Sunday, January 30, 2022

Klaus Gietinger - The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

In the introduction to The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, author Klaus Gietinger writes that the "murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht constitutes one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century". He quotes the German Communist Paul Levi writing in 1930, that with their deaths "began the unearthly train of the dead, which resumed its course in March 1919 and dragged on for years and years".

Luxemburg and Liebknecht were two of the most respected, brave and leading German revolutionary socialists in the early twentieth century. Their opposition to World War One and their principled politics had put them at the head of the German Revolution that exploded in November 1919. In the German revolution lay the hopes for the spread of the Russian Revolution. That is the context for the "great tragedy" of their deaths and the particular bestiality of their murders.

Gietinger does not go into great detail about the revolution, or indeed the politics of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Instead he is mostly concerned with exposing the lies and myths that were built up around the killings. In doing so challenges some of the myths of left and right, particular examining the extent to which the left-wing, but not revolutionary, German Social Democrats were culpable in the murders.

Gietinger begins with the revolution which grew rapidly in the context of war fatigue, economic crisis and mass hunger and poverty. With the revolution grew, immediately, powerful far-right counter-revolutionary forces. Many of these were led and made up of former veterans and where heavily armed. These groups, some of which were known as Freikorps, set about systematically fighting the revolution. These organisations, and the individuals who made them up, often became the basis for Nazi stormtrooper forces. Their anti-Semitism, hatred of working class organisations and fear of revolution meant they were easy converts to the fascist cause.

These were the individuals who captured Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt and took them to the Hotel Eden, a HQ for the counter-revolutionaries. In captivity there it must have been clear to both that they were facing likely death. I was touched to learn that Luxemburg spent her last hours reading Goethe's Faust. Both were taken from the Hotel, beaten and killed. Luxemburg's body was thrown into a nearby canal, where a monument stands to this day.

In many ways who exactly killed Luxemburg and Liebkneckt doesn't matter. They were victims of a vicious counter-revolution that wanted to destroy the German revolution and its socialist leaders. But as Gietinger shows, the individuals do matter, because the fact that the real murderers identify was obscured for so long implicates many senior political figures in her killing - including individual politicians who played a role in post-War German politics. It also matters because Hermann Souchon who very likely was Luxemburg's real killer, lived until he was 87 in Germany, without ever facing criminal charges.

But also important is the extent to which Gustav Noske, a senior figure in the German government and a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, ordered the killing. Noske, a "pre-fascist" figure according to Gietinger, certainly "tacitly approved" of what had been done. Noske who, after World War Two, said "I cleared away the scum and cleaned up as fast as was possible", "openly wondered", "whether anyone was going to put the troublemakers out of action". Waldemar Pabst, who commanded the counter-revolutionary unit that ultimately killed the two revolutionaries, was according to Pabst close to Noske. "He was Pabst's accomplice, and Pabst was his". Noske "deliberately and against the counsel of his advisors closed down the investigation, not wishing light to be shone on this momentous crime".

Gietinger shows how other figures helped witnesses escape, destroyed evidence and helped those accused of the crimes. Not all of these were pre-fascists. Post World War Two, the German state certainly ensured that the reinvestigation of the murders was hampered, confused and the trials that did take place allowed the murderers to be framed as victims. As such this book is a condemnation of the post-war German government as much as the far-right and Social Democrat leaders at the time. And while other Social Democrats didn't quite have blood on their hands like Noske, Gietinger reminds us that:

Ebert, Scheidemann, Heine and Landsberg (who probably knew nothing of Noske's approval), proved weak in the face of the military justice system - doubtless because they, like Noske, had a soft spot for the military, whereas the names of Luxemburg and Liebknecht aroused pure scorn in their hears. Rid of their (justified) fears of a social revolution that would challenge not only war and capitalism (which did not bother the SPD leadership) but also 'Reich and nation... the former People's Deputies now believed they could return to business as usual, after re-establishing 'order' in alliance with the enemies of the republic.

As Gietinger concludes, "they would not gloat for long". The opening of the door to counter-revolutionary forces with the tacit approval of the SPD helped ensure that the Nazi movement had a strong base to grow from. After Luxemburg and Liebkneckt's death, tens of millions more would pay the price for the SPD's betrayal.

Klaus Gietinger's book is a harrowing read. It is an insight into the nature of the Freikorp movement and their fascist views, their violence and their terrorism. It is also a warning about what happens if socialist movements are not built to be able to stand up to counter-revolutionary movements. It is also an exemplary work of documentary history, a brave and original exploration of a complex series of events. I highly recommend it, not just to students of the German Revolution, or socialists, but to those trying to understand the trajectory of German history in the 20th century.

