Monday, November 25, 2013

Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer - Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying

The discovery of forgotten transcripts of the conversations of German POW's in the Second World War, is a remarkable opportunity for scholars of the period to try and better understand the motives and ideas of Germany's combat troops. This accessible book gives the reader an insight into much of the material, from ordinary soldiers to Generals, Sailors and Aircrew, to members of the SS. It also enables the authors to discuss some of the age old questions concerning the Nazi regime. To what extent did the Germany Army know about the Holocaust? Why did they fight on and on, when defeat was inevitable? To what extent were ordinary soldiers committed Nazis?

While understanding that the authors have had to pick and choose from among vast quantities of data, often to illustrate a specific point, readers will still be shocked by much of the contents of the conversations. Allied forces didn't transcribe everything the POWs said, concentrating on material that would have helped the war aims, or possibly be used in post-war war crimes trials. So among all the debates on military strategy, or the oneupmanship by soldiers discussing their personal role, we find that knowledge of war crimes among the Wehrmacht was remarkably common. Partly this was based on personal experience. One solider, identified  describes an event he witnessed in Poland.

"I wanted to take some photographs... and I knew an SS-leader there quite well and I was talking to him about this and that when he said 'Would you like to photograph a shooting?' I said, 'No the very idea is repugnant to me', 'Well I mean, it makes no different to us, they are always shot in the morning, but if you like we still have some and we can shoot them in the afternoon sometime.'"

The authors comment that;

"Regardless of whether individual soldiers found those acts right or wrong or simply surreal, the Holocaust was not a central part of their world in the way it has been ascribed to them.... Knowledge that mass murders were taking place was widespread. It could hardly have been otherwise. But what did that knowledge have to do with the world of war the soldiers were charged with?"

There is some truth in this. From the transcripts it is clear that soldiers often saw the mass killings as something that involved others, and as the quote above suggests, found it morally repugnant, it was something that was linked to the war they were part of. However I think it is wrong to conclude as the authors do, that this makes the actions of German troops in World War Two identical to other soldiers "just doing their job" in other conflicts. True there are similarities. One description of the destruction of an entire Russian village in order to kill some partisans, with the use of grenades to burn homes down, reads eerily like depictions of US troops actions in Vietnam.

The particularly extreme violence of the Eastern Front, with its backdrop of racist ideology, the struggle for "living space" and eight years of Nazi rule back home created an atmosphere were mass murder, violence and the murder of prisoners could become common place. There are of course similarities to massacres and executions in other conflicts, as well as by other forces (Allied included) in the Second World War. But it is noticeable, for instance, that in Vietnam, the conflict that the authors draw most parallels, large numbers of American GIs refused to fight, and engaged in open rebellion. That was not a feature of German forces in World War Two.

There is much in here for those trying to understand World War Two. Much of it is difficult. The chapter on sexual violence and mass rape, and the attitudes of some soldiers to female Jews is particularly difficult. As are the accounts of the murder of civilians. Not all of these can be blamed simply on the dehumanising, brutalising reality of war. Its noticeable, for instance, that one airman who celebrates the bombing and machine gunning of refugees is describing his actions on day three of the conflict.

While finding the book fascinating, I was not always convinced by the over-view offered by the authors, but I do recommend the book for those trying to understand both World War Two and the particular nature of Fascism.

Related Reviews

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Brian Manning - Aristocrats, Plebeians & Revolution in England 1640-1660

The English Civil War is a contested period of history. For many, it was simply a falling out amongst the English ruling classes, for others a religious conflict. But most agree that the Civil War was not a class struggle, let alone a Revolutionary period. Brian Manning argues against this. His book, is a short but detailed examination of the different social forces active in the early to mid 17th century and the class struggles at the heart of the English Civil War. It was a contradictory period at times. The lines of conflict didn't simply break down into rich on one side and poor on the other, as Manning points out:

"The parliamentarian party was suffused with anti-aristocratic feelings even through it was led by aristocrats, and indeed partly against their leadership. These feelings distinguished those of the 'middle sort' who became  parliamentarians from those who remained neutral or joined the royalists."

Manning understands however that as the English Civil War unfolded, ideas were transformed. Those in the Royalist party were trying to protect the status quo, those opposing them were fighting for a different sort of society, but what that society would be, was open to interpretation. Much of this interpretation took place through religious ideas. The "Bible provided most of the idioms and images by which people tried to understand the world in which they lived" and "the most accessible materials for constructing an alternative world-view".

