Category Archives: World War 2

Witness to chaos

THE PAST IS MYSELF by Christabel Bielenberg, originally published 1968 (first edition)

Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 7

I have been a bad blogger. The truth is that after a whole year of reading from stock (as it were), I just wanted to read a few new things. But I didn’t break my resolve of cutting down on the purchase of new books – I went to my local libraries instead. And discovered just how good even small libraries in small Welsh towns can be, even in these straightened economic times; long may they last. Go Gwynedd Libraries!

Now I’m back on track, reading my ‘backlist’ books, though I’m not giving up on the libraries. They need support, and that support is gauged by borrowing, so I’m borrowing. But I am also reading through my own library, and the books in this blog will continue to be from my excessive (can such a thing be possible?) collection.

What a treat the roll of the dice gave me, too.

Christabel BeilenbergThe Past is Myself is one of my favourite books of all time, and there’s no cover shot, because my first edition has unfortunately lost its dust jacket (probably why I found it lurking cheaply in a dusty corner of an otherwise expensive second-hand bookshop in Cambridge). I probably re-read this every year, so it’s not a surprise rediscovery or forgotten jewel. What it is, undoubtedly, is a remarkable memoir, intelligent and humane, written by someone who got caught up in the nightmare that was Germany during the Third Reich.

rallyWhen Christabel Bielenberg died in 2003, one or two of the obituaries made me see red. One in particular was quite snotty about this book, and I suspect the writer hadn’t actually ventured beyond the first few pages. Yes, CB was a well-connected deb – her uncles were press barons – when she married Peter Bielenberg in 1934, but though she may have been naive at times, she was no empty-headed, upper-crust bimbo. And this particular obit described Peter as ‘apolitical’. Maybe a little, maybe at the start but, like his wife, his naivety disappeared and they moved from fighting their way to the back of a Nazi rally – where they discovered other like-minded, slightly incredulous watchers – to more active participation.

outside gestapo hqHis real awakening came when he saw one of his freed clients (he was a lawyer at that stage) leave the court only to be seized and bundled away in an anonymous green van. Her politicisation was more gradual, an accumulation of individually disturbing incidents. But it’s probably inevitable that they would have been anti-Nazi: Adam von Trott was an old friend of Peter’s and, completely coincidentally, their neighbour was Carl Langbehn. Peter himself was arrested in the aftermath of the plot to assassinate Hitler and ended up in Ravensbrück, from where he was freed in the last days of the war.

So credentials have been established, but what of the book? Well, it’s episodic, moving from those early days of a disappearing doctor – he was Jewish, and fled to Holland – to CB’s life in the Black Forest with the children while PB was in Ravensbrück. There is narrative flow, but the book covers many years and I personally find the episodic nature completely satisfying. The small sketches of life under the Reich are so evocative, from the story of her gardener, party small-fry, to the time fate in the shape of two Jews seeking a hiding place came literally knocking at her door one night.

There’s almost a quality of Greek drama about some of them: the Latvian SS man she encounters on a blacked-out train, seeking death as some retribution for what he has done ‘in the East’; her encounter with the Gestapo interrogator – she volunteered to be interrogated to support Peter’s bodged-together account of his involvement; the women’s tea party uniting in the face of an informer; and, indeed, the difficult life of her gardener, battered by the winds of economics and history.

JugendHe was an innocent, really, and the embodiment of the joke about Hitler and the gifts of four fairies. The first told him that every German would be honest, the second said every German would be bright, and the third said that every German would be a member of the Nazi party. And then the fourth spoke up, and said that every German could ‘only possess two of those attributes. She left the Fuhrer then with Intelligent Nazis who were not honest, honest Nazis who had no brains, and honest and intelligent citizens who were not Nazis.’ Herr Neisse fell into the middle category, never uttered any word about anything untoward he observed (he may not have understood the implications, but nonetheless he evidently said nothing), ‘passed on no incriminating titbits, such as other zealous informers had thought fit to do.’ He’d been hanged from a lamppost when the Russians arrived in Berlin.

The Past is Myself is a remarkable and wonderful book. I will go on re-reading it for ever, I suspect, getting something new out of it each time I do so. It’s essentially a celebration of humanity, at a time when, in the words of Bonhoeffer: ‘…we now have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.’ I’ll say.

