passenger, I headed out to Vienna for six weeks on the wine road.

That book, The Wine and Food of Austria with its lovely photographs by Manfred Horvath, appeared in the summer of 1992, launched at the Vinova wine fair in Vienna. At Christmas that year Ascher and Kutscher were toppled by a putsch within the ÖWM, but the new men, Bertold Salomon and Ferdinand Auersperg were keen that my relationship with Austria should continue, and in addition to a considerable amount of journalism, radio, television and contributions to other books on Austrian wine and food, I brought out a further monograph on Austrian wine - Austria: New Wines from the Old World - which was published by the Agrarverlag in Vienna in 1997.

In that first decade I was often in Austria. I loved the wines and communicated that passion to my colleagues who, in their turn, opened their eyes and hearts to Austria. I tasted the wines for the annual Austrian Wine Salon and sat on various juries (where I was inevitably the only non-Austrian or German), but although my relations were still good with Austria - with Ferdl Auersperg in particular - there were indications they were beginning to sour.

Partly this was due to the fact that Bertold Salomon favoured a mass-market approach, while I saw Austrian wine as something ‘Burgundian’ - that is to say a lot of small, high-quality estates that were bound to make expensive wines that were unsuitable for the supermarkets and multiples. He also disliked my irreverent attitude to some of the winemakers. Ferdl left the ÖWM to go into industry and was replaced by the former actor Thomas Klinger and Salomon too ceded his place to Michael Thurner, a quondam business-school lecturer and unabashed marketing man whom I only slowly grew to know and like. Michael did not stay long. He was replaced by the affable, garrulous Willi Klinger - brother to Thomas - who is there to this day.

By the turn of the millennium, trips to Austria were largely reduced to VieVienum, the huge fair at the Hofburg Palace which occurs every two years. From there coaches were formerly organised to keep writers up to date with developments in the regions. I soon stopped subscribing to the charabanc trips when I found myself pursued in and out of lavatories by a huge German with a rucksack filled with Mars Bars who kept telling me ‘I just vont do be your vrend!’

Meanwhile, Austria had put its past behind it. Exports were poised to exceed pre-1985 levels. In the United States Terry Theise at Michael Skurnik Wines had created the first dream list, while in Britain that role was to some degree performed by Lance Foyster. Other non-Austrian or German writers tackled the subject with increasing aplomb - particularly the German-speaking David Schildknecht in the United States. My role was considerably diminished.

In 2003, Decanter magazine created the World Wine Awards and put me in charge of Austria and Germany, which meant that I still had a reason to follow the wines. A new generation was gradually taking over from their fathers, those men who had led the revolution in 1985. They pushed marketing ideas that (I felt) ran counter to the stylistic purity the wines had achieved in the years following the Scandal; and the Scandal itself, which had so magnificently cleaned out the Augean Stables of Austrian wine, had become a taboo subject which - rather like Austria’s history between 1938 and 1945 - could not be mentioned in print.

Doors close, but at my time of life, it is rare that corresponding numbers open. There is naturally a suspicion that Hinterfotzigkeit - that invaluable south German word for ‘bad-mouthing’ or back-stabbing - played a role. When I was in Vienna in June it seemed as if my old ‘friends’ from the Wachau shuffled away at my approach as if I had somehow betrayed their trust, but then, I might easily have been imagining things.

I have not ceased my relationship with the country altogether, just with its wines. Indeed, I returned from five days in Vienna the day before yesterday leaving my tender daughter behind for her first German-speaking exchange. We had the chance to see friends, revel in the exhibitions and the galleries and wonder at the officious guards at the Academy who appeared to have been recruited directly from the SS. Odd, when you consider that the Academy was the one institution in the country that wholeheartedly rejected their master.

I, at least, took stock of the many monuments of my family history that are scattered throughout the city; and we had the chance to renew an old acquaintance with Hans Staud - the world’s greatest commercial jam-maker - who lives a life of admirable modesty on the Yppenplatz at the centre the ever more gentrified district of Ottakring. It is a now a hive of trendy bars and restaurants, and the street market has taken over from the Naschmarkt as the best place in the city to shop. We had a lovely time. Even without the blessings of its wine, Austria still has a world to offer.


Knowledge and Diversity

Posted: 17th July 2012

On Friday I received an e-mail asking me to sign a petition to encourage All Souls’ College Oxford to relinquish its ownership of Kensal Rise Public Library in the London borough of Brent.

It appears that the library is an essential element in a diverse community: ‘a melting-pot of culture, faith and class’ and All Souls is certainly a rich college that supports a relatively small number of elected fellows and possibly it does not need Kensal Rise Library in its property portfolio. Like all Oxford and Cambridge colleges, however, it does not, I imagine, have much disposable cash. It hangs on to its assets for the sake of its endowment, which allows it to carry on the good work it performs as an elite educational institution transmitting our civilisation from one generation to the next.

Public libraries are good things, and even if I tend to use a number of specialised ones like the British Library and the German Historical Institute, I benefit directly from them in that I receive a small annual sum from the Public Lending Right (PLR). This payment is currently under threat: both from government spending cuts, which would scrap the body that awards the cash, and from the closure of libraries all over Britain. Like most impoverished writers I need this money. I may have fantasized occasionally about blowing the little cheque on a lovely meal, but when the figure shows up on my bank statement in February I am invariably broke, and I have to use it to fend off some bullying creditor.

The playwright Alan Bennett and the children’s author Jacqueline Wilson have already put their names to the petition, and in the past Bennett has stressed how important libraries were to him as the bookish son of a Leeds butcher. Jacqueline Wilson, of course, has good reason be enamoured of libraries, as she hits the PLR £5,000 jackpot year-in, year-out; but then, such sums are as a pin-prick to an elephant as far as she is concerned.

Like Bennett - and possibly Mrs. Wilson too - I was gluttonous in my use of libraries as a child. I might have been the subject of some Jacqueline Wilson epic, growing up in a ‘single-parent’ household after my mother fled my ogre of a father. I was three at the time the marriage broke up and never met my progenitor ever again. It was a poor home and although there were books, they were rapidly exhausted. After we had ransacked our domestic shelves, we children borrowed what we needed from school and public libraries.

The first I remember was a branch library in the Brompton Road, long since converted into a restaurant. Once we had read all that had to offer we graduated to the stately municipal library behind Kensington Town Hall.

This place was a resource throughout the years of my secondary schooling. The ground floor was well provisioned, and there was a record library where I took my first steps through the repertory of classical music. Upstairs there was an impressive reference library, and I recall the bound volumes of Hansard, the collections of Times obituaries and the dignified old gentlemen I took to be scholars who seemed to be permanently immersed in them.

Here in north London at least, things have changed. I don’t know if my fellow Camden-resident Alan Bennett has popped his head into any of our local libraries recently to see what they have on the shelves, but I don’t think that Hector, the hero of The History Boys, would have derived much solace from what he saw: these institutions show only the most tepid interest in keeping civilisation alive. If my local library is anything to go by, lending uplifting literature is only a minute part of the services provided. The library is a ‘cultural centre’ in the broadest sense, offering in descending order: a roof, warmth, entertainment, newspapers, lists of local amenities, a computer or two, diversion, a chance to meet like-minded people, toys, nannies to mind your children while you pop out to the shops or pick up your benefit money from the Post Office, and last and least - books. And the books they stock do not subscribe to the view that culture is led from the top. Here its feeds off the bottom.

The worst part must the children’s section. The last time I braved its oppressive heat and putrid smell I was confronted by a women in a romper suit who had had her hair wrought in serpentine coils à la Méduse. She was rehearsing a group of twenty or thirty three-year-olds in a litany on the subject of knickers: ‘I’ve got dirty knickers…’ She admitted, ‘I’ve got pooey knickers…’ And so the confessions continued. They might have delighted the ears of the toddlers but the news was not calculated to raise my spirits.

When my children still used the library, I would stand drenched in sweat and fuming with annoyance as my daughter stocked up with whichever of Mrs. Wilson’s novels her school friends were thumbing at the time. My son would poke around in the non-fiction section trying to find something on history or warfare he hadn’t borrowed before. In the children’s section at least, most of the books were laced with political correctitude. There must be as many works of propaganda in my local library as there were in an average-sized German library during the years of the Third Reich. Now, I am glad to say, my children have moved on, the source has run dry and I don’t have to submit to this torture any more.

I should say in fairness that the librarians were always helpful enough. I have yet to take up their offer to procure me a PIN number so that I can consult JSTOR, the Oxford Dictionary or the Dictionary of National Biography online. Once you have a PIN, you can use these services in the comfort of your own home.

Just in case my memories of my local library had betrayed me, I popped in on Saturday to see what they had. I gave the children’s section a wide berth and steered past an even larger than usual assembly of down-and-outs who were sheltering from the cold and rain. I saw a big section marked ‘fiction’ and a much smaller one called ‘literature’. It was hard to determine the difference as both seemed to contain the same sorts of populist books, but I saw a translation of Cervantes in one and several volumes of Dickens in the other. I couldn’t spot any Shakespeare, but I am sure it was there, somewhere.

Popular biography, travel, cookery and sport led the field. There were a few worthy books in the history section, but I reckoned that my younger self or the adolescent Alan Bennett would have got through those in under a month.

We need libraries. We need them to keep civilisation alive, to maintain the humanist tradition that has nourished our brains since the time of the Greeks. If the closure of Kensal Green Library is likely to drive another nail into the coffin of our civilisation, All Souls and all right thinking people should rush to save it. If, on the other hand, we are just preserving yet another ‘a melting-pot of culture, faith and class’ I cannot believe that we need stir our stumps: we already have plenty of those.


Art into Wine

Posted: 18th June 2012

At the end of May I travelled to Vienna for the VieVinum Fair, which occurs every two years in the Hofburg Palace. Until a decade or so ago the main Austrian wine fair took place in a special modern plate-glass exhibition centre near the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater, which was predictably bleak. One of the great joys of its present home is being able to wander in and out of the old imperial apartments and take stock of the splendid public rooms that once served the Habsburg monarchy.

There was a celebration of all twenty-five vintages of Smaragd wines from the Wachau in the graceful, neo-classical Kleiner Redoutensaal. Slightly intimidating were the slabs of raw and bloody meat that formed the wall and ceiling decoration in the Redoutensaal, the former grand ballroom of the palace. The Redoutensaal was destroyed by fire in 1992 and subsequently rebuilt as authentically as possible. The authorities presumably took the decision not to try to recreate the baroque paintings that had been there before and stuck these grisly images up instead. It was perhaps significant that we had been invited to taste the red wines of the 2009 vintage: was blood deemed appropriate?

It was as ever a chance to see old friends, make new ones and review recent vintages, particularly the 2011, which benefited (if that is the word) from a particularly hot and sunny autumn and subsequently ended up being picked very ripe indeed. The result of the autumnal heat wave is that many white wines are low in acidity.

The Rieslings have great charm, but it is hard to imagine them being long-lasting. As for the Grüner Veltliner, it seemed both flabby and un-aromatic (Grüner Veltliner likes a bit of rain). The exception was the Veltliner from the loess soils of the Danube Valley: loess acts as a sponge, soaking up the rain and keeping the roots of the vines moist. Loess soils saved some of the wines from the Wachau and parts of the Kamp and Kremstal. The Wagram, which has the highest proportion of loess of any Lower Austrian region, fared best of all. Otherwise 2011 was a better vintage for the broad-shouldered varieties such as Chardonnay, Zierfandler or Rotgipfler; and I assume we will see some excellent 2011 reds when they get round to bottling them.

Having the tastings in the centre of town also provides the chance to enjoy Vienna while the fair is on. It was the asparagus season, and I was able to nip out for a plate of thick white spears in a Beisl near the Herrengasse.I also popped into the Café Hawelka to find it empty for the first time in my life. The puffers have now migrated to the Café Korb in disgust at the decision to ban smoking and old Leopold’s death earlier this year has surely robbed the place of some of its magic.

In the evening the Austrian wine marketing organisation - or ÖWM - laid on magnificent parties as usual, displaying the same unstinting generosity that has them literally flying in foreign guests from all over the world and accommodating them for the days of the fair. On the Sunday night, the Viennese winemakers’ association put on its barbecue party in the vineyard on the Nußberg.  This was formerly one of the highlights of the show until four years ago when the grill with its tempting array of sausages and Leberkäse was struck by lightning and I spent the next hour or so trying to make conversation to a government minister in a tractor shed while torrential rain churned up the soil, turning it into sticky mud. At the next VieVinum, the Viennese growers got cold feet and held the party in the courtyard of the Rathaus in the city centre instead.

The good weather held out this year and once again a new moon appeared right on cue and rose high above the Danube, casting its beams down on the Slovakian capital to the east. The next day the heavens opened: the wind and rain that had drowned the Jubilee regatta in London lashed the city for fully twenty-four hours. There were compensations: on the Monday night we were treated to a ‘pop-up’ meal at Wein & Co in the Mariahilferstrasse cooked by the chefs from the celebrated Slanted Door Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco.

For me, one of the most memorable side-shows was the Kunst voller Wein (art full wine) exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The exhibition is part of the Intermezzo series which makes over one room of the museum to a particular artistic theme. Around a hundred objects had been drawn from the state collections, from jugs and glasses and games to paintings and portraits. Naturally Dionysos-Bacchus played a central role and there is an endearing portrait of the god by the Flemish master Jan van Dalen as well as a lively Triumph by Maarten van Heemskerck where he is borne in a carriage flanked by satyrs.

Christianity figures largely too, however, as wine is essential to both Catholic and Orthodox rites. The sacraments that mark the stages of our lives are washed down with a little wine and Christ famously transformed his blood into wine at the Last Supper, while at the Mass the priest turns it back again into blood to celebrate the same.

The exhibition closes on 2 September.


Mein Kampf

Posted: 16th May 2012

At the end of 2015, Mein Kampf and the rest of Hitler’s immortal scribblings come out of copyright. By some odd quirk of fate, that copyright is currently owned by the state of Bavaria, so they have less than three years to issue their own version of the text before the free-for-all begins. It has been suggested that they intend to do just that: Hitler’s book will be released in Germany for the first time since 1945, but covered in high-minded annotations to make sure that no one will be tempted to sway from the path of righteousness.

Up to now, Germans have officially only been permitted to see the text in extract form but if you have any gumption it is not hard to lay your hands on a copy of Mein Kampf. You can download the 1936 edition quite simply to your computer: 1936 edition (172.-173. printing) in German Fraktur (71.4 MB). If you prefer an original edition, then I am certain that many second-hand bookshops can oblige. An antiquarian bookseller friend in Vienna tells me he has four copies, including one of the ‘Luxusausgabe’ - the luxury edition bound in a contemporary version of ‘hand-tooled skivertex’. If all else fails you can read it in English! At the time of writing it is at number 623 in the Amazon bestseller charts: down, maybe, but clearly not out.

Any Nazis, neo-Nazis, right-wing thugs or virulent antisemites who might be rubbing their thighs in glee at the chance of having Hitler’s book in their hands at last might be severely disappointed: Mein Kampf should certainly come close to the top of the list of the world’s most unreadable books. Hitler, as the old publisher’s phrase described it, wrote with a ‘lead pencil’

Mein Kampf is an immature work. Hitler dictated it to his secretary Rudolf Hess in Landsberg Prison following the abortive coup of 9 November 1923. The first part came out in 1925, the second a year later. Hitler was therefore thirty-six at the time of its publication, and the journeyman politician had still a long way to go before he could convince the German electorate of his worth. Much of the first half is taken up with issues that must have seemed of scant interest to a German reader, i.e. Austria, the Habsburgs’ apparent betrayal of their German subjects and the ghastly (for Hitler that is) racial hotchpotch that was pre-First World War Vienna. Small snatches of autobiography are inflated by huge, lapidary rants which continue for pages and pages and pages. Most readers who failed to fall at the first of these hurdles, would have come crashing down at the second or third.

Despite winning millions of votes in the two elections of 1932, Hitler had still only sold 240,000 copies of his magnum opus by the time he came to power at the end of January 1933 - a long way short of the Da Vinci Code (80 million) or a Harry Potter (44 million). Of course sales picked up after that, as opportunistic Germans flocked to join the Party, and Hitler’s publishers exhibited a keener sense of marketing than you could expect today, in that every married couple was presented with a copy and a special ‘field edition’ was produced that fitted neatly into a soldier’s knapsack. By the end of the war Mein Kampf had achieved a sale of about ten million: a success equivalent to The Joy of Sex or The Gospel According to Peanuts

Mein Kampf is a blood-curdlingly crude and nasty piece of prose in which Hitler makes no secret of his belief that all the ills that have befallen Germany may be attributed to a Jewish conspiracy, attesting to the fact that he had been taken in by the spoof Protocols of the Elders of Zion which proved such a hit in the years immediately following the First World War.

Historians sometimes affect to a ‘holier than thou’ tone and aver ‘the Germans must have known what Hitler intended to do to the Jews! It was all in Mein Kampf!’ Which is, of course true up to a point - except that he leaves us guessing as to how. Germans who read the book would certainly have had a pretty clear idea of who the future Führer thought responsible for German defeat in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles that followed it, and that if he were to achieve power he would show them no mercy; but I suspect that very few Germans actually read Mein Kampf. They merely bought it and put it in a place of honour in their ‘gute Stube’ or parlour, in the place where their parents had once set up the statue of the Virgin, and in a corner that, in the houses of some of their descendants at least, is now reserved for an unthumbed copy of Hitler’s Willing Executioners.


Art and Patronage

Posted: 16th April 2012

Nazi art continues to fascinate me, particularly the annual shows at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich. These had been intended to revive the exhibitions held in the Glaspalast, an iron and glass building modelled on London’s Crystal Palace, which burned down in June 1931, destroying 3,000 paintings including 110 masterpieces of German romanticism that were being exhibited at the time. It was a creepy augury of the fate of Crystal Palace itself, which went up in smoke five years later.

