Reviews – Books, Films & TV

 

Books

The Belfast Blitz: The City in the War Years, Brian Barton, The Ulster Historical Foundation: Belfast (2015), £19.99, ISBN 978 1 909556 32 4.

Review - The Belfast Blitz

ONE of the late Brian Moore’s many fine novels was The Emperor of Ice Cream, published in 1965. It is a coming of age story whose young hero, Gavin Burke, the son of a middle class and Catholic Belfast family, decides, after the outbreak of war in 1939 to do his bit for Britain’s cause by joining the Air Raid Precaution Service. He reckons however without the reaction of some of his close relatives. On arriving home in his ARP uniform he is at once berated by an aunt who is having tea with his mother.  ‘Gracious God, did I ever think I’d live to see the day when my own nephew would stand in this room dressed like a Black and Tan’.  The aunt then appeals to her sister for support: ‘Surely you realise that these ARP places will be filled with the scum of the Orange Lodges. Are these the sort of companions you want for a boy of his age?’.  Gavin stays in the ARP and acts with bravery when the full horror of the Luftwaffe’s fire power is unleashed on Belfast in mid-April of 1941.

In fact many of Northern Ireland’s disaffected minority were unwilling to give any help to Britain’s war effort. Out of 36,000 who joined the Home Guard, only 150 were Catholics.  This was hardly surprising, given that Stormont ruled that it should be placed under the RUC’s B-Special reserve, a force  deeply distrusted by Catholics.  Moore’s novel showed brilliantly just how thinly the war masked Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions and Brian Barton confronts this reality in his long awaited and truly magnificent history of the Belfast blitz.

Dr Barton has already written extensively on the subject and brought out a book on it as far back as 1989. This new, lavishly illustrated work will surely become the definitive work on the blitz, given the immense trawl of sources he has carried out, from state papers, army, RAF and Luftwaffe records, unit logs and diaries and above all the often unbearably moving testimony of those who survived their city’s ordeal by fire in April and again in early May of 1941 and were also so cruelly bereaved by it.

Northern Ireland was ill-prepared for total war, largely because of the complacent inertia of its Unionist rulers. Lord Craigavon, as  Barton points out, was drawing a larger salary as Stormont prime minister than Neville Chamberlain, but he was a notorious absentee from his desk, often departing with his wife for lengthy winter cruises. ‘Only good sailors should apply’ was one of the jokes circulated about his possible replacement. One source quoted in The Belfast Blitz claimed that when at the end of 1939 Craigavon was pressed by a colleague on the inadequacy of air raid shelter provision in Belfast his reply was that people ‘can take to the ditches’ outside the city. That was exactly what thousands of working class people did in April 1941 after the Luftwaffe struck. They had little choice, given that there were shelters for only twenty-five percent of their city’s population.

These shelters, like the fire services, were only brought up to the required standards well after the danger of renewed attack was long gone. Anti-aircraft guns and searchlight defences were also disastrously under resourced. Their allocation was however not a matter for Stormont but for the War Office and the army as the blitz on mainland cities intensified. And Belfast’s needs were not given a high rating. A squadron of RAF fighter aircraft was moved from Edinburgh to Belfast early in 1941 but without night interceptor equipment. Many in the emergency services during the great raid of 15th/16th April were left with the thought that Goering’s bombers had ‘had Belfast to themselves’.

The north of the city and its dock and shipbuilding areas bore the brunt of the attacks but on the night of the 4th/5th May the Luftwaffe returned with a huge incendiary attack which brought a swathe of  devastation which reached the city centre. Even today it’s hard to walk past Belfast landmarks such as the Falls Road’s indoor swimming  pool or the now splendidly restored St George’s Market without recalling how both were pressed into service as improvised mortuaries for the hundreds of victims who had died under the red hot rubble of collapsed buildings, all too often their own homes, as whole streets were destroyed by deadly parachute mines and raging fires. At the market, a nurse called Emma Duffin did duty helping to lay out and identify the corpses. She kept a diary from which Barton quotes. She had seen death before, she wrote, ‘but here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible. No attendant had soothed the last moments of these victims, no gentle reverend hand had closed their eyes or crossed their hands. With tangled hair, staring eyes, clutching hands, their grey faces covered in dust, they lay bundled into coffins, half-shrouded in rags or blankets, often wearing their dirty, torn garments. Death should be dignified, pacific. Hitler had made even death grotesque. I should have felt pity, instead feelings of repulsion and disgust assailed me’.

These dead were Belfast’s poor, victims of the most atrocious housing provision of probably any city in inter-war Britain. For many of them life had been defined in terms of a long struggle against overcrowding, damp, tuberculosis, and the loss of children in infancy. It was a struggle, too, against low wages and starvation rates of outdoor relief for the unemployed. When Catholics and Protestants briefly united with big protest marches in 1932 they were met head-on by the armoured cars, machine guns and truncheons of the RUC.

 As with evacuees from target cities in England and Scotland, along with those who fled into the country for safety, the state of Belfast’s poor appalled the social services who tried to cope with their plight as well as those who gave them sanctuary in their homes. Across the sea revelations of this kind created shock waves which drove the process of political change that culminated in Labour’s 1945 election victory. Northern Ireland was different, as  Barton makes clear, and its electorate followed a different drum. After Lord Craigavon’s death late in 1940 his party began to lose by-elections and his successors saw the need to head off the Northern Ireland  Labour Party by wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and began to throw their weight behind a more proactive war effort.

For some Unionists the latter could only mean conscription  and the abortive attempt to introduce it in 1940 was repeated in 1943. The problem was to convince Churchill of the case for it. Voluntary enlistment had never been conspicuously good, even within the majority community. Most Loyalists and Orangemen opted to remain loyally at home, often in reserved occupations or serving in the RUC’s B-Specials, waiting for the ‘real war’, as some of them referred to it, i.e. against the IRA. It as an organisation would of course have fought conscription and there was strong opposition to it within the broader nationalist community. Its leaders took their cue from the de Valera goverment in Dublin but some voices within it, notably among the Catholic clergy, were openly pro-German, such as Cardinal MacCrory, the Primate of All Ireland. His response to the Belfast blitz was a hurried visit to the German legation in Dublin as he was on good terms with the Reich’s minister there, Eduard Hempel. His concern was to seek protection in any further raids for Armagh cathedral, the seat of his archdiocese.

The IRA reacted to events with predictably brutal stupidity. Dominic Adams, an uncle of Gerry Adams, master-minded a bombing campaign against some major English cities which began in January 1939 and ran to over two hundred attacks which claimed seven lives, five of them in Coventry. It was meant to serve notice to Berlin of the organisation’s readiness to join the war when it came on Hitler’s side. This was not just a pragmatic equation of a British emergency with Ireland’s opportunity. Some IRA leaders were well-wishers to the Nazi state, and one of them, Sean Russell, was happy as an emissary to Berlin, to be wined and dined by leading figures in Hitler’s regime. It was another matter to convince the Abwehr, the Reich’s intelligence service, of the IRA’s capacity to launch major operations on both sides of the Irish border if and when Germany invaded.

