Sunday, January 31, 2016

Arthur Ransome - Missee Lee

Re-reading Missee Lee after a break of perhaps 30 years, I am struck by how very different it is from the other books in Ransomes' children's novels. This is not simply because it is not a "real" story, in the sense that it is the imaginations of the Swallows and Amazons, rather than an account of their adventures. But its more because the story is centered in an adult world, which intrudes closely upon the enclosed stories that the Swallows and Amazons normally have. For instance, in Missee Lee the "natives" have guns and shots are fired. Execution and imprisonment are real, and the children face real peril that is beyond anything experienced in other stories.

The other great shock is the appalling stereotypical behaviour and speech of the Chinese characters. Ransome was writing in a period when such stereotypes were considered acceptable, but read today the language jars horribly. I don't recollect any such feelings when I read it as a boy, but that's perhaps a reflection on England in the 1970s more than anything else.

The story itself is centered on the events that follow the destruction of the Wild Cat, Captain Flint's sailing ship. He and the children are on a round the world tour, and they abandon ship to land on a hidden group of islands ruled by the pirate Missee Lee. Lee herself is an interesting character, her power stems from being the daughter of the pirate who united the islands, and she plays a careful role, balancing the interests of the other rulers. Educated in Cambridge, she aches for the idolised past that she left behind, and imprisons the children with Latin lessons. Ransome cleverly inverts the roles of the Swallows and Amazons themselves, making childish Roger the expert in Latin who shows up the others.

The danger to the children lies in that they represent England's colonial power. Hearing that John's father is a Captain in the navy panics the pirates who fear that a gunboat will be sent to destroy their island base. Missee Lee wants to keep them forever, and the tensions break open the truce by which the islands remain united.

As a children's novel this is perhaps the least satisfying of the series. The magic of the others was that the children remain mostly closeted from the adult world. Even Peter Duck the other "non-real" fantasy story mostly separates the children's adventure with Captain Flint from the usually distant threat of their pursuers. Instead here the story is all too real, and while there's actually more to it than the other books, I suspect it was a disappointment to the intended audience. As a boy Missee Lee was my least favourite of the series, read only once, while others were repeatedly devoured. Today it feels disjointed and racist, and I suspect will be read far less than many other Ransome tales.

Related Reviews

Chambers - The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome
Hardyment - Arthur Ransom and Captain Flint's Trunk
Ransome - Peter Duck
Ransome - We Didn't Mean to go to Sea

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mark Mazower - Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe

This is an exceptionally detailed and informative study, well written and compelling. Despite its scope, Mark Mazower manages to make sure the human context is not forgotten in analyzing the death and destruction caused by war, occupation and genocidal policies.

Central to Mazower's analysis of what he calls "Hitler's Empire", the countries that were occupied both during World War Two and the areas that were taken under German authority before the war began, is the way that the Nazi state's racialised politics shaped their approach. As he explains, this was very different to how "normal" war progressed:
In short, wartime Germanization constituted the single most forceful and ambitious attempt at nationalizing people and terrority in Europe's history. It explains why the Nazi conception of occupation involved something far more permanent, wrenching and destructive than the temporary abeyance of sovereignty mandated by liberal international law, and it contributed more than any other single factor to the increasingly violent transformation of life in the Reich itself and to the rise of the SS - the motor of Germanization - as its major political and military institution. [184]
Things, as Mazower says, "might have been different". In several places, such as the invasion of the Western areas of the USSR, the German army was welcomed. But the Nazi leadership never saw the occupied terroritories as places of allies. Almost immediately they became places which were to be reshaped according to Nazi fantasies of greater Germany. Poles and Ukrainians were moved, deported and killed to make way for German settlers, settlers that could never arrive in the numbers required. The mass and systematic killing of the Jewish population began as an attempt to deal with the Germanization of entire regions by the export of Jewish populations from areas destined to be settled by Aryans from Germany.

This also shaped the way that "ordinary" German soldiers viewed their enemies. As Mazower explains, the "[German] soldier's image of the Red Army was hopelessly, and confusingly, racialized. Sometimes it was the Jews whose pernicious influence was held responsible, but often... it was also 'Mopngols', 'Tatars' or other representatives of the 'Asiatic' hordes from whom the Nazis believed they were saving Europe." [159] This helps understand the brutal nature of war on the Eastern front and the response of the Red Army in turn. The fact that millions of Russian POWs died in horrific conditions has its roots in the perception of the soldiers as sub-human and the complete lack of preparation by Germany to deal with the captured men.

While the war devastated the European economy, in the short term, the German occupation of Europe did much to assist the Reich's war effort, at least in the short term. One key aspect to this was in the way that workers were brought in from both the East and the West to free up men for fighting. Foreign workers, Mazower says, went from three to 19 percent of the German labour force. In some parts of the occupied areas, despite wealth and resources flowing back to Germany, the economies did remarkably well (in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia unemployment vanished and wages kept pace with inflation). Other countries did less well out of the unequal relationship. By 1943 for instance, half the French workforce was working for the German war effort and a third of national income went to Germany.

But the experience of "capitalist cooperation" in the west, was very different to the "colonial extraction" demanded in the East. There mass murder and plunder were the order of the day. Hitler's dream of the East as a breadbasket for Germany was a dismal failure, despite harsh attempts to extract everything that the regime could from countries like the UKraine and Poland. The food shortages were offset in part by imports from France and the West, but the ultimate reality was food queues in the Reich. Though Mazower notes [262] that food supplies in Germany were probably not as bad as in World War One, at least until the final year of the war.

The mass killing of workers and farmers in systematically undermined Hitler's ability to fight. As Mazowyer concludes [318] "Germany could have racial purity or imperial domination, but it could not have both."

There is much else in this detailed book. The author analyses the origins and nature of the various resistance movements, and the differing experience of Nazi occupation in countries as diverse as France, Belgium, Norway and Greece, Romania and Poland". It's worth noting that resistance was not always automatic, developing over time and sometimes vanishing in the face of repression. In Poland for instance, following the defeat of the rear-guard resistance against German invasion, resistance vanished, to reappear later. Part of the motivation for this, as one Polish General explained was an awareness that what had been done to the Jews and groups like Gypsies, would soon happen to them as Hitler's vision of a cleansed Eastern Europe free was recolonised by German settlers. The Poles "saw 'an atrocious picture of their own destiny' in what had been done to the Jews. Warsaw's sanitary officer, Wilhelm Hagen, actually lost his job when he sent Hitler a letter protesting at plans to treat 70,000 of the 200,000 Poles facing resettlement - old people and children - 'in the same manner as the Jews'."

Mazower also discusses the nature of Italian fascism, considered to be "humanitarian" by some, but he argues that this was in the context of a fascist regime aware that the war was ending and keen not to dirty themselves with allegations of genocide in the future. "[T]here can be little doubt that Italy's diplomats and generals saw perfectly strong and self-interested political reasons for doing what they could to chart their own course on Europe's Jewish Question."

Mazower's book is not one that simply concentrates on one aspect of World War Two in Europe. He draws out the way that Nazi ideology shaped the experience of war and occupation in a completely unique way. This provoked all sorts of responses, from resistance to collaboration, responses that were in turn shaped by the historic experience of different countries and peoples. As Mazower's final chapter shows, that experience continues to have an impact around the world. As a result I highly recommend this book to those trying to comprehend the origins of the contemporary world.

Related Reviews

Cobb - The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Neitzel & Welzer - Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying
Moorhouse - Berlin at War

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Frank McLynn - Wagons West

The story of the pioneers who travelled from the American mid-west to Oregon and California from 1840 onwards is one suitable for a grand re-telling. Its an epic tale of huge distances crossed with primitive equipment, bravery and unimaginable hard work, hunger, disease and violence. Frank McLynn tells the stories of the first difficult, disorganised and chaotic crossings and then, in broad sweeps tells those of the remaining years, highlighting a number of unusual crossings rather than repeating what effectively had become quite a routine trip.

Unfortunately, while the subject matter is epic, McLynn's telling of the story doesn't live up to it. In places it became very difficult to follow the author's accounts. Not helped by the numerous names and multiple different routes taken by the wagon trains.

McLynn also highlights the stories of some of the more unusual trips. For instance, the disastrous trip known by as the Donner Party, after one of the key families that took part. This group of pioneers took a short-cut, which was in reality, little more than a fantasy of one of those characters that the West seemed to breed - a self-styled explorer and mountain man, carried away by his own dreams. Delayed on route and hoping their short-cut would mean they could avoid the winter snow, the Donner party became trapped and ran out of food. A number resorted to cannibalism, and not a few were driven insane by the privations. But there were also heroes, like the men who agreed to try and take food too the victims.

As someone who knows little about this period of American history I was also fascinated by the story of the Mormon trek that established Salt Lake City as a refuge from persecution in the east. This was a highly organised affair, involving thousands of travellers, and McLynn gives real insights into the nature of the Mormon community in this period. The internal arguments, debates and politics is fascinatingly reconstructed, as is the way that the establishment of the Mormon town transformed the trek west for those who continued to go westward in search of a new home, or gold.

But the book felt superficial. I wanted to know more about the motivations of those who chose to take the arduous trip west. McLynn makes it clear that these were not the poor, nor simply those looking for a better life. It was, in McLynn's words "almost... a middle class movement". Those going had to have ready cash, needing $1000 at minimum for the trek. As McLynn says, the poor couldn't afford to go, and the rich didn't need too. But why did they? McLynn rejects the idea that this was simply some inherent American yearning, but if we leave aside the romantic, the answer must be practical. The "boosters" encouraged people to move for abundant and arable land, but was this dream the only reason? I'd have liked more information on what happened to people when they got to the west, because rarely do we find out. McLynn focuses on the journey, not the people and the destination.

McLynn is also prone to some strange attitudes towards women, writing in one place that "Women also hated the burden of having to collect buffalo chips as fuel... a sterner trial to them than to their menfolk because of their keener sense of smell and greater general fastidiousness". McLynn dismisses the "romantic" view of the "western impulse" but is prone to his own flights of fantasy when he writes that the "inevitable effect of the 'feminisation' of the wagon trains [when they became family treks] was to enthrone home, hearth,roots and family as the supreme values, over the male camaraderie of free-spirited, open-ended, devil-may-care adventure." Such generalisations are unsuited to a serious work of history and spoil some interesting.

There should be a good book out there examining the social history of the wagon trains, but this is not it. McLynn manages, in spite of the fascinating nature of the material, to turn the story into a miserable trudge rather than an epic tale.