WHEN BRITAIN SAVED THE WEST by Robin Prior

18 04 2015

1940

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

1940 – Dunkirk, then the Battle of Britain. When the year opened, Chamberlain was still PM, by the time it closed Churchill had replaced him and appeasement was a dirty word.

This book is not of course aimed at the professional historian, but for the ordinary person who considers herself something of an expert on WW2 (as a result of her grandmother’s stories and, more recently, all the novels she has read set in that period!) it is an eye-opener.

I had never realised just how close Britain came to following France, “appeasing” Hitler, and allowing the invasion to take place uncontested. If Churchill had not taken the reins, that is exactly what would have happened. Throughout most of 1940, the appeasers (Chamberlain until his death in September, Halifax, Butler) kept talking to the Italians (and through them to Hitler) behind Churchill’s back. And meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Roosevelt was showing no interest in helping Britain, merely stipulating that if (and he meant “when”) Britain capitulated the British Navy should not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Germans. Churchill’s response to this was that no capitulation would ever occur under him, and that the appeasers who replaced him if things got too desperate would be seeking the best possible terms from the Germans so presumably the Navy would of course be handed over intact. In the end, it was Hitler who declared war on the US, not the other way about. (I never knew that!) If Hitler had limited himself to incorporating the whole of Europe, including the UK but excluding the USSR, into the Third Reich – which is what appeared to be his aim in 1940 when Britain, with the support of Canada and other countries of the British Empire, stood up to him and the Battle of Britain was fought, he might well have achieved this objective. But when the island nation of Britain with its powerful navy and its ring of radar stations proved almost impossible to either invade or bomb into submission, he turned his attention to the USSR. And the USA. Quite mad, of course. Worse than Napoleon, who lost half a million men in Russia before facing the inevitable (slow-but-sure!) response from across the Channel. At least the Germans don’t consider Hitler a national hero, as the French do Napoleon!

There are chapters, like the one recounting the sequence of events at Dunkirk, where the amount of detail seems unnecessary and I found myself skipping pages, but all in all, this was a very enjoyable and very memorable read.

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THE NIGHTMARE DANCE by David Gilbertson

27 09 2014

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Nightmare DanceThis is not a work of fiction; nor is it strictly speaking history. It is an examination of the Holocaust, focusing in particular on Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The author starts by noting and condemning young people’s – and not only young people’s – ignorance of history in general, (“they don’t know what they they don’t know and therefore confidently believe they have a clear understanding of what went before”) and in particular of World War II and the Holocaust. He claims – and I believe him – that almost nobody knows – or cares! – what happened in Poland during WWII.

Let me quote: The torment of Poland and the Poles defies adequate description. There is a strong argument that popular historiography in the West, influenced as it was by Cold War prejudice, failed to properly inform generations of students born after 1945 about the true extent of Polish suffering. In the five and a half years between the German invasion in September 1939 and the liberation of Poland by Soviet forces in February 1945, 5,820,000 Poles and Polish Jews, almost all non-combatants, were murdered, worked to death, starved or consigned to the flames. The grisly total represented almost 25% of Poland’s 1939 population and far outstrips the sacrifice of any other nation on Earth during the war. […] The relationship between Poles and Jews during the German occupation, at community level, presents a picture of stark paradox. In Poland as a whole, less than one-tenth of the pre-war Jewish population survived – far less than in any other country in Europe – yet more ethnic Poles risked their lives to save Jews and were subsequently honoured for their sacrifice than in all the occupied territories together.

Why was this? It was because Hitler seriously believed that he was going to be able to incorporate Poland into the Third Reich. Indeed, that he already had. This was ethnic cleansing on the grand scale. The vast new territory was to be racially pure. The extermination camp at Treblinka, of which we hear almost nothing because there were almost no survivors to bear witness, processed (gassed and incinerated the bodies of) 10,000 people a day. 10,000 people a day, month after month, year after year. And that was just one camp! Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno and others, were not far away.

Here is a map, to put you in the picture. (It is not from the book.)

campsmap

Just look at that border …

David Gilbertson has put an enormous amount of work into this book. It is a book that everyone should read, but what with those who already “know it all” and those – the vast majority – who do not care, very few will. And so, inevitably, at some point in the not so distant future, history will repeat itself …





PRINCESS NEST OF WALES by Kari Maund

23 11 2011

This is the kind of biography which, if page after page of speculation is not to become indistinguishable from fiction (and I personally would almost always prefer to read a fictitious account of the life of a historical character), it must focus as much or more on the history of the place and period as on the subject of the biography, and this for the simple reason that very little is known about her.

” … like the majority of women in this period, her life went largely unrecorded.Chroniclers, including her grandson Gerald, tell us of her sons and their deeds, but they record nothing of Nest’s feelings or beliefs. Her story has to be pieced together from a patchwork of sources …

But Kari Maund does this successfully. She opens with a brief history of medieval Wales (“Nest’s Wales”) which is full of details it would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. (Anyone thinking of writing a novel set in 11th-12th century Wales should start their background reading here!)

And what is more, she is refreshingly realistic about the place of women in Celtic society. So many modern writers, all of whom should know better and some of whom surely do, create a picture of a utopian world utterly destroyed by the male chauvinist Saxons and Normans. In fact, as Kari Maund observes in her Introduction (and maintains with examples throughout the book) “Despite popular modern myth, medieval Welsh women enjoyed little respect and scant freedom. Legally lifelong minors, they remained pawns in the hands of male kin, incapable of owning land and married off to suit changing political needs. Women in Anglo-Norman England enjoyed wider privileges, and Nest, the daughter of a king, probably found herself accorded an importance she had never experienced before.”

Legally lifelong minors“: I like that.

I liked the whole book. And I liked Nest, of whom I had never even heard before. As Kari makes clear, “the seductress of the English” was quite a lady. The daughter of a Welsh king; the mistress of the Norman English King Henry I (to whom she bore a son); wife of Gerald of Windsor (one of their grandsons was Geraldus Cambriensis, the great historian /chronicler); abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, son of another Welsh king and leader of resistance against the Normans; later married again, and again, to other Norman lords, who all sought her hand. And it can’t have been just her hand that made her so irresistible. It must have been, as George Harrison didn’t quite put it, something in the way she walked.