“A Certain Idea of France” – a biography of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson- Using his wits to survive “like Tintin”.

This engrossing biography should delay the inevitable forgetting of what made De Gaulle so famous, with a clear socio-political summary of the past century to set the France of today in context. I enjoyed the frequent use of vivid quotations to show the reactions of De Gaulle’s contemporaries to this eccentric, complex man whose flaws both undermined and contributed to his often controversial achievements.

Deeply influenced by his conservative, nationalistic, intellectual Catholic upbringing, it is unsurprising that De Gaulle found the rapid French surrender at the outset of World War Two and subsequent collaboration intolerably dishonourable. His broadcasts to France from exile in London via the BBC, notably the famous call to arms in June 1940, had the same kind of morale-boosting impact as Churchill’s speeches. By the time De Gaulle was able to walk down the Champs-Elysées of a liberated Paris, an estimated “two million souls” gathered to greet him, yet few had any idea what he looked like in that pre-television age.

To gain recognition as the leader of the Free French and ensure that France should have some role both in the liberation and the subsequent negotiations required vast self-belief amounting to arrogance, combined with unrelenting persistence. Speaking of himself as “De Gaulle”, even “France”, a kind of latter-day male Joan of Arc, he threw chairs during tantrums with world leaders, machinated to get rid of rivals, tried Churchill’s patience to the limit, and aroused the implacable hostility of the American President Roosevelt. Forever “biting the hand that fed him”, he showed scant gratitude to the Allies or the Resistance groups on whom he was at times utterly dependent.
Perhaps he was simply applying the reading which had convinced him of a leader’s need to “cultivate mystery and keep his distance” with “a large dose of egoism, of pride, or hardness and ruse …Leadership is solitary exercise of the will”. Although he was a showman in his oratory, delivering carefully honed speeches from memory in several languages and, with his undeniable courage, loved to disappear into large adulatory crowds, private meetings with De Gaulle were often disappointing. There is a pattern in descriptions of him pontificating at length, looking through people rather than at them, sometimes unexpectedly proving later to have noted and even been influenced by remarks they had managed to make.

“Granting” Algerian independence has been cited as one of De Gaulle’s main achievements, but Julian Jackson points out that it was in fact “wrested from him” after France had come close to mainland civil war, and he showed a callous disregard for the suffering of pieds noirs and Harkis who “lost out” in the process.

It was a shock to realise that De Gaulle’s return to power as President in 1958 was undemocratic, a coup “legalised” because “France’s elites had lost confidence in the existing regime to resolve the Algerian crisis”. This gave him “full powers to govern by decree for six months with the suspension of parliament during that period”. His subsequent manipulation of the constitution under the new Fifth Republic to get himself elected directly by the public, thus cementing his personal power, was also questionable – he was recreating the role of a monarch within the republican system which had aimed to destroy it. His delight in “upsetting the applecart” was evident to the end, as in his rash speech, climaxing in the infamous slogan “Vive le Québec libre!”on a visit to Canada.

De Gaulle often seems like a throwback to a previous age, with his frugal personal lifestyle, rejection of the telephone even when holding high office. and his musing on the damaging effect on society of mass production. Yet he encouraged others to pursue the technology, including nuclear warheads, which would “make France great” and was fortunate, probably owing some of his popularity to, the fact that his “reign” coincided with the “Trente Glorieuses” – the three decades of post-war relative economic prosperity and cultural achievement in France.

Although forced to resign ultimately as an old man who had become out of touch, as indicated by the riots of 1968, De Gaulle often proved quite insightful: he foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism, the folly of the American involvement in the Vietnam War which could not be won, ironically even prophesied for the Common Market that “if England enters into the Community, it will collapse because England will divide us”.

Clearly intended to be a major academic work, this requires a significant investment of time. At more than 800 pages, including notes and bibliography, it is too thick and cumbersome to read comfortably in paper format. I found the Kindle version more convenient, with the downside of it being much harder to flick back quickly to check on a point. The sheer number of names of politicians or acronyms of organisations and parties often becomes too much to absorb. Yet it definitely extended my knowledge and understanding considerably – probably one of the best books I have made the effort to read.

“Untangling the fateful web” – The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan

This is my review of “The Fall of the Ottomans” by Eugene Rogan

The details of the Eastern Front during World War One are less well-known than the bitter battles in the trenches of France and Belgium, but are clearly important for an understanding not only of the fall of the long-established Ottomans and the later stages of the British Empire, but also of the formation of new Middle Eastern states which are the scene of so much instability and strife today.

