Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts's publisher agreed to this history of the second world war provided that the author found out something new, and he has indeed unearthed a couple of nuggets of overlooked evidence at the Ian Sayer Archive, Britain's largest private archive of unpublished second world war material.

The first, with which this book begins, is a tetchy note to Hitler from the head of the army, General Werner von Blomberg, reminding him of their secret pact to secure his claim to power. As Roberts reveals, Hitler swiftly disposed of this irritant and seized control of the army. The Nazis were adept at smear campaigns, and Blomberg was forced to resign when it was revealed that his wife had posed for pornographic photographs.

"I shall never understand why the German army did not finish the British army at Dunkirk," Churchill observed. Hitler could have captured more than a quarter of a million prisoners of war and held the British government to ransom, but instead he ordered his panzers to halt outside Dunkirk. It is thought that perhaps the Führer hoped to make peace with Britain, but Roberts has found a handwritten note from Hitler's operations chief, Alfred Jodl, suggesting that the Nazis never wavered in their determination to destroy the allied army.

Hitler's halt order was his first strategic blunder, says Roberts, but as this impressive history reveals, it would not be his last. The big question Roberts asks is whether or not Hitler's Nazism was responsible for his downfall. The unsurprising answer is yes: "Hitler's antisemitism, culminating in the Holocaust, was central to his Nazism but it did nothing to aid Germany's chances of winning the war, and possibly a good deal to retard them."

The surprise success of his blitzkrieg aside, Hitler's military incompetence is everywhere attested to, especially his willingness to trust his "gambler's instinct" rather than actually consult a map. If Hitler hadn't taken control of Germany's armed forces he might have won the war, but if invading Russia was his greatest error (an ill-fated plan "buried so deep within the Nazi DNA that it could not be stopped", Roberts writes), then his second major gaffe was underestimating America.

Roberts has been something of a hit in the US. His A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 resulted in an invitation to the White House in 2007, and one critic dubbed him "the fawning court historian of the Bush administration". Roberts doesn't make it easy to like him. A devout Thatcherite, unwavering in his support for the Iraq war, he blames President Clinton (not the laissez-faire economics of Thatcher and Reagan) for the global credit crisis (and for the rise of al-Qaida), while a lecture at the Springbok Club earned him the accusation of being a white supremacist.

Fortunately, that Andrew Roberts is not in evidence here. The Storm of War is a great achievement, an immensely readable, nicely paced feat of historical condensation. There is an enormous amount of material to organise, and one cannot be an expert on all fronts, so this book naturally owes a debt to other historians. Ian Kershaw, Antony Beevor and many more have all been absorbed. It's a conservative history, and Roberts is proud of "Last Hope Island" as he calls Britain, but for a man who almost seems to model himself on Churchill, he is not uncritical of our wartime leader.

Nor is Roberts dewy-eyed about US-British relations. "There was nothing inevitable about the wartime alliance between America and Britain," he says. "There had been much rivalry between Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, exacerbated by ignorant stereotyping on both sides."

He even quotes a former US military attaché to London as saying, "The English feel about us just the way we feel about a prosperous nigger." His American admirers will not enjoy having the US army's record of raping civilian women compared to that of the Red Army, even if Roberts concedes that the Russians were the more determined violators. He also exposes racism in the US army, observing that 79 per cent of those executed for rape were black, when blacks made up only 8.5 per cent of the US army in Europe.

America's crucial contribution to the war is not overlooked, but Russia's self-sacrifice and heroism is ultimately the dominant theme. "It was the Russians who provided the oceans of blood necessary to defeat Germany," he writes. "At the heart of the Second World War lies a giant and abiding paradox: although the western war was fought in defence of civilisation and democracy ... the chief victor was a dictator who was as psychologically warped and capable of evil as Adolf Hitler."

The second world war claimed the lives of 50 million people. That's six killed every minute for six years, says Roberts. The methods by which they died - the gas chambers, being rounded up and shot, being beheaded by the Japanese navy - turn the stomach. His chapter on the Holocaust is measured and compassionate, and there are plentiful asides on the human cost of war.