When the Nazis came to power, plans to rebuild the Glaspalast were shelved in favour of a wholly new concept: a Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), which finally opened with great pomp and pageantry in 1937.

The Glaspalast exhibitions had been a rather sharper version of the British Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, but you could still expect a pretty mixed bag ranging from modernism to more traditional genres. Naturally this changed with Hitler, whose dictated subject matter was more limited. The catalogues of the big exhibitions that were held every summer from 1937 to 1944 are now online, and it is worth having a look at the illustrations at least to get a better measure of just what they approved and what not.

From 1937, painters and sculptors hoping to sell their works had to reckon with a failed painter with very strong views on art. Like the Kaiser before him (and maybe directly inspired by the Kaiser) Hitler wanted to lay down the law about what painters could paint. Like William II, he did not approve of ‘Rinnsteinkunst’ (gutter art). There were to be no absinthe drinkers, even if a few merry toping peasants might pass muster.

Art was important, however; indeed there can have few regimes in history that offered more openings to conforming artists. Hitler envisaged the whole Third Reich as an ‘artistic’ creation - a Gesamtkunstwerk - an elaborate composition made up of parades, uniforms, monumental architecture and an all-encompassing state. This aesthetic view of the community clearly derived in part at least from his reading of Richard Wagner.

Art was to be uplifting, popular and representational, unlike the so-called ‘degenerate’ art that was publicly pilloried at the same time as the first German Art Exhibition. Artists had to restrict themselves to a short list of genres. The most important of these were associated with the Nazi idea of ‘Blut und Boden’ (blood and soil), which identified the peasantry as the source of German culture.

The idealisation of the German peasant in art went back decades and was not sinister itself. Many of the peasant pictures shown in Munich alluded to popular religion rather than the paganism extolled by Nazi ideologues. In 1938, for example, Fritz Mackensen exhibited a picture of an outdoor religious service and Constantin Gerhardinger some peasants blessing their bread. On the other hand the Nazi theme could be slyly introduced, as in Otto Kirschner’s picture of a peasant reading a newspaper: look carefully and you’ll see it is the Nazi organ, Völkischer Beobachter.

Some of the peasant artists were excellent: the animal painter Julius Paul Junghanns was a clear crowd-puller, and there was good work from Thomas Baumgartner, Franz Eichhorst (who was perhaps better known for his war pictures) or Karl Schwalbach. The ‘blood’ element could materialise in the form of heroic Teutons, Nordic nudes or in the pillorying of degenerate racial types - principally Jews.

If neither of these appealed there were landscapes (preferably German) or myth (ditto - but the ancient Greeks were honorary Germans), portraits (the new elite was very keen on sitting), industry, road or bridge-building or war - a theme that stretched from realist reportage from the front to boys’ own pictures of German prowess, SA ruffians or the horrors of the First World War.

There was also the purest, crudest propaganda, as in Otto Hoyer’s Am Anfang war das Wort (‘in the beginning was the word’ - a curiously Christian borrowing) showing Hitler’s early days in Munich. It was painted by a Party member who had lost his right arm in the Great War, and painted with his left.

Hitler altered much, but the show went on and as Julia Voss points out in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung still as many as half the paintings shown between 1937 and the last exhibition in 1944 were innocuous landscapes and still lives. Of course there are absent faces, including some of the painters who achieved fame under the Weimar Republic, but there was continuity too. Many artists turned their coats or went over to the new Gods.

This was particularly true of the satirists who had created the biting images in the Munich-based magazine Simplicissimus: Karl Arnold, Olaf Gulbransson and Eduard Thöny. Of the pioneering expressionist painters who emerged before the Great War, Fritz Bleyl worked as an architect throughout the Third Reich, Erich Heckel proclaimed his support for Hitler in 1934, while Max Pechstein, Otto Dix, Christian Schad and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff weathered the storm, softening their tones or sticking to landscapes until the coast was clear.

Others found protectors: Käthe Kollwitz had one in Leo von König, who was wise enough to paint Goebbels and two of his daughters (he also painted his nephew, the homosexual tennis player Gottfried von Cramm). Goebbels himself extended a hand to the expressionist sculptor Ernst Barlach, whom he had happily collected until Hitler expressed his distaste for him and Goebbels’ other favourite, the Nazi Party member Emil Nolde. Later, Nolde was actually forbidden to paint, as was Schmidt-Rottluff after 1941

It is tempting to think that Ivo Saliger’s Judgement of Paris actually represents the philandering Propaganda Minister choosing a beauty from the latest crop of Ufa film studio starlets - Paris certainly bears a strong resemblance to Goebbels.

One of the oddest instances of protection was that offered by Himmler to perhaps the most underrated artist of the period - the printmaker A Paul Weber whose grotteschi and caprichios might be compared to Daumier or Goya. Weber was a right-wing opponent of the National Socialists, and did time in a concentration camp as a result. Himmler, however, clearly saw that he possessed an exceptional talent.

The former stars of the German avant-garde did not exhibit in Munich. They were either abroad (Grosz in New York, Max Beckmann in Holland), dead (Kirchner killed himself) or kept themselves to themselves in so-called ‘inner emigration’ (Gerhard Marcks).

The dreadful British Arts Council pales in comparison: there can have been few periods of history when there was so much sponsorship of state-approved art. Providing you were prepared to put aside some of your principles, the Nazi bigwigs were all too keen to scatter money along the way. It seemed that every barracks, school, refectory and public building needed murals and friezes, not to mention big nudes in the forecourt. Hitler was the most generous of all, showering gold on the lucky ones, although he was not so keen to have their works in his palaces and his acquisitions mostly went off to embellish provincial museums.

Hitler favoured nineteenth century German painters. There were a few exceptions: he displayed the Vier Elemente by his chief art ideologue, Adolf Ziegler in the Führerbau in Munich, but that was hardly home. Ziegler also did two wishy-washy portraits of Hitler’s dead mistress Geli Raubel, which hung in Berchtesgaden (what did Eva Braun think?). He also liked two other mature contemporaries: Hermann Gradl and Raffael Schuster-Woldan. Gradl was a landscape painter who decorated the dining room at the new Chancellery in Berlin. He finally joined the Party in 1941, by which time he was already 120,000 Reichsmarks better off.

Schuster-Woldan had painted hazy murals in the Reichstag before the First World War, borrowing his light from Correggio and Rembrandt. Hitler spent 496,000 RM on his work including 60,000 RM for Das Leben (Life), the highest sum paid for a canvas at the exhibition. Hitler’s patronage did not prevent Schuster-Woldan from undertaking risky religious subjects such as Mary Magdalena in 1935.

Göring’s favourite modern German,Werner Peiner also decorated Hitler’s Berlin palace with a remarkable series of tapestries. I presume they were lost in the war. Apart from money there were lots of other incentives: state professorships, medals and prizes. Making portraits, prints or busts of Hitler (however frightful) or other leading Nazis was bound to win out in the long run. Another way of achieving patronage was to be attached to units of the Wehrmacht or the SS, as the regime had an unquenchable desire to celebrate its victories in the field.

There were few Nazi party members involved and even fewer ideologists: Elk Eber, the Balt Otto von Kursell (who was Party member number 93), Goebbels’ friend Hans Herbert Schweitzer or ‘Mjölnir’ and Wolfgang Willrich were the chief firebrands. Georg Lebrecht liked to paint the Luftwaffe pasting Britain and committed suicide in 1945. Most the exhibitors, however, were neither members of the Party nor anything more than fellow travellers

If many Third Reich painters were meretricious sycophants pandering to the Führer for the sake of the baubles he put their way, the sculptors and architects were even worse. Architecture and sculpture being what they are, there was a positive stampede for the many commissions that were up for grabs: forget Speer’s oft-repeated excuses about how Hitler offered the chance to realise an architect’s dreams, former avant-gardistes such as Hans Poelzig, Peter Behrens, Mies van der Rohe or Walter Gropius were in the thick of it for as long as they were tolerated. Monumental sculptors like Josef Thorak, Arno Breker and Georg Kolbe mopped up orders too, strewing Teutonic nudes before the new public buildings of the Thousand Year Reich until Allied bombs and tanks swiftly brought that world crashing down about their ears and smashed their works to smithereens in the process.

After 1945 there was retribution: many studios, sculptures and buildings were destroyed in the bombing and the Allies took their revenge on thousands of works of Nazi art. Some artists were given a rough time. The antisemitic cartoonist Fips (Philipp Rupprecht) of Der Stürmer did six years hard labour. The British put the vastly more harmless Wilhelm Petersen into Neuengamme for a year. Others were born survivors like Thorak. He may have had to give up the massive studio Albert Speer designed for him in Baldham in Bavaria and return to his native Austria, but within a few years he had re-emerged as large as one of his sculptures and no one asked any questions about what he did in the war.


Weather Witches

Posted: 15th March 2012

On 28 February an article in the Daily Mail caught my eye. It told the story of the amateur art historian Jiri Kuchar who had been tracking down a collection of sixteen paintings shown at the German Art Exhibitions in Munich in 1942 and 1943 and discarded by the Americans in Czechoslovakia after the war. Kuchar had identified them as Hitler’s purchases from lists published in Ines Schlenker’s book Hitler’s Salon.

After a five year search Kuchar located the last seven paintings in a Premonstratensian monastery in Doksany, north of Prague. He had already found seven in Zakupy Castle, one at the Military History Institute and one in the Law Faculty of the Charles University in Prague.

There had originally been seventy pictures, thirty statues, a writing table and some gifts stored in a monastery in Vyssi Brod. I assume that Hitler had yet to assign them to galleries. When the monks got their monastery back after the war, they took a dim view of the paintings, which went their separate ways, these seven ending up in Doksany. They were left behind because they were esteemed of little value. The Americans were chiefly interested in two purloined Jewish collections: those of Fritz Mannheimer and the Rothschilds stored in Vyssi Brod.

Items from the Doksany collection were shown in a number of organs, but the pictures are best viewed on a Russian website. This is the only one that shows all the paintings.

Kuchar claims to have found a pot of gold and quotes wild sums for the paintings’ worth. I can imagine there are discrete collectors of Nazi art, but the prices seemed a bit far-fetched. My view is incidentally supported by the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte.

I must say here that I have seen none of these paintings in the flesh, and what I know of Nazi art has been largely gleaned from reproductions; but these are the limitations of the subject - there is no museum consecrated to this period of art history.

The artists in Kuchar’s find are not necessarily those most honoured in the Third Reich. Most of the newspapers and magazines that ran the story showed an image of Franz Eichhorst’s, Souvenir of Stalingrad. The canvas represents soldiers in a trench. It must be summer as an injured warrior is stripped to the waist. It was exhibited in July 1943 at the Great German Art Exhibition at the Haus der deutschen Kunst in Munich and Hitler acquired it for 35,000 Reichsmarks.

It describes valiant resistance, more glamorous perhaps from those desperate last days in the snow in January 1943 before Field Marshal Paulus threw in the towel; but it is a propaganda picture, and for that reason, perhaps the least interesting in the horde.

The Mail insisted that Eichhorst (1885-1948) was ‘one of the Führer’s favourites.’ I don’t know if that was the case. Hitler positively scattered money at the German Art Exhibition and expected his ministers to do likewise, but he had no great enthusiasm for his acquisitions and quickly lodged them in provincial galleries. He preferred old masters. Souvenir of Stalingrad was rather a sore subject and I don’t suppose he intended having it hanging around in any of his homes. 

If Souvenir of Stalingrad is a poor painting, that was not always the case. Eichhorst’s earlier work is quite good. He fought in the First War and made a name for himself as a painter of peasant subjects in the manner of Albin Egger-Lienz (1868-1926) or Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900). There is something reminiscent of Stanley Spencer’s mural series at Burghclere (1927-1932) in the very dramatic murals he painted for the Rathaus in Schöneberg in 1938.

The fiercely angular composition of Defence Against Tanks in Schöneberg shows that a little bit of expressionism was still possible providing the artist’s politics were right. Eichhorst was clearly an opportunist. He was rewarded with a state professorship, not to mention the money he made from giving his masters the pictures they wanted.

I have gleaned less about Paul Hermann (b1864), but his themes appear to be drawn from Bavaria. The Doksany painting portrays Soldiers Extinguishing Torches During the Party Rally in Nuremberg. It was a subject with obvious Nazi appeal, and that is about all that can be said for it.

Friedrich Wilhelm Kalb’s work has more charm than either Eichhorst’s or Hermann’s. He is chiefly known for his triptych of Daphne, Eros and Psyche and Orpheus and other mythic compositions of little political importance. The painting found at Doksany is Werden (realisation); a remarkable composition illustrated in Deutsche Künstler und die SS in which a German soldier is fighting - or resisting - a host of monsters and temptations.

Oscar Oestreicher (a very un-Aryan name) is represented by his Seekönigs Fahrt nach Valhalla (The Sea King’s Journey to Valhalla). I could find out very little about him. He was possibly from Danzig, and specialised in marine painting. The subject had an obvious appeal. He might be classed as an opportunist.

Edmund Steppes (1873-1968) was the only proper Nazi in Kuchar’s collection. He was an early member of the Party and had received patronage from Nazi bigwigs from the twenties. He was a nature painter and the picture is quite innocuous: a stag fighting a unicorn.

Armin Reumann (1889 - 1952) is now seen as an important German impressionist, and his stock has risen of late. ‘Finish’, on the other hand, is an embarrassing picture: a still-life representing the torn up Treaty of Versailles with a rifle and bayonet, a sword and helmet, sinking ships and a little trompe-l’oeil note from Adolf in the corner saying the treaty is ‘dead’. Reumann seems to have gone through a folksy moment. Maybe the money helped.

Last but not least, Sepp Hilz was a significant figure in the art world of the Third Reich. Like Eichhorst, Hilz descended from Leibl and adhered to the peasant school. Unlike Eichhorst he did not abandon it for martial matters. He combined a degree of realism with allusions to the elder Cranach, whose Teutonic eroticism was very popular in the Third Reich. Hilz was so popular that, in 1939, on recommendation of Hitler’s personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, he was given the sum of 100.000 Reichsmarks to build a new studio in Gmund am Tegernsee. These days Hilz is dismissed as the next best thing to a pornographer, but there is no questioning his talent.

Hitler bought Die Wetterhexe (the weather-witch) for 10,000 RM in 1942. It is the hardest of the Kuchar pictures to make out, as, for some reason, there is no proper photograph of it. The composition was, however, well known in the last months of the war, when it was published as a postcard.

Its presence is also a little fishy, as - according to Spiegel of 15 September 1949, it left for New York after the war. The article was entitled ‘Drei Zentner Wetterhexe’ (Three Hundredweight of Weather-Witch):

Zwei Millionen Besucher standen in New York vor Bildern, die im Münchener Haus der Kunst gehangen hatten, als es noch braun war. Den Beamten des US-Collecting-Point ist es ein Rätsel, wer sie übers große Wasser brachte. Die Wetterhexe von Sepp Hilz war auch dabei, drei Zentner schwer.

(Two million visitors in New York saw pictures that had formerly hung in the House of Art in Munich when it was still ‘brown’. Who brought them across the ocean is a mystery to officials from the US Collecting Point. Sepp Hilz’s Wetterhexe was also there, weighing all of three hundredweight.)

So what happened to the Weather-Witch? Was Kuchar’s trouvaille the real thing?

Either way the witch was safe from the destructive zeal of the victorious Allies. Between 1945 and 1949, the American culture boffins at OMGUS destroyed nearly eight thousands works by Nazi approved painters - including (I presume) what was left of the Eichhorst murals - and laying themselves open to the charge that they were every bit as bad as those Nazis who destroyed works by avant garde artists.

We may never know the answer, and the Czech authorities have said they have no intention of putting the Kuchar collection on display.

It is perhaps worth adding that the boot is firmly on the other foot now: the artists the Nazis dismissed as ‘degenerate’ are to all intents and purposes ‘academic’, and one is actually professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. It is traditional painters who are considered ‘degenerate’ now, and if a critic were to devote a single column inch to their works, it would only be to say how preposterous they were.


A Cold Snap

Posted: 15th February 2012

I lived in Paris for seven years in my twenties, and for many years after that I continued to visit France anything up to a dozen times a year. I am still in touch with French culture through my children (both at French schools in London) but most recently my trips to the country itself have dwindled to two or three a year. Two of these are to Gay McGuinness’s lovely vineyard at the Domaine des Anges in Mormoiron in the Vaucluse, which at 400 metres or so, looks Mont Ventoux in the eye. The first occurs some time before the vernal equinox, the second around its autumnal counterpart.

Because my trips to France have become infrequent I am increasingly shocked by what I see. This great country seems to have gone into a sort of tailspin. At the beginning of February I made a lightning visit to the excellent champagne house of Drappier in Urville in the Aube. I should say in mitigation that a more inauspicious time would have been hard to imagine, as the frost had taken much of Europe by the throat, and in a way I was lucky to get there at all, let alone make it home.

Paris was a good deal colder than London had been, there was a fierce wind blowing as the sun went down. The area around the Gares du Nord and Est was ever seedy, but it looks even grottier now that prowlers and pickpockets lurk behind every pillar, particularly in the stations. With an hour to kill I popped into the Marché de Saint-Quentin: a lovely mid-nineteenth century iron and glass building on the boulevard de Magenta. There were few people there, and many of the booths were shut, but it is good to know there is a place to do some proper food shopping so close to Eurostar’s lacklustre departure lounge.

Even after stopping to buy an overpriced chicken sandwich (they still put sliced hard boiled eggs in the mayonnaise), I had plenty of time on my hands at the Gare de l’Est. The station is possibly the most beautiful of all Paris’s termini, but its kiosks have been made over to the usual international trash. Tucked into the south-western corner, however, was a little grocer’s shop selling specialities from Alsace-Lorraine that might have led you to believe it had been there since the station was constructed. Apart from biscuits, foie gras, and Alsatian liqueurs it sold the little-known wines of the Côtes de Toul.

