Sunday, 31 March 2013

Books I Read In March


‘When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo’ by Ruth Waterman
My parents were evacuated from Croatia where they had been holidaying when the war in Yugoslavia broke out in 1992.  In that decade, living in London, I met quite a few young people who had fled from the conflict.  In the 2000s I would write a short story set in Bosnia.  These aspects led to me discussing with an author I had met, a proper one who has produced paper books, not just e-books like the stuff that I write and people simply condemn.  She lent me this book which is a memoir by a orchestral violinist and conductor who helped assemble and train various classical ensembles in Bosnia in the period 2004-6.  In my teenage years, I used to read travel memoirs of people in the late 19th century and early 20th century and this took me back to those books.  Whilst I have heard about, sometimes at first hand, what happened in the former Yugoslavia, I suppose I have always felt it as far removed from me as someone writing about travelling in the region when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  To some degree this book did not change my perspective though I do feel I have a slightly more up-to-date impression.  Waterman’s story shows simply how long it takes for a country to put itself back together and that no-one should be expecting a restoration of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya in the next few years.

The book is like two books combined into one.  The passages of the challenges Waterman faced in rehearsing the ensembles and having them perform have quite a light tone and at the end are pretty life affirming, though perhaps less so than Waterman initially thought.  They are cut with testimonials from many of the people she met outlining what they and the people they knew experienced during the war.  What alarmed me was that I could process these testimonials without difficulty.  Some small snippets, such as blame put by a Bosnian on the war being caused by the Americans rang true when you have heard about the agents provocateur in the region at the time.  Similarly finding out the post-war Bosnian currency was the Deutschmark also answered another question I had had about the political situation behind the war.  Perhaps it is because I remember news from the locations at the time; maybe as a historian, dealing in the deaths of millions I am now immune even to hearing the experiences of individuals.  I felt surprisingly numb reading this material.  This made it hard for me to accept why I was unsettled by the books.

The aspect that I felt unease with was when Waterman outlined how orchestras work.  Each member does not simply play the music on the sheets in front of them; they are in a constant dialogue through gestures and expressions and can deliver very different output from the music they read as a result of this.  Perhaps everyone already knew this and I am just a fool not to have realised.  I have always felt inadequate in the face of people who can play music, speak a foreign language or do a martial art, three activities that I have utterly failed at.  This book simply made it worse.  I now realise that musicians, certainly working at the level of playing public performances are a species apart from me with alien capabilities.  I came away from this book wishing I had not read the elements about how an orchestra works and had stuck simply to the material about the war.  I came away from reading this book unpleasantly unsettled and embarrassed at my own failings.

‘Brest-Litovsk.  The Forgotten Peace.  March 1918’ by John W. Wheeler-Bennett
I have noted in recent months how history books fall down once they try too hard to draw parallels from the past to the time when the book is being written.  This book was written in April 1938, though my copy was published in 1963.  Thus the author tried to draw parallels between the reshaping of Eastern Europe by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the developments in the region at the time he was writing.  He failed to see the persistence of appeasement, the absorption of Austria into Germany and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia let alone the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the subsequent division and re-division of Poland.  Thus the points he makes seem strained and now erroneous.  It would have been better if he had dropped the Introduction and got on with the history. 

The story of the negotiations between the Socialist Federal Republic of Russia and the German Empire and its allies Austria Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire are rarely told.  This book certainly gives a good impression not only of the negotiations but of the motives of those involved in them and the directions they were receiving from their leaders back home.  What is interesting is how weak the Bolsheviks were even after they had closed down the Constituent Assembly and within the party how weak Lenin was.  Wheeler-Bennett seems rather in awe of Lenin and very dismissive of the liberal government which had followed the February Russian Revolution.  It becomes clear in this book, more than in other general histories of the October Russian Revolution, how Lenin may have been excluded from developments or even once the peace talks had begun, have had his policy ignored and dismissed.  His almost unique early recognition that Russia could not fight the Germans any longer and that to oppose them would simply provoke harsher terms and that there was not going to be an outbreak of revolution across Europe, meant that he was proven to be right and gained immense credibility.  Wheeler-Bennett reproduces one of Lenin’s speeches and you can see that he gained nothing through his rhetoric unless it was to bludgeon his audience with his constant repetition of bare bones ideas.  You wonder how much worse those he faced down were at public speaking. 

Opposing the first German offer led to the loss of all the Baltic States and the Ukraine, though Germany was too weak to enjoy these gains for long.  In fact if the Soviets had accepted the first offer it would have been better for Germany as so many troops would not have been tied up occupying vast areas that had formerly been Russian.  The book is also good in showing how dependent Germany and especially Austria-Hungary were on the grain and other resources that they could insist on delivery from Russia and the Ukraine.  Again, an earlier peace may have led to their economic situation being aided sooner, though given the difficulties the occupying forces faced in securing the grain they had been promised the benefits may have been minimal. 

Another interesting element often overlooked in general histories is how the extreme demands of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk altered the attitudes of the Americans away from the conciliatory Fourteen Points to the far more aggressive peace treaty sought by the British, French and Italians.  This was despite the Western Allies unease with the new Soviet regime.  The Treaty made claims of the barbarity of the Germans appear to have been true all along.  In part this was an accurate assessment as Wheeler-Bennett shows how the expansionist fantasies of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, effective dictators of Germany from 1916 onwards, were allow to run free with the treaty and the Soviets’ vacillating attitude while they still had to learn that Lenin had been right all along.  If the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had not been so harsh, then it seems likely that elements of the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany the following year, would have been milder, though the Allies were committed to the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine and Poland, no matter what, so in German eyes the treaty, even if more moderate than the one our world saw, would have been deemed to be harsh.
Overall, in large part this is an astute book which still provides aspects that I find too often missing from general histories of the period and benefited from the author being able to interview participants in the story that he outlines.  It would have been better still shorn of the very rapidly anachronistic introduction and the unnecessary and rather tedious appendices of documents.

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