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The War in the West

The War in the West, James Holland, Bantam Press, 693pp, £25
Germany Ascendant 1939-1941
An interesting one-volume history of the early part of the Second World War. This book give a readable account of the war, as seen through the eyes of an number of participants on both sides. It also deflates a number of myths about the war, in particular about the strength and invincibility of the German forces. While the Germans had a formidable army and air force, their navy was small and their army was not as mechanised as the popular image of fast-moving Panzers would suggest. Germqn propoganda obscured the fact that they were less motorised than most of their opponents and their field guns were still drawn by horses. Germany also lacked the raw materials and other resources needed to sustain a long war. Bad planning ensured that the Germans lacked some useful aircraft types.
The French were better equipped with tanks and had an army of comparable strenth, a bigger navy and also an air force, but intimidated by German propoganda managed to defeat themselves rather than be defeated by the Germans. The French political establishment was split by internal squabbles and the army was consistently slow to respond and its leaders unwilling to fight.
Reading this book I was struck by several similarities between WWII and the Ukranian crisis. In both, a dictatorial leader acts ignoring the advice of his more cautious military staff, and takes over several countries before mounting an egregious attack on another counrry, forcing allies to respond. In both, the attacked country does not get as much support as it hoped for. The aggressor armed forces turn out to be less powerful than their propoganda persuaded their opponents they were. In both pre-wars, attempts at negotiation or appeasement turned out to be pointless.

Butler to the World

Butler to the World, Oliver Bullough, Profile Books, 273pp, £20. How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals.
The subtitle says it all. This is a very readable expose of the mysterious workings of international finance and how money moves around without any checks or supervision. After Suez, Britain having lost an empire was looking around for a new role, and found one in acting as a ‘butler’, i.e. providing services without asking awkward questions. Bullough describes institutions, structures and personalities with whom the general reader will be unfamiliar but which effect the secret movements of billions of pounds.
Bullough illustrates these murky dephs by means of a number of examples, of which one ‘The Scottish Laundromat’ will suffice here. US-based investigators advised the Scottish police about a crime in Moldova, where criminals had via a scam stolen a billion dollars from Moldovan banks and caused the money to vanish without trace. In turn one of the police tipped oof an investigative journalist, who confirmed that the last known destination of the money was an ordinary Scottish house in Edinburgh, home of a Scottish Limited Partnership, actually controlled by two companies in the Seychelles, where ownership of companies is a closely guarded secret. SLPs (with which few will be familiar) do not have to register their actual identity anywhere, making them the perfect tool for moving money around. The journalist uncovered many other instances of the nefarious misuse of SLPs. An official of the newly empowered Scottish National Party, Roger Mullin, was appalled by these revelations and took up the case. Investigators found that there had been a boom in SLPs, most owned by anonymous offshore companies, evidently used on an industrial scale for hiding stolen money. Mullin found strong indications that the financial services industry and Scottish lawyers would rather SLPs were left alone. So what happened? Nothing, except that by an obscure process the regulations were relaxed even further.
If you are disturbed by this and similar activities, you need to read this book.

A Short History of Asia

A short history of Asia by Colin Mason, Palgrave Macmillan, 350pp. (3rd edition 2014)
The ‘short history’ covers the countries of the Far East, including what are now India, China, Indonesia, etc. Part I covers pre-history up to the pre-colonial era. Part II covers the impact of imperialism on these countries. Part III covers the post-WWII period, the end of imperialism and the resulting political turmoil.
Overall this is a most interesting read. This is not just a history of ‘great leaders’ as Mason points out the dismal conditions endured by the mass of the people – taxed to the max, subject to forced labour, famine and war, at all periods of this history. meanwhile the rulers often lived in great luxury.
In Part III there are reminders of past horrors – the French defeat followed by the Vietnam War, Pol Pot’s murderous regime, and the Vietnamese Boat People. Mason’s accounts of various countries in Part III are unflattering and often very revealing, with a litany of bad and oppressive governments that do little to relieve the miserable lives of the masses. Even Japan, generally regarded as a developed, democratic and progressive country, does not escape unscathed, as Mason points to corruption involving construction companies, officialdom and government.
The book concludes with some brief speculation on the future.

The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads – a new history of the world, by Peter Frankopan. 636pp

This is a history of the ‘Silk Road’ region of central Asia and the Middle East from ancient times to the present day. Successive chapters concentrate on different topics such as faiths, particular commodities whether furs or slaves or silver, while filling in the history of the region as the centuries pass. It is not a history of the ‘Silk Road’ as such, but a history of a region.

The second part of the book deals with recent history, and deals with the misdeeds of the British and the Americans in these countries as they competed with Russia in the region, putting their own national interests above the interests of the local peoples.

The critical tone may surprise Western readers, but after reading this you will understand why the inhabitants of Iran, Iraq and other places dislike and distrust the British and Americans so much.

Much space is also devoted to the rivalry between Britain and Russia for control of the region.

Frankopan also has an unusual take on the origin of the First World War, claiming that close to the start of the conflict it was still unclear which country would ally with which, in contrast to the way the war is usually depicted as a result of British-German rivalry. He suggests, controversially, that fear of Russia sparked the conflict, with Germany preparing war with Russia and France aligning with Russia, and that even in 1914, a realignment of Britain with Germany had been discussed in the Foreign Office. Before WWI, There had been tensions between Britain and France, a traditional enemy, and friendly relations between Britain and Germany, who shared an extended royal family.

Overall, this book is a fascinating read. Recomended.

Revised covers, pricing.

I have changed the covers for “The Plain Girl’s Earrings” and “Deadly Journey” (see “My Books” page) and have reduced the price of “Earrings” to $0.99c/£0.77p for a promotional period.

Both are available from Amazon and Smashwords.

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, 4th Estate, 523pp

A novel which is at once beauifully written and a page-turner which advances its story with short, brisk chapters. It alternates between two characters caught up in the barbarism of the Second World War.  The female protagonist, Marie-Laure, is blind. As the Germans invade, she and her father take refuge in St Malo, a walled city by the sea. The male protagonist, Werner, is a German youth obsessed with radio and electronics.  Also in the story is a diamond so valuable that it has to be guarded from theft with the aid of three replicas. As well as the war the novel describes everyday thoughts and actions, and human kindness.

This is the best novel I have read in the past year. Highly recommended.

 

First to Fight – The Polish War 1939

First to Fight – The Polish War 1939 by Roger Moorhouse, The Bodley head, 344pp

This is an interesting account of the invasion of Poland in 1939 by the Germans and then the Russians. The campaign has been neglected in other accounts of the war, and sometimes mis-represented. Britain and France had signed agreements to protect Poland from aggression, but when the Germans invaded the allies were slow to react, and realising the difficulties of a decisive intervention, they defended Poland with fine words, while the French made a token advance over Germany’s Western border, aiming to cause the minimum of casualties.

The Poles resisted bravely, many of them expecting Allied forces to come to their aid, and inflicted casualties on the Germans, but the Germans had far superior resources in armour, transport and aircraft.  It was impossible to defend the frontiers against attack from several directions, and impossible to make a fighting retreat when chased by fast-moving mechanised columns supported by aircraft.  The German airforce was able to attack at will, attacking troop formations, refugee columns and cities, causing many casualties and much destruction.

Polish difficulties were increased by ethnic minorities within their borders – Germans in the west and Ukranians and Belorussians in the East. The Russian invasion from the East facilitated by the Nazi-Soviet pact sealed their fate.  Both the Germans and the Russians behaved with great brutality, committing many massacres of Polish soldiers and civilians.

Postwar Poland remained under Soviet control, and most of the territory seized in the Soviet invasion was never returned to Poland, while to the West, Poland gained large territories, formerly German, on the Baltic coast.

A book worth reading if you are interested in WWII or Polish history.

Paradise Lost – Smyrna 1922

Paradise Lost – Smyrna 1922 by Giles Milton.