I got to know the selection pretty well over the next hour and a half. While the delay mounted up on the express train to Belfort my teeth chattered in the sub-zero winds that whistled through those echoing halls. I joined an ugly crowd that mobbed the generally deserted enquiry desk and swapped rumours with commuters anxious to get home. They all had horror tales to tell of cancelled trains and chronic lateness; a mood of pessimism reigned, that only lifted when a train appeared and we all dispersed to grab our seats.

On the train a cheerful conductor scattered envelopes like so much confetti: we could all claim back the price of our journeys.

It was minus ten Celsius when I got into Bar-sur-Aube an hour later than scheduled. The station was long closed. I had feared as much. When I saw no one in the car park I importuned two elderly locals. I knew from bitter experience that public telephones are a rarity and that most require you to purchase a card. They very kindly fumbled with their telephones to call my host. They owned an hotel, and they knew him.

It brought back memories of arriving at the station in Fumel in the Lot-et-Garonne eighteen months before. I was on my way to the village of Soturac, all of seven kilometres away in the neighbouring département of the Lot. I was encumbered with two children, luggage and shopping. I knew from experience that the hourly bus that went somewhere near it was a virtual myth. There was just one taxi serving a community of more than 5,000 souls, and that was half way to Bordeaux taking an urgent case for hospital treatment. I was on the verge of despair when a shabby car drew up and a man asked me if he could be of service.

Neither of the two people in Bar-sur-Aube was having much luck, but as if by some miracle, Michel Drappier suddenly appeared deus ex machina like the chap in Fumel. I wasn’t looking forward to hanging around: it was minus ten and there was a howling wind.

It was a considerable pleasure to get into Michel’s warm car and an even greater one to arrive at the hotel where I was staying and we were having dinner: La Montagne in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. My bedroom was so hot I had to open the bathroom door during the night to let in some cold air. The restaurant was excellent too, but just three tables were occupied that night. The other two were taken by an English couple and some Germans. Was it the cold again that kept them away? Or is this typical of a Michelin-starred restaurant on a Thursday night out of season?

Just how freezing it was in France was brought home to me by a visit to Charles de Gaulle’s grave in the local cemetery the following morning. By then it was minus twenty and exacerbated by a twenty kilometre an hour wind that felt like broken glass against my cheeks. I had planned to buy some bread, but Colombey’s baker had relocated to a new place that was considered more convenient for motorised customers, and it was too cold to undertake a long trek.

Michel’s son Hugo picked me up in a Citroën DS with history. The ‘déesse’ was one of fifty cars ordered by President Pompidou for the various departmental prefects as many years ago. It later came into the possession of Pompidou’s wife Claude, who was reputed to lead a racy life. Her name was linked to the actor Alain Delon during a murky period of his life when his bodyguard Stefan Markovic was inexplicably found dead in a dustbin.

Naturally the idea of what this car might have witnessed had my imagination working in overdrive.

I had a little shopping to do in Bar-sur-Aube before we went to Urville. Bar-sur-Aube is a gorgeous little town, like so many in France. There is a huge Gothic church and plenty of remnants of its ancient and distinguished past. Alas, many of the shops are closed, and there was not much sign of life on the streets. I had a pretty warm welcome as I graduated from the stationer to the pharmacist and the baker. Only in some modern mini-market where I went in search of butter (Hugo knew of no cheese merchant) did I find the woman cold and off-hand.

Apart from a good lunch at La Toque Baralbine in Bar-sur-Aube, I spent the rest of the day at Drappier in Urville. Their cellars date back to the time of St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and the monastery is nearby. Since the time of Napoleon it has been a high-security prison housing some of the most fearsome delinquents in France. Their escapades provide some leaven to flat nature of life in the Bar-sur-Aubois.

I learned that the last two men guillotined in Paris - Bontems and Buffet - were Clairvaux inmates who took a guard and a nurse hostage and slit their throats. That happened as recently as 1972. Even while I was in France, a lesser malefactor called Habib Nebaya managed to slip his warders on a trip to the courthouse in Troyes. Although he was still manacled, he made a clean getaway in a stolen police car, which was later found abandoned in Paris.

At five that afternoon, I too had to go to Paris: the first leg of my journey. We had left it rather late and brakes screeched on the way to the station where Michel Drappier performed the positively Horatian feat of holding the train while I gathered up my bags. It was only when we chugged out of Bar-sur-Aube that the squalor dawned on me.

It was Friday night and the local collèges had opened their gates. It seemed that the children of Belfort were all on the way to Paris. There was not a seat on the train and the corridors were blocked by bulky articles of luggage. At Troyes I found a rare seat, but had to keep my bags on my lap, as there was no room on the shelf above. The middle-aged couple opposite me tut-tutted: trains had been cancelled and too few carriages allotted to the surviving ones. One of them went to reconnoitre the lavatory, but returned in dismay when she found two girls asleep on the floor.  It was a relief to reach the frigid Gare de l’Est. I made straight for the safety to Eurostar, and the journey home.


Old Fritz Comes in from the Cold

Posted: 16th January 2012

Frederick the Great will be three hundred years old on 24 January. There are no plans to make a fuss of his birthday here in Britain although there is plenty going on in Germany, and I shall be writing about that in another place.

There was a time when we thought differently of the Prussian monarch. He was Britain’s chief continental ally in the Seven Years War. Many British people then were of the slightly misguided opinion that the enlightened, freethinking monarch was a force for Protestantism and his victories over his largely Catholic enemies were hailed with great gusto by the mob. On 18 September 1756, for example, the secretary of state, Lord Holdernesse wrote to Andrew Mitchell, the British ambassador in Prussia, to say ‘Our constant toast here now is, success to the King of Prussia: he grows vastly popular among us…’ When the news of the victory before Prague reached Britain in May 1757, Holdernesse wrote again: ‘…women and children are singing his praises; the most frantic makers of joy appear in the public streets. He is in short, become the idol of the people…’

Until the outbreak of the First World War there were a great many pubs called the ‘King of Prussia’. These were renamed with suitably patriotic, anti-German titles like the ‘Kitchener Arms’ or the ‘King George V’ in 1914. There was a Kitchener’s Arms in Trowbridge in and a King George V in Gillingham, Kent, both of which were formerly Kings of Prussia. If you click on the last link you can see how smoothly the transition took place.

Some of these pubs are red herrings: the only King of Prussia pub that figures in my own itinerary is in Kingsbridge in the South Hams, but I have been told that it commemorates a local smuggler who was nicknamed the ‘King of Prussia’. The same smuggler may well have lent his moniker to the King of Prussia in Cornish Fowey too.

Frederick’s reputation in Britain did not plummet until a century after his death. The publication of Carlyle’s life of him between 1858 and 1865 renewed enthusiasm for the king. The first volume came out at the time of the royal wedding of the Princess Victoria to the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, an event that spawned another rash of pub signs. I gather the Princess of Prussia in Prescot Street on the eastern border of the City of London commemorates that marriage.

With German unification in 1871, attitudes to Prussia and its princes changed. Germany began to rock the imperial boat - particularly after 1889, when the last Kaiser (the product of the union between Prince Vicky and Crown Prince Frederick) decided to create his own fleet to protect Germany’s growing international trade. Then came the First World War and with the Second, Frederick the Great became a Nazi.

There were some pretty solid reasons for this, not least because Hitler himself had co-opted him into the Party. Along with Bismarck (another unlikely National Socialist) Frederick was one of the pin-ups of the new movement. Hitler genuinely held him in high regard, seeing him as a proper German prince, whereas the emperors of his native Austria had endeavoured to rule what he cast as a worthless multi-national empire peppered with Jews. In those macabre last days in the bunker in Berlin, Goebbels tried to raise the Führer’s morale by reading him ‘significant’ extracts from Carlyle. He was very keen to point out that Frederick had sacked and denigrated his brother Augustus William, as he hoped Hitler would do the same for Göring.

The Führer’s fantasies about Frederick were bound to colour post-war attitudes. Frederick was slow to recover his lost prestige. Biographers felt compelled to mention the ‘N word’ even when the imputation of Nazism to the misanthropic, French-speaking, German-language-and-culture-loathing, homosexual philosopher-king was palpably absurd. More cogent, perhaps, was the idea that Frederick was a militarist and the inventor of Blitzkrieg: the pre-emptive strike, which he used most effectively against the Saxons at the start of the Seven Years War; that he had bombarded the jewel-city of Dresden and destroyed about a fifth of it (the British and Americans completely flattened it in 1945); and that he had been party to the First Partition of Poland.

All of which is true, up to a point; even if the Saxons could hardly claim to have been innocent lambs and the Prussian ‘militarism’ he extolled can be more properly attributed to his cruel and boorish father. He did not have much time for Poles, but that had more to do with their constitution, elected monarchy and idle nobility than anything else. There were also many aspects of Frederick’s reign that were progressive and positive; indeed, it would be hard to think of a cleverer or more multi-facetted monarch in modern history.

It took a long time to clear his name, but now, when I look at the Web, for example, I find mostly positive things and I might take some small credit for having cleared the air with my biography of the king, when it was published in 1999. It has even been translated into Polish.

In Germany too, attitudes towards the king have changed mightily since the Wall fell. During the Cold War, Frederick was associated with that evil Prussian militarism that had been fiercely condemned by the Allies in the Second World War. As the year-long party planned for Berlin and Potsdam bears out, Old Fritz has come in from the cold.


Kreisleriana

Posted: 15th December 2011

I had half considered dedicating this blog to the election of Tracey Emin to the chair of drawing at the Royal Academy, but I have changed my mind. During what is now - sadly - an inevitable nightly bout of insomnia, I thought of calling for the removal of my great-grandfather’s name from the annals of the Academy but by the morning my rage had abated, and I felt that having died nearly a hundred years ago John Henry Bacon had had the good fortune to miss the profanation of what was once a great institution not to mention the sight of that great bollocks that is the London art scene today.

And the news could have been worse after all: I recently predicted that Tracey, Damien Hirst or Rachel Whiteread would be given one or two of the vacant places in the Order of Merit in succession to Lucien Freud. Of course this could still happen, indeed it probably will. You can just imagine some dreadful, philistine, governmental marketing-wallah coming up with one of these charlatans, invoking the encouragement it would give to other charlatans who might want to make a blotchy scrawl of a woman wanking and call it art. It would be a gesture in keeping with the spirit of the age, just like choosing a woman who gives every impression of having no digital dexterity whatever for the post of the country’s most senior draughtsman.

In my mind Rachel Whiteread deserves a special place in hell as the woman who destroyed the Judenplatz in Vienna with that dreadful concrete ‘Klotz’ commemorating the fate of the city’s Jews. It is a sort of ersatz Third Reich bunker placed in the middle of one the city’s prettiest squares. When the city fathers finally come to their senses, they will find it as hard to remove as those genuine Third Reich air raid shelters, the elimination of which has robbed them of their sleep these past sixty-five years.

The erection of Rachel’s bunker is of course the result of a philistinism every bit as nauseating as that which counts for patronage here and it makes me wonder what the great Georg Kreisler must have made of it?

Kreisler died on 22 November. I am sorry to say I never met the man, although I had the luck to run into his former patron Gerhard Bronner a few times at the late and lamented Broadway Bar the last proper cabaret venue in the First Bezirk.

The Viennese philistine or ‘Spiesser’ was a natural target for the poet and caberettist Kreisler. In a song like Oper, Burg und Josefstadt he mocks the smug self-sufficiency of his fellow citizens, who felt that Vienna contained all the culture it needed in its two classic theatres and opera house.

Many of those who had made Vienna what it was were Jews like Kreisler and Bronner. Those two were among the few to return after the war, but unlike Bronner, Kreisler couldn’t forget, let alone forgive. He saw his former tormenters standing boldly on every corner, absolved from guilt by the Moscow Declaration of 1943, which had labelled the Austrians Hitler’s ‘first victims’ - something that he called ‘one of the biggest lies in the history of mankind.’

He had become an American during the war, and made no attempt to get his Austrian citizenship back any more than the Austrian government seemed ready to arrange it. They did, however, send him birthday cards - as did successive presidents (with the exception of Waldheim) - even after he took out an advertisement in Die Presse telling them where they could put them.

Austrians were afraid of him and what he might say. As he voiced it in the style of a self-deprecating Schmäh:

‘Don’t waste your time, but he’s good-ish,
There is a fascination.
He’s Viennese and he’s Jewish -
And that’s a lethal combination.’

‘This city has never lifted a finger for me.’ He wrote of Vienna, which makes me think that he would have quickly seen through the sop to international sensibilities on the Judenplatz. One of his most enduring lyrics was Wie schön wäre Wien ohne Wiener (How lovely Vienna would be without the Viennese). After a few years there it became too much to bear and he beetled off to Munich, Berlin, Basel and Salzburg; an ‘Ausgestossener’ or reject, permanently on the run.

But in spite of - possibly even because of - his travails, he was an artist who combined a stunning musical ability with a dazzling capacity to make the cumbersome German language dance to his tune. Had the Nazis not seized his hometown in March 1938, he might have continued his musical education; even become ‘Herr Professor Kreisler’, and a star in the academic firmament. Whatever had been his destiny, however, one thing is certain: he would not have needed to raise more than an eyebrow to eclipse this wanker at the Royal Academy.


The End of a Tyrant

Posted: 18th November 2011

I don’t imagine I was alone in finding the films revelling in Gaddafi’s death disgusting. It was not just the ‘snuff movie’ aspect, the sight of a lot of scruffy youths baying for his blood, or the ghoulish masses parading past his stinking corpse; but it was the thought of the months and millions NATO spent pinning back his arms to allow this cowardly rabble to kill him - you couldn’t call that shower an army. I suppose we can only be grateful that they stopped where they did: roughing him up, dragging him through the streets and shoving a metal pipe into his anus. We must count ourselves lucky we were not treated to a film of him being buggered or castrated or both.

And then we had the pathetic utterances of the head of the NTC assuring us he’d been killed by his own men in crossfire when we had all seen perfectly well what had happened. Surely if the West was sponsoring his downfall, they had a say in the manner of his passing: they should have made it clear he was to be brought to justice and not torn to shreds by a bunch of barbarians.

I am sure Gaddafi was a perfectly horrible man and his hands indelibly stained with blood. His end was reminiscent of some Roman emperor who had failed to please the mob. He was brutally murdered, but in this case his body was not thrown in the Tiber but transformed into some sort of macabre ‘installation’ set up in a butcher’s cold store. Which emperor he resembled most is hard to decide: certainly not an Augustan - one of the later ones, rather; an ostentatious and perverted easterner perhaps? Maybe he came closest to Heliogabalus? He was a far less impressive man than his friend Silvio Berlusconi: the nearest thing the modern world has seen to the Emperor Tiberius.

Gaddafi was washed up. Perhaps it was better that he die, but the person who cast the stone should have been without sin. What exactly had Gaddafi done to the boy who administered the coup de grâce? He made Libya a very prosperous place, even if it was not exactly free. I had my own experience of Gaddafi’s acolytes in Paris at the end of the seventies. A French engineering firm sent a group of about a dozen young to youngish Libyans to the language school in the Avenue Georges V where I was working. They wanted them to learn English. In my recollection the firm was called ‘Behemoth’ but I think now that must have been my nickname.

When the men arrived they were the staunchest supporters of Gaddafi and the revolution he had brought to the land of King Idris. They beat the desk with their Green Books and spouted the maxims of the great man. I was not just their teacher; to some extent I was their guide. One man wanted to buy a ‘brown goat’. I was slightly at a loss to know where I might get him such a thing in urban Paris. Then I learned he merely wanted a ‘coat’.

I went with them up the Eiffel Tower. The only time in my life I have ever done so.

The point about the men of ‘Behemoth’, however, was that when faced with the agréments of the French capital, their revolutionary virtue began to crumble.  They complained first about Gaddafi’s friend Abdessalam Jalloud, quietly at first, and then the clamour rose to a crescendo. Their attendance trailed off, and when they came in, they fell asleep. I was prepared to accept that my teaching was not scintillating, but it transpired their tiredness had another cause.

They were staying in one of the big modern hotels by the Porte Dauphine, and had fallen prey to the prostitutes who banged on their doors at night. Worse that that: these stout warriors for the Muslim cause had discovered drink, so when they were not given over to Morpheus they were suffering from hangovers. By the time their six weeks training was up they were as ferocious in their opposition to the regime as they had been in defending it at the outset.

Gaddafi’s fate begs the question of what would have happened had Hitler been caught alive by the Red Army. The Führer was in no doubt that death was preferable by far, and he was not going to let them take it out on his body either, or that of Frau Hitler or his favourite dogs. His servants had clear instructions to burn all the corpses.

Hitler himself thought he would be paraded through Soviet Russia in a cage. He would almost certainly have been subjected to long and gruelling interrogations before his final execution, possibly a big pompous occasion on Red Square with hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens bussed in to watch. How long he would have lived as a ‘prize’ is hard to say. They were reluctant to yield up the only field marshal they captured - Friedrich Paulus, and he was only freed (he had to agree to live in East Germany) after Stalin’s death in 1953; but he had had a dacha to himself near Moscow and was treated very civilly.

Paulus had atoned for his role in the attack on the Soviet Union. Hitler would not have been released. On the other hand, I am sure even he would have been allowed to die with more dignity than Gaddafi.


Mariandl in the Wachau

Posted: 17th October 2011

Last month I was invited to Austria by the Vinea Wachau organisation to attend the annual Smaragd tasting in Weissenkirchen. It was a gloriously warm weekend, and the combination of late summer sun and magnificent hospitality made it all the more memorable. Not only was I unstintingly entertained by the younger Leo Alzinger, Franz Hirtzberger, the younger Emmerich Knoll and Rudi Pichler, who showed me some truly sensational wines, I was able to see who was in and who was out and note the progress of certain younger, lesser-known growers - notably Bracher (very baroque wines), Galhofer, Josef ‘Graben’ Gritsch, Hick, Karthäuserhof, Lehensteiner, Machherndl, Ilse Mazza, Rixinger and Sigl.

