New Study of Stalin’s ‘War’ on Ukraine

A major new study of one of the most murderous episodes in Joseph Stalin’s time as dictator of Soviet Russia, entitled Red FamineStalin’s War on Ukraine (Allen Lane, 2017), offers new perspectives on the still relatively under-researched ‘Holodomor’ (the Ukraine word for ‘death by hunger’).

Anne Applebaum Red Famine

Written by the award-winning historian Anne Applebaum, whose previous books include GulagA History of the Soviet Camps (2003) – a ground-breaking study which won the Pulitzer prize – Red Famine explores (to use Applebaum’s own words) Stalin’s ‘disastrous decision’ to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms, and the huge and negative impact this policy had on the Ukraine in 1932-33, bringing key parts of the countryside to the brink of mass starvation.

It has been estimated that the decision by Stalin and the Communist Party to force general ‘collectivisation’ on the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934 led to the deaths of at least 5m people across the whole country, and 4m of these were Ukrainians. Moreover, the Communist state sought to cover all this up, preventing foreign journalists reporting on it to the wider world, and altering official census records within the country. In fact, the Communist regime engaged in a blatant attempt to re-write history.

However, despite this, according to Applebaum, thousands of archival records remained in existence, while the Ukrainians themselves kept alive their memory of these horrific times over subsequent generations. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1985 Chernobyl nuclear accident, a new generation of Ukrainian intellectuals began to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the Soviet system, especially given its toxic industrial policies and notorious secrecy. Part of this involved a ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘Holodomor’.

Applebaum’s new study reveals that she first encountered the story of the famine shortly after the Chernobyl events, when the Ukraine’s independence movement was beginning to flourish in the late 1980s and when, as part of the search for a new national identity and a reclamation of Ukraine’s history, a huge national effort was getting underway to collect the memories of famine survivors. Ukraine achieved its sovereignty in 1991, as part of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and this opened up new research possibilities for Western historians to gain access to previously-closed archives and other invaluable primary sources.

Stalin and team

What Applebaum’s study also confirms is the long-standing suspicion held by Western scholars that the famine in the Ukraine was not just a result of the stupidity or naive ideological ambitions of the Communist State’s ‘collectivisation’ programme, but was a tool deliberately used by Stalin to stamp on any signs of Ukrainian nationalism. In other words, as Applebaum puts it, the elite leadership of the Communist Party, firmly under the iron grip of Stalin, decided to use the famine in the Ukraine to crush Ukraine’s desire for sovereignty and nip in the bud any future rebellions by Ukrainian peasants, class traitors or ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

As well as decimating the peasant class, this ‘war’ on the Ukraine by Stalin was also underpinned by other harsh and deliberately planned measures: every Ukrainian nationalist leader was executed or imprisoned in labour camps, the Ukrainian language was ruthlessly repressed, and many thousands of Ukrainians and their families were deported to other distant parts of the Soviet Union, many of them dying as a consequence.

All in all, Red Famine will undoubtedly reinforce Anne Applebaum’s reputation as one of the West’s leading historians of Stalinist crimes and, in particular, will introduce the ‘Holodomor’ to a new generation of students and other readers. And, given the recent and worrying revival of interest in Stalin and other ‘strong men’ in some parts of the former Eastern Communist Bloc, it is arguably more important than ever to understand the nature of authoritarianism, and the reasons why dictators always prefer physical force rather than reason and democracy.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)




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Kingston History Lecturer speaks on Robespierre at Oxford research network

Dr. Marisa Linton, Reader in History at Kingston University, London, and one of the U.K.’s leading experts on the French Revolution, recently gave a talk on Robespierre to a new research network at the University of Oxford, and a summary of her talk has been made available by the Voltaire Foundation.


The concepts of ‘crisis’ and ‘apocalypse’ have reappeared rather abruptly in recent times. Yet, as the Voltaire Foundation has pointed out, they have never been completely absent: merely in retreat from our prevalent belief in ‘progress’.

‘Crisis, extremes and apocalypse’ is a new research network at the University of Oxford that, in the words of the network, ‘seeks to shed light on and engage with themes that are more timely than ever’. These themes have a long history and include key events from the French Revolutionary period.

The network was therefore very pleased to welcome Marisa Linton from Kingston University in April to discuss the French Revolution and the ‘politics’ and ‘language’ of virtue in a talk on ‘Robespierre and the politician’s terror’.


