Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

EUROPE – WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

June 24, 2016

Living in Europe for 35 years, I greatly appreciated the people and their various ways of life. I was happy to return to live in England, since I imagined that within the European Union we could be one. So now that Britons have dropped a nuclear bomb on the relationship with Europe, I am devastated.

That we should have a constitutional crisis, utter confusion, no government and no plan for the future was eminently foreseeable. Yet a majority of voters, including friends of mine, embarked on this apparently reckless course. Why did the Remain camp fail to convince?

Voters knew David Cameron was no friend of Europe, so he had no credibility in declaring he would campaign “heart and soul” to stay in. No more persuasive were statesmen who urged Britain to stay inside the Union to play a leading role in reforming it. If Britain could not fix the defects before, why hang around? As for experts’ prophecies of economic disaster, voters clearly thought economic forecasting had too bad a track record.

A Leave friend wrote on Facebook “Now we will be back in the driving seat again!!!” Indeed so, and the responsibility rests primarily with Leavers to draw up strategies, act and take care of the people of Britain. Just now, they have no Prime Minister, no government and no plan. We Remainers however must realise that the European Union cannot continue as the framework for relating to the continent. Leavers and Remainers have a joint responsibility to end the chaos and devise new ways of functioning with our neighbours.

As for European leaders, they should take this bombshell as a warning. It is not enough to dwell on the Union’s success in ending post-war animosities and providing a democratic framework for liberated Eastern Europe. The people of Hungary and Poland have elected governments that patently care little for this.

It is not a time for European leaders to close ranks to hold the Union together at all costs. Britons are not the only people who are dissatisfied. Who today expresses enthusiasm for the Union? Jean-Claude Juncker, Head of the European Commission, has failed to rise to his task. Angela Merkel performs a useful role as a “nice German” at the heart of Europe but will not act decisively as a leader.

However Europe must have smart people able to solve issues such as the bias of the euro system in favour of Germany. Germans’ insistence that other countries should merely act economically as they do is unrealistic. If limited liability laws enable individuals to go bankrupt, renege on debts and eventually return to economic activity, why can this not be done also for Greece?

The European Union has to resolve the chaotic inflows of migrants, the number one issue in the British campaign. There is talk of “defending frontiers”, but the free passage provided by Schengen has been built into infrastructures of airport and road systems, and can scarcely be dismantled. Britain, for all the boasts of the Leavers about regaining sovereignty, has only a handful of coastal patrol craft, and Italy or Greece have even less chance of sealing off their huge coastlines. However Spain does. It pays money to Morocco and Mauritania in return for measures to head off migrants. Such measures do not choke off channels altogether, but manage the flows better.

Financial stability and migration are among the big issues of our time. They need imaginative ideas and cooperation, far more than exasperated reactions to bothersome bureaucrats.

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4th edition of my book, Slovenia 1945, due to be published shortly

March 3, 2015

 

Chosen as Book of the Year by John Bayley, who compared the characters to those of War and Peace. New preface includes British Government expression of regret for the events described in the book. Co-author is John Corsellis.

www.ibtauris.com

Slovenia 1945 Inside OK

WE GERMANS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WAR, SAY BOMBED DRESDENERS 70 YEARS ON

February 17, 2015

DSC06412 DSC07959

I was in Dresden last weekend for a deeply cathartic commemoration of the 70th  anniversary of the British bombing which destroyed the beautiful historical centre of Dresden and killed up to 25,000 in a firestorm. Seeing the pictures of the utter devastation of the burning ruins, and listening to stories of survivors, it is hard to believe that a people and a city could ever rise again. The sheer scope of the catastrophe makes our troubles today seem trivial.

I was there as Vice-Chairman of The Dresden Trust, which dedicated to reconciliation and raised £1 million to help rebuild the city’s main church. The Trust’s Royal Patron, the Duke of Kent, was honoured with a Dresden Peace Prize, which has previously been awarded to Mikhail Gorbachev and Daniel Barenboim. DSC07969 Reconciliation is possible for one reason – the recognition by all German leaders for the past 30 years that the German people as a whole were responsible for bringing Hitler to power and following him willingly into a war of genocide. The     Dresden Trust awarded its Medal of Honour to Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz, who declared that Dresden was bombed because Germans first bombed Coventry, London, Rotterdam and Warsaw. German President Joachim Gauck said: “We know who began this murderous war.”