The Wachau is a tourist trap; and for good reason - it is one the loveliest landscapes in Europe. It is certainly not new to me: I visited it for the first time in 1969, travelling with my mother, but how we made the journey from Vienna I could tell you now. I remember the blue-painted abbey church in Dürnstein and of course the castle, where the minstrel Blondel rumbled his master Richard the Lionheart. It has been a romantic ruin since it was slighted by the Swedes in 1645.

In 1990, I agreed to write a book about Austrian wine. As nothing happened until January 1991 it was already carnival before I made it up river. Indeed, I recall an unscheduled stop in Stein when the car broke down in the snow, and I wandered into he bowels of the mediaeval town to buy a carnival doughnut while my frustrated and angry driver tinkered about under his bonnet.

That driver was Martin Kelner, a talented musician who taught at the music Hochschule in Salzburg and did odd jobs for the ÖWM - the Austrian wine marketing organisation. I can’t think how much time I spent with Martin that year, but we were on the road for weeks and weeks, and I benefited hugely from his enthusiasm for wine and good restaurants.

To amuse Martin on the way, I made up a comic story about the Wachau and thereabouts. It brought together the porcine German cyclists who clutter up the roads in summer, the Bulgarian sailors in their river cruisers who ply the Danube between Passau and the Black Sea, the Loch Ness pub in Langenlois and Mariandl.

Mariandl was Martin’s contribution. She was the sugar-sweet Wachauer heroine of post-war Austria - love interest in a dirndl - a story that had been remade again and again, and quite possibly was about to be heated up in 1991. Martin sang me the film’s theme tune, made a tape of it for me and even - like a good teacher - bought me the sheet music. You can hear to Waltraut Haas singing it here.

I eventually wrote the novel but it never saw the light of day. Occasionally I tinker about with it, rather as Martin did with his car that day in Stein, although unlike him, I have never managed to get it moving. I even had another look at it the other day after I got back from the Wachau.

Although it must come up on Austrian television from time to time, I was swiftly reminded that was at a disadvantage, as I had never actually seen the film Martin was referring to. So I tried Youtube and bingo - Mariandl! If it wasn’t all there, there was about two thirds of it, and that was quite enough. It was a fairly lightweight film made in 1961 with Rudolf Prack as Hofrat Geiger, Walraut Haas playing Mariandl’s mother Marianne Mühlhuber, and Cornelia Froboess as Mariandl. The celebrated Hans Moser played the innkeeper.

Geiger discovers by chance that at the end of the war he sired a daughter called Mariandl. He hadn’t been able to marry the mother because he was a Wehrmacht lieutenant at the time and had a pressing appointment with an Allied tribunal. There were some nice colour shots of Dürnstein and a period feeling of Austria at the time when the economic miracle had begun to kick in. And just about everyone sang the Mariandl theme, composed by Geiger in his lovelorn youth.

The story was taken from a play called Der Hofrat Geiger written by Martin Costa, first performed in Prague during the war and made into a film in 1947. Here I able to locate the totality on Youtube. It was one of the first Heimatfilme and an important document in the Austrian attempt to redefine their national identity and distance themselves from their wartime association with Germany.

Hofrat (a sort of permanent undersecretary of state) Geiger is played by Paul Hörbiger, who will be best remembered by non-German speakers as the ill-fated porter in The Third Man. He has been ousted from his ministry by the Nazis, but, mandarin to the last, he misses the work, and his lackey Ferdinand Lechner has to borrow dossiers so that his master might work on them a while before Lechner quietly returns them to their rightful places in the ministerial archives. When Lechner is caught red-handed a civil servant suggests he just take them from a bombed-out building which is open to the skies. He also has to buy his master’s provisions with antiques: Austria had yet to receive a post-war currency and was stranded in limbo between the Reichsmark and the Schilling.

In this film Hans Moser plays Lechner. Moser had been mauled by Goebbels in 1938, because of his Jewish wife. As a result he agreed to live with her in Hungary. In this original version, Waltraut Haas plays the ingénue role: Mariandl, while Maria Andergast is her fierce mother.

In the 1947 film, Geiger is reading a borrowed file when he discovers by chance that he fathered a daughter in Spitz in the Wachau in 1929: Mariandl. He determines to put matters right, but both he and Mariandl’s mother - for whom he wrote the Mariandl theme - are both too proud to confess their love for each another and while she accepts his hand in marriage she refuses to live with him. Matters are complicated, however, by the news that she is domiciled in Znaim, now in communist Czechoslovakia and that she will have to go back there if she cannot obtain letters of naturalisation. The pursuit of these letters forms the funniest and most atmospheric part of the film, as Marianne is forced to spend all winter in Vienna going from civil service department to municipal office only to find the doors closed and marked ‘Don’t knock!’ or that as a result of that worst winter of in human memory, everyone has gone home.

Meanwhile Geiger has been restored to his job by the non-Nazi government and is aware of Marianne’s plight. While he uses his power to delay her application he quietly pumps money into Marianne’s inn in Spitz. When she finally returns home she finds that the Hofrat’s largesse has transformed it out of recognition. Mariandl has married in her absence and has a child. Needless to say they all live happily ever after and the final rendition of the Mariandl theme is sung by none other than Hans Moser.

Der Hofrat Geiger was shot in black and white in Spitz and there are enchanting views from the Blaue Gans inn back towards Dürnstein. It also shows how poor and primitive the Wachau was just after the war. Nothing much had changed since the Kaiser’s day and as the wine enjoyed no great reputation, the people lived simple lives, unvisited by any Bulgarian sailors or clumsy porpoises on bicycles.


Frederick the Great’s Erotic Poetry

Posted: 20th September 2011

A gentle breeze of excitement has blown in from Berlin: an erotic poem has been discovered, written by Frederick the Great and despatched to Voltaire from Königsberg on 20 July 1740, the very day the king received the homage of his East Prussian nobles. The BBC reported on it on 19 September. The poem deals with ‘jouissance’ or orgasm, and was inspired by his friend Francesco Algarotti’s contention that southern Europeans take more pleasure in sex than the frigid men of the north. The thought must have been provoked by the rather chilly city of Königsberg (or an even chillier monarch), where Frederick had arrived in the company of Algarotti and Dietrich von Keyserlingk. Here is the poem:

De Königsberg à Monsieur Algarotti, cygne de Padoue

Cette nuit, contentant ses vigoureux désirs
Algarotti nageait dans la mer des plaisirs.
Un corps plus accompli qu’en tailla Praxitèle,
Redoublait de ses sens la passion nouvelle.
Tout ce qui parle aux yeux et qui touche le cœur,
Se trouvait dans l’objet qui l’enflammait d’ardeur.
Transporté par l’amour, tremblant d’impatience,
Dans les bras de Cloris à l’instant il s’élance.
L’amour qui les unit, échauffait leurs baisers
Et resserrait plus fort leurs bras entrelacés.
Divine volupté! Souveraine du monde!
Mère de leurs plaisirs, source à jamais féconde,
Exprimez dans mes vers, par vos propres accents
Leur feu, leur action, l’extase de leurs sens!
Nos amants fortunés, dans leurs transports extrêmes,
Dans les fureurs d’amour ne connaissaient qu’eux-mêmes:
Baiser, jouir, sentir, soupirer et mourir,
Ressusciter, baiser, revoler au plaisir.
Et dans les champs de Gnide essoufflés sans haleine,
Etait de ces amants le fortuné destin.
Mais le bonheur finit; tout cesse le matin.
Heureux, de qui l’esprit ne fut jamais la proie
Du faste des grandeurs et qui connut la joie!
Un instant de plaisir pour celui qui jouit,
Vaut un siècle d’honneur dont l’éclat éblouit.

For those who stumble on the French, here is a rough and ready translation:

From Königsberg to Monsieur Algarotti, Swan of Padua

This night, vigorous desire in full measure,
Algarotti wallowed in a sea of pleasure.
A body not even a Praxitiles fashions
Redoubled his senses and imbued his passions
Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts,
Was found in the fond object that enflamed his parts.
Transported by love and trembling with excitement
In Cloris’ arms he yields himself to contentment
The love that unites them heated their embraces
And tied bodies and arms as tightly as laces.
Divine sensual pleasure! To the world a king!
Mother of their delights, an unstaunchable spring,
Speak through my verses, lend me your voice and tenses
Tell of their fire, acts, the ecstasy of their senses!
Our fortunate lovers, transported high above
Know only themselves in the fury of love:
Kissing, enjoying, feeling, sighing and dying
Reviving, kissing, then back to pleasure flying.
And in Knidos’ grove, breathless and worn out
Was these lovers’ happy destiny, without doubt.
But all joy is finite; in the morning ends the bout.
Fortunate the man whose mind was never the prey
To luxury, or grand airs, one who knows how to say
A moment of climax for a fortunate lover
Is worth so many aeons of star-spangled honour.

The poem was discovered by Vanessa de Senarclens of the Humboldt University in Berlin. It was originally sent to Voltaire but it is not to be found in the correspondence between the king and his philosopher, nor does it seem to have been known to Preuss, who published the totality of the king’s writings between 1846 and 1857. Preuss showed little reluctance to include other material that revealed the sexual inclinations of his hero, so he can’t have seen this. The text in question was that owned by Algarotti himself. In 1894, it was sent to Berlin, but rather than let it appear in the press, the prudish Emperor William II placed it in the archives where is has languished ever since.

It appeared in Die Zeit on 15 September. In her commentary, Vanessa de Senarclens says it was the first poem Frederick had written since ascending to the throne on 31 May. She also takes it as read that it is an erotic poem about Algarotti’s taste for women.

Like Keyserlingk, however, Algarotti was notoriously homosexual. Before coming to Prussia he had been the lover of Baron Hervey, who was characterised as the catamite ‘Sporus;’ in Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. Whether or not Algarotti performed similar services for the new King of Prussia is not known but his sexual antics clearly amused Frederick who wrote another poem soon after in which Algarotti has acquired a dose of venereal disease from a Berlin whore. As Hervey’s biographer David Halsband has pointed out, the genders of the prostitutes were ‘euphemistic’, probably much like the ‘Aphrodite’ of Madame de Senarclens’ discovery. Voltaire was less discreet and pointed out that Algarotti’s paramour was a Monsieur de Lugeac, secretary to the French ambassador Valori:

Mais quand, chez le gros Valori,
Je vois le tendre Algarotti
Dresser d’une vive embrassade
Le beau Lugeac, son jeune ami,
Je crois voir Socrate affermi
Sur la croupe d’Alcibiade…

Which I rendered thus in my biography of Frederick the Great:

Whenever, with fat Valori
I see tender Algarotti
Stiffen with an electric pass,
Lugeac, his young friend so pretty,
I seem to see Socrates at last,
Clasped to Alcibiades’ arse…

Frederick no doubt appreciated Algarotti’s companionship as well as having a genuine respect for his achievements - despite his behaviour in the bas fonds of Berlin. Later that year he invested him with the title of ‘count’ and packed him off on a diplomatic mission to Turin. The question raised by the poem is whether Frederick is describing a brief liaison he might have had with the Italian. If that was the case, it would very much conform to the stories printed about the king in Voltaire’s scurrilous memoirs. With time he became more discreet.


The History of an Abomination

Posted: 16th August 2011

Some day a brave or foolhardy man or woman will write a history of concentration camps in the twentieth century. There is certainly enough material for a big book. Leaving aside the famous Nazi camps for now, you could start with the British in the Boer War - as the Germans were wont to do when criticised. British camps form some of the more gruesome scenes in the German propaganda film Ohm Krüger (1941). They may have had a point: in one month 336 people died in one camp in the Transvaal, including 250 children. On the other hand the British may have got the idea from the Spanish, who isolated half a million peasants in this way during the Cuban War, just a few years before.

The next chapter would bring in the Turkish treatment of the Armenians, which resulted in the deaths of millions; then, you could dwell on all the lethal techniques used by the Soviet Russians in their gulags, which in their turn, inspired the Nazis, who were remarkably open to Bolshevik methods while abhorring their ideology. In passing you could mention the copycat camps set up by the Czechs, Jugoslavs and Poles after the Second World War to deal with captured Germans, or the Soviet ones in Germany itself. People died in their thousands, although the Russians, Czechs and Poles were certainly less efficient at killing than the Nazis had been, it was hardly for want of trying.

In Asia, the Japanese interned huge numbers resulting in great carnage as they deconstructed the Western empires in the Pacific. Scroll forward a generation and there were the Cambodian ‘killing fields’; and finally there could be an epilogue in which readers were reminded that Western countries still imprison people without trial. The British used ‘internment’ as a weapon to defeat the IRA. Was the famous ‘Maze’ at Long Kesh a concentration camp? And if so, has the concentration camp actually been phased out? Is Guantanamo Bay a concentration camp?

I mention this thorniest of subjects because I read a book last month written by a woman who had been in a Japanese camp in her childhood, and who has only recently been convinced to tell her story. The cruelty of the Japanese is legendary and the way they behaved towards their subject peoples - the Chinese in particular - was every bit as bad as the Germans. I have a friend who is in his nineties now and still hesitates to publish the diaries he wrote building the famous bridge over the River Kwai. He cannot bring himself to think of those times and many other former British servicemen have made the point that the Nazi treatment of Western prisoners of war at least was positively lenient compared to the Japanese. I stress Western: the Germans killed their Russian prisoners as the Russians killed them.

G Pauline Kok-Schurgers’The Remains of War (iUniverse inc, Bloomington Indiana) tells the story of the treatment of women and children by the Japanese in their camps in the former Dutch East Indies. It is predictably revolting and might have been all the more moving if an editor had been let loose on the text, to cut out the irksome repetitions and remove some of the toe-curling American idioms that make ‘Sofia’ (as Pauline becomes in the book) sound like bobby-sox-wearing sixth-grade high-school kid, rather than the little Dutch girl she surely was.

Sofia’s schoolmaster father was taken away by the Japanese and along with her mother, younger brother and sisters she was interned separately in a series of camps where the regimen went from bad to worse. They all survived, but there were moments when you thought they might not. Several women and children close to them died of disease while others were beaten to death by the Japanese.

Was the experience as bad as that meted out in Nazi camps? The comparison of suffering is a particularly murky field, but the author, or her publishers, have ended the book with a statement that the Japanese intended to slaughter all their prisoners after the war, which begs that question. On the cover of Pauline’s book, Japanese internment camps are described as ‘the other concentration camps of World War II.’  The European experience was slightly different, however. Had Pauline been a Jew and had her mother turned up at Auschwitz with her brood of little children, they would have all been taken straight to the gas chamber: Auschwitz had no use for mothers and children who could not be put to work. The death factories of the east - Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and the rest - were just facades; not really camps at all, as those who entered were immediately put to death.

The way Pauline’s family was treated was indeed vile. There is not doubt that they suffered and probably suffer to this day. It would also be easy to argue that it is worse to live, and see others die around you than to be swiftly despatched by a bullet or a gas pellet?

Concentration camps came in all shapes and sizes. Nowadays they tend to be remembered exclusively for their use in the extermination of the Jews (although Timothy Snyder affirms that more Jews were killed outside camps than in them). Until 1938, however, the population of German ‘KZs’ was mostly composed of political prisoners and criminals. They were never nice places, but treatments varied. Some of them had special sections for privileged prisoners: the British spy Sigismund Payne Best used to dress for dinner at Sachsenhausen, and a similar luxury compound existed at Dachau. There was even a cosy ‘camp’ in Bayreuth where inmates were set to work making the more intricate ingredients for V2 rockets and Wagner’s grandson Wieland was involved with the administration.  Such moments provide some light relief in the history of an abomination.


FELIX ZIRNER

Posted: 18th July 2011

In idle moments I have been trying to piece together the last years of my maternal grandfather Felix Zirner. In my quest, I have found Leo Spitzer’s book Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism to be of help. Spitzer was born in Bolivia in 1940 - literally smuggled out of Austria in the womb - and his experiences, and more particularly the experiences of his parents and their friends - must have been similar to Felix’s.

Felix left Vienna sometime towards the end of September 1938 and travelled by ship to South America, arriving in La Paz on 3 November. I had always believed he went to Buenos Aires first, as his passport says he had permission to enter Argentina; but there is also a stamped transit visa for Chile, and reading Spitzer I realised that it is more likely that he docked there. The return trip - Genoa to Genoa - took approximately ten weeks: so half of that would have accounted for the lapse of time between his vaccination (25 September) and his appearance in Bolivia.

So Felix went directly to Chile and it seems he must have travelled on one of three ships belonging to the Italia Line, Virgilio, Augustus and Orazio that sailed from Genoa to Valparaiso. The ship stopped in some if not all of the following ports: Marseille, Barcelona, Las Palmas, Trinidad, La Guaira in Venezuela, Cristóbal on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, Baranquilla or Buenaventura in Colombia and Callao in Peru before arriving at Arica: Chile’s northernmost port. Jews bound for Bolivia were lowered into boats here and taken ashore. The ship then continued to Valparaiso before turning round and making for home.

Arica was in the middle of a desert and effectively cut off from the rest of Chile. The only way to get there was by a twice-weekly transport from La Paz. The refugees waited in a bedbug-infested hotel for a train powered by two locomotives that took a full day to reach the Bolivian border at Charaña where it put up for the night. There was no hotel and some Jews preferred to sleep in the church because it was too cold on the train. By now the altitude had begun to take effect and the passengers felt very ill. They arrived in La Paz in the next evening.

