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Review: Hitler’s Hangmen: The Secret German Plot to Kill Churchill, December 1944, by Brian Lett

Thu, 2020-07-02 03:52

Brian Lett is the author of a number of excellent works of military history and I looked forward to this one, not least due to the intriguing title. Unfortunately, the title may be a bit misleading.

Lett’s book explores three parallel developments, two of them in depth. The first concerns the hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war held in Britain towards the end of the Second World War. These men, who were young, fit, and only recently captured, represented a genuine security threat to the country. Hardened Nazis in the camps kept them in line, sometimes by hanging those seen as disloyal to the Reich (hence the ‘hangmen’ in the title).

The second part is a detailed look at a number of the local British fascists and Nazis nearly all of whom were detained in 1940 and held without trial. All of these men were dangerous, in some cases armed, and they too represented a security threat. They were all released in 1944 as the war was winding down with Germany’s defeat now all-but-certain. Lett thinks that their release was premature.

Which brings up the third strand of Lett’s story: the Ardennes offensive that began in mid-December 1944, which was Hitler’s last attempt to deal a death-blow to the Allies (and a smaller, lesser-known offensive in northern Italy). Though the Ardennes offensive started relatively well for the Germans, it quickly ran out of steam.

Lett attempts to bring all three strands together, arguing that a number of escape attempts from POW camps in Britain, the presence of British fascists now at large, and the offensive on the continent were all linked. The POWs were to seize American arms, uniforms and vehicles from nearby hospitals (Lett makes a parallel to Skorzeny’s Nazi commandos who dressed up as Americans in the Ardennes). The British fascists were to provide assistance once the men were out of the camps. And it was all timed to result in a dash to London to decapitate the British government by killing the Prime Minister — while at the same time, Skorzeny’s men would rush to Paris to capture or kill General Eisenhower.

It’s a great story and fascinating to contemplate, but I’m not sure it all works. Lett was a lawyer and surely understands that the evidence here may not all stack up. That there was a security threat — both from the POWs and the local Nazis — has long been understood. But there’s little evidence that the threats were linked in any meaningful way. And whether the escape attempts (none of which worked very well) were timed to provide support for the offensive in Belgium is also not proven.

Still, a well researched book and an intriguing idea — even it not entirely convincing.

Review: First to Fight – The Polish War 1939, by Roger Moorhouse

Sun, 2020-06-28 10:23

Here is what I think of when I imagine the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: brave Polish cavalrymen with sabres drawn, charging against modern German tanks. Horses versus steel. The problem with that image, as Roger Moorhouse makes clear repeatedly in this book, is that it’s not true. It’s an invention of the German Nazi propaganda machine.

That’s not to say that the Germans didn’t start their campaign with huge advantages. They did. They had much more money and a bigger army that was more modern. And yet the Poles had a large army too, one that fought bravely for five weeks before capitulating.

And those cavalry charges? When they did happen, it often led to German defeat — because for German infantry, a mass of armed men charging at them on horseback was as terrifying in 1939 as it was for hundred of years before that. Moorhouse even finds an example of Polish cavalry clashing with German cavalry, because in 1939, both sides still relied on horses.

As in his previous book about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Moorhouse in unsparing in his description of the role played by Stalin and the Red Army. He doesn’t even need to mention Katyn — its shadow hangs over the whole story.

The book is a story about two tragedies — the crushing of independent Poland between two totalitarian powers, and the obliteration of the real history of the country by both sides. The Soviets claimed that their intervention was merely to restore order once Poland had “collapsed”; they even lied to the Poles claiming that they would fight the Germans. And the Germans began lying about the Polish war even before it started, with their staged “atrocities” carried out by Poles against innocent Germans.

This is another excellent book by Moorhouse, and one hopes that next time someone mentions German tanks crushing Polish cavalry, this book will be cited to set the record straight.

Review: The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, by Philippe Sands

Sun, 2020-06-21 04:20

This is history as it should be written.

Philippe Sands has taken the story of one Nazi war criminal and turned it into a sprawling tale of love, family, truth, lies and memory.

