a casahistoria reading list - the cold & world wars

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 Reviews of Books on the World Wars & the following Cold War


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Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper:  Paris After The Liberation

First published in the 1990's before Beevor's series of very successful wartime histories this follows a similar pattern to the later works: a basic narrative supplemented consistently with contemporary accounts/ descriptions/ diary extracts.

The work falls into four sections, the first of which, Paris before, during and after liberation, I found the most useful. Beevor and his co-author provide a concise yet clear outline of the fall of France and the political in-fighting that followed, especially with the creation of Vichy France. The general reader should find this very helpful in understanding the attitudes and prejudices that divided postwar France as well as explaining its at time difficult response to the postwar USA and UK. The section on liberation and immediate aftermath deals clearly with the Epuration, or purging of collaborators as well as with the various shades of individuals able to evade the process.

Less successful are the other sections. The conflict between the French Communist Party and the supporters of the Republic (as well as the proto Gaullists) receives thorough treatment as does the (almost imperceptible) move towards closer ties with Germany. Schumann and Monnet are presented especially favourably as statesman of vision when most others were still fighting the battles of the past. De Gaulle's attempt to form a "bridge" between the USA/UK and the Soviet Union is also made clear. There is much reliance on the Duff Cooper diaries (unsurprisingly as the writer -and wife of Beevor) was the grand-daughter of Duff Cooper, UK ambassador in Paris, and whilst this provides witness descriptions it does slant the account of life in the post liberation capital towards those at the top of French society. There is very little supported account of how liberation and the postwar hardships impacted on the mass of the population.

A strong thread throughout is the impact of events on cultural life in Paris, and the relationships of the Parisian intellectuals with each other receives full treatment. Here is an explanation of why French intellectuals held such sway for left wing intellectuals across Europe until the early seventies – as well as clues as to how this may have been misguided. Unfortunately this could be better organised in the main body of the text. At times it seems De Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Picasso et al are included to provide some lighter relief from France's political travails.

Overall a worthwhile read, if not one of Beevor's best, largely for the first 100 or so pages on the politics of 1940-45 in the English language and the cultural history provided thereafter which reads like a whose who of France's thinking and scribbling classes of the time.

November ‘14 (***)

Paul Preston: The Spanish Civil War

By the standards of key works on Spain's Civil War this is fairly concise at about 300 pages. However its value to students of the period is far more than this (possibly partly because it is so tightly structured).

This is not a blow by blow account of the war. For that the newest Beevor work is probably better. Rather Preston takes a loosely narrative structure and uses it to examine the key themes produced by the conflict in a clear and perceptive manner. The initial chapters setting the context should be compulsory reading not just for those interested in the 1930's but for those who want to understand modern Spain. The divisions and splits apparent before 1930 still figure prominently today: the historic poverty of the rural south and west still shows in the fact today that these areas are hardest hit by "la crisa". The separatist tendencies of the Basques and Catalans similarily predate the Franco and Post Franco era.

The complexities of the political infighting of both right and especially left in the 1930's is an area that can confuse and make the period difficult to fathom. Preston does an excellent job of navigating the reader through the ebb and flo of the politics helped by a list of key figures and a glossary of key terms attached as appendii. I found his treatment of the international aspect of the war most illuminating. Not just the intervention of Italy and Germany but also in making the less obvious war aims of the USSR evident. Most of all he shows up the at best perfidious, at worst antagonistic attitude of France and especially Britain to the legitimate Republican government. Officially peddling non-intervention, this did little more than cloak indirect support for Franco and the nationalists. It was left to the International Brigades to restore some dignity for the western Great Powers.

The full title of the work includes, "Reaction, revolution and revenge". It is the final section that may provoke most thinking by those new to the period. Revenge was displayed by both sides. The Republic, especially early on was guilty of unprovoked attacks on clergy, property owners and "fifth columnists" killing many thousands. Yet Preston shows how attacks, reprisals, disappearances became part of the systematic advance of Franco's forces and supporters. Indeed Preston argues the war took so long to end as a consequence of Franco's desire to eliminate possible future Left and Republican opposition as his armies progressed through Spain (rather like the actions of the Red Army outside Warsaw at the end of the Second World War as they waited for the Germans to eliminate the non-communist Poles of the failed Polish uprising before the Red Army itself entered the city to liberate it from the Germans). This revenge led to not just secret killings but also mass imprisonments in labour camps and the continued impoverishment of what were the last Republican areas of control for many years after the end of war.

In his introduction, Preston makes clear his sympathies are with the Republic rather than with Franco. However he does not let this show in his writing – and is to be commended all the more for telling readers this.

For actual students of the period there is one further gem. The final chapter is a comprehensive and very well explained critique on the works available on the civil war. This in itself makes reading worthwhile! 

May '14 (*****)

David Crane: Empires of the Dead

David Crane's slim volume, Empires of the Dead, tells the big, but little told story of Fabian Ware who fought for the creation of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) Graves Commission that set up the war cemeteries to bury the Great War dead of Britain and her Imperial allies. Previous British wars had done little to provide worthy (or even recorded) graves for its lower ranks.

Officers were always different. Bodies repatriated by wealthy families, the highest ranking also had monuments erected across Britain and the Empire to commemorate their battles. Less attention was given to those who were not officers. There had been a public outcry at the end of the Boer War.

Ware, leading an ambulance team in France at the outbreak of war was determined that this war should provide equally for those killed, regardless of rank. He was determined that every individual casualty should be honoured. His inspiration and determination resulted in those immaculate graveyards we now see 100 years later not just on the western front battlefields of the Somme and Ypres but also in Gallipoli, Palestine and wherever Imperial troops had fought. Between 1920 and 1923, the Commission was shipping 4,000 headstones a week to France where already during the war the French government had enacted Ware with the right to acquire land for burials. By 1927, when the majority of construction had been completed, over 500 cemeteries had been built, with 400,000 headstones. The headstones were all to be to a set standard - similar dimensions with strict control over design to ensure regularity (2'6" tall, 1'3" by 3" deep, regimental badge, name, rank, date of death and space for a short inscription by relatives vetted by the Commission). There was to be no distinction between officers and men. Men would be buried where they died, or as close to that as possible. Where remains could not be identified or found, the names of the fallen would be listed on walls on the monuments or cemetries close to their place of death. Again, no distinction would be made by rank. No bodies were to be repatriated. A team of architects including Lutyens and Blomfield would design the cemeteries and monuments. Kipling would supervise inscriptions.