This is one of those books which combines the forensic detail and analysis of an academic text with the anecdote and drama of a historical novel. Yet since the names of so many places and main players are unfamiliar to most readers and hard to keep in mind, it would have benefitted from more maps to show place-names and lines of attack for specific conflicts, with a time-line to summarise key events, and a “glossary” of the key people involved.

As a general reader, I reached saturation point with the logistics of the various battles, progressing from the icy winters of the Caucasus, through the exposed coastlines of the Dardanelles to the deserts of Mesopotamia and the Sinai peninsula, but no doubt the long-suffering soldiers, mainly colonials in the case of the British side, felt very much the same. Patterns emerge in all this, such as the courage, resilience and loyalty of troops in general, and the tendency for both the Turks and the British to suffer defeats through trying to fight on too many, or over-extended fronts, with inadequate troops and resources.

It is fascinating realise that the Turks only formed the alliance with Germany which dragged them into a protracted war to protect themselves from Russian designs on their territories in the Caucasus mountains and the shipping lanes through to the Black Sea. The Turkish advantages of familiarity with the terrain in say, Gallipoli or east of the Red Sea, together with the strong incentive to retain control of Istanbul should have been increased by the fact that most of the local inhabitants in the areas of conflict were Muslims, as were the Indian troops who found themselves shipped to Arabia. However, tribal Arab leaders were often tempted to revolt by what proved to be the ambiguous, even duplicitous promises made by the British, as in the “Husayn-McMahon Correspondence”, rather less well-known than the fateful, at the time secret Sykes-Picot agreement which (to simplify) planned to share former Ottoman lands of present-day Syria and Iraq between France and Britain. Representing the infamous Lord Kitchener, McMahon pledged “support for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants”, but refused to discuss the crucial issue of boundaries, on the ground it would be premature during “the heat of war”.

The author makes frequent use of eye-witness accounts, for instance of an Armenian priest who survived against the odds to describe the horrors of a genocide due to prejudice brought to a head by the desire for revenge against suspected disloyalty in wartime, and ordered by high-ranking Turkish officials, some of whom were eventually sentenced to death for this crime.

As regards the lighter or more digestible anecdotes, we read how, after a chain of humiliating British defeats, the wily General Allenby ordered his men to construct life-size models of horses in wood and canvas, to mislead German pilots who were pioneering the use of aerial reconnaissance. When an Indian deserter “spilled the beans” about Allenby’s plan to breach Ottoman lines on the Mediterranean in a final crucial battle to gain Palestine, he was dismissed by the Germans (who were directing proceedings in the area) as a suspect source of deliberate misinformation. Anzac (Australian and New Zealand ) cavalrymen who had loyally endued hardships and defeats through the poor planning of their leaders and serious ongoing communication problems, defied the rules as regard leaving their precious horses for the local livestock markets or butchers, preferring to shoot the animals themselves before travelling home.

In the aftermath, the desire of the majority of Palestinian Arabs to be ruled as part of Faysal’s Arab kingdom, free from Zionist programmes of immigration, was ignored. Stripped of its former colonies, Turkey lost its Ottoman sultanate not at the insistence of its foreign victors, but through the uprising of the charismatic leader who became Ataturk (“father of the Turks”) who raised the revolt against the partition of Anatolia.

The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

This is my review of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

With the chilling downward spiral back into Cold War politics, it seems more vital than ever to understand why the Putin regime operates as it does and most Russians accept it.

This impressively clear and insightful analysis gains authenticity from the journalist author’s fluent grasp of Russian, his study of the country’s history, and time spent living and travelling widely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). He has sought a fresh perspective in his focus on “the ghosts of the past”, which in various ways cripple and distort the current state of society.

As a student, Shaun Walker saw first-hand the “poverty, widespread squalor and rampant exploitation” in Moscow a decade after the collapse of communism, which left many Russians feeling disoriented and rootless. In the vacuum created by the sudden break-up of the USSR, Putin was resolved not merely to stabilise the economy but to establish Russia in what he saw as its rightful place as a “first rank” global power.

Shaun Walker repeatedly returns to the “memory politics” which Putin has used to raise morale and forge a sense of unity: at the heart of this is the continued celebration of Russian victory in “saving the world from fascism” in World War Two, without any admission of Stalin’s tyranny, such as the mass deportation to remote labour camps of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Walker cites the headteacher in a rundown Irkutsk suburb where some families have had to cut back on food recently. “Patriotism is the most important thing” she declares, having reintroduced the old Soviet uniform for her pupils, to improve morale. The parents approve of Putin’s efforts to fight corruption, probably unaware of the extent of his own unreported wealth together with that of his cronies.