These German leaders are brave, since they risk unpopularity with their voters. But it is the only way Germany can take its place in the community of nations. Still. I find this frank admission of guilt quite exceptional, and the key to the peaceful European order of the past 30 years. “We have to keep saying it, because not all Germans acknowledge it,” says Helma Orosz. Three days later 4,000 right-wing “Pegida” demonstrators were out in the main square chanting slogans against Islam and immigrants.

Dresdeners no longer hold animosity towards the British for a raid which was controversial from the start. Now they welcome Britons for the more stable, tolerant values they hope we will share with them. They look to us to counter the malevolent influence of the neo-Nazi fringe. I did my bit by joining 10,000 Dresdeners in a human chain formed around the historical centre. We held hands for a few minutes in a gesture of peace – but also symbolically to keep out the neo-Nazis.

Everybody I met had their stories. A Coventry woman remembered a relative was killed on the last day of the war bombing U-boats in Norway. A Dresdener whose hand I was holding in the human chain told me of an uncle bomber pilot who was shot down over England and then invited in for a cup of tea by the locals.

Dresden is now an expanding young city with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Germany. From the smouldering ruins it has risen again, demonstrating how resilient the human spirit can be. I was proud to show a bit of solidarity they have finally earned.

Working on my new book … The Fight For Freedom

May 9, 2014

Not much time for blogging, as I am writing, writing, writing. Here’s the book I am working on:

19.3.2014 cover FFF - iPad cover (3)

Troubled Eastern Europe: understanding the turmoil

February 26, 2014

The Budapest House cover                        IMG_0728

NOW ON VIDEO …

A talk about my new book featuring a woman who travels to Eastern Europe to rediscover her roots – and encounters a world in upheaval. It’s about dealing with trauma and moving on. As we can see in the Ukraine, the turmoils of Eastern Europe are far from over.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkIdgP_qbHQ

Ukraine: cut off and thirsting for contact with the world

February 23, 2014

I first published this blog after a visit to Ukraine in April 2010

The roads are broken up with potholes, the pavements are full of ice, slush and mud, the buildings are Soviet and not much works. The students I am teaching can’t speak much English or any other foreign language. The Schengen visa system makes travel to western Europe difficult, and few can afford it.

I am in the Ukraine. It means “borderlands,” and that’s what it is. One of my students asks me anxiously: “Do you think we are European?” I say: “Of course you are.” She is relieved. She was not sure she qualified, but she definitely does want to be one of us.

Excluded as Ukrainians largely are from contact with the West, they have an uphill task joining the modern world. The Institute for Human Development “Ukraine” in Kirovograd, a sprawling provincial city, is doing its best by inviting foreign teachers, but its internet service usually goes off in mid-afternoon because the service provider rations its kilobytes.

Nobody speaks nostalgically of the old days, but there is little sense that the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in 1990 was a turning point. Life did not change much. Now the oppressors are corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen. Individuals are unsure that they are empowered. Pessimism is the norm.

In the gloom of the fag end of an Eastern winter however shines the eternal Slav spirit – warm, hospitable and emotional. My journalism students snatch the western newspapers I have brought from my hand (the Swisscontact aid organisation has sent me). I give lessons in journalism, but what they really want to hear is how it is where I come from. They beam with pleasure that somebody has taken the trouble to come to them.

My hosts immerse me in culture. I eat bortsch and blinis with cottage cheese. Two of my students take me to a sauna, I buy a fur coat and I end up at the local beauty contest. I learn how to toast vodka: the first of the 39 traditional Ukrainian toasts is for good, the second for friends, the third for women, and after that nobody can remember any more.

After a couple of weeks, I am feeling quite at home.

Ukraine: more Russian than you may think

February 23, 2014

I published this blog in April 2010 after spending two weeks teaching journalism in Kirovograd, in central Ukraine 

Most East European countries which left the Soviet embrace in 1990 felt they were regaining their independence. Not so the Ukraine, where the desire to differentiate itself from Russia is not so obvious.

It depends which part of the country you are in. In the west, there is a long separatist tradition. There, the Ukrainian language is widespread, and Polish words are used too, since Poland used to rule there.

In Kirovograd in the centre however, Ukrainian and Russian are used almost equally. A teacher at the Institute where I have been teaching journalism told me she spoke Ukrainian with her students and Russian with her friends. Further east in the Ukraine, Russian is even more common.

Kirovograd was founded in the 18th century by the Russian Empress Elizabeth as a fortress defending Russia against Tartars and Turks. Two Russian generals who defeated Napoleon came from its military academy. It was named first after Elizabeth, then after an early Soviet Communist, Zinoviev (a local boy), and then after another top Soviet Communist, Kirov. Trotsky also came from here.

Local guides don’t mention that Stalin had all three murdered. Somehow that does not help the townsfolk’s sense of identity.

So what to call the city now? An Orthodox priest tells me it should be Elizavetgrad again. One of my young students snorts in indignation: too old-fashioned. For lack of agreement, it stays Kirovograd. Three streets remain named after Lenin, Marx and Dzerzhinksy, the head of the Soviet Cheka secret police. For these too, nobody can come up with anything more suitable. It is hard to find historical references which are appropriate.

So what IS the Ukraine’s cultural identity, and how close does it want to be to Russia? This is a tough question for a young country and it deserves respect. It is not just a question of democratic Western Europe versus autocratic Russia. Many Ukrainians feel so close to Russia they do not even consider it “abroad.”

But the European Union of the West is likely to help the Ukraine to modernize itself much more effectively than Russia. There is not really a choice.

DRESDEN 1945 – THEY DON’T WANT SYMPATHY ANY MORE

February 16, 2014

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“Dresden was no innocent city!” The city’s mayor Helma Orosz is haranguing her citizens in the street. “When we remember the catastrophe which befell the city in 1945, we should think of German bombing of Coventry and Rotterdam. Remember the millions whom Germans slaughtered in Poland, the forced labourers, the destruction of the Jewish synagogue in Dresden, the deportations. There were many Nazis in Dresden and people knew what was going on.”

Where else in the world, I wonder, does a political leader castigate the fathers and grandfathers of her voters so harshly?

But her audience laps it up. It is the 69th anniversary of the British bombing of February 1945 which killed over 20,000 people and destroyed the heart of one of Europe’s most beautiful historical cities. They are not sorry for themselves. I had come a little apprehensively as a Trustee of Britain’s Dresden Trust, set up to further reconciliation and help rebuild the ruined Church of Our Lady. Would they be hoping that I express regret, I wondered?

Not at all. When I tell a young journalist that for all the need to defeat Hitler, I felt the attack was not justified, she crisply retorts: “Why not? It was a military target.”

Well yes, in a way. But by my judgment the firestorms which Britain’s Bomber Command created in German cities were immoral. First they dropped high explosives to crack the buildings open, then thousands of incendiaries to light fires which, if the wind was right, came together in a fiery whirlwind that nobody could escape. They targeted town centres, where the old houses packed together burned better than the military targets located on the outskirts. That these houses were inhabited by civilian old men, women and children, they cared not at all. Indeed the plan was to break civilian morale (it did not work).

The British commander of the raid circling overhead radioed to an incoming wave of bombers, “It’s coming up quite nicely now,” as if he were talking of a bonfire at the bottom of his garden.

But Dresdners don’t have this on their minds today. They want to prevent neo-Nazis from streaming in from all over Germany, to rampage and demonstrate – trying to depict the British attack as a war crime relieving Germans of guilt for Auschwitz. Thousands of neo-Nazis used to come, giving the city a shameful reputation.

Now Dresdners have seized their commemoration back from the fanatics: Mayor Orosz calls on us to join a human chain around the historic centre as a symbolic barrier against the neo-Nazis. I can scarcely find space. 10,000 people last year, 11,000 this year.