(The photographs of Third Reich Germany are courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Dum di Dum di Dum, di Dum…

THE THIRD MAN and THE FALLEN IDOL, by Graham Greene, my edition 1978

Bookcase 3, shelf 5, book 17

I’m not a Graham Greene fan, really. There’s a limit to the amount of Catholic angst I can take without becoming impatient and advising the characters to stop moaning and make a nice cup of tea . Some do get through. Like this.

I must have bought this because The Third Man is probably my all-time favourite film ever. I’m not sure why I wanted the book because I can recite the script, sing the theme tune, see the images in my mind’s eye and stand around in darkened Vienna doorways with a kitten on my feet. OK, not the latter. I prefer to walk away from besotted men in wintry cemeteries while someone plays the zither.

But I found this fascinating, not so much for Graham Greene’s novella – really a basic film treatment – as for his introduction. And I quite enjoyed The Fallen Idol, the brief short story which accompanies it, an altogether a more finished piece of work (but forgive me for concentrating on TTM here). That’s because The Third Man was never really meant for publication. It was, as Greene says, ‘never intended to be read, but only to be seen’. Greene, asked by Alexander Korda to write a film for the director Carol Reed following their collaboration on The Fallen Idol, wrote a ‘story’ on which to base his script. And this is it. The raw material for one of those films which will last forever.

The seeds of the plot had been sown much earlier, a snippet of an idea Greene had jotted down ages before, a thought about someone who had just heard about the death of his friend – named Harry – and had then seen him on the street. Korda wanted a film about the occupation of Vienna after WW2, and the combination is cinema history. Or not quite – the differences between the film and the original story are what fascinate me. And how much better the film is for those differences, as Greene himself acknowledges.

The novella is narrated by Calloway, played – brilliantly – by Trevor Howard in the film. And Calloway’s voice is perfect; he makes an ideal narrator.

He tells the story of a down-at-heel writer, one Rollo Martins (Rollo? yikes), who is invited by his friend Harry Lime to come and do some unspecified work for him in war-ravaged Vienna. When Martins arrives, as in the film, he discovers that Lime has apparently been killed in a car accident, and that his funeral is taking place at that very moment… or is he really dead? Who was the mysterious ‘third man’ who carried the corpse away from the street? Why did Harry, apparently killed outright, nevertheless have final words for Martins and for his refugee girlfriend, Anna? And was it Lime that Martins saw for a fraction of a second in the dark, standing in a doorway with a kitten sitting on his feet?

The novella and the film do follow each other quite closely – of course, the book is a trial for the script, so that’s not surprising. The penicillin racket that Lime is running, his associates Kurtz and Dr Winckler, the chase through the sewers: they’re all here. The changes do come a s a shock if you know the film, though.

Both Martins and Lime are British here, something which had to change once Orson Welles had been cast as Harry Lime. As Lime’s childhood friend, Martins had to be American too, even if he had not been played – superlatively – by Joseph Cotten. Martins’ bafflement, and general good nature, do come through in both the book and in the film.

And thank heavens they were cast as they were; Wells is perfect, with a combination of sleaze and charm which perfectly suits the character as written here, as well as in the final script. And, even though Holley Martins is a silly name, and was quite intentionally so, it isn’t half as silly as Rollo Martins. That was wrong, even though it was supposed to be ‘absurd’. Just wrong (Greene admits it – and note who changed it: ‘Mr Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objected to the name Rollo…’).

There’s also confirmation in the introduction that Harry Lime’s famous lines about peace and creativity:

‘You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…’

were indeed written and inserted into the script by Welles. But there are lines that leap out of this novella / treatment / whatever it is, lines which made it into the final script, such as the iconic (if a line can be iconic) ‘I never knew Vienna before the War … with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm…’. The surprise is that there are so few of them.

More modifications were made. Lime’s Rumanian associate is an American in the book; having cast Welles as Lime, it was felt that there couldn’t be another American baddie. Anna, Lime’s devastated girlfriend, is kidnapped by the Russians, rather than arrested. And who knew Lime was an ex-Catholic, whose final words might have been an act of contrition? (I suppose that was inevitable, really.)

And – no! – the ending is different.

Greene’s ending is wrong; it doesn’t work, and he says so in the introduction: ‘One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.’ The ending of The Third Man is, after all, one of the most powerful and restrained in film (or I think so, anyway), and the one in the book would have trivialised everything that had gone before.

And as a final note, reality often matches fiction – and it does so here. Green says that he knew someone who had taken two friends to see the film when it was in the cinemas: ‘He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the War when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.’