Jews sought refuge in Bolivia because it had a comparatively liberal attitude to immigration. Felix, however, had had another reason to choose the Andean republic: his first cousin Otto Braun. He was travelling with Otto’s mother Gisela Braun: his father’s youngest sister and her other son Robert. Gisela had been a widow since her husband the lawyer Dr. Jonas Braun died in the mid-twenties. Jonas was the first cousin of the prominent socialists Heinrich Braun and Emma Adler, and Otto and Robert were therefore the second cousins of Friedrich Adler, the man who assassinated the Austrian Prime Minister Graf Karl Stürgkh as he ate lunch in the Hotel Meissl und Schadn in Vienna on 21 October 1916.

Otto Braun was already well established in Bolivia. He was an agronomist who had emigrated in the twenties, initially working for the immensely rich Patiño family. He was married outside the faith to a local girl called Mercedes Trujillo, and was notably unlike the Jews who came later, who had been scattered by Hitler’s policies at home.

The Patiños were the biggest mine owners in Bolivia, closely followed by the German-born Jew Mauricio Hochschild. Hochschild was the principal resource for the impoverished Jews who landed in Bolivia. In January 1939, using funds made available by the Joint Distribution Committee in New York, he founded ‘SOPRO’ (Sociedad de Protección a los Imigrantes Israelitas - The Society for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants) with branches in La Paz, Cochabamba and a handful of other Bolivian towns.

SOPRO created an agricultural training centre for Jews at Todos Santos, some two hundred kilometres north-east of Cochabamba. The plan was worked out by Otto Braun and it was hoped that as many as 5,000 Jews might settle in the sub-tropical region and turn it into something verging on the Garden of Eden. The project had full government backing and President Germán Busch offered them further concessions on the Chimoré river. The idea of turning the Jewish refugees into farmers was pursued further at another site - Buena Tierra - granting ten-hectare lots to settlers. Braun remained at the centre of it all, but the bottom fell out of the scheme after the unexpected death of the Bolivian president and Braun threw in the towel in June 1942.

There is no evidence that Felix considered joining Otto’s colony. I have a picture of him taken in La Paz. He is on the terrace of a restaurant with his aunt Gisi, his cousin Robert and Otto’s daughter Marianne. I assume either Otto or Mercedes took the photo as neither is in it. According to Otto’s granddaughter Gisela Alba Braun, Felix quit La Paz for Bolivia’s second city Cochabamba because he needed work, but the La Paz’s altitude might have had something to do with his decision. With an average elevation of 14,000 feet, Bolivia was way too high for Felix who had suffered from a weak heart from childhood. Even healthy men could not bear it: as the train moved up from Arica to La Paz ‘people’s noses and ears were bleeding. Some were haemorrhaging.’ As one Jewish refugee put it, Bolivia was ‘was only to be tolerated by persons with a very strong heart and healthy lungs…’

The centre of La Paz is situated at 11,975 feet with the suburban hills rising to 14,500 feet. Felix must have been in terrible pain. Cochabamba lay at a more tolerable 7,400 feet and Jews suffering from altitude sickness were sent there to recuperate. Somewhere along the line he decided to abandon his vocation as a jeweller and set himself up as a wood carver.

In the short time left to him, he explored the countryside around Cochabamba. He took his meals with the Tisch family he had met on the ship coming out and struck up a close friendship with Hochschild’s manager in Cochabamba, Ulli Marcus. A friend leaves us of a glimpse of those last days: Felix with a volume of Shakespeare in his hand, enjoying his leisure between commissions: ‘… In his spare time he was fond of making excursions into the surrounding country, studied the habits and customs of the Indians, sought to purchase old carvings and pictures, and was as pleased as a child when he found a beautiful article. We spent many Sundays in the beautiful little farm owned by Mr Marcus, bathing or sun-bathing, and conversing until evening…’

In November 1942, Felix’s health collapsed. He died aged thirty-eight on 10 May 1943.


John Graham and Laurence O’Connell

Posted: 15th June 2011

Two more deaths that have gone virtually unrecorded. In the case of John Graham there were a couple of snippets in the Evening Standard diary: londonersdiary.standard.co.uk/2011/05/farewell-to-the-mischievous-charming-john-graham.html, londonersdiary.standard.co.uk/2011/05/the-many-lives-of-a-multi-faceted-writer-.html. Laurence’s disappearance seems to have been almost wholly unrecorded bar four or five short films posted on YouTube by has last wife. They provide a bittersweet record of his last days. There are plans, however, to hold a memorial service at his old Oxford college, probably next term.

I didn’t know John well, I wonder now whether anyone did. I wouldn’t be able to say whether he had ever been married or whether he liked girls or boys. He lived alone, I believe he said somewhere near Lisson Grove.

He was a typical hard-headed Ulster Scot who could drink anyone under the table; I cannot recall ever seeing him drunk. He was brought up in Dublin, where his family operated a large commercial laundry that went by the name of ‘Swastika’ and customers received their starched and ironed shirts in boxes embossed with just that. When Hitler rose to power, there were questions raised about the Swastika Laundry in the City’s more intellectual pubs and bars, but it was pointed out that in this case the symbol referred to good fortune and had no racial connotations.

The laundry made enough money for the family to send John to Eton and from there he went up to Worcester College, Oxford. He was a journalist with the Observer and the FT in Washington, but somewhere along the way he blotted his copybook.

I got to know him in the mid-eighties when we both enjoyed the gravy train operated by the infamous PR-man Alan Crompton-Batt. Crompton-Batt demanded generous retainers from restaurants and drinks companies to ensure press coverage. He would then send out his harem of gorgeous, pouting ‘Batt-Girls’ to lure in journalists in the hope of getting positive copy.

Quite often, Crompton-Batt merely blanketed the target by inviting as many hacks as he could conjure up to attend a restaurant or hotel launch, and provided so much drink that the journalists would have been unlikely to remember the story the following morning. I think this was the case when I met John: we were bidden to a hotel somewhere in the Midlands. Two coaches were stuffed with hacks and topped up with Taittinger champagne. Corks popped before we had left London and we were mostly drunk on arrival. Weary from a long day we arrived back at the Batt offices in Covent Garden still baying for champagne and we clamoured so loudly we got it.

On another occasion I flew to Milan with John and others as a guest of the scriptwriter Allan Shiach, the then proprietor of the Macallan whisky. As our bus crossed the suburbs of the city John spotted a bar where people were playing backgammon. He vowed to return later. The next morning he told us in his deadpan way he had pocketed a tidy sum.

Despite the upsets of his earlier career, John found a niche at the Tatler at an age when most journalists have problems finding work. His brief expanded from booze and betting to wine and he used to ring occasionally to consult me on a piece he was writing. His experience and savoir-faire was considered indispensable to everyone around, from the editor, Geordie Greig downwards. When Geordie took over at the Standard and the Independent, John naturally came too. The last time I saw him his rugged features they were peering out of the pages of the Standard. He died from cancer on 18 May at the age of seventy-one.

Laurence was a generation younger, and my contemporary at Oxford. He had come up to Oriel as the history scholar a month short of his seventeenth birthday. In my first year I spent a good deal of time at Oriel, and got to know many of the freshmen. Most were public schoolboys and oarsmen. Laurence had come from a grammar school in Huddersfield and was occasionally gently teased about his Yorkshire accent. He took it in his stride: he knew he was cleverer than the whole lot of them put together.

Indeed, his tutor Jeremy Catto once told me that Laurence was the brightest man he had ever taught. He was no gnome for all that, burning the midnight oil in the library. He played his violin in the university orchestra and struck a firm friendship with the flamboyant marquess’s son Xan Rufus-Isaacs. One day they hit on the idea of inviting Oxford’s many tramps into Oriel to give them a bath. I think it was Catto who spoiled their fun, but only at the last moment.

That would have been in his third year, and the time when I got to know him better. I recall him taking me together with one of Xan’s jilts out for a row on the Cherwell: he seemed to enjoy playing Pandarus. He was admirably composed in the face of Schools. I met him in the High after one paper where he told me ‘I looked at the questions and I said to myself: the nerd in front of me and the nerd behind me will answer it like this, but I am going to turn the question on its head.’ Needless to say he got his first and they didn’t; and he was still only nineteen.

I went abroad after leaving Oxford, where I was disappointed to learn that Laurence had become an accountant. After that the trail ran cold for nearly thirty years, until I ran into Tony Sellors, another Oriel contemporary, at a house party in Norfolk. Tony was in contact with Laurence and soon enough I had an e.mail from the very man asking me to lunch at Man Financial in the City.

It was there that I heard Laurence’s story. He had worked in banking in the United States for several years, where he had also played violin for various east Coast orchestras. His pride and joy being his Guarneri, which he played at every opportunity. He had been married twice, had four children by his second wife, Jacqui and was now chief operating officer of the bank. His account was occasionally interrupted by the need to speak to a client about a deal involving many millions of pounds.

Over the next few months we saw Laurence often. He came here with his violin and we went to stay with his family in his lovely old house in Deal. He had built himself a wooden shed, lined it with the complete works of Calvin and was proposing to write a book on late mediaeval religion. Possibly under the influence of the notorious Catholic-baiter Hugh Trevor-Roper, Laurence had renounced the religion of his birth. He had foresworn alcohol in the eighties but he was a generous host and there was nothing he enjoyed more than performing a little piece on his violin with Tony Sellors at the piano.

Then Laurence announced that he was leaving Jacqui and going away. I think it was America first and then Singapore as CEO of MF Global. The last time I saw him was at a dinner in St James’s where he declared that he was about to take an Asian wife. Then the trail went cold again. The next thing I heard was that he had died on 12 April this year. 

A succession of odd and unsubstantiated rumours came out as well: that he had stopped working (confirmed by a letter of resignation on the Web from May 2010), that he had married twice since divorcing Jacqui, that his second wife was a Muslim, that he had converted to Islam and that - paradoxically - he had started drinking again. He had also sired a baby daughter called Sophia who appears in the videos. She must be about eighteen months old.

He reportedly died of a massive heart attack brought on by drink, cigarettes and lack of exercise. He was fifty-three.


George Hayim

Posted: 16th May 2011

Last month, I learned quite by chance that George had died. I had a sort of premonition, and looked on Google, where I found this short, but charming tribute. There wasn’t much more out there to mark his passing. He died on 2 January: too long ago for me to be able to organise a suitable obituary for him. His death should come as no great surprise, nor was it a great tragedy. He had celebrated his ninetieth birthday on 30 December.

I spent the next day or so thinking about him. I well remembered our first meeting. It was in Paris in 1980. George had picked up my late, ebullient friend, Willie ‘Priapus’ Purcell in the boulevard de Montparnasse. Willie subsequently arrived at my sister’s flat in a state of high excitement and told us we all had to meet ‘an extraordinary old queen’. As it was, George lived in the neighbouring block, across the flat roof of the Théâtre de Poche on the other side of the drab courtyard that formed the view from my sister’s window.

After some short introduction, during which he admitted he had just been bound and beaten up by a plumber, George pointed to a small puddle of semen on the floor: ‘Not bad for sixty!’ He exulted.

We were a group of hungry young men who had recently come down from Oxford: there was Priapus, Tim Hunt and myself, and more tangentially Hubert Gibbs. Hubert wasn’t really hungry because his father was consul-general, and he could always go back to a vast HMG flat in the seizième when he wanted a warm bed and a hot meal. George was literally manna from heaven, in that he presided over a large battery of cooking pots and a well-stocked larder, and was always ready to rustle up a meal. He was terrifically generous. If he thought we had no money he would find a way of insinuating it into our pockets. We were quite safe from his advances, however: apart from Priapus, that is, whom he adored, and because he wanted to know why he called himself Priapus. George stooped to conquer: he was aroused by muscle-bound plumbers, brickies and pastry chefs, not stuck up Oxford graduates.

George was born in Shanghai in 1920. His father, the businessman Ellis Hayim was the head of the Jewish community in the city, and as such came into his own in 1938, when Shanghai was the only place in the world Jews could go to without a visa. Ellis Hayim organised aid and relief for tens of thousands of bedraggled German and Austrian Jews. I mentioned this to George after our reconciliation in 2002. He appeared oblivious of the facts, but I suspected he knew more than he was letting on.

George was sent to school in England, to Harrow, from which he was expelled. He then went to St. Pauls (which he didn’t care to mention much as it had less cachet than Harrow), and from there to Trinity College Cambridge. He must have been the oddest undergraduate: it would be hard to imagine a less academic or indeed educated man. I never saw him read a serious book. He said he had read modern languages - French and German. He spoke French perfectly, but his efforts at German involved putting on a guttural accent and stringing together a lot of unrelated words. It was very funny, but it wasn’t German.

He was saved by the War: he was able to slip away and join the navy as a simple sailor. After 1945, he began his life in earnest, living on air, entertaining the boys (and girls) moving in grand circles while he resided in the maids’ rooms of hotels. That way he got to know people like Deborah Kerr, David Niven and Noel Coward. He was a great snob, and this world meant a good deal to him and he could naturally witter on about it for hours.

His father starved him of money because he disapproved of his wayward life (he had another son who was no better), so George would do outrageous things such as working in a men’s lavatory until his father agreed to bail him out. He achieved security only at his father’s death when the old man left him the interest on a charity. There was no formal award of cash for either brother.

In his digs at the top of grand hotels he would install a two-ring cooker and a few pots and brew up amazing meals. He used to joke about the mother of the girl I knew then, who was divorced and bored and who bought every imaginable kitchen gadget with the aim of preparing perfect feasts; but her cooking was not half as good as George’s.

I remember the food best: marvellous home-made jams, pumpkin soup, risottos, veal chops cooked ‘à la crème’ and chickens with ‘old’ basmati rice: he had a way with chickens. The kitchen was also part of the seduction routine: he’d invite brawny yobboes in and offer them food. After they had punctuated the meal with an appreciatory belch he would say ‘I bet you couldn’t tie me up and beat me black and blue?’ When they had done just that and George had had his fun, he’d make them a cup of tea or a pancake and while dipping into he sugar or the flour or wherever he’d hidden it, he’d filch out a few hundred francs and they’d have their little reward.

I used to go to the street-market in the rue de Buci with George. He was an exhibitionist, and the most important thing for him was that people should look at him. His favourite device was to wear extraordinary hats with the labels hanging off them or weird coats that made him look like the Michelin Man. He avoided homosexuals, whom he hated: ‘ban the buggers!’ He’d say, far too loudly, whenever he saw them, but he was not averse to buggery. He told me he had once been arrested in Brazil and sodomized by every policeman in the police station. He’d been in seventh heaven.

He preferred the company of women to men. He liked them to tell their stories - all the gory details - about husbands and lovers, because he thought himself one of them. He cultivated one particular rugged, beaten-up looking woman because he liked to imagine she had been subjected to some sort of violence, and that was how he got his kicks.

He could be tremendously witty. There was an untranslatable story I heard (and not from him) that he had sent a postcard to Max Théret, the founder of the FNAC in Paris, scrawled with the pun ‘à mon PDG, ton Pédé, G.’ He loved the telephone and would play all sorts of games with it, often ringing up a bemused secretary at the Académie française when he wanted to know the meaning of a word.

That I fell out with George - who had been telling nasty tales behind my back - is hardly surprising. He fell out with everybody, particularly men. There were a few charities, like Tony Heckstall Smith (‘Old Toe’) - who never dropped through the net. Heckstall Smith was already ancient and gaga when I met him. Three of his closest muckers were Garith Windsor, John Lindsay Opie and Richard Mason. Garith was a hugely handsome ladies’ man, a sometime journalist who had been living in Paris since the thirties. George refused to speak to him after he suggested George should pay taxes.  John Lindsay Opie was an urbane expert on Russian icons who lived in Rome, as did Mason, the creator of Suzie Wong. I recall an evening with the chef Franco Taruschio in Richard Mason’s lovely flat overlooking the Pantheon, and Mason telling me how impossible George had been.

I made my peace with George after a twenty-year frost when I had to go to the Iranian Embassy one day to get a visa. His London flat was nearby and I saw him through the window as I passed by. After my interview with the Iranians I dropped in for breakfast. He was surrounded by devotees as usual. He hated to be alone. I immediately remembered how soporific the atmosphere was with George twittering away in an overheated room, telling stories that were largely hot air.

He had three homes by then: in Paris and London they consisted of a ground floor flat where the walls were painted with elaborate, gaudy scenes. This was done to make people look in. Then, if he fancied them, George would lean out of the window and indicate the way to the door. In Paris the flat looked out on the ramp that issued from a cinema complex, meaning that literally thousands of people could peer in on George in the course of a day. In London it was in a pedestrian street by the Ark restaurant and it was said he broke the telephones in the boxes outside so that any frustrated but fetching oik who was unable to make a call could be invited in: ‘I’ve got a telephone!’ He’d scream from the window.

In the eighties he rescued a displaced Lebanese boy and acquired a bungalow in Sydney. He went to Australia when it was winter in the northern hemisphere. I never visited the house, but from the pictures I see it was decorated in a similarly garish style.

George penned two books in his long and picaresque life. I never read the one he wrote about the Obsession he bore for a man called Edmond. The other - Thou Shalt not Uncover thy Mother’s Nakedness - was published by Quartet in 1988. Although he had plenty of tales to tell, he was not a natural writer: such things required a mental discipline that he didn’t possess. He expected other people to write his books for him. He generally found someone, and then fell out with him afterwards.


Finis Austriae

Posted: 18th April 2011

I was performing my annual role at the Decanter World Wine Awards all last week. We work in an old factory building in London’s Parson’s Green which contains enough space to house the 250 odd judges needed to evaluate the more than 12,000 wines sent in by producers all round the globe. This year, for the first time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a room all to itself: there I was presiding over Cisleithania (Austria), while Transleithania (Hungary) was deliberating under another chairman along side. There were separate tables for the Croatians and Slovenians while the Czechs and Slovaks have yet to achieve independence and are represented by a few flights of wine on a mixed table that might present anything from Moldova to Cyprus. The Romanians have a table of their own, however and the present state of Romania contains a large area that was in Transleithania before 1918, and reflected in its indigenous cultivars. We were therefore happy to have them in our room.