The story revolves around Otto von Wächter, an Austrian Nazi who became one of the senior figures in the German occupation regime in Poland. His colleagues and friends were tried as war criminals and were, in some cases, hanged for their crimes. Wächter escaped, dying in a hospital in Rome in 1949. Sands grew to know Wächter’s son, who believed — and continues to believe — that his father was a good man, and that while others committed crimes, Wächter did the best he could in a difficult situation. But as it becomes clear early in the book, Wächter was a moral monster, a mass murderer, part of the criminal Nazi regime and completely loyal to it.

The second part of the book which explores the question of Wächter’s death is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but still gripping because Sands knows how to tell a tale. Some may not love the author being one of the characters in a book like this — some of which is set in the present day — but I thought it worked in this case (it didn’t, for me, in Laurent Binet’s 2010 book HHhH).

Highly recommended.

Review: I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf, by Grant Snider

Wed, 2020-06-17 16:33

Grant Snider loves books. He loves to read them, to write them, to collect them, even to smell them. This wonderful collection of 1 – 2 page cartoons covers every aspect of reading and writing. The next time someone tells you have too many books, or spend too much time reading, buy them a copy of this book.

Review: The Book of Tbilisi – A City in Short Fiction, edited by Gvantsa Jobava and Becca Parkinson

Wed, 2020-06-17 16:18

This short book of ten short stories about the Georgian capital can be read in an afternoon — and what a memorable afternoon that would be. These mostly young authors grew up in independent Georgia, and the stories they tell are all set during the post-Soviet era. Some are amusing, some sad, but all well-written and well translated. My personal favourite was Lado Kilasonia’s “The Bronx Tale A La Gold Quarter” which brought a smile to my face. Highly recommended.

Review: Rules for Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson

Sat, 2020-06-06 03:49

An owner of a crime fiction book shop in Boston is visited by an FBI agent. She tells him that a murderer is on the loose, killing people based on a list he posted on a blog years earlier. The list was his favourite murders from classic crime novels, including Strangers on a Train, Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders, Double Indemnity and others.

I would tell you more, but the whole point of this book — which is a classic mystery in its own right — is that there are so many twists and turns in the plot that any review which goes beyond that short description is, by definition, a spoiler. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Review: Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020, by Lawrence Douglas

Fri, 2020-06-05 05:39

Lawrence Douglas teaches law at Amherst College. If what he says in this short book is right, America is in for a very rocky ride in the next few months. His basic argument is that the peaceful transition of power in the US that happens when one President is elected to replace another is not guaranteed by law and not by the Constitution. Rather, it is certain norms of behaviour that have ensured over 230 years of American democracy.

He presents several scenarios in which a close election results in Trump refusing to accept defeat. The obvious options — such as going to the Supreme Court to sort things out — are easily dismissed. Douglas has a good grasp of American history and finds many examples of problems with the transition from one President to another — but in November 2020, we may face a perfect storm resulting in what he calls ‘meltdown’.

One of the many things I learned — and I learned a lot from this book — is that even if the House of Representatives, with its Democratic majority, is called upon to elect a President (and this is a real possibility in the event of a deadlock), each state delegation gets to cast just one vote. In other words, sparsely populated Wyoming will have as much say as the nearly 40 million people who live in California. The Republicans, though a minority in the House, would dominate such an election.

Douglas’ only solution to this is to leave things in the hands of voters: a massive swing to the Democrats, and a landslide victory for Biden are the country’s only real hope.

Review: Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Wed, 2020-06-03 09:34

I thought Bregman’s previous book, Utopia for Realists, was pretty good. This book is even better.

Bregman presents an optimistic view of human beings, and backs this up with many, many examples. He writes like Malcolm Gladwell, though his only mentions of Gladwell in this book are critical.

I would have liked to see references here to some examples of self-managed, democratic societies of the kind that Bregman advocates, including Georgia’s experiment in democratic socialism (1918-21), the kibbutz movement in Israel, Mondragon in Spain, and the cooperative movement more generally.