As suggested by these examples, Shaun Walker proceeds through a series of case studies mainly based on peripheral regions closer to Western Europe where there is more history and risk of uprisings: Georgia, the Ukraine and Chechnya. In the latter, generous investment for the reconstruction of places like Grozny combined with the desire for stability, have encouraged people to treat as “an inconvenient and ignored detail” the fact that their leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s father led Chechens to fight the Russians in the 1990s. Grozny’s central avenue has been renamed from “Victory Avenue” to “Putin Avenue”. The author writes of how Chechens “build walls around certain events in their lives, so that they can often only speak in half-memories and platitudes” and quotes Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways”.

We are shown how Putin’s attitudes have evolved. Initially wishing to be a respected and reliable ally of the west, even suggesting that Russia might join the EU or NATO, he began to feel cold-shouldered and threatened by western support for rebels in Georgia and Ukraine. This pushed him towards a kind of continuation of the old tsarist empire, supported by a mixture of renewed religious Orthodoxy, political autocracy with a “window-dressing” of democracy and pride in nationality. A “natural state of confrontation” with external powers has now “won the day” as illustrated by the annexation of the Crimea, justified by the need to “right the wrong” of Krushchev’s relinquishment to Ukraine of an area which was historically Russian until 1954.

There is passing reference to the distorted reporting of foreign affairs and failure to investigate and bring to convincing justice the murderers of journalists who threaten to “rock the boat” by probing the system too deeply, but this grim legacy of a ruthless authoritarian past is not explored in great depth. Although fascinating, the analysis seems incomplete in its neglect of other major relevant aspects, like Putin’s suppression of true democracy in the form of Alexei Navalny, a potentially major opponent denied from standing for election on what sound like bogus charges of embezzlement. The same applies to the implications of the suspicious death in custody of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, alleged moves to undermine western democracy by influencing elections, and renewed assertiveness in bombing Syria.To be fair, Putin’s recent vaunting of “new weaponry he claims will render NATO defences completely useless” and the bizarre poisoning of the Skripals in Britain came too late for this book.

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived Loved and Died in the 1940s – Less would be more

This is my review of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba.

Although much has been written about France under German occupation in the 1940s, “Les Parisiennes” takes a fresh angle on how women in particular were affected, describing the part they played in resistance, collaboration, or simply “getting on with life”.

The book is thoroughly researched with a six page “cast of characters” at the front, detailed notes on each chapter and an extensive bibliography at the end. However, I felt bludgeoned by the unrelenting spate of prose, since the basically chronological approach not only flits breathlessly between characters, but keeps digressing into a flood of often gossipy and gushing details or condensed potted biographies which seem of only marginal relevance.

Perhaps inevitably in view of the author’s interest in fashion, there is a clear preoccupation with the wealthy and glamorous who could afford to patronise the fashion houses which managed to flourish under Nazi rule. I suppose it is mildly interesting that gas mask holders were made into fashion items (but for how many women?) or that designer clothes had to be purchased under a “couture ration card” system with Balenciaga forced to close for exceeding the quota of seventy-five outfits (a year?) imposed to ration the amount of fabric used. It is made to sound like “a good thing” that of the 20,000 passes issued to attend fashion shows during the Occupation, only 200 were given to the wives of German officers, but weren’t the French women who attended to some extent collaborating? There is too much emphasis on people having a good time when for others basic food was in short supply and Jews were being dragged off by French police to the Vel d’Hiv (Vélodrome d’Hiver) en route for concentration camps. Also, can one really believe the example of so called “refugee-chic” in the tale of a woman fleeing from the fall of Paris who left her vehicle in search of petrol to remove the nail varnish which did not match the colour of her hat? Wouldn’t she have worried more about the smell and risk of catching fire?

The effect of this emphasis on celebrities and the privileged, is to trivialise events and create a sense of unease over being compromised oneself as a reader. In just one paragraph, we are told how “by the end of the forties”, the Marshall Plan had improved conditions, but not exactly how, except that a New Yorker journalist’s “Parisian friends had stopped griping about the black market (which they could presumably afford).. but are back to discussing passionately….the heady mysteries of La Grande Cuisine which, next to women, has always been their favourite topic of conversation”. The paragraph ends as follows. “Not only were the Parisians eating well again, but Wallis, Duchess of Windsor and her friends were buying jewels and couture clothes once more.”