All this was soon put on hold though a number of German agents were parachuted into Ireland to report on the situation. The IRA kept up sporadic attacks against the police in Eire and against the crown forces in Northern Ireland. After one of their Belfast volunteers, Tom Williams, was executed in September 1942, its Northern Command announced, in anticipation of a new German blitz, that it would launch attacks on the ARP, the RUC and its reserve force, as well as destroying electricity generating plants and also cinemas. The latter objective seems to have been rooted in the belief that too many people went to the cinema so they deserved to be ‘kept in a state of pictureless tension. With less cinema-going they might have more time to think’.

Some major Stormont figures did in fact think that the real enemy was the IRA. They feared cross border migration because of the security threat it might pose. There is scant proof that it did and migrants from Eire simply wanted work. For Unionists of this mindset the impulses which drove the IRA and the degree of support for it, if mostly passive within the nationalist community, posed a real and present threat to the Protestant mini-state which they saw it as their duty to defend. The great strength of Barton’s book is the way it puts under the microscope all Northern Ireland’s cultural and political divisions which would surface in malignant form barely twenty-five years from the war’s end. Unionists were happy to accept  the largesse provided by Britain’s post-war welfare state but they were careful to neutralise the onset of class-based politics. The militancy of organised labour in the war years didn’t alter the political map of Northern Ireland though it greatly alarmed Stormont which saw it as proof of shaky morale illustrated by people’s response to the blitz.

This was unjust and mean-spirited. Morale in Belfast during the blitz buckled at times, as in other cities, but there is little reason to suppose its people would not have adapted to more sustained attack, and they showed their resilience under the very different ordeal of the Troubles. Barton has done his adopted city proud. He has also declared his support for any initiatives to raise a city-centre memorial to the nearly one thousand victims of the 1941 raids. Should this not come to pass many will feel that The Belfast Blitz fits that purpose.

                                                                                                                             Ian S Wood First published in Scottish Review of Books, 2015

*****

****

Fascist Scotland: Caledonia and the Far Right, Gavin Bowd, Birlinn: Edinburgh (2013), £12.99, ISBN: 978 1 78027 052 4

If Hitler Comes: Preparing for Invasion: Scotland 1940, Gordon Barclay, Birlinn: Edinburgh (2013), £20, ISBN: 978 1 84341 062 1

Review - If Hitler Comes - Gordon BarclayReview - Fascist Scotland - Gavin Bowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It is a terrible thing to see our lads marched off, generation after generation, to fight the battles of the English for them. But the end is upon them. When the Germans land in Scotland, the glens will be full of marching men come to greet them and the professors themselves at the universities will seize the towns.”

Thus spoke Miss Carmichael, the deranged daughter of a highland laird, to a bemused Guy Crouchback in Officers and Gentlemen, the middle novel of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy set during the Second World War. Gavin Bowd uses these lines as a prelude to Fascist Scotland though he offers no guesses as to whom she might have been based upon. His scholarly and hugely entertaining narrative does however serve to remind us that fantasists of her ilk were around in wartime Scotland. They were never numerous but had to be watched by the police and security services in the ‘invasion summer’ of 1940 and in the dark months of early 1941 when the war’s outcome still hung in the balance.

Some of their fantasies were brutal and anti-Semitic like those of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, Etonian, former Guards officer and member of the Royal Company of Archers, who was elected to Parliament as Conservative and Unionist member for the South Midlothian and Peeblesshire seat in 1931. For his openly pro-Nazi views he was interned under the Emergency Powers legislation in May 1940. Prior to that he had been active in bodies such as the Link and the Right Club both of which had vocal support from an element within aristocratic and Conservative Scotland. The plebeian fascism and street violence of Mosley’s movement made little appeal to them and Bowd gives an excellent summary of the reasons why the British Union of Fascists signally failed to create a real support base in Scotland. As he says ‘Scottish Fascism had to carve out a niche in a crowded market for bigotry’ but it was unwilling to associate itself with the politics of a Protestant sectarianism which achieved a toxic presence in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1930s.

They also found themselves outflanked by an emergent political nationalism. Mosley and his party had little to contribute to any debate on Scotland’s constitutional future though they did consider the case for Scottish BUF activists to wear kilts with their black shirts. Grey was the favoured colour, ‘tartan being impossible, as the fascist policy is to embrace all clans and classes’. Such support as they did mobilize could owe much to local power-brokers like James Little, bank manager and Town Clerk of Dalbeattie where for a time the local BUF branch claimed four hundred members. In Aberdeen funds and support came from William Chambers-Hunter, a landowner with African colonnial connections. There, as in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee the left was on hand to provide militant, often violent but effective opposition.

The left was also there in force to support the Spanish Republic after 1936 but Catholic Scotland largely espoused General Franco’s cause with enormous open-air masses and rallies at Carfin grotto. This, Bowd points out, was not so much an expression of overt fascism as solidarity with a church seen to be under dire threat in Spain though some Scottish Conservative MPs who were, like an element within the aristocracy, already on the far right ideologically were quick to take up the Francoist and Falangist cause.

Fascism, as Brecht famously put it, is a bitch that is always in heat. It will feed off and also stoke real or imaginary fears as readily as it will absorb whatever is on offer from the effusions of any flawed intelligentsia. Scotland gave the world David Hume and Adam Smith but also crude eugenicists and pedlars of bogus racial science like the anatomist Robert Knox and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. They of course influenced what Fascism there was here and may too have had a corrosive effect on the discourse of early nationalism. Andrew Dewar Gibb held a chair of Law at Glasgow University as well as senior office within the Scottish National Party but in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse he wrote in obscenely racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland.

Gibb was someone whom Gerhard von Tevenar, a Nazi emissary to Scotland in 1937 and 1938 was anxious to meet though he had to settle for writing to him as part of his quest for ‘Blutsgefuhl’, i.e. a sense of race awareness within Scottish nationalism. He had to conclude that there was little of it but there was some, as the crass anglophobia of some contributions to the pre-war Scots Independent serve to remind us. An example of this was Arthur Donaldson and today’s SNP should surely take no pride in his post-war rise to a ten-year tenure as its chairman or indeed in still having an annual conference lecture named after him. Having been expelled from the party for his open support of Scottish neutrality in the war Donaldson, though not a Fascist in any card-carrying sense, was at the very least a defeatist in 1940 when Hamish Henderson and many more who thought as he did were already in uniform. In 1940 and 1941 Donaldson talked and wrote of a Nazi victory as a moment of political opportunity for Scottish nationalism. His careless talk and some of the company he kept led to his arrest in May 1940 and a six-week spell in Barlinnie during which he was allowed to wear his kilt. His release was sanctioned by the Labour Secretary of State Tom Johnston who felt there were insufficient grounds for holding him.

Like the poet and classicist Douglas Young, Donaldson continued to categorise as Quislings Scots who publicly made the case that victory over the Third Reich should take priority over Scottish self-government. The extent to which such views still had support within a small and fractious SNP brought the departure of its most able leader,the pro-war democrat Dr John MacCormick, but they were the views of fools rather than Fascists. Whether the fools and such Fascists as there were could ever have played an actively pro-German role would have had to depend very much on the ability of the Wehrmacht to land in Britain or in Scotland itself.