Of course this was mere accident and not design, but it made sense, as there were obvious stylistic affinities between the wines. Just as when you travel in these regions you can’t fail to notice the presence of the baroque Schloss, the inevitable onion dome on the church and the pukka railway station and post office, their façades still revealing, here and there, traces of the original ‘Schönbrunner Gelb’. They may be talking Czech, Ukrainian or Croatian these days, but this was all once part of the Habsburg Empire.

The Habsburgs are belittled now, but much like the British Empire it was a remarkable achievement to placate so many races and administer such diverse regions. The army and the administration together with the German language were about the only mortar Vienna could provide to hold it together, and yet it worked pretty well until those centrifugal forces of nationalism rent it asunder during the closing months of the First World War. From one corner, President Woodrow Wilson, pulled up the carpet with his principle of self-determination, while Bolshevik Russia rallied the Slavs from the other. The punitive clauses of the Treaty of Saint Germain furnished the coup de grâce: the empire succumbed; but it would be hard to argue that this was inevitable and in many ways the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire has much to teach us today.

These thoughts occur to me often, but I had been reminded of the situation as I worked on an article on the premiership of Graf Heinrich Clam-Martinic in the second half of the First World War. Clam’s political career allegedly foundered on his inability to make the right sort of offers to the subject peoples at the time when Czech soldiers were deserting en masse to the Russians and the Ukrainians were seeking to set up an independent state in the vacuum left after the successful advance of the German army. The ‘South Slavs’ too were clamouring for autonomy, albeit still under the authority of the Habsburg Emperor.

It is a fascinating field of study, but my work is dogged by a paucity of historiography: the Habsburg Empire disappeared so quickly and so totally that no one seems to have had time to assemble the source material for later historians. The papers were left where they were: in the scattered former constituent parts of the empire. Yes, just as in Germany there are the recriminatory memoirs written by major military and political figures who sought to offload the blame on a prince or colleague, but whereas with a few adjustments, the German Empire remained intact after 1918 (it was only really scaled down after 1945), Austria slipped from being the hub of a major empire to one of the least significant nations in Europe. The issues, wrangles - gossip even - of those last days of greatness is now exceedingly difficult to lay your hands on.

Here in London, the British Library has only about half of the important published material. Thank God then for certain improvements that have come about as a result of the Web: namely the presence online of a number of easily consultable newspapers from the period.

One thing that is clear from these newspapers is that, much like British India, the world of high finance was one of the last elements to go. The businesses of the Empire continued their fragmented existence throughout the former Empire with their boards of directors composed perhaps of a mixture of Czechs, Austrians, Jugoslavs and Hungarians, just as they had been before 1918. Ten years later they were wiped out by the Wall Street Crash. When that happened, all these former Habsburg lands had to remind them of their past was the yellow-painted railway station and perhaps a few rows of vines: Grüner Veltliner or Blaufränkisch.


Speaking in Tongues

Posted: 14th March 2011

I realise I am becoming a typical old fogy whose ire is easily provoked. In my case it often comes in the morning, on the way to my son’s school, when a one-time schoolmistress, formed in the academy of jolly hockey sticks - to the degree that she might have understudied for Joyce Grenfell in the St. Trinians films - greets me with a raucous ‘Hi!’ I keep promising I shall respond with an equally sonorous ‘howdee!’ but all I actually do is utter a firm and embittered ‘good morning’.

I read an article recently by an educated British historian and MP who used the past participle ‘gotten’, which is surely nothing more than American dialect. This man was young, I suppose, and one forgives youth, but this is not the case of the Anglican clergyman from Norfolk whose hand I shake twice a year and who, when I ask him how he is, tells me that he’s ‘good’. I suppose he might mean morally good but I find it insulting a man of his cloth might imagine I think him bad.

For some time I have been wondering whether there was anyone out there who cared what happened to the English language or literature (how long before we start censoring books? I am prepared to bet that the Americans will take a knife to Hemingway in a year or two). Should the British Academy, for example, form a committee composed of a dozen leading linguists to study the problem? Rather than concern, however, I hear nothing but encomiums: what a wonderful language, beautifully adapted to change and twice as good as that horrible French language, which needs to have some sort of a dour matron in charge in the form of the dreaded Académie française, to stop it from misbehaving. English is elastic, English is vibrant, English is fun.

It occurred to me that the people who said these preposterous things could not possibly have any knowledge of other languages, and that there must be plenty who are just as alarmed as I was. I decided to write to a prominent journalist who has carved out a name for himself recently by extolling the virtues of grammar. He eventually wrote back to say that policing language was a nasty foreign habit: good English was taught by example and a few fine writers were worth any number of academies.

I looked on Google to see if there had been any call for a body to protect the language, and stumbled across something that might have made that putative grammarian nervous. The summer of 2010 saw the launch of a body calling itself the ‘Academy of Contemporary English’ under the chairmanship of a linguist and translator called Martin Estinel.

Estinel had succeeded in gaining the attention of the press, but his pedantry proved too much for them. One or two journalists reacted by agonising over the difference between the subjunctive and the conditional, but worse came when Estinel revealed that he still used the adjective ‘gay’ as a synonym for ‘jolly’ or ‘merry.’ This was too much for The Times, which promptly issued a thunderbolt in the form of a dismissive leader: Estinel and his chums were ‘fuddy-duddies’ and pedants; but that leader was a mere grunt compared to the reaction of the Godlike Stephen Fry, England’s greatest son, who awoke from his slumbers to bellow ‘outrage!’ Fry’s comment left Estinel’s campaign a lifeless corpse: there was nothing more to do but swiftly confine it to its grave.

Despite the bullish attitude of so many journalists, it is hard to escape the impression that the English language has actually left its orbit, and is in danger of becoming a sort of pidgin used essentially for when one foreigner needs to speak to another one who can’t communicate in his native Urdu or Japanese. It might be that English English is effectively dead as a creative idiom and that it died with its motherland some time in the ’sixties, although most of us didn’t notice the end for another twenty years. It was the language of the last phase of empire and its speakers were the imperial administrators who must have quietly thrown themselves on the funeral pyre, for there is no sign of them now. What passes for English is a celebration of the freedom to disassociate from an evil past, to ‘hang out, ‘do your own thing’, ‘chill out’. An attempt to impose order would be tantamount to ‘fascism’ or at the very least, an evocation of unwelcome ‘traditional’ values such as insisting that men wear jackets and ties, refrain from breaking wind in public or close their mouths when they are eating.

It is possible that the masters of modern English advocate the use of American idioms because that is the only part of the language that is just about alive. To be with it, you speak American. The schoolmarm, the historian and the vicar are therefore all under some sort of self-imposed pressure to Americanize their English. They are simply trying to be with it, believing that in ‘hi’, ‘gotten’, ‘you guys’ or ‘I’m good’ they have discovered a form of rejuvenation. Or is it that they understand that unless they bow to this hidden academy that has its headquarters in the press, they will be passed over, ostracised like those ancient Athenians who failed to toe the line?

As regards the French language, it appears that those who revile it are no more than a bunch of charlatans, who were beaten by it at school else they would not say such idiotic things. It is wonderfully precise and expressive all at once. I recently translated a book on testicles and was struck by how much richer the French vocabulary was than English - both in its British and American forms. One reason for this is the strict Académie, which forces so much of the creative side to reappear as slang, and French slang is a language all of its own.

Of course there is a real English academy that is far more powerful and a good deal more sinister than any other and which is impossible to ignore. Indeed, I am writing these words on a Microsoft Word file, while ‘spellcheck’ reminds me that I may not use the passive voice or reflexives, and that I have just done something monstrous by using a term that was ‘gender specific’. Let’s face it: the English Academy is Microsoft and its president is none other than the American Croesus, Bill Gates.


Vital Statistics

Posted: 16th February 2011

The following review of my book After the Reich appeared in the Basler Zeitung in Switzerland on 18 January. It was prompted by the reviewer’s interest in the runaway success of the Spanish translation. The newspaper did not choose to publish it in their online edition, so for German-speaking readers I have put it here in answer to the question I so often receive: why is there no German translation?

Deutsche als Opfer - ein Tabu

Christof Wamister

Ein englisches Buch über die Behandlung der Verlierer nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg stösst in Spanien auf Interesse. In Deutschland ist das alles längst bekannt - aber man lässt lieber die Finger von dem Thema.

«In Prag wurden Deutsche an Laternenmasten aufgehängt und als menschliche Fackeln verbrannt.» Das schrieb entsetzt die spanische Autorin Rosa Montero in ihrer Kolumne im Magazin «El País Semanal». Entnommen hat sie die schrecklichen Vorkommnisse den Besprechungen eines Buches, das in spanischer Übersetzung vergangenen Oktober erschienen ist. Verfasst hat es der englische Historiker Giles MacDonogh. Es heisst im Original: «After the Reich». «The brutal history of allied occupation» lautete der Untertitel der Erstausgabe von 2007.

Das lebhafte Interesse für sein Buch erstaunte den englischen Historiker bei der Präsentation in Spanien zuerst. Doch dann machte man ihn auf die Gräber mit den Skeletten von Erschossenen aufmerksam, die zurzeit in Spanien an verschiedenen Orten ausgegraben werden. Der Umgang der Sieger mit den Besiegten ist ein Thema, das die Spanier stärker denn je beschäftigt. Nach dem Ende des Spanischen Bürgerkriegs nahm das Franco-Regime Rache an den Verlierern.

In Deutschland gräbt man zwar kaum noch Skelette aus, aber man tut sich mit dem Problem auf eine andere Art schwer. Zwar wurden viele Einzelaspekte der deutschen Kriegs- und Nachkriegsleiden in den letzten Jahren wieder thematisiert: die Zerstörung der deutschen Städte durch die Luftangriffe, die Vertreibungen aus Mittel- und Osteuropa.

in deutschland unmöglich. Im Zusammenhang mit dem Fernsehfilm «Die Flucht» (2007) und anderen Publikationen entwickelte sich eine Debatte über die Frage, ob sich die Täter und Verlierer als Opfer darstellen dürfen. Doch kein deutscher Historiker könnte ein Buch über die brutalen Auswirkungen der alliierten Besetzung schreiben, ohne nicht in die rechte Ecke gestellt zu werden. Der Bann gilt auch jetzt: MacDonoghs Buch wurde in Deutschland nicht übersetzt.

Im englischsprachigen Raum waren die Reaktionen, wie in Spanien, überwiegend positiv. Nur eine Autorin deutscher Herkunft schrieb im «Times Literary Supplement» eine vernichtende Besprechung. Das sei ein Rückfall in die Zeit der frühen Fünfzigerjahre. Damals waren die Vertriebenenverbände noch stärker und die Erinnerungen an das Erlittene noch lebendiger.

MacDonogh stützt sich bei «After the Reich» auf Gespräche mit Zeitzeugen und auf Schilderungen, Memoiren und Quellenwerke, die in Deutschland schon lange bekannt sind. Aber bis jetzt hat es in deutscher Sprache noch niemand gewagt, ein gut lesbares Gesamtbild der Ereignisse zu liefern.

Der 55-Jährige verfolgt mit seinem Buch keine unlauteren politischen Absichten. Das ethische Problem umreisst er folgendermassen: Es sei auch in England gängige Meinung, dass die Deutschen verdient hätten, was sie am Kriegsende zu erdulden hatten. Und er habe keinesfalls die Absicht, mit seinem Buch die Deutschen zu entschuldigen. Aber es müsse deutlich gesagt werden, dass die Besiegten durch die Allierten oft schändlich behandelt wurden. «Und es waren in den meisten Fällen nicht die Politkriminellen, die vergewaltigt, ausgehungert, gefoltert oder zu Tode geschlagen wurden, sondern Frauen, Kinder und Alte.»

Das Leiden der Zivilbevölkerung und der Kriegsgefangenen war laut MacDonogh nicht nur die Folge eines bei einem Einmarsch in ein besiegtes Land herrschenden Chaos. Gemäss Auffassung der Alliierten, unter denen die USA die stärkste Stimme waren, mussten die Deutschen für den Angriffskrieg und die Vernichtungsstrategien kollektiv bestraft werden. Man liess sie zwei Jahre lang hungern; eine Massnahme, die vor allem die Schwächsten traf.

Die sowjetische Führung liess bekanntlich ihren Truppen bei der Eroberung des Landes und der Städte freien Lauf. Sie plünderten und vergewaltigten in grossem Umfang. Ausschreitungen in kleinerem Umfang gab es auch aufseiten der Westalliierten. Die Behandlung der Kriegsgefangenen verstiess oft gegen das humanitäre Völkerrecht. Sie wurden teilweise unter katastrophalen Bedingungen - unter freiem Himmel und bei Minimalernährung - untergebracht und zu jahrelangen Arbeiten abkommandiert. Die Zustände in vielen Gefangenenlagern beschäftigten das IKRK, dann aber auch die Medien und die Regierung.

Die vertraglich besiegelte Vertreibung von zwölf Millionen Deutschen aus ihren angestammten Gebieten in Mittel- und Osteuropa würde heute als ethnische Säuberung und Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit taxiert. Ein Beispiel dafür sind die Vertreibungen aus der Tschechoslowakei. Im Mai 1945 kam es in ganz Böhmen zu barbarischen Gewaltexzessen, von denen nicht nur die Träger einer Wehrmachts- oder SS-Uniform, sondern auch viele Unschuldige betroffen waren. Die Deutschen wurden von dem Gewaltausbruch überrascht, denn nach einer Repressionswelle in der Folge des Attentats auf «Reichsprotektor» Heydrich (1942) gab es kaum bewaffneten Widerstand gegen die Unterdrücker.

Vertrieben wurden rund drei Millionen Menschen, 240 000 kamen dabei um, schreibt MacDonogh unter Berufung auf deutsche Publikationen in den frühen Fünfzigerjahren. Andere gehen von rund 130 000 Toten aus; eine deutsch-tschechische Historikerkommission kam 1997 zu einem Befund von 15 000 bis 30 000 Todesopfern. Die Mordorgien wurden strafrechtlich nie verfolgt. Unabhängige Historiker haben sich aber mit den Ereignissen befasst, und sie werden nicht mehr ernsthaft bestritten.

Folter. Laut MacDonogh wird das Bild der Okkupationszeit auch dadurch getrübt, dass bei Verhören mutmasslicher Kriegsverbrecher oft Folter angewendet wurde, besonders von den Amerikanern. Das lässt die Methoden gegen heutige Terrorverdächtige in einem neuen Licht erscheinen. Die Westalliierten lockerten ihre harte Hand dann gerade noch rechtzeitig, um bei den Deutschen keinen neuen Nazi-Widerstandsgeist zu züchten, schreibt MacDonogh.

US-General Patton, ursprünglich auch ein Deutschenhasser, war einer der Ersten, die entdeckten, dass man die Deutschen noch brauchen würde. Von 1947 an herrschte der Kalte Krieg und der Wiederaufbau Deutschlands begann.

Die geschätzte Bilanz des Nachkriegsdesasters: zwei Millionen tote Zivilpersonen; eine weitere Million starb in Kriegsgefangenschaft.

Giles MacDonogh: After the Reich. From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift. John Murray, London 2007/08.

One point made by Wamister is that the numbers of Germans killed in Czechoslovakia are much disputed. When I wrote the book, I found a variety of figures quoted ranging down from half a million to none. There were ingenious ways of dismissing the figures too: the people who died were Reich Germans and not Bohemian Germans so they didn’t count; or, they were soldiers and  - I suppose - meant to die. The fact that they had clearly died in captivity did not change anything. Others pointed out that some of them were members of the SS (and therefore not even human), etc, etc. It is true that Field Marshal Schörner left the wounded men from his massive army behind when he retreated, and they may have made up a sizable number of the deaths incurred, either by desire or neglect. In the end I plumped for the official ‘Bonn’ figures, published the German government in the fifties, that assessed the number of deaths at around 240,000.

Recent books have questioned the Bonn figures both for Czechoslovakia as well as for the Germans who died as they were driven from their homes in Hungary and from old Prussian provinces such as Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia when they were awarded to Poland and Russia. These include Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (see January’s Blog), and Mary Heimann’s indictment of the Czechoslovak state in Czechoslovakia: the State that Failed (Yale 2009). As far as the Czech massacres are concerned, they rely on the findings of a Czech-German Joint Commission published in 1996, which assessed deaths at between 19,000 and 30,000.

The great disparity between these figures does not necessarily surprise me; even that the Commission’s tallies are under ten percent of those cited by Bonn in the old days. The fact that it was a ‘Czech-German’ commission (ie that German experts sanctioned the findings) should not lead us to believe that it is the last word on the subject either. As Wamister says in the Basler Zeitung,the notion of ‘victimhood’ is still not respectable in Germany, and there is a conscious desire among all right-thinking Germans to play down the idea that the Germans might have suffered too. The descendants of surviving Bohemian Germans in Germany are considered troublemakers, allied to the far right, and people who will not knuckle under and accept the post-war settlement with good grace.

When the Commission published its findings in 1996, the evidence had been largely swept away, nor can there have been there any desire to revive memories that might have been an embarrassment to the people living in the areas concerned - Czechs who had taken up residence in villages and towns that had been pretty well completely German before 1945. One interesting series of revelations that has taken place since then (see Blog for 16 June 2010) has shown that in the case of the massacre at Postelberg at least, everything took place more or less exactly as they said it had in the official report of 1951 - when memories were fresher than they are now.

It may be that the German expellees cooked the books back then, but the truth is that anyone wanting to pour cold water on massacres in this way starts of by questioning the statistics. We are all used to the so-called ‘Holocaust-deniers’ who say that the number of Jews who perished during the Third Reich was considerably less than six million, and there are some who maintain that none died at all. Twice now, I have received outwardly very scholarly letters from a certain William A. Kunberger of Levittown, Pennsylvania in the United States, who seems to be suggesting that the numbers of Jews who died in Auschwitz has been wildly exaggerated. In truth, it doesn’t matter very much whether they died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz or a ditch in the Ukraine (or indeed of typhus in a camp bunk), the moral point is surely that not one of them should ever have died intentionally or otherwise for the ‘crime’ of being a Jew, any more than they should have perished for being Ukrainian, Czech or Polish; or indeed, for being German.