Related Reviews

Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923
Pelz - A People's History of the German Revolution

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution
Luxemburg - The Junius Pamphlet

Friday, January 28, 2022

Olga Ravn – The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century

*** Warning Spoilers ***

I must admit I was intrigued when I first read reviews of Olga Ravn’s book The Employees. For socialists and trade unionists it is always fascinating to imagine life in the future – either in a socialist society, or a continuation of our existing one (assuming capitalism has a future that is). Ravn’s book was first published in Denmark and brilliantly translated by Martin Aitken to English. It has also been nominated for the International Booker and, from the length of time I had to wait to get a copy from my library, I think it is doing very well.

Told through statements by workers, this is not a long novel. In fact some of the pages are barely a few lines of text. Anyone who has had to fill in pages of nonsense on an annual appraisal will recognise that sometimes words come easily, and sometimes monosyllabic answers are best when replying to management queries.

But these statements, woven together tell a story. It’s a workplace, but not like a call centre or factory. Gradually we learn that these workers are living on a interstellar ship, that’s left Earth with no plans to return. We also learn that some of the workers are not human – they are humanoids, human in almost all biological features except that they cannot reproduce and they can be replicated from their backups. We also learn that on a planet called New Discovery the crew found some objects. These objects take different shapes and interact with their handlers – some through sound, others through emotion.

In fact sensation, and emotion are key elements of this story. Why are some of the interviewees compelled to taste, stroke, even put alien things into their mouths? Why do some of them feel the urge to scratch imaginary bumps and lumps in their skins? Is it part of their memories of home? Is it part of how they are trying to remain human? Or are the objects changing them? It's all very curious.

As we read more of the crew statements we learn two things. Firstly that work isn’t that much different. The rooms are small, unless you have to clean them. Factions run deep among the crew. Management are feared, and workers know (or assume) their every move is being watched. We encounter cleaners and pilots, those born on Earth and those who’ve never been there. And some are not human.
Something’s gone wrong. We know little about the ship, or its mission. Ravn tells us nothing about hyperdrives or other SF standards. But she tells us a great deal about what its like to live in an enclosed space, working long hours and missing your home. We also learn what the disposability of labour means on a spacecraft millions of miles from home.

This is a fascinating read. I don’t pretend to have understood it all. It is certainly a book that will warrant a re-read. But in writing about the future of work, Olga Ravn’s certainly told us much about our world today

Related Reviews

Aldiss - Non-Stop
Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts
Robinson - Aurora
Tidhar - Central Station
Strutgatsky - Hard to be a God

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Amor Towles - The Lincoln Highway

In 1954 eighteen year old Emmett Watson is released early from juvenile detention back to Nebraska in the USA. His father has died, the farm has been repossessed and his eight-year old brother Billy wants them to take a road trip along the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco to find their mother. Emmett is resourceful, clever and equal to most tasks. But he doesn't allow to the arrival of two "friends" from the work-prison, Duchess and Woolly. These two haven't been released, in fact they escaped in the very vehicle that brought Emmett back to Billy. 

Rather than setting out westward, Duchess and Woolly have a plan to go East. Near New York City, Woolly's family home has hundreds of thousands of dollars in Woolly's trust fund and they want it. Promising a third to the brothers, but then stealing their car, these four characters engage in a complex, interlocking story, which Amor Towles uses to tell us their stories and a lot about 1950s America.

But most of all this is a story about journeys. The literal Billy obsessively reads from a boys own style book that details heroic journeys of heroes, real and mythical. In his eyes the trip along the Lincoln Highway would match those travels and his vision enraptures Woolly, a young man whose wealthy family cannot seem to cope with his needs. While Duchess and Woolly travel to NYC in the stolen car, Emmett and Billy jump the train and meet a series of brilliant characters from bottom of society, many of whom teach them (and the reader) the realities of the world while also being part of their own epic journey.

