Monday, September 28, 2009

Heinrich Böll - And Where Were You, Adam?

Watching the average war film, playing the most popular "first person shooters" that are set in the Second World War, or even watching the History Channel, you could be forgiven for imagining that warfare was a constant piece of action.

The reality is of course, that war is more likely to be long periods of absolute boredom, punctuated by short periods of absolute terror.

This is the first of Heinrich Böll's novel that I've read. It is a incredibly short work, that took a while to get into. Partly because there isn't really a plot. The story is really about the collapse of an entire army, and how that affects various individuals. In this case, the army collapsing is the German one under the pressures of the Russian advance.

Some try to follow their orders, even when it is utterly impractical and suicidal. Perhaps they believe that the normality of life that they have experienced, occupying relative backwaters in Hungary and Romania will return. Others panic, or sit calmly waiting for the arrival of the enemy. Others desperately try to escape or find loved ones.

Heinrich Böll was in the German infantry, though he resisted joining for many years. He was in no way a supporter of Hitler, and his observations of army life would lead us to believe that many in the army weren't. The novel works as a sequence of "acts". We meet different characters who are linked by chance or accident, some survive some are killed. Some we don't know about. The Holocaust accounts for a number, a particularly horrific SS Captain, carrying out his orders to the end, finalyl kills the remaining Jews in his camp as he realises that they are really as human as he is.

There is a touching naivety to much of the stories. Many of the characters have no experience of the war, only to have it arrive out of the blue, bringing death and horror with it. The woman who runs a small guest house, who sees a army lorry once a month, does well after soldiers are billetted with her, only to see her dreams shattered in the face of the oncoming Russians.

In the end, we are left with the sheer pointlessness of many of the deaths in war. Innocents caught in the cross-fire, but a cross-fire that is the result of officers ordering shots and troops pulling triggers. Written in the aftermath of the German defeat, by a German soldier, this is nothing but an argument against future wars. How little we seem to have learnt.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Robert O. Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism

With the BNP getting two members elected to the European Parliament in Britain and various other Fascist organisations doing well in countries as diverse as Hungary, Austria and France, there is a great importance in analysing and understanding these movements in order to prevent the recurrence of what Victor Serge called "The Midnight of the Century".

Robert Paxton's work is a well researched, readable and excellent introduction to the debates around Fascism. His explicit reason for doing this, is to understand Fascism, so that it can be stopped.

It needs to be made clear right at the start of this review, that while Paxton clearly doesn't describe himself as a Marxist, many of his arguments and positions share similarities with the analysis that Marxists like Leon Trotsky developed.

Paxton does not believe that Fascism is simply a more virulent strand of racism. Nor does he think it is a more violent right-wing movement than others. Paxton understands that Fascism comes at an explicit time in history and has an explicit historical role.
Although precursors [of Fascism] can be identified before 1914.... adequate space was not available for fascism until after World War 1 and the Bolshevik Revolution. Fascist movements could first reach full development only in the out wash from those two tidal waves.
For Paxton, Fascism has a clear purpose, it is "a mass movement directed against the Left".

The strength of the Fascist's ability to destroy the organisations of the left and the working class rely on their ability to mobilise large numbers of people. Paxton argues then, that Fascism also requires "mass politics". He develops his theory of Fascism in much the same way that Trotsky does. In various countries, at various moments, the ruling class see Fascists as the only organisations powerful enough to protect their system from threats to it's integrity - revolution for instance. This is particularly obvious with Germany and Italy were powerful working class movements threatened capitalism, or at least the ability of capitalists to exploit workers as they wanted.

Having said this, the author doesn't believe that Fascism was somehow automatic, "there was nothing inevitable about the arrival of either Mussolini and Hitler in office".

The economic and political crises of the 1920s and 1930s didn't only impact Germany and Italy in those decades, they hit the whole world. So why was Fascism successful in Italy and then Germany, but not say, in Britain, where groups like Moseley's BUF were getting significant support?

There are a number of reasons for this. In some countries the ruling class managed to rescue capitalism and undermine working class resistance without resorting to the armed thugs of Fascist organisations. In other countries, the Fascists failed, for various subjective reasons, to be able to portray themselves as viable. In some countries, the Fascists were defeated.

Here I think that Paxton under-values the way that in some countries Fascists were physically defeated. The battle of Cable Street in 1936 stopped the BUF in its tracks, breaking its ability to take to the streets to attack Jews and Communists. Yet this gets only a single mention in the book with no analysis of the decline of the BUF afterwards. Similarly in France a mass united anti-fascist movement confronted and broke the French fascist organisations in 1934. Again, barely a mention of these mass movements.

Similarly, in more recent times, Paxton fails to mention the success of (say) the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in stopping the National Front in Britain in the 1970s. Or even, the huge protests against Le Pen and Haider that have taken place at various points. Again, by ignoring this opposition, we are left with the image of unstoppable movements in Europe with no obvious explanation as to why there isn't a linear rise of the right. This is not to say that every anti-fascist movement has been successful, but it is important to acknowledge that in every country, the majority of people are opposed to the Fascists.

