Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Books I Read in August

'Blind Eye to Murder' by Tom Bower
This is a book a little like 'Petain's Crime' that I read earlier in the year which touches on an aspect of history that you have some familiarity with but no real understanding of the extent to which bad things happened.  Bower looks at the failure of all of the Powers that occupied Germany after the Second World War - Britain, France, USA and USSR to effectively bring the majority of Nazis to trial let alone punishment.  While it has the earnest approach of 'Petain's Crime', it is less frantic in what it communicates.  This is useful as it covers and immense number of individuals not simply among the occupying powers and the German population but across Europe and in North America too.  It highlights the fact that despite the rhetoric of the leaders, the bulk of the military and especially the civil services of the occupying countries had no interest in punishing all but the most senior Nazis.  Pressure from leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill did mean that some of those who ran death camps or carried out war crimes against soldiers and civilians were brought to trial.  However, the numbers were tiny compared to the 250,000 Germans and other nationals believed to have had a direct role in carrying out the Holocaust, let alone other facets such as persecuting non-Jewish and disabled Germans.  The businessmen and the judges who funded and supported the regime largely escaped scot-free; 90% of West German judges in the 1950s had served in that role under the Nazis.  Police forces and businesses were filled and led by men and women who had taken an active part in Nazi repression.

What is most sickening is not that so many Germans and their allies slipped through the net, but the sustained prevarication among the officials charged with bringing them to justice.  Their reactions varied from seeing no point to believing that no-one could be charged because the crimes went beyond normal laws to disbelieving the repression had occurred to thinking that to punish such people would simply let the Soviets overrun Europe.  This is a story of how governments squirmed and twisted away from seeking out, arresting and charging even a tenth of those directly involved in heinous crimes.  What is worse is that they suspected those who had fought against Nazism, the refugees and those of Jewish background of some sinister plot in seeking out war criminals.  Many of the victims of the Nazi crimes were denied pensions when those who had ran death camps were usually paid handsomely by the West German state.  It is an infuriating book which explains why the German youth of the 1960s were so furious at the establishment of their countries - both West and East Germany.  It is clear that despite the changes they were largely living in a legacy of the Nazi regime and those who had prospered under it continued to do so, while those who had opposed the dictatorship saw no retribution let alone gain.  A very sobering, detailed book which shows the incompetence and corruption that characterised post-war Germany and the countries involved with it.

'The White Guard' by Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this book soon after it was recommended in 'The Guardian' as a book to read as an example of Ukrainian literature.  Having bought it in 1995, I was obviously ahead of the trend.  Though it was written in 1925 the play which is an abridged version of the novel gained more attention and it was only when the book appeared in its full form in the USSR in 1966 (I read an American edition from 1971) that it gained recognition.  I found the book utterly infuriating.  While it is not one of those books I regret buying, I did feel my time could have been better spent reading something else.  It is set in weeks at the end of 1918 when German soldiers retreated from Russia and left the Ukraine to be fought over by a range of factions. 

The story centres on a group of young adult siblings living in an apartment in Kiev and their landlord living downstairs.  There is very little direction in the story, it simply conjures up the chaos of Kiev at the time.  Various characters venture out into the streets  to have odd encounters and get mixed up with the forces trying to hold the city or simply use the situation to steal.  It is very much a 'slice of life' book which comes to an end in early 1919 with nothing resolved either for the characters, Kiev or Ukraine.  Perhaps that is the point, but if you want any resolution you will not find it in this book.  An article from 1967 included at the end of the edition I read points out that the apartment that the story is set in was Bulgakov's actual apartment in Kiev.  Thus, it is not clear really how much of it was semi-autobiographical.  No matter what the interest of the setting, overall I found this a frustrating book that I would not recommend even if you have a yearning for Ukrainian literature.