Archive for category Second World War
One of my first posts when I started this blog in 2012 was to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Each year after that – until last year, for reasons which may be obvious from some of my other recent posts – I wrote about some aspect of the Holocaust. Looking back I can see how much research went into those posts, how hard I tried to do justice to a subject which is both impossible and imperative to write about.
I haven’t done that research this year, but the 2023 theme, Ordinary People, is reflected in a number of my past posts. I have often touched on how the complicity, indifference or obliviousness of ordinary people, the collaborators and bystanders, was essential to the achievement of the final solution, as it is to all genocides. But I’ve also talked about, and named, some of the ordinary people who died in such unthinkable numbers, in mass shootings, in gas chambers, through starvation and exhaustion, through disease, and some of those who survived. And there are others too, the ordinary people who did not stand by, who gave a damn when it wasn’t their turn and when it would certainly have been safer to look the other way.
It’s a subject to which I have returned over and over again, in my reading and my watching. It was a major theme in my doctoral research. My very first HMD post tried to explain why I have needed to keep returning, when I have no direct personal connections to those events. But leaving aside my early encounter with a different genocide, I study the Holocaust because it addresses so profoundly and in so many ways what it is to be human, and what being human might mean at its worst and its best.
This year three documentaries have brought new light to bear on those events.
The first, The US and the Holocaust, focuses as the title would suggest on the role of the USA, and the glaring disparity between the Statue of Liberty’s claim to offer refuge to the ‘tempest-tossed’ and its refusal to help the Jews of Europe. Had the immigration quotas been waived, had more visas been offered before war broke out, before the Nazis blocked all means of escape, how many could have been saved? What is clear is that the reason for this obduracy in the face of the known facts was anti-semitism, and the fear of fuelling anti-semitism by allowing an influx of Jews. We followed the efforts of some ordinary families, with relatives already in the US, to get visas, and the fate of those who did not get out in time. This was an exemplary documentary, which made excellent use of archive footage and contemporary interviews, and balanced the institutional with the personal to moving effect.
How the Holocaust Began‘s mission was to show the chaotic and spontaneous beginnings, before the death camps, before the gas chambers. The focus on Auschwitz as the symbol of the Holocaust obscures the fact that millions were already dead before it began operation, in mass shootings at sites such as Babi Yar in Ukraine. It began even before the Einsatzgruppen, the units who had been specifically tasked with clearing the newly invaded territories of Jews and other despised categories of humanity, arrived on the scene. Clearly the local commanders knew that their actions would be approved, and were enthusiastic about what they were doing. The programme also looked at some of the research now being undertaken to identify the sites of mass graves and some of the people who were murdered. (See Wendy Lower’s book, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, for one such project.) Ordinary people lying in those mass graves, and ordinary people who colluded or participated directly in their murder.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening embodies this year’s HMD theme in the most powerful way. It begins with three minutes of amateur film, no soundtrack, no commentary. People milling around in a town, drawn to the man with the film camera, jostling and waving and smiling for posterity. One year before that town was invaded, and its inhabitants rounded up in the square and deported to ghettos and thence to Treblinka. This bit of film was discovered, providentially, just before it would have been lost, either destroyed, or to the process of decay. The documentary shows how the location of the film was identified, Nasielsk, in Poland, and how the testimony of one survivor (Nasielsk’s pre-war population was 7,000, of whom 3,000 were Jews, and of whom only 100 survived) enabled the identification of a handful of the people we see. If we saw this clip without knowing its context, we might wonder what became of them all, but the horror of this is that we do know, they are Jews, and they are in Poland and it is 1938. The film, which we see repeatedly over the course of the programme, gives the 150 people who appear in it just over an hour, from those three minutes. Watching it is a profound experience.
As much as I have read and seen, I still feel that sense of shock. I hope I always will.
I’m still not reading as much as I used to. It’s the silence that’s the problem. Lord knows I used to tut sometimes when I was reading and he broke my train of thought with his own train of thought, but Lord knows I would love to have him do that now. So I turn to the TV sometimes when in the past I would have turned to a book, just to break the silence. Nonetheless, I’ve still normally got two or three books on the go – one on the Kindle and a couple of physical books, usually one fiction and one non, and nonetheless it’s still quite an eclectic list. As always, I haven’t listed absolutely everything – I want to share my enthusiasms rather than my disappointments – and as always I have tried to avoid spoilers but make no guarantees. Top reads this half-year? Jan Carson’s The Raptures, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land. From the first half of the year, I’d pick out Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, and Sarah Moss’s The Fell. Since I make the rules for this blog, I shan’t require myself to choose amongst those six titles.
Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
This, and its sequel The Women of Troy (which I have yet to read) tell the familiar story (familiar not only from Homer but from countless retellings – in my case the first encounter was with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans and The Luck of Troy) with the focus shifted to the women. In this one, the central role is that of Briseis, handed over to Achilles, appropriated by Agamemnon and retrieved by Achilles, all as part of the spoils of war. It’s a grim tale, beautifully told.
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Sebald and Bernhard are often linked, and I figured it was about time I gave the latter a go. The choice of book was a foregone conclusion once I discovered that The Loser was about (in part) Glenn Gould, who fascinates me. There are elements of the style that certainly recall Sebald (any influence was from Bernhard on Sebald) – the novel, like Austerlitz, is one unbroken paragraph, and the narrator’s voice constantly makes it explicit that these are his thoughts, and when he was thinking them (‘I thought, as I entered the inn’, ‘I thought in the inn’ , ‘he said, I thought’, etc) which reminded me again of Austerlitz.
Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Shuttle
I adored The Little Princess and The Secret Garden as a child (never read Fauntleroy, as far as I can recall) and this adult novel was a delight too. It’s quite Gothic in places, but punctured with humour, and with a hero (Bettina) who shines from the pages. The theme is intermarriage between British aristos (broke, with run-down country estates to maintain) and wealthy American heiresses but it’s also a very perceptive (based on first-hand experience) account of coercive control.
Jan Carson – The Raptures
This is stunning. I had no idea for most of it where it was heading, what the answers to the questions were going to be, and indeed ultimately there were no firm answers. But it grips on every page, its characters live and breathe, even when they’re no longer living and breathing. It’s a supernatural mystery, a who (or what) dunit, an allegory about plague and pandemic, a coming of age narrative, a portrait of a small Protestant Northern Irish community. Never mind all that, just read it.
Ann Cleeves – The Rising Tide
A new Vera! I wasn’t sure Cleeves was still writing Veras. Anyway, very pleased to get this and it’s as enjoyable as ever.
Robert Galbraith – Ink Black Heart
Oh dear. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike books so far, although few of them need to be the length they are. But this one desperately needed an editor to tell her to slash great chunks of the book so that it’s coherent, and particularly to cut back the use of verbatim online conversations (three columns of different conversations, going over several pages) which are incredibly hard to read and to follow. There’s also the issue of the subject matter – online abuse – and its proximity to the author’s life on Twitter and other social media over recent years. I think it’s too close for her to be able to examine that world with any objectivity and the book is a mess.
Elizabeth Gilbert – City of Girls
I read The Signature of All Things a few years back and loved it. Still haven’t read Eat Love Pray or whatever it’s called, fairly sure that would not be my cup of tea. But she’s a lovely writer – City of Girls is captivating, and very witty, it sparkles like one of those screwball comedies from the era in which the book is set. And then the tone shifts, and whilst it’s every bit as witty it’s also darker and deeper and very moving.
Graham Greene – The Quiet American
I honestly thought I’d read all of Greene, many years ago (he was a favourite of my mum’s). But this one had eluded me and it’s a fine example of his style and of his preoccupations.
Elly Griffiths – Bleeding Heart Yard
This is Griffiths’ third novel featuring detective Harbinder Kaur, now relocated in that London, and it is hugely enjoyable. As always with Griffiths, the characters are drawn with humour and affection (mostly), and with compassion and insight.
Abdulrazak Gurnah – After Lives
Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 but his name had never registered with me. I shall put that right now and read his other books, because this one was excellent. Set in what is now Tanzania, in the early 20th century when the area was a German colony, it sweeps across that century, through the first and second world wars, the shifting boundaries and colonial rulers, but is always centred on the lives of a handful of characters who are battered, in different ways, by these forces. Despite the scale and the horror of what is unfolding, it manages to be, in relation to these people, gentle and subtle and, somehow, hopeful.
Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom
I’d read Homegoing a couple of years ago, an epic family history that begins in Kumasi, Ghana, and crosses continents and centuries. The scale in Transcendent Kingdom is much smaller, although it still reaches back to Kumasi, but the central family is contracting rather than expanding (as the narrator says, “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one”. Its concerns are philosophical, scientific even, as the central character is a neuroscientist, her research intimately connected with her family’s tragedy.
Robert Harris – Act of Oblivion
After Cromwell’s death, those who signed King Charles’ death warrant are on the run, and supporters of the new King are determined to track them down. Harris cleverly builds the tension but also gives us insight into both sides, so we as readers have to keep switching our perspective, as we are with first the regicides and then the manhunter, and we see how both are driven by the absolute certainty that they and their cause are absolutely right.
Mick Herron – Live Tigers/Spook Street
The third and fourth of the Slough House novels and they’re as sharp and funny and dark as ever. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and to seeing the dramatisation of the second book – Gary Oldman has a marvellous time as Jackson Lamb, really letting rip, in every sense.
Tayari Jones – The Untelling
Secrets and lies and their toxic effects upon relationships are the theme here, and Jones is perceptive and subtle in her portrayal of Aria(dne) and the small circle of people who matter to her.
Stephen King – Fairy Tale
This resembles his 1984 collaboration with the late Peter Straub, The Talisman, more than it does his most recent spate of novels. That’s deliberate, I’m sure – King often makes references to his other books, sometimes in passing, sometimes to create resonant connections (see his various books set in or around Castle Rock, for example), and there are some nice echoes here. He and Straub had talked about another collaboration, although it had never got off the ground, so maybe we can take this as a tribute. It’s King on top form, in any case.
John le Carré – Silverview
Ah, the last le Carré. Edited by his son, from what was a virtually complete manuscript. It’s not the best le Carré but it’s bloody good le Carré and it has the melancholy and the anger that have characterised his work in later years.
Attica Locke – The Cutting Season
A stand-alone from Locke, after her two excellent short series of crime novels. This is crime that drags one back into the past, the slavery past, and it is tense and gripping stuff.
David Park – A Run in the Park/Travelling in a Strange Land
Beautiful writing. A Run in the Park is the gentler read, although there’s plenty of emotional heft in there. Travelling in a Strange Land goes to dark places but in both books there is always darkness and light, loss and love, grief and hope.
Sara Paretsky – Tunnel Vision
The eighth in Paretsky’s excellent detective series, featuring PI V I Warshawsky battling corporate crime and corruption. I’ve read these in random order as I got hold of them, so at some point I will try and fill in the gaps.
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
My first Patchett – this is compelling and often moving. It’s about a terrorist attack, and the fate of the hostages, but its also about love, beauty and music.
Louise Penny – The Madness of Crowds
Inspector Gamache series, no. 17, the most recent. As with the Paretsky, I’m reading these in a totally random order, so there are references in this one to events which I don’t yet know about, but the main plot stands alone. As always with Penny, there are times when Three Pines seems just too magically cosy but she always undercuts that with the crime and its motivation, which are anything but.
Bapsi Sidwha – The Ice Candy Man
Many years ago I read Sidwha’s debut novel, The Crow Eaters, which I remember loving even if its plot has faded from my memory. The setting is Lahore, once in India, then allocated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. The Ice Candy Man (also published as Cracking India) starts in the period leading up to Partition and confronts the horrors of what happened, through the eyes of a child, who at first has no real notion that the different communities (Sikh, Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian) are potentially a threat to one another. Indeed, her home is a place where people from these communities meet and bicker and insult one another in a largely friendly way, and when violence is predicted insist that they will stand by their friends. We see things through Lenny’s eyes, not all of which she understands, not all of which adults are prepared to explain to her. It’s unflinching, but also often funny and touching.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
I struggle with Zadie Smith and am still trying to work out why. Her characters never quite seem to live and breathe, as if she’s at too much of a distance from them to really bring them to life. This, her debut, didn’t change my view, unfortunately.
Russ Thomas – Nightwalking/Cold Reckoning
Parts 2 and 3 of Thomas’s Sheffield-based trilogy which began with Firewatching. Excellent plotting and interesting, complicated lead characters.
Anne Tyler – Redhead at the Side of the Road
I hadn’t read any Tyler for ages, not since being so disappointed with Vinegar Girl (kind of a take on Taming of the Shrew, but it really didn’t work). But I have read most of her stuff, and I love most of her stuff (top two are Saint Maybe and Breathing Lessons, I think). This one is a lovely variation on ‘a perennial Tyler theme: the decent, mundane, settling-for-less kind of life whose uneasy decorum is suddenly exploded by the random, the uncontrolled, the latent sense of what might have been’, as The Guardian’s reviewer put it.
I read this account of widowhood, by a family friend, a few years back when it was first published. Reading it again now was a remarkable experience – so many of Molly’s observations are ones that I can relate to – I kept thinking ‘Yes! Yes, that’s it!’. It’s insightful, honest and warm.
Sarah Churchwell – The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe
Having felt rather grubby after watching Blonde I thought this would be a good antidote. It’s the story of the stories of Monroe’s life, of the clichés and stereotypes, the biographies and memoirs and attempts to uncover the ‘real’ Monroe. It’s incisive and rigorous and fascinating. It was published before the film of Blonde came out, but includes Joyce Carol Oates’ novel in her analysis, along with Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and a host of lesser lights whose accounts have been published over the years.
Laura Cumming – On Chapel Sands: My Mother and other Missing Persons
A very intriguing memoir/detective story. Cummings gradually reveals the secrets of her mother’s early life, and at each step shows how she had to reevaluate everything she thought she knew, and her understanding of the people involved. If it were fiction it would be a great read but it gains depth through the knowledge that it is a true story – it’s deeply personal, and terribly sad.
Mike Duncan – The Storm before the Storm
The rise of the Roman Republic, as Duncan tells it, was the beginning of its fall. Fascinating, accessibly written account.
Sebastian Haffner – Defying Hitler: A Memoir
Haffner (real name Raimund Pretzel) wrote this account of Germany in the First World War, the Weimar Republic and during the rise of Nazism, in 1939, after he had emigrated to England. It was only published in 2003, having been left unfinished, as Haffner worked on his less personal account, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, and was collated for publication by his son. It is therefore written without hindsight, at least without the knowledge of what lay inexorably at the end of the Nazi road, and thus its insights are fresh and passionate, exploring how Germans came to choose Hitler.
Sudhir Hazareesingh – Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
Epic is right. An extraordinary man, with an extraordinary life and achievements, which resonate to this day (as I was reminded in the cinema the other day, watching Wakanda Forever…)
Hans Jahner – Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955
An excellent study, exploring many aspects of the post-war period, and taking the story further, beyond the bomb sites and the hunger, to recovery, and division. He draws on a number of memoirs, often from women, which shed light on daily life, on culture and politics, on work and money. It’s rigorous but entertainingly written, often with a wry humour.
Michelle Obama – Becoming
Great stuff – she writes interestingly and engagingly, about her life before she hooked up with Barack as well as showing us his presidency from her perspective and that of the family. I would have liked to hear her account of the years after his presidency ended – maybe another volume will be forthcoming…
My reading this year has taken me out of my own time and place and as always I feel enriched by it, I feel my sympathies have been extended, as George Eliot puts it. I’ve been entertained as well as educated, often at the same time, and I’ve been moved to both laughter (laughing out loud is something I do too little of these days, living alone) and tears (well, no shortage of those, nor any surprise to those who know me, even before recent losses). I am deeply grateful to all of the writers with whom I’ve shared 2022 and who, in their various ways, have helped me through it.
Somehow the impending anniversary of VE Day had not impinged on my consciousness. I didn’t get the memo about the Mayday bank holiday being shifted to Friday so we could commemorate the end of WWII in Europe.
And I’m deeply uneasy about it. We’re in the midst of a crisis which, as we are reminded daily, is the toughest thing we’ve had to face since the last war. And it’s by no means over. We are assured that the infection has ‘passed the peak’ but people are still dying and the dying will continue for some time yet. Street parties – even physically distanced ones – surely aren’t quite capturing the mood. And the more cynical amongst us may suspect that this anniversary is giving government an opportunity for distraction – remind us of our finest hour, whilst offering us only spin and tweaked stats and pieties in place of decisive, timely and compassionate action.
And there’s more to my unease. Are we marking the defeat of a genocidal fascist dictatorship which had brought about the deaths of millions, not just soldiers, or civilian casualties of bombing, but people targeted for death because they were Jewish, Communist, Roma, homosexual, disabled? Are we marking the fact that in the wake of this horror, Europe forged a peace and a unity that has held ever since?
Or are we celebrating because ‘we’ defeated ‘them’? Because Churchill was the Boris of his day, facing down an enemy with British pluck and bulldog spirit? Just to illustrate my concerns:
What did the end of that war really mean for us here in Britain, and for our neighbours in Europe? Primarily, I would guess, for the British, it was relief. Relief that they no longer had to listen for the sirens, or listen for when the V1 engines cut out. Relief that nights in shelters or underground stations, waiting for the All Clear, were at an end. The prospect of life returning to some semblance of normality, or to what we would now call a ‘new normal’. The prospect of the return of the people they loved who had been serving in Europe, and the relief those people were no longer in daily peril.
But even then, it was tempered with the reality of loss. The gaps on the streets where houses used to stand, where families had lived. The people who would never come home, or who came home unutterably changed and damaged.
And the new normal had to accommodate – not right away, but soon – the full knowledge of what had happened ‘over there’. For those who’d arrived in the UK as refugees, there was the terrible wait for knowledge – and then the terrible weight of knowledge. Some returned to their families, if not to home, unutterably changed and damaged, and those to whom they returned had to wrestle not only with grief but the guilt that they had been spared, and the impossibility of truly understanding.
Across Europe, if not here, people had been starving – not just in the camps but in bombed-out cities, occupied territories. People now were sick, not just in the camps but across the continent, because of malnutrition and the breakdown of infrastructure in cities, towns and villages that had become rubble.
The thing is, VE Day didn’t mean it was all over (and not just because a brutal war continued in the Pacific, for another three months). For many it was never over. They may not have talked about it, often or at all, but it stayed with them. The survivors of the camps, the soldiers who liberated the camps, those who survived but saw more cruelty and destruction than their souls could bear. It may seem as if the war is being invoked all the time, especially at present, but rarely by those who really remember it, who were actually there.
I can’t mark VE Day with little flags and Vera Lynn and Keep Calm and Carry On. I mark this 75th anniversary by remembering the cost, remembering the loss and the pain and the destruction. And by remembering how Europe rebuilt and repaired, not only buildings and roads and ports, but alliances and communities and trust. I will think of victory in Europe, and the victory of Europe as an ideal of peaceful cooperation. Any VE day celebration that does not celebrate Europe is a sham, a fantasy of Little England, standing alone (apart from the Polish airmen, and the troops from across the Empire, and the Yanks, and the Red Army and the Free French and…), a myth that we use to bolster our sense of exceptionalism and our perverse decision to actually stand alone now.
Of course people celebrated 75 years ago. In that giddy moment of relief and release, they sang and danced and drank and kissed unsuitable strangers. It wasn’t all partying. There was joy, and pride in the courage and fortitude of soldiers and resistance fighters who had dared so much and won. There was hope that now things would be better. But as Frank Capra says in It’s a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, on VE Day they ‘wept, and prayed’.
75 years on, we can recapture neither the giddy relief nor the raw sorrow. We have a different perspective, inevitably. We know so much that they didn’t, about what happened during the war, and what came after. Our commemoration must be honest and clear-sighted, not sentimental.
The hope that VE Day brought was not just the hope of being reunited with loved ones. It was the hope of lasting peace, the hope that with peace would come the chance to build a better, fairer society. That hope led to the European Community, to legislation to protect individuals and communities against prejudice and discrimination, to the UN and its role in establishing and protecting human rights worldwide. As imperfect as those protections are, they emerged directly from the victory we are commemorating tomorrow.
Here, it led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. If we really understand what VE Day meant, perhaps this anniversary will help us to see how a better, fairer society could emerge once we’re all able to emerge from our quarantine. Perhaps.
With respect and gratitude to all of those who fought and died to defeat Nazism, with deep sorrow to all of those engulfed by the barbarity, those who were murdered, those who survived, those who lost so much.
Let us commemorate, by all means. But most of all, let us learn. Because if we do not learn from this bitter victory, night might fall again.
It’s 75 years since the Red Army entered the camp that has become a symbol of the Holocaust – Auschwitz. What they found there changed the way we see the world, and see our fellow human beings.
But the dwindling number of eye witnesses – a relatively small number who were deported to concentration camps as children (huge numbers of children were deported, but probably the majority were killed on arrival as they could not be put to work) – makes it ever more vital that we listen to what they say, that we read their accounts, that we study and remember what happened.
Because it could happen again – indeed, it has happened, again and again, to Tutsis in Rwanda, the Rohingya in Myanmar, to Igbos in Nigeria, to Muslims in Bosnia, to various ethnic and religious groups as well as to the supposed ‘elite’ in Cambodia. And, of course, in Nazi Germany it didn’t just happen to the Jews. We remember the people with disabilities killed in the ‘euthanasia’ programme, and the homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses who were targeted. And in particular, the Roma people who were rounded up and murdered – and who have had no respite in the intervening years from bigotry and hatred.
But we need to study not only what happened at Auschwitz and the other camps across Europe, but what happened before that. Because the Nazis did not begin with mass slaughter. They began by a process of othering.
Little by little, Jews were identified, by various means. Stamps in ID documents, allocation of generically Jewish names – Sarah and Israel – to all Jews, notices on Jewish owed businesses.
Little by little, they were isolated from former colleagues, neighbours, classmates. Jewish doctors could not treat Aryan patients, Jewish teachers could only teach Jewish children, and there were restrictions on Jews employing Aryans in their home. Both marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and Aryans were barred.
Little by little, the dissemination of anti-Jewish rhetoric filtered into all areas of society. If they were assimilated into German society, this was presented as a kind of dangerous infiltration. If they were not (like the Jews from Eastern Europe who had made their homes in Germany) they were caricatured and condemned as primitive.
Because what came after this was so horrific, we forget the years in which that process of identification and isolation was preparing the way for the horror.
As these ‘others’ became more and more isolated, it was easier for the rest not to notice when people disappeared, to look the other way when they were attacked in the streets. And it was easier, when they weren’t your neighbour, your doctor, your teacher, your colleague, to believe the propaganda. To start to believe that they were ‘A Problem’, that they were a threat. It was easier to choose not to know or to ask what was happening, where the people had gone who had been rounded up in your neighbourhood, or what might happen to them there.
But if we’re looking to draw comparisons and find lessons for our own times, we need to go back to before the Nazi government took power, and introduced the kind of anti-Semitic legislation referred to above. For all of that to be possible, they had to be able to tap into a rich seam of suspicion and prejudice.
In more recent years, when we think of racism, we think of the prejudice faced by the immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the Caribbean and from South Asia, from Africa and East Asia. We think of people who are easily identified, no option of ‘passing’. We think of people who are often economically disadvantaged, only rarely in positions of significant influence and power.
We forget that in Europe before the war, the most significant targets for racism were the Jews. A whole pseudo-science of race purported to prove that they were not only inferior but dangerous. Forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to ‘expose’ their secret rituals. No matter how contradictory the claims were – they were both Bolsheviks and arch-capitalists, both primitive and highly sophisticated – they were so prevalent as to be accepted almost casually by many. Reading novels written between the wars one is often struck, jarringly, by the stereotypes of Jews (obsequious, money-grubbing) that would surely never make it to print for any reputable publisher today.
So much has changed. And yet today, one does not have to look far or dig very deeply to uncover language and ideas not very different from those so prevalent before the war. For those on the right, George Soros is the shadowy paymaster funding liberal and progressive initiatives, the puppet-master engineering opposition to Brexit and so on. For those on the left, it’s the Zionists who are the paymasters, via the Rothschild banking dynasty who are alleged to control global finances, and are often accused of controlling the ‘mainstream media’ as well. Whilst some of this rhetoric is claimed to be simply opposition to Zionism as a political movement, motivated by anger at the Israeli government, the mask very easily slips.
Both extremes may indulge in Holocaust denial – or at least minimisation. A whole new generation finds ‘revelations’ on the net such as the supposed Red Cross report giving a very low total of deaths and passes them on, saying ‘Hmmm, interesting!’. In fact, a minimal amount of research would have confirmed that there neither was nor could have been any Red Cross report estimating the total number of Holocaust deaths, or deaths in concentration camps. The figure cited so enthusiastically was for deaths in camps to which the Red Cross had access and for which death certificates were issued – excluding therefore the majority of camps, the deaths on arrival, the deaths by mass shootings etc, etc, etc. Aside from the spread of misinformation, what is most alarming is how eager some are to find reasons to believe that the Holocaust has been exaggerated – because to believe that is to buy into a whole complex of Zionist conspiracies.
So whilst none of the other forms of racism have gone away (far from it – if anything they seem more prevalent, certainly more vocal), anti-semitism seems to have made something of a comeback.
None of which is to suggest that in the UK we are close to stripping Jews, or Muslims, or any other group of their citizenship. Except that we effectively allowed unknown numbers of people who came to the UK as children from the Caribbean and believed themselves to be British citizens to suddenly be expected to prove their right to be here, losing their livelihoods, their access to health care, their homes in the process. If we can do that, and that harm has not been undone (and given the shabby way in which EU citizens who have made their homes here, built families here, contributed to our society and our economy are being treated on the eve of Brexit) then we have no grounds for complacency.
The theme for this year’s HMD is ‘Stand Together’. We can read and be inspired by the stories of those who knowingly risked and often lost their own lives to support or protect those others targeted for genocide. But the time to stand together, really, is now. Before populist nationalism and xenophobia get too much of a hold. Before everyone gets too used to seeing people racially abused in the streets. Before the lies and slanders become so prevalent that we no longer trouble to challenge them.
There have been so many inspiring examples of standing together in the face of terrorism. Of people of all faiths and none rallying around when another group is under attack – offering everything from blood donations to security patrols, and demonstrating solidarity by being there, literally standing together.
We must all hope never to have to face the kind of challenges and choices that were and are faced by witnesses to genocides past and present. We must hope that if we stand with each other now, in the face of prejudice and bigotry, that ‘never again’ will be more than a pious catchphrase.
There are those reluctant to believe
Or believing from time to time.
There are those who look at these ruins today
As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.
Those who take hope again as the image fades
As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (script for Alain Resnais’s 1955 film, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the opening of the camps)
OK, I take anyone else doing this kind of list (looking at you, Guardian) as a personal challenge. So I have felt compelled to put together my own selection. Now, I’m not seriously claiming these are ‘the best books of the century’, that would be silly, given the randomness of what I’ve read and not read. The Guardian can draw upon the views of a range of reviewers; I can only draw upon my own. Over the course of this century I’ve been working, studying, running a charity, reviewing operas, bringing up a family, listening to music, as well as reading.
Nonetheless, I do read a LOT. Always have done. And these are the books from the last almost 20 years that have had a real impact on me, that have stayed with me after I’ve read them, that have offered the most enjoyment, enlightenment, hope – whatever their genre.
When we get to the end of this century (if we do…) the list will look very different. And of course you will disagree with me, and be horrified by both omissions and inclusions, and that’s fine!
I went through the Guardian list and added some of their titles to my long list, but then deleted them again (I’ve annotated the titles below which do still overlap), because I realised that whilst they were good, I’d not given them a thought since reading them, I’d not gone out and bought all of the author’s other books, or prioritised a re-read. All of the titles below have led me somewhere, if you like.
I’ve only allowed myself one per author otherwise certain favourite authors would have squeezed lots of other excellent books out. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order of author’s surname, rather than ranking them because I can’t be doing with that, but I’ve picked out my top three, books I’ve already read several times and will undoubtedly read again, and that I’ve insisted everyone I know reads.
Here we go…
Cath’s top books of the 21st century so far (with all the above caveats and disclaimers):
Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho is my favourite so far of the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight. This one has a jazz theme which is probably why it has a particular place in my heart.
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. This memoir from a key member of The Slits is just so fascinating, so funny, and at times so desperately sad, that even if I hadn’t been a fan of the band I’d have loved every minute of it.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power is brilliant sci-fi, powerful and chilling. Its ‘book within a book’ structure adds a whole other level, and the writing is superb. The Guardian called it ‘an instant classic of speculative fiction’ and noted how devastatingly it inverts the status quo. Put very simply, what if men were afraid of us?
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian-British philosopher, based at New York University, himself the epitome of cosmopolitanism. (His father was a leading dissident under the Nkrumah regime in Ghana, and his mother the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps.) Appiah has written elsewhere about political and moral theory, and the philosophy of language and mind. This is a timely, accessible, and vitally important work.
Levels of Life. I haven’t loved the other things I’ve read by Julian Barnes, I’ve felt kind of detached from them. This one did get to me. The book’s three sections seem entirely separate but somehow they’re not, they’re connected in a marvellously subtle and moving way. And the third part will break the heart of anyone who has one to break. (Guardian top 100 title)
Robicheaux: You Know my Name is the 21st in James Lee Burke‘s series of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. It’s so dark, haunted and haunting. The Louisiana landscape and culture is a vital part of the narrative, and the eponymous hero is flawed and fascinating, a good man wrestling with inner demons as well as the bad guys.
Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is a gripping bit of WWII French history, with a very personal source. Callil (one of the founders of Virago Books) uncovered the story of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix after the death (possibly by suicide) of her therapist, his daughter. Darquier was one of the most repellent figures in Vichy France, a vicious and entirely unrepentant anti-Semite, a fraud and a crook. It’s not just his story, it’s the story of how the Nazi occupation enabled and legitimised the vilest views and the vilest people and its importance goes way beyond the family history it describes.
Cruel Acts is the latest in Jane Casey‘s splendid series featuring detective Maeve Kerrigan. Maeve is an engaging protagonist, whose internal battles (about status and authority, complex personal and professional relationships), both enrich and complicate the police procedural plotting. These books get stronger and twistier and more compelling as the series continues.
Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others includes the story that inspired the film Arrival, one of my top films of all time, an extraordinarily beautiful bit of sci-fi. These stories are marvellous in their own right – proper philosophical, speculative fiction, with a particular interest (as in Arrival) in language. They’re diverse in style and approach, and whilst ‘Story of Your Life’ stands out, several others challenge it, for the strength of the concept, the beauty of the writing, and the emotional impact. (Guardian top 100 title)
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club appealed to me straight away. A ’70s adolescence, and the musical references (Hatfield & the North’s album, which gave the novel its title, plus the protagonists’ prog rock aspirations) gave it immense charm for anyone who shared those reference points. Apparently, it contains a sentence of 13,955 words, which I don’t remember even noticing when I read it, though thinking back I can guess when it occurs. It’s not just funny and charming, it skewers the politics of the time, and confronts real, brutal tragedy.
I’ve been reading Stevie Davies since the ’80s, and Awakening is one of my favourites. It’s set in Wiltshire in 1860, just after the publication of The Origin of Species, and it’s about science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion. It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal – but the focus of the novel is on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is family memoir and art history intertwined. I was lucky enough to hear de Waal talking about this story when he came to Sheffield University to present a gift of a piece of art called ‘fetched home’, the title taken from a poem by Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan on the subject of homelessness and displacement. (Guardian top 100 title)
When I read Emma Donoghue’s Room I could not have imagined it as a film. Of course, it was filmed, and brilliantly, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and it’s hard now to disentangle the book from that film. But I do remember the experience of reading it, of how it did my head in, gradually understanding the world that’s being described, and its terrifying implications.
Fires in the Dark is not what one might expect from Louise Doughty, if one came to it from Apple Tree Yard. This one takes us into the dark heart of the Romani genocide, also known as the Porajmos (the Devouring). Doughty draws the reader into the rich and complex culture of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into the lives of one family and the kumpania to which they belong, and then shows how this world was targeted for destruction.
Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. I could have picked several other Dunmores. I nearly picked her last published novel, Birdcage Walk, but I honestly can’t untangle my response to that from my sense of loss at her death. The Siege stands outside of that, on its own. Its setting is the siege of Leningrad, and it makes that experience viscerally real and moving. (Guardian top 100 title)
Interpreters was Sue Eckstein‘s second novel, and sadly her last – she died of cancer in 2013. It takes us across several generations of a family divided by the past, by what’s hidden and what’s remembered. It’s about memory and loss, and the continued resonance of the last world war. This is subtly done, and has all the more impact for that.
Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no longer Talking to White People about Race is not a comfortable read for one of the aforesaid white people. Fair enough, I don’t expect to be comforted. What I want, and what Eddo-Lodge offers, is insight that I can translate into awareness that can inform what I say and do. Essential reading.
Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s debut novel, could have been designed to interest me. Jazz, and Nazi occupied France… It’s an extraordinary story, and problematic in some ways, as the Guardian review points out (it’s a very spoilery review, so avoid if you haven’t read the book and want to encounter it unspoiled!). But superbly written, and fascinating.
In The Bitter Taste of Victory Lara Feigel takes us into the ruined cities of Germany after the end of WW2, seen through the eyes of the journalists and writers (Hemingway, Gellhorn, Orwell, West and others) who went out there to try to figure out how to address the challenges of peace, and the complexities of guilt and culpability at all levels. A lot of the accounts Feigel presents were new to me, and truly compelling (and relevant to my research).
Will Ferguson’s 419 is a thriller, about the kind of scam where a Nigerian prince or such like emails you to say you can have millions if you just let them have your bank details, or send them a bit of cash up front to arrange the deal. It starts with a suicide, an elderly man in Canada. Then the action moves to Lagos and to the Nigerian Delta, and it’s all so much more complex than we might have imagined, as the scam finds its context in the messy politics of Nigeria. Riveting.
I imagine everyone by now has read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and/or seen the film. Quite right too. When you first read it, that twist takes you by surprise, but when you re-read you’re looking to see just how the writer sets that up so cleverly (rather like when you re-watch The Sixth Sense). It’s an excellent thriller, and it’s not Flynn’s fault if every publisher has jumped on the bandwagon and published endless sub-Gone Girls! (Guardian top 100 title)
In The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest, Aminatta Forna takes us to Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her childhood, and where her father was imprisoned and executed for treason. It’s both memoir and investigation, a search for truth, and it was a quest that changed her irrevocably.
Broken Harbour is the fourth in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and is really remarkable. It’s an unusual series, in that the main protagonist shifts with each book, so that a secondary character in book 1 becomes central in book 2, and so on. This one is extraordinarily unsettling and quite impossible to put down.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. OK, we all now know that this is J K Rowling. Reading the Harry Potters, one sees her growing as a writer, in confidence and skill, as the series progresses, and her post-Potter work has been excellent. The Casual Vacancy was terrific social satire (or if you’re the Daily Mail, ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’…), and the Cormoran Strike series (this was the first) is complex, often dark, often funny, detective fiction, with the thoroughly engaging duo of Strike and Robin. (The Guardian picked Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
Notes from an Exhibition was the first of Patrick Gale’s that I read, and still a favourite. It uses the device of, literally, notes from an exhibition, a posthumous exhibition of work from throughout an artist’s life, which allows Gale to tell her story in a non-linear fashion through different voices from different parts of that life. What marks Gale’s work out, apart from the beauty and the skill of the writing, is his warmth and compassion for all of his characters, however flawed.
Boneland is Alan Garner’s very belated return to the world of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, published in the ‘60s, which I read as a child and which have stayed with me ever since. Stylistically, Boneland is closer to Garner’s later work, particularly to Red Shift. It’s dreamlike, fragmented, pared back, haunted and haunting.
Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches us about Love is a memoir, a personal account of supporting a parent with dementia. But it’s more than that – it’s a manifesto for the campaign that Gerrard launched, together with Julia Jones, to improve support in hospitals for dementia sufferers and, crucially, to allow their carers to be part of that support, not just ‘visitors’ who can be shooed out as if they’re in the way. This is a tremendously moving book – so close to home that it was almost unbearable at times. But it’s inspiring too, and hugely important.
Sweet After Death is the latest in Valentina Giambanco’s series featuring Seattle Detective Alice Madison. She’s an excellent protagonist, steely and complicated. And there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy). It is one hell of a read, and the series gets stronger with each book.
Andrea Gillies’ Keeper is another dementia memoir, and an exploration of the nature of the disease. It’s often grimly funny as well as sad, but ultimately the latter predominates. Gillies scrupulously records her own naivety, in thinking that they could cope, that love would be enough. And – horrifyingly, given what she does record of her mother in law’s behaviour in the grip of the disease, she says that she held a lot back… There’s no comfort here, if one is caring for someone with dementia, although our experience was much milder, if equally sad, but there’s insight and understanding.
Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets. The Squeeze is no exception. It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman. But connect they do.
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, is the history of a crime. What happens when some in the Osage Native American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s turn out to have lucrative oil on their land? Do they get to enjoy financial security? Are you kidding? This is a horrifying coda to the history of genocide against the Native American nations during the previous century, compellingly written and richly fascinating.
The Stone Circle is the latest in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, featuring not a detective but an archaeologist, who’s drawn into criminal investigations whenever old bones are unearthed. Ruth is a brilliant character; she’s clever and funny, she’s not young or gorgeous or slim, but isn’t tortured about any of those things. The other characters are equally well drawn. There’s more than a touch of the Gothic, and the Norfolk landscape is much more than a setting, it’s a pervasive atmosphere. This series is a delight.
Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake tells one hundred years of German history through one house, through its history during decades of staggering and traumatic change, different regimes and bureaucracies, and through the stories of the families who lived there. Harding’s family owned it once, but lost it when the Nazis took power. The Guardian reviewer said that ‘It is Harding’s great achievement that he has painted a large canvas of history, but done so with glinting individual stories. He has persevered in listening to those “quiet voices”.’
Jane Harper’s The Lost Man is another crime novel where the landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist. Harper’s debut, The Dry, won all sorts of awards, and this is actually even better.
In An Officer and a Spy Robert Harris takes us back to the Dreyfus affair, the ripples from which spread out over many decades of French and European history – and still do. The focus is less on Dreyfus himself than on the young officer, Picquart, who despite being as anti-semitic as the next chap, had a sense of fairness and justice that was outraged by the framing of Dreyfus and by the refusal to right the wrong, even after the forger had confessed. Harris is always a great read, and this is a period of history and a subject that fascinate me (reading Proust made me realise how ‘The Affair’ was the Brexit of its day – dividing friends and families, into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard, no middle ground).
Cold in Hand is the penultimate novel in John Harvey‘s wonderful series about Charlie Resnick, who fights crime on the mean streets of Nottingham. We had to wait a further five years for the coda to the series (Darkness, Darkness), but it was worth it. These aren’t stories of baroque serial murders, but of chaotic crimes committed by people with chaotic lives, and Charlie himself is a tremendous creation.
Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a rarity – a novel whose protagonist has dementia. Maud is coping with her dementia in ways that were very familiar to me – writing herself notes that she then loses, rediscovers later and can’t remember writing, going to the shops and buying tinned peaches because she’s forgotten what she actually went in for. But mainly she’s preoccupied with the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Through the course of the novel we uncover another disappearance, much longer ago and we also see Maud’s grip on memory and reality slipping more and more. This is reflected in her narrative voice – it’s quite a tour de force, touching and often very funny.
If this is a Woman is a tough read, as it should be. It’s historian Sarah Helm’s account of Ravensbrück concentration camp, all of whose inmates were women. Its history is less well known than that of many other camps, and Helm spares us none of the horrors inflicted upon the women, drawing upon the accounts of survivors, several of whom went on to testify at the Nuremberg trials. It’s vitally important, particularly as those survivor voices fall silent, to know what happened there. As the Guardian‘s reviewer said, ‘As you read this 768-page book, it never feels too long. You will the women of Ravensbrück to live’.
Never be Broken is the latest in Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome detective series. It’s probably the best, but I tend to think that of each new addition to the series. As Val McDermid says, ‘it isn’t all about the murders’ – it’s about social divisions, about mental health, about guilt and grief. And murder.
The Various Haunts of Men is the first in Susan Hill’s series featuring detective Simon Serailler. I read Hill’s earlier novels many years ago – Strange Meeting, In the Springtime of the Year and others – and having loved those, and loving crime fiction (that may have become evident already), I seized on these with enthusiasm and was not disappointed. Serailler is an interesting protagonist, and the supporting cast is well drawn. Hill explores issues of faith and morality, and her writing is always subtle and clever.
Mortality was published posthumously, after what Christopher Hitchens himself might have called ‘a long and brave struggle with mortality’ (he hated the rhetoric of ‘fighting cancer’). Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s ultimately uplifting.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is undefinably creepy from the start. We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. We’re not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from the master of unease, Stephen King. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go is about mortality and humanity. It’s dystopian sci-fi, thoughtful and horrifying. We take a while to realise what’s happening here, because the protagonists can’t tell us – they’ve been fed lies throughout their lives, and continue to be fed rumours and to clutch at seemingly hopeful straws. (Guardian top 100 title)
Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’ collection of brief pieces about various cultural figures (musicians, philosophers, novelists, politicians), made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid. Rather, I felt inspired to go away and read the stuff he’s talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
In Postwar, the late Tony Judt examined the history of Europe from the end of WW2 to 2005. Acclaimed as one of the best works on modern European history, its breadth is hugely impressive, and as reviewers at the time acknowledged, it’s an achievement that’s unlikely to be surpassed. (Guardian top 100 title)
11/22/63 is one of my favourite 21st century Stephen Kings. I started reading him back in the ‘80s, having been put off for a while by the schlocky covers his books had back then, and by a degree of snobbery on my part. I’ve read them all, I think, and despite having announced his retirement from writing years ago after a serious accident, he’s still producing the goods. (His latest, The Institute, is a cracker.) 11/22/63 explores the idea of going back in time to change a past event. Now what could possibly go wrong with that? (The Guardian picked his brilliant On Writing, which is also well worth reading.)
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is, on one level, a Holocaust memoir. Otto Dov Kulka was deported as a child to Terezin, and from there to Auschwitz. It is also, ‘Reflections on Memory and Imagination’. It challenges Kulka’s own choice, ‘to sever the biographical from the historical past’, in his previous work as a historian. The book is ‘neither historical testimony nor autobiographical memoir, but the reflections […] of memory and imagination that have remained from the world of the wondering child of ten to eleven that I had once been’.
Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were all published posthumously, as the Millennium Trilogy. Other authors have since expanded the series. Aside from being gripping and complex thrillers, they’re notable for two intriguing protagonists – journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson can’t be blamed for the proliferation of pale imitations since these were published (and filmed), and he could be said to have launched Scandi Noir, which on the whole is A Good Thing. (Guardian top 100 title)
John le Carré has been publishing beautifully written, complex thrillers for decades now. Though he might be thought to be an establishment figure, given his Security Service background, he’s still fuelled by a righteous anger, and nowhere more so than in The Constant Gardener. This deals with the murder of an activist in Kenya, and the uncovering of corruption on a huge scale by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Based on a real case, le Carré says that his plot is pretty tame compared to what actually happened. (Guardian top 100 title)
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an interesting one to place, timewise. Published in 2015, it seems clear now that it was in fact a first draft of, rather than a sequel to, To Kill a Mockingbird. There were controversies about its publication, about whether Lee fully had capacity to approve its appearance. And the narrative itself was troubling, for those of us who’d grown up seeing Atticus Finch as a hero (whether in the pages of the book, or on screen as portrayed by Gregory Peck). In Go Set a Watchman, the reader who loved To Kill a Mockingbird shares the disillusionment and shock of Scout as her idealised version of her father is shaken and fractured. Like her, we move gradually to a deeper, more nuanced understanding. It’s about growing up, really.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island tells interweaving stories of Jamaican immigration