It works. Although a few hundred neo-Nazis parade with burning torches the day before, none appear on the anniversary. There is no fighting, no disruption. The crowd clap. They may care little about politics otherwise, but they have done what Germans precisely did NOT do when Hitler was pushing his way to power. They have stood up en masse for normal, decent human values.

Actors, musicians and writers read texts at various points of the old centre. They too are doing what German intellectuals failed to do when the Nazis emerged in the 1930s. They are assuming responsibility for influencing hearts and minds.

I head for the magnificent Semper opera house, painstakingly rebuilt over several decades. The choir launches resoundingly into Verdi’s Requiem evoking the Day of Judgment when nobody can escape God’s fearful reckoning. Another tough choice: Dresdners certainly underwent their punishment by hellfire. After the soloists conclude by pleading God to forgive the sins of the dead and let them rest in peace, the conductor drops his baton, the musicians and audience of 3,000 rise to their feet, and for four or five minutes intense silence reigns. The cathartic emotions bursting to find relief in applause are turned inwards in silent contemplation.

As we file quietly out, the bells of Dresden peal out at 21.40 hours, the time when the first bombs fell on 13th February 1945. Some deep and funereal, others such as those of the Church of Our Lady higher in tone, suggesting life and joy after death and destruction.

In the square outside, hundreds of people stand with candles. At 22.00, the bells fall silent and we troop into the church. A choir chants Dona Nobis Pacem, and teenagers read texts they have written themselves. The pastor is expecting me and asks me to read a piece. It’s Jesus’s invocation to love thine enemy. That puts me on the spot. He says I can add a few words of my own.

When it’s my turn in the pulpit, I read my text and add (in German): “I have come here to represent the Dresden Trust of Britain in a spirit of reconciliation. My mother was German. She was anti-Nazi and was thrown out of her school. My father was English and fought in the British Army. My uncle was a bomber pilot, shot down and killed over Cologne in 1942.

“Immediately after the war, my mother insisted we go to Germany to renew contacts with her German family, even though some had been Nazis. From my German mother, who just died at the age of 101, I learned: after war should come peace.”

The pastor shakes my hand and says he is moved. So am I, and how. I stay in the dimmed splendour of the church till after midnight. When I slip out, Dresden’s teenagers are still going up to the pulpit, one after the other, humbly acknowledging their nation’s past and the terrible chastisement which followed.

A web site for my new book THE BUDAPEST HOUSE

February 11, 2014

The Budapest House cover

I have a new web site for my latest book, THE BUDAPEST HOUSE: A LIFE RE-DISCOVERED.

To learn about this moving true story of a woman seeking her roots in Central Europe, and to buy the book, go to  http://www.thebudapesthouse.com

Appalling Hungarian plan to evade a dark side of the nation’s history – the Holocaust

January 25, 2014

Towards the end of World War II, Hungarians participated in sending hundreds of thousands of their Jewish compatriots to Auschwitz. I wrote about this in my book THE BUDAPEST HOUSE www.thebudapesthouse.com

Here the eminent Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry spells out the falsehoods and evasions involved in the Hungarian government’s plan to raise a monument to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944.

This article was first published on http://www.politics.hu/ See http://bit.ly/1fcrTNh

On January 17, the Hungarian government decided to erect a monument commemorating the German invasion of Hungary. (…) I would hope that more will be said about the aesthetic qualities of Imre Parkanyi Raab’s work – more precisely, its lack of aesthetic qualities. Here, I am concerned only with how he and the Budapest Gallery is falsifying history to ensure that this … sculpture is erected in a public space. This focus is justified because the government, which commissioned the monument, has omitted to consult any professional historians before selecting the proposed work. I would like to fill the gap left by that lack of consultation.

The artist says his work “uses the methods of art history and evokes figures from cultural history with allegorical forms. (…) Two cultures are represented: one, which thinks itself stronger, and which is certainly more aggressive, towers above a more tranquil and softer-lined figure, that of the Archangel Gabriel, who represents Hungary. Gabriel, in cultural and religious tradition, is God’s servant or God’s power personified.