Having lived many years on a kibbutz myself, I can also see some of the weaknesses in Bregman’s argument. It is not enough to just have weekly meetings of the entire community; over time, fewer and fewer people may attend those meetings.

But on the whole, a beautifully written, convincing argument for a kind of anarchist-libertarian-socialist world.

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

Wed, 2020-06-03 09:03

John Buchan was, according to Christopher Hitchens, “the father of the modern spy thriller”. But, as the introduction to this, his most famous novel, explains, he was a writer “of his time”. That’s code for “bigoted”.

In a famous passage in this novel — the conspiracy theory par excellence — a leading character tells the book’s hero that “if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man ruling the world just now …”

Stuart Kelly’s introduction dismisses this as the ranting of a character which will be dismissed later in the book, but the narrator himself has throw-away lines like “when a Jew shoots himself in the City and there is an inquest, the newspapers usually report that the deceased was ‘well-nourished’.”

It may well have been the basis of a classic Hitchcock film, but this 1915 novel has little by way of plot (basically, the hero is running away from villains, escaping them by a combination of his own brilliance at disguise, and dumb luck). Not convincing, not interesting, and “of its time” in the very worst sense of the word.

Review: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy

Sun, 2020-05-31 11:16

OK, I’ll confess: I don’t get it. The illustrations are lovely. The message is nice. It might work as children’s book, but for adults? I’m not so sure. And yet the book is mega best-seller and people seem to love it.

There is no real story here, just a series of Hallmark-style aphorisms about how important it is to love and be loved, to be kind, etc. Everyone is special. We should all be nice. And that’s about it. I wouldn’t recommend this book to an adult.

Review: If It Bleeds, by Stephen King

Fri, 2020-05-29 05:45

Stephen King is a master storyteller. He’s often classed as writer of horror, but as one who generally doesn’t read horror, I think that’s not entirely accurate. In this collection of short stories (some would say, novellas) what comes out very clearly is how much the author cares about his characters. There are moments — such as when a busker’s day is transformed by the spontaneous decision of a banker to dance in the street — that are genuinely moving. And unlike standard horror stories, often the supernatural elements are not what they seem. In the final story, after thinking it over (and many of King’s stories require one to pause and think them over), it becomes quite clear that a central character may in fact exist only in the narrator’s mind. Overall, a very enjoyable way to spend several hours while in lockdown.

Review: Ten Things About Writing, by Joanne Harris

Thu, 2020-05-21 10:32

Joanne Harris knows a thing or two about writing, having published some 20 novels and several other books as well. This short book came out at the height of the Covid-19 crisis and just in time for budding writers out there who might be using lockdown and quarantine as a time to consider a career as an author. Her advice is clear and simple, and is based on a series of tweets she’s been putting out there for some time. I agree with much of what she has to say and completely endorse one bit of advice that comes up several times: if you’re a writer and you live in the UK, join the Society of Authors — your trade union. Harris speaks with some authority: she’s been the Chair of the Society’s Management Committee since early this year.

Review: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Tue, 2020-05-12 10:21

I’ve thought for a while that one of the most honest films ever made about the subject of slavery in America is Quentin Tarantino’s Django. Even though the film is a fantasy (much like Inglourious Basterds was), the over-the-top depiction of the brutality of the slave system was, in its essence, completely true.

Having recently re-viewed Gone With The Wind, which President Trump clearly adores, I’m convinced that we need more movies — and more books — that present slavery as it actually was, and not as apologists for the Confederacy want us to see it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel is nothing at all like Django, in the sense that it does not harp on the violence and brutality of plantation life in Virginia. The lead character, Hiram Walker, is the son of the plantation’s white owner and one of his slaves. Throughout the book, which Walker narrates, he refers to the slave-owner (and his owner) as ‘my father’. Much of the story revolves around the destruction of Black families, who were sold off individually as property by slave owners.

While there is little of the blood-letting which Tarantino showed, slavery is presented here as a slow-burning horror. In the end, one feels in addition to rage, a very deep sense of sadness at the pointless cruelty of everyday live in the pre-Civil War American South.