If this book is best read by “dipping in and out”, there is the danger of missing some of the best passages, as in the chapter “Paris Returns” on the immediate aftermath of war, which actually includes some analysis, such as whether the death penalty was too harsh for the anti-semitic literary critic Brassilach (who gets very little mention elsewhere in the book, much less than Wallis Simpson). Simone De Beauvoir supported the punishment, perhaps swayed by De Gaulle’s view that “in literature as in everything, talent confers responsibility” but Anne Sebba points out with uncharacteristic tartness that De Beauvoir was also complicit, having claimed to be an anti-Nazi whilst eating well because her lover’s mother Jean-Paul Sartre took pains to obtain the best black-market foods. There is effective coverage on the practical problems of returning from the hell of the concentration camps and the guilt of those who came back alive: as a memoir recalled seventy years later, “”to survive it was necessary to destroy memory”. The author also considers the complicated relationship between the women who risked their lives in the resistance and were later rewarded as heroines, and those like the equally courageous Simone Veil who felt great bitterness over the lack of recognition of her suffering as a victim, deported to the camps.

Yet overall I was disappointed by the oppressive weight of excessive detail and too often superficial approach to a potentially fascinating subject matter – but the photographs are evocative.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

 

Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 : Victims of a “Control + Alt+ Delete” policy”

This is my review of Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black.

This is a timely explanation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the centenary year of the infamous glib Balfour Declaration in which the foreign secretary of what was then a major imperial power casually and irresponsibly promised the clearly irreconcilable goals of both establishing Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people and protecting from adverse resultant effects the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine and Jews living in any other country.

With chapters defined by time periods from the arrival of the first Jewish settlers fleeing Russian pogroms in 1882, Ian Black presents the facts systematically up to the impasse with continual outbursts of violence in 2017, with “much of the world” favouring an independent state for the Palestinian people “alongside a secure and recognised Israel”, the conundrum being that this can only be accepted widely within the 1967 borders all but erased by decades of “illegal” Israeli settlements.

Perhaps because journalist author Ian Black is now a university senior fellow, he has felt the need for an academic approach, presenting minute detail backed by sources. The book is therefore very informative and often gripping because the facts are so telling, but it is heavy going at times by reason of the plethora of Arab and Israeli names, organisations, and italicised terms. All this gives a strong sense of authenticity and objectivity, but I could have done with glossaries of the above, plus a time-line of key events for quick reference and a few more maps embedded at various points to clarify various incidents – particularly since the index is of limited use in “checking back” on points .

Black leaves it to the reader to form her or his own judgements. In the welter of detail, certain themes recur: the weakening effects of poor leadership, corruption and divisions within Palestinian resistance; Arafat’s Fatah versus the more militant Hamas, with the West Bank Palestinian Authority at times co-operating with the Israeli defence forces to track down Hamas terrorists, their fanaticism often fuelled from an upbringing in the grim Gaza Strip. Similarly, a lack of cohesion between neighbouring Arab countries has prevented an effective response to the iron determination of the Israelis to obtain their ends with ruthless risk-taking in hunting down proactive opponents. The vicious cycle of Israeli intrusive security checks and time-wasting controls on movement in the occupied territories and inexorable defiant construction of new settlements is the inevitable response to the acts of violence by a democratically-supported Hamas and Hizbullah.

It is unclear that the conflict could have been averted completely, but the so-called Great Powers were slow to grasp the problem, with France and Britain more concerned over carving up the Middle East, and a general lack of understanding and respect for Arab culture. Sympathy with the Jews or a sense of guilt over the Holocaust made it hard for influential powers to take a firm line with the Israelis assuming they wished to do so. Even Obama, who was probably the US President keenest to obtain more justice for the Palestinians, was unsuccessful in making progress, and in view of the outcome of recent intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq one has to ask whether military action to enforce a fair settlement would have made matters even worse.

Even an already well-informed reader will find something new of interest. I was shocked by the “Olympian disdain” or arrogance with which Balfour told Curzon that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad,…. is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. Although I was surprised by how little Black writes about the great wall of separation – up to thirty feet of concrete in height and often constructed to fit round new illegal settlements, I had not realised that many of the latter are accessed by new roads and tunnels for use by Israelis only, reinforced the growing situation of an apartheid between western-style modern settlements in West Bank territory, highly subsidised to increase their attractiveness, and the squalid and deprived Arab communities which few Israelis get to experience firsthand. The Gaza Strip is described as an “open-air prison” where ironically some welcome the recent Israeli siege as a “blessing in disguise” which has boosted a billion dollar annual trade ranging from looted rocket launchers to wedding dresses passing through tunnels from Eqypt – a “blockade-busting” lifeline which sustains the rule by Hamas.

I was struck by the argument that it may now be too late to achieve a two state solution, since Netanyahu’s laws, edicts and funding of new settlements, often cunningly clustered to fragment Palestinian territory or occupy the more fertile land needed for economic viability, have increased the reality of “one state for two peoples, first and second class”. Yet a single state presents many practical problems: not only would Israel lose its distinctiveness and raison d’être as the Jewish nation state, but high birthrates could lead to a clear Arab majority within two decades, with the risk of “endless civil war” over say, the distribution of land or the “right to return” for those on both sides. So, at the end of a fascinating read one is left with a sense of anger over injustice, and despair over future prospects.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee – “The man who looked like the sort of man who would vote for Attlee”

This is my review of Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee: Winner of the Orwell Prize by John Bew.

This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries, and overseas, the dismantling of the British Empire to be replaced by a Commonwealth, with India one of the first to gain an independence, sadly marred by bloodshed.

Clement Attlee was a man of contrasts. Public-school and Oxford educated, he traded a career in law for charity work with deprived boys in London’s East End, which led him to join the nascent Labour Party as a means of creating a fairer society. Mocked as an “invisible man”, likened to a rabbit or one of the “three blind mice”, even called “the Arch-Mediocrity” by the sharp-tongued Bevan, Attlee proved a courageous officer in the First World War, and quietly tenacious, chipped away patiently at problems in civilian life, prompting Churchill to describe him as a “lion-hearted limpet”. Although often painfully shy when thrust into the limelight, lacking in ego and refusing to promote himself so that a retirement speech and media interview on his life would be remembered mainly for their brevity, he was in fact at ease with himself, and so able to establish a rapport with both a mineworker’s union leader and King George VI. Ironically, the man who hated pomposity ended up accepting a hereditary earldom. Although it was feared he would be a liability in general elections, with his reedy voice and mechanical delivery of speeches, his authenticity proved popular with the general public, who liked his values, but not his continual reminders of the need to be “good citizens” and restrict consumption so that Britain could meet its obligations. Having been brought up to revere the British Empire, he was one of the first to call for the granting of Independence to India, and was keen to accept “Red China” as a legitimate power before America was prepared to do so. Despite his vision of achieving a lasting peace through an effective United Nations, with an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in the end he resorted to their development in order to protect the country against the threat of Communism. Very questionably, this was done covertly, to avert a violent outcry from the Labour left wing.

The history of the Labour movement which forms the background to this fascinating biography reminds us of how many of its current dilemmas are far from new. It is impossible to avoid making parallels with today as one reads about Attlee under attack from the left wing intellectuals in his party for his failure to attack the establishment, or criticised more widely for accepting huge loans from the US because of the crippling strings attached, or feeling obliged to enter into a costly war the country could not afford because of the need to show solidarity with the US over Korea. Likewise, there was his refusal to cooperate with west European states over the Schumann Plan to share coal and steel (forerunner of the EU) because he judged it incompatible with freedom to plan the UK economy. Another example was his inability to protect the Palestinians, as promised in the Balfour Agreement, because of a powerful US support for Jewish migration to the homeland of Israel.

With the current all-pervading media hype and obsession with celebrity, it would seem even less likely than before for such a man as Attlee to gain and retain power for so long. He may have been a Victorian at heart, puzzled by his grandchildren’s addiction to television, yet his unassuming dedication, based on a thoughtful vision of the world developed through years of observation, reading and reflection, still evokes admiration after half a century, and a regret that we do not have more politicians with his mix of altruistic vision, determination yet moderation.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

“Baltic Facades: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1945” (Contemporary Worlds) by Aldis Purs – Sad proof that style matters

This is my review of Baltic Facades: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1945 (Contemporary Worlds) by Aldis Purs.

I am sure this is a worthy study of recent historical, political and socio-economic events by a very knowledgeable author. The problem for me was that, apart from a degree of repetition and statement of the self-evident, the style is so turgid that I struggled to read it. I think the author may be writing in English as a second language in which case employment of a lively editor might have helped.

Since visiting the Baltic states has aroused my interest, I may make another attempt to read this later, since there seems to be a dearth of books on this subject.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars