Hooligans or Rebels? by Stephen Humphries

Standard

I rather like the idea of kids calling a school strike and spending the day hanging around outside Strangeways. Why did we never do that when I was at school?!  Seriously, school strikes were called for very good reasons  – in that particular case, calling for the abolition of the cane and for schools to pay monitors who were used as lackeys –   and this book, whilst it’s not very reader-friendly, makes some interesting points about how young people between 1889 and 1939 were nothing like as obedient to authority as the powers that be would have us believe.  There were school strikes across the country in some years, notably 1889 and 1911.  No-one tells you about that, do they?  And it certainly never happens in school stories!  And yet protests by schoolchildren can be incredibly important – look at what happened in America after the tragic shootings in Florida in March.

This book is hard going. It’s full of theories about behaviour.  Theories are fine in science or maths or economics, but not so great when talking about history or social science.  Whig history, Marxist history … if any of these theories actually worked, we’d be able to extrapolate what’s gone on in the past to predict exactly what’s gone on in the future.  Anyone confident that they can predict with reasonable accuracy how world events, or even just national events, are going to pan out over the next few years?  Also, the author is obsessed with trying to show that the middle-classes were trying to control the working-classes via the media of schools and youth organisations.  OK, he has a very good point, but he doesn’t seem to want to let the reader come to their own conclusions, so really he’s being just as controlling as the educational establishment he’s criticising was!  And it’s not very polite to keep referring to the people he interviewed for his work as “old people”!!

Still, the book makes some good points. It covers various aspects of the life and culture of working-class children in the UK between 1889 and 1939 – school, borstals/reformatories, youth organisations, legal and illegal work, and street gangs.   The chapter on street gangs was particularly interesting.  Or maybe that was just me finding it interesting because so much of it was about North Manchester 🙂 .  But it was the rewriting of history over school strikes that really struck me.

Every generation seems to take the view that When I Were A Lad/Lass we all behaved ourselves in school and we were scared of the teachers and scared of the police and didn’t dare defy our parents and all the rest of it, and The Youth Of Today are all totally undisciplined and so on and so forth.  But there is very much an idea that, however large class sizes may have been, and however bad conditions may have been, there was absolute discipline in schools.  Even though there can’t have been, because we’re always hearing about corporal punishment, and corporal punishment wouldn’t have been used if the kids had all been so well-behaved in the first place!

There is some mention of general skiving, but the strikes weren’t about trying to get out of work – they were about genuine grievances. Excessive use of corporal punishment was one.  Homework was another – not because of laziness, but because it was genuinely difficult for many children to work at home in the evenings, because of poor lighting and lack of space.  Schools were supposed to provide meals for children in cases of need, but that wasn’t always done, which was another source of grievance.  Sometimes a popular teacher had been sacked in order to save money, or there were plans to relocate the school to an inconvenient location.  In other cases, there was anger that the authorities were interfering with longstanding local traditions by trying to make children go to school during wakes weeks or on the days of local fairs  And some children genuinely found it a problem to attend school for such long hours, especially with the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 14 in 1918, because they had to take part-time jobs as their families needed the money.

There were school strikes in 62 areas of the UK in 1911. I’m just going through the list, and we’ve got five areas of Manchester, plus six other parts of the North West … and many of the other areas are in either other parts of Northern England and Scotland. And it all started in Llanelli, which was at the centre of a strike by coal miners and railway workers that year.   Other areas were involved, though, and the longest-running school strike was in Burston in Norfolk, where a separate Strike School was eventually set up, with support from trade unions, the Co-op and left-wing political groups.

And there certainly wasn’t just a “Wa-hay, no school today,” attitude. The strikes were properly organised, just as strikes by adults were.  Banners, committees, protests.  Boys and girls were all involved, and children from all different religious backgrounds were involved.