Review: Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, by Julia Ebner

Mon, 2020-04-27 10:10

In 1943, the best-selling book Under Cover by John Roy Carlson described the pro-Axis groups that thrived in the US before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Carlson — whose real name was Arthur Derounian — joined many of the groups he investigated, and the book was illustrated with many photos of his membership cards in such groups. It took America’s entry into the war to finally lead to a crackdown on a wide range of groups, of the largest of which was called the “America First Committee”. (That name might set off some alarm bells.)

Eight decades later, in a radically different world, once again pro-fascist, racist and anti-Semitic organisations are thriving, and not only in the US. Julia Ebner has followed in Carlson’s footsteps, infiltrating both extreme rightist and Islamist groups, largely online. At great personal risk, she has revealed how these groups operate and thrive, and the threat they pose to democracy.

This is a well-written book that should serve as a wake-up call to governments and civil society, as it exposes the online roots of a hatred that has increasingly manifested itself in terrorist attacks across the Western world.

Review: Killing Eve: Die for Me, by Luke Jennings

Thu, 2020-04-23 10:51

This is the third, and final, book in the series that began with Codename: Villanelle. When I first read about that book, I was very keen to read it — and was not disappointed. The second book in the series, like the television show Killing Eve which is loosely based on the books, was something of a disappointment. And this third volume is, as expected, not even close to the standard of the first two books, and is no match for the Red Sparrows trilogy by Jason Matthews. The plot is absurd, the characterisation only skin-deep, and characters die and are reborn again with such frequency that there’s hardly any menace (why worry about a character dying when they might easily reappear in the next book, or even the next page?). Not recommended.

Review: Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov

Sat, 2020-04-18 04:34

The first of the Penguin Little Black Classics series that I’ve read — having bought a whole shelf of them a few years back — and it’s a good one. Chekhov is described as having ‘perfected the short story’ and the three stories in this slender volume offer some evidence of that. The best of the three is the first one, ‘The Kiss’, a tale of imagination, sexual desire, fantasy, and loneliness. With just one character of significance, and 25 pages long, it’s not exactly ‘War and Peace’, but is a great example of what a short story can be.

Review: Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

Fri, 2020-04-17 06:41

Matt Ruff has taken a long, hard look at what life was like for African Americans in the early 1950s and reimagined it as horror fiction written by the master, H.P. Lovecraft. All the main elements of traditional horror are here — haunted houses, spells, magic wands, ancient incantations, secret societies — but in the end, they all pale before the genuine horror of Jim Crow. Many of the elements of the book feel ‘borrowed’ — for example, quite a bit revolves around a story much like the one told in the film ‘Green Book’. One of the stories reminded me of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. And of course Lovecraft himself inspires it all.

Why Sanders lost

Tue, 2020-04-14 03:59

Why did Bernie Sanders fail to win the Democratic nomination in 2020?

Let’s start with three explanations that don’t work.

1. The Democratic party establishment conspired to stop him. That was only partly true in 2016 – and not true at all in 2020. One of the things Sanders did after 2016 was force the Democratic Party to reform, ensuring (among other things) that so-called “super delegates” would have much less influence than before. In 2016 there was a lot of evidence of the party machine working behind the scenes to elect Clinton, using devious methods. That doesn’t seem to be the case today.

2. He was too left wing. This is a mainstream media favourite. Yes, Sanders called for a “political revolution” when he really meant social democratic reforms, looking more towards Denmark than Bolshevik Russia as his model. And yes, he got caught up in a pointless argument about Castro’s Cuba (when he actually said nothing different from Obama). It turns out that his main ideas – medicare for all, free tuition in public universities, etc. – are still very popular.

3. He wasn’t left-wing enough. This is the default answer given by the far Left following an electoral defeat. But it makes no sense in a country like the US where Sanders was the most radical candidate for the presidency ever, in any major party. Can anyone seriously believe that had he argued for, say, nationalisation of industry that he’d have won the South Carolina primary?

So why did he lose?

His campaign made plenty of mistakes (as they did in 2016). Sanders should have done much better with African American voters and pensioners. But one problem with looking over the mistakes he and his campaign made is this: did Biden not make mistakes? Biden ran one of the worst campaigns ever, and in some states he won, he had no campaign at all. You cannot explain Sanders’ defeat based solely on the many anecdotes about this or that mistaken decision.

I think socialists have to be honest about why Bernie lost. And part of that reason is that he was a socialist politician in a country with no socialist movement.

The largest socialist group in the US has around 50,000 members, which is a drop in the bucket in a country of nearly 330 million people. Only a couple of leading American politicians, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among them, have self-identified as socialists.

Clement Attlee could not have become prime minister of the UK in 1945 without a strong Labour Party. None of Sanders’ favoured Scandinavian welfare states became that way without social democratic parties.

Having a socialist movement doesn’t necessarily mean an independent political party. It is entirely possible to imagine a powerful socialist faction inside the Democratic party. But that too does not exist – yet – in the US.

With Sanders out of the race, the question is whether his slogan “Not me – us” now becomes real, and whether a movement is born.

This article — my last in the series — appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: The Institute, by Stephen King

Tue, 2020-04-07 23:56

Stephen King is a master story teller and his latest book is further proof of his skills. It tells the story of a young boy, Luke Ellis, who is kidnapped from his home as his parents are murdered. He is taken to a secretive location in Maine (where else?) called “The Institute”. There he is confined with other children all of whom have supernatural powers either telekinesis or telepathy. The central character, Luke, and his new friends have one’s sympathy from the outset; the adult who eventually comes to their rescue is a classic American loner hero; and the villains are truly cruel. This is not a work of great literature, but it’s a fun way to spend one’s time during a pandemic — something which King has written about elsewhere.

Bernie Sanders’ 6 point plan

Tue, 2020-04-07 04:43

Bernie Sanders has drafted a 6 point plan for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the looming economic crisis – and the strange thing is that he doesn’t mention the presidential election nor the name of America’s current president, Donald Trump.

While Joe Biden tries to make his voice heard from his basement studio in Delaware, Sanders remains an active member of the US Senate, fighting to get things done without waiting for the Democratic party primary season to end – and without waiting for Trump to be replaced in office either.

“Congress must pass, in the very near future, the boldest piece of legislation ever written in modern history,” he says.

“We must make sure that every worker in America continues to receive their paycheck during this crisis and we must provide immediate financial relief to everyone in this country,” he says. This means “monthly payments of $2,000 for every man, woman, and child” and guaranteed “paid family leave throughout this crisis.”

He adds that “this is not a radical idea. Other countries, such as the UK, Norway, Denmark, France, and others have all come up with similar approaches to sustain their economy.”

His second point is a demand for universal health care.

Even today, with Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal still far from becoming a reality, he’s demanding that “Medicare must be empowered to pay all of the deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket healthcare expenses for the uninsured and the underinsured. No one in America who is sick, regardless of immigration status, should be afraid to seek the medical treatment they need during this national pandemic.”

“I am not proposing that we pass Medicare for All in this moment,” he admits. “That fight continues into the future.”

Sanders’ third demand is that the federal government “must immediately and forcefully use the Defense Production Act to direct the production of all of the personal protective equipment, ventilators and other medical supplies needed.” He goes further than other politicians in saying that the government must “use any means necessary to secure supplies.”

His fourth demand is an increase in funding for food banks and school meals.

Fifth, Sanders calls for emergency aid right now to states and cities that are struggling to cope. He is calling on Congress to “provide $600 billion in direct fiscal aid.”

And sixth, he is calling for a suspension of “monthly expenses like rent, mortgages, medical debt and consumer debt collection for 4 months” as well as the cancellation of “all student loan payments for the duration of this crisis” and “an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs.”

This is not a radical programme, as Sanders is the first to admit. Parts of it have even been adopted by the Tory government here.

What is new and radical is that what he says will resonate among Americans, who are increasingly aware that their system and their leaders failed them. They will welcome much of what Sanders proposes.

This article appears in Solidarity.