Part road trip, and indeed a homage to 1950s America, this is also a sort of adventure story as the boys find their way too each other and themselves. Its also a picaresque story whose episodes tell self contained stories but which frequently interlink. Its also deeply moving, and I was particularly touched by Woolly's character, who for the first time finds a group of people who understand him - rather than punish or tolerate him. I suspect this will be one of the best books I read all year.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

J.G.Bullocke - Sailors' Rebellion

This turned out to be a fascinating Christmas gift. Published in 1938 it is a study of episodes of 17th and 18th century sailors mutinies. Its an eclectic mix of stories, as not all of them would be considered "rebellion from below" as radicals today might describe events were crews rose up against their officers. I have a vague recollection that somewhere Leon Trotsky wrote that mutinies on ships were different to those by soldiers as the experience on ship was much more like a factory. It is certainly true that in many of these stories there are events that make the reader see the shipboard experience as like that of a huge factory, but one from which there's no escape. Discipline, living conditions, food and wages were appalling on these English naval vessels and discontent must have simmered constantly.

J.G.Bullocke was most concerned with trying to understand the origins of mutiny. In some of these accounts he simply sees rebellion as natural to the "motley crew" of sailors. In others he goes the other way and puts the blame solely on the nature of the commanding officer whose brutality and unbending disciplinary ways force the crew into open resistance. 

While not all of the mutinies are "from below", they all exhibit elements of class conflict. The first account, that of the rebellion of Admiral Benbow's captains, is perhaps the most startling. Benbow as gone down in history as a brave seaman. Yet the battle where he won his spurs, and lost a leg, was marked by the refusal of the captains of other ships to press home the fight against enemy ships. The resultant court-martial was infamous, and several were executed. Yet one fascinating aspect to this was what Bullocke describes as the dislike the other captains had for Benbow, a so called "tarpaulin" of "humble" birth who had risen from the ranks and was not a gentleman. By contrast the gentleman "was a courtier, jobbed into a command in the Navy by influential friends. He detested the rough manners of the regular seaman officer and tried to introduce into the Navy something of the more civilised demeanour he had learnt at the Court."

Benbow's elevation to the status of hero however belays some of the reality of his captaincies. He was a hard disciplinarian and happy to break the rules, the governor of Jamaica writing in 1699, that only the seamen on Rear-Admiral Benbow's ships die very fast, to supply which he impresses not only from the Merchant ships but also our people of the country and exercises his authority as if there were no other here". Benbow was also known for his punishments of sailors and Bullocke says "wherever he went trouble broke out". 

Something similar is true of Captain Bligh, who seemed to have been more willing to look after his men, but equally inflexible in command. The Mutiny on the Bounty is a major part of Bullocke's book. Here the captain isn't entirely at fault, but more to blame are the attractions (barely hinted at by the chaste Bullocke) of the island of Tahiti. Given the conditions onboard ship it seems impossible that sailors would not rebel. But of greater fascination to me here was the violent retribution that the British government served up to the mutinous sailors many years later. By then Bligh was off elsewhere and causing rebellion again.

But the greatest mutiny - the mass mutiny of naval ships at Spithead and Nore in 1797 are perhaps the most interesting. Here the entire fleet raised the red flag, elected delegates to a central leadership and placed significant demands about pay and conditions, including issues like leave and press ganging on the Admiralty. Bullocke is at great pains to argue that Spithead was not influenced by the French Revolution and "Jacobite" radicals, but that Nore was - at least in the form of Richard Parker, who was elected "President of the Fleet". Bullocke argues that Parker was the embodiment of radical ideas, implying that the rest of the sailors were somewhat unwitting followers. Nonetheless even this crude retelling of the story is fascinating and quite inspiring. No blood was spilt by the mutineers, though the retribution against Parker and others was bloody. No wonder then that a few months later when the Hermione rebelled, the crew finished off the officers.

Bullocke's book is a breathless and fascinating telling of neglected history of rebellion at sea. It's a reminder that British sea power was won not just in defeating other European powers, but also in defeating its own crews - men who fought at Trafalgar and everywhere else on rotten rations, low pay and under threat of violent discipline.

Related Reviews

Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
Rodger - The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660-1649
Rodger - The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1642 - 1815

Thursday, January 20, 2022

D.A.Rayner - Escort

I learnt about D.A.Rayner's autobiographical account of his experiences at sea in World War Two in Richard Woodman's history The Real Cruel Sea. I sought it out as Woodman indicated it was a authentic account of what it was like to take part in convoy escort duties. It certainly is that, but what Rayner's book does is to show how a young man in the Volunteer Reserve experienced the war itself - much bureaucracy, reposting, training and finding himself in circumstances not of his own choosing. 