On both sides, Manning argued, popular movements developed in support. But these ideas developed and were shaped by all sorts of factors. "Class antagonism between 'the people' and the aristocracy surfaced in certain areas, especially clothmaking regions, but by no means everywhere." But the process by which the Civil War takes on a class nature rests on the middle sort of people. The middle sort where based "in the class of independent small producers", some of whom "were rising into capitalist employers and others were declining into wage-earning employees".

Thus the Civil War takes on a revolutionary form as the expression of the struggle for different class interests. Those who began the struggle against the King started by demanding restrictions on his ability to raise and spend money, as well as some say in the use of the country's wealth. They ended up changing the structure of society to make it easier for their classes to operate.

It is too simple to see the struggle as the masses against the rich. Manning's emphasis on the revolutionary role of the army, which "in order to become a fully revolutionary force... needed an ideology, [offered] by the Levellers" is important. But this wasn't revolution for those at the very bottom of society. Struggles against enclosures, the reclaiming of land and the redistribution of common land were opposed by both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Indeed the "unfinished revolution" which failed to completely transform English society meant that after the Civil War had ended, "the mass of the population still consisted of peasants and most of them were not radicalised by the revolution."

Manning explains that this might not have been the case:
Had radicals given leadership directly in the localities to discontented peasants it is possible that a revolutionary agrarian movement might have developed and destroyed the economic power of the aristocracy. 
But the few peasant movements that did arise tended to do so against both sides to protect their resources from the marauding armies.

Brian Manning's book is an excellent introduction to the class nature of the struggles of the English Civil War. It highlights that the war was more than a military conflict, it was one that had its roots in the changing nature of English society - the emergence of capitalism in the face of the old feudal order. It's detailed analysis of the class nature of the two opposing parties, their political and economic interests, as well as the role of the church is one that all students of the English Revolution must read, even if they don't accept it.

Related Reviews

Purkiss - The English Civil War: A People's History
Manning - The Far Left in the English Revolution: 1640 - 1660
Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution

Monday, November 18, 2013

Madge Dresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol

Recently I took part in a demonstration in Liverpool organised by the trade union movement. It as organised by Unite, and was a protest against fascism. Over the years I've been on any number of anti-racist protests that have been put on, or supported by trade unions. In fact, it's probably true, that if an anti-racist group in Britain wanted to find support for a campaign, protest or event, they would approach the union movement and almost guarantee a sympathetic hearing.

This hasn't always been the case. In fact, it took years of campaigning by union members to make the trade union movement into the anti-racist force that it is today. One small part of that struggle was the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. The campaign is brilliantly recounted in this pamphlet by Madge Dresser, originally published in the 1980s and republished now for the 50th anniversary.

In the post-war years Bristol had been a destination for many West Indian immigrants. As one participant points out, that was entirely fair, given that Bristol historically had grown wealthy on the slave trade. These immigrants experienced many forms of racism, from being bared from accommodation, to physical violence, or prevented entering particular venues. Specifically, they were also prevented as working as crews on Bristol's extensive bus fleet. Even in times of labour shortages, highly skilled and employable workers were blocked from taking these jobs. The bar seems to have been implemented by the company because sections of the white bus crews had voted in their TGWU branch to strike if non-white labour was taken on.

Inspired by the bus boycotts of the US Civil Rights movement, the local population, supported by friendly MPs such as a young Tony Benn and the cricket star turned politician, Learie Constantine, organised a boycott. Black and white people supported them, the local newspapers were filled with letters for and against the boycott and students marched in protest. Eventually the company gave in and took on its first non-white conductor, a Sikh, closely followed by several Afro-Caribbean workers. The battle against racism on the buses wasn't over, but a major stride forward had been taken. Madge Dresser takes up the question of whether the bus workers were simply trying to protect their jobs, or were they racist. The TGWU denied later that the union had supported the boycott, but there are a number of quotes here showing that many of the white workers did accept racist ideas. This was not surprising in the context of anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians in the early 1960s.

The re-issue of this pamphlet couldn't come at a more important time. The struggles of the past can inspire and educate us, but they can also teach us that we shouldn't take anything for granted. Given today's virulent racism towards sections of the population from politicians and the media, we cannot assume that working class organisations will remain immune to this. But we can always remember that united anti-racist struggle can knock back racist ideas and break the hold of racism.