Edmund de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Posted: 17th January 2011

Edmund de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Chatto & Windus £16.99. Paperback edition released on 27th January).

Inasmuch as I understand it, The Hare with Amber Eyes is a travel book, albeit of a special sort: a voyage of self-discovery provoked by a rare inheritance that takes two forms: a collection of Japanese bibelots and the author’s growing awareness of his remarkable ancestry.

De Waal’s grandmother was an Ephrussi. Originally from Poland, the Ephrussis’ fortunes began to prosper in the port of Odessa when they became wholesale grain merchants. From grain they graduated to money. Ephrussi banks were created in Odessa, Vienna and Paris. In Vienna they were ennobled, and acquired such wealth that the only Jews that could raise an eyebrow to them were the Rothschilds, who had made their own fortunes a couple of generations before.

They sound a nice family for all their wealth. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi was a notable patron of the arts and the probable model for Proust’s Swann. It was he who amassed the collection of netsuke that is the thread that pulls the book together. These exquisite little carvings were given to his cousin Victor in Vienna as a wedding present. They are now owned by the author.

The Ephrussis were assimilated Jews, as only Vienna knew them: conspicuous by their absence from the synagogue, they nonetheless contracted marriages with their most powerful Jewish peers. After the First World War, many of them dropped their Judaism altogether, married Gentiles or converted, like de Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth, a lawyer who swapped poems with Rilke in her twenties and ended up producing a son who became an Anglican clergyman: de Waal’s father, Victor.

I was drawn to the book by the thought that it might tell me something about my own family. Like de Waal, I am a quarter Viennese Jew. My ancestors were not Ephrussis, of course; they were rich, but not fabulously so. When my great-great grandfather Ludwig Zwieback died in 1906, he left his daughters a fortune of 2.3 million crowns. The Ephrussis had ten times as much. De Waal translates this 25 million as $400 million. So my great-grandmother and her sisters carved up a fortune of $40 million in today’s money.

They were not half as ostentatious. Where the Ephrussis had their vast pink ‘palais’ on the Ring (which seems to make the author cringe), my family lived here and there on the same majestic boulevard, but in palaces sporting other people’s names. They were not on the piano nobile, but another floor up. The exception was ‘uncle’ Josef Kranz, who was quite as rich as an Ephrussi, but he was only an uncle by marriage.

It is, on the other hand, certain the two families were acquainted. De Waal’s great-grandparents’ best friends were the Barons Guttmann, who were also known to my great-grandfather. A Guttmann boy served in the same regiment (King of Saxony’s Dragoons) as my great-uncle Josef, and was killed in action against the Russians not long before he was, in the summer of 1915.  The Ephrussis must have gone to my great-grandfather’s jewellery shop on the Graben (indeed, a photograph of de Waal’s great grandmother shows her standing outside it talking to an archduke), or to the Modehaus Zwieback, the fashion house and department store on the Kärntnerstrasse that was founded by Ludwig and run by his youngest daughter Ella until 1938.

It is inevitable the book should reach its dramatic zenith with the Anschluss, when Vienna’s Jews were systematically robbed by the Nazis. He has learned the pseudo-legal methods of reducing Jews to penury and pilfering their collections from the expert on the subject, Sophie Lillie, whom he acknowledges. You see his ancestors cowering in their palace, not knowing how to react as all but one servant betrays them. How does an old man flee his home and abandon all the things he loves: a lifetime of careful collecting? A few days in a Nazi prison made them see the path north to safety in Slovakia, and eventually Britain. Viktor von Ephrussi left his palace in Vienna to die in straightened circumstances in Tunbridge Wells.

The Ephrussi story intrigued me, but I was less impressed by the author’s insistence on placing his personal voyage of discovery at the centre of it. Despite all my efforts, by the end of the book, his presence and his linguistic tics had started to irritate me and I heaved a sigh of relief when his story came to an end.  


Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Posted: 16th December 2010

For some weeks, friends have been urging me to look at Professor Snyder’s new book (Bodley Head £25), one of them going so far as to tell me that it was the best he had read all year.

It concerns the ‘Bloodlands’, a country apparently invented by Snyder, that throws together the populations of Poland, Ruthenia and the Ukraine: western Slavs ground between the two millstones of Russia and Germany. It was also the traditional homeland of most of the world’s Ashkenazi Jews, who formed large minorities in cities such as Kiev, Minsk or Lvov as well as tilling the soil in their countless settlements or shtetls.

In modern times it was Tsarist Russia that began the persecution of the shtetl Jews, during the pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century.  The action led to large-scale emigration, as the so-called ‘Ostjuden’ (‘eastern Jews’) moved west, some drifting into the cities of central Europe, others docking in London or New York.

Stalin was less opposed to Jews at this stage (indeed, forty percent of his secret police were Jews). His bugbear was the kulak: the wealthy peasant of the Ukraine who resisted his plans to collectivise agriculture. In the early thirties Stalin allowed millions of Ukrainian peasants to perish of starvation in a desire both to reform agriculture and rid himself of a class that had long been anathema to him.

When Stalin forged his alliance with Hitler in the summer of 1939, it was the turn of the Poles who lived in the eastern part of the country who had been assigned to Russia under the terms of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin had them executed in their thousands, a pendant to the activities of the Germans in their half of the conquered country, who set to work slaughtering the elite and large numbers of Jews. Snyder shows that the massacre of the Polish officer corps by the Russians at Katyn was just one of a handful of similar bloodbaths.

As Snyder reiterates (repetition seems to part of his apocalyptic style), the Germans had been mere pussycats in the killing game until war broke out. With time, however, they would outstrip their Soviet prototypes, taking the lion’s share of the fourteen million civilian lives lost in east central Europe during the Second World War.

For me, this Soviet model was one of the more interesting sides of the book, or rather just how much Hitler and his ministers imitated their communist enemies. Take the machinery of terror: the Gestapo adopted the form of the Soviet Cheka; the Soviets provided the model for German concentration camps. With time 18 million Soviet citizens would toil in these camps and between a twelfth and a sixth of the inmates died. In the late thirties, Germany had only about 200,000 people in ‘protective custody’. Soviet citizens were ‘deported’ to the camps, providing the euphemism that the Nazis would later use for the Jews.

It was not just the institutions he admired, he approved the methods: the starvation of the kulaks was eagerly observed by Hitler, who was not slow to see possible uses for such a weapon when he snatched his empire in the east: his victims were Soviet POWs, killed by the million. Even the ghastly ‘Genicksschuss’ - a bullet in the base of the skull - as a means of execution seems to have travelled to Nazi Germany from Russia. Snyder calls the depopulation of the region ‘a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.’

Why was Hitler so reticent about showing his murderous hand? Despite their tough anti-democratic rhetoric, the Nazis were an elected government who were keenly aware of their image abroad. They took care to hold plebiscites to reassure the world of their popularity.  Snyder calls Nazi Germany a one-party state, but that was not so: the communists and socialists were banned, but the right wing parties formed part of the governing coalition. There were plenty of traditional Germans who would have been horrified by seeing Bolshevik methods used in Germany. Once war came, gun smoke obscured the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in the east.

Even German terror bombing (which writers have pointed out was a British invention) was perfected away from home in Spain, where Hitler was gaining experience supporting Franco’s revolt.

At the Nuremberg trials doubts were cast about the ability of small groups of men to execute such large numbers with just rifles and pistols, but Snyder shows how first the Russians then the Germans were quite happy to expend quite phenomenal amounts of ammunition in this process, before the Germans dreamed up the idea of gas. You need a strong stomach to deal with the pages dedicated to the Soviet massacres, and the cannibalism that occurred in the Ukrainian famine, but that is nothing compared to Snyder’s description of death at the hands of the Germans. Perhaps for that reason you can expect no sympathy for the latter at the end of the war. Snyder pours cold water on their sufferings, and suggests that it was partly their folly anyway: they should have run faster - leaving their homes before the Red Army got the chance to rape and murder them.

In truth, no one comes out of his account well: the Nazi butcher Heydrich had been popular with the Czech workers; Jews and Russians collaborated with the Nazis to save their skins (but lost them in the end). He is good at exploding some well-worn myths: ‘The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.’ His total of 5.4 million Jewish deaths will surprise some by being lower than the normal figure, but he tops it up with Romanian massacres. The Romanians needed no urging from the Germans.

Was it my book of the year? I would have to say no, but it is an important book for all that. At least a decade ago I wrote an outline proposal on how the Red Army behaved when they arrived in East Prussia in January 1945 (a book on this theme has been written by Max Egremont and comes out in March). My then agent poured cold water on the idea. ‘You expect the Russians to behave like that.’ He said. The point is that you don’t expect it of the Germans. And yet they did behave like that, and Snyder does not adequately explain why. 


A Game of Consequences

Posted: 16th November 2010

On 25 November, my book The Great Battles is published by Quercus here in London. I can’t pretend that it is my usual beat, but it looks smart and there are plenty of pictures and maps, and it is a great joy to see my not quite eight-year old son carry it up to his bedroom at night.

Joseph is not exactly the target audience; rather the book is aimed at the increasing numbers of grown-up men (and I presume women) who are fascinated by the history of warfare. While I was writing it I was often amazed by how little space mainstream historians dedicated to the events on the battlefield in their books. There are whole monographs on the English Civil War, for example, which gave no account of the minutiae of the campaigns.

As a non-military man, I naturally feel a good battle should have serious political consequences. The battle that military planners and instructors allegedly like best is Cannae, but despite the brilliance of Hannibal’s tactics, Cannae is flawed by the fact that the Carthaginian general failed to follow up his victory by seizing Rome. Warfare’s most famous theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, saw the battle as an extension of politics, but the most political battles, and the most consequential ones, are sometimes the least impressive militarily.

Take, for example, Garibaldi’s victory over the King of the Two Sicilies’ army at Calatafimi on 15 May 1860. It didn’t take long for the Redshirts to disperse King Francis’ forces: a lot of noise and bravado and the 3,000 or so soldiers took to their heels, but it was the first nail in the coffin of the Bourbon kings and their fate was sealed when Garibaldi entered Naples in September. Italy was as good as unified.

Plassey is another case in point. Robert Clive had 3,200 troops (and only a third of them Europeans) when he faced Siraj-ud-Daula in June 1757. The battle rapidly turned into a rout due to the behaviour of the Nawab’s elephants, which, incensed by the British barrage, broke ranks and fled, rapidly followed by the oxen that had drawn the guns. The Indian gunners then set fire to their powder and very soon they were all running away with the Nawab at their head, seated on his camel. Clive lost 23 Europeans and 500 Sepoys in this comic-opera combat. The results, however, were no joke: in 1765, Clive became governor of Bengal. Plassey was the first step toward the creation of British India.

Frederick the Great’s dazzling victory at Leuthen in 1757, did little to alleviate his misery, which was to continue for anther five years. It was not his prowess as a general that saved Prussia, but the death of the Tsarina.

Some battles, on the other hand, are utterly political: the Battle of Hastings changed England for good; Agincourt brought Henry V the crown of France; Waterloo saw off Napoleon and introduced a European settlement that lasted a century.

Bismarck’s handing of the aftermath of the Battle of Königgrätz allowed for the creation of a unified Germany and for Austria to bury the hatchet. The greatest battle of all time, however, was probably Stalingrad. Before it Nazi Germany could still hope for victory, after the defeat, however, it was sauve qui peut. The biggest menace of our time was on the run.


Legacies

Posted: 20th October 2010

I was in Barcelona on 1st October to launch the Spanish translation of my book After the Reich (Después del Reich: Crimen y castigo en la posguerra alemana). In a single day, I gave six interviews and a press conference at the Circulo de Lectores bookshop in the centre of the city. When I got up for breakfast in my hotel the next morning, I was amazed to see the story splashed all over the quality dailies, not to mention the principal regional papers from the Balearics to Cordoba. A week later ripples had reached Argentina. Even more gratifying was the report that it had climbed to the upper branches of the Spanish bestseller list, though it seems to have tumbled a bit since.

I had to admire the efficiency of the Spanish press. The Spanish not only read newspapers, they appear to like books too, even books nearly a thousand pages long and costing €30. Here in Britain, even an interview with a literary giant with the stature of an Anthony Beevor or a Julian Barnes would be unlikely to run the next day. More likely it would pass in and out of the pages for three weeks before being relegated to some dusty corner of the Web site. Books are not news in Britain.

After the Reich had clearly struck a chord as a result of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. The atrocities committed by the nationalists were swept under the carpet until Franco’s demise in 1975 and the surviving perpetrators were amnestied in 1977. More recently there has been an attempt to establish a ‘truth commission’ to investigate the deaths of the half a million people killed on both sides. Nineteen mass graves have been identified and there is a strong desire to finger the men who murdered the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

It should come as no surprise that the ubiquitous Judge Baltasar Garzon has been involved in this attempt to dig up the past, but earlier this year the judge was muzzled then sacked for exceeding his authority.

Meanwhile in Berlin an exhibition has opened at the Museum of German History dedicated to Adolf Hitler. The prospect of exhibiting pictures of the dead tyrant has led to much soul-searching in Germany, where the swastika continues to be an illegal symbol and Mein Kampf is a banned book. Sixty-five years after the end of the war, it seems the Germans cannot to be trusted to make up their own minds. The exhibition has been laid out to make it as didactic as possible as a warning against racialism, in the light of certain recent comments made about Islam. Any reference to Hitler’s apparently seductive personality has been expunged and all images have been carefully contrasted with representations of atrocities.

The curator, Hans-Ulrich Thamer, has put it on record that Hitler was an ‘ordinary man’ and the fear is that ‘ordinary men’ might once again see him as a role model.

Goebbels might have done his best to present him as a man of the people, but Hitler was anything but an ordinary man. He was an extraordinary man, and an extraordinarily evil man. If he had been just an ordinary man we would all have forgotten him by now. The honest truth is that we still don’t know what made Hitler tick, which is why people are fascinated by him, and why there are so many books and documentaries made about him, and why there will be so many more for years and years to come.


More Bones

Posted: 13th September 2010

A fresh cache of bones was uncovered in northern Slovenia on 7 September but seems to have excited very little interest in the British press at least. In all likelihood, the bodies represent another immediate post-war atrocity, committed by Josip Broz Tito who was seeking to eliminate his political enemies after a two-year long struggle for supremacy in Yugoslavia. For the time being, however, the identity of the 700 or so skeletons remains a mystery, with the BBC reporting that they were found in a twenty-metre long pit near the town of Prevalje. The victims were mostly men and some women. Their hands were tied. Some had been shot, while others had been hacked to death. Their shoes revealed that a few of them at least had been civilians.

Prevalje is just across the River Drau or Drava from the Austrian town of Bleiburg in southern Carinthia. The river forms the national border.  One solution is that the dead were part of the so-called Bleiburg Massacre which occurred after the British refused to accept the surrender of several thousand pro-German Croatian Ustashe, Serbian Chetniks and Slovenian Domobranci (home guard) troops who tried to pass into Austria between 15 and 17 May 1945. They were the last Axis force to surrender in World War II. The British had backed Tito’s partisans all along and agreed at Yalta to repatriate his enemies. 

Given the relatively small number of dead in this grave, however, it would seem more likely that the victims were some of the 11,850 Domobranci and their families who were forcibly repatriated from British camps in Austrian Carinthia. The fiercely Catholic Domobranci had collaborated first with the Italians and then with the Germans, finding both preferable to Tito’s brand of communism. Tito had been insistent at first and then had gone cold about their repatriation. The British order to go ahead seems to have proceeded from some misplaced zeal.

The British ousted some of these by the trainload via Bleiburg on 29 May. Most of them were disembarked at Slovenj Gradec, just a little further down the line into Yugoslavia before being marched to secluded spots in the forest where they could be secretly killed and buried in mass graves. Some were driven towards Misleja to the west. Others were taken south along the valley to the concentration camp at Teharje, where about 5,000 died.

The Prevalje site was revealed by a local who had witnessed the massacre hidden behind a tree as a boy. Prevalje is not mentioned in John Corsellis and Marcus Ferrar’s moving account of the slaughter: Slovenia 1945 (I B Tauris 2005). The story makes you wonder how many more sites have yet to come to light.


Roger Moorhouse, Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-1945

Publisher: Bodley Head
Price:
Amazon £16.25

Posted: 28th July 2010

Books about Berlin so often miss the point. All too frequently the city of Berlin becomes a simple metaphor for Germany. After 1871 at least, the mistake is more comprehensible: Berlin was the capital after all, but the city did not control Germany in the way that London or Paris ruled Great Britain or France. It was the seat of the German Emperor and the foreign office was there, but for the rest it played host to a relatively small number of centralised agencies whose brief extended throughout the new German Reich, such as the navy and the post office.

Berlin certainly possessed the ministries that ruled Prussia, and Prussia made up two-thirds of Germany, but as the saying went ‘Berlin is not in Prussia’, and the people had their own character and an image quite distinct from the stock Prussian.

Even when the Empire fell in 1918, Weimar Germany remained federal in structure. Regional power was devolved to the old Residenzen - the former court capitals. They showed disdain for that untidy, modern city in the east. Many Germany cities like Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt and Hamburg looked down on what the Jewish politician Walther Rathenau called ‘Parvenupolis… the parvenu among capital cities and the capital of parvenus’.