Rayner also tells the chaotic story of the early part of the war, when there were few escort ships and plenty of targets for submarines. While much of his time is spent in the Western Approaches, he also finds himself in the Mediterranean and off the West African coast. There are numerous adventures and some close runs. Some of these are with his own side as Rayner is clear the type of commander willing to bend rules in order to ensure his crew have the necessities of life and to have fun. There are some slightly unbelievable accounts of parties, and other, more illuminating adventures such as when Rayner gives the nod and wink to his crew to purloin the mattresses being removed from first class cabins on an ocean linear being converted to a troop transport.

Initially commanding a trawler, then a corvette and then a group of corvettes, followed by a task force of destroyers, we see through Rayner the evolution of British convoy practice and the growing success. Its a tale well told, though Rayner, writing in the 1950s and though by now long since out of the navy, is careful to name drop and reference senior colleagues. 

But of most interest are perhaps Rayner's comments on command. He clearly was the sort of officer than crews liked. On one occasion he, together with his ship's captain, roll up their sleeves to shovel coal. The men who were crewing the ship were not navy ratings, but former fishing boat crews that expected this work to be done by shore based personnel. Rayner breaks their near-strike by leading from the front. While those who have read Nicholas Monsarrat's work might see several parallels with Captain George Ericson in The Cruel Sea, their command style is very different. Rayner is much closer to, friendlier and open with his men. 

Interestingly, despite saying towards the end that there are few women in the book because they didn't feature much, Rayner does mention women quite regularly. In fact he notes the way that the Wrens were often close to the ships, implying that many of them had multiple boyfriends on different ships that would arrive at different times, and that there were well established rules about who could see who. In this sense, and many others, this is far from many straight-laced naval biographies and gives quite a human account of the war. But certainly this is a book for enthusiasts, rather than those looking for historical work.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Woodman - The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1943
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Lund & Ludlam - The Fate of the Lady Emma
Lund & Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Stephen Graham Jones - The Only Good Indians

I received this novel out of the blue for Christmas. I was immediately intrigued by its focus on Native American people in contemporary society, but put off by the genre. I'm not great with the gore and violence of horror novels. However The Only Good Indians turned out to be a good choice on behalf of the giver, as it is a great, if bloody, novel that takes up some interesting and important ideas. 

The novel centres on a group of friends from the Blackfeet tribe who, ten years ago, shot some elk. It was an incredibly successful hunt, but the intervention of the authorities meant that they were unable to use the dead elk properly. Now, a decade later, the are being killed by apparently supernatural forces. The spirits of the elk have returned and want their revenge.

But there is nowhere for the men to go. As they are picked off, one by one, and their friends and family threatened, they are simultaneously trapped by racism, and poverty. There is no escape for them from the monster that is killing them and the wider monster that demeans and devalues their lives in wider society. 

This is not an easy read, and as I said some people will be put off my the genre, rather than the subject matter. But I'd suggest that there's a strong tradition of horror novels being used to highlight the wider horrors of society. Stephen King's IT is a classic example. Stephen Graham Jones' The Only Good Indians stands in this tradition and updates several of those themes. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Oliver Rackham - The Ash Tree

The Ash Tree was dictated by Oliver Rackham from his sick bed from memory. His editor tells us that while the text was "refined" it was, nonetheless, essentially written from Rackham's memory. It is testament to the author's brain that he was able to produce, almost on demand, a book that is both detailed and passionate, as well as polemical and beautifully written. The Ash Tree was written in response to growing public awareness of a major outbreak of 'Ash Dieback' a fungus that was destroying the trees. 

Rackham was concerned about how the immediate response to Ash Dieback was to plant hundreds more trees, arguing that the roots of the problem lay in something he had been "rabbiting on about for years". Rackham argues that the 

greatest threat to the world's trees and forests is globalisation of plant diseases: the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the globe in commercial quantities, inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the plants at their destination have no resistance.

Attempts to solve the problem are limited, Rackham argues, because "people's enthusiasm for trees comes and goes on a shorter timescale than the lifespan of trees" and that we are an "unreliable guardian of the world's trees". 

He then begins an ash odyssey. He looks at its history, its biology, its associated flora and fauna and its cultural significance in prose, song and literature. We learn about ash trees in remote areas, of huge trees and how the wood has been used for wheels, tools and gates. We learn ash's history:

Ash has been increasing throughout the Holocene. Widespread since wildwood times, it seems to have got slowly commoner as the centuries have passed. In Anglo-Saxon times it was common but not universal: the sort of tree that places could be named after. It has slowly increased ever since, both in woodland and elsewhere.

The book ends with a polemic - about how to care for trees, how to plant them, and how to consider them as part of our lives and landscape. Readers of Rackham's other books will be familiar with his concern to place woodland in the context of a human and natural landscape, interacting with and being changed by social and ecological forces. 

The Ash Tree is a gorgeous piece of nature writing, illustrated, as these books should be, lavishly with plenty of colour. But it is a book that is also, intensely Rackham. His unique style and enthusiasm shine through, as well as his own life thinking about trees and woodland. His final lines, bemoaning the decline of tree pathology as a science studied in universities leaves him feeling isolated: "I am one of the last survivors of a Critically Endangered Species. I belong in the Zoo."

Woodland maintenance has become subordinated to capital. Planting new trees in their thousands, the immediate response to Ash Dieback and, sometimes, climate change can make things worse. 

Sadly Oliver Rackham died shortly after this book has left, but we can hope that his inspiring writing, read in the context of our greatest ecological crisis, will create a new generation of tree pathologists.

Related Reviews

Rackham - Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape
Rackham - The History of the Countryside

Friday, January 07, 2022

Oliver Rackham - Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape

Many years ago I stumbled across Oliver Rackham's classic book The History of the Countryside on a second hand book stall. It was a fortuitous find. At the time I described it as "unusual and slightly odd" but nonetheless a fascinating and important read. The recent republication of Rackham's book Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape prompted me to read more of his work, and again I've been pleasantly surprised. Like History of the CountrysideTrees and Woodland is a systematic exploration of the place of trees in the land - it takes a historical approach, looking at prehistory, Romans and more recent usage of the landscape (such as medieval deer parks).

It is very much a materialist approach. Rackham makes it clear that the position of trees or woodland in contemporary landscape is the consequence of both natural processes and human activity. On the difference between planned and ancient countryside, he writes:

This is one facet of a distinction that cuts deep in European social history from France to Crete. Ancient Countryside, the bocage, is the land of hamlets, of medieval farms in hollows of the hills, of lonely moats in the claylands, of immense mileages of quiet minor roads, holloways and intricate footpaths; of irregularly-shaped groves and thick hedges colourful with maple, dogwood and spindle; and of pollards and other ancient trees. Planned Countryside, the champagne, is the land of brick farmhouses in exposed positions, of flimsy hawthorn hedges, of ivied clumps of trees in corners of fields, of big villages and few roads, and above all of straight lines; it does however, often contain medieval woods, Anglo-Saxon hedges and ancient trees that the enclosure commissioners failed to destroy.

Rackham's is a beguiling style, but his approach is fascinating. Placing human activity, social history in the context of nature. But Rackham warns against seeing trees through an economic lens. He describes how forestry developed in England through continental approaches, which led to a "commitment to plantations" which introduced conifers on a massive scale in Victorian times. Trees became simply associated with wood (and profit). He says

forestry acquired a theoretical basis, and in particular became thought of as a financial operation: it was through possible to predict how much money a plantation would earn and to decide whether to invest money in trees, or in, for example, the stock market.

Sadly such a financial approach continues to be applied to nature conservation and usage today, separating nature off from its history and wider context.

The world around us has been created and shaped, rarely evolved. Rackham's book shows how this is applicable to understanding woodlands, forests, hunting and features like pools, ponds and hedges. At the same time he warns the reader of approaches to woodland conservation that simply see the presence of trees as being a good thing. Trees are part of wider ecological networks - they shouldn't be simply placed, chopped and replaced. As Rackham concludes right at the end:

For native trees the 1980s have been a time of prosperity and recovery. The prospects are good, but education still has far to go. Planting is not conservation, but an admission that conservation has failed. One can be a lifelong woodland conservationist but never plant a single tree. The conservation of woods is not the same as that of buildings: troubles (apart form that of deer) have a habit of getting better, not worse, if neglected. We need to know each kind of tree and how to work with, not against, its natural properties. Conservations is about letting trees be trees, not gateposts with leaves.

Another recent book of Rackham's, his last published before his death The Ash Tree, explores some of these themes more closely through a study of one specific tree. Rackham develops some of the themes here, looking at how conservation isolates trees from their habitats and places them in a worldwide web of ecology and profit. I'll review that book next and I recommend the reader reads it together with Trees and Woodland as they complement each other very well. 

Trees and Woodland is a classic study that those trying to understand the countryside will enjoy. It can be read on many levels - as a way of understanding features of the landscape, as well as a polemic about the world around us. It is a lovely book.

Related Reviews

Rackham - The History of the Countryside
Pryor - The Making of the British Landscape