But no-one teaches you about this. Our school history curriculum certainly wasn’t about trying to impose any sort of Establishment view on children.  We learnt about the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the development of trade unionism, the Chartists, the suffragettes, the General Strike … it was quite radical, really.  But no-one mentioned school strikes.  We’re all supposed to think that children in the past respected, and were even afraid of, anyone in any sort of authority.  I’m not for a moment saying that they shouldn’t.  I feel incredibly sorry for teachers, when you hear about some of the abuse that goes on in schools.  But this wasn’t about a lack of respect for teachers – in some cases, it was in support of teachers.   It was about protesting against what was seen as unfair treatment.  And it was about children not being over-awed by The Authorities – not being seen and not heard, when they needed to be heard.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book, but Googling something like “1911 school strikes” or “1889 school strikes” does bring up some very interesting articles. Oh, and I do wish someone had put it in a school story.  We get plenty of midnight feasts and running away. And then, today as in the period covered by the book, we get people whingeing that children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are ignorant and delinquent and even dangerous.  But no-one wants to tell us about schoolchildren organising themselves, for legitimate reasons, and protesting against the authorities.  Now why could that be?!

 

 

Advertisements

Till the Boys Come Home by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Standard

The “War at Home” series has got better and better as it’s gone on.  This one – which includes a slight crossover with the much-missed Morland dynasty series – takes us up to the Armistice, making it clear to us as we go through 1918 that a German invasion was a very real possibility in the spring and that there seemed to be no end in sight even by late summer.  It was only in 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced, risking letting people go short of food apparently having been deemed preferable to interfering with market forces (too socialist!), and, with so many deaths, Russia pulling out of the war and the arrival of the first wave of the Spanish flu, things were looking pretty grim … and yet life went on, with moments of joy as well as sadness for most of the characters.

There are a lot more scenes actually at the Front than in the previous books.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers (in case anyone is actually reading my drivellings, and is also reading the books), but we get scenes with the Army, the Air Force, and with Laura Hunter driving an ambulance and running her hostel close to Ypres/Ieper.  However, it’s not a military book, and most of the action does still take place on the Home Front, with the Hunter family and their domestic staff.  We even get to attend a meeting with Lloyd George and Haig, at which the introduction of rationing is discussed.

The overall sense is of war weariness.  It’s not a gloomy book in any way, and it’s never less than entertaining, but the sense of war weariness is very well conveyed.  I quite understand about Liberal ideas of laissez-faire and all the rest of it, but it almost beggars belief that compulsory rationing wasn’t introduced until 1918.  Whilst food shortages here were obviously never as bad as they were in Russia, it’s incredibly impressive that people did put up with it.  We all know the jokes about the British forming orderly queues, but standing in orderly queues, knowing that there might be no food left by the time you got to the front of it, would have been no bloody joke.  And this was after more than three years of war, with no end in sight … and there can’t have been anyone, by early 1918, who hadn’t lost people who were important to them.  Even hearing of the death of someone you only vaguely knew, maybe even someone you didn’t like, must have been just beyond distressing.

The only people who don’t seem to be war weary are young lads, still hoping that the war isn’t going to end before they can get in on the action.  Meanwhile, men up to the age of 51 are being called up.

At home, it’s total war.  Most of the book’s set in the countryside, away from the air raids.  We don’t see anyone working in munitions factories.  The female domestic staff, and the older male domestic staff, are still in their old jobs.  Yet the sense of total war still comes across.  People look back at their lives before the war and feel that they were different people then.  That’s particularly so for the women of the better-off classes – to whom the war’s brought opportunities, as well as sorrow.  Unfortunately, some of the characters from the earlier books don’t really feature in this, so we don’t get to see how Audrey, the Hunters’ cousin, is going on in her managerial role in her father’s business, and we don’t get to see much of their cousins Jack and Beth either.  I suppose only so much could be fitted into one book, and it seemed better to concentrate on the core family and their servants.

There is a lot about the servants – but what there isn’t is any real sense of a change in the class system.  And we don’t really see the effect of the war on the working-classes: we hear about food shortages, and we’re told that the Spanish flu has killed many people in the poorer neighbourhoods, but we don’t actually see that, because the focus is on an upper-middle-class household.  That’s not a criticism, because the books are what they are and they do centre on this household, but it means that there are major aspects of the war at home which we don’t see.