Moreover, after a very successful session in April, the network at the University of Oxford will be hosting Dr. Linton once again in late Autumn, 2017, alongside Olivier Tonneau and Sophie Wahnich for a workshop on Saint-Just.

This promises to be an unmissable event for all scholars of the French Revolution. Set your diaries now.

An overview of Marisa Linton’s Spring talk on Robespierre, provided by the Voltaire Foundation, can be found here:

(All images: Audrey Borowski, Voltaire Foundation)



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History as Heritage: UK’s War Memorial Trust celebrates its 20th birthday

As a historian, I have long been fascinated by memorials of all kinds, including the many war memorials that can be found in numerous towns and villages and other locations across the United Kingdom. On many occasions, when visiting some remote part of the country, I have often found myself being drawn to a local war memorial like a bear to honey.

I was therefore very pleased to see that the UK’s ‘War Memorials Trust’ (WMT) has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and has issued a special edition of its well-written quarterly Bulletin to help explain some of the excellent work that the Trust has carried out since its creation.

War Memorial

The charity was registered on 7th May, 1997. Before that year, although there had been valuable work by both the much older Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to help maintain war graves and military cemeteries, there was no dedicated organisation in the country that focused specifically on supporting (to use the WMT’s words) the ‘local custodians’ of the estimated 100,000 war memorials of all shapes and sizes in the UK.

Sadly, while some towns and villages in Britain have lovingly maintained their war memorials in tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, recent decades have witnessed other memorials falling victim to neglect and disrepair, with a fair number even being destroyed. In 2003, for example, the Trust helped save a memorial that had been broken up and dumped in a builder’s skip. The WMT stored the broken pieces and then found a company who agreed to fund repairs.

According to the WMT’s Bulletin, the Trust today is now managing £4 million of UK and Scottish government centenary funding to help support the repair and conservation of Britain’s war memorial heritage, in addition to helping fund individuals and communities across the country.

Over the first 20 years of its existence, the WMT mainly relied on its funding coming from a combination of charitable trusts, foundations, and generous individuals (it has about 2,700 individual members today). There were also various fundraising events over the years, sometimes with talks by leading military and other historians. Naturally, it was often very challenging to get sufficient money to carry out all the work the WMT wished to do, but in 2002 the Trust received a significant boost to its fundraising when an article about the organisation and its determination to preserve war memorials appeared in a leading British daily newspaper, written by the late journalist David Graves. It led to over £10,000 being donated to the Trust by individuals.

Another initiative taken by the WMT, and welcomed by historians and other conservation experts, was to develop a youth-focused ‘Learning Programme’ which was aimed at schools, colleges and youth groups, and continues to thrive today. In 2011, sufficient funding had been secured to also appoint a Learning Officer and, since then, the Learning Programme has arguably become a core part of the WMT’s important work.

In addition, the WMT’s volunteer Conservation Officers have offered a wide range of free advice and guidance to anyone who has had concerns about the condition of memorials, or are in search of guidance on best conservation practice. As well as providing such invaluable advice to members of the public, in 2012 the WMT also set up a War Memorials Officers project. This has sought to identify relevant individuals to contact in each local authority across Britain, which in turn has also helped raise awareness of conservation issues in local communities.

War Memorials Trust

Regrettably, one problem that has emerged in recent years, and has created additional pressure on the WMT’s limited resources, is theft: according to the WMT’s special Bulletin, the Trust has had to deal with a high number of reported thefts at war memorials across the UK, with metal elements such as plaques being stolen from a variety of memorials. In response, the WMT has started working with the SmartWater Foundation, which has provided free crime prevention fluid to war memorial custodians across the country. The problem was also raised at Parliamentary level, and the WMT helped provide advice to the All Parliamentary Group on Combating Metal Theft. Such work appears to be showing success, as there has been a reported decline in metal theft in 2016-17.

As the WMT has pointed out, and I am sure many historians will agree, war memorials in many ways are located in ‘shared spaces of remembrance’, whether it be at a cenotaph on a village green, a plaque inside a Church or Post Office, or at a cross or statue in the middle of a town, and such sites remain very much a part of Britain’s national historical culture.


