The Goebbels Quandary: German government in dilemma over bungalow used by Nazi propagandist

Retain or demolish? A luxury bungalow used by the notorious Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels has raised difficult ethical questions about the ways in which buildings associated with dictatorship and intolerance in the past should be treated in the present.

According to media reports, the German government has been placed in a dilemma over whether to spend money on the bungalow, which is in need of serious renovation, or whether to simply demolish the building. The cost of its possible renovation is estimated at more than 100 million euros, with basic maintenance of 1 million euros per year.

Bild 146-1968-101-20A

The bungalow, which is located to the north of Berlin, was used as a secret venue by Goebbels to seduce film actresses. It was also the location where he wrote the now infamous ‘Total War’ speech of 18th February, 1943, in which he urged the German people to ‘subordinate everything’ to the war effort and proclaimed his ‘unshakable’ belief that the Third Reich would achieve ultimate victory.

Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), of course, was the Reich Minister for Culture and Propaganda from 1933-1945 and, along with his wife Magda, was fanatically devoted to Adolf Hitler; in particular, both Goebbels and his wife shared the Fuhrer‘s obsessive anti-Semitism. Indeed, in a notorious radio address made at the end of February, 1945, Joseph Goebbels made it clear that he would view life after the Third Reich as ‘not worth living, either for myself or my children’. Staying to the bitter end in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin in April, 1945 – and after the Nazi dictator had killed himself – Goebbels and his wife arranged the murder of their own children and then also committed suicide.

According to The Times newspaper (12th January), a Berlin city councillor from the ruling Social Democrats recently stated that no serious investors have come forward in the three bidding rounds that have been held since the unification of Germany in 1989-90, and that the ‘vast and remote complex, which includes a crumbling East German Communist-era building, was of limited historical interest’.

goebbels speaks

However, as the newspaper also noted, the fate of the building has fed into an ‘anguished debate over how Germany should handle its Nazi heritage and whether tearing down symbols of the regime amounts to erasing part of its fascist history’. Sven Heinemann, who sits on the supervisory board of the state property agency that owns the site, was quoted by the newspaper as commenting that the city wanted to avoid the bungalow becoming a shrine for current-day neo-Nazis, and that it made ‘little sense’ to spend a huge sum on its renovation. A final decision on the site could be taken this year (2019), after an expert report on the building is drawn up. Mr. Heinemann commented: ‘It was a private villa where Goebbels seduced some actresses. If the place were deemed that historically significant, efforts would have been made to explain its history by now’.

Members of Germany’s community of professional historians, however, have expressed dismay at the possible plans for demolition. It has been pointed out that the complex, in fact, represents Germany’s two dictatorships i.e. Nazi Germany and then the subsequent East German Communist regime. Some have pointed out that it could be utilized as a conference centre for young people or as a museum to show how the Nazi regime drove people to war and mass murder, especially as there appears to be a worrying resurgence of the extreme right in Germany and elsewhere in Europe today.

Goebbels started visiting the location as early as 1936, when the government gave him a lake and a small chalet on its shore as a birthday gift. However, in line with the egotistic ambitions of other leading members of the Nazi elite, Hitler’s propaganda expert decided that he required a much more prestigious retreat, and he issued strict orders for the construction of the complex in question, which was completed in 1939, and still stands today. The main building has 30 rooms, floor-to-ceiling terrace windows and, in evident reflection of the Nazi cultural fascination with neo-classical imagery, a statue of a nude ‘Aryan’ couple stands by the main entrance.

joseph goebbels with wife and ah

Goebbels, exploiting his position as Minister of Culture and Propaganda, and with a particular interest in movies, saw numerous opportunities to pressurise ambitious young actresses into offering him sexual favours, and used the bungalow for these secret liaisons, which was seemingly well away from the public glare of Berlin and also his wife, Magda (pictured with Hitler and her husband). According to recent biographers, such as the historians Ralph Georg Reuth and Peter Longerich, Goebbels became especially besotted with the Czech actress Lida Baarova.

The two had an affair which lasted two years and this only came to an end when Magda Goebbels persuaded Hitler to personally intervene. Hitler, keen to maintain the image (and myth) of the Goebbels family as the perfect model Nazi family, called Joseph Goebbels before him and ordered the affair to end. Although privately devastated, Goebbels obeyed his Fuhrer, worried that he might fall out of favour and thus enable other key Nazi lieutenants to replace him in Hitler’s affections.