Smyrna was a city on the western coast of Anatolia, in what is now Turkey. If you are looking for Smyrna on a map, it is now known as Izmir.  Before the First World War, Smyrna was a prosperous city with a varied population comprising Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Europeans and Americans mostly living in their own sectors of the city. The prominent buisnessmen and merchants were often those known as Levantines, families with English names who had never been to England, and the like, who lived lives of great opulence, living in grand mansions on the outskirts and ammusing themselves with yachts and summer houses. The various ethnic groups lived in relative harmony under the Ottoman regime.  At this time, large numbers of Christian Greeks, and also Armenians, lived within the declining Ottoman empire.

Signs of strain emerged during the first world war, which the Ottomans entered on the side of Germany, and as the war progressed, the Ottoman empire engaged in unsuccessful campaigns and edged closer to disintegration. Discrimination against the non-Turkish populations started, spurred by central edicts, though a liberal Turkish governor of Smyrna strove to protect the city’s non-Turkish residents.  By the end of the war, the victorious Allies had occupied parts of the dying Ottoman empire including Constantinople, Smyrna and other parts of the coast, while a nationalist Turkish regime headed by  Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk).was emerging in Anatolia.

The Turks, infuriated by Armenian uprisings during the war, deported hundreds of thousands of them in 1915 in the notorious Armenian genocide. (Why the Turks should expect any loyalty from a people they had already repeatedly persecuted is beyond comprehension.) Milton clearly has no truck with excuses for the genocide and claims that its murderous tactics were sanctioned at the highest level.

Worse was to come. The Greeks. encouraged by the Allies including Britain, embarked on an invasion of Anatolia with the aim of creating a greater Greece.  At first this went well, but the Greeks over-reached themselves in the semi-desert interior, and by 1922 were being driven back with losses, while all the towns and villages fought over were sacked and burnt, and populations attacked, by one side or the other. By September 1922 the victorious Turks were entering Smyrna. At first the inhabitants had little fear of anything dire happening, as a fleet of warships from various nations had gathered in the harbour.  However many Turks wanted revenge for atrocities committed by the Greeks, and the Turkish forces included many ill-disciplined irregulars.

As the disorganised, ragged and half-starved Greek troops flooded into the city, hoping to be taken off from the harbour, the situation deteriorated, with Turkish forces looting, raping and killing, with particular attention to the Armenian quarter. Then sections of the city were set ablaze. According to Milton this was entirely deliberate and carried out by the Turkish forces.  Within days, hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees were crowded on the waterfront with flames on one side, the sea on the other, and subject to random murderous attacks by Turkish forces.  The international ships in the harbour refused to embark any of them lest they offend the new Turkish regime.

Eventually the Greeks, shamed by an American citizen, sent ships to take off many of those trapped on the quayside, but by this time most of Smyrna (except the Turkish quarter) had been burnt to the ground, and eventually an estimated two hundred thousand people had died of various causes – murdered, burnt, drowned, or taken on death marches into the interior. One witness commented that it made him ashamed to be part of the human race.

Those who escaped were left peniless, robbed as they left, and spent many years living in poverty in Greece and elsewhere. The great Levantine families likewise never recovered, with all their wealth and property stolen or destroyed.

Before long, a further, greater exodus of desperate refugees began as Greece and Turkey exchanged their remaining minority populations to create the two monotheistic states that remain today.

This is a powerful account that will be of interest to students of history, and those seeking an explanation for animosities that linger to this day.

As s footnote, Louis de Bernieres novel “Birds Without Wings” is set in the same tragic period and refers to many of the same events.

 

Third volume of “The Witch’s Box” series

Dark Tides“, the dramatic third volume of “The Witch’s Box” is now available for purchase. In this one, the struggle between rebels and the Empire comes to a conclusion, ancient energies are awakened, and Imperial Princess Maihara keeps alive her ambition to become Empress. (to order, search for Kim J Cowie on Amazon.)

Note there is also a paperback edition. Both editions are available for purchase from 15 July 2021.

Dark Tides UK order