The possibility of this is a major concern of Gordon Barclay’s fascinating and lavishly illustrated account of how the defence of Scotland was planned, resourced and coordinated in 1940 and 1941. Only on 2 July 1940, he writes, did Hitler, still astonished by the speed of his armies’ victory in the West, order preparations to begin for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. This he then postponed in mid-September to clear the way for his onslaught on the Soviet Union but Britain’s defence planners had to assume an invasion was still on and that, after the fall of Norway, Scotland’s northern and eastern coasts would be prime target areas for it. Churchill always thought that the English Channel coast would be where the Germans would try to land but vast resources were nonetheless thrown into the defence of Scotland and large forces deployed there, some of them, after Dunkirk, poorly equipped for their role. General Sir William Ironside, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, confided to his diary in early July 1940 his doubts about being able to stop a German landing in Scotland and there was indeed a real chance that Hitler’s forces could at least have secured footholds in Caithness and the Orkney islands had they chosen to capitalise on their air-power and parachute troops the way they had in Norway.

They chose not to and thus gave precious time for the construction of strongpoints, stoplines and coastal defences, the location of which Barclay clearly knows like the back of his hand. By the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 an invasion of Britain could not have succeeded but elaborate counter-measures went on and remain the visible part of our landscape that this fine book shows them to be. As its author notes, “From being prudent precautions against an identifiable risk, defence preparations and the numbers of men making them became an impediment to the successful prosecution of the war, wasting materials and time better spent training for offensive warfare.”

An all-consuming fear at the height of the invasion scare was of the enemy within, the legendary and largely imaginary ‘Fifth Column’ that was supposed to have facilitated German victories in France and elsewhere. Barclay gives us a vivid account of how the Home Guard and locally based army units responded to a ‘Fifth Column’ scare in and around Montrose in mid-June 1940. Little came of a series of alarms but he points out that the local MP, a Lieut.Colonel Kerr, was a kindred spirit of Captain Ramsay and that his constituency had hosted lectures sponsored by the Link and the Right Club in which praise had been heaped upon Hitler and his Reich.

Internment in May 1940, though it scooped up many totally innocent ‘enemy aliens’, rightly took from political circulation Mosley, Ramsay and other Fascists. Only one Scottish nationalist, a minor figure, was arrested. Other nationalists remained under close observation and Arthur Donaldson might well have offered his tawdry services to the Nazis had they wanted them. He and the few who thought like him were however small fry from Berlin’s point of view. When Rudolf Hess landed near Eaglesham on 10 May, 1941 contact with Scottish nationalists does not seem to have been part of his agenda. The addresses he was concerned with, those of impenitent appeasers, were up-market ones in London and the English Home Counties and perhaps too within the extended Windsor family.

In fact, the Gestapo was rather more concerned with those whom it would want to arrest in and deport from an occupied Scotland. Gavin Bowd quotes from its ‘Search List’ which reveals predictable names such as those of James Maxton, Naomi Mitchison and the maverick Conservative MP, the Duchess of Atholl who had campaigned for republican Spain and against appeasement. Whether Hugh MacDiarmid was upset at being absent from the list is not known. His pre-war Communist Party membership might have earned it but as Bob Purdie shows in his recent study MacDiarmid – Hugh MacDiarmid: Black, Green, Red and Tartan – had also unwisely written in the 1920s of Italian Fascism embodying a dynamism and national pride from which a reborn Scotland might benefit.

He had too from his island fastness of Whalsay mocked Britain’s war effort in 1940 and revelled in his indifference to the German Blitz on London. He had also compared Churchill’s ministers to Gauleiters. By then he had already been under surveillance for ten years but having supported Donaldson and Young in their call for Scots to refuse their registration for war service he tamely accepted his when it came in 1943 and left Whalsay to work on the Clyde. As he later cheerfully wrote of himself, his intellectual and political life had been akin to that of a volcano emitting a great deal of rubbish along the way and he also made amends with a fine poem inspired by the Second World War names on the memorial in his old school in Langholm.

Neither of these authors can, by the very nature of what they have undertaken, avoid straying into some counter-factual history, such as whether Operation Sea Lion could have succeeded in 1940 and where it might have left those Scots who would have wanted to collaborate with it. They have opened up by their meticulous research and their stylish presentation of it issues which have a very real bearing on both how we view our past as well as what political future we want for our country. Bowd has come under vitriolic abuse, most of it online, for daring to look at recent history in the war and for reminding us that our body politic is not immune to the virus of racism and other forms of prejudice.

Finally, this reviewer as a Hibernian supporter of long standing has noted the fact that in 1935 Mosley’s men tried to leaflet a home game at Easter Road. There was a bigger and effective leafleting exercise there in October 1988 by home fans in protest at the vile racism which had greeted the Rangers player Mark Walters at other Scottish grounds which will be left unnamed here. This point could perhaps be included in a second edition of Fascist Scotland which it fully deserves.

                                                                                                                                             Ian S Wood First published in Scottish Review of Books, 2013

  

 

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Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane: London (March 2011), 402pp, £25, ISBN 9781 84614 273 4

Civilization - Niall Ferguson

Civilization is not a piece of original research, and is not aimed at an academic audience. Ferguson himself claimed that it was “partly designed so that a 17-year-old boy or girl will get a lot of history in a very digestible way, and be able to relate to it.” The phrase “killer apps”, which he uses to describe the six factors he says produced the dominance of the West, is transparently a hook to attract a young audience. Ferguson holds very right-wing views, not those of a racist, sexist or homophobic kind, but a neoliberal belief in the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism, minimal state involvement in society, and the desirability of imposing globally (by force if necessary) the values and institutions which underpin the system he admires. Despite being British, he is a profound Americanophile and has lived and worked in the USA for many years. He was an adviser to John McCain during his presidential campaign of 2008 and supported Mitt Romney in 2012. He has a visceral hatred of anything remotely left-wing, professes deep scorn for multiculturalism, and regards Islam with a hostile contempt. Recently he has been put forward by Michael Gove as a favoured candidate for rewriting the history syllabus for English schools to tell the “British Story”.

While not personally racist (he is currently married to a Somali woman), Ferguson’s writings must surely give comfort to those who are. The very title of the book is provocative and evocative of white European and North American triumphalism. The West is synonymous with the Civilization which he analyses, and the Rest is a term of dismissiveness for all else. Taken in conjunction with other works he has written, in particular Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and with the “Work” chapter, his chosen people can be narrowed down to Anglo-Saxon (and some Celtic) Protestants.

Ferguson supports his overall analysis with a vast and wide-ranging body of evidence, but there are several major criticisms. Firstly, the claim of a “half-millennium of Western predominance” is stretching matters. Most historians of empire would confine it to around 200 or 250 years. The processes described may have begun around 1500, but the dominance does not emerge until deep into the 18th century. Secondly, he draws attention to so many exceptions to his generalisations (the mark of a widely knowledgeable historian) that sometimes it is not clear why he thinks the evidence points the way he claims it does. Thirdly, since he chose to use the word “civilization” as an indicator of superior worth, how can the facts of the worst genocide in history (the Holocaust), the slave trade and unremitting warfare be squared with this?

