"That borscht haunted me for weeks"

Yesterday I finished reading A Writer At War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (amazon) by Vasily Grossman. A month ago I blogged about needing more information about the Russian front, and I count myself lucky to have found this book. Grossman was a writer first, journalist second, so he brings out the characters he encounters even more than the war itself. He was not a party stooge, and did not simply churn out Communist Party dogma. He did describe in a rather breathless manner the generals who pushed back against the initial Nazi invasion, and especially the men and women who held the line at Stalingrad, but he also spoke very frankly about the epidemic of rape as Russian soldiers advanced across Poland and Germany. This frankness would eventually land him in hot water, especially when he arrived at Treblinka. His article ‘The Hell Called Treblinka’, published in Znamya and reproduced in the book, was a sickening and somehow eloquent description of the horrors Grossman found there.

“Stories of the living dead of Treblinka, who had until the last minute kept not just the image of humans but the human soul as well, shake one to the bottom of one’s heart and make it impossible to sleep. The stories of women trying to save their sons and committing magnificent doomed feats, of young mothers who hid their babies in heaps of blankets. I’ve heard the stories of ten-year-old girls, who comforted their sobbing parents with a heavenly wisdom, about a boy who shouted when entering the gas chamber: ‘Russia will take revenge! Mama, don’t cry!’

Inhabitants of the village of Wulka, the one closest to Treblinka, tell that sometimes the screams of women who were being killed were so terrible that the whole village would lose their heads and rush to the forest, in order to escape from these shrill screams that carried through tree trunks, the sky and the earth. Then, the screams would suddenly stop, and there was a silence before a new series of screams, as terrible as the ones before, shrill, boring through the bones, through the skulls and the souls of those who heard them. This happened three or four times every day.”

As a Jew Grossman must have been overcome by emotion — indeed he suffered from nervous exhaustion on his return from Treblinka — but the article was written with very little of it, save what seems like amazement, or shock, at the scale and savagery of the thing. This frankness would land Grossman in hot water, eventually, as he underestimated the antisemitism of Stalinist Russia. While Grossman reported on the obvious targets of this slaughter, Russia would only allow descriptions of atrocities to specify Russian or Polish citizens, not Jews specifically, and Grossman’s insistence (along with other writers) on highlighting the atrocities against Jews would draw the ire of the Party. Grossman further angered officials by attributing the Stalingrad victory to the soldiers rather than to the Communist Party and to Stalin himself. In both cases Grossman was likely saved from the gulag, or possibly death, by the passing of Stalin in 1953.

Grossman’s greatest work of fiction, based on what he saw in those four years, was Life and Fate (amazon), his 1961 book titled and written as an echo to his mentor Leo Tolstoy‘s most famous work. The KGB seized all copies before it could go to print, but Grossman had given a copy of the manuscript to a friend. It took twenty years for this manuscript to be copied to microfilm and smuggled to Switzerland, by which time Vasily Grossman was long dead. He died disillusioned by Stalinist Russia’s corruption and lies, but enamored to the end with the bravery and determination of the soldiers he fought beside for those four years.

"Europe slid over the edge of a cliff."

I’ve just finished reading book number three (in a planned series of four) about WWII: A Short History of World War II by (my uncle) James Stokesbury. Having covered the rise of fascism through the 1930s and the emergence of Nazism in particular, I used Jim’s book to refresh my memory of both the sequence and the context of the battles. I was reminded of two key things:

  1. Had Britain and France stood more firm in the face of Hitler’s aggression prior to his invasion of Czechoslovakia, and had it come to a fight, Germany would have been well outnumbered. France alone has one million men and superiority in both tanks and aircraft. The British had no army to speak of, but their navy was far stronger than Germany’s. The Czech army was nearly the equal (in number, anyway) of Germany’s. However, Chamberlain seemed determined to avoid a war — though with The Somme and Ypres barely twenty years behind them, you could scarcely blame the British for that — and he gave over the Sudetenland. The French had convinced themselves of two things: that defense would win the day (hence their commitment to the Maginot Line), and that they were badly outnumbered by the Germans.
  2. As a Canadian I’ve seen such a Canada-America-Britain-centric view of the war, and view of who won it, that I sometimes forget who actually won the war against Germany: Russia. It was Russia who swallowed up great swaths of the German army while Britain and America made plans, and while Vichy France collaborated. It was Russia who lost more soldiers in a single battle — the siege of Stalingrad — then did the U.S. in the entire war, and whose civilian dead numbered in the tens of millions. It was Russia who eventually took Berlin. And it was Russia, of course, who would not have even been in the fight had Hitler not broken his non-aggression pact with Stalin. As the book says, “Hitler’s choice may well have been the single most important political decision of the twentieth century.”

Given that, and given the bias my education has had toward the western allied powers, I’m altering my four-book plan. I’ve begun reading something which should give me a much closer look at the Russian side of the war called A Writer At War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945 by Vasily Grossman. The battle of Stalingrad alone fascinates me, as it might have been the singular turning point of the war in Europe, but if the reviews I’ve read are any indication it should be worthwhile. Grossman was one of the few writers who didn’t simply act as a mouthpiece for Stalin, and the carnage inherent in this phase of the war, so often glossed over, should come out.

"The dark valley through which we have marched together."

After…I dunno, like eleven years, I’ve finally finished reading The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (amazon | indigo) by Piers Brendon. I picked it up along with Richard Evans’ The Coming Of The Third Reich (which I talked about in February) to help make sense of the interwar period and run-up to WWII, just as I had read The Guns of August to set up WWI.

Where Evans wrote a micro look at how the Nazis came to power in Germany, this book was the macro history of the rise of dictatorships in Italy, Spain and Russia, and of imperial militarism in Japan. It also chronicled the weakness, hesitation and indifference of France, Great Britain and the United States. There wasn’t much information here that was new for me, but Brendon managed to artfully tie together all the moving parts, giving a greater sense of the rise of fascism in the 30s around the world. Highly recommended if you’ve always wondered, as I did, how the world came to such a conflagration.

Now, as I did when delving into the first war, I’ll turn to my uncle’s book A Short History of WWII to understand the events of the war itself. I’ve read the book twice before, but if following this same pattern for WWII has the same effect on my understanding that it did for WWI, I’ll have a better grasp of what the battles meant. If, as von Clausewitz said, “War is a continuation of policy by other means,” I’ll have a better grasp of what the policy was in the first place.

"A revolution of destruction"

After three months (!) I have finally finished reading The Coming Of The Third Reich by Richard Evans (amazon). A highly worthwhile and ultimately troubling book about how the Nazis came to rule Germany in the early 1930s.

To those of us too young to remember WWII, Hitler and Nazism seem like bogeymen, monsters sprung wholly-formed from Hell, aberrations so monstrous we can’t conceive of such a thing being repeated. That’s simply not the case. The Nazis weren’t exceptional. They weren’t even original: as Evans points out in the book, most revolutionaries seek to do away with the old in favour of the new, but the Nazis did away with the relatively new — democracy and the Weimar republic — in order to return to the very old: declaring themselves the third Reich reestablished the line of nationalist dictatorships.

Neither was there anything extraordinary about how they rose to power. The political violence dealt out in the streets by the brownshirts wasn’t that different than what happened in Italy, Spain or other nearby countries around the same time. But Germany had two key ingredients that added fuel to the murderous fire: first was that Germany was still — and many people don’t really realize this, myself included — the most powerful country in Europe. Second was the national sense of racial purity which, when combined with an antisemitism strong even for Europe at that time, led down a path that ended, almost inconceivably, at extermination camps.

This, though, was the part of the book that surprised me the most. I’ve always tacitly assumed that the Nazis came to power, in part, by riding a wave of antisemitism that swept through Germany. How else to explain why they would so quickly turn to imprisoning and slaughtering Jews? What Evans explains so well is that the Nazis believed in an Aryan ideal, not an antisemitic one. I’d always thought of those two words as rough synonyms, but racial purity — the nation of pure German culture — went far beyond that. The Nazis didn’t even enter the national stage through violence against Jews; they concentrated on Communists. By the time they terrorized the Communists out of the German political arena, they turned their attention to Social Democrats and any other party of the left until they too were intimidated into political irrelevance. Add one twist of fate (the Reichstag fire), some political opportunism and back-room intrigue, and suddenly Adolf Hitler has been appointed chancellor. Yes, appointed. Something else I’d never realized: Hitler was never elected to office. He was given it by those seeking to rein him in, the farmer inviting the wolf into the sheep’s pen. At any rate, now that the brownshirts had run out of political victims, in their anger they let their idea of racial purity be their guide, and turned to the business of ridding Germany of what they saw as poisonous elements. What started with organized boycotts of Jewish shops escalated to murder, and finally genocide, with remarkable speed.