In a time when state intervention was still rare there was opposition to this standardisation, especially the ban on repatriation. Landed families were especially vociferous in their opposition to no repatriation but the regulation was upheld (eventually) in Parliament. Paradoxically, this did mean though that although all were buried similarly in death, families of the poor were largely unable to visit the overseas graves due to cost. The wealthy could visit regularly.

Ware though was no socialist. His intention was not to show the equality of rank, but rather the equality of members of an Empire fighting and dying as one for the British Empire. Rich or poor, Indian or Welsh, major or private their sacrifice for the Empire would be displayed in the same way by the rows of headstones. He hoped his Imperial War Graves Commission would draw the Empire together and show its steadfastness. In reality Gallipoli cemeteries eventually did more to support a growing national awareness in the antipodes.

Ware's cemeteries have done more though than provide a necessary dignified resting place for a nation's fallen. Writing touchingly in places, Crane shows how Ware's work made it possible for Britain at least to come to terms with the huge debt it owed its dead and the neat, well tended presence of those graves today along with their accompanying monuments such as the Menin Gate and Thiepval on the Somme do much to present the futility of the war to future generations as well as the sacrifice of the young of 1914-18. 

March '14 (****)

Christopher Clark: Sleepwalkers

At the moment there is a deluge of books attempting, so it would seem, to cash in on the outbreak of the 1914 war rather than to advance its study. "Sleepwalkers" is an exception to this. In the introduction to the book Christopher Clark writes that its purpose is not to explain why the First World War happened. Rather it is to show how it came about by looking at the complex relationships between the main players and the outcomes they produced, culminating in the declarations of war that brought about the war.

Complex the relationships certainly are. Clark's meticulously argued work though places the key focus on the Balkans and the relationships that developed and festered there between Austro-Hungary, Serbia and Russia. By 1913 several points emerge that would have an impact on the decisions of June/July 1914:

Russia was becoming a growing threat to an increasingly unreliable stability between the Great Powers. It's apparent support for Serbia in the Balkan Wars alienated Austro-Hungary just as its incursions into Persia antagonised Britain. Thanks to French loans it was undergoing a massive programme of military rearmament and revival (at the time believed to be greater than it actually was). This in turn helped contribute to the German rearmament programme of 1913 which in turn led to further French and Russian expenditure on weapons and tweaking of war plans.

The French saw supporting greater Russian involvement in the Balkans as in their interests for if war broke out between Russia and Austro-Hungary, Germany would become involved in support of Vienna. If Russia then tied up German forces in the east this would give France the opportunity to attack and defeat weaker German forces in the west.

Recent experience had taught Austro-Hungary to believe that using a realistic threat of force was the only means of getting its way against an increasingly militant, nationalist and aggressive Serbia.

Clark shows that this need not necessarily have resulted in the catastrophe of 1914. In a careful study he shows that each country had supporters for and against the actual path followed and policies pursued. In several cases the countries had also displayed contrary policies to the ones that actually occurred in June/July 1914. There was a signal lack of clear leadership in each major power so that ambiguity of intentions and the nature of likely outcomes reigned as the final fateful decisions were made. Britain was perhaps the most perfidious of all, Foreign Secretary Grey encouraging Germany to believe Britain might not get involved, whilst at the same time leading France and Russia to think the opposite. The Alliances were uncertain, not always what they seemed to be.

It would appear that the generation born in the 1880's and 1890's and who would die by the millions were let down not just by the quality of the wartime military leadership but also by that of their pre-war politicians. As "Sleepwalkers" reaches June and July 1914 it is the politicians lack of prescience that brings the peace to an end. Clark suggests a key role in the encouragement French President Poincare gives to Russia as ensuring what might have remained a local Austro-Hungarian conflict with Serbia becoming a continental war.

And what of Germany, blamed at Versailles and focus of much finger-pointing by historians? The chapter on the "blank cheque" is clear in showing crucial initial German support for Austrian action against Serbia ie to support a localised, if not continental war. However what is implicit is that it was the resultant (and clumsy) actions of Russia, with French encouragement, that transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Power continental one.

This is essential reading for students seeking to understand the outbreak of war beyond the classic long term/short term causes approach. It shows emphatically how the lack of clarity in political decision-making and a failure to understand the implications of decisions made, led Europe to fall into war, oblivious to its industrialised reality. 

January '14 (*****)

Donald Miller: Eighth Air Force 

As the café is now based in England's East Anglia, surrounded by the remains of World War II bomber airfields, it seemed appropriate to read something of the units that used them during the war. Miller's account of the US Eighth seemed a suitable resource to follow up on earlier reading of the British RAF campaign in McKinstry's Lancaster. Miller is pretty comprehensive in examining the experience of the bomber crews in the round. In fact (and unfortunately for me) there is not too much about East Anglia, rather it follows the crews' war through training and stationing in the UK, the daylight campaigns against Germany and the high airmen attrition that went with this. Further chapters focus on those who baled out and were interned in POW camps, and how the eighth was used in the final months of the war. Copious reference notes complete the 700 page tome. 

What Miller does best is use aircrew testimony and reminiscences to tell the story as they themselves have outlined it. This helps give an insight into the feelings of the US airmen and aids the general narrative, especially for the non-specialist. The book also shows clearly the mistaken premise with which these crews were sent off to bomb Germany on near-suicidal daylight raids, unlike the RAF who bomber under cover of darkness. Pre war US bombing theory held that daylight bombing was possible against strong fighter opposition if the bombers (in this case liberators and Flying Fortresses) could fly fast and high enough and were well defended. Not only that, but equipped with the latest Norden bomb-sights it was believed that precision bombing was achievable meaning targets could be specific military ones so reducing collateral civilian deaths. Again this contrasted with the RAF carpet bombing of city centres where the focus was on breaking civilian morale. Unfortunately the theory was proved wrong. The US bombers were savaged by the Luftwaffe and German artillery flak and the persistently poor north European weather meant many raids were "radar" led, meaning bombing blind through cloud with little accuracy on the towns below. The result was that the Eighth suffered about half of the U.S. Army Air Force's war casualties (47,483 out of 115,332), including more than 26,000 dead. 

The "experiment" as Miller describes it was not given up despite the losses. Raids, and the huge losses such as those on Schweinefurt and Berlin brought no change (except in the Berlin "Big Week" raids of February 1944, the bombers themselves were used as bait to draw out the German fighters where overwhelming numbers of US fighters could destroy them to help gain air superiority). Miller is very good on the impact this had on the morale of the survivors and how the airforce dealt with what would now be called PTSD (basically one week r n r then back again). There were other errors. US targets were selected to bring down the Nazi military economy but selection was based on assumptions that Germany had a US (ie oil-based economy). So refineries (especially in Ploesti, Romania) were targeted to little effect but great cost. Only latterly did this change with the realisation that coal was the crucial focus. Synthetic oil plants and railway lines used to transport coal and finished war materiel were now bombed. By this point in the war the bombers were being escorted by P51 Mustang fighters, and losses were far smaller. 

A fascinating section on aircrew who ended up in neutral Switzerland due to damage or mechanical failure casts light on the murky history of Swiss relations with the Nazi's during the war and is an area that perhaps needs further research by the café.... 

As Miller attempts to cover as many aspects of the aircrew experience as possible at times the narrative can wander a little too far from the prime focus. His apparent assumption that he is writing for readers with only limited awareness of the events of the more general conflict is clearly helpful to the general reader but can be irritating to the better informed. Personally I would also have liked to see more on the development of the east of England airfields and a little on the creation of the enormous and sobering war cemetry to the fallen aircrew outside Cambridge. 

The US airforce leadership fought a campaign believing that pin-point accuracy by massed fleets of bombers could alone defeat Hitler's Germany. Despite sustaining horrendous aircrew casualties and crippling Germany almost completely, this was not achieved. Germany was only defeated when ground forces invaded from east and west. Several months later this flawed and dogged philosophical basis that Miller shows lay so clearly behind the European bombing strategy ended when a couple of B29's flying days apart did end a war on their own by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No massed bomber fleets, no huge crew losses, no pinpoint accuracy to avoid civilian collateral damage. A new era in aerial warfare had opened up...... 

One technical point: I read the ebook edition which has line drawings but none of the photos of the paper edition. I hope
this is not to become a pattern.

Aug '13 (****)

Christian Wolmar:  Engines Of War

Whilst travelling around central Europe recently on the train I thought it would be apt to read
Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways by the well known railway historian Christian Wolmar. What Wolmar does is show the impact that railways had on military logistics and as a consequence on military tactics. The focus is on key conflict areas since the emergence of railways - initially the Crimean War and especially the US Civil War where railways first came into their own reflecting the influence of US Federal engineer, Herman Haupt, whose work for the United States Military Railroads in preparation for several battles, culminating at Gettysburg, would confirm the strategic role of the railways in warfare and who in effect produced the key guidelines for effective railway management and coordination with the military in time of war. Haupt's two main principles were that the military should not interfere in the operation of the train service, and that freight cars should be emptied and returned promptly, so that they were not used as warehouses (or even, as happened, as offices). These may seem obvious but the only armies that used railways effectively were those who were able to make best use of these principles. Prussia's wars with Denmark, Austria and France are examined as are those colonial conflicts fought by the British prior to 1914. The survey then goes onto look at the war that was most influenced by railways, World War 1.

The most impressive point for historians that comes through is how railways altered the fundamental dynamics of warfare. Logistics were always a restraint on the size of armies sent into the field. They could only be as large as the area around afforded them to live off. Consequently campaigns had to be swift, battles short, before food, fodder and ammunition ran out. Railways changed this. Especially for armies defending. They could be constantly supplied by more men, foodstuffs and equipment by rail. Battles could last as long as the rail line was open but could not move far from the railhead. A recipe for the Great War and its offensives of attrition. The railway train contributed as much to the slaughter on the western front as did the machine gun and artillery shell. In the east where rail was less developed the war was less static, less attritional. By World War 2 road and air mobility reduced the dependency on the railhead, but rail was still central to the war economy whether in Britain, Germany, the US or the Soviet Union where lines were destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and then rebuilt again (often in a different gauge each time) as German troops advanced then were pushed back again by the Red Army.

Wolmar bemoans the lack of prior literature on the topic also admitting he is not a military historian and this is clear in several instances. Each conflict begins with an outline description of the war itself. This will be useful for rail buffs who know more of the trains than the military and diplomatic history but can be annoying (especially some of the generalisations) to those who know more about the history. I skim read them quickly. Wolmar also writes that the dearth of material on the topic has made examination of many countries difficult. Nonetheless, I would also have liked to see more analysis on the impact of the WW2 Allied bombing campaign on Germany's railway system and the war economy of Speer as this is key to current research on the effectiveness of the strategic bombing of the Reich.

Overall though this is to be recommended as providing new insights into a neglected area. In the forthcoming commemoration of 1914-18 it will be especially valuable in helping many to understand why the armies of the west became so entrenched. The author writes this is an area crying out for more PhD research on the impact of rail on specific conflicts. This work will hopefully motivate and encourage others to do just that. 

Oct'13 (***)
  Michael Korda: Hero: The Life & Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

As suggested by the title, Korda's biography of TE Lawrence concentrates on how far he might be considered to be one. The description of his involvement in and leadership of events during the Arabian campaign of the First World War certainly do much to indicate that he was worthy of this description. This though is dealt with by only three of the twelve chapters, the others either present how he grew into such a role or show how he tried to hide away from it.

Lawrence's early life and education show he was certainly gifted and supremely self confident in the exercise of his many talents - linguist, mapmaker, archaeologist with a keen sense of the value of antiquities, but most of all the ability to impress and gain the confidence of those who, on paper at least, were his superiors. It was archaeology that drew him to the Middle East, to what is now Iraq and Syria. The contacts and empathy for the region he developed pre 1914 soon drew him to the attention of the military once Turkey entered the war as an ally of Germany. He appeared to be able not just to gain the trust and respect of the Arab tribes of the region but also to keep them onside and united in what for them was a war against Ottoman rule. He was able to adopt Arab ways as well as dress to integrate all the more successfully and fashion the irregular Arab Army that took Damascus. Korda shows though that whilst a supporter of the Arab nationalist cause and a believer in a single "Greater Syria" Arab Kingdom, Lawrence did not "go native". He remained a British officer who saw such a state as not only reinforcing Britain's position in the region but also one that would keep out not just the Turks but also the French, whose colonial system he detested as much as that of the Turks.

So far this is the story well known of Lawrence (and the basis of the famous 1962 David Lean film, although with a hero who was really 5'5" tall, not 6'2".....). However Korda uses this to look at Lawrence's military abilities in a wider context. His realisation that the loose Arab forces were not well suited to frontal attack led to the development of what are now known as guerrilla attacks: blowing up railway lines and bridges then vanishing into the desert. Korda argues he prepares the way for today's terrorist campaigns and road bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contemporaries who might use these methods also saw the value of his work. Irelands Michael Collins was a friend. He pioneered long distance raids by specialised groups - copied by the British in North Africa in World War II. More significantly he was the first to see the value and to use combined operations involving ground troops supported by mobile armoured units and air strikes. Whilst serving in the ranks in the RAF in north west India he argued against the strategy of bombing the villages of rebels as this alienated the civilian population. Instead he argued blockhouses, supported from the air be built in rebel areas and used to launch motorised raids on rebel strongholds on the ground. The basis of strategy in Afghanistan today. Technology was always an interest. He rode powerful motorbikes, used armoured Rolls Royces in the desert, organised the 1929 Schneider trophy race that saw a forerunner of the Spitfire win, as well as do much to tweak the design the motor launches used to rescue RAF pilots shot down at sea during World War II.

It is clear his ability was acknowledged at the time. A post-war "travelogue" of his exploits in the desert broke box office records in New York and London then and toured Europe making a fortune for its backers (but not TEL - he refused to take any profit from his wartime work). Although of low officer rank (he shunned any attempt to raise his official status) and refusing most of the many honours that came his way he remained a close friend and valued adviser to many of the Good & Great of the time: Allenby (overall commander in the middle east), Trenchard (head of the RAF), writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, and politicians such as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. All did not just appreciate his ideas and invariably act upon them, but also felt close enough to support him in the 1920's and 1930's when he sought a life outside the limelight and when the pressures of writing and publishing "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" became overpowering.

His personal life seems to have been more of a mystery. He had very few close relationships despite making friends easily. He felt immense guilt at not delivering what he had promised the Arabs - independence and the immediate post-war years see him toiling with the support of the Imperial Secretary, Winston Churchill to create two kingdoms (Jordan and Iraq - both under British "protection") at least for the Arab tribal chiefs whose support he enlisted. Having experienced total leadership in the desert, received the undoubted adoration of his Arab troops and become a key adviser to Allenby he turned against such high position after the war. He enlisted in both the RAF under assumed names and at the lowest ranks to escape his reputation, but paradoxically seemed to enjoy the recognition when it could not be avoided. More darkly, Korda explores masochistic tendencies that clearly had their roots in his treatment when briefly captured by the Turks.

Korda's work is over 700 pages long and it has been criticised for its length - ironic given that much of it is devoted to showing how TEL struggled to edit "Seven Pillars"! I would have liked to see some of the post 1918 period edited and a little more said about the views of those Arab leaders he hoped to place on thrones - Feisal especially. Did TEL feel so strongly about supporting them for their broader social and political reasons and how they might better the lives of all Arabs or was it purely because he offered these elites his word? However it is not a difficult biography to read and its breadth allows TEL to be seen in a wider context - the desert war at its centre, but with many significant antecedents as well as providing an understanding of his unorthodox post-war career. It is worth persevering with to see who was in reality a 20th century version of a classical Greek hero - a unique range of talents and powers with the ability to enchant, but also one with real human flaws whose demons he had to contend with. 

April '13 (****)

Other reviews of this book: 
New York Times
Daily Beast
LA Times

  Frederick Taylor: Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany

After books on the wartime bombing of Dresden and the Berlin Wall, Taylor now provides a popular read on the less explored (by non-German historians at least) immediate post war history of Germany, 1945-47. The initial chapters provide a narrative of collapse and defeat including the mass movements of Germans from east to west (although not with the same degree of depth as in Giles MacDonogh: After the Reich - from the fall of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift). I was fascinated to discover that teams of economists had been working secretly within the Nazi structure under Backe (Hitler's Food Minister) and Speer planning for the economic survival of a defeated germany from 1943 onwards. The team included one Ludwig Ehrhard, later to be the architect of west Germany's economic miracle.

Where Taylor shines is when he looks at the specific occupation policies of the allies. One useful chapter examines the practical problems of denazification. An early IBM system was introduced to set up a database of suspected Nazi's - but was plagued by technical issues. It was to prove an impossibility for demobilising  occupiers to denazify an entire population and Taylor chronicles how pragmatism led to this being one of the first areas handed back to German control. Another factor slowing down the process is suggested as being an underlying anti-semitism amongst the US command (especially Patton) which was reflected in a distaste for supporting and listening to DP's (Displaced persons) many of whom were Jewish survivors of the camps.

Post war zonal policy is examined individually. Much has already been written of the attitude of the Soviets in the east, less about the British and especially the  French in the west. It seems the British tended to treat their zone initially as if it were andAfrican colony. At one point an exasperated Kurt Schumacher (later to become the leader of the SPD party) exclaims "Wir sind kein Negervolk" ("We are not Blacks" - which says as much about the racist attitudes prevalent at the time as well as British policy!). Taylor is especially useful on the French position. Early French treatment and policies were harsher even than those in the Russian zone. There were large numbers of prisoner of war deaths, they refused to accept refugees from the east, saying as protestants they would unsettle the religious balance of their Rhineland zone - and cleverly recruiting German Catholic support. Paradoxically though the French were also the first to give the Germans a genuine role in self-government and denazification (Taylor suggests one reason for this may have been more empathy between occupier and occupied given that many of the French had played a collaborational role with Germans in Vichy).

What the reading makes clear is how the occupiers had to juggle many, often conflicting demands: initial concern over "Werwolf"counter attack and desire for revenge, followed by the practicalities of feeding a people incapable of doing this themselves because of destruction and dislocation. How to restore Germany - non industrial state incapable of going to war (The US Morgenthau plan), nation made up of fragmented states as after 1648 (France), a client state incapable of returning to a Nazi, or capitalist past and too weak to wage war (Soviet Union) or a Poor Law pauper kept alive but no better than the poorest at home (Britain). Political and emerging Cold War reality soon focussed minds: Britain and the US restore the framework for economic revival and the ability for their zones to feed themselves. France and Germany begin the dance of a couple destined to tie them and the rest of Europe into the European Union. In the east, concerned Soviets, try to use Berlin to halt these developments, which after the blockade accelerates the binding of wartime western allies and their zones, by then the Federal Republic.

OOne of the most useful sections is the epilogue - essentially an essay on how post 1949 Germany has come to terms with its nazi past: The sleep cure of the 1950's when the Adenauer regime admits the "fellow traveller" nazi's back to positions of administrative authority to manage the economic miracle. Then the questioning of this by the generation of the 1960's: Press criticism, 1968, Baader-Meinhof terrorism. In the 1970's as a prosperous but not yet confident society, the Ostpolitik of Brandt coming to terms politically with its eastern past. Only today, over 60 years later is Germany sufficiently confident under a Chancellor born after the nazi period, to take a lead again, but hesitantly, still conscious of its past malevolent ghosts.

March '12 (****)

PS: The full title is presumably/hopefully an Editor's choice - surely we no longer need images of Hitler and his name in Big Blocks to sell a book? The German edition (called "Between War and Peace") is much more appropriate. Perhaps a little denazification of the book industry might do some good.....

Matthew Brzezinski: Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age

Tells the story of "Sputnik and the rivalries that ignited the Space Age". Indeed it starts well with a very atmospheric description of a V2 launch against London, and then goes on to tell the story of the early pre Sputnik US and Soviet space programmes and the internal politics that lay behind them. Centre-stage is rightly given to von Braun, ex member of Hitler's SS and Korolev, survivor of Stalin's Gulag camps (interesting that Korolev had as many failures - probably more than the US before his successful Sputnik launch) with an examination of their respective relationships with Eisenhower and Khrushchev but beyond telling the story, rather like early US attempts to get into space, it fails to really ignite.

Brzezinski is a former journalist (for the Wall Street Journal) and this reads like an extended piece of journalism - rather like a long series of articles that you might find in a weekend supplement. The US political context is more satisfactory than the Soviet. The end notes suggest that research is essentially secondary - and much of that from the internet.

An appropriate read perhaps if you are new to the period (having just seen the forthcoming movie on "Ham" the space chimp maybe) but don't look to find any novel insights or new archival research. Jan'11 (***)


  Michael Howard: Otherwise Occupied: Letters Home from the Ruins of Nazi Germany

At the end of the second world war all the allies sent teams into defeated Germany to identify and seize war materiel and weaponry (perhaps most famously German V2 rocket technology - see the casahistoria
 space race site for links). This then came to include the "evacuation" of machinery and intellectual property (including individuals) that might help reconstruction of allied economies. Much has been written about the Soviet removals from their and the other zones, far less about Britain's own programme.

Michael Howard was a young 19 year old officer sent to the Ruhr in 1946 as an intelligence officer for Britains T-Force to help administer British seizures and this is his story of his time as part of that process. The approach in his book "Otherwise Occupied" which the cafe has just finished reading is novel: Howard has used the 67 letters he sent home to his mother during the period as a structure to hang the development of the general account on, a narrative that reads well and is clear to follow (although the profusion of characters who appear briefly in the mess then and disappear can be a little irritating at times). Maps and photographs by the author help general understanding and the personal story element of the book. Interesting aspects emerge on the nature of the early British occupation (interestingly he comments for example that it seemed many of the initial military administrators had a pre-war background in Britain's colonial administrations - his own father was in the Fiji Colonial Service) as well as the reality of life in the immediate postwar period for occupied and occupier and the issue of "fraternisation".

Little is said about the wider picture of T-Force work (and indeed this is not the purpose of the book), rather the focus is on the experiences and impressions of a young officer who happened to be part of a wider process (so despite the described efficiency of the authors section, day to day military administration in general during the period comes over as somewhat ad hoc with officers clearly enjoying their occupying role, and much reliance on a public school ethos that was perhaps typical of the period). This is perhaps the key significance of Howards writing. Letters from the war period are relatively common, far less common are letters with a commentary written 60 years later by the same writer. Here this provides not just elaboration but a modern self-evaluation of attitudes and actions contemporary to the period that help the context to be better understood. Of particular value is the (empathetic) development of the author's response to German nationals.

As a junior officer the author had no real part in key zonal decisions, so do not look here for new evidence on British postwar occupation policy or relations with the Soviets. However Michael Howard's book has real value to the historian in another way. Recent years have seen an explosion in German witness accounts of the immediate postwar period. Here we have what amounts to an annotated contemporary account of early occupation life by a member of a western occupying force to set alongside them.

And one whose attitude to the population would anticipate their later reintegration into the postwar world.

Nov '10 (****)

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  Leo McKinstry: Lancaster: The Second World War's Greatest Bomber

The title of Leo McKinstry's book, "Lancaster: The Second World War's Greatest Bomber", is quite deceptive. It is not really a narrow nuts & bolts history of another warplane. Instead McKinstry has provided a comprehensive survey and analysis of the role, effectiveness and morality of the British strategic bombing offensive against the Reich. The development and use of the Lancaster bomber is the leitmotif providing central continuity for the account, just as it was the central component of the offensive.

As well as considering past official reports and research as well as the earliest accounts of the bombing such as David Irvings 1960's work, McKinstry has made clear use of new research, especially into the effectiveness of the strategy in 1944-45. In doing so he provides a valuable and very readable campaign history making good use of the now rich seam of witness accounts and memoirs collected from the survivors of the bombing as well as RAF crews to illustrate aspects of the unfolding story (although at times, just as with any good student of history, he also provides information to qualify and place in context several of these insertions).

The key thread may be the Lancaster, but the figure who is most dominant in the account is not Chadwick, the Lancaster's designer, but Sir Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of bomber command from 1942 onwards. He is behind the policy of area bombing, focusing on the means of production (ie the civilian population), rather than the precision bombing of key strategic targets such as oil stores and arms factories, believing that the destruction and terror created could bring victory on its own. With the deliberate bombing of civilian areas in raids with up to 1000 bombers officially called "dehousing", this shows that spin is nothing new. Whilst it is possible to argue that Harris's policy was most justifiable in 1942-3 when Britain had no other way of returning the fight to Germany and of taking pressure off the Red Army in the east, McKinstry shows clearly the flaws in Harris's stubborn refusal to amend this policy in 1944-45 when precision bombing of military targets alone, he believes, could have shortened the war by several months. The US daylight raids had taken this approach in 1944 (as had the RAF in assistance of the D day landings) and it was later shown to be more effective than the RAF night attacks on cities such as Berlin and Dresden. What is surprising from the book is how little Harris's superiors did to force him to change policy when they were clearly unhappy with it. It is clear Harris bullied them, they themselves were too weak. (Churchill however, appears duplicitous, especially over Dresden, presented here as a means of the UK hoping to use the attack to seek favour/respect with Stalin at Yalta.).

The victims of this inability to manage the C in C were obviously the civilians who continued to die in the ever increasing raids (By 1945 the USAF is also into area bombing), but also the bomber crews themselves. The irony is that Harris saw the bomber offensive as a way to ensure victory without the horrors of another Western Front, yet by sending his men out night after night to bomb heavily defended targets he ensured their casualty rates were the highest of any of the western theatres of war (over 50,000 killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew, a 44% death rate, a further 8,000 were wounded in action and nearly 10,000 taken prisoner).

Towards the end of the book I began to feel that too much was being devoted to the context, too little on the final (postwar) years of the Lancaster, yet it was soon clear the end of the war was the end of the Lancaster. It's sole purpose was to bomb Germany. It was not well suited to conversion to the Japanese theatre, yet the atomic bombs stopped the conversion being done. However those atomic bombs also meant that huge bomber fleets were now redundant. More depressingly perhaps, their threat for the future rested completely on Harris's belief in the significance of indiscriminate area bombing. Dehousing indeed.

Feb '10 (****)

  Sean Longden: T-Force: The Race for Nazi War Secrets, 1945

This book has been a disappointment. Familiar with both the geographical area and the background technological and military history I found this little more than a regimental history of the “T-Force”, a group set up to seize and secure Nazi military technology at the end of World War II. There is too little strong central narrative, rather it is a collection of events, incidents & forays most of whom lack development. There is much interesting personal history based on anecdotal and witness accounts, but the general development would have perhaps benefited from tighter editing.

An opportunity missed to tell the story thoroughly of how not just the USA and USSR but also Britain grabbed its share of German know-how at the start of the Cold War.

Nov '09 (**)

I note (in 2011) that its US paperback release is called "T-Force: The Forgotten Heroes of 1945", perhaps a much more appropriate title.
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Margaret Macmillan: Peacemakers

Margaret Macmillans "Peacemakers" is the book I wished had been written when I was a student (or as I covered the Peace Treaties year after year with my examination students beginning their exam courses). It is valuable on two levels. Firstly there is the obvious: a study of the drafting and setting up of the Peace treaties that ended the First World War. Macmillan writes in a clear readable manner, portraying the key participants, Wilson, Clemenceau & Lloyd George as very human characters, grappling with enormous issues but also showing up their flaws. Wilson for example, spending too much time on the creation of the League and failing to focus on the inconsistencies of Versailles re his 14 Points (especially concerning the German minorities left in Poland & Czechoslovakia). Equally his failure to see the need for US all party support dooms the settlement to US rejection.

The book also shows clearly the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon alliance that is to develop as the 20th century progressed. Most of all it presents the three as facing a novel situation: no real precedents; the sudden German collapse presented no time to prepare for the peace; the pressure of public opinion limited the freedom of action and forced some decisions the three knew would cause future problems. Additionally they were hemmed in by a desire to prevent the further growth of a feared new ideology adopted by their earlier ally – Bolshevism. It is clear the ending of World War 2 was to be very different, much as a consequence of these 1919 issues: no big postwar conference, no deputations from smaller nations. Rather 1945 produced a peace that the Great Powers could realistically enforce on their own, and in their own interests.