The recent centenary of the First World War, which saw a wide range of events and exhibitions, also provided the WMT with an opportunity to produce further learning materials covering the key battles and other events of the war, including the location of the memorials that were subsequently constructed in tribute to the many thousands of soldiers who fought in the conflict. Building on this, and in recognition of the tremendous interest shown by the public in such aspects of our shared history, the WMT’s centenary Bulletin reveals that the Trust has now extended its educational provision to include wider historical events, as well as local history and present-day conservation issues.

I have no doubt that the WMT will continue to flourish in its conservation and educational work in future years, and will be equally as active when it comes to the centenary of the Second World War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: the War Memorials Trust and WikiMedia Commons)

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Another Kind of War: IRA Terror incidents in the Thames Valley area in 1939

Terrorism has been very much in our minds in recent months, for obvious reasons, and historians have increasingly turned their attention to the nature of terror campaigns and how such activities were conducted in the past. What lessons can we learn from past history?

The National Archives

London and its suburbs has often found itself to be a target for terrorist groups, and one such campaign – which perhaps deserves more attention by scholars – came in 1939-40, and certainly had an impact (mainly psychological) in the Thames Valley area, including in the Twickenham and Kingston districts. Careful scrutiny of Home Office and other files in the National Archives at Kew, together with analysis of local newspapers, has enabled me to build up a quick picture of this, although further research is needed.

In February, 1939, on the eve of a major sporting event, the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported that a ‘special police guard’ had been placed on the famous Rugby ground at Twickenham the night before. This precaution was implemented, the paper revealed, in view of the international match that was to take place there the very next day and because of ‘the damage being done in London by the IRA’.

At some point in the late 1930s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had decided to plan and conduct a campaign of propaganda and ‘direct action’ on the British mainland, a strategy which became known as the ‘S-Plan’ or Sabotage Campaign. The group’s Army Council, in a special communique to Lord Halifax (the Foreign Secretary), thus declared ‘war’ on Britain in January, 1939, and – over the course of the next year – conducted a campaign of sabotage and numerous bomb attacks against the infrastructure of the country, mainly targeting power supplies and communication networks.

Man behind the bombs

The campaign commenced on 16th January, 1939, when 5 bombs targeted power cables and power stations. Further numerous attempts to disrupt electricity supplies followed over the next few months. In February, 1939, the transport network was also targeted when two timed suitcase bombs exploded on the London Underground, after being deposited in left-luggage rooms at Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road tube stations. Similarly, in March, 1939, two bombs exploded on Hammersmith Bridge, in a clear attempt to disrupt commuter traffic and spread fear and alarm. This campaign continued, with plenty of further incidents, right into the month of March, 1940, and London was not the only target. The campaign was widened to include other major cities.

IRA Coventry attack

Possibly the most infamous bombing occurred in Coventry city centre in August, 1939 (see photo), when a bomb killed 5 people and injured 70 others. Although the IRA claimed the loss of life at Coventry was unintentional and was an ‘accident’, in many ways this incident seriously undermined support for the campaign among those who were sympathetic to the IRA’s cause.

In the Thames Valley area, one can certainly detect signs of psychological fear and security concerns over the IRA’s campaign during the course of 1939.  Just two months after the Twickenham Rugby ground scare noted earlier, and in Twickenham again, the threat of the terror campaign nearly became horribly real. At about 11.20pm one evening, Mr. A.W. Esson, of Kingston, who was described as the manager of the Temperance Billiard Hall in Richmond Road, was closing the premises when he found lying in the entrance ‘a strange contrivance’.

Speaking later to the Richmond and Twickenham Times about the device, Esson said: ‘It was a box with a bolt in it, and a piece of wire leading inside. I heard it ticking, and having moved it, sent for the policeman on point duty at the junction. He thought it might be a joke, but when I reminded him that it was ticking, he took it across the road and put it in a horse trough’. A few minutes later, some more police arrived, and when they took it out of the water it was (apparently) still ticking. The newspaper noted that there was no previous evidence of any attacks on the billiard hall, and speculated: ‘It is possible that it was intended for somewhere else, but that the raiders could not carry out their plan’.

The psychological impact and propaganda value of the IRA’s campaign could also be seen elsewhere in the area. Thus, for example, in the same month – April, 1939 – the local Surrey Comet reported that ‘IRA Suspects’ had been seen at an electricity works in Surbiton. The newspaper revealed that ‘special precautions’ were being taken and guards placed on the electricity sub-station of the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority at Hollyfield Road, Surbiton, following reports ‘that Irishmen had been endeavoring to obtain access to the premises’, and that two Irishmen had ‘been found walking around the building’.

The newspaper noted that the sub-station was one of the ‘most vital units’ for the electrical supply of a large area around Surbiton, as it was at this station that a new 33,000-volt bulk supply cable – which carried the main supply from Wimbledon via Kingston – came in to Surbiton. From there, light and power were supplied to Surbiton, Hook, and Chessington, and – when necessary – to other local districts.

The two men ‘with Irish accents’ had been challenged as they walked around the building, and they could give no satisfactory explanation for their presence, and were ordered off the premises. Local police were also instructed to tighten security at other key infrastructure points in the area, while the Armed Forces were also told to increase their vigilance at barracks and defence buildings, including at the Kingston barracks.

Daily Sketch 1939

More generally, the Home Office did its best to try to discourage national newspaper coverage of the IRA’s campaign, arguing that too much ‘news’ on it would play into the hands of the IRA, and editors tended to abide by this.

However, the two IRA bombs on the Hammersmith Bridge, and an attempt to bomb another major Bridge across the Thames, together with some reported scares and incidents at railway depots, still caused some notable comment in local newspapers in south-west London. Many people in the suburbs, of course, were now commuting into work in central London, and the financial and security implications of a continued campaign to disrupt the infrastructure were only too clear to the authorities. The pressure to take firm action against the perpetrators of the bombing campaign increased considerably after the outbreak of war against Germany in September, 1939. There is evidence, for example, that MI5 (the domestic Security Service) feared that the Germans would try and exploit the IRA’s campaign and offer financial and other support.

In today’s digital and hi-tech world, we are even more reliant on the efficient operation of our ‘infrastructure’, especially the continuous supply of power, and I am sure that this is only too apparent to those involved in devising contemporary anti-terror strategies.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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The Anglo-German Relationship and Heligoland

I attended a very interesting seminar on 28th June, 2017, at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London, organised to mark the publication of a new and excellent book by Jan Ruger entitled BritainGermanyand the Struggle for the North Sea (OUP, 2016), which I recently reviewed for the IHR.

The discussion was led by a group of highly eminent historians, including David Blackbourn, Celia Applegate and Frank Trentmann, with a response by Jan Ruger himself, and chaired by Lucy Riall. Rather than being, as advertised, a reflection upon Anglo-German relations more widely, the event was focused instead on Jan Ruger’s book on Heligoland. While I regretted not having listened to this wider discussion, it is probably fair to say that it could not have been fitted sensibly into the time available. And, in any case, the discussion of Ruger’s book was itself highly valuable, focused, and revealing of the dynamics of the British-German relationship.


Heligoland, for clarity, was an island (or, more precisely, two islands) acquired by Britain in 1807 from Denmark, when that state joined the French side during the Napoleonic Wars. The island (which is sometimes also known as Helgoland) sits at the mouth of major rivers leading into Germany – particularly the Elbe and Weser – and thus has significant value strategically and commercially.

Britain retained control until 1890, when it was agreed that the island should be given to Imperial Germany in return for British acquisition of Zanzibar on the east African coast. Heligoland remained in German hands until the end of the Second World War, when it was occupied by the British. It was returned once more to (West) Germany in the 1950s as part of the process of alliance-building between Britain and Germany.

Heligoland book cover

Ruger’s book looks at the interaction of administering powers with the islanders. He discusses the efforts of these powers to integrate the islanders into their own systems, and the latters’ position on this process (often one of recalcitrance or opportunist lobbying). In particular, his book casts light on the process of nation-building in Germany, and the important position of Heligoland within German nationalism. He also, however, provides a wealth of detail on the Anglo-German relationship in terms of diplomacy, commerce and culture. There is fascinating discussion of Heligoland’s role within German culture, as well as its function within tourism.

Not least, Ruger provides an account of Heligoland’s role in warfare: its creation as an island fortress by Imperial and then Nazi Germany, its consequent catastrophic destruction in 1946 in probably the greatest non-nuclear explosions of all time, and its re-emergence in the post-war world as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

David Blackbourn, based at Vanderbilt University, and one of the foremost and most well-known historians of Germany, commended Ruger’s book for its subtle intelligence and memorable content. He pointed out that the book made a significant contribution to studies of nation-building, the culture of consumption, while it also expertly conducted a ‘microhistory’ that combined events on the island with wider Anglo-German affairs. Prof. Blackbourn provided a succinct overview of the microhistorical approach and its engagement with traditionally structuralist approaches after the 1960s. He also noted that microhistory’s power had at first been underestimated and labelled ‘local history’.

There was also in Ruger’s book an illustration of the power of contingency in history, particularly in the lead up to the First World War. Heligoland provided an insight into the way – while European countries were scrambling to contruct national identities – the people of the island remained an ‘inbetween’ group. On the other hand, with respect to sovereignty and law in particular, he noted how Heligoland’s assimilation into the German Empire after 1890 was quicker that that of, for example, Hamburg.

Prof. Blackbourn suggested comparing the experience of Heligoland to that of other islands administered by the British – including the Ionian islands and the Falklands – and negotiations on transferring sovereign control to other states. He also asked whether there had ever been consideration of rule by ‘condominium’, such as had been the case regarding Prussian rule of Krakow in the early 19th century, or between Germany, the British and the U.S. in Samoa in 1889. He noted the importance of islands in British imperial history and pointed to their special significance in a maritime empire.

Heligoland map

Celia Applegate, also of Vanderbilt University, discussed the issues of insularity and accessibility of islands. She noted that Jan Ruger made an important contribution to the way we write about such topics. There was, she noted, a continued interest among historians in high culture – which she explained could be presented as art culture, and that Ruger’s book followed in this tradition. By using the example of the composer Bruckner, she demonstrated how artistic discourse could often be highly complex, but also how its significance at the time could be lost today (Bruckner’s Heligoland was part of a stridently German nationalist artistic bent that today is dismissed or discarded).

Prof. Applegate pointed out that in Ruger’s account the islanders themselves, as agents of history, come and go. Sometimes they were irritants, sometimes active, sometimes acquiescent. The question was raised whether the Heligolanders were ever a people in their own right. Did they make their own culture? It would be interesting, she reflected, to find out more about the indigenous culture on the islands.

Frank Trentmann, of Birkbeck College, London, pointed out the strengths of the book and spoke about the issue of contingency in history, particularly respecting the First World War. An interesting feature of the book, Prof. Trentmann argued, was how it demonstrated the parochial way in which histories of the British Empire had been written hitherto: the European dimensions of the British Empire and the way the British Empire’s history was impacted on by European states and cultures was well conveyed by the book. Moreover, there were, Prof Trentmann pointed out, many aspects of Jan Ruger’s book which pertained to, or have direct relevance to, ‘Brexit’: were these in the author’s mind as he was writing it, and would he make any amendments now in the light of the Brexit results? To what extent, meanwhile, did Heligoland change the course of Anglo-German relations?

Heligoland after bombing

Jan Ruger then responded to the three presentations and the issues raised. He felt that ‘microhistory’ was the appropriate term for his work, but was also aware of tensions between that approach and his. He felt he might indeed have spent more time elucidating the theme of microhistory and its application to the subject of Heligoland. He noted that, with respect to the islanders themselves, there was a problem of source material. There were scant records kept by the islanders themselves, much was bombed and destroyed on the island in 1945-6 (see photo above), and there was also a sceptical attitude on the part of the islanders themselves after the Second World War towards historians seeking information.

On the other hand, the efforts of the German state to make Germans out of Heligolanders is well documented. The book might also have spent far more time discussing the environment of the island – on land and sea – and the impact of geography on historical development. Britain never, he said, considered condominium as a solution to Heligoland, though it did – as discussed in the book – consider applying the status of mandate under the League of Nations. A point made by Frank Trentmann regarding the refugees in 1945 – that they often emphasised their Germanness in order to gain support – also made sense respecting the Heligolanders. Jan Ruger noted the Heligolanders also suffered from guilt feelings, given the presence of forced labour camps on their island during the Nazi period.

Overall, the seminar proved to be a most enjoyable and enlightening session on a relatively neglected aspect of Anglo-German history.

John R. Davis is Professor of History at Kingston University, Surrey, U.K.

For John’s review of Jan Ruger’s book on Heligoland, go to:

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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