On the other hand, the book shows aspects of the effect of the war which most Great War novels, or any war novels, don’t.  We get to see how a young man invalided out of the war at any early stage – David Hunter – copes with his injuries, and with his feelings of uselessness and helplessness.  We also get several romances involving older couples, which is unusual and rather nice.

A couple of minor points.  The Morland crossover is only that David is treated at the Southport Hospital, and we don’t actually get to see any of the Morlands again; but it was still nice to have that mention there.  And is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles a big Noel Streatfeild fan?  She talks about being “all over” things rather than “covered in” things, which is very Streatfeild, and Munt the gardener refers to elevenses as “beaver”!

I feel as I’m not saying very much, but I can’t say that much more without giving the game away.  Like the Morland dynasty books, nothing actually goes that deep.  The Kirov trilogy books, which IMHO are the best ones Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has ever written, go so much deeper!   Let’s say that there are births, and marriages, and deaths.  The book actually ends with a death.  It’s the death of a very minor character, but it says a lot that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles wanted to end that way, with a death at the Front on the very day of the Armistice, rather than with scenes of wild joy and rejoicing.  Yes, the war is over, but too many of the boys won’t be coming home.

I assume that this isn’t the end of the series, because a lot of loose ends have been left rather than tied up.  And I just keep thinking that the next one will inevitably involve the Spanish flu, and that that’s going to mean more deaths.  And I want to shout, no, please don’t kill off anyone else, I can’t take it.  That’s reading a book about fictional people.  How must it have been to have actually lived through that time?  Thankfully, we don’t know – but we can get quite a good sense of it, or at least of aspects of it, from these books.  At a time when the Great War is much in the news, they give you a lot to think about.

 

WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

Standard

This was horrible; but it said a lot about attitudes towards ordinary soldiers during the Great War, and also about attitudes in general towards mental health issues in men. It went into some detail about the story of a young man from Bolton who, having been found wandering about in an obvious state of severe trauma, was court martialled and shot at dawn.  Stories like that – and it was very sensitively presented by Dan Snow – aren’t unfamiliar, but they’re none the less distressing for that.

Jimmy Smith joined the Army in 1910, in his late teens. He was with the Lancashire Fusiliers during the famous “6 VCs before breakfast” assault on Gallipoli in 1915.  To mark the centenary of it, in 2015, there was an exhibition at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury: I went to see it.  Incredible bravery, but the extent of the fighting, the brutality of it, for 6 VCs to have been awarded for that one action, is almost beyond imagining.  And then, in 1916, he was at the Battle of the Somme.  He won a promotion, and good conduct awards: he was a brave soldier and a hero.  But then he was buried alive after a German artillery explosion.

He was rescued, and sent to a hospital back home in Bolton for treatment. As soon as he was deemed physically fit, he was ordered back to the front; but he wasn’t up to it.  He hid under the stairs at his family’s home and wouldn’t come out, but the Military Police came round and pretty much dragged him out.  Then he was transferred to the King’s Liverpool Regiment- the regiment with which my grandad enlisted during the Second World War – and sent to Ypres/Ieper.  He wasn’t well and he couldn’t cope, and he was disciplined for not obeying orders, and eventually he was found wandering about near the town of Poperinghe, a few miles away, court martialled, and sentenced to death.  They ordered his friends to shoot him.  The execution was botched, so that he was injured rather than killed: it seems likely that his friends did that on purpose, hoping he’d be taken to hospital.  No.  His best friend was forced to finish him off.

He was one of 306 men executed under similar circumstances. Pardons were issued in 2009, but that was hardly a lot of use to them, or to the grieving families and friends they left behind. shot at dawn?  I doubt it, somehow.