The Bristol Bus Boycott could easily become a forgotten part of the struggle for equality in Britain. Luckily Bookmarks Publications, along with a number of Bristol trade unions and anti-racist groups have republished this pamphlet, together with a new introduction by the author and some interesting contemporary pictures. It is a classic piece of social history and deserves to be widely read.

An anniversary meeting took place recently. Afterwards several of the organisers of the boycott spoke to Socialist Worker. You can read the fascinating interviews here.

Related Reviews

Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Richardson - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight against Racism
Younge - The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Richard Holmes - The Age of Wonder

The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th saw an explosion in scientific and technological development. It is during this period that the foundation for modern science was laid.

Richard Holmes' book is an extraordinarily enjoyable and informative exploration of this time. He tells the story of the "Age of Wonder" through the interlocking lives of several great scientists. Framing the story is the life of Joseph Banks, who in 1796 arrived in Tahiti, a young biologist setting out to explore those "utopian" islands. What Banks found there, apart from the love and passions of a young man, helped put start him on a lifetime of encouraging exploration and science wherever he could.

Banks was one of the most important presidents of the Royal Society. During his time, he encouraged many young scientists, finding funding, introducing them to each other and sharing knowledge, expertise and on occasion equipment. Through Banks, we are introduced to many of the other great scientists of the time. Humphry Davy who radically transformed safety in coalmines and made many discoveries in the fields of chemistry and physics. William and Caroline Herschel who transformed astronomy, not simply through their discoveries, but also through their methods of systematic observation, their invention and manufacture of new equipment and their scientific theories. Holmes also tells us about the technological "fads" that followed on the back of new discoveries - the first balloon flyers and the sudden thirst for African exploration.

But this is more than the story of inventions and scientific endeavor. Holmes interweaves the stories of these scientists with changing cultural and social ideas. Here, for instance, he shows how William Hershel's "nebulae hypothesis" for the formation of stars, was developed further by Pierre Laplace. Laplace extended this hypothesis to the formation of the solar system in a 1799 book.

"In effect he reasoned that the sun had slowly condensed out of a nebulous cloud of stardust, and then spun off our entire planetary system, just as in a thousand other star systems. THere was no special act of Creation. In this way he was able to give a purely materialist account of the creation of the earth, the moon and all the planets. No divine intervention or Genesis was required, nor was it visible anywhere else in the universe."

Science was challenging some of society's most fundamental ideas. Sometimes the scientific revolution was allied with, or came close to political revolution. Humphry Davy told an audience at one of his amazingly popular lectures, after demonstrating primitive electrical experiments, that they witnessing;

"a new influence... which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only animal organs".

This was revolutionary science, but Davy stopped short of political revolutionary conclusions;

"The guardians of civilization and of refinement, the most powerful and respected members of society, are daily growing more attentive to the realities of life, and, giving up many of the unnecessary enjoyments in consequence of the desire to be useful, are becoming the friends and protectors of the labouring part of the community."

Despite his revolutionary science, Davy wanted no significant change from the status quo, "the unequal division of property and of labour...are the sources of power in civilized life, and its moving causes, and even its very soul". Not for the Royal Society would their be any taste of the French Revolution, for this was a period when science was being bent towards the pursuit of industry, and if the scientists thought that would bring a better and more rational society, that that was good. Davy's lamp undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of miners across Europe. It also helped the mine owners continue to exploit their workers in the most appalling of conditions.

But this is not a just a tale of science and industry. The book is littered with quotations from poets and authors. Davy's enthusiasm for electricity, helped inspire Mary Shelley to write her most famous novel. But other scientists, like Herschel, inspired the other Shelley. In Prometheus Unbound, Shelley explores "Herschel's new cosmology and Davy's chemistry";

Then see those million worlds which burn and roll
Around us; their inhabitants beheld
My sphere'ed light wane in wide heaven

There is much in this wonderful book to inspire further thought and reading. I was particularly struck by the brother and sister astronomers, William and Caroline Herschel. The later became the first woman paid to study science, their lives are fascinating and their discoveries immense. I hope to read more, particularly about Caroline who had to struggle against her own upbringing, as well as a society that didn't take kindly to women playing male roles.

If I have one criticism, it is that Richard Holmes doesn't locate the changing scientific world more clearly in a changing economic and social world. Capitalism was spreading rapidly through the world as demonstrated by the chapter on African exploration. It needed science and technology to further the accumulation of capital, to both understand the world, and tame it. The explosion of scientific and technological development in the period covered by this book has its roots in the scientific revolution that began with Newton and the early scientists. But a maturer capitalism needed a more systematic and professional science that could solve its technological problems and help the bosses make more money.

