10/9/14

The Cold War


The Cold WarI was reminded by an article on Slate that the (to me) iconic film of the Cold War, Fail Safe, was released fifty years ago this week. And as the article records, more people remember the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove than the more chilling drama, Fail Safe. Perhaps they have forgotten it, as they have the Cold War itself.

Forgotten too are the tensions and the fears that pervaded that era; the threats of nuclear war. the suspicions and paranoia about Communism, the McCarthy hearings, the accusations and the innuendo. It seems as distance today as the era of Frederick the Great or Napoleon. For some people, anyway.

For a younger generation, the Cold War must seem as far from their world as my grandfather’s days in WWI seemed to me: a time of antiquated technology, of difference music, of style and fashion that seems so archaic. Watching the 1964 version of Fail Safe today must seem so dated, so antiquated. No tablets! No smart phones! No Facebook!

I came of age through the most tense, most confrontational years of the Cold War.

My first political memories are of the contentious “Kitchen debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon visited Moscow in July, 1959 and almost immediately got into a scrap with Khrushchev. There’s a photo of Nixon poking K in the chest, with K frowning. The two got into a heated argument at an exhibition of American kitchen appliances that was broadcast worldwide. It almost seemed the two would start WWIII right there.

Yet despite the apparent animosity generated during that visit, Khrushchev made his own tour of the US a few months later, in September. I recall the black-and-white images on TV of him and his wife, and President Eisenhower, riding around in the limo.

That visit is delightfully retold in Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top. As Carlson relates it, the event was a combination of surrealism, politics and Marx Brothers:

Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!

Khrushchev’s trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.

Fifty-five years ago, this past September 25, that tour. I still have a memory of it, a trifle hazy but still intact.*

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08/22/14

The Beginning of the End


Sixty years ago, the end began. It would take almost a full year for the Allies to batter the Third Reich into submission, but in the summer of 1944, the end was inevitable. All could see it. The combined might of the Allied armies was simply overpowering for whatever Germany had left to throw at it. But it was neither easy nor simple.

So why didn’t Germany sue for peace, cut its losses and surrender, rather than face the prospect of ruin and devastation? Why did Germany continue its reckless, inhumane pursuit of terror and repression – even accelerating the Final Solution in that final year – rather than accepting defeat? What compelled them to fight on?

Was it terror? Inertia? Ideology? Social peer pressure? Simple numbness? Why did Germany keep fighting a lost cause?

That’s the question Ian Kershaw tackles in his new book, The End (Penguin, 2011). The book arrived in a package today and I have read just the preface. The end of the war is a topic I’ve studied before.

I’ve read a lot of books about World War II, about the armies, about the battles, about the leaders and the politics in every nation. Few have attempted to explain why Germany remained defiant even as it was pounded into ruin; or explain the psychology of the ruled and their rulers. Most have made the story into a narrative of battles and politics that runs forward on the rails of chronology.

The book review in The Guardian notes:

The end of the Third Reich presents an enduring historical enigma. How can we explain the extraordinary cohesion of German society right up to the bitter end – the lack of rebellion or mutiny, the relatively low levels of desertion from the ranks of the army, and the tenacious hold of the National Socialist state over the lives of ordinary people until, very suddenly, it was all over? The most obvious explanation – that people really did believe in Him (a phrase from the reich brilliantly analysed at the time by Victor Klemperer) – raises a second puzzle: why, if German society remained basically Nazified, was there so little resistance to foreign occupation after “liberation”? These two riddles continue to preoccupy historians, and now Ian Kershaw, the doyen of English scholars of the Third Reich, seeks the answers.

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08/8/14

My Grandfathers’ War


WWIOne hundred years ago World War I began, a war that started as a clash in a tiny, almost unknown Balkan state and blossomed into a violent, gruesome war that spread across Europe, the Middle East and reached into Africa and Asia. Within a few years, tens of millions would be dead, the political face of the world changed and almost all of the great royal houses of Europe would be deposed and broken. An entire culture, a society of class and place, was overthrown.

The timeline of the origins of WWI is complex and, from this century of temporal distance, confusing and obscure. As Keven Drews wrote in the National Post,

It’s been 100 years since Europe’s major powers, and their colonies and dominions, went to war, but the passage of time has done little to settle the debate about who or what was responsible for the First World War.

Prof. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said some blame those who held political power at the time, and their divergent systems of government, while others insist it’s difficult to assign blame at the feet of any one culprit.

“If anybody goes looking for simple causes, they’re going to either be disappointed or they’re going to reduce the history so much that it won’t make sense anymore — 1914 was an unbelievably complicated world,” said Neiberg.

It began on June 28 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, in Sarajevo. That event – for political reasons few of us today know about or understand – was followed by a month of drum beating, armies mobilizing and nationalism being tightened to a high pitch throughout Europe. Alliances solidified between the powers. Tens of thousands of men enlisted in a nationalistic fervor.

War seemed glorious, exciting, patriotic.

A steamroller of events followed that shooting. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and on August 2, Germany invaded Luxembourg. On August 3, it declared war on France. A day later, the UK declared war on Germany, while the USA would stubbornly declare its neutrality (not declaring war on Germany until April, 1917 and on Austria-Hungary in December, 1917).

My grandfathers would both enlist in that hot blush of youthful patriotic passion; my mother’s father serving in Canada’s fledgling navy and my father’s father in the King’s Royal Rifles. Unlike so many of their friends and companions, they would survive, although not necessarily unscathed – the emotional impact must have been enormous.

The whole world changed in those few short years. A new world emerged, one we recognize as our early modern culture, but one that shed the skins of so many social structures that were left in the mud of the trenches.

Some say that was good; that what emerged was a better, stronger and more vibrant world. Colonialism and class were on the wane. Individualism, feminism, workers’ rights and a more open society were on the rise. So some good emerged from the rubble. But along the way, we gained terrorism, fascism, military dictatorships, communism, and a mannerless, self-centred culture.

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07/10/14

Lawrence in Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
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01/29/14

Reading Thucydides at last


BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

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05/1/13

Waterloo, 200 years later


The BattleThis June we will be a short two years from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo*. It is expected to be a large event, especially since the 100th anniversary was not celebrated because it fell in the middle of WWI. That gives us enough time to reconsider the battle and to read the histories and reports about it. Wouldn’t it be grand to stand on the field that day, 200 years later?

I have been reading about Napoleon’s campaigns and the events of his reign for many decades, since the early 1970s when I first read David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (a book still on my shelves). Dozens of books have been written on the battle, and continue to be written.

I played through many, many wargames of his battles and campaigns, but always for wargamers, Waterloo was a popular and often-played battle. I still have copies of the SPI “Napoleon’s Last Battles” quad game, but, sadly, no one with whom to play it.

As Wellington called it, it was a “near run thing.” The chances for either side to win were close, and if you play the entire three-day campaign in a wargame, starting with the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, you have many strategic opportunities to see how history might have changed, had another path been taken, or a different result developed in these earlier clashes.

Looking back, the battle has become the stuff of legend, with not a small amount of mythology mixed into the tale. It was a relatively literate era, and afterwards many accounts of the battle were written, first-hand and the analysts who followed later. Historians have argued over many points in the day, what effect they had, what mistakes were made, what happened and what might have happened.

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