The first chapter, “Competition” makes it clear that Ferguson’s definition of “civilization” places particular emphasis on economics and power, and as a proponent of free-market capitalism, the “app” of competition is essential for his analysis. However, Ferguson does not mention mercantilism as the practice and belief system of European trading prior to the 18th century, a philosophy incompatible with capitalism but nonetheless competitive.

The second chapter, “Science”, is the least contentious, and is a masterful tour of the advances in both technology and thinking which did so much to give the West such an advantage over everyone else in the fields of manufacture, transport and warfare. It is in the third chapter, “Property”, where we really see the unfolding of Ferguson’s teleological concept of the march of history towards the unsurpassed efficacy of the Western model. But we also witness the honing of the focus of that approval by his dismissal of the Latin and Catholic contributions as inadequate compared to the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant model of politics, property and empire.

The fourth chapter, “Medicine” is very peculiar, taking a huge detour through the French Revolution and discussing the relative merits and demerits of various European empires. It is only when you step back from it that you realise that Ferguson has been using this chapter, not just to discuss medicine, but to do down the French. They were poor imperialists, hopelessly misguided revolutionaries and self-destructive centralisers. The last section of the chapter does a similar demolition job on the Germans.

Chapter four and the following one, entitled “Consumption”, demonstrate the contrivance which comes of using the six “apps” structure for both thematic and chronological narrative purposes. Each theme is pursued largely within the timeframe reached at that particular stage of the narrative. This may suit the TV documentary series which Ferguson undoubtedly was aiming for and which duly emerged, but it requires the text to veer off in disconcerting directions. Discussion of the merits of nuclear weapons is a strange topic to pop up under “Consumption”. However the consistency of the polemic is unwavering, as demonstrated by the use of this chapter to denounce yet another country’s inferiority to the Anglo-Saxons, in this case Russia, and of course to demonise Marx, communism and socialism in the process. Such is his determination to cast the Soviet system in as negative a light as possible that he says, “few asked how many people died for every ton of steel produced under Stalin (the answer was nineteen)”. Taking the figures for Soviet steel production in just 1937 and 1938 (42 million tons),  this equates to 898 million deaths, or five times the entire population of the Soviet Union. Why let facts get in the way of a good rant?

Chapter six, “Work”, examines the work ethic and chronologically deals with recent events, particularly focusing on China. Here his argument enters new and profound realms of speciousness. As a self-professed atheist, it can only be construed that Ferguson’s lauding of religious faith arises from his view that it is an effective model of social control rather than a valid belief system. While appearing to praise Christianity, he has in fact singled out one distinguishing feature from one narrow sect within one branch of the whole religion. This patronising position also somewhat undercuts his professed belief in individual autonomy and reveals an elitist mentality hidden beneath a liberal façade. His focus is squarely upon that phenomenon described by Max Weber – the Protestant Work Ethic. Ferguson describes this “hard-working godliness” as the belief that industriousness, acquisition of wealth, and an attitude that life’s purpose is to work, is what fits one for the Elect – those destined by God for salvation. Taking this as his sixth “app”, he sees this as possibly the most important of them all, as the intellectual and spiritual foundation for everything else which went to make up the West’s predominance. He makes passing reference to Weber’s blindness towards Catholic entrepreneurs in Belgium and France and to his anti-Semitic view of enterprising Jews as representing “pariah-capitalism”, but then ploughs on regardless. He might also have noted that Fiat and other industrial powerhouses from Northern Italy emerged in a wholly Catholic nation, and that fully a third of all Germans and Netherlanders were Catholic. Whether this belief system was as enthusiastically embraced by the workers toiling in the factories as it was by their self-righteous owners is also not addressed.

Ferguson makes great play of the claim that there are now 40 million Protestant Christians in China, but the implicit link with China’s rise to industrial and commercial greatness is unconvincing since they only make up 4% of that nation’s population. Nor does he explain why wholly un-Protestant Japan became a highly industrialised nation a century ago, nor why Brazil (overwhelmingly Catholic) and India (overwhelmingly non-Christian) should now be joining the ranks. However, for the purposes of the polemic, the purported link between Protestantism and hard work was needed. Ferguson describes approvingly the proliferation of Evangelical Protestant churches in the USA, seeing this as both an example of a free market in spirituality and a cultural factor in producing “hard work”. Apart from the disservice this does to other religions, in particular the Catholicism of America’s growing Hispanic population, it is also a paean to work as a virtue in itself. Pointing approvingly to the longer hours worked by Americans and above all by Taiwanese and South Koreans (not the most Protestant nations in the world), he condemns Europeans as having become idlers. But why is self-sacrificing work necessarily a virtue? Why is increased leisure time not a praiseworthy aim of any society? Perhaps the imperatives of Calvinist Protestantism should be seen as part of the cultural and psychological make-up of the author himself. He may be an atheist, but he grew up in a part of Scotland widely infused with those values, and not far from the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle who asserted that “all true work is religion”.

Ferguson’s dire warnings of impending decline, if not Apocalypse, for the West because of its materialist consumption practices (previously a positive “app”) resemble the fundamentalist Protestant sects who predict that Armageddon is imminent. But there is simultaneously another side to him, the triumphalist polemicist who, like Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, cannot resist seeing the end of history rather than the end of times – a world where liberal free-market capitalism, the supposed apogee of human achievement, has been achieved. It is no coincidence that this concurs very largely with what Ferguson believes in and what his adopted nation, the USA, embodies and projects into the wider world.

Erudite historical knowledge abounds in this book, but its structure, analysis and political bias make for poor, or at least highly contentious, history. It would make a dangerously one-sided polemical text for a school syllabus, but perhaps the most significant criticism of the book is found in The Spectator, that organ most in tune with Ferguson’s political inclinations, whose review of the content was at best lukewarm (words like smart-alecky and naff scarcely speak of enthusiasm), while it unequivocally found its structural framework contrived and unconvincing.

David White


 

Hitler’s Empire. Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe, Mark Mazower, Allen Lane: London (June 2008), 725pp, £30, ISBN 978 071399 681 4

Hitler's Empire - Mark MazowerMark Mazower is director of the Center for International History at Columbia University and the author of several well-received books including Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44 (Yale UP, 1993), Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century (Knopf, 1998) and No Enchanted Palace: the End of Empire (Princeton UP, 2009). He is an internationally recognised scholar of the highest calibre, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and writes regularly for The New Republic, The Nation, the Financial Times, the Guardian and the London Review of Books. The depth of research which goes into all his published works is in evidence in Hitler’s Empire, witnessed by a bibliography running to more than 800 entries, a good number of which are primary sources.