Ultimately, Evans points to two less-often mentioned reasons why the Nazis were able to seize power. The first: the great depression. Economic crises and massive unemployment make for palpable fear, and propagandists such as Goebbels made fine hay of this one in particular. The poor and desperate can be driven to great lengths, and will lash out given half a chance. Evans makes the case that the Nazis game them just such a conduit: they famously stopped campaigning for anything well before coming to power, and instead campaigned against: against the Weimar republic, against those they professed stabbed the true Germany in the back in November of 1918, against Communism, against racial impurity, against democracy…they simply dealt anger and revenge, playing on the emotions instead of the intellect. Theirs was, as the saying later went, a revolution of destruction. The second reason was the near-inexplicable absence of revolt against Nazi ideals. Put another way: much of Germany agreed with, and approved of, the Nazis. Not all, certainly, and even those agreed or consented may have done so out of fear, but the lack of will on the part of the citizenry to reject Nazism and their violent methods suggests assent. Perhaps their defeat after WWI convinced the German people a return to military imperialism was necessary. Perhaps the desire for racial purity among Germans transcended the Nazi party. Perhaps both.

This, then, is what I found so troubling. Disasters — economic, natural, man-made — happen from time to time. Those discussing the current economic crisis often refer to the “panic” we’re seeing, but what we’re seeing now isn’t panic, it’s concern. If we see massive unemployment, hyperinflation, crumbling institutions…then we’ll see panic. And then we’ll see true desperation, and we’ll see political advantage taken of that rampant fear. Add one ill-timed act of violence to the mix — say, a large-scale Al Qaeda attack on a western country — and it isn’t hard to imagine the effects. Curtailing of rights under the guise of patriotic security. Nationalism. Xenophobia along racial or religious lines. It’s an unlikely series of events, but but no less likely than what happened in Germany not eight decades ago. The rise of Hitler and the Nazi party wasn’t an act of pure evil, as we seem inclined to believe. It was a confluence of violent intent, political will and tragic fate, and to think that it could not happen again is beyond short-sighted. It is dangerous.

Time: the revelator

Yesterday a friend asked, via Twitter, “Where were you 45 years ago today?” I hadn’t quite woken up yet so it took me a second to place the date: November 22. It was 45 years ago yesterday that JFK was assassinated.

History has a funny way of messing with your perception of time, particularly when something is still very much part of popular culture the way that Kennedy (and his assassination) is. That event always feels much older to me than how I perceive 45 years. While it happened before I was born, it’s not as if I’m unfamiliar with it…I’ve consumed a lot of films, documentaries and books about that assassination. In fact, when I thought about it yesterday, I found it mildly surprising that I was born only 12 years after John Kennedy’s assassination. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, and the two events seemed decades apart in my perception.

That thought stayed with me as I continued to read the first pages of Richard EvansThe Coming Of The Third Reich (amazon). He’s currently describing how antisemitism was alive and well, even fairly organized, in Germany in 1908, well before the start of even the first world war. 1908…that’s 100 years ago. It won’t even be for another six years that we hit the first anniversary of the beginning of WWI.

WWI seems like a big marker. We’re all taught so much about it that, to me, it seems like the starting point of what we perceive as ‘recent’ history; anything beyond that is just labeled history, full stop. I used to think recent history was whatever had transpired in the past hundred years or, when I was younger, whatever had happened earlier in the current century. WWI was that milestone for me, and probably for my father too, but I suspect it won’t be long until it fades and WWII becomes the new starting point. That’s strange for me, as I’ve been reading so much about WWI lately that it’s far more prominent and memorable, if that’s the right word, to me. History is delineated in our perceptions not by years, but by milestones, and their prevalence in our minds tricks us about their age.

Another example: it seems equally hard for me to believe that Nevermind by Nirvana was released 17 years ago as it is to believe that the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is still nearly four years away.