So what was going on? We know that mental health issues were not really understood at the time, and we also know that they were stigmatised.  People were shut away in asylums for years on end.  But shutting someone away in an asylum, however horrific, at least acknowledged that they were suffering from a medical condition, and that it was something that they couldn’t help and weren’t doing on purpose.  The attitude of the military authorities towards shell shock – and, yes, some people still hold this attitude today, with depression and anxiety related disorders – was that it was a weakness, and that was extrapolated to being a moral disorder, cowardice, a disgrace.

That talk of “good conduct awards” sounds like something out of a school story, and the whole attitude sounds, in some ways, like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was bad enough in a school situation, being applied to the horror and slaughter and … whatever words you use to describe the fighting in the Great War aren’t bad enough.  And yet, earlier in the war, attitudes had actually been more sympathetic.

From what the programme said, the symptoms associated with shell shock hadn’t been seen before. That seems strange, because there must always have been battlefield trauma, but maybe it was the technological advances that made the fighting in the Great War different to what had gone before that created different symptoms.  Or maybe it just got more attention because of the sheer numbers involved – around 250,000 men.  Doctors genuinely didn’t know what was going on, and at first thought that there had to be some sort of physical cause.

Eventually, in January 1916, psychiatric units were set up close to the front line. The idea was more to patch ’em up and send ’em back as quickly as possible, but I think that attitude, harsh as it seems, was understandable given the desperation of the situation.  At least it was acknowledged that people needed help.  The programme then explained that work was being done at home to try to improve psychiatric treatment.  One doctor, at the Maudsley Hospital in London, was trying to develop forms of pastoral care.  Another doctor, according to Dan, was a bit of a charlatan, claiming that he could cure people in an hour, and showing “before and after” film footage which clearly wasn’t what it claimed to be.

The second doctor having a local-sounding name, I decided to see what Google could tell me about him. He was actually born in Bradford, but he attended VIth form at the boys’ school which is the “brother school” to my old school.  Oh dear.  That was a bit awkward.  However, further investigation found out that he was a very highly-respected doctor, the founder of the British Society of Gastroenterology, and that many of his former psychiatric patients wrote to thank him for his help.  So I think Dan was a bit hard on him, really!   Anyway, there were two main points to this part of the programme, one being that treatment offered varied widely, and the other being that at least it was being acknowledged that these men were not cowards, or “deficient” in any way: they were ill.

Then attitudes hardened. It seems to have been largely a reaction to the number of shell shock cases.  There’s a scene in Blackadder Goes Forth (this wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but everyone was really into Blackadder in my teens, and I remember this scene well) in which Blackadder tries to get out of being sent “over the top” by pretending to be “mad”.  It doesn’t seem very funny now, because the authorities took the view that that was what was going on.  They seem to have viewed men suffering from shell shock along the lines of naughty boys trying to skive out of PE lessons.  What did I say about Tom Brown’s Schooldays?  A cap was put on the number of people allowed treatment, and 3,000 men were court martialled – of whom, as already mentioned, 306 were executed.  An inquiry held after the war said that shell shock was a “disgrace”.  The term was actually banned, and little help was given to men struggling to cope once the war was over.

The current take on the Great War is that we should be trying to move away from the idea of lions led by donkeys. But … bloody hell.  And what makes it worse is that attitudes actually had been getting better.  And then they got worse again.  It’s understandable that the authorities wanted people back in action as soon as possible, but the attitude, the callousness, when doctors had said that these men were not cowards, that they were ill.

How do you make sense of it? Desperate times call for desperate measures?  No – that doesn’t make sense.  If soldiers have got something wrong with them, you’d try to sort it.  It was the failure to accept that something was wrong, the insistence that it was cowardice, moral failure.  Part of me wants to say that it was some sort of male public school attitude, but I’ve heard plenty of people who are neither male nor the product of public schools sneer that people suffering from depression and anxiety are just looking for attention and need to pull themselves together.  And, as bad as it is for women, it’s worse for men, because of this whole “macho” thing, especially in a military environment.  So I don’t really know what to say – apart from a big thank you to Dan Snow for his very sensitive discussion of a very distressing subject, and one which many people don’t find it easy to talk about.