While the main focus is upon Nazi occupation policies and practices between 1939 and 1945, it also ranges back in time to trace the political and ideological roots of  these phenomena, while the final chapters examine the legacy of the Third Reich for Europe. Hitler’s Empire is concerned both with the nature of the occupations and with the ideology guiding Nazi imperial policies. It addresses why the Nazis were so much more ruthless, violent and genocidal in the east than in western Europe. Mazower examines the rivalries and competing visions of the various organisations which played major roles in advancing and carrying through occupation policies. These included the Wehrmacht, the SS, the Foreign Office, the Ministry for the Eastern Occupied Territories, state and regional governors, commissioners and ‘protectors’, economic advisers, ‘resettlement’ experts, and of course Hitler.

Mazower demonstrates that the result of all these agencies working with little or no co-ordination was inconsistency, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. The standard view of a monolithic, well-oiled, efficient  machine, or of the disciplined cohesion which the Nazis liked to project as their own image was a myth, as other historians have also pointed out.[1] Occupation practices were generally improvised and reactive – the main reason being the lack of  properly thought-out occupation policies. Mazower sees this arising from three factors. The first was the speed of the initial military victories. The second was the lack of knowledge and forward organisation needed to administer their foreign conquests, particularly the underestimation of the logistical and demographic problems that would be encountered in eastern Europe. German statisticians did not even know the size of the population of Poland and the western regions of the Soviet Union, areas earmarked for clearance and resettlement by German pioneers.[2] The third factor was competing ideologies.[3]

Mazower’s description of the chaos of feuding agencies feeds into a major historiographical issue in the field of National Socialist study. This is the debate over the nature of the Nazi state, whether it was totalitarian or polycratic, that is to say made up of multiple quasi-independent power centres. Mazower clearly sees the Third Reich as a multi-centred entity, the most powerful component parts being the mutually antagonistic Party leaders and the SS.[4] But he also makes it clear that he subscribes to Ian Kershaw’s conceptualisation whereby, within this polycratic jungle, the phenomenon of “working towards the Führer” acted as a compass for the agencies operating in the occupied territories.[5]

Mazower’s principal and most interesting focus is upon the ideological currents and motivations which permeated the Nazi empire. He uses these to explain and interpret political decisions on the way occupied territories, especially in the east, were treated, and why so many grave miscalculations and squandered opportunities occurred.

In tracing the ideological roots of the drive for empire, Mazower examines anti-Slavic prejudices dating back to the mid-19th century and the war aims of Germany during the First World War, in particular the grandiose plans of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the latter an early supporter of the Nazi Party who took part in the Munich Putsch of 1923. He draws attention to similarities between the occupation policies and goals in the Great War and those of the Nazis during the Second World War. As well as atrocities committed in Belgium and the conscription of half a million Frenchmen into war work in the earlier conflict, in the east ethnic cleansing was begun in the occupied Baltic regions, Belorussia and Ukraine after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ceded these huge areas to German occupation in 1918. This was intended to pave the way for the replacement of ‘racially inferior’ Slavs by ‘civilised’ Germans. Additionally, the most brutally murderous episodes occurred after the war was over, perpetrated by the Freikorps, men who would form the backbone of the early Nazi Party and later supply many of the administrators in the second occupation of the same areas. This chimes with Fritz Fischer’s seminal work, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, which claimed that she had designs on a vast empire in eastern Europe, and in historiographical terms is part of the debate on the continuity or discontinuity of German history.[6] Furthermore, in seeing these factors as feeder streams of Nazi ambitions, Mazower therefore touches on another historiographical area – whether Hitler planned a great war of conquest, whether the Second World War was essentially a series of localised wars which spiralled out of control, and whether Nazism ultimately aimed at world domination.[7]

Mazower goes with the grand imperial design outlined openly in Mein Kampf, but sees Hitler’s ambitions as focused wholly on creating a central and eastern European empire. Rather than total world domination, he believes that the Nazis were aiming for a world carved up among imperial spheres of interest by Germany, Japan, Britain and the USA.[8] He suggests that the practices inflicted by all the European imperial powers upon subject native populations was very similar to the oppression practised by the Nazis – race laws, differential legal and employment status, and arbitrary violence  in the name of a higher civilisation, practices which were now being visited upon white Europeans by other white Europeans.[9]

To examine the ideological underpinnings of the German occupation policies, Mazower turns to the work of Werner Best, one of the few leading Nazis with any real claim to intellectual ability. An “open theoriser and justifier of genocide”,[10] Best contributed to a collection of essays presented to Heinrich Himmler upon his birthday in 1941, his piece describing a four-tier model of occupation practices based upon racial criteria. At the first level, referred to as associative, was the example of Denmark, a Nordic nation where democratic politics were allowed to continue and Danes ran their own affairs as long as Germany benefited from their actions. Next was supervisory, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands whose racial make-up, while not as purely Nordic as Denmark, allowed them to remain as nominal nation states with their own indigenous civil service under overall German policy direction. Third was a ‘ruling’ occupation, such as existed in the Czech lands where German administrators largely ran the ‘Protectorate’. Fourth was the colonial model where direct rule was necessary because the ‘civilizational level’ of the inhabitants was too low – code of course for racial inferiority. In all these models, however, the Jews were regarded as beyond the pale of any claim to rights and were fair game for murderous reprisals in response to resistance to German control.[11]

Best favoured the supervisory model because it was more efficient, required fewer German administrators and more closely resembled British rule in India. Since this was a model of colonial control which Hitler had long admired, this was as an example of “working towards the Führer”.[12] This model might have proved useful when dealing with the conquered territories of the Baltic and Ukraine where the Germans were initially seen by many as liberators from the double tyranny of Bolshevism and Russian imperialism. It was the policy favoured by Alfred Rosenberg’s Eastern Ministry, but that agency was no match for its rivals. Instead a policy of expropriation, violent repression, engineered famine and  racial slaughter was enacted. This was in large part carried through under the imprint of General Plan East, the brainchild of Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, which envisaged settling the conquered areas of the Soviet Union with ethnic Germans even before military conquest was completed. This thoroughly impractical plan was accompanied by an ideological definition of the worth of differing races, describing clearly Slavs and ‘Asiatics’ as fit only for extermination or at best slavery in the service of the German master-race.[13]

The descent into mass murder had its origins in the treatment of the Poles since 1939, but in the Soviet Union it accelerated exponentially and moved on to a new level of barbarism. Aided by Hitler’s Commissar Decree authorising the immediate execution of captured Red Army political officers, racial hatred melded with fanatical anti-Bolshevism to generate a coarsening of behaviour which was not confined to ideological agencies such as the SS or the Einsatzgruppen, but permeated almost all the occupiers.[14] Mazower illustrates the horrors with as many examples as Daniel Goldhagen did in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, but does not undermine the analysis by suggesting that the German people or culture were inherently and irredeemably racist.[15] He is much more focused upon the power of ideology to induce people to act in ways which previously they would not have dreamed of doing. In this respect Hitler’s Empire echoes much of the work done by Omer Bartov in The Eastern Front 1941-1945: German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare, and complements that study by considering a wider and deeper ideological perspective than did Bartov.[16]

