Monday, July 21, 2014

2,219: To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

During this centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, I’ve been reading a number of books about the War and its causes.  One of these, Adam Hochschild’s To End all Wars approaches the subject of this terrible event from a slightly different angle to most.  As is clear from the following quote, Hochschild’s sympathies are clear:

“"If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the 20th century and undo one – and only one – event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?

To Hochschild, an historian of a pacifist inclination, World War One was an unnecessary folly, from which no good but an inordinate amount of evil came.  His book tells this story, and the story of the War, by focusing on those who stood up to protest against the War or who refused to participate.  The book’s subtitle is “How the First World War Divided Britain” and the author attempts to demonstrate this be contrasting the stories of dissenters with those of willing participants and supporters of the War.

Fascinatingly, many of the individuals he features were linked together by ties of family or friendship.  One of the book’s villains, Sir John French, commander of the BEF was, to Hochschild’s mind, a snobbish incompetent, calmly throwing away the lives of thousands of ordinary soldiers in misconceived attacks.  Yet his sister, Charlotte Despard, a suffragette and socialist activist, was a bitter opponent of the War, forming the Women’s Peace Crusade.  What is even more amazing is that the two siblings remained close and affectionate throughout the War, only becoming estranged when French, as Commander in Chief, Home Forces, suppressed the Easter Rising, much to the disgust of Despard, a SinnFein member.

Another tortured family relationship explored by Hochschild was that of the Pankhurst sisters, all leaders in the suffragette movement.  Whereas Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst believed that the German aggression was a threat to all humanity and felt that cooperating with the Government might also help their cause after the War, Sylvia and Adela, Emmeline’s other daughters took the polar opposite view.  The family became irretrievably fractured.

But Hochschild also explores other, lesser-known dissenters, such as the bizarre story of Alice Wheeldon, a committed pacifist and second-hand clothes dealer in Derby.  A forceful anti-war campaigner and a harbourer of draft-dodgers, she, together with two other family members, was convicted of plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, an accusation that was, almost certainly, trumped up by Government agents.

Hochschild reinforces his message with the grim and, even now, nearly incomprehensible statistics of death and destruction.  To give just some examples, he points out that half of all Frenchmen aged between 20 and 32 at the outbreak of war were dead by Armistice Day in 1918, that 9 million soldiers died and 21 million were wounded (including one of my great-grandfathers) and that nearly a million soldiers from Britain and its Empire perished.  One of the most shocking comments he makes is that:

"If the British dead alone were to rise up and march 24 hours a day past a given spot, four abreast, it would take them more than two and a half days."

To End All Wars is written with a passion and, indeed, compassion, that makes it intensely moving and a pleasure to read.  As a history of the War, it must be said that it doesn’t add a huge amount to the forest of First World War histories on the market but its account of British dissent during the War is a valuable additional to the general literature.

The main issue I have with it though is that it doesn’t really reflect the truth.  Although the dissenters and objectors were impassioned and brave and, although a case can be made (albeit not a conclusive one) that they were, ultimately, correct, they didn’t truly divide Britain.

One of the standard narratives of the War, influenced probably by the ubiquity of the likes of Owen, Sassoon and Graves on British school syllabuses, is that of an initially enthusiastic country becoming more and more disillusioned and hostile to the War as the casualties mounted and the horrors of the trenches became known.  But, nevertheless, the country and the army held together until the end.  There was no serious risk of giving up; Hochschild’s sub-title simply isn’t borne out by the facts.  The dissenters may well have had a case but they had very little substantive impact.

Despite this flaw, To End All Wars is a worthwhile read.  It may give undue prominence to the anti-War movements but it reminds us of the suffering caused by War and the global tragedy of a generation cut down in its prime.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2,220: Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

It’s August 2011 and, on a patch of wasteland somewhere in Berlin, a disoriented Adolf Hitler is just waking up, dressed in full uniform and with his last memories being of sitting with Eva Braun in the Führerbunker and showing her his gun.  He also has an odd headache in his temple.  As the back cover of Look Who’s Back says, “He’s back…and he’s Führious.”

Look Who’s Back was a surprise bestseller for author Timur Vermes in Germany, selling 1.5 million copies.  It’s a satire on the media, both print and screen, and on contemporary German politics (although the point of the satire could be equally applied to many Western democracies).

As Hitler emerges from his 65 years or so of hibernation, he is, not unnaturally, assumed to be a Hitler impersonator and, owing to the fact that he is, actually, the real McCoy, a brilliant impersonator at that.  He quickly attracts the attention of the producers of a sketch show presented by a Turkish immigrant and is given a guest slot.  His rants, perceived to be witty commentary on modern Germany, are an instant hit and his popularity goes from strength to strength, although his insistence on remaining in character causes some unease and frustration.

Much of the comedy derives from the belief of the TV executives that Hitler’s rants about immigrants, modern Germany and his plans for the future are actually clever skewerings of those who actually do think that way.  One highly effective episode has Hitler doorstepping the HQ of a German far-right political party and, by raging at the spotty youth who works there and its corpulent and ineffectual leader, unintentionally ridiculing it.  His bosses at the TV company are delighted both at his success and at the controversy he stirs up, including some who believe he is a Jewish comedian, sending Hitler up with his bizarre perorations, in which he declaims with Messianic fervour before concluding on a truly banal note.

The venality and ingratiating nature of contemporary politicians also come in for some attention from the author.  Following a hilarious TV interview with a leading Green politician, Hitler is amused (but not surprised) to find himself being wooed by all the major German parties.  His views may be distasteful but he is popular after all.

One of the issues with Look Who’s Back is the slightly scattergun approach to its satirical targets.  Is Mr Vermes going after the media (there is a suitably bilious portrayal of Bild, the influential tabloid), the politicians, the German far-right, Hitler himself or modern German society?  It’s a little unfocused and, I believe, suffers as a result.  At times, it’s unclear who we’re supposed to be laughing at.

This problem is most acute in the depiction of Hitler himself.  Far from a monster, he comes across as a curmudgeonly and slightly loopy grandfather type, bemused by the new Germany and bewildered by the sight of women clearing up after their dogs with plastic bags and teenagers glued to their phones.  In particular, Vermes struggles with the elephant in the room in any portrayal of Hitler - the Holocaust.  He attempts to deal with this by creating a running motif of an exchange between the TV people and Hitler, using the phrase, “The Jews are no laughing matter.”  In the eyes of the TV people, this indicates that you shouldn’t joke about the Holocaust.  Hitler takes it to mean that the Jews are a serious problem.

Other than this, though, the author makes as few references to Hitler’s anti-Semitism as he feels he can get away with, thereby reducing further the evil in his character and implicitly emphasising his love of animals and the care he shows his assistants.  This underplaying of the Holocaust is uncomfortably shown in an episode where Hitler’s secretary resigns, having been told by her grandmother of how most of her family died in the camps.  On hearing this, Hitler goes to visit the old lady where, it appears, all it takes to make her change her mind about him are a few compliments. 

Overall, Look Who’s Back is an intriguing but patchy satire.  I can see why it would have been so popular and controversial in Germany where there are laws on the use of Nazi symbols and the way in which the Nazis and the Holocaust are portrayed but, to this British reader, it wasn’t shocking.  Although there are some very funny patches, the plot never really develops much beyond a series of confrontations between Hitler and people who believe he’s an impersonator and the ending is anti-climactic, trailing off limply.  In summary, it was a little bit bland and a bit frustrating.