The programme didn’t end with the Great War. It went on to discuss the resurfacing of shell shock during the Second World War.  At the start of the Second World War, talk of shell shock was banned, and, despite everything that had happened during the First World War, the advice given was to slap “hysterical” men across the face or throw cold water over them.  Thankfully, that changed, and the number of psychiatrists attached to the Army was increased from 6 (6!  For the entire British Army!) to 300.  It was after the D-Day Landings that huge numbers of shell shock cases were seen.

That happened to my grandad: he had shell shock after the D-Day Landings and the fighting that followed. Dan spoke to a surviving veteran about his experiences, and to the son of Len Murray (the Secretary General of the TUC during the Winter of Discontent and the early Thatcher years) about his father’s experiences.  In both cases, the men’s lives had been permanently affected by what had happened to them, and neither had received much help.  I know Grandad did receive treatment, so maybe it was the luck of the draw, and it depended on whether or not you got a sympathetic doctor.  Certainly there wasn’t enough support, though.

The programme then went on to say that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was only officially diagnosed/recognised after the Vietnam War, and only recognised by the British military after the Falklands War. Excuse my medical ignorance, but I’d kind of thought that PTSD was an official name for shell shock.  Apparently not.  The symptoms aren’t the same: PTSD sufferers have flashbacks, which First and Second World War veterans suffering from shell shock didn’t.  Sir Simon Wessely, who’s done a lot of work in relation to PTSD (and also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), explained about it, and suggested that it might be a cultural thing connected to the frequent use of flashbacks in films about war.  I don’t pretend to understand how that would work, but it was certainly interesting to hear about.  Dan then spoke to a man who served in Afghanistan and, although the Army apparently knew that he was displaying symptoms of PTSD, was only officially diagnosed years later, by his GP.

It was pointed out that, whilst there’ve been improvements in psychiatric treatment for serving troops, the availability of treatment for those who are no longer in the Army is actually being reduced, to save money.  And, even when treatment’s given, it’s only really palliative.  A century after the Great War ended, we still don’t really know how to treat this.

None of this was easy to watch. Jimmy Smith’s story nearly had me in tears.  It had Dan Snow visibly distressed.  “The guy was a hero,” he said.  Yes.  He was.  And he was executed by his own side.  The programme was well-named.  “Shame” is the right word.

WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

Standard

This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

Hitler’s Holocaust Railways with Chris Tarrant – Channel 5

Standard

It’s a horrible irony that railways, once the ultimate symbol of human progress, were a sine qua non of the Nazi atrocities. Chris Tarrant’s said that he had nightmares after visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t, but it was certainly a very disturbing experience. When you’re there, you can see the railway lines which brought over a million people there from across Nazi-occupied Europe. Without the railways, it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to have carried out mass murder on the almost unimaginable scale that took place. This programme saw Chris, in a journey through Poland, the Czech Republic and Poland, explore various aspects of what the Nazis did, and the role that the railways played in that.

There are a lot of historical railway programmes around these days. Most of them have quite a romantic feel to them. This one was chilling. It was cleverly done, with a long railway journey taking in various different places and tied in with the timeline of events.  And it was good that it didn’t just focus on the death camps – because some Holocaust programmes do do that, and it’s important to remember that many people either died in ghettoes, because of the conditions there, or were killed close to their homes, whether at large scale killing sites like Babyn Yar or in woodlands near isolated villages.

The programme began in Nuremberg. I’ve been to various places in Germany and very much liked most of them – I have particular soft spots for Cologne/Koln and Oberammergau – but I did get the creeps a bit in Nuremberg, so I was interested to hear Chris say that he found it unsettling as well. The Nazis held annual rallies there from 1923 to 1938, the infamous Nuremberg Rallies. Thousands of people attended them – and they travelled there by train. Those huge propaganda events could not have taken place without the railways, and Chris visited the main station where people would have arrived, and followed their tracks along the local line taking them to the area, now a sports field, where the rallies were held. The Nazis had it all very well organised. Chris said that he wouldn’t like to be there after dark. I’m not surprised.