Mazower describes how this ideological brutalisation led not just to a loss of morality among the occupiers, but how it also severely undermined the war effort. The unwillingness to extend national liberation to Ukrainians and Belorussians because of their perceived racial inferiority, and the unceasing plunder and killings, led many foes of Stalin and their erstwhile Russian overlords eventually to ally themselves with their former oppressors and chose what they saw as the much lesser of two evils. Mazower contrasts the success of the Japanese who persuaded many Asian nationalists to work with them with the failure of the Nazis in “exploiting nationalism as a tool of political warfare.”[17]

In the West, too, lack of coherent organisation meant that the resources of rich and highly industrialised countries like France and the Netherlands were never tapped properly. Initial plunder gave way to inefficiencies, bottlenecks, lack of raw materials and labour shortages. Extermination of the Jews (aided by widespread collaboration and collusion) and forced labour conscription accelerated as the war went on, and by the later stages of the occupations, the murderous practices of the east were beginning to be implemented in the west, cut short by the swift advance of the Allies in 1944. However, it was not swift enough to prevent the horrors of famine in the Netherlands, one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world, in 1945.[18]

According to Mazower, the Nazis’ imperial mission was essentially to ‘civilise’ the East, a mission not of liberating its inhabitants but exterminating them or reducing them to the status of helots. The conquests in the West were largely a means to that end, knocking enemies out militarily and looting their wealth. This was a project infused with an elitist and thoroughly racist ideology. Mazower has little time for structural theories of the causes of war or the rise of the Third Reich, but nails his analytical colours firmly to the mast of political and ideological intentionalism. Whether you agree with this interpretation or not, Hitler’s Empire contributes greatly to our understanding of a period of history that seems awash with near-psychopathic cruelty and indifference to human life. Mazower helps to dispel the all-too-easy recourse to describing Nazism as simply mad and bad, but looks to ideas as powerful and often dangerous tools of human motivation.

This is a book which is of particular value to scholars of National Socialism, the Second World War and those interested in the history of ideas. It is an essential addition to any university course on Nazi Germany or 20th-century European history. Although a certain knowledge of the era aids appreciation of the work, this is an eminently accessible and well-written book for any lay reader with an interest in history. As well as providing a plausible interpretational framework for Nazi imperialism, it whets the appetite for exploring further the ideology of National Socialism and for finding out why such a dark doctrine was embraced by so many German people who, just a few years later in the Federal Republic, would be viewed as model European citizens.

David White


[1] Klaus Hildebrand, Third Reich, 94; Karl Dietrich Bracher, German Dictatorship, 499-506

[2] Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 209

[3] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 10-11

[4] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 134; Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, 529-531; Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 223-256

[5] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 9

[6] Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War

[7] AJP Taylor, Origins of the Second World War; Klaus Hildebrand The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich; M. Hauner, ‘Did Hitler Want World Domination?’

[8] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 2-4 & 577-587

[9] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 584-586

[10] Martyn Housden, Review of Best , 86

[11] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 235-238

[12] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 2, 229 & 581-582

[13] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 204-211

[14] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 142 & 173-176

[15] Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners

[16] Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front 1941-1945

[17] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 588

[18] Mazower, Hitler’s Empire, 280-281

 

 

Moral Combat: A History of World War II, Michael Burleigh, London, Harper Press (2011), 650pp £10.99 ISBN 978 0007195763

Review - Moral Combat - Michael Burleigh

In an interview in History Today, Michael Burleigh said that the working title of this book had been Good and Evil in World War II and that his intention was to bring together the many moral questions raised by the conflict which are usually considered in isolation and scattered across the historical literature. He also wanted to write a narrative of the war, leading several critics to see this as two books wrapped in one. Although Burleigh writes a broadly chronological account from the 1920s to the downfall of the Axis powers in 1945, it is written in such a way as to focus primarily upon issues of ethics and morality. By concentrating upon debates and controversies which have arisen in the historiography of the era, this meant looking in greater detail at some events and participants than at others. This has contributed to rather less being said about the Japanese, Italians and the minor allies of both sides than about the Germans, Russians, British and Americans.

Burleigh is at his best when discussing the Nazis, the area of history where he made his reputation and pioneered much impressive research into the ideology of National Socialism. His contribution to the debate on the complicity of the Wehrmacht with the SS Einsatzgruppen in the genocide of the Jews in Poland and Russia carried out with such apparent casualness is expansive and compelling. Burleigh’s strength here is in linking the tenets of Nazi racial-superiority ideology to their differing levels of barbarity in dealing with a spectrum of occupied nations and races. There is much detail of the occupation policy inflicted on the Poles (chapters 4 & 5), but less on that visited upon non-Jewish Russians and Ukrainians, while the chapter on life under the Nazis in the west focuses principally on France. Yugoslavia, a singular nest of vicious infighting, ancient feuds, home-grown fascism and shifting allegiances is curiously absent throughout.

Among other historiographical issues with a moral component which Burleigh tackles are appeasement in the 1930s – he describes Chamberlain as provincial, naïve and vain, while Halifax was “a man in arrested development” (p.50), characteristics which he sees leading to their misreading of the moral nature of Hitler and Nazism. Resistance to the Nazis and awareness of concomitant, inevitable and disproportionate reprisals is discussed, while he suggests that those who engaged in proactive resistance did so for reasons of personal choice, individualism and strength of character – at least in France which is the example he analyses in depth. The fraught debate over Nazism and Soviet Communism – whether they were similar, or totalitarian variants or quite different, and which was more reprehensible – is pursued at length and crops up throughout the book. The prosecuting of war crimes as well as the even more contentious decision not to prosecute where the potential accused could be of use in the emerging Cold War is examined.

One of Burleigh’s most grimly fascinating chapters is titled  “We Were Savages” and deals with the horror of combat, the spirals of brutality and the sometimes bizarre coping mechanisms of soldiers at the front: “Practical jokers put the [dead] frozen Germans on their feet, or on their hands and knees, making intricate, fanciful sculpture groups.” (p.365) A particularly interesting and potentially very delicate area for any non-Jewish historian to venture into is Jewish leadership negotiations with the Nazis, collaboration, resistance, and the morally fraught position of Kapos (prisoners given supervisory/policing roles) in the extermination camps. Burleigh handles this sensitively and without his customary Manichean, black-and-white judgementalism, accepting that here there were grey areas of moral choice.

He addresses the question of whether it was an immoral choice not to attack the extermination camps or the rail lines feeding them once it became clear to the Allies what these installations were. His conclusion that Allied aircraft were incapable of the required degree of accuracy leads into an issue which greatly interests and energises him – strategic bombing. He excoriates claims that the saturation bombing of German cities was tantamount to a war crime, but his defence of this position is so absolute as to cause him to deny the official targeting of civilians in order to reduce morale: “Killing a large number of German civilians was not their primary objective.” (p.482) He also justifies the repeated firebombing of Japanese cities even when it was likely that Japanese surrender was just a matter of time and the correct wording of the surrender document in relation to the position of Emperor Hirohito.