Additionally, by not mentioning anti-fascist movements Paxton overplays the importance of specific conditions in countries to make or break fascism at an early stage. He is in danger then, or getting to a situation where he might argue that nothing can be done. Recent history in Britain, has shown that it is possible for anti-fascist mobilisations to serious set-back fascists on the streets.

However this is a criticism of this book that is very much in a spirit of dialogue. Paxton's explanation of the nature of Fascism, his historical examples of Fascism in action and his description of how Fascism worked in power are extremely interesting and useful.

For anyone concerned about the far-right today, this is a very important book. But reading it is only one stage of stopping a repeat of the Holocaust. Getting out and being part of confronting, arguing against and stopping Fascists today is the next stage. Go here for more information on how to do that.

Related Reviews

Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Wendling - Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House
Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red
Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Joe Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World, Rubber, Empire and the obsessions of Henry Wickham

Imagine a world without rubber. Cars would have to run on wooden tires. Engines would leak oil and petrol through badly fitting pipes. Electrical lights would rely on power that came through live wires. Undersea communications cables would be impossible without the insulation and contraception would be a lot more risky.

In the later part of the 19th and early 20th century, countries across the world started to realise that rubber, which came from a variety of different trees, dispersed across the rain forests of Southern America was a vital economic resource. As the decades progressed, the development of the automobile industry as well as the vehicles for the modern military machine made rubber a strategic resource worth millions of pounds a year.

The vast majority of the world's rubber came from Brazil. The trees didn't grow in plantations, they were isolated within the almost impenetrable forests. When seeds were removed from the trees, they tended to go rancid before they could be planted in other countries. This natural monopoly of rubber allowed an economic boom for some planters in South America. By the early parts of the 1900s, the city Manaus min Amazonia was a town to rival some of the great capitals of the world. Trams threaded through streets carved from the rain forests, the world's great singers and dancers risked malaria to perform in the giant Opera house and fortunes were being made.

It also was a major headache for the heads of industry in countries like Britain and America.

The British Empire had always believed that the natural world was something to be exploited in its own interests. Kew Gardens was redesigned as a place to examine and exploit the fauna of the world. Explorers and adventurers brought thousands of seedlings to the institute so that they could be examined for possible benefits to the Empire. Kew's first great success was getting Quinine out of South America, making the British conquest of India and Africa easier in the face of malaria.

Suddenly though, the Empire was reliant on another nation. Brazil was rapidly developing as a powerful nation in South America. Kew was the instrument which British capitalism needed to get it's own source of rubber. A variety of adventurers were sent on the long trek to South America to source seeds of the rubber tree. It's at this point that Henry Wickham enters the scene.

Up until he was called upon by the Empire, Wickham was a fairly insignificant figure. Born into a humble family that had had a rich past, he was determined to make his fortune. His life is marked out more by the failed enterprises he set up in countries from Amazonia to Australia than his successes. On the spot in South America, with knowledge of the rubber tree and its life cycle, he was able, in 1876 to get tens of thousands of rubber seeds back to Kew. These formed the basis of the rubber plantations in the Malay Peninsula which would eventually undermine the Brazilian source. Leading to the collapse of places like Manuas.

That's one side of the story. The tale of how capitalism and the British Empire could exploit and rob other nations and the natural world to fulfill its own interest. But this excellent biography has a second fascinating tale. It is the story of how individuals like Henry Wickham buy into the dream of Empire for personal glory, welath and international fame.

Wickham became famous long after his triumph in stealing the seeds. He was, like so many civil servants merely a tool, forgotten by the bureaucracy after he had ceased to be useful. His advice on the planting of the rubber trees was ignored. His letters to the people at the head of Kew Gardens go from triumph to pleading as he is forgotten. When he receives a letter asking him to secure some seeds his personality changes overnight. From failed rubber plantation owner to servant of the Empire in a matter of moments. He doesn't realise that Kew has many others trying to do the same - that he is merely a name on a list. He now becomes prepared to sacrifice everything for the Empire.

Having dragged his extended family to South America he leaves those still alive to suffer and escapes to London as soon as he can. Then with his reward in hand he drags his long suffering wife on another fruitless attempt to settle in Australia. Failure after failure follow him. His wife, unusually perhaps for those Victorian times, leaves him. A letter he writes personally to Queen Victoria asking for recognition for his services leads to him being publically deserted by the Empire he had risked everything for.

Henry Wickham's story is a fascinating one. He is one of those who gave everything in the service of the British Empire. He doesn't sacrifice everything, unlike the tribesmen who are tortured and killed in order to produce the rubber for the car industry. He doesn't loose his life as so many other did in the attempt to rebuild the world in the British image. But the image of him, tired and lonely at the end of his life, reliant on money from the American rubber industry speaks volumes for the way Empires exploit the world and their own people.

Related Reviews

Goodman - The Devil and Mr. Casement