But perhaps the real value of the book is on another level. It is an excellent primer for the 20th century. Coverage is gloabal as Macmillan goes into detail about the creation and future problems not just of eastern & central Europe but also the Far and Middle East. For Example Japan's concerns over the inclusion of a League principle to guarantee racial equality reveal the depth of unease the west (and especially the white Dominions) had in dealing with a newly industrialised & strong Japan. There is also a clear explanation of the role the Great War played in the rise of an expansionist Japan in China which is not always dealt with in western textbooks.

My only reservation is that perhaps like the Peacemakers Macmillan may have ignored the Germans. The full footnotes, bibliography and listing of unpublished sources lack any in German indicating a reliance only on what has appeared in English. Nonetheless, this is a key resource for those beginning courses on 20th century history, making clear the origin of what become the dominant problems and concerns that mark out the century's progression, or in many cases, regression.

Aug '09 (*****)

  John Gimlette: Panther Soup: Travels Through Europe in War and Peace

John Gimlette, author of an excellent "travel history" of Paraguay has turned his attention now to Europe in 1944-5. Following a veteran of the US landings in Marseilles he and the veteran retrace the route taken by a US anti tank panther company through France into Germany and finally into Austria.

This is an interesting adea: the author juxtaposes the actions of the war with the position today in key locations of the original campaign to see what remains and what is now different. The strongest part of the book is the description of the war in the forests of the Vosges, a theatre that normally receives little attention.

July '09 (***)
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  Ryszard Kapuscinski: Imperium

This is a volume of essays dating from 1939 to the fall of Gorbachev by the Polish journalist. In them, Kapuscinski writes clearly and shows a sharp sense of observation of the workings of the Soviet Empire as he finds it in his travels during the period. Although we are well aware now that the former USSR was not a monolith but made up of many different nationalities and Soviet Republics, his writing from the 1980's from the Soviet "stans" reminds us that this was also the case at a time when the west tended to consider the USSR as one uniform state. In many ways the best is at the start and finish - a masterly description of the 1939 Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from a boys account and an analysis from the time by an easterner of the fall of Gorbachev. Not quite history writing, but a good resource for historical study of the period.

Oct' 08. (***)

Frederick Taylor: The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989

An interesting narrative of the history of the Berlin Wall by the author of Dresden. Like that earlier work much attention is given to context (although the potted history of the pre 1961 Cold War period is perhaps too potted). The Wall remains the focus, especially in the 1960's highlighting as it does the hypocrisy and lack of will of the western powers and the federal republic to support their rhetoric with action towards the east (which was probably the wise course...) But the most satisfactory chapter is perhaps the final one with insights and perceptions available only to a writer with a genuine affection and knowledge of the east gained through personal association. Useful also to anyone seeking an accessible, and general history of the GDR. One final point - in my (hardback) edition there are a surprising number of typos, signs perhaps of too swift editing. But why?

Dec '07 (***)

Philip Roth: The Plot Against America: A Novel

An intriguing piece of counterfactual history - FDR loses the 1940 election to a right wing Lindbergh in league with Nazi Germany. Written in the first person from the viewpoint of a 10 year old boy this is perceptive and emotionally moving on a personal as well as social and political level as it charts the gradual decline of the US into antisemitic persecution. Yes, you can see how it might happen in a "civilised" society....

May '07 (****)

  Simon Sebag Montefiore: Young Stalin

This has to be read by anyone who seriously wants to understand what made Stalin tick. The account of his youth and formative years (up to Oct/Nov 1917) clearly indicates the impact of growing up in the wilds of (still lawless and gangster riddled) Georgia and the Caucasus. Sebag Montefiore's account does more though - it explains perhaps the ease with which the USSR slid into oligarchy and lawlessness in the 1990's - because of a general underlying tradition of violence, but also the dangers of faith schools and the risks of encarcerating enemies of the state in similar places. Stalin? More educated and culturally rounded than I had thought, but presents as not a pleasant character at all - easy to understand his purges and ruthlessness as later USSR leader. Equally repugnant seemed to be his inclination towards impregnating teenage girls at least half his age - one of whom was only 13, (he was in his 30's......) Very readable nonetheless.

May '07 (****)


  Max Hastings: Nemesis (US title: Retribution): The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

Another massive tome, this time on the final 18 months of the Pacific War. An overall synthesis, easily laid out with different theatres given seperate chapters. I found the most useful sections to be on those areas of conflict often less publicised in the west (& Europe. eg Burma, Australia, China, the sub war) By contrast, Macarthurs travails through the Philippines are less compulsive (as the man himself appears to have been). Some key points emerge: the (very) variable quality of US military commanders (FDR seems to have given them an almost free hand), the Japanese disinterest in technology (!!) and the early (quite considerable) failings of the B29.

March '08 (****)

Ben Macintyre: Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

A quick holiday read but no less enjoyable for that. Macintyres account of the double agent Eddie Chapman is told well and in a sympathetic way - this despite the many initially questionable aspects of the man himself. Chapman, Agent Zigzag, a habitual criminal and serial womaniser/romancer became a spy for the German Abwehr then a double agent (of considerable value) for MI5. What is still unclear at the end is Chapman's motivation. Given the apparent complexities of his personality that may never be clear. As Le Carre is quoted in the blurb "meticulously researched, splendidly told and often very moving" especially in his loyalty to old friends.

August '07 (***)

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  Jonathan Fenby: Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another

Meticulously detailed this looks exhaustively (at times perhaps too much so unless you are using this to research an essay!!) at the development of the WW2 alliance system. Several points emerge very clearly: that Teheran was probably the key meeting - Yalta was a case of formalising what had already been decided. Secondly, the emergence of Stalin as the main player with the support of FDR. Equally it is a surprise how many of the leading US & UK participants were in poor health, not just FDR but also many aides and military figures. As for Churchill he seemed unable to get Gallipoli out of his system, but was right in his postwar fears. For the publisher: why no maps? They would have been really helpful to envisage the logistics of the meetings. A false economy.

June '07 (***)



Sarah Helm: A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

This story of Vera Atkins, responsible for sending British female secret agents to Nazi France and her cathartic efforts to find out what happened to those who did not return is a compelling, well crafted read. The Atkins life is full of twists and page turning mysteries. However in the process Helm emphasizes the bravery of those sent to France and the amateur incompetence of those who sent them. Equally, the transparent nature of the books structure serves as an excellent example of how history is laboriously researched and worked upon using a variety of sources – in this case very much like a detective thriller.

March ´07 (****)


Anonymous: A Woman in Berlin

This diary, written by a Berlin woman in her 30's during the fall of Berlin illustrates clearly and forcefully the real meaning of defeat. Interesting asides on the nature of the Russian conquerors: raised in a society where they received but could not choose they had little concept of "value", even of booty. Most of all it reveals the commonplace nature & acceptance of rape or of attaching oneself to an Ivan lover - for protection and survival. A very human diary of survival in year zero.

Sept '06 (****)

Nigel Farndale: Haw-Haw : The Tragedy of William & Margaret Joyce

Tells the story of Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce), the wartime broadcaster from Germany, later hanged for treason in Britain. Presents Joyce as a tragic figure with strongly held (if seriously flawed) beliefs. I had not been aware of his (and for a while dominant) role in British interwar fascism, made clear in the book. Much writing is devoted to the time in wartime Berlin - and the experiences of their living as a couple in an alien environment with limited grasp of the language...... His postwar trial nonetheless is shown as a vengeful travesty of British justice - which Joyce accepts with grace (and perhaps a little enigmatic comfort from MI5..... - are the secret MI5 files on Joyce's possible work with them still closed?).

June '06 (***)



Giles MacDonogh: After the Reich - from the fall of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

Any modern writer of post war Germany who mentions the names of Hajo Holborn and Michael Balfour in the first few pages clearly has done their reading. This book fills in the gap left in many English language histories of postwar central Europe: from the actual end of war and its immediate impact to the outbreak of the Cold War. Covering not just the zones of Germany, but also Austria and the events of German speaking Europe elsewhere - the German Reich at its largest.The initial 100 pages or so are a harrowing account of the treatment of the

German speakers as they were invaded, occupied, looted, raped and for the millions in the east, moved westwards. The brutality by all concerned is meticulously documented - too much so in places - I wanted to skip on as it was so disturbing and relentless. The Red Army is well documented by others, less so the proportionately greater savagery of the Czechs on the Sudetenlanders (especially grim as MacDonogh makes clear the pre 1938 Sudetenlanders were ex Austrians, not Germans who had been unlawfully deprived of the chance at self determination after Versailles by a nationalist Czech regime.).

Another eyeopener is the evidence that all the allies used prisoners of war in ways similar to Speer in his use of slave labour (and often in the face of resultant deaths). The US was especially cynical in this matter announcing they had released all POW's in mid 1946 when in fact they released them to be handed over to other allies: Belgium and France, for manual work. The USSR was still returning POW's in the mid 1950's.

The early stance of the US was surprisingly tough. Outside the Soviet Zone, the US had and maintained the hardest stance to its prisoners and civilian population for the first 18 months. Torture seems to have been common initially amongst all the occupiers as they sought to do the necessary and root out Nazi's. However MacDonogh's examples indicate a direct line of war's dehumanisation that makes treatment of Iraqi prisoners seem minor.One issue with
After the Reich is caused by its heavy reliance on documentary sources, especially memoirs. This had meant a skew towards recounting the experiences of the better off, in particular the womenfolk of the German/Prussian nobility. At times this leads perhaps to a too unconsidered appreciation of the sometime self-serving motivation of the 1944 plotters, many of whom were close to the writers of the memoirs used.

The final sections takes a reader swiftly but clearly through the fog of the origins of the Cold War, only after 500 pages of the aftermath analysis what follows has a clarity lacking in the work of many other revisionist writers. Ultimately the emergence of the postwar west Germany is shown to be linked closely to the creation of the European community, with Adenauer consciously supporting a pro western & French future, even if it, as suggested, meant sacrificing the old historic Prussian, socialist and protestant eastern, (and at the time more slavic influenced) provinces of the old Reich.

Since the
Wende, this has been a topic occupying the history shelves of most German bookshops. MacDonogh has done English readers a service with this account. The underlying sentiment is that this book records the consequences of the far greater evil perpetrated on others by the Germans - a feeling that many of those recorded reflect, despite their misery. It is not surprising that with the opening of the east Germans have wished to document the period, nor is it surprising that Anglo-saxon writers have shunned it for so long.

May '06 (*****).
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  Frederick Taylor: Dresden: Tuesday, 13 February, 1945

This is perhaps the emergent "revisionist" view of the Dresden bombing. Irving produced the initial, horrifying, description of the mass destruction of the allied attacks - Taylor places them in a more pragmatic wartime context, but also looks at the history of Dresden itself and shows it to be not quite the cultured, non-military city of the earlier histories of the bombings. Dresden was undefended through lack of preparedness, the RAF were by Feb 1945 professional and skilled in area destruction. The need to appease Stalin remains unanswered. Dresden had its centre ripped out - and visually still suffers today.

March '06 (****)

  Christopher Bayly: Forgotten Armies : The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

The main value of this tome to the general reader is most likely to be the early chapters before the war. This outlines most clearly the nature (arrogance and decadence?) of the British presence in malaya & Burma. The forgotten armies of the conflict are dealt with very methodically, but this makes for drier reading. 

Feb'06 (***)

  Ben Elton: The First Casualty

Even if you are not normally an Elton fan, this is worth a read. It is a detective mystery with a (21st century?) twist. Elton's left wing liberalism seeps through in a provoking way - and this is one of hs novels that a teacher might even be able to recommend to a younger student - given that the sexual exploits/foul language are far less than usual!!

Jan '06 (***)

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