Burleigh devotes two entire chapters to the air-war, overwhelmingly to a long justification of strategic bombing by the RAF and the USAAF. In the first of these chapters, tellingly titled “The King’s Thunderbolts Are Righteous”, he goes into minute detail on the construction, workings and crew details of the Lancaster bomber. Even the fact that it cost £10,000 per man to train each crew member is included (p.479). It is interesting to learn that by 1945 45% of RAF Bomber Command pilots were from the white dominions (p.481). Burleigh praises the bravery of the bomber crews and draws attention to their horrifying casualty rates of nearly 50%, which he points out were as great as the carnage at the Somme (p.482). He creates a dichotomy between these men flying into the most horrendous danger and the murderers of the Einsatzgruppen and the extermination camps who ran no personal risks, to show there was no equivalence between these actions. This is completely unanswerable, but his defence of commanders such as Arthur Harris and Curtis LeMay who ordered the bombers to obliterate entire cities and create firestorms is less straightforwardly acceptable, though Burleigh attempts it with a passion equal to his championing of those sent into the maelstrom of flak and enemy fighters. Interestingly too, he cannot resist putting much of the reason for Churchill’s huge increase in Bomber Command’s funding in 1943 on to a need to propitiate Stalin’s demand “to spill German blood”. (p.491)

Burleigh’s final focus here is upon the use of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He weaves together the multi-stranded factors which the Americans had to consider before embarking on this draconian measure. How costly in American casualties would an invasion of mainland Japan be? How likely was Japan to accept unconditional surrender? Would the army of 5.5 million men actually conform with orders to surrender? Would a demonstration of this game-changing technology give the USA a post-war advantage over the Russians? The morality of the issue is discussed largely along the lines of whether such draconian action actually served to save  lives by shortening the war. Burleigh seems to think it did finally tip the balance towards surrender, but other historians have suggested it was the devastating effect of Russian entry into combat against Japan and the dramatic, swift and crushing victory which they achieved in Manchuria in two weeks which swung the issue.

In the Preface, Burleigh states that the book “is not a work of moralising enthusiasm”, (p.viii) adding that he “does not confuse morals… with the separate activity of moralising.” (p.viii) This sounds like Leopold von Ranke arguing in the mid-19th century for a positivist approach to history writing. However, as Benedetto Croce and EH Carr long ago argued, there is no absolute objectivity in the writing of history, and all history is mediated through the historians who write it. Burleigh would like us to believe he is writing an objective and dispassionate account of the moral choices made by the participants in World War II, but the book is awash with his own judgements, both moral and political.

Commenting on those who write about the morality issues surrounding World War II, Burleigh elides the terms “moral relativism” and “moral equivalence”. He castigates historians and others who claim that all the “belligerents were as bad as one another.” (p.x) Yet beyond fiction writer Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, which was universally panned by critics, he names no-one arguing the equivalence case. What almost all historians do is gradate judgement (Italian Fascists were not as bad as German ones). He appears to be setting up a straw man so that he can knock him down, and in so doing take a swipe at postmodernism in the discipline of history and at left-wing politics in general. When he writes towards the end of the Preface, “I find myself defending the Allied war effort”, (p.xi) there must be precious few readers who needed all the preceding polemic to be persuaded to that conclusion.

It is also the case that Burleigh rarely gives space for competing interpretations, and where he does, it is to pour scorn upon them. Constant usage of terms like “armchair moralists” or “armchair strategist” makes one wonder if he has reflected upon his own “armchair” location and how that might therefore make his judgements invalid if measured by the same pejorative yardstick by which he undermines the credibility of those with whom he disagrees. Significantly his criticism largely falls upon unidentified “modern historians”, political writers and amorphous groups such as communists, pacifists and “leftists”. He does not tackle or lay out the competing interpretations of heavyweights in the academic world such as Richard Evans and Richard Overy, the latter in particular disagreeing with his interpretation of the air-war.

Displaying political interpretation in a work of history need not be a bad thing (witness the first-class history of Eric Hobsbawm and Niall Ferguson), but when jaundiced, unsubstantiated prejudices are allowed to creep into a work it weakens its credibility. Burleigh consistently portrays all communists as compassionless, ill-willed and apparently devoid of any morality. In outdated Cold-War fashion he makes little attempt to differentiate between the communism of Stalin, Tito and the Italian resistance. The fact that the Russians  prevented the triumph of Hitler was a good thing, but not a noble undertaking in the way that the American and British contributions were. He spends pages, especially in chapter 13, citing examples of Stalin’s grubby behaviour to show what an unmitigated monster he was. By invoking motivation, or at least his view of it, to judge anything done by communists, whether Soviet or in the many resistance movements in Europe and Asia, he undermines any good results they produced. So little does he consider the intrinsic worth of anyone in the Soviet Union that Georgy Zhukov, arguably the most effective general in the entire war, merits only three extremely brief mentions (pp.233, 256, 345) while Erich von Manstein and Bernard Montgomery rate six apiece.

The United States too is treated with less than his fulsome, glowing approbation of British and Commonwealth fortitude and right-thinking, the American airforce excepted. His caricatured portrayal of President Roosevelt, whom he patently scorns and regards as an effete lightweight who was a pushover for Stalin, has a whiff of English conceit about it. The most egregious example of his Anglocentrism is his Boys-Own hero-worship of Winston Churchill. “He gave the English lion its roar” (p.165) is not only hackneyed, but also insensitive to Scots, Welsh and Irish citizens of Great Britain.  A great man Churchill certainly was, but the cloying adoration and treating of any faults as mere peccadillos to be expected of such a colossus, stands in stark contrast to his ad hominem critique of others who are too often defined and judged by their personal failings and perceived motivations rather than their deeds.

This is an eminently readable book and contains a wealth of hitherto little known facts and nuggets of information – including for instance, that in 1941 Germany had an incredible total of 2,300 active generals in its army (p.221), or that during the entire course of the war only 19 Germans visited their ally, Japan (p.311). It is also a good short account of the whole war, though not in a textbook/reference way. Despite its scant textual engagement with the historiography of the era, this is a scholarly work with a bibliography of over 400 sources and copious citations to take the interested reader to other accounts of events. It brings together moral issues and ideology to create a hitherto somewhat neglected approach that needs to be pursued further in the historical study of the Second World War. However, it should be read with extreme scepticism.

David White

 


 

Films

LINCOLN (2012) – 150 minutes.

Director: Steven Spielberg.  Screenplay: Tony Kushner.  From a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Principal actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones.

Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) endures the biting scorn of Mary Lincoln (Sally Field)

Anyone expecting a biopic of Lincoln’s life should look elsewhere. Sacrificing width for depth, the entire film takes place in a period of less than four months in early 1865 and focuses upon the President’s efforts to have the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, passed by Congress before the American Civil War comes to an end. If, however, the filmgoer seeks a detailed account of how American democracy and politics worked at this period of time, then this is highly recommended.

The film opens with a brutal battle depicting desperate hand-to-hand fighting in deep mud largely between white Confederate soldiers and black Union troops with no quarter given; but thereafter there are no further depictions of warfare other than a gruesome glimpse of a pit full of amputated limbs, and the aftermath of the capture of Richmond and Petersburg. This is not Gettysburg or Glory. What you get is an epic account of political and personal drama, a study of events parallel to the battlefield narrative yet  intimately tied to the point and pursuit of the war.