From there, he travelled on through the Sudetenland, talking about how the railways made it possible for the Nazis to get their troops to all the countries they invaded. Movement of troops by rail’s been important since the mid-19th century, so it’s hardly something specific to the Nazis, but it was still a valid point. He was openly critical of the Munich Agreement, but that’s another story.

On to Prague – and this was one part of the programme which showed how the railways had been used for good, as we heard about the wonderful work done by Doreen Warriner and Nicholas Winton in helping refugees to leave what was then Czechoslovakia. Chris spoke to an elderly Jewish lady who, aged 12, had come to Britain on the Kindertransport. It was very moving hearing about how the children had been separated from their parents – although this lady’s family had eventually been reunited, and had all survived – but at least some lives, around 10,000 in all, were saved.

He then met another elderly Jewish lady, who’d been in the ghetto/camp at … the programme referred to it by its Czech name, Terezin, but I’d’ve thought it was better known by its German name, Theresienstadt. She travelled with him on the train journey, and went round the remains of the camp with him. Again, it needs to be remembered that many victims of the Holocaust died at sites other than death camps: around 33,000 people died at Theresienstadt. This lady, who later became an artist, had drawn pictures depicting her time there. One thing she hadn’t drawn, but bravely spoke about, was seeing a group of young boys hanged because they’d tried to send letters to the women’s part of the camp, to tell their mothers than they were OK.

Thousands of people were deported by train to Theresienstadt – and then the railway line was extended right into the camp, to facilitate the deporting of people from the camp to mass execution sites further east, and then, as the plans for the Final Solution were put into practice, to Auschwitz.

The pictures of those overcrowded trains, from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, carrying people to the extermination camps, are very familiar. Chris, as he travelled on to Berlin, touched on the subject of complicity. How much did people know?   He visited the site, now a memorial, from which deportations from Berlin to the death camps took place. Those being deported were made to pay for their own transport. And he travelled on one of the railway lines along which those trains travelled. It’s a sort of heritage railway now. People go for nice days out on it, like we might go on the East Lancashire Railway or the North York Moors Railway. As he said, they’ve probably got no idea of its history.

Into Poland – and his first stop there was at Gniezno. It’s supposed to have been the first ever capital of Poland. During the war, the Nazis operated a huge railway building yard there. They forced 150,000 prisoners to work on the railways, something that’s not often mentioned.

As Chris said, additional trains were needed because of the invasion of the Soviet Union – but, infuriatingly, he kept referring to it as “Russia”. It is very, very annoying when people do that, and, given the number of people killed by the Nazis in Ukraine and Belarus, it’s particularly annoying when people do it when talking about the Second World War. Whilst I’m having a moan, he also completely mispronounced the name of his next stop, Lodz, over and over again. The researchers should have checked that. Gah!

And he didn’t mention that it was a textile city. Well, I would have done. I’ve seen the sites of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettoes, and those in Vilnius and Riga, but I haven’t been to Lodz … but it always strikes a particular chord with me because it was a textile city, and referred to “Polski Manchester”. Anyway. Like all the major ghettoes, it was close to a railway station: people were brought there from many other places. The sites were chosen largely for that reason. Had Auschwitz, Oswiecim, not been close to a major railway junction, it’d just be a quiet Polish town which most people would never have heard of.

He travelled through the site of the old ghetto on a local tram, and pointed out the former Gestapo HQ, now a pharmacy. OK, I suppose they have to use the buildings for something, but … imagine going into a shop and knowing that it used to be a Gestapo HQ. Ugh. Once there, he met up with 89-year-old Arek Hersh, from Leeds, who, as an 11-year-old boy, was forced by the Nazis to work on the railways, taking away the bodies of men who’d dropped dead from overwork and starvation, and had later escaped from the Lodz ghetto before ending up back there and being taken to Auschwitz. He accompanied Chris for most of the rest of the programme.

The programme showed the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. In addition to the many graves of people who’d died in the ghetto, there were plaques commemorating those who’d been killed at Chelmno. Confusingly, whilst Terezin is better known by its German name, Chelmno is usually referred to by its Polish name, but the programme used its German name, Kulmhof. Oh well, the name doesn’t really matter that much. It was a kind of stately home and surrounding estate, out in the forest, which the Nazis took over and turned into a death camp. People, mostly from Lodz, were brought by train to the nearest railway station, and then taken to the camp by lorry. And it was the experimental death camp. They had mobile death vans. They probably looked a bit like ice cream vans or delivery vans or mobile libraries or whatever, but people were locked into them and poison gas from the exhausts diverted inside. Another step towards the establishment of the gas chambers.

And from there to Auschwitz, where, as I said, you can still see the railway lines which brought all those people there, most of them to their deaths.   There’s no way that all those people, or the building materials and supplies used there, could have been taken there without the railways. It’s so horrible that the railways, the wonderful, romantic railways which enabled people and goods to travel far and wide, which we associate with everything from The Railway Children to Brief Encounter to Harry Potter, with all those lovely heritage railway lines which you can travel on, with the incredible scenic railway trips which you can go on in Switzerland or Canada or India or the Scottish Highlands or any one of umpteen other places, with those really famous trains like the Trans-Siberian Express and the Orient Express, were used like that.

Arek Hersh showed Chris around Auschwitz, so to speak, and explained what conditions there had been like. Then Chris went alone to see the gas chambers. It was a really lovely sunny day, without a cloud in the clear blue sky. It was like that the day I went to Auschwitz, as well. It felt all wrong, somehow, as if it should have been snowing.

Chris spoke movingly about six million people having been killed in the Holocaust. I don’t like to criticise on a point like this, and it is a very sensitive and difficult subject to address – but no. No-one really knows how many people were killed in the Holocaust, but some estimates put the number as high as seventeen million. Certainly at least eleven million. It’s a difficult area, and it’s something that has unfortunately been exploited by far right elements in Poland, who claim that the killing of non-Jewish Poles is overlooked. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Many people who were not Jewish were also murdered by the Nazis – Roma and Sinti people (many of whom were killed at Auschwitz or Chelmno), Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Serbs, and people from Germany and elsewhere because of their political or religious convictions, or because they were gay, or because they had physical or mental disabilities. I really don’t like to criticise on such a sensitive subject, but the programme could have made that clear.

Arek Hersh told Chris about how he’d been taken on one of the death marches, in the snow, with temperatures 25 degrees C below freezing, as Red Army approached and the Nazis evacuated the camp. He’d been moved from camp to camp – and then taken on one last railway journey, on a coal train, to Theresienstadt. He was liberated by the Soviets, and was one of the “Windermere Boys”, the 300 young Holocaust survivors brought Windermere to recuperate. Windermere, to where, from the 1840s, where trains have carried so many people from industrial parts of Northern England to spend some time in the most beautiful part of England. Most historical railway programmes are about romance and beauty. It sounds daft, when you think how mucky steam trains can be, but it’s true. This one was anything but.

It was very well put together, and it explained different aspects and different stages of the Nazi atrocities very clearly. Chris was obviously moved by what he saw, and it must have been difficult for the three people he spoke to to discuss their experiences, but it was done sensitively without ever being lecturing or over-emotive.  A good job done on a very difficult subject.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Standard

This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.

