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.



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.


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.


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?

The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda Ripley has written a very interesting book about education.  She poses key BlogSmartestquestions, such as why is the USA (and the UK) so far behind other countries in test scores for average teenagers when so much money is spent on education?  Her pursuit of answers takes her around the world with a particular focus on South Korea, Poland and Finland.

The book works so well because she exemplifies each country through an American student who travels there to go to school.  It makes for an interesting insider view of the practices as well as the values of each country’s education system.  Every school is different, though, and it is hard to generalise about a whole approach to education from one school even though this is what politicians do all the time!  The students, themselves, seem somewhat extraordinary; it takes a huge amount of self- confidence and drive to decide to spend a year at a school at another country.  Yet this in itself is an issue: why doesn’t a system in a highly developed world cater for the most individual or intellectually demanding of students.

Some of the starkest differences are apparent when it comes to self- esteem.  South Koreans would struggle to understand the concept while in Poland test scores and class ranking are used frequently to put people in their place as well as motivate.  Neither is there a system outside the USA that prizes sporting prowess to the point where teachers are employed on their coaching ability; a problem when that teacher has to cope with Maths as well as a sport!

In Britain, of course, the class system is an extra dimension. It doesn’t help that the politicians of our governing party are so keen on private education so that they can keep their children away from the ordinary people.  This doesn’t make for better policy. Neither does the obsession for testing at ridiculously young ages.  There seems to be little appetite in this country for developing thinking children.

I found the American students fascinating, though, and Amanda Ripley has the talent for writing you would expect from an investigative journalist.  Her book is a fascinating read. I imagine that little has changed in the three years since she wrote it.  It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

When Polish Boys Wear Tights

Since writing about tights on boys in Germany, I have been thinking about the intense gender stereo-typing that goes on in the UK.  I think of Britain as quite a liberal country but, when it comes to clothes, it seems that the constraints are tight and the leeway narrow.  I also think it is a shame when marketing pushes children to look like little adults.  It is obvious that the gender boundaries will be emphasised if our youngsters are just mini versions of grown ups!

So, I was pleased to see that some other countries have different traditions.  This doesn’t necessarily make these countries more open minded, just more likely to see their children as children rather than little adults.

Skarpetki i rajstopki dziecięce Wola Rajstopy Teens bawełniane - wzorzyste

Poland is another country where tights are worn by boys and girls.  Designs with boys in mind are on offer.  My Polish friends, like my German friends, find the reaction of the British to this item of clothing quite odd.  For boys, tights are winter underwear that make perfect sense.


The word ‘tights’ in Polish is ‘rajstopy’.  Go Poland!

Cultural difference such as this are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?