Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category

510-na8C0iL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_My serious reading project needs a brief interlude because Anne Applebaum’s superb Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe contains so much detailed research, and so many accounts of tragic events that I do need a breather. You can only take so much evil and perhaps attempting to read Bloodlands and Iron Curtain back to back was not wise. I will return to Iron Curtain but felt I should say something about it now. 

I spent an hour today watching Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons. Maria Miller, the Minister for Culture  has resigned after repaying £5,800 of expenses claimed in error. What struck me was the way smug bank benchers from the government side sprang to their feet asking ludicrously sycophantic questions such as “Would the PM agree with me that we are all wonderful, and that the two apprenticeships created in my constituency are a sign that all the coalition’s policies are working, and we are entering a golden age of full employment?” Or some such nonsense. 

It was all a bit reminiscent of the show trials of Stalin described in Iron Curtain, in which lifelong communists, recent ministers of the interior and general secretaries of the communist party stood up and suddenly admitted they were CIA agents, working for the Americans, Tito and the Zionists.

Iron Curtain is full of stories, some horrifying , some worrying and some amusing. Surprisingly during that period many in Britain’s elite supported Stalin’s regime, by actively spying for the Soviets like Kim Philby and the notorious Cambridge spy ring, or by being fellow travellers and apologists for the excesses of the regime.

 Long after he had fled East Germany, Wolfgang Leonhard-by then Professor Leonhard- addressed the question [of the show trials of 1936-1938] in a famous annual lecture at Yale University, as part of his undergraduate course on Soviet History.

Among the possible explanations for the ‘Great Purge’, Leonhard listed Stalin’s insanity, Russia’s historic fear of foreign invasion-and an outbreak , in the 1930s, of highly active sunspots.

Anne Applebaum describes a post war Europe that was a terrible place to live with deportations and ethnic cleansing on a vast scale, even more terrible because the war was over, but the hatred remained.

The Czech people for instance were told to prepare for the final retribution of White Mountain for the return of the Czech lands to the Czech people. The Battle of White Mountain was fought in 1620 when Bohemia was defeated by the Holy Roman Empire and her German allies. This went on all over Eastern Europe.

Between 1945 and 1948, some 89,000 Hungarians were thus ‘persuaded’ to leave Slovakia for the Sudetenland, where they replaced the missing Germans, or else to cross the border into Hungary itself. Some 70,000 Slovaks arrived from Hungary in their place.

Not a word of protest was heard from outside the region. One Hungarian historian declared that this was because”the fate of the Hungarian minority did not interest anyone”.

But in truth, the fate of none of the minorities interested anyone……….By 1950, not much remained of multi-ethnic Eastern Europe. 

Although of course there was one multi-ethnic state left after all the forced population movements, Yugoslavia.    

51eCX1AIs2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_I have now finished reading Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale, and the book is in the words of Anne Applebaum “the definitive history of the mass killing of this period”.  I have read many books on twentieth century Polish, Russian and German history but this superbly researched book brought home better than most the utter horror of the period. In a mere twelve year period from 1933-1945 the Soviet and Nazi regimes murdered fourteen million people. Fourteen million individual lives. 

I think Bloodlands should be compulsory reading for anyone in the west who was ever a Communist fellow traveller or a party member in the 1940s and 1950s; for those people who exhibit concern about the Bombing of Dresden: for anyone who thinks about supporting an academic boycott of a tiny country in the Eastern Mediterranean; and above all for those teenagers taken on school trips to Auschwitz. Auschwitz was not the whole story and they need to learn about the Einsatzgruppen, the mass shootings and burnings, Babi Yar, Bikernieki Forest, Katyn Wood, Gulags, deportations, deliberate starvations, the Great Terror……..

I learned a lot.

Concerning Shmuel Zygielbojm, who was the representative of the Jewish Bund to the Polish government in exile in London.

In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943, addressed to the Polish president and prime-minister but intended to be shared with other Allied leaders, he wrote ‘”Though the responsibility for the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself.” The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament, joining in he wrote , the fate of his fellow Jews in Warsaw.

And that as many Poles were killed in the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as Germans were killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945.

And perhaps even more stunning…

On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.  

TWFactionYou can read my review of The Windsor Faction by D.J.Taylor at Karen’s Euro Crime website.


My interest in history made this book irresistible and emphasised the fact that small events can change major trends in our future. It always interests me when “experts” predict what the world will be like in 2030 or 2050, after all who one hundred years ago would have predicted with any degree of certainty the cataclysmic events of the next few decades.


41bj7+hXB3L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_I will possibly have more to say about this superb spy thriller after I have watched the final TV episode some time next week. I intend to watch the two episodes straight through as I believe that will be fairer to the adaptation of the novel, and I might forget the plot with a week interval between episodes.

The Spies of Warsaw, set in 1937, was an even better book than Spies of the Balkans, it had a bit more history, an interesting main character in Mercier and plenty of tension. Alan Furst cleverly blends real life events and personalities with his fictional characters. The  narrative style is episodic but that does not jar because of the packed content in those episodes. The author switches third person perspectives occasionally from the French military attache, the dashing aristocratic widower Colonel Mercier, to the German engineer Edvard Uhl, a secret agent, or the vindictive SD Major August Voss, but the tension never flags.

‘Evil bastards, Jean-Francois, they’ve got their whole country in prison. I have friends who are Jews, a couple , who fled Frankfurt with their clothes on their backs. No doubts great threats to the government: cellists, both of them. Did you know that, by German law, persons of more than twenty-five per cent non-Aryan blood are forbidden to play Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or any other Aryan composer?’

The reader learns all about the duties of Jean-Francois Mercier, and the reality that military attache really means a “spy”, working for the French Deuxieme Bureau. We accompany him to smart embassy dinners, to social events and on his dangerous investigative activities. He deals with both German secret agents, the Abwehr [German Military Intelligence] and the anti-Nazi ex-Nazis from Otto Strasser’s organisation, the survivors of Hitler’s purge on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. He helps Russian NKVD operatives avoid the dreaded trip back to Moscow, and “nine grams”. [The weight of a bullet is slang for execution.] He checks fortifications on the Polish-German border, and tank exercises in the Black Forest. 

‘So Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun, much honoured, idolized, even, has persuaded himself he is omniscient. In a recent pamphlet, he wrote “The Ardennes forest is impenetrable; and if the Germans were imprudent enough to get entangled in it, we should seize them as they came out!”‘

The reader learns about  Mercier’s teenage years, his relationships with women, and especially his romance with intriguing Anna Szarbek, a lawyer with the League of Nations. And on top of all the personal details we learn about the articles and books written on tank tactics by Basil Liddell-Hart, and Charles De Gaulle. These are almost totally ignored by the French and British General Staffs, but their ideas are eagerly adopted by German officers including Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel with devastating effect in the Blitzkreigs of 1939 [Poland] and 1940 [France]. This is just the sort of book that should be read by young people starting on their GCSE History of the Second World War course at 15 or 16, because it gives you a lot of facts in an easily digestible form alongside, both an exciting spy story and a love story. It makes history interesting, and as a result I am becoming a bit of an addict for Alan Furst’s writing. Although of course as well as history you get the tension and  excitement of spying and other activities.

Then they kissed for a while, the tender kind, touch and part-until she raised her arms so he could take her sweater off. Small breasts in a lacy black bra. For a day at the Cracow office?

Madame Dupin, you told.  

You can read my review of The Minotaur’s Head by Marek Krajewski over at the encyclopaedic Euro Crime website. 
Marek Krajewski’s creation Eberhard Mock has been called the most  outrageous detective in crime fiction, but he does have a two redeeming features. He plays chess and hates the Nazis.