After the conclusion of World War Two, the building was used as a hospital by the Allied forces of occupation and then, with the advent of the East German dictatorship, it was placed under the control of the youth wing of the East German Communist Party, where it was used to indoctrinate eager party officials from around the globe.

neo-fascists saluting outside mussolini's tomb

One can sympathise with current-day German fears that, if renovated, the bungalow could possibly become a shrine for neo-Nazis, as other similar locations have certainly experienced this, such as the grave of Rudolph Hess, and also Hitler’s birthplace in Austria. Similarly, in Italy, Benito Mussolini’s tomb has seen regular gatherings of neo-Fascist youths (see photo). Moreover, what seems like a whole cottage industry has developed in the local area devoted to selling Mussolini souvenirs, postcards, posters, T-shirts and other memorabilia, something which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

On the other hand, from a historian’s perspective, one could argue that there may still be a very good case for the preservation of the Goebbels bungalow – the idea of an educational facility, conference centre or museum devoted to explaining the rise of Nazism and the nature of the Holocaust would, in my view, be money well spent, especially given the worrying return of extremist politics in recent years.

It also remains important to ‘de-mythologise’ the myths that Goebbels sought to build up about himself and also about the leader and the creed he was devoted to. In a sense, the Goebbels bungalow is a very visual reminder of the blatant lies and falsehoods of Nazi propaganda and the sheer hypocrisy of one of Hitler’s leading fanatics.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

 

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Posted in European History, Fascism, Media history, Museums, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A ‘Fun’ Fad or the Future? Newly-released files show how British government officials remained ambivalent about the internet

It was the dawn of a new age of electronic communication, but British government officials had mixed feelings about the new world wide web when it emerged in the 1990s. Newly-released files made available at the UK’s National Archives at Kew in south-west London show how British politicians and their advisers in the mid-1990s saw certain advantages to the internet, but also remained somewhat ambivalent about some aspects of the new invention.

The National Archives

In a tradition that occurs annually and at this time of the year, Thursday 27th December, 2018, saw the release of the latest batch of British Government records from the Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) and the Cabinet Office (CAB), this time relating to the year 1994.

They shed new light for historians on some of the key topics under discussion during John Major’s premiership. In addition to the 1994 material, the latest file releases to the National Archives (TNA) also include some files from the later years in Downing Street of Major’s predecessor as PM, the late Margaret Thatcher.

Not much is known by her biographers about Margaret Thatcher’s attitudes to new technology. What is quite striking about one of the files (TNA PREM 19/4621), however, is the extent to which, in hindsight, the then relatively new internet placed some members of the Major government in a dilemma about the possible potential, or not, of the new technology, including e-mails.

Thatcher with Major 1992

File no. PREM 19/4621 covers the period from July, 1986, to November, 1994, a period when Margaret Thatcher was still in office (she was Conservative PM 1979-1990), and John Major unexpectedly succeeded her (Major was Conservative PM 1990-1997).

The file mainly concerns the development of a new IT system for Number 10 Downing Street, but it also includes some fascinating discussion by officials of the importance of Britain’s Conservatives keeping up with wider technological developments by embracing the growing popularity of the internet, especially as the new Bill Clinton/Al Gore Democrat administration in the USA had already made notable use of it as an effective new tool to engage with voters and the public.

The main Opposition party in Britain also appeared to be ready to adopt the same communications strategy developed by the Democrats, something which worried Conservative policy advisers.

In particular, government officials in the UK clearly realised that they needed to put the British government online or they would look increasingly outdated and out of touch, and possibly hand an advantage to their rivals. Advisors to Major’s administration became especially concerned that the new Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, who was now head of the main Opposition party in Parliament (and had adopted a language of change and ‘modernisation’), would show how he belonged ‘to a new generation by signing up’ as an internet user.

Cartoon of pencil

The newly-released file reveals how Damian Green, who was a member of the policy unit at the heart of the Conservative government, wrote a memorandum in August, 1994, to Alex Allan, John Major’s principal private secretary, in which he pointed out to Allan that ‘Internet users will be a growing group of opinion-formers’. Green also noted that various MPs ‘who are computer literate have made the point to me that it would be advantageous for No. 10 to be seen to be up with developments in this area. Specifically, connecting No. 10 with the Internet would keep us up with the White House, which has made a big thing of the modern way the Clinton/Gore administration deals with communications’.

Perhaps realising the need for greater urgency on the matter, Alex Allan in turn wrote his own memorandum in September, 1994, on the advantages of the government going fully online, including how it would ‘allow members of the public linked to the Internet to send E-mail to the Prime Minister/Number 10, largely as an alternative to writing/faxing/phoning their views’,  and also facilitate the creation of new government websites that could help enhance the way the government engaged with the British public.

On the other hand, Allan was less convinced about the merits of e-mails. He commented at one stage: ‘One particular issue is whether we should advertise that it is possible to send messages to the Prime Minister, and – presumably – get a reply’. He added: ‘I am sure we should offer this in time, but I am cautious about rushing into it. I do not believe that we would get a huge volume of E-mail in the long run, but we could expect an initial flood as people around the world tried it out for fun’.

It’s an interesting piece of evidence about how officials were struggling to come to terms with the rise of new technologies in the last decade of the 20th century. There is an irony, however. Historians now know that Blair’s New Labour (and especially Mr. Blair himself) were not as advanced when it came to IT as the Conservatives had privately feared. Indeed, looking back on the period and, in particular, on the 1997 General Election, and given New Labour’s growing reputation for professional marketing techniques and better communications during the election campaign, it is surprising how both the Conservatives and Labour parties still appeared rather ‘conservative’ towards the new technology. This would soon change, though.

In fact, the internet and e-mails arguably revolutionised the way subsequent political campaigning and all future governments operated.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

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A ‘bond of mutual help’: The Comrades of the Great War organisation in Kingston and Surbiton

Christmas arrived early for some former soldiers in the suburbs of south-west London in late 1918. One hundred years ago, on Christmas Day, 1918, the Surrey Comet newspaper carried a report about the opening of a new clubhouse for discharged servicemen in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey.

IWM WW1 image

The new clubhouse had been officially opened at 48, London Road, Kingston, a few days earlier, on the evening of Saturday, 21st December, in a formal opening ceremony conducted by Mrs. Cooper Turner, accompanied by her husband, Lieutenant F. Cooper Turner. The latter was President of the Kingston and Surbiton branch of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ organisation, and the Comet noted that its members now had a place where they could ‘meet and discuss matters of interest and enjoy a little social intercourse’ at centrally located premises.

Although there has been some brief coverage by historians of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ at national level, very little is available on the evolution of branches of the organisation at local level in towns and cities across the British Isles. A brief exploration of the Kingston and Surbiton branch can partly help to address this gap in our knowledge.

First of all, however, what was the purpose and aims of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ (CGW) organisation? CGW had been formed in late 1917 at an event held at the Mansion House in London, in order to lobby for, and protect, the rights of ex-servicemen and women who had served in His Majesty’s armed forces and been discharged. It was founded by Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, who sought a rightwing alternative to the recently formed ‘National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers’ (founded in 1916, and affiliated to the Trade Union movement), and also to the ‘National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers’ (which had been founded in April, 1917).

Wilfrid Ashley

The President and leader of CGW was the Conservative MP Colonel Wilfred Ashley (1867-1939) (see photo), who was also secretary of the Anti-Socialist Union (ASU), a group which feared the spread of Socialism and Bolshevism in Britain. Ashley felt CGW could help steer ex-soldiers away from being seduced by the ‘radical’ propaganda of the other rival ex-service organisations.

He was aware that unemployment was high among veterans, especially those who had been left disabled through war injuries. The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, in particular, was calling for better pensions for those who had served. Similarly, the rapidly rising Labour Party was also beginning to campaign on such issues. Many veterans had also expressed disappointment over the seemingly unfulfilled promises made by the wartime Government concerning how many more houses would be built and made available for ex-servicemen and their families. Ashley was worried that ex-servicemen’s groups on the Left would try and exploit such discontent and, indeed, were already ‘politicising’ veterans. He wished to ensure that CGW would be more neutral in such matters.

Ironically, after a number of years of fairly intense competition between CGW and the other two ex-servicemen’s groups, CGW eventually combined with those same organisations, together with the Officers’ Association (which had been formed in 1920), and the four organisations formally became one single veterans movement in May, 1921, entitled the ‘British Legion’, which, of course, still exists today.

The first indications of CGW activity in the Kingston and Surbiton area came in mid-December, 1917, when it was reported that, ‘with the object of inaugurating a local branch of this new organisation’, a meeting had been held at the Gables Theatre in Surbiton (now the site of Hillcroft College, behind Surbiton Station). Mr. G. Pegram presided at the meeting, and a local branch committee was formed. Just a few weeks later, in January, 1918, it was reported in the Surrey Comet that a ‘well attended’ general meeting of the new Kingston and Surbiton branch of the CGW had been held at the Gables Theatre, with Canon F.B. Macnutt, former Senior Chaplain to the British Forces in France, presiding. The honorary secretary, Mr. Herbert Frost, reported, ‘amid applause’, that during the six weeks the branch had been in existence its membership had increased from 22 to 230.

Leave_end

Significantly, at the same meeting, Captain Towse, V.C., of the central organisation of the CGW, spoke to the local members and ’emphasised the fact that the “Comrades” were a strictly non-political body’. According to Towse, the main object of each branch was to unite discharged and demobilised soldiers in ‘a bond of mutual help’ and ‘comradeship’, and ‘to assist the dependents of men and women of all grades of the Services’ who had given their lives for King and Country. Capt. Towse also explained that the organisation ‘must not be confused with Trade Unions’. The ‘Comrades’, he claimed, ‘were out for the sole purpose of helping ex-servicemen, and in so doing they were not working against any other organisation, association or union’.

The following month, the Surrey Comet carried an interesting report about the wider activities and evolution of the CGW across Surrey. According to the newspaper, a meeting had been held in London in early February, 1918, ‘with the object of ventilating the aims and objects of the Comrades of the Great War, and with the view of adopting the scheme for the County of Surrey’. Lord Middleton presided, and ‘a considerable number of important people in the County were present’. Lord Middleton had explained the aims and objects of the CGW organisation, together with Capt. Towse (again representing the CGW national executive), while Colonel Young explained what had been done in Surrey. A resolution put to the meeting was unanimously adopted to appoint a special committee to increase CGW activity in Surrey, and it was noted that: ‘A branch for Kingston and Surbiton was established at the Gables Theatre, Surbiton, a few weeks ago, and there is also a branch at East Molesey’.

Disabled WW1 servicemen

A sense of urgency can also be detected in CGW developments at local level in Surrey, including in the Kingston and district area. This was undoubtedly due to the emergence of rivals. In February, 1918, for example, a branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers had been formed for Surbiton and Kingston, and any ‘discharged servicemen desiring to enrol’ were invited to communicate with W.R.G. Tucker, at Orchard Cottage, South Place, Surbiton Hill. Also known as the ‘Silver Badge Men’ (from September, 1916, a silver badge was issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to serious wounds or sickness), the organisation tended to be more outspoken concerning what they saw as the unfair treatment of ex-servicemen, especially those men who had lost limbs.

Tucker became Hon. Secretary of the group, which held its first general meeting in early March at the Surbiton Lecture Hall in Maple Road, Surbiton. Reliable figures on local membership and support are difficult to find, although in November, 1918, it was reported that, at a monthly meeting of the Silver Badge Men held in the Fife Hall, Kingston, ‘about 100 members were present’ to hear addresses by two parliamentary candidates for the Kingston Parliamentary Division, who were subjected to ‘a good deal of good-humoured heckling’. The same account of the meeting stated that the local National Federation branch now had a membership of nearly 400, which was about fifty or so more than the CGW by that stage.

WW1 British soldier returning home

Meanwhile, the CGW had followed its own ‘non-political’ path. In early March, 1918, it was announced that Lieut.-Colonel F. Cooper Turner, J.P., had accepted the position of ‘Commandant’ of the Kingston and Surbiton branch of the CGW, and the branch appears to have made some further progress over the next few months. The ‘social’ side to the branch certainly seemed healthy. Indeed, it appears that the social and cultural activities were viewed as more important than any dabbling in ‘politics’. In May, 1918, the CGW were able to hold their second ‘smoking concert’ at the Gables Theatre, with an ‘excellent programme’ of acts arranged for the occasion by Mr. Herbert Frost, the local branch secretary.

Clearly, however, a more permanent base for the local CGW branch was urgently needed if it was to grow yet more and provide regular support and social ‘comradeship’ for members, particularly given the local emergence of the rival National Federation. In June, 1918, it was reported that there had only been ‘a fair attendance’ at a general meeting of the branch of the CGW held at the Gables Theatre. Lieut.-Colonel F. Cooper Turner, presiding at the meeting, and speaking in his capacity as Commandant, said ‘every effort’ was being made to find suitable premises for club purposes ‘where the comrades could spend a comfortable hour of recreation’. Interestingly, though, branch secretary Frost was still able to report that the branch had over 300 members and was ‘still enrolling’.

Kingston on Thames

But the search for a headquarters and club-room appears to have dragged on for a number of months. It was not until well into the autumn that a property was found. In early November, the Surrey Comet revealed that the CGW were making an appeal for funds to provide a club-room for the branch, as ‘suitable quarters’ had now been obtained in Kingston. The estimated expense of furnishing the premises (at 48, London Road), plus rental and lighting, for a period of three years, was ‘about £600’.

Publicity material for the appeal provides further insights into what the CGW stood for. Again, it was stated that the aims and objects of the organisation were to ‘bring together’ the discharged and demobilised sailors and soldiers of the district ‘in a bond of mutual help’, and to ‘continue that spirit of Comradeship so predominant in the Trenches’, while also safeguarding the interests of all naval and military men and the widows and orphans of these who had fallen.

In the appeal for funds, the CGW branch Hon. Secretary Herbert Frost also called for gifts of furniture, including a Billiard Table: ‘Will any lady or gentleman kindly present one as a memorial to a Fallen Hero? An inscribed plate will be affixed denoting the donor and in whose memory it is given’.

It is also evident that, as a more conservative type of veterans organisation, the CGW could rely on support from Establishment notables. In early December, 1918, in a report on a meeting at Kingston Congregational Hall to celebrate both the first anniversary of the branch and the fact that it would be opening premises shortly, a message from Lady Haig, wishing success to the branch, was read out by the Commandant, F. Cooper Turner. The first Annual Report of the branch, presented by Hon. Secretary Frost, stated that membership was now at 359.

Coverage of the opening of the new CGW premises in Kingston is also worth noting. A tone of optimism was in evidence. The Surrey Comet observed to its readers that the Comrades of the Great War organisation was ‘one of the products of the War which bids fair to play an important part in national affairs in coming days’, and was ‘making great headway’ in many parts of the country. Moreover, the Comet suggested that nothing had been more marked during the War ‘than the spirit of comradeship which has been evoked by the sense of  a common danger and a common patriotism’.

Reflecting on the new post-war peace, the newspaper also argued that: ‘Men of all classes have served side by side in the ranks, and have manifested an equality of self-sacrifice in the interests of their country, and it is of the greatest importance that the feelings of mutual confidence should be maintained and deepened in the time of peace when so many perplexing problems have to be faced’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Whatever happened to British social democracy? Event and book launch held in honour of David Marquand

At a time of mounting political crisis and division in the country, amidst stalemate over ‘Brexit’, and with the major political parties in Britain seemingly lurching towards the populist extremes, it is worth pausing to reflect on what has happened to the moderate progressive political traditions that have so animated British history over the past hundred and more years.

Doing just that, Kingston University historian, Dr. Jeremy Nuttall co-organized a public event on the past and present of British social democracy on 15th November, 2018, as part of the Royal Society of Arts’ lunchtime speaker series in central London. The event, which can be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/rsaeventsofficial/videos/vb.1243843545637571/2106567806074803/?type=2&theater featured, and was held in honour of Dr. Nuttall’s former doctoral supervisor, Professor David Marquand. Marquand, former Labour MP, leading thinker in the breakaway SDP, and later Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, has for decades been one of the country’s leading centre-left intellectuals.

David Marquand

Marquand (pictured) is the author of such ground-breaking works as The Progressive Dilemma, The Unprincipled Society, and the leading biography of Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald.

Joining Marquand on the panel at the RSA event were Neal Lawson, chair of the leading political think-tank, Compass, and fellow former Marquand supervisee, Professor Hans Schattle, expert on politics and citizenship, over from Yonsei University in South Korea. It is testimony to the extent and range of Marquand’s influence that joining them to contribute to the discussion, and pay tribute to him from the audience, were such social democratic and liberal luminaries as Observer journalist, Will Hutton, former SDP leader, David Owen, historian Kenneth Morgan, and founder of Charter 88, Anthony Barnett.

David-Marquand

The event took place against an immediate backdrop (that very morning) of Cabinet resignations, and House of Commons debate over Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and this seemed to add to the sense of immediacy and vibrancy of the discussion in the packed auditorium.

The panellists emphasised the gravity of the challenges to social democracy. Changes in social class, technology, and culture had for decades been depleting the old, relatively homogeneous, unionised, male workforce, from which so much of social democracy’s ‘automatic’ support base had been drawn. Both the achievements and the shortcomings of the Tony Blair era had left the centre-left ideologically bankrupt, short of ideas on where to next go. There were also the dilemmas of Brexit, with Labour unsure whether to appeal to its more Brexit-supporting Northern heartlands, or its metropolitan liberal middle-class strain.

Yet, the overall mood was one of defiance, and belief that things must and would turn around. Professor Schattle emphasised the opportunity for progressives worldwide to make an attractive offer in areas of traditional strength like healthcare and environmentalism, of which voters were increasingly realizing the urgent importance.

Royal_Society_of_Arts London

Lawson pointed to how technological change could now be an opportunity as much as a threat to social democracy, as it offered new communicational and organizational forums through which to organize, share ideas and mobilize movements. For Marquand, the reason for hope lay above all in the British people themselves, whose fundamental instincts were more constructive, informed and progressive than the current populist moment implied. ‘I am still an optimist’, he declared.

The RSA event also served as the launch for Dr. Nuttall’s new book, Making Social Democrats, co-edited with panellist Professor Schattle. See: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526120304/  An edited collection, featuring chapters from many of those present at the RSA event, including Marquand himself, the book’s honorand, the new book highlights the past achievements of British social democracy, and suggests grounds for cautious optimism about its future prospects.

The book focuses, in particular, on social democracy less as an economic or policy approach, and more as an outlook or mind-set, an exercise in caring, cooperation, education and learning as much as one in economic management or Whitehall policy papers. Here, as in much of Marquand’s work, the role of the people themselves in propelling a more enlightened politics and society is once again foregrounded. In the end, in a democracy, politicians must reflect in some measure the mix of values, qualities and prejudices of the public they serve – a somewhat daunting reminder of the political responsibility we all share, perhaps, but also one, both the book and the RSA event suggest, which is replete with possibilities.

Dr. Jeremy Nuttall is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

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What have been the best History books of 2018? Some possible candidates

As Christmas approaches, various magazines and newspapers in the UK have been putting forward their choices for the best History books of 2018. The past year has seen some excellent books on all aspects of the past, ranging from reassessments of the life and rule of Napoleon I in the eighteenth century to fresh studies of Arnhem in 1944 and American involvement in the Vietnam War just a few years later.

There have also been fascinating studies of ‘dictator literature’ in the twentieth century and of ‘civility’ and manners in early modern England. A well-received study has also explored a controversial aspect of the private life of Mary, Queen of Scots, while another book has set out some of the legacy of Mary.

In a recent edition of the ‘Saturday Review’ section of The Times newspaper, writer Gerard DeGroot explored some of the above tomes and also some of the other possible candidates for History ‘Books of the Year’.

Vietnam soldier

One critically-acclaimed study has been Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, written by journalist and historian Max Hastings. In this ground-breaking new study, Hastings looks at how, to use DeGroot’s words, the USA’s initial ‘gargantuan’ self-belief ‘obscured the futility of the American mission’ in south-east Asia.

As Hastings reveals, it was near impossible for the USA to win a war that lacked a clear moral or strategic purpose. Hastings is able to draw on many of his own experiences as a young journalist who witnessed and reported directly from the conflict in the late 1960s, and is particularly effective on the reality of life for the ordinary conscript soldiers on the ground. In DeGroot’s estimation, the book ‘is by far the best book on the Vietnam War’.

Another possible candidate for acclaim is another study of the sheer brutality of  warfare from the hard-working military historian Antony Beevor, Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges 1944. This well argued and thoroughly researched new exploration of the disastrous Arnhem operation in Holland in September, 1944, which was the brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery, shows – according to DeGroot – how Monty’s ‘hubris’ destroyed an army. Indeed, in DeGroot’s view, Beevor’s book ‘is not a tale of heroes, although heroes are present. It’s a story about the ugliness of war. It’s about blood and piss and vomit, severed limbs, oozing brains and soldiers crying for their mothers’. As DeGroot points out: ‘No one beats Beevor at recreating the bewildering cacophony of war’.

Hitler and child

Another possible candidate as a History book of the year is surely Daniel Kalder’s Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing. This well-written tome looks at the literary and propaganda efforts of murderous dictators such as Hitler, Mao and Saddam Hussein. As DeGroot notes, Kalder’s study ‘has done us a great service’ in the way the author has patiently read the books written by some of the biggest tyrants of the twentieth century, including the ‘mind-numbing drivel’ that was produced by Communist China’s Chairman Mao in his The Little Red Book, and some of the bizarre ‘Mills and Boon’ style books penned by the dictator of Iraq. According to DeGroot: ‘This wonderfully entertaining book is a cautionary tale about how societies are easily wooed by foolish demagogues spouting gibberish’.

Napoleon on his Imperial throne

Turning to earlier periods in the past and another despotic figure, Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth, penned by Adam Zamoyski, is a welcome new reassessment which, as DeGroot has pointed out, at last questions the genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. In DeGroot’s estimation, historians have been ‘too kind’ to the man who in fact presided over the worst military disaster in history – the string of defeats experienced by the French armed forces from Moscow in 1812 to Waterloo in 1815. In this ‘authoritative and robust’ new biography, Zamoyski ‘shows how Napoleon’s genius was the creation of his propaganda machine’.

Delving even further back into history, another possible candidate for the History book of 2018 is, in DeGroot’s estimation, arguably Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England. As DeGroot rightly comments, Thomas ‘has produced a delightfully quirky book’ about how the English ‘learnt to be nice’. Thus, between 1690 and 1760 an estimated 500 self-help manuals on ‘civility’ were published in the country, and out of ‘civility’ came ‘the quest to civilise’. However, there was also a dark side to this: it was a short step to slaughtering the ‘uncivilised’ in the interests of civilisation. As DeGroot observes, Thomas’s book is thus a study about ‘niceness’ – but also ‘its evil manifestations’.

Daughters of the Winter Queen

And among some of the other candidates for the History Book of 2018, DeGroot has pointed to Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Kate Williams, and Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots, penned by Nancy Goldstone.

The work by Williams investigates an under-explored episode in the life of the tragic figure of Mary: in April, 1567, she was raped, but she kept quiet about the crime. Why? Williams traces the possible reasons for Mary’s reluctance to acknowledge this brutal episode, and also writes more generally about the struggle faced by rape survivors throughout history. The study by Goldstone also further enhances our historical knowledge of Mary, but this time through an exploration of the story of four spirited sisters and their mother, Elizabeth Stuart (who was the daughter of James I and the grand-daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots). Like her grand-mother, Mary, the unlucky Elizabeth Stuart faced a number of, to use DeGroot’s words, ‘cruel twists of fate’. Yet, she and her daughters ‘somehow prevailed’, and Goldstone has recounted ‘an enthralling tale about brave women who rose above weak men’.

DeGroot’s survey for The Times of the possible History books of 2018 has identified a number of other works that could be on the list, including The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, by Christopher Andrew; The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, by David Gilmour; Rome: Eternal City, by Ferdinand Mount; and Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950-2017, by Ian Kershaw.

Any one of these books would make an excellent present to place under somebody’s Christmas tree later this month. What all these wonderfully written and often very moving studies demonstrate is that 2018 has shown, once again, that there is a tremendous public appetite for well-researched studies by scholars of history, which are also both accessible and innovative.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

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Rejoicing and Mourning: Responses in Kingston to news of the Armistice in 1918

The end of the First World War brought great joy to many people in cities, towns, villages and numerous other communities across the British Isles, but at the same time there was also sadness and some poignant scenes for the thousands who had lost loved ones and close family members in the brutal conflict.

Daily Mirror Armistice celebrations

How did the people of Kingston-on-Thames and district respond to the news that an Armistice had been signed on November 11th, 1918, exactly 100 years ago? As we commemorate the end of the ‘Great War’, it is interesting to look back at the coverage of the Armistice offered by the local Surrey Comet newspaper in Kingston-on-Thames, which was the town’s main source of news at the time, and explore the details the paper gave to its readers about the events of that special Monday.

As the nation entered into the early days of the new month of November, 1918, the Surrey Comet had noted how the ‘rhythm’ of the war at the front appeared to be changing, but the paper also seemed to sense the sheer exhaustion now felt by local people at home. In an editorial in the November 2nd edition, entitled ‘A Month’s Victories’, the paper had pointed to the ‘tremendously dramatic events’ that were transpiring in the war zones, events which had left people ‘nearly breathless with interest; and yet, it must be added, that never did a great people who have waged war for upwards of four years, and in their hearts intensely desire peace, appear to be so little moved and exulted by it all’. The paper argued victory was in sight, but there could be no relaxation of effort.