Possibly not what Greene or Reed had in mind…

And now I’ll just walk off into the distance with autumn leaves rattling on the ground. Dum di dum di dum, di dum…

Love your Leica (and I do)

LEICA: WITNESS TO A CENTURY by Alessandro Pasi, published in 2003 in Italy; English translation 2004.

Bookcase 8, shelf 3, book 17

Finally the dice select an illustrated book. I’m amazed it’s taken so long considering the huge number of illustrated books – art, history, natural history, practical titles – which I own. This is the first representative from the rather bloated photography section, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

It’s also a relatively recent contribution to my library, doubtless owing to the fact that I only bought The Camera of my Dreams (a Leica M6) in 2000 – and, of course, it wasn’t published until 2003. But my purchase probably made me more receptive.

So what is it about Leicas that makes them, I’m almost certain, the only brand of camera to have a book like this – one spanning a century, commercially produced, not a marketing tool – devoted to them?

It has to come down to the sheer quality of the lenses and the cameras, plus the fact that they are quick and almost silent to use which has made them the camera of choice for many, many, many great photographers. And of course you only have to buy a Leica to take shots worthy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Or Robert Capa. Or Mary Ellen Mark. Or Sebastiao Salgado. Or Elliott Erwitt (or any other Magnum photographers). 

Think of any great photograph of the last century, and the odds are that it was probably taken on a Leica. Marc Riboud’s photograph of a protesting girl holding up a flower against the guns of some US Soldiers? A Leica. Doisneau’s famous street scene? You guessed it.

Leicas were used to record the Spanish Civil War (think Robert Capa’s controvertial Death of a Rebublican Soldier), WW2 (on both sides – Leni Reifenstahl used one, as did Nazi propagandists), the fall of Berlin and the liberation of the concentration camps.

They were used to document everything from the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the plight of refugees in the former Yugoslavia to the development of the civil rights movement and a French family enjoying a Sunday picnic. And guess which camera Alberto Diaz Gutierrez (aka Korda) used to take his portrait of Che Guevara, immortalised on many a T-shirt and student wall?

Many of the most memorable images are included in this book, and there are some which may prove unfamiliar; as an Italian title, it does have a predilection for Italian photographers, but this is no distraction. In fact, it’s a plus – for me, anyway – because it brought me some unknown work among all those truly iconic shots. I actually bought the book because of a shot that was reproduced in the Guardian. 

It’s of two men in a cafe and is by Vanni Calanca , and beautifully illustrates the use of the Leica in ambient light…

But this book is more than just a collection of photographs, even though that would be good enough. It’s a history of the brand, if you like. There’s even a model ‘family tree’ and individual cameras are described (for all the techy photo nerds out there, of which there are many), with their changing functions highlighted. And the whole book is divided into historical phases from the earliest days of Ernst Leitz’s factory in Wetzlar through to the start of the twenty-first century.

All the photographic icons are set in their historical context, and wherever possible technical data is included. Korda’s Che was taken, for example, on an M2 with a 90mm telephoto lens. The shot was originally horizontal, but Korda realised that the vertical image had more impact, and was – essentially – just a better photograph.

One thing is missing from this book: the ‘Leica Freedom Train’.

Gradually, systematically, Ernst Leitz II (the head of the company in the 1930s) began moving lots of Jewish colleagues and friends out of Nazi Germany  after Hitler came to power, under the guise of sending them to work in overseas offices. After Kristallnacht these activities increased, but they had to stop in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and borders were closed. How did they manage to get away with this? Well, Leica was an internationally recognised brand which reflected well on Germany and that gave them some immunity, plus they were producing optical equipment for the army. Nazi Germany also needed funds, and Leicas continued to be in demand all over the world.

Despite being a jewel in the crown of the Reich, members of the family and staff were caught helping Jews and imprisoned – bribes, on one occasion, securing a release. The Leitz family wanted no publicity for their efforts after the war, though Elsie Kuhn-Leitz (EL II’s daughter, who also got into trouble attempting to improve conditions for slave labourers) was recognised for her work, and it is only recently – after the death of the last member of the family – that the whole business has been fully understood.

I must admit that the Leni Reifenstahl / propaganda photographs for Signal thing had made me feel vaguely uneasy about owning my Leica – probably daft, but there you go – but I’m glad I can be (even more) proud of it now. It really is a masterpiece, advance of digital or not, and this book reflects that.