Nonetheless, this is a minor absence in a book that deserves to be widely read, by those who are interested in the biography and history of early scientists, as well as those trying to understand the origins of the modern world. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

 Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Christian Wolmar - Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World

Christian Wolmar is an unashamed railway enthusiast. He's a partisan of the idea that railways should be an absolutely central part of a cleaner, more efficient, better future. And in an era of increasing oil prices, climate change and congestion blighting our cities, who can blame him.

This recent book is an attempt at a social history of the railways. Because it covers some of the ground that his earlier works have, it is patchy in places. For instance he glosses over the early years of the British railroads, while dwelling on the influence that Britain had, through its colonial interests, in the growth of railway systems on every continent. Wolmar says this is not a book for "rivet counters", but a book aimed at the general reader who has an interest in world history, transport and wider social development. Does it work?

There is no doubt that Wolmar crams a lot in. The sheer scale of his story means that much of it passes in the form of anecdotes that leave the reader wanting more. Why did the first Italian railway offer discounts to ladies who didn't wear hats, for instance? On a grander scale Wolmar praises the role of the railways in developing industry and a more modern economy. They were the "most important invention of the second millennium" he argues, that brought the

"Industrial Revolution from a few hot spots to large parts of the world. They were a democratizing force too, allowing people to travel in an unprecedented way, opening up their eyes to the world... relieved many of tedious and hard labour, and spread economic development everywhere."

Taken on its own, this would seem a naive view. But Wolmar is a good enough historian to understand that there are also negatives. The railways contributed to "environmental degradation" (though arguably less than the motor vehicle ever has) and were used to "put down rebellions and wage war" as well as helping make the Holocaust possible.

The problem for me though, is the importance of the railways to human history, cannot be reduced to a simple balance sheet of pros and cons. One has to understand them within the context of wider social systems. In particular, the need for capitalism to make profits and the existence of class divisions in society. Wolmar gets some of this, telling the reader sad stories of class divisions of Indian railways at the time of the British Empire for instance. But this is not enough.

Railways played a particular role in the early development of industrial capitalism, precisely because they allowed a small number of people to move enormous quantities of materials and consequently make bigger profits. Wolmar shows how this was usually only possible with massive state subsidies. Once the railways existed, they had further impacts - transforming the diets of the urban masses, or changing crops that were grown. Notably many railways were set up to move freight, but quickly found people were more profitable. Wolmar's book highlights these questions, but fails in my opinion to integrate them into a more general narrative. Consequently his book reads more as a succession of interesting stories, rather than a more detailed analysis of the role of railways in the development of modern society. Occasionally this drifts close to the realm of the "rivet counter", listing gauges and track speeds so on occasion my eyes glazed over.

There are some striking omissions. Some serious work has analysed the role of the railways during the famines that struck India in the 19th century. Mike Davis' extraordinary book, Late Victorian Holocausts shows how these were the consequences of the priorities of British capitalism. He also argues that railways, while designed to feed the hungry through free market principles, actually had the opposite effect. Sadly this is missing from Wolmar's book. I also feel that the role of the railways in the Holocaust deserved more than a paragraph.

Ultimately these criticisms centre on the nature of social history. In order to write such a history, the historian must integrate their subject with wider historical change, not simply list anecdotes. A social history of the railways that mentions the Russian Revolution means doing more than mentioning Lenin taking a sealed train through Germany. What of the growth of the rail unions? The workers councils on the railways? Trotsky's train from which he led the Red Army? The role of rail workers in mass strikes?

That said while Wolmar mentions on a number of occasions (far more than many other writers might) the role of workers in building the railways and keeping them running, he occasionally mentions their strikes too. But I think he underplays the significant role that the railways have played in working class struggle precisely because they are a central feature of industrial capitalism and bring together large numbers of organised workers. The railways helped keep all sides fighting in World War One. But they also spread the Russian and German revolutions around those countries. The strikes of railway workers from South America to Asia have often provided a catalyst to wider social struggles - consider the novel Gods Bits of Wood for inspiration here.

Wolmar's books are always interesting, and he is on the right side of the struggle for better, more environmentally friendly public transport. But sadly this book bites off far more than it can chew and feels inadequate.