Kingston on Thames

The Surrey Comet’s coverage of Monday, November 11th, 1918 (the day of the Armistice), was published on Wednesday, November 13th, in its mid-week edition, and the sense of relief at the dramatic news about the Armistice was palpable. The mid-week edition included an editorial which proclaimed: ‘The people of our country and Empire can lift up their hearts today, for the most awful war in the world’s history has come to a close…’.

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

Reflecting on the previous four years, a note of triumphalism could be detected in the Comet’s stance; the paper’s editorial argued that Germany ‘had listened to false prophets who declared her people to be the Blonde Race destined to rule the world; and in pursuit of the world ambitions which thus infected the blood, has met the fate she so justly deserved’. The editorial added: ‘Marching through blood, rapine, lust and murder, she has over-reached herself and now tastes the galling bitterness of humiliation and defeat’. The Comet then praised ‘the dauntless valour and self-sacrifice’ of Naval and Military forces: ‘The Mighty Dead will live ever in the Nation’s memory…’.

On the next page, under the heading ‘Victory At Last!’, the paper then offered the Comet’s readers some fascinating detail on how the news of the Armistice was received in Kingston and the surrounding area. According to the paper, November 11th was ‘a day that dawned with new-found hope for a European peace…’.

Monday was a ‘a day of national rejoicing’, and within a few minutes of the confirmation of the official news, ‘Kingston and the surrounding neighbourhood presented quite a blaze of bunting. Flags appeared as if by magic’. Flags were put out on all public buildings in the town, and: ‘Cottage and mansion vied with each other in making the best show’, while there was also a ‘tremendous run on all the available stocks of flags at the shops’.

Kingston All Saints Church

Soon the streets ‘became thronged with people’, who were ‘bent on making holiday’. The bells of All Saint’s Church in Kingston ‘rang out merry peals, and everyone was radiant with smiles. Rich and poor rubbed shoulders with one another in the crowds which surged through the streets…’.

Interestingly, the Comet revealed that a number of operatives from Sopwith’s Aviation factory (which was a large wartime employer in the town), who ‘had downed tools in ebullient glee when the glad tidings were received’, then passed through the streets in a motor-van, with a ‘conspicuous figure’ decorating the van – an effigy of the German Kaiser.

Simultaneously, however, the Surrey Comet’s report of the events of that day also recognised that ‘it was not all rejoicing. There was a ghost at the feast. The mourning attire and the sad, set faces of many women told their own sorrowful stories, and the hearts of all who are near and dear to them went out in deep sympathy to those who have experienced the tragedy of the war in its bitterest form by being robbed of their loved ones’.

During the afternoon of November 11th, the rain set in. In the words of the Comet: ‘It was a nasty drizzle which clung to one’s clothes, but it failed to damp the ardour of the revellers, although it appreciably thinned their ranks’. Indeed, as darkness fell, many people in the town and district apparently went home, ‘preferring the comfort of their homes to the damp streets…’.

People celebrating the end of WW1

Yet, the next day (Tuesday) saw the rejoicing continue. A prominent lead was given by the employees of the Sopwith Aviation Works again, who had been given a holiday until Wednesday.

As the Surrey Comet described it: ‘A long procession was formed of motor-lorries and motor-cars crammed with men and women, with a considerable number on foot bringing up the rear’. Moreover, the ‘foremost lorry’ in the procession carried effigies of ‘the butcher of Berlin’ (the Kaiser) and his eldest son, both adorned with German Iron Crosses. Led by a big drum, with bugles blaring and flags flying from every car, the procession made its way slowly through the streets of Kingston, ‘and was greeted everywhere with vociferous cheering’.

In Kingston Market Place, in the heart of the town, the ‘processionists’ were joined by an Army motor-lorry, ‘crowded with men in Khaki’, and the effigies of the Kaiser and his son were then brunt ‘amidst tumultuous cheering’. Significantly, the Surrey Comet also noted that Kingston Barracks (near Richmond Park), the depot of the East Surrey Regiment which had trained and provided so many local men for military service in France and Belgium, also saw ‘lusty cheering’ and ‘vociferous expression of satisfaction at the cessation of hostilities’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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