George Cross Island

FORTRESS MALTA – AN ISLAND UNDER SEIGE 1940 – 1943, by James Holland, published in 2003

Bookcase 11, shelf 5, book 3

I’m fascinated by history, especially modern history (this rolled-dice project will, I’m sure, illustrate that in some depth) which is a little odd – perhaps – for someone who trained as an archaeologist. Then again, Malta is remarkable for its archaeology, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with that. Of course.

Anyway, whatever attracted me, I’m glad it did.

I knew something about about Malta during the Second World War – the appalling bombing, the hardship, the resilience of the inhabitants, a bit about Operation Pedestal – but this wonderful narrative history gives so much more. I’ve reread it several times, and it was a joy to visit it again at the command of the rolling dice.

To say that Fortress Malta is detailed and well researched makes it sound anther dry, but it’s anything but that. It’s an extremely well-written book (not always true of narrative history) that tells the story of the Siege through the experiences of a wide range of individuals, ranging from a small boy to fighter aces, nurses to submariners.

You get to ‘know’ people like John Agius and his family, instantly increasing your involvement. Holland’s admiration for the people – and for the whole island – shines through. Because of this, it’s possible to gain some understanding of the otherwise unimaginable conditions of life on Malta during the Second World War.

When you look at photographs taken at the time (all the ones in this post are from the collections of the Imperial War Museum) it is difficult to imagine that life still went on, that the island still held out. But it did.

Here’s one example of how it did so. I was pleased, when I first read this book, to find out more about Operation Pedestal, the August 1942 ‘crash-through’ of vital supplies to Malta. I’d not realised how close the island was to disaster, and to possible capitulation:

‘Much of the Island lay in ruins … And the population was even hungrier. The bread ration had been cut again, and at the beginning of July pasteurised milk was restricted to children between the ages of two and nine. Farmers had been ordered to hand over their crops to the government … Supplies of potatoes were also now exceedingly short.’

Also severely limited was fuel – fuel for the few fighters that provided some sort of defence for ‘the most bombed spot in history’.

And so a massive convoy was assembled. Ships came together in the Clyde, some – like the oiler Ohio – ‘lent’ by the Americans. The size of the escort which also assembled gave some of the sailors an indication of what they were sailing into – and it’s no exaggeration to describe what happened to the convoy once it was well and truly into the Mediterranean as sheer hell.

Holloway tells the story through the eyes of some of the seamen involved, people like Joe McCarthy from the SS Rochester Castle, and Freddie Treves from the Waimarama (I’m mentioning these ships because they deserve to be remembered, as do they all).The attacks came quickly, and one ship after another was sunk. The Waimarama exploded when her deck cargo of tinned petrol was hit, and Freddie Treves’ account of what followed is heart-breaking. The sea was on fire; his friend and mentor couldn’t swim.

(At this point I have to introduce the Ledbury. HMS Ledbury was on escort duty; they’d previously been on the Arctic convoys, received an order one night to scatter, done so – and U-boats had attacked their convoy. Roger Hill, the captain, vowed he would never ‘abandon the merchant arm’ again, orders or no orders. And he didn’t. He turned the Ledbury round into the burning sea and his crew pulled what survivors there were out of the water.)

What was left of the convoy – five ships – and the escort limped into Valetta, essentially in two groups. People in Malta had been anxiously tracking their progress, and the harbour walls were lined with cheering crowds. But the most stunning arrival was the Ohio. Badly damaged an appalling low in the water, she was unable to make way herself.

So HMS Bramham was tied to one side, HMS Penn to the other, and the Ledbury was ahead acting as a rudder.

Painfully slowly, she limped forwards – to the accompaniment of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo which someone had found and broadcast on the ship’s Tannoy. And she made it, creeping into Grand Harbour and to an astonishing welcome, as narrated by Michael Montebello, a boy at the time:

‘There were so many people, you wouldn’t have been able to put a needle between them. Everyone knew exactly what was on the Ohio and how important it was…’

There was a naval war correspondent on the Ohio – Anthony Kimmins – and Holloway quotes a piece he wrote for the Times of Malta:

‘If ever there was an example of dogged persistence against all the odds, this was it. Any one of this hundreds of bombs in the right place and she would have gone up in a sheet of flame.’

The first sentence could act as a tribute to the whole Island… as demonstrated by this excellent book. I am glad the Diceman picked it out!

(I’ll come clean here. My father was in the navy for some years, and he loved Valetta though he only knew it after the War. That may be one reason why I picked up this book – don’t care why, as I said: I’m just glad I did.)