A Weaver’s Web by Chris Pearce

Standard

Oh dear. The author of this book thinks that Middleton Road is full of creeks, and that the population of Regency-era Manchester existed solely on potatoes and lived in fear of a Vulgaria-esque child catcher.  He also thinks that Methodist ministers are addressed as “Father”, Methodist chapels have stained glass windows and ornate altars, millowners are classed as aristocrats, and “well-bred” Georgian girls worked as housemaids.  And, yes, it is supposed to be a serious historical novel: he claims that he spent ages researching it!   The basic plot isn’t bad, and the section on Peterloo’s actually quite good, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many inaccuracies in a single book before.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

I don’t like being negative about things – I’m sure the author put a lot of work into this – but it was just cringeworthy. The language was all wrong, for a kick off.  I didn’t expect someone writing in the 21st century to sound like Georgette Heyer, but having characters in the early 19th century referring to their mate James Johnson as “Johnno”, or saying “You’re still in the 18th century.  It’s not a problem these days”, or talking about “citizens” (unless they’re in France!) was just plain silly.   Not to mention “wow” and “holler” and various other expressions that just did not belong in a book set in the 1810s.  Even the names were wrong: the name Albert wasn’t used in the UK before Queen Victoria’s marriage.  And no-one ever refers to Manchester as “the city”.  If you live locally, it’s “town”.  If you live a bit further out, it’s just “Manchester”.  OK?!

It’s a shame, because the general idea wasn’t bad at all. It started with a handloom weaver in Middleton, determined that he was going to remain working independently and not be forced into working in a factory.  Very interesting premise for a book, especially one incorporating the Peterloo Massacre.  Middleton was obviously chosen because of the connection with Samuel Bamford.  I’m still rather put out about the way Bamford was portrayed in the Peterloo film: he came across much better in this book.   However, the comments about eating nothing but potatoes, battling against the frequent gales (?) and hoping that the factory agents coming from “the city” would fall into a creek – on Middleton Road?! – were just bizarre.

Bringing in the growth of Methodism was a good idea, but surely anyone, however little interest they may have in religion, knows that Methodists do not have fancy church buildings and address their ministers as “Father”?!   Bringing in Hampden Clubs was also a good idea, but rather spoilt by the fact that our hero, one Henry, went off to spend all his money on prostitutes after the meeting, and convinced his family that he’d dropped the said money in a puddle … whereupon they all solemnly went off to search every puddle in Middleton for a pile of coins.  What??

One of Henry’s kids then ran away to “the city” to get a job in a factory, and, eventually, the rest of the family moved there too. There then followed various strange scenes involving some kind of child catcher – I can only think that the author had got the Industrial Revolution mixed up with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – who went around town trying to catch kids to work in factories, and chaining them up.  Meanwhile, our pal Henry, by dint of stealing and gambling, managed to set up his own factory, and thus became an aristocrat (the word “aristocracy” was frequently used to describe millowners).  The rags to riches storyline, again, was a good idea, but it was executed very poorly.  It also involved a gentlemen (i.e. millowners!) versus players cricket match.  That would have worked fine in a village setting, but not in the centre of a big industrial city!

However, things did not work out for Henry. Apparently this was supposed to remind the reader of The Grapes of Wrath.  One of his kids was transported to Australia.  He managed to arrange for him to be brought back, but was set upon by highwaymen on his way to Liverpool to meet him at the docks, and then it turned out that the kid wanted to stay in Australia.  This was a bit far-fetched, but it made more sense than the child-catcher and the creeks.  Then his wife, who couldn’t cope with having to socialise with all the “aristocrats”, was put in an asylum.  Again, good points about the harshness of the criminal justice system and the treatment of mental health problems; but it all got rather ridiculous.  The wife was eventually rescued from the asylum by one of the sons, who pretended that he wanted to hire one of the inmates as a prostitute and then hid his mum under his coat.  As you do.  And then a group of Luddites burned down the factory.

I can see how it could have worked really well.  A lot of the important issues of the time were brought into the story.  There was the idea of someone thinking they’d made it and then everything crumbling to bits.  And the section about Peterloo, which was the reason I read the book in the first place, really did work fairly well.  But so much of it was just utter twaddle.  It was self-published because a load of publishers turned it down.  The author claims that he can’t understand why it was turned down.  Oh, to be that confident!

I don’t like being overly critical of someone else’s work, but I paid good money for this, and, to put it mildly, it really wasn’t worth it.   Oh well.  I suppose it gave me a few laughs!  But give this one a miss.