2. Were all of Hitler’s beliefs alien from those of traditionalist conservatives?
3. Is Hitler an interesting reference point for any significant trend in modern political thought?
4. Did he have one testicle?
March 5, 2014
2. Were all of Hitler’s beliefs alien from those of traditionalist conservatives?
3. Is Hitler an interesting reference point for any significant trend in modern political thought?
4. Did he have one testicle?
January 5, 2014
Certain politicians aspire to be imposing statesmen yet bear as much of a resemblance to Churchill as a West Highland terrier bears to a German Shepherd. I have named them Pootercrats. Michael Gove has distinctly Pootercratic tendencies, which are most obvious when he is on the subject of war. He authored a strange article in 2008 that announced that the war in Iraq had been “a success”. “Sunni and Shia contend for power in parliament, not in street battles,” he announced, which is galling to read days after Sunni militants occupied Fallujah.
Mr Gove has now made headlines for an article that claims that we have too grim a perspective of the First World War. It is a crude piece, which, relying heavily on an essay by Professor Nigel Biggar, is as suitable a prompt for scholarly reflection as a wife-related insult is for a nice evening in the pub. Gove’s thoughts appear to have been limited, as he is unable to do so much as maintain a consistent view. He asserts that as tragic as the war turned out to be, “it was also plainly a just war”. Plainly, eh? Hm. Later, he writes that there is “no unchallenged consensus”. That sounds as plain as ‘70s footwear.
The education minister embarrasses himself by repeating an unfortunate misrepresentation of Biggar’s. His essay states that the historian Professor Richard Evans has suggested that to celebrate the war as a triumph is an example of “narrow, tub-thumping jingoism”, and Gove also quotes this as evidence of his disdain for “honouring [the] sacrifice” of British soldiers. In fact, Professor Evans was speaking not of World War 1 but of Gove’s educational reforms. I happen to think he makes far too much of a bugbear of nationalism but the least that one can do is quote him properly. Gove was either insulted and disingenuous or lazy and incompetent.
Gove describes our aversion to celebrating the Allied triumph as the product of “left-wing” myths. It was Niall Ferguson, in The Pity of War, who argued that blame for the conflict should lie at the feet of Britain, and it was Alan Clark whose book The Donkeys claimed that the fighting was hopelessly mismanaged by English generals. Whatever the value of the writing of these gentlemen, the latter was a Conservative politician for years while the former is known as a defender of colonialism. They’ve been more right wing than Gove, and the fact that Ferguson has been an adviser to him makes his tribal reductionism inexcusable.
Let us turn to an actual scholar. Biggar argues that the conflict was a just and unavoidable response to Germanic belligerence. I am no historian and cannot judge his factual claims. It is, indeed, a controversial subject and the experts should debate their differing perspectives. When he writes that the Germans believed “that war is the natural way of deciding the balance of international power”, however, I have to ask how perceptions of this “balance” were formed. It was, of course, because the European states, including Britain, had pursued such an aggressively expansionist plan of empire-building. Showing yourselves to be ambitious, competitive militarists is no recipe for trust and unobtrusiveness.
For all that one might lament the “ruthless” and “pitiless” nature of German militarism, meanwhile, it was our allies, the Belgians, who had left millions dead in the Congo and were still exploiting Africans with the aid of the English industrialist William Lever. One need not demonise all aspects of colonial Europe to observe that imperial hubris made catastrophic power struggles hard to avoid, and that its atrocities invalidate any claim to grand nobility. If one is to denounce the Germans for their “scorn for the international order”, one must recall the “order” one which one speaks.
Even if the Germans should be blamed for the conflict – which is by no means obvious – it seems akin to blaming the first man to throw a punch in a changing room full of aggressive and egotistical guy who have been flexing their muscles and exchanging insults. Everyone should feel ashamed of the destruction that followed.
World War 1 did not simply chew up and spit out millions of people across Europe but sowed the seeds of fascist and Bolshevik despotism. I will pay tribute to the men who sacrificed their lives in the defence of their country, but as a lover of England and a lover of Europe I feel sadness and disgust for the wastage of lives and the plunging of so much of the continent into darkness. Let historians debate the details, but it cannot much to assuage this gloom.
December 30, 2013
In a review of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, John Dolan, a mordant critic writing under his “War Nerd” pseudonym, described the journalist as a “professional mourner”. Russians, he observed, do not think very much about the pain that Stalin and his gang of thugs put their descendants through. This troubles Westerners, for…
…we need to believe that everyone shares our alleged dedication to the Christian-derived notion that we have to love everyone. And that means mourning, or at least going through the motions of mourning, every mass death.
Perhaps he would apply this to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which concludes thus…
The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers…It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn these numbers back into people.
Bloodlands documents the killing of fourteen million non-combatants by Hitler, Stalin and their different regimes in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States. From the Holodomor to the Holocaust, it details starvation, terror, genocide and brutal back-and-forth invasions. It can feel like wallowing in the anguish of others but it is, I think, of historical significance: a reminder of the suffering borne by Eastern Europeans to a West that felt awkward in shaking hands with the Man of Steel and prefers to think of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. Bloodlands offers valuable context and perspective.
Why, out of all historical events, however, do mass deaths so often interest us? Perhaps I am wrong, but monetary, cultural and scientific phenomena receive less attention than massacres and genocide. One reason is that we draw upon the past to inform our prescriptions for the future, and atrocities affirm our beliefs, and influence those of our audience, with a special power. Socialists are liable to think a great deal about the crimes of imperial Europe and America, and feel that conservatives and liberals moan too much about Communism, while liberals and conservatives think a great deal about Soviet Ukraine and Maoist China, and are liable believe that socialists bang on too much about the crimes of empires. This is not mere tribalism but reflective of the significance that thinkers place on the lessons of different events. Socialists believe it is of primary importance to fear the potential for wrongdoing from capitalist states while liberals and conservatives are more likely to emphasise the need to consider the threat of progressive utopianism. Well, I think both are important, though maintaining one’s scholarly rigour and aversion to exploitative polemicising matters as well.
Even disregarding our political inclinations, evil fascinates us. Books about serial killers and mass shootings are always in style, and our interest in dictators and genocidaires emerges from similar impulses. We hope to understand that which, in a secular age, seems ever more unfathomable yet somehow not alien.
Bloodlands offers much that appeals to both tendencies. Stalin and Kaganovich stage-managing starvation illuminates the worst extremes of centralised governance, while the racist savagery of the National Socialists, practiced not merely against Jews but against Slavs, is a timeless example of the worst that self-pity, paranoia and arrogance can breed. It has much to teach, meanwhile, about the cruel absurdities of totalitarianism. I am fascinated, for example, by the ease with which tyrants co-opt the naive enthusiasm and self-importance of young people: from the Hitler Youth to the Red Brigades to the teenagers that the Soviets sent to run about the farms of the Ukrainian countryside to harass the peasants they accused of hoarding grain.
A third reason for our interest in mass deaths is that which Dolan and Snyder speak of: the idea that individuals deserve to be reclaimed from the graves to which brutal men consigned them by the million. Bloodlands rescues many tales of horror, courage and resolve obscurity and these, more than a number on a page, affect one’s desire to love; to cherish; to resist. This is something it does for us, though, and not for the dead. They are gone, like so millions died in the plague, the cholera pandemic and the Spanish flu, or simply while conducting their business in the Scottish highlands, the Sahara Desert or the Siberian tundra. No one remembers these people, and nobody seems to mind. Man lives in slow cycles of deaths and births that erase all but the most startling of individuals. Yet almost everyone has mattered, to their families, to their friends and to themselves. They did not live to dig foundations for the centuries that followed but to make peace with their present. To mourn lives and loves that were stolen from their proper owners is to deny men the right to give tomorrow undivided precedence over today, and to imagine that they can negate the interests of others. It is to respect the humbler struggles of the species.
December 20, 2013
Last night, I watched a film about the Cambridge Spies. Unlike America, England in the 50s seems to have been distinguished by the extent to which people did not fear communist subversion. Jennifer Hart, a young aristocrat who gravitated towards the far left, claimed that MI5 would ask her to recommend bright graduates for jobs in the services and seemed to have little concern for their affiliations. If you came from the right families, and the right colleges, you were generally assumed to be a decent sort.
The film hinted darkly at potential motives of the spies, ranging from social conditions to sexual proclivities. It was not a time that showed the best of capitalism, that much is undeniable, and I think it is evident that homosexuality could incline one towards rebellion as, after all, one was classed as a natural rebel. A point that struck me, though, was when it was speculated that Blunt’s anti-authoritarian streak was nurtured by his loathing of the macho atmosphere of Marlborough College, with its emphasis on sporting prowess. I wonder how much of the social liberalism of the 20th Century was informed by resentment towards exclusion and abuse in British public schools.
It was “Mad Shelley” who faced taunting and violence at Eton as he nurtured his youthful radicalism, and significant progressives of the past century endured similar experiences. Lytton Strachey, among the more influential figures in the Bloomsbury Group, suffered harsh bullying at school thanks to the frail physique that made him unsuited for sports and labour. Gerald Brenan, too, hid in the library to escape his tormenters at Radley. Such, Such Were the Joys, meanwhile, reflected Orwell’s loathing of St. Cyprian’s – a prep school but one that led him to detest the “bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular” boys who outstripped other people “in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain”. This facts of the essay have been disputed but the perception remains. A hatred of hierarchy, order and authoritarianism can be stoked by few things more than public school bullies, and their victims are prepared to be receptive to alternatives to their values.
One suspects that the anti-authoritarian culture of the ‘60s had at least something to do with the resentment that young men felt towards the officials of their education. Peter Cook was joking when he said he got his “sense of injustice” from the caning he suffered at the hands of Ted Dexter, who was a prefect at Radley when he was young, but a good friend said he was “really angry” at the England batsman even in later life. Paul Foot, who, like his colleagues at Private Eye, was educated at Shrewsbury School, penned a scathing obituary of a sadistic master who would lash the bare buttocks of children, “quite unable to contain his glee”. There was a personal outrage, meanwhile, in the privately educated Lindsay Anderson’s portrayal of austere masters and thuggish prefects in his film if…, in which schoolboys amass weapons to massacre the staff of their public school.
Okay, correlation does not prove causation, and God knows whether the chicken or the egg was around before the other. Such men tended to hate school, and to be hated at school, because of their refusal to conform to the standards of their peers and masters. At the least, however, it is ironic that people who were frozen out of school did so much to exclude their bullies from the culture.
December 19, 2013
Play-acting as a cold warrior is a bore’s game. One thinks of Amis and Hitchens debating their leftist youths in a manner that gave new meaning to the term “self-indulgent”. Still, I find myself being attracted to old arguments. To read Priyamvada Gopal, for example, you would think that the campaign against Marxism in the United States was prompted by nothing more than bigotry and paranoia. There was a lot of that. Some of my favourite artists were drummed out of work by people whose defence of Western civilisation can have had little to do with a respect for culture or free speech.
I cannot help but think, however, that more should be said. It would be strange to write of the hounding of American isolationists without mention of the Duquesne Spy Ring or Charles Coughlin and I feel similarly here. The success of opportunists like Cohn and McCarthy must be understood in light of the fact that the state had been infiltrated by Soviet agents – from Treasury officials to nuclear physicists. The extent to which I sympathise with objects of suspicion, too, is often qualified by the extent to which they were admirers of the Stalinist regime. Gopal writes of Paul Robeson’s “alleged communist connections”, but this hardly befits a proud recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, who was so enamoured of the Soviets that he announced that “it is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand”, before mourning the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Uncle Joe after his death. Should the U.S. have been big enough to deal with his opinions? I think so. But the nature of much of the criticism of the West should not be obscured. I suspect that people emphasise the sins of the age without touching on these features of the context because it is does more for their sense of tribal victimhood.
Am I just mourning the fact that I never got to write for Encounter, though? It is true that in the manner with which liberals and Conservatives acquit themselves in arguments surrounding terrorists and tyrants one detects nostalgia for a time when good and evil seemed so clearly defined (and commentators seemed so vital in delineating them). It is also true that the force with which Conservatives thrust charges of Marxism at collectivist ideas can grow tiresome. Still, I tire of leftists meeting all nationalist and Eurocentric sentiments with invocations of the Empire, but I still believe that colonialism offers lessons of relevance to contemporary matters of war and occupation. Similarly, I think the admirers of the Soviet Union can be useful in reflecting on the utopian impulses that lurk within their ideological offspring. Disagree? Okay, but don’t mention Lord Rothermere next time there is a controversy around The Daily Mail.
November 22, 2013
I am always fascinated by unexplained mysteries; the shadows lurking in our comprehension of the past. The strange event that has intrigued me this week is not the assassination of JFK but the Wall Street bombing, which killed 38 Americans on 16th September 1920 and went unsolved (though Italian anarchists are still blamed for the crime). A detail that caught my eye was a reference to a man who had been a suspect after warning numerous people to avoid the area around the date of the atrocity. His tale is an odd one.
Edwin P. Fischer had been a successful tennis player, who had been ranked in the top 5 competitors in the United States. By 1920, though, he had withdrawn to obscurity. Days after the bombing, Mr Fischer was taken to New York and interviewed by detectives after it was revealed that he had warned friends, family members and even the caretaker of a local tennis club that Wall Street was to be attacked on the 15th or 16th of September. “Dear Shep,” he had been found to have written to a friend, “Keep away from Wall Street this Wednesday afternoon. There never was a road that didn’t have a turn”.
It was as he walked through the train station, The New York Times reported days later, that things became even stranger…
Three cigars were thrown into his path near the Lexington Avenue exit. He stooped and picked them up, saying, “I don’t smoke but I’ll keep them.” The cigars were taken from him and cut open to guard against the possibility that they might contain a message, drug or implement, but nothing of the sort was found.
Meanwhile, the detectives interviewed the suspect…
To all questions as to the source of the information which led him to send warnings of the explosion, he replied that it was a “premonition” or that he had “got it out of the air”.
It was growing ever more clear that something was not right about the prophetic player…
…the visible grey suit was only one of three worn by Fischer. Under that was another business suit, and underneath that, in place of the usual undergarments, was a tennis shirt and flannel trousers. Fischer…explained that this arrangement had several advantages…He was ready for a tennis match at all times, as all he had to do to appear in tennis costume was to shed his two outer suits…
The detectives had clearly decided that Fischer was not a threat to their citizens…
After Fischer had been questioned by Mr. Talley for some time he turned suddenly and said, “I don’t know how long I am going to be here, and I am very hungry. Let’s get something to eat.” Mr. Talley gave his assent and the detectives took him out for lunch.
Talley, who was the Assistant District Attorney, ruled that “he [who] not the type of man to whom any of those involved in the conspiracy to produce the explosion would have given information”. His warnings were ruled to have been coincidences, and he was ruled to be insane. This belief was inspired not merely by his behaviour but by the news that his family had tried to have him committed days before the explosion.
Looking back, this seems no less bizarre than it must have seemed then. The tennis player, dressed in his whites beneath a suit, almost seems so bizarre as to be contrived, like Blackadder with pencils up his nose, muttering “wibble”. Even his name sounds as if it could have been designed for a solitary eccentric. I am no fan of Laingesque mental health relativism. Ill health can distinguish people, and often in tragic ways. Yet it is interesting how the deceptions and delusions of our collective life can make madness seem so profound. Still, as long as the roots are not severed, all will be well in the garden…
October 29, 2013
We know, of course, of anti-communist struggles in the East: from Solzhenitsyn and the literary dissidents to the protests of the workers of Solidarity. Am I merely projecting my ignorance, though, when I suggest that we have paid little attention to those rebels who chose armed resistance? I can find no English language books on Poland’s cursed soldiers, Latvia’s Forest Brothers or the Ukrainian Insurgents Army.
These could be unsympathetic, which made them less compelling objects of interest. Some groups formed awkward alliances with the Nazis, in order to fight against the Soviets, and some committed atrocities. Under Mykola Lebed, for example, members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists slaughtered thousands of Poles in an attempt to purge their homeland of foreigners. (Lebed, strangely, went on to be hired by the U.S. intelligence services.)
These groups were diverse, though, regardless of Soviet attempts to cast them as fascists and bandits. What I find awesome, indeed, is the fact that many partisans resisted fascist occupation and took up their arms once more against the Soviet oppressors. While much of Europe was celebrating peace, a new war began for them.
Marian Bernaciak, a son of peasants who became involved in the Polish resistance, led his men for four brutal years against the Nazis. Once the Russians had proved themselves to be as cruel as the fascists, he led an anti-communist unit for another year: freeing political prisoners, publishing dissident works and frustrating the Soviets and their local allies. Finally, after being surrounded by communist troops, he was forced to kill himself.
Łukasz Ciepliński won the Order Wojenny Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military honour, for destroying six German tanks in 1939 in defence of Poland. He directed anti-communist resistance until 1947 when he was arrested, tortured for three years by the NKVD and shot in the back of the head. His wife and children were ostracised and forced to live in poverty.
All kinds of people fought to defend their countries. Danuta Siedzikówna was a 15-year-old girl when she joined the Polish resistance against the Nazis. After the war she tried to embrace civilian life but was forced to struggle against Soviet repression. In 1946, she was captured by Polish Stalinists. Though tortured, she refused to betray her comrades. She was executed days before her 18th birthday.
Such courage, and such evil, should be remembered. The Stalinist campaign against resistance movements was barbaric. Tens of thousands of people were sent to the gulag and thousands more were executed, often on trumped-up charges. Before dying, they could face unimaginable sadism. Adolfas Ramanauskas was a Lithuanian partisan who was captured and taken to a KGB prison in Vilnius. A report dispassionately noted his condition…
The right eye is covered with haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball. Multiple haematomas in the area of the stomach, a cut wound on a finger of the right hand. The genitalia reveal the following: a large tear wound on the right side of the scrotum and a wound on the left side, both testicles and spermatic ducts are missing.
Let us never allow the knowledge that the Soviets fought as our allies blind us to the evils of their own oppression. Arguments about the relative levels of depravity between the fascists and the Stalinists are of some academic interests but the differences, if and where they existed, may not have seemed relevant to people who endured them.
There is a reason that the Polish rebels were named the cursed soldiers. Anti-communist resistance, be it in Ukraine, Lithuania or Poland, could never withstand the might of the Soviet Union. Its forces were crushed across the East and its members went down in the history books as fascists, terrorists and thieves, to be spoken of with disdain if spoken of at all. Only in the past two decades have their respective peoples been able to honour them.
It is only natural that we have remembered the Maquis more than the Forest Brothers, and the Warsaw Uprising more than the cursed soldiers. The Nazis were our foes, and, besides, there was no prohibition on researching and speaking of the fight against Nazism. They deserve our memories, though, in many cases, for a struggle that was futile but courageous, dignified and moving.
October 23, 2013
So, the anniversary of the initiation of the First World War is not until next year, but I have been reflecting on it anyway. More particularly, I have been thinking about a British soldier in the trenches and what he could never have known.
He could never have known that people as common as himself would think little of flying between continents, still less that people would think little of others flying into space. He could never have known that moving pictures, music and literature could be accessed at the touch of a button. He could never have known that people across the world could interact with one another from their own living rooms.
He could never have known of Joyce, Kafka and Eliot; of Welles, Bergman and Hitchcock; of Bob Dylan and The Beatles. He could never have known of EL James; Michael Bay and Justin Bieber.
He could never have known that the British Empire would fall; that Britain would be multiracial and that its church would decline. He could never have known that women would be thought of as his equal. He could never have known that gays would be accepted.
He could never have known that cigarettes were unhealthy. He could never have known that one could claim medical treatment thout charge. He could never have known that vaccines would eradicate diseases. He would have had no idea of the nature of DNA.
He could have never have known of the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. He could not have known that his war would be dwarfed by another. He could not have known of Israel, Islamic terrorism or the rise of the Chinese. He could never have known of the atomic bomb.
It struck me that there is little reason to believe that coming decades will not contain equally momentous changes. And, quite suddenly, I felt an ignorance made more undignified by pretension.
September 2, 2013
I was a history buff when I was a kid. World War 2 came first, of course. Troops, tanks and planes rampaged across my television, not only in dramas like The Longest Day and Battle of the Bulge but in countless documentaries narrated by deep-voiced Americans. In school, meanwhile, I held books on my knees and studied HMS Prince of Wales or the BL 8-inch howitzer.
My interests were broad, though. The books of authors like Michael Morpurgo transported me back to the lands of Roman soldiers, British tribesmen and Native Americans. Computer games of choice, of course, were Age of Empires. My mother was not a fan – she walked into the living room while I telling a sibling, “There’s a monk! Kill it!” – but I loved to immerse myself in the worlds of yesterday. She consoled herself with the thought that I would grow up to become a history professor.
Then came secondary school, and my enthusiasm for the subject was buried underneath mounds of sheets. I am not sure what we studied but I do recall that it came in the form of endless pieces of loose leaf paper. I am not sure how history should be taught in schools but it should not be in this forest-depleting style. It appealed to the imagination about as much as a wet weekend in Slough.
As this blog’s excursions into Leninist Russia, post-war Japan and the Belgian Congo prove, however, I can still be gripped by tales of bygone societies. Few books have recaptured the feelings of my childhood, though, as much as Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. I bought it under the vague assumption that it was devoted to Islam. His revisionist approach to the origins of the Muslim faith represents the most controversial aspect of his book and praiseful or disapproving commentaries on these sections dominated its reviews.
About the claims regarding Mohammad, his teachings and his followers I reserve judgement. To stimulate discussion on such politically contentious subject is laudable but his arguments are so contentious in themselves that I have no wish to draw hasty conclusions. The chapters up to the emergence of the Muslims, though, are worth the price of admission before the main event has started. Its reviewers have done the book a disservice. It is a broad account of the rise of monotheism – guiding the reader through different places, ages, cultures. One might say that I went for the Islam and stayed for the shahs, the Zoroastrians, the Romans, the Jews, the Christians and the idolatrous Arabs.
The upheaval within these empires, and the conflicts between them, are portrayed in prose so rich and evocative that one almost hears the squeals of horses and the howls of kings; smells the incense in the temples; tastes the dryness of the sands. Its academic value I leave for others to assess but as a work to inspire the imagination and provoke one’s curiosity it is a fine success. This, of course, is and should not be enough to satisfy historians of the students. The facts are considerably more important than the fun. To sift through the details, though, people have to care about them, and to help people to care represents a good start.
James Palmer’s The Death of Mao tells of the consequences of two forces of chaos: one of nature; the other of man. The first is the Tanshang earthquake, which tore through Hebei as Mao was lying on his deathbed and took a quarter of a million people to graves of dust and stone. The second is Maoism, which spawned mob violence, famine and institutional dysfunctional and left tens of millions of people. Palmer’s book is of great relevance in its clear recounting of the ploys, the blunders and the flukes by which the more liberal Deng Xiaoping triumphed over the brutal ultraleftists of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death. His elegant prose also conveys the ruin and the waste of the destruction of lives, homes and infrastructure by forces of relentless upheaval, be it an earthquake or a band of the Red Guards.
David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins and Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race tell different stories of the intricate conspiracy that was the Tour de France (and, yes, I use the past tense with reservations). One is told from the outside, by an investigator, and one from within, by an ashamed conspirator. The feats of deception portrayed in Hamilton’s book, and the accounts of dogged inquiry in Walsh’s, should appeal to anyone who is drawn to the thriller genre, while their differing depictions of the world of bikes and drugs are richly informative. (I had not known, for example – as obvious as it should have been – that EPO affects people in very different ways, which makes my claim that had Armstrong promptly ‘fessed up to his cheating he could still be thought of as the greatest of the time somewhat dubious.) They are most effective, though, in portraying the evils not of doping but of lying: of the rot that spreads through one’s soul and life as one tells mistruths, and of the people who can fall victim to their preservation. The abiding images are not so much Hamilton and Armstrong lying in hotel beds, being subjected to blood transfusions, or standing on the podium on the Champs-Élysées, but of a son telling the parents who had raised him to be honest that their pride in him had been fraudulent, and of a masseuse being harrassed along with her MS-suffering boyfriend for being so audacious as to tell the truth.