Roberts is also dismissive of Hitler apologists such as David Irving, and this excellent one-volume history of the war stands as a principled rebuttal to their claims that Hitler was in any way a genius.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition, by Richard Holloway

Sex and violence are primal forces in nature, and in this well-intentioned book the former Bishop of Edinburgh wants us to contemplate how these forces have used us in our own lives. There’s a strong feminist slant courtesy of Andrea Dworkin, and rather too much WH Auden, so with its mix of poetry, fiction and philosophy it’s a bit like Radio 4’s Something Understood. There’s a touch of trendy vicar (God is a bit like a radio broadcast), but the serious message is that cruel people lack imagination and don’t empathise with the suffering of their victims. A capacity to feel is our salvation, says the ex-bishop, although he cannot offer us heaven, just a nicer planet. Religious myths still have worth because they elicit our pity, especially the crucifixion story. Yes, religion can make us violent, but so can football, nationalism and politics. Perhaps this slim volume will encourage some of us to act in a more saintly manner, although the sort of monsters he describes are unlikely to pick it up.

The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, by Justin Marozzi

Historians tend to be a bit snooty about Herodotus, just because he hammed it up a little to keep his audience entertained with tales of dog-headed men, gold-digging ants and flying snakes. Cicero dubbed him the “Father of History”, for which historians ought to be grateful, says Justin Marozzi, even if Plutarch later called him the “Father of Lies”. What Marozzi most admires about Herodotus is his “life-grabbing energy”, which he shares. On his travels through Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Greece clutching his copy of the Histories, his enthusiasm is everywhere apparent. He even occasionally cries “Eureka!” – once when the semi-legendary Patrick Leigh Fermor invites him to lunch at Kardamyli, and again when he finally tracks down his lost Moleskine notebook at the feet of a statue of Pythagoras. We never really learn from history, says Marozzi, although in wartorn Iraq he observes how one of Herodotus’ favourite literary devices in the Histories is the wise adviser, popping up regularly to counsel against war (“Haste is the mother of failure,” etc.). Every leader needs one.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Balti Britain: A Provocative Journey through Asian Britain by Ziauddin Sardar

The balti was invented in Birmingham by Pakistani and Kashmiri restaurateurs to appeal to the tastebuds of their white customers, but it is now an authentic dish in its own right. So too, argues Ziauddin Sardar in this thoughtful study, British Asians have had their distinct identities formed in Britain. Unpacking the "British Asian experience" is a mind-boggling business, and Sardar does justice to its complexities, albeit with a post-7/7, British Muslim emphasis. Asia is a vast continent ("The generic Asian exists only in the mind of Anglo-Saxon folk," observes one wry academic), so the term "British Asian" only serves to obscure multiple ethnicities. The quest at the heart of this book is to find identity within difference. While some on the right call for forced integration, Sardar more elegantly slips into the role of disciple at the feet of Lord Bhikhu Parekh, whose redefinition of multiculturalism makes one wish everyone possessed his calm logicality. In sum, there is no static, fixed Britain, but a dynamic, never-ending process of becoming-Britain.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

Earlier this year, the American columnist Amity Shlaes wrote an article for under the heading "Cheering for Obama stimulus buys into 1930s myth", and it's hard not to see this revisionist history as a sideswipe at the Obama administration's efforts to tackle the recession. The myth Shlaes proposes to bust is that government intervention dug America out of the great depression. In fact, she argues, Obama's - sorry - FDR's Soviet-inspired, New Deal philosophy of redistribution and state control actually prolonged the depression through over-regulation and punitive taxation (her previous book was called The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It). FDR should have trusted in the market to right itself, she argues, while she eulogises the forgotten men (or small businessmen): those rugged individualists who funded FDR's government activism but were scapegoated by him for their trouble. The Forgotten Man was a bestseller in America, although Shlaes has been accused of being economical with the economic facts.