Related Reviews

Wolmar - Fire and Steam: How the Railways Transformed Britain
Wolmar - The Subterranean Railway

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Marcus Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery & Freedom

Marcus Rediker has been at the forefront of historians writing social histories of the Atlantic. In recent years he has turned his attention to the history of the slave trade. His previous book The Slave Ship is an excellent examination of that appalling period, and its links with the emergence of capitalism. Rediker's new book looks at one particular aspect of slavery's history, the inspiring rebellion on board the slave ship Amistad.

It is the fascinating story of how one group of slaves rose up, killed their captors and attempted to make it back to their homes in Africa. The story of the Amistad uprising is fairly well known. But there must have been countless other attempts at rebellion, few of which were successful. So the story that Rediker tells is important because it allows us to learn from the slaves in their own words, but also understand the attitudes towards them. In particular the growing abolitionist movement in North America.

During their rebellion, the slaves didn't indiscriminately kill their former captors. They killed those who had brutalised them, taunted and tortured them. The other traders feared for their lives, but were treated with surprising humanity:
The rebels... locked Ruiz and Montes in irons, many unused sets of which they suddenly had a their disposal. When the slaveholders complained of their chains, Cinque howled in righteous fury: "You say irons good enough for nigger slave; and if they good enough for slave, they are good enough for Spaniards, too." Ruiz and Montes were likewise allowed little to drink, likely the same half teacupful of water twice a day that not long ago had been the portion of the Africans. Again they complained of their treatment and again Cinque pointed out the contradictions: "You say water enough for nigger slave; so water enough for Spaniards." The object lesson continued for two days, in order to give Ruiz and Montes "a taste of their own cruelty toward the slaves,"... thereafter the chains were removed and they were given food and water in same proportions as everyone else.

The Amistad eventually arrived in North America, where a long period of imprisonment and trial began for the Africans. The trial raised all sorts of questions - of property, slavery and freedoms. The struggle of the Africans now meshed with that of the Abolitionist movement who saw an opportunity to strengthen the struggle against slavery. Firstly that meant finding those who could speak to the Africans in their own language. This meant trawling the docks to find freed Africans who could interpret. But the abolitionists who built the campaign to free the slaves, also tought them English and religion in their prison cells. Tantalising, Rediker while quoting the slaves' letters and discussions, suggests that their liberal quoting from the Bible may have been more a tactical maneuver on their part than any real conversion: "All that can be said with certainty is that the Amistad Africans understood the importance of Christianity within the worldview of the abolitionists and acted to accommodate it, within the larger context of their main objective: to go home."

Rediker also traces the cultural and social impact of the struggle to free the Amistad Africans. Poetry, plays, pamphlets and paintings were produced in great numbers. Many of these artworks were designed to progress the struggle, and after they were freed by the US courts the Africans toured the United States to raise money for their trip home. But this art often caused a dilemma for the abolitionist movement. The high point of the struggle was the uprising against the Amistad's crew - a bloody violent moment. Yet the abolitionists were describing the Africans as "hapless victims... cast upon our shores". The narrative didn't fit the abolitionist views, who hated slavery, but still saw African people as victims, unable to struggle for themselves.

Rediker points out that the "movement in support of the Amistad Africans and the abolitionist movement were never identical". Indeed, the movement to support the struggle, and the return home raised money from many different sources. Most frequently tiny donations from ordinary working people. It is notable that the Africans visited factories and workplaces to raise money, as well as theatres and churches. The desire for freedom expressed by the uprising by the slaves, clearly chimed with large sections of the American population.

Ultimately many of the Amistad Africans made it back. Some had died during the passage across the Atlantic. Some had been sold into slavery in Cuba, others died in the rebellion or in jail in the United States. Those that made it home did so because they were prepared to risk their lives for their own freedom and that of their comrades. Their successful struggle inspired many and Rediker finishes the tale of another slave, Madison Washington, who had escaped to Canada but returned to the South to try and rescue his wife.

Captured and sold back into slavery he remembered seeing a painting of Cinque, the leader of the Amistad Africans, who had lead the revolt. Together with 18 others Washinton led his own uprising on a domestic slave ship and forced it to slave to the Bahamas were slavery had been abolished.

There "they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and ensuring their victory." So Washington and his comrades too escaped. Thus the struggle of the Amistad rebels inspired others to fight for their freedom, but it also helped shape and generate the anti-slavery movement still further. And this book is a fitting tribute to those rebels, putting them back in their place as people who shaped their own destiny, not simply helpless figures in the abolitionist campaign.

Related Reviews

Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra