March 16th, 2013

politics

Links I found interesting for 16-03-2013

buzz

March Books 2) Intrusion, by Ken MacLeod

As he whizzed along Camden’s back streets and canal banks and along the edge of Regent’s Park he sometimes glimpsed the whole scene as a vast, broken woodland, the forest of London. It was like when as a lad he’d seen from the hilltop how the landscape of Lewis wasn’t moor and field and bog with outcrops of rock, but a gnarly mass of rock with a thin overlay of peaty soil. The vision of the city as a forest uplifted him. It was almost utopian, and within it he felt the bike’s smooth engineered wooden frame and handlebars as an extension of himself.
A near-future Britain, where the state's control of ordinary citizen's lives, extrapolated from the surveillance state and the war on terror of today, has become appallingly intrusive, with the police perpetrating acts of torture on arbitrarily chosen citizens; and the Morrison family, mulling only minor disobedience over a matter of health care, find that they must flee to Scotland where the hereditary propensity to second sight seems to take on a more robust significance.

As ever with Ken MacLeod, it's intense and passionate, and given the society he has set up, the Morrisons' dilemmas feel very realistic. (Though I'm enough of an idealist to feel that the UK is in fact unlikely to slip too far towards vindictively nasty totalitarianism in the way depicted here.) My biggest problem with the book is that the two most interesting things in it happen off stage at the end - the revelation of the plan of the mysterious Naxals, who are a background presence throughout the book and don't make a direct appearance, and the epic years-long mission of Hugh Morrison's father, about which all we discover is that it happened and succeeded. So it's a little disappointing - a good read in general, but tantalising us with mind-blowing stuff happening elsewhere and elsewhen.
war

March Books 3) The Unfree French, by Richard Vinen


The first and simplest conclusion of this book is that life for most French people between 1940 and 1944 was miserable.

This is a terrifically well-researched and fluently written account of occupied France during the second world war. It is a subject where of which my previous knowledge could probably have fitted on the back of a postcard - collapse in 1940, Pétain and Laval, resistance, D-Day, don't take 'Allo! 'Allo! seriously. I had never considered the impact on France of the continuing imprisonment of the two million - two million! - soldiers captured in 1940, plus the hundreds of thousands more subsequently conscripted for forced labour in Germany even as the Nazi regime was collapsing. It was also interesting to learn about the internal ideological manœuvres of the Pétain regime, building a cult of personality as a replacement for actually exercising power and delivering services. And he reports humanely and fairly neutrally on the épuration, the retaliation by both state structures and people taking the law into their own hands, against collaborators after the Liberation.

Vinen also illustrates well a point that I often consider in my professional work - that people rarely know the full picture of what is going on, and definitely don't know the future; in the summer of 1940, it seemed entirely probable that the war might be over in a few months with a German victory; in 1944, we tend to remember Operation Overlord as the successful sweep from Normandy to Belgium that it became, forgetting that to those on the ground, the winner did not seem at all clear, and in any case pockets of Germans were left behind as the invasion swept past.

But much the most interesting parts of the book deal with the effect of the occupation on women, looking especially at those on the margins - those who fell in love with Germans, or became prostitutes, or were successful entrepreneurs in the black market, or found some other nonconformist means of survival in miserable circumstances; and they of course were most likely to be targeted in the épuration. He makes the point that we have very few first-person accounts from these sources; the odd iconic photograph which represents only one story of the many. All of it is fascinating, but some of those accounts are heart-breaking.
diplomacy

March Books 4) Berlin - A City Divided: Chronicles, by Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler

scan0001I am personally fascinated by Berlin, and by the Wall which I saw in 1986 - I took pictures, which must be in a box somewhere, of the Brandenburg Gate both from the same position as the Holzapfel family in the extract to the right and from the other side. This book, produced by the Federal Foundation for the Reassessment of the SED Dictatorship (ie the East German regime), tells very simply five stories of people affected by the Wall - the teenage student who flees west as it is being built in order to complete her exams; the nurse at the hospital beside the Wall treating casualties (and sometimes unable to); the government official who zooms across to freedom on a rainy night with his family; the amateur photographer who gets into trouble because of his fascination with the Wall; and another teenager who gets an unexpected 18th birthday present on 9 November 1989. All, we are told, are based as closely as possible on real stories (the contemporary newspaper article about the Holzapfel family's escape is reproduced).

The relativist in me is a little troubled by the one-sided presentation of the historical narrative. I guess that for someone my age or older, it's uncomfortably reminiscent of the hard-line Cold War rhetoric of the hawks of both sides, a division which was crystallised in Berlin. Also, my own personal experience is that one can usually resolve conflicts more effectively by trying to listen to and comprehend both sides; that was true in Northern Ireland, and in the conflicts I have worked on professionally.

But I suspect I am wrong to feel that. The East German dictatorship started life as a puppet regime, imposed by external force, and it maintained order for four decades by imprisoning its people in its own borders, before it collapsed almost accidentally; there was no residual conflict to resolve, just complete defeat. There are limits to the value of trying to understand the other fella's point of view, and this is probably one of those cases. I wasn't there myself, apart from a couple of hours one June day in 1986, and books like this can give one a much better feeling of what it was like to be there at the time; and even more, what it felt like to get away.