I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
So, there’s been seriously long radio-silence from Q in recent weeks. But this is not the result of inactivity. Far from it. Regulars will be pleased to hear that my book is seriously under way – with 5 out of 10 chapters now completed in draft. Phew!! There’s going to be lots to blog on when it’s done – but I don’t have the energy or brain to do both at the same time! Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping up reading and stuff. Here are a few reviews of recent freebies I got on the Amazon Vine programme. There might be something of interest to someone… Read more
The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook‘s The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of ’48-’49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city): Read more
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more
It could have been at a rather upmarket fancy-dress party. The dress was certainly fancy; the guests well-to-do; the event evidently unusual. But as well as being a deeply solemn occasion, and even a family occasion, it was an era-defining moment. Read more
The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. Read more
So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. Read more
Churchill famously declared during the Second World War that the “Truth is so precious that she must often be attended by a bodyguard of lies” – and the British military effort entailed the largest and most complex exploitation of deception in warfare to date. This involved the twin arms of message interception and code breaking (through the extraordinary work of Bletchley Park in particular), and the use of all kinds of deception tactics (including the use of double agents and entirely fictitious battalions preparing to invade the Pas de Calais around the time of D Day’s Normandy landings). Read more
I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. Read more
BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. Read more
Tales from Spandau didn’t quite match the expectations I had of it from various reviews. I felt that what it set out to do could have been dealt with in perhaps half the space. Nevertheless, it is grimly fascinating to read of the Cold War shenanigans that went on account of the 7 Nazi War criminals imprisoned at Spandau. Read more
Most of the exhibition is bathed in unobtrusive but artful lighting. But then one is led down a dark passage into a pitch-black space, with minimal, if any, lighting. In fact there are a number of rooms like this in the exhibition. But two in particular blew us away. We were at the Tate Britain over the weekend – primarily to see the fabulous Watercolour exhibition (HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance). But we then popped upstairs to the Susan Hiller retrospective. Definitely a mixed bag – but the highlights made the entire Tate visit worthwhile.
Susan Hiller is an American artist who has been working in the UK for years. Her output is immensely diverse – from installations to collections to experiments with colour, video and sound. The two installations which stood out though were the rooms entitled WITNESS and THE J. STREET PROJECT. Read more
The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.
People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)
Having finished Metaxas major biography of Bonhoeffer the other day, lots of things have jostled around my mind. I confess I skimmed bits of it (it is nearly 600pp including notes); I found the style a bit jarring at times (especially when he allows his inner satirist to get the better of him when describing Hitler’s Nazis; or when there is a sudden interruption of an incongruous colloquialism, such as the moment when Bonhoeffer ‘delivered an unrelenting homiletic bummer’ – p209!!); and I wasn’t too comfortable with some of the assumptions, or even appropriations, of his churchmanship (there has been quite a blogosphere debate about quite how evangelical it is possible to claim Bonhoeffer was).
But I learned a great deal – especially when Bonhoeffer is allowed to speak for himself, through his writings, letters and papers. This is a substantial book about an exceptional and challenging life. It is definitely worth investing time in.
However, one section blew me away – in the course of his discussion of the Nazi’s infamous book-burning orgy of May 1933, Metaxas quotes the poet Heinrich Heine at a couple of points…
Thus Germany would be ‘purged’ of the pernicious ‘un-German’ thoughts of authors such as Helen Keller, Jack London, and HGWells. Of course Erich Maria Remarque’s books were included, as were those of many others, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. In 1821, in his play Almansor, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the chilling words: “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”
Heine was a German Jew who converted to Christianity, and his words were a grim prophecy, meaning “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too”. That night across Germany his books were among those thrown into the crackling flames. Sigmund Freud, whose books were also burned that night, made a similar remark. ‘Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.’ (p162)
But then Metaxas ends this chapter with these words:
Heinrich Heine’s famous words about the book burnings are often quoted and today are inscribed at the Opernplatz as a memorial of the ghastly ritual. But another passage from Heine’s works is perhaps more eerily prophetic of what would take place in Germany a century hence. They are the concluding words of his 1834 book, Religion and Philosophy in Germany:
Christianity – and this is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated the brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals… Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder… [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the german thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar, the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll. (p163)
Breathtaking, but terrifying, prescience.