August 2, 2013
A while ago I wrote an application for an arts scholarship with something called The Leverhulme Trust. It looked like a sweet deal: I could formulate an idea for a dramatic production and they would provide some cash to help me to research the thing. It struck me, though, that I should find out what this “Trust” thing was. A quick Google landed me on the Wikipedia page of someone called William Lever, 1st Viscount of Leverhulme, who, I learned, was an industrialist, a philanthropist and a man who had built much of his fortune on cheap labour and Palm oil concessions in the Belgian Congo.
This disturbed me, but I knew it shouldn’t be surprising. Trusts and foundations are built on large amounts of money, and large amounts of money rarely spring from pure sources. Given that William Lever’s Congolese operation has long since folded, one would no more be complicit in its deeds in profiting from his legacy than students of Christ Church are complicit in the sacking of the monasteries. What annoyed me, though, was the discreet avoidance of the subject by the institutions that now carry Lever’s name. The Leverhulme Trust remembers him as being a man of “exceptional creativity and energy”, while Unilever, which he founded, hails his “projects to improve the lot of [his] workers and [create] products with a positive social impact”. In taking their money, then, I thought, one might not be complicit in evil but in obscurantism.
This was somewhat pious. William Lever was a creative, industrious man, and a philanthropist, as well as being responsible for suffering in the Congo and one can hardly expect his heirs to dwell upon the latter. He was a man of his time and, all in all, I see no reason not to use his money to improve our times. It struck me, though, that while some dead philanthropists have had their darker deeds quietly acknowledged – Cecil Rhodes, say, or Henry Ford – the Viscount of Leverhulme has had his overlooked. AN Wilson, writing in the Daily Mail, ranked him among old millionaires whose public spirits shame the plutocrats of our day. His most recent biographer, Adam MacQueen, grants that Lever was not exactly a model employer but asserts that “by the standards of the day he was exemplary”.
It took a Belgian, Jules Marchal, to decisively prove that this was not the case. Marchal was a diplomat who was disturbed by the colonial past of his nation, and documented its history in a series of books. One of them, Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts, details the work of Lever’s company, the Huileries du Congo Belge.
The HCB, as it was known, sought palm oil as the raw material for soap, on which Lever’s fortune had been built. The death of King Leopold had marked the end of the most intense atrocities of Belgian occupation but even though some powers had been transferred to Congolese chiefs it was Belgian administrators who ran the country. With their help, the HCB monopolised palm oil production: strong-arming the Congolese people into agreeing to contracts that robbed them of any benefits of competition and forced them to work for less than equitable remuneration.
The HCB needed workers, and these could be hard to find. The Congolese people distrusted their Europeans at the best of times, and once they understood what they had been signed up for they were even less enthusiastic about being employed. Some agreed regardless, as they had to have the money, while others had little choice. Forced labour had characterised Leopold’s Congo Free state, where failing to meet rubber quotas was punishable by death or the amputation of one’s hand, and it continued in less blatant forms. William Ormsby-Gore, a Conservative politician, delicately but disapprovingly observed that there were “some elements of coercion”, while Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian colonialist who was sympathetic to the work of the HBC, was uncomfortable about the means by which chiefs were encouraged to make their subjects sign up by hook or by crook: “tear[ing] from their village[s] old men who were not up to doing anything at all”.
Once they had been recruited, workers generally had to leave their homes and families and travel to HBC bases. The standards in these camps cannot have made that dislocation less painful. Dr. Emile Lejeune prepared a report on one of them, modestly named Leverville, in 1923. Workers, he found, were not given blankets to guard them from the cold, and many of them were struck down with pneumonia and bronchial infections. The houses in which men slept were overcrowded, and not equipped with latrines or rubbish pits. The rations consisted of a meal’s worth of rice and dried fish, “[providing] far too few proteins, carbohydrates, fats and calories”. If that sounds like a meager diet to us, most of whom spend our working days in chairs, imagine how unsatisfying it must have been for people who cut and carrying fruit from six in the morning to nightfall.