This film makes no compromise with ignorance, laziness or short attention spans. It neither dumbs down nor inserts contrived dialogue to explain to the viewer what is going on. To fully appreciate the unfolding events, you should ideally come equipped with a measure of knowledge of the history of the period. With a smattering of history, the unfolding of the personal dilemmas and moral struggles of the principal protagonists make for dramatic entertainment, but there is a an equally deep fascination to be had from watching the political process at work.

The American system of government does not get an easy ride in this portrayal. The 1865 House of Representatives is portrayed as a bearpit of bile, insult and personal rancour. The passage of the constitutional amendment is not essayed by lofty rhetoric or persuasive debate. The twenty votes which the abolitionist advocates need to shift from no to yes are quite simply bought through blatant patronage and bribery, by giving lucrative jobs and unmerited office to representatives with few moral scruples. Among those who support the amendment even without the lubrication of sinecures are racists and bigots in both the Republican and Democrat ranks.

While Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln is marvellously sustained and persuasive, it is matched by a magnificent display by Tommy Lee Jones as the truculent and unrelenting radical abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens, a man for whom any compromise on negro emancipation is complete anathema. His performance is a study in the struggle between moral impeachability and the need to compromise on absolute principles in order to achieve progress, however incomplete that might be.

Lincoln himself went through moral struggles on the slavery issue earlier in his life and has sometimes been adjudged a hypocrite for his initial opposition to negro emancipation. There is a scene in the film where he uses the argument of ending slavery as a war measure to weaken the Confederacy, a pragmatic approach which he adopted several years earlier but which eventually led him to believe in emancipation for its own sake. He is plainly using this tack to manipulate a wavering fellow-Republican who regards ‘niggers’ and ‘coons’ as a threat to the livelihood of its his own Northern constituents, but wants to end the war as soon as possible.

Shortly after, in one of the most politically incisive scenes in the film, Lincoln reveals to his cabinet the dubious legal standing of his war measures, the contradictions in his own arguments concerning the legal and constitutional validity of much of his dealings with the secessionist states, and the challenges to the validity of ending slavery which would be available to re-admitted Southern states should the war cease before the amendment is passed. He admits to bending laws and trampling over the constitution in the interests of a greater moral good and the national interest. As he sees it, the only way to put a lid on all this dubious legality in which he has engaged for years in order to win the war, is to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment before the conflict ends. His shady, secretive and duplicitous dealings with a Southern delegation offering a negotiated peace leave you feeling that here was a man who understood how to manoeuvre in the swamp of politics in Washington, and who was astute at measuring how far using discreditable tactics could be taken before the ends were outweighed by the effects of the means. In this case, the great dilemma is whether to end the war swiftly and save lives but at the cost of sacrificing the only certain way to end slavery in the United States, through the passage of the 13th Amendment.

There are some parts of the film that don’t quite match up to the overall feel of veracity which it serves up, especially if you are not a stout-hearted American. The early scene where Lincoln is talking to several soldiers about their experiences flirts with mawkishness. Their rendering back to the president the words of his (rightly famed) Gettysburg address is a little too sentimental and, frankly, unlikely. The lobbyists and vote-brokers who carry out the bribery of Democrat representatives are lovable rogues played for laughs, a deft dramatic device to lighten and break up the seriousness of the rest of a long film, but hardly a realistic portrayal of men whose livelihood involved subversion of the democratic process. However, some of the events portrayed which may look like dramatic licence were in fact real. The presence of blacks in the gallery of Congress as the vote on the amendment took place really did occur – and only because the Lincoln administration removed the ban on them late in 1864. The presence of black people at White House functions (other than servants) was another Lincoln initiative in 1865.

It is to be welcomed that such a fine politician, president and person as Abraham Lincoln (for all his human failings) should be presented in such a quality film and through a superb portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis. There was far, far more to the man, in particular his growth into the office and his willingness to change his opinions and moral interpretations. However, the omission of these important precursors which actually add to the impressiveness of the man, allow the film to accomplish more than just showing us a great man. It also casts light upon the context and times in which he operated, in particular the political workings of the US government which, for all its flaws, retained a degree of democracy unmatched anywhere else in the world at that time – even in the midst of a desperate civil war.

David White

.

DVDs

The Driving Force A DVD  by David Bytheway. Includes the book Back on Track and 6 video programmes on the same disc.  Clackmannanshire Field Studies Society Publications (December 2013), £12.

The Driving Force Cover

 

 

What it was like… Grange Road signal box

A new DVD which tells the story of railways and coal in Clackmannanshire has been made by one of the members of the Open History Society. Produced by local retired journalist and film-maker David Bytheway, of Coalsnaughton, the DVD, entitled The Driving Force, is a follow-up to his successful book, Back on Track, which he wrote to mark the re-opening of the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway in 2008.

David said: “The book was well received so that spurred me on to produce a video.  However, the project grew arms and legs and has had to be spread over two DVDs, the first of which will go on sale on December 16th 2013.”

    

A coal train heads through Alloa


Disc One, which was produced with assistance from Clackmannanshire Field Studies Society, contains six programmes and a special bonus video, plus an updated copy of the acclaimed book Back on Track.  

David said: “You can read the book, which is on PDF format on your computer, and then insert the same disc into your DVD player to view the programmes on your TV”

Programme 1 follows Jamie, Earl of Mar and Kellie as he explores Gartmorn Dam and the early horse-drawn wagon-ways which were built by his ancestors and did much to create the wealth of Alloa.

Programme 2 follows the growth of the iron road across the Wee County and some of the problems encountered.

The day the Wee County sent its sons off – by train – to fight in World War One is retold in Programme 3, and then Programme 4 shows how road transport was becominga serious challenger to railways and how new roads and bridges were built. “We were allowed access to the control room of Kincardine Bridge and the pictures we got were stunning,” said David.

Programmes 5 & 6 tell of the impact of World War Two on the Wee County, from building landing craft, to billeting evacuees and troops. Many local people have contributed their memories of those dark times and the film visits what was once one of the most secret places in the Central Belt.

The story of Alloa’s connection with railways will be continued on Disc Two which will be available in the Spring.  But as a taster the film-maker has created a bonus programme which records the visit of some of the steam-hauled excursions which have run over the Stirling-Alloa line since it was re-opened.

David said: “The theme music, which includes Alloa To The Forefront, was specially written for this video and captures the spirit of thriving Alloa. And there’s cross references at the end of most of the programmes to guide you to more information.”

 The video programmes are designed to be viewed in bite-sized programmes, each about 20 minutes… so you won’t be hogging the family television set all evening.

David said: “There has never been a production like this before – a book, six video programmes and a bonus programme on one disc. Clackmannanshire has a proud story to tell and I am grateful that so many people agree to let me record their stories.  These are the people who made the Wee County and we should not forget their contributions.”

To order a copy of The Driving Force, go to the Clackmannanshire Field Studies Society  publications page.

Film-maker David Bytheway

  Film-maker David Bytheway