“On Heroes’ Square, the Archangel Gabriel sits atop a column, among the clouds. In my composition, he has been laid low. … He is depicted as handsome and tranquil. His body is perfect, and there is no fear in his eyes. His face is tranquil, his eyes are closed. The monument explains that his dream will turn into a nightmare. A culture, its wings broken, is being crushed by a greater power: the Third Reich and the symbol that represents it: the Imperial Eagle. The depiction of the eagle is the exact opposite of the Archangel Gabriel’s. The Imperial Eagle is an assemblage of mass produced icons and symbols. It sweeps in flight across the world. Soon it will reach us and engulf Hungary, putting its inhabitants in chains.”

In the view of the sculptors Miklos Melocco and Gyorgy Benedek, the work described above is “unique and outstanding in the way it conveys meanings that go beyond the unmistakable message of the explicit symbolism. … The way it reflects history is also remarkable. … We accepted more than 200,000 Polish refugees. Our country was at peace until 1943. The German army massacred as it arrived, and their Hungarian servants in the Arrow Cross movement murdered the country. At most, they intended to leave behind a few Hungarian slaves, temporarily. This lends a terrifying naturalness to the sculpture’s stylised depiction.”

Their opinion is a surprise, because students have been failed at university for less egregious historical distortions. Not to mention that the symbolism is unfortunate. It has already been pointed out that the “Nazi” eagle is actually a German national symbol – making its use in this monument both artistically and politically tasteless. (…)

But the tasteless execution is as nothing compared to the historical distortions. Let’s take them in turn:

1. The events of 1944 are, to say the least, more complicated than a story of “bad” Germans fighting “good” Hungarians. Eichmann himself was thrilled by his experiences here, observing that the Hungarians must surely be descended from the Huns since nowhere else had he seen so much brutality “in the course of solving the Jewish question.” So much for the “more tranquil, softer-lined figure”.

2. The German invasion did not put the country’s population in chains. Rather, it opened the way for the country’s right-wing elite to redistribute the possessions of some 800,000 people. Very many people received some share of the spoils, and for that reason they are unlikely to have felt oppressed.

3. Not 200,000 but 70,000 Polish refugees arrived in Hungary. This is also a very large number and a positive story, but it has nothing to do with the German invasion.

4. Hungary was indeed an island of peace for many people until 1944, but not for its Jews. Apart from the more than 100 laws and regulations passed against Jews, there were pogroms in several places (in Kisvarda in 1938, and in Munkacs and Maramarossziget in 1942), mass murders (a total of 700 Jews died in Southern Hungary in 1942), the mass deportation of some 17,000 people to Kamenyec-Podolski, continuous deportations of those who escaped until autumn 1942, not to mention inhumanely forced labour, which itself caused the death of more than 10,000 people by 1944. This isn’t as much as the millions of deaths elsewhere, but I wouldn’t call it a small number either.

5. The German army did not commit massacres as it arrived in Hungary. What we refer to as massacres were exclusively planned by the Hungarian authorities and partially carried out by them. Proposals to place the entire Jewish population in ghettos had been floated in Parliament as early as 1941, and it was only the tactical maneuverings of prime minister Miklos Kallay and Miklos Horthy, the head of state, that had stopped the proposals coming to a vote. But by March 1944, Hungary’s state bureaucracy had made the necessary preparations for bringing several hundred thousand people’s lives to a close, making sure that they had fully paid their water, electricity and gas bills before they were loaded into the cattle trucks.