It was not only men who had to bear these hardships. Lejeune observed “children or young adolescents…pushing wagons, and on boats…loading timber and fruit”. This continued even as other conditions improved, and wives and daughters were also roped in to help the men keep up with the formidable demands. Pierre Ryckmans observed women who were “pregnant or burdened with children“ yet had to “go and find the fruit in the forest, shell it, carry it from the early morning onwards to the reception centre and return exhausted to perform her domestic duties”.
A refrain of Europeans who feature in the book is that the natives are just idle. The problem with recruitment, HCB’s Sidney Edkins is reported as claiming, is “the natural repugnance felt by all blacks for every kind of work”. I am no expert on the work ethic of the Congolese people of that era but it seems to me that it might not have been work per se that they objected to but hard, tedious work in tough conditions on behalf of people who had effectively swindled their compatriots out of what they must have thought was their birthright. Edkins and his chums remind me of the people who campaigned for the invasion of Iraq; saw the country torn apart by violence and neglect and then blamed the unhappiness of its population on their being a load of ingrates.
In 1931 Belgian and HCB recruiters were seeking potential employees in the village of Kilamba. Its menfolk must have caught wind of their arrival as they took off into the bush. The officials promptly locked their wives and mothers in a nearby barn. Having rounded up the men and packed them off towards a camp, they travelled to another village and were met with arrows. HCB tactics, as well as those of Belgian companies, had fomented an anti-European movement that flared up in violence. Soldiers arrived and killed hundreds in suppressing the revolution.
Emile Vandervelde, a Belgian statesman who had been enthusiastic about Lever’s presence in the Congo, wrote that indirect causes of the uprising included “the recruiting operations, involving moral and physical violence, by the HCB” and “the obligation to “produce” despite the too-low prices paid”. “We are faced,” he said, “With the weighty question as to whether, behind the proud facade of Leverville, there are not…living and working conditions…so deplorable that by themselves they serve to explain the overwhelming repugnance felt by local peoples at the thought of going to this region”.
The HCB were not equivalent to, say, Japanese soldiers who worked their captives to death in the construction of the Burma Railway. Conditions did improve, despite continuing abuses, and the HCB eventually paid twice the wage that the Belgian industrialists offered. What Marchal claims, however, is that even in an era of colonialism they were profoundly regressive. In Nigeria, he writes, the British colonists allowed the natives to maintain ownership of their palm groves; did not force them to work and did not reduce women to hard labour. Forced recruitment was a feature of Kenya, he claims, but even there the wages were many times higher than they were in the Congo.
Lever was a greedy man, and many of the lessons of the Huileries du Congo Belge concern the potential rapacity of profit-seeking businesses: monopolising, corporatising and generally exploitating anything from which a little oil might be squeezed. The comfort of Westerners smearing themselves in soap ensured that few thought of its nameless, faceless producers, and exhausted workers across the world may tell us we are not entirely different.
Greedy men, however, are rarely just greedy. Lever was no cartoon industrialist: with a top hat, cigar and boot planted on the backside of some rawboned urchin. He did strive throughout his life to improve people – not as they might have wished, in many cases, but the thought was there. I suspect that he believed that he was improving the Congo, and there is evidence of his pride in constructing schools and hospitals there. What the HCB proved, however, is the potentially destructive nature not simply of greed but of the philanthropic spirit itself.
Westerners need not have been entirely dishonest in their wish to seek the “moral and material improvement” of their subjects but they showed that the desire to be beneficent is useless if it is not accompanied by respect. One has to respect people enough to acknowledge the material and emotional needs that drive them: the universal exigencies of food, shelter, security and companionship and the local habits of belief and tradition. It is the condescending disregard for peoples’ independence that led and still leads people to sulk when objects of their dreams find the material realities of their lofty ideals – “work”, say, or “freedom” – to be wanting.
Reading Marchal’s book led me to think of colonialism. The Empire makes me no more embarrassed to be English than the Belgian Free State, French Algeria, Eastern Europe, Imperial Japan and the Arab slave trade should embarrass the descendants of their architects. We are not them. On the other hand, we are not entirely unlike them. If we want to claim to have been influenced by the achievements of our ancestors we have to understand the harm that they inflicted; thus to ensure that the attitudes that lay behind them do not live again. They were not always malicious and they are more relevant for that.