The Nazis hated the loose structure of Bismarck’s and Weimar Germany. The state lacked an effective capital and thereby defied the ‘Führerprinzip’ which demanded a proper chain of authority to replace the interconnecting pyramids that had been there before. With Hitler as chancellor, regional administrations were subsumed into a network of Gaue under the control of Party bosses or Gauleiters, and where possible power was shifted to Berlin.The Rheinlander Joseph Goebbels had been Berlin’s Gauleiter since 1926. From February 1933 he was effectively the city’s governor. When Hitler arrived at the Reichs chancellery a lot of Bavarians migrated north to join his team. Hitler wanted a magnificent capital, and set about demolishing the shabby city. He failed, however, to dent the character of Berliner in the six years between coming to power and the outbreak of war.

Roger Moorhouse does not fall into the trap in his excellent new book. He is anxious to look at the daily lives of Berliners and how they coped with the Third Reich.  He shows how little enthusiasm there was for the war and just how much joy was spread by a simple rumour that Hitler was about to conclude peace. Much of the story has a familiar ring to it: it could be wartime Britain, with its blackouts (with their inadvertent encouragement of sexual depravity - remember the excitement of George Formby’s ‘Mr Wu’ when he donned his ‘siren-suit’ and became an air-warden), rationing, bombing raids and evacuation. Propaganda played a big role, and children were encouraged to worship heroic fliers like Werner Mölders and Adolf Galland, but did we not look up to the Douglas Baders and Guy Gibsons? Gibson’s book on the Dambusters’ Raid was published within months of the event.

Only it was not Britain but Nazi Germany. Berliners witnessed not only the conscription of hundreds of thousands of foreign slave labourers who were bludgeoned in sinister camps on the city’s periphery, but also the deportation of the Jews. Moorhouse tackles the thorny question of how much Berliners knew about where the Jews were going, and what would happen to them. It is surely true that rumours circulated about mass-shootings before more clinical forms of extermination were introduced at the end of 1941, but most Berliners would have been uncertain of the Jews’ fate and living in a police state in wartime, they were few likely to risk their lives to interfere. They were, after all, more concerned with the fate of their own loved ones whose deaths on the Eastern Front were hushed up on Goebbels’ orders.

When the going was good, the war was not such a hardship. Anxious not to repeat the morale-sapping famine of 1917, Gauleiter Goebbels laid in adequate stocks of food. For a whole year from Fall of France in June 1940 to the start of the Barbarossa campaign against the Soviet Union, there was ‘Siegfriede’ - the peace of victory. When the tide turned against Germany after the Battle of Stalingrad, however, the grumbling became increasingly audible. The Nazis responded with ever-greater brutality. After February 1943, the Third Reich was sustained by terror alone: terror of the Gestapo and terror of what the Red Army would do when it reached Berlin.

Goebbels made full use of Soviet atrocities to bend his city to his will, but even he failed to adequately describe what would happen to the Berliners once the Russians penetrated the city walls in April 1945. Moorhouse’s brief ends here, but he nonetheless describes the first few days of horror with his customary flair.


The Postelberg Massacre

Posted: 16th June 2010

Last month, the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran a two-part story by Hans-Ulrich Stoldt on a massacre of ethnic Germans that took place in Postelberg (Postoloprty) on 6 June 1945, a month after the end of the Second World War. Encouraged by their leader, Edvard Beneč, the Czechs were eliminating the Germans in their midst: the people who had caused them so much grief since the foundation of the state in 1918, and particularly after Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in October 1938.

It is in almost all particulars the same story that I told in my book After the Reich except that my report was based on the deposition of the expellee Dr Franz Freyer logged by the appropriate federal ministry in March 1951, and Stoldt based his findings on contemporary interviews.

The Postelberg massacre took in the male members of the small ethnic German community from the hop town of Saaz or Zatec (incidentally, the hop trade had formerly been in the hands of Jewish merchants) who were marched the fifteen kilometres to Postelberg on 3 June. The local militia then assembled the Germans on the town square and amused themselves for the time being by packing them off on work details.

The massacre was unleashed when five boys aged between twelve and fifteen were discovered to have set out with the older men, possibly in the hope of escaping. One of the Czechs in command, Bohuslav Marek, decided that they should be flogged for their impudence, while Captain Vojtech Cerny deemed they should be shot. In the end a compromise was struck and the boys were flogged and shot. One of them was later found to be still alive and pleaded to be allowed to see his mother. They carried on shooting. Over the next few days another 2,000 grown up Germans were killed in this way. Their bodies were then concealed in a number of mass graves.

In 1947, the Czech authorities investigated and decided to destroy some of the evidence by cremating the dead they found in one of the pits. Evidently they hoped the story would go away. A number of people had an interest in keeping it alive, however. Among these was Walter Urban, who still lives in the area. He was three when the massacre took place and his father was a victim. Others keen to see the dead remembered are the eyewitnesses Peter Klepsch and Heinrich Giebitz, who now live in Germany. Their desire to see a monument erected to the dead is supported by Czechs like the historian Tomas Stanek, and the local journalist David Hertl. Other Czechs are not so enthusiastic: Hertl has received death-threats since he began airing the story.

Wherever the Germans were chased away after 1945, a general cover-up was imposed. The elimination of the graves and graveyards was common practice after the war in both Czechoslovakia and Poland as a means of removing the evidence of the existence of German communities. In 1991, I recall wandering into the evangelical church in Olsztyn (the former Prussian Allenstein) in north-eastern Poland and watching the cautious approach of the pastor as he ventured out of his sacristy. He addressed me in Polish. When I said I couldn’t speak Polish he switched to German. I was aware there were still a few dozen families of ethnic Germans living in the area and asked him where they were buried. He patted the altar: the German dead had no right to tombstones, as officially they did not exist and never had. They were buried in the church by night.

Things have now begun to change. After the discovery of another mass grave containing 2,000 skeletons dating from 1945 in Malbork (Marienburg) last year, the Polish authorities permitted the remains of the dead Germans to be re-interred on Polish soil. In November 2008, the Czech government allowed some 4,500 German bodies that had been rotting in a disused factory to be buried in Cheb, the formerly Eger in the Sudetenland. There is still opposition to the idea of a monument in Postoloprty, but there is a chance that a compromise may be struck. Some of the Czechs who now inhabit the homes of the banished Germans would like to see the stone honour all the victims of the war: Czechs, Jews and Germans alike.


Bring Back the Editor!

Online Reviews

Posted: 18th May 2010

For many of us writers, the story that the historian Orlando Figes had been using assumed names to trash his rivals’ books (guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/historian-orlando-figes-amazon-reviews-rivals) has merely confirmed our worst fears that internet reviews are just so many accounts settled. It is none the less worrying news because it would seem that the future lies with the Web. Book reviewing has been in crisis for some years now and with every book I publish the number of conventional outlets for comment gets smaller and smaller. Reviews generate recognition, and recognition results in sales: fewer reviews would mean fewer sales and even less money.

In America the three great papers - the New York and Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post - soldier on - as does the New York Review of Books, but the rest have either perished or gone online. Here in Britain the pressure on space in the broadsheets is so intense that you are lucky to get one full-length review where you might have had half a dozen in the past.

On the other hand there is a thin silver lining that one proper review will be copied to the Internet and read by vastly more people than, say, those who used to read the reviews in the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times in the old days. The old tribalism that said ‘I bought this because it was recommended in my favourite paper,’ has largely disappeared.

And there will be plenty of commentary on your book on the Web too, even if it is hard to determine as yet how or whether this influences sales. This comment ranges from well-informed and well-written articles in online journals and specialised blogs, to illiterate or semi-literate abuse elsewhere. At its worst, online reviewing is no better than the tyrannical opinions of some loud-mouthed tub-thumper in a pub or bar. A very large number of these ladies and gentlemen conceal their identities behind pseudonyms (if they have the courage of their convictions, in Heaven’s name why?). One I have encountered actually calls himself Damocles! Nomen est omen; but then, I think Damocles actually gave me a good review so he wasn’t my nemesis after all.

In the light of the Figes story, most people will now assume that all pseudonyms are either noms de plume belonging the unsympathetic writers, their friends or enemies.

By far the greatest gathering-place for these tub-thumpers is Amazon, which encourages people to write reviews to the degree that I now get a weekly sales-pitch from Amazon coupled with the chance to review my own books. Not only do you have the means to conceal your identity, but there are lots of tricks whereby you can help a mate out. I was slow in the uptake here and wondered why so many unpromising books had a single row of five stars. Then I learned the reason: not so long ago, a friend bounced up to me at another friend’s book launch to say that she was getting a free copy of the novel.

‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because I gave her five stars.’

The scales fell from my eyes. I had been hopelessly naïve. There are other ruses: I am now told you can make a list, and include the friend together with all the acknowledged giants in the field; or you simply buy a bestseller plus the friend’s book so that some item produced by a vanity publisher sits cheek by jowl with Julian Barnes or Agatha Christie: ‘customers who bought X, also bought Y’.

I must have read some of these Amazon reviews at first, but I quickly became apoplectic when I saw that they were publishing comments that started with lines like ‘I have seen this book in a bookshop….’ Book reviewers were hardly the salt of the earth, but at least they pretended to read the works assigned to them. There needs to be a proper line drawn between gut-reaction and informed criticism.

Nor can you entirely dismiss these amateur reviews by saying no one will read them. Amazon now sells about one in ten of my books, and some buyers will be guided by the ratings if not by the reviews themselves. Even the professional reviews Amazon prints are often suspect. On US Amazon, my book After the Reich is prefaced by a very un-representative and extremely vindictive review by a Polish-American journalist called Andrew Nagorski. It has been slinging unfounded abuse at me for two years now, and there is no sign of it ever going away.

It is fair to assume that Amazon has been a great success and has made its owners plenty of money. In the light of the Figes business I would therefore like to make a humble suggestion: that the company appoint someone to oversee the review pages on each of their sites around the world. This person would try to determine if the comment were fair, and whether it constituted a review in the accepted sense of the term. Comment could be limited to reactions to reviews. The overseer would also elicit the real name of the person submitting a review and an undertaking that the article was written impartially, not by an ex-wife or a sacked employee and not from reasons of revenge.

Over and over again the Internet makes us writers cry out in despair: ‘bring back the editor! All is forgiven!’


GOODNIGHT VIENNA

Posted: 16th April 2010

When I was in Vienna in January, my friend Christopher Wentworth-Stanley pressed a historical novel on me with all too evident disdain. It was called Goodnight Vienna and was written by someone called J.H. Schryer. He had picked it up in the airport, and since ascertained that ‘Schryer’ was a pseudonym. The real authors were a Dr Helen Fry, who teaches theology in Exeter, and a quondam tailor called James Hamilton. 

Had it not been for the subject matter I doubt the book would have caught his attention or mine. It is a collection of howlers with a bit of gratuitous, toe-curling sex thrown in. Christopher grabbed it because it was set in Vienna, and concerned 1938, a Nazi mole working for MI6 and the Rev. Hugh Grimes. So the plot derives from the true story of Captain Thomas Kendrick of the Passport Control Office (and MI6), the mole Karl Tucek and the Anglican baptisms carried out by Grimes and his locum, Rev. Fred Collard at Christ Church Vienna.

It is indeed a dismal book. As there is a historical mistake on every page (and two or three on some of them) I shall confine myself to the most pungent: the authors maintain the anti-Jewish laws had all been enacted by the time Hitler reached Vienna on 14 March and Cardinal Innitzer appears with Hitler when he stands on the balcony in the Hofburg to address the crowds on the 15th (I am surprised they didn’t have him molesting a small boy at the same time); the forcing of the Jews to scrub the pavements seems to carry on for weeks, rather than being the short-lived retribution of Austria’s home-grown Nazis for the fact they had been forced to wash their own slogans off the walls by the previous regime; Viennese Jews immediately apply for visas to the United Kingdom, when visas weren’t reintroduced until 21 May; Eichmann has become one of the most important figures in the Reich (a sort of Hermann Göring with strings of medals), when he was then only a lowly apparatchik at the time, specialising in Jewish emigration; we have a Berlin-style book-burning in Vienna (there was one is Salzburg) and a resistance movement (that came much later); the Jews are already wearing yellow stars in the streets; they eat chanterelles in November (presumably deep-frozen); transports of Jews trundle off to Dachau long before the first transport of 1 April; ‘Napoleon’ is apparently a brand of cognac; Seyss-Inquart was the Austrian ‘chancellor’ (the office was scrapped on 13 March before Hitler reached Vienna), Vienna has ‘ambassadors’ (they went with the Anschluss: Berlin was the capital of the Reich); Jews are massacred (this started in September 1939); Churchill was hiring and firing the head of the secret service (he was still a backbencher); Italy was allowing Jews across the border in November (they closed it in September).

The SS has ‘gauleiters’ (a Nazi Party rank), Hitler was born in Linz… Strewth! All that and much more, expressed in the ghastly, anachronistic language of an airport novel: characters ‘keep their cool’, go to toilets and say ‘that bastard cheated on me;’ an idiom more suited to a modern celebrity golfer’s wife than a 1930s virtuoso. Who ever heard of a raunchy violinist anyway?

Almost all the German is misspelled.

In the sex-scenes, Hamilton’s former metier seems to have helped him out, for there seems to be a lot of wardrobe detail. There’s a bit of buggery and some fashionable lesbianism to cater for all tastes, but it’s rather coy and it has been a long time since I heard the word ‘manhood’ used to denote a penis (as in ‘her hand moved down to his manhood, caressing the end in pleasure’: a line that is delightfully - but perhaps unintentionally - ambiguous). Had I been shown it sooner I might have recommended the book for a Bad Sex Award.

The puzzling question is where did the authors got the detail about Hugh Grimes and his political baptisms from? The only people who have looked at the papers at the Anglican church in Vienna are the incumbent, Patrick Curran, Christopher, Professor Munro Price of Bradford University and myself. I can only assume that Dr Fry (who is apparently an expert on ‘Anglo-Jewry’) read the article I published in the Jewish Quarterly in 2004 about Kendrick, Grimes and his verger Richter. The piece was written to support a synopsis we were showing to publishers in Britain and Austria at the time. Sadly, no one showed an interest. ‘J H Schryer’ had better luck. For what it is worth, the title of our proposal was Goodnight Vienna.

And you will be pleased to hear J.H. Schryer’s book has been a runaway success and that we can expect a sequel this very year.


VALKYRIE

Posted: 12th March 2010

It has happened: over Christmas I finally saw Bryan Singer’s film Valkyrie about the 20 July 1944 Plot to kill Hitler. It wasn’t exactly that I had been straining at the leash. I had had many reports, people told me that Tom Cruise was a simply awful Stauffenberg and that the film was redeemed by its stock of British character actors.

My reaction was quite the opposite: I thought Cruise decent enough, and the British for the most part dreadful. At least Cruise was stiff in a way you would expect from an old-fashioned German colonel, whereas most of the cast could be dismissed as a ‘shower’ who might have benefited from a month or two’s hard drill round a Prussian parade ground.

Bill Nighy resembled a cowardly bank clerk. Kevin McNally completely misinterpreted the stuffy ‘Oberbürgermeister’ in Carl Goerdeler (no one succeeded in wrapping Cruise’s tongue round either name, Goerdeler or Goebbels). A craggy looking man (David Schofield) turned out to be the retired Field-Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, who had the reputation of being a proper Prussian general with a great sense of right and wrong and it was impossible to imagine either him or Colonel-General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) in uniform.

There were some decent performances too: Tom Wilkinson was an accomplished General Fromm, and I liked the slightly common Field-Marshal Keitel portrayed by Kenneth Cranham. He wasn’t called ‘Lakeitel’ (‘Keitel the Lackey’) for nothing. And the shambling Hitler portrayed by David Bamber was very good indeed.

In all fairness, it was not just the British actors who struck the wrong note. The German Christian Becker playing Merz von Quirnheim had had his head shaven in a trendy way and peering out from his designer specs he reminded me irresistibly of the telly techno-chef Heston Blumenthal, so that I could picture him pulling out a test-tube filled with essence of steak and kidney pudding from the pocket of his carmine-striped trousers.

The wooden spoon, however, goes to Kenneth Branagh as Henning von Tresckow. He had the military bearing of a wet Labrador, but worse, much worse, was the scrambling of so many of the moving statements Tresckow made at the time which were recorded by his friend Fabian von Schlabrendorff. This was the scriptwriter’s fault, but it was a crime to omit such lines: ‘remember this hour. If we do not succeed in persuading the field marshal to do everything, even to get these orders countermanded, Germany will have finally lost her honour, and that will be felt for hundreds of years to come. Not only Hitler will be blamed, but you and I, your wife and my wife, your children and my children.’

In a note to Stauffenberg (a version of these lines is awarded to Tom Cruise in the film) he made it abundantly clear, even failure would be preferable to inaction: ‘The attempt must succeed, coûte que coûte. If it fails, we must act in Berlin. It is now no longer a question of practical results, but of showing the world and history that the Resistance movement risked the last throw. Nothing else matters now.’

And then there are his last words to Schlabrendorff before he blew himself to bits with a grenade: ‘Now everyone in the world will turn upon us and sully us with abuse. But my conviction remains adamant - we took the right course. Hitler is not only the arch-enemy of Germany, he is the arch-enemy of mankind. In a few hours time I shall stand before God to answer for my actions and omissions. I believe that I will be able to vouch for everything I have done in the fight against Hitler with a clear conscience.

‘God once promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if ten just men could be found in the city. He will, I trust, spare Germany and not destroy her because of what we have done. None of us can complain of his lot. Whoever joined our movement donned the shirt of Nessus. The moral worth of a man is certain only if he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.’

The garbling of these lines completely sapped the film of the emotional pull it should have exerted. Yes, we do see gallant men in the dock holding their heads high before the hanging-judge Roland Freisler, but where was Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, an inveterate plotter who had bearded Churchill in Britain before the war? Asked by Freisler if he had committed high treason, Schmenzin replied ‘Jawohl, I have been committing high treason consistently and with all the means at my disposal since 30 January 1933. I have never made any bones about my fight against Hitler and National Socialism. I hold this fight as ordained by God, and God alone shall be my judge.’