6. Here it’s worth recalling that Hungarian authorities were not just implementing ideas they had got from the Germans. Some anti-semitic measures were enacted over the protests of the Germans, as with the deportations to Kamenyets-Podolski, where in their eagerness, Hungarian authorities caused a humanitarian catastrophe by sending 10,000 robbed and starving Jews to an already devastated area. Some of them were immediately killed in ‘amateur’ pogroms carried out by local Ukrainian anti-semites. It was only after this that the Germans decided to kill the Jews in order to ensure there was enough food for the local Ukrainian population, reduce the risk of an epidemic and to further their own anti-semitic programme. This was the first mass murder in the history of the Holocaust whose number of victims ran into five digits. But the Hungarians behind the deportation had known from the outset that their actions would result in mass death. Miklos Kozma, government commissioner for the Lower Carpathians, the man principally responsible for the action, wrote as early as 1940 in his diary that “Himmler, Heydrich and the radicals are doing what they want to do. In Poland, people are being exterminated … The Polish Jewish ghetto near Lublin is partially solving the Jewish question, so vast is the scale of the deaths.” In July, news arrived of executions, but this did not stop the perpetrarors – symbolised in the present monument by the Archangel Gabriel – from carrying on.

7. The “Arrow Cross servants” had nothing to do with the German invasion. A coalition government was formed in Hungary after the invasion, in which the former government party played a central role alongside Bela Imredy’s Hungarian Renewal Party and a smaller national socialist party. But the Arrow Cross was NOT part of the government. Indeed, Szalasi, the Arrow Cross leader, criticised the deportations of the Jews, saying it was a waste of the nation’s labour reserves. One current ruling party politician has said that the Hungarian state’s sovereignty was limited at this time because “a large part of the cabinet had been arrested.” Let’s count: two members of the Kallay government were arrested by the Gestapo – the prime minister himself and the interior minister. Nine ministers were not just free, but members of the new government. Put it differently: there were only two members of the new, post-invasion government who had not been ministers before 1944. To be sure, one of the exceptions was the Dome Sztojay, the new prime minister, but both exceptions had been part of the pre-1944 Hungarian upper elite. Hardly “a large part of the cabinet”.

8. Eliminating the Hungarian nation did not feature among the goals of the German invasion or even long-term Nazi plans. The claim that they would have “temporarily left behind a few enslaved Hungarians” is completely wrong. The Nazis intended to exterminate Slavs and Jews, not others.Finally, it is exceptionally sneaky to argue that the monument “is dedicated to the memory of every victim,” as government party politician Antal Rogan has claimed. The German occupiers were responsible only for a relative handful of victims. Easily 99 percent of the deaths were caused by the Hungarian authorities who enthusiastically deported the Jews, and it was also the Hungarians that profited. When the unfortunates finally arrived in Auschwitz, everything had already been taken from them, including their wedding rings.

It is very wrong to try and pretend that both victim and murderer were on the same side. But this is what is being done. Authorities didn’t even consider building a central Holocaust memorial – and that’s no coincidence, since it would then be necessary to discuss Hungarians’ roles in all this. It would be very noble if someone whose grandfather died as a soldier on the banks of the Don river or had been killed while carrying out forced labour, were to mourn alongside someone whose grandfather had been driven out in 1944 and then been killed by German or Hungarian authorities. But this monument excludes that possibility by showing no empathy for a group of victims in whose death Hungarian authorities played a central role.

If anybody thought this monument is a one-off slip-up – I have bad news for them. It is a logical consequence of the deceitful preamble to the new constitution, part of the national lie that wants to commemorate 1944 as “the year of saving lives” while remaining silent about the question of who did the killing. It is part of the same government tactic that hands millions of euros to historical research centres without asking the views of real historians.

Perhaps I can end with a modest proposal. Officially, not a single woman was deported from Hungary without being subjected to a vaginal examination, to ensure that no national asset of value left the country. We have very precise records of the work carried out by the women who did the cavity searches. We also know that, in order not to waste the nation’s money and for the sake of speed, these women did not change their rubber gloves: they used one glove all day without disinfection. The Archangel Gabriel does not accurately symbolise this. But if authorities do nonetheless want to build a monument, then let them build one to the women who carried out those cavity searches. The location, on Szabadsag ter, is perfect, because it’s right in front of the National Bank of Hungary, and so it would serve as a fine reminder of the symbolism of that concern for the nation’s assets. Better yet: instead of wasting money, the people who are trying to whitewash our country’s dishonour should be ashamed of themselves.


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