Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze

In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries.  Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists.  I wonder what she got paid!

This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening.  Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part.  It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland.  There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.

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East West Street

I read this book by Philippe Sands after seeing the film ‘My Nazi Legacy’.  The film shows his search for answers about his wider family in the company of two men whose fathers were important members of the Nazi regime.  Although the experiences shown in the film are covered here, the book is wider.  In particular, he shows how the work of two men from the city of Lvov were instrumental in thinking about human rights law.  The awful events in Lemberg (as Lvov was called at certain points in the twentieth century) are covered as is the approach of the allies on winning the Second World War; the Nuremberg trials are detailed in the second half of the book.

Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law.  He grew up in Lvov.  His major contribution to the trials at Nuremberg was to focus on crimes against humanity; there was no hiding behind the State, if you committed a crime, you committed a crime. The other major thinker was Raphael Lemkin, also a resident of the Lvov, and also Jewish so restricted by the anti- semitic laws in pursuing his career.  His contribution to law was to establish the concept of genocide.  He believed that the intent to destroy whole groups or races needed to be recognised as a crime.  It seemed to me that the ideas of both men overlapped, although it was not always seen this way when the trial was underway in Nuremberg and Lemberg, in particular, was frustrated that his ideas were not readily picked up.

Hans Frank features more than the other Nazi criminals as he was in charge of the area in which Lvov fell.  He was also the father of one of the men Sands had come to know.  It is this sense of the historical as personal that makes this book so powerful.

I was fascinated to learn that the idea of putting Nazis on trial was contested, especially as it looked as if some would be acquitted or receive lenient sentences.  This is not a book about Nazis, though, and it is important to remember the people who suffered.  Leon, Sands’s grandfather has pride of place in this memoir because the events formed him and allowed Sands to see history in a more personal light.  This is an amazing memoir and I was left, at the end, with a sense that it was just that the two lawyers who had the biggest impact on legal thinking in the Nuremberg trials were both Jewish and had both been pushed out by the very regime they were holding to account.

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My Nazi Legacy

This documentary from Philippe Sands was fascinating even if somewhat painful to watch at times.  Sands, an eminent Human Rights lawyer accompanies two sons of prominent Nazis as they visit sites of their fathers’ notorious careers.  The trip is made more poignant by the fact that the extended family of Sands himself were victims of the very men the sons are talking about.

Niklas Frank is the son of Hans Frank, the governor of Poland.  He has long ago denounced his father’s crimes and he does so again in this film, making it clear that we can only move on if the atrocities of the past are exposed.  At no time does he try to defend his father’s actions.  Horst von Wächter on the other hand will not concede that his father did anything wrong despite documentary evidence to the contrary.  His father was Otto Wächter, the governor of Galicia in modern Ukraine.  The tension between the three men increases as Wächter maintains that, although the regime was criminal, his father was not.  At times he suggest that things would have been worse if a man other than his father had been in charge.

Throughout it all, Sands acts with great dignity even though the position taken by Wächter exasperates him.  The film is best when it expresses the historic through the personal.  The city of Lviv or Lemberg is important in this story since it is where the family of Sands lived.  This film is in my hinterland.

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The Cold War

BlogColdWarI loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past.  ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard.  The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’.  Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format.  People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.

Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.

The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history.  So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment.  Here, at least, we have the real people talking.  Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.

Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’.  People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War.  This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.

‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

Labyrinth of Lies

BlogLabyrinthofLiesThis 2014 film from Germany explores an eye opening period of recent history.  The story follows young state prosecuting lawyer, Johann Radmann.  In the course of his work, he comes across a journalist who is trying to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that former Auschwitz guards are walking around free, despite their cruel actions in the war.  No member of the prosecuting team will take the case seriously.  For many, the truth of the matter is too close to home.

Young Herr Radmann may be at the start of his career, but he takes up the case.  He is encouraged by the Attorney General to dig deep.  He takes this on and will not let it drop even when faced by hostility by his superiors in the law, politics and the police.  Once camp survivors have been tracked down, and their stories relayed to a disbelieving Radmann and his secretary, the need to bring perpetrators to justice grows.

The eye-opening aspect for me was the very idea that the general public knew so little of the concentration camp called Auschwitz and what went on there.  The film starts with a camp survivor seeing an ex- guard he recognised working as a teacher in a school.  The shock of seeing these guards at large and accepted as valued members of society is the motivating factor in trying to get the matter to court.  There are many who resent a young person making judgements on their actions and what they went through.

Radmann tries to track down Mengele, especially after he has been told that the sadistic doctor makes frequent visits back to family in Germany; an enterprise with which many levels of authority collude.  Yet Mengele is protected while others are not and it is the others who end up in court.  The American authorities open their files for the young prosecutor but only after advising him not to open the can of worms; Germany is a country trying to recover from a trauma.  This is the central point of the film: should the country be allowed to forget when living in it are citizens who cannot move on and cannot forget.

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The film ends with the start of the trial.  Today, we know about the atrocities of a regime at camps such as Auschwitz but it is only because a country was forced to acknowledge its past.  This film is a reminder that it is often individuals who make the difference. Radmann did not give up, even when the most difficult is posed.  What did your father do in the war?

‘Labyrinth of Lies’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

A Level History Without Tears

The best thing about reading A Level textbooks for history is the knowledge that there is no exam at the end of it. Add to that the fact that there is no course work either!  For both of these reasons studying units of the History curriculum for A Level is pure joy.  Maybe this is what education used to be like before politicians got involved.  Maybe studying for the sake of it is what is needed to produce good learners.  I should not like to deny the students seeking validation the experience of exams but, for me, those days are over.

The A Level textbooks continue to provide the right level at which to access high quality information on a topic or period in history.  The Access to History series I have used also directs you to particular historians if you want to study specific areas in greater depth.

I started a couple of years ago with a unit on the USA involvement in Asia after the Second World War, particularly in Korea and Vietnam.  Since then I have studied a unit on Presidents of the USA in the later half of the Twentieth Century (but I did this before the last Presidential election), a unit on the Indian fight for independence and, most recently, a unit on Germany from defeat in 1945 to reunification.

I studied British and European history for my own A Level back in the 70s, before many of the events in these books had even taken place!  This, though, is the way to study history without tears.  I recommend it.

History’s People

bloghistorypeopleMargaret MacMillan is an historian worth reading and listening to!  I heard her speak at a Literature Festival but had previously read three of her books, the latest of which is an exploration of the way personality can shape history or vice versa.

What fascinated me about her book ‘History’s People’ was the way MacMillan made connections between different figures based on sets of characteristics.  When exploring the concept of leadership she explores the lives of Bismarck in Germany, MacKenzie King from her native Canada, and FDR in the USA.

She marks out the risk takers, some constructive and others destructive, and the big thinkers and dreamers.  She has big personalities here but also lesser known figures who were the observers and, most often, the diary writers of the past.

I am interested in the notion that events shape people as much as people shape events. The skill of Margaret MacMillan as an historian is to show us the wider context in which people functioned.  Some of the names in this book did indeed shape their times but others were in the right place at the right time and rose to the occasion.  The figures I admired the most were the women, like Fanny Parkes and Elizabeth Simcoe and unlike Margaret Thatcher, who took their own paths despite society’s expectations.

Listening to Margaret MacMillan speak, some months after reading the book sent me back to explore again.  ‘History’s People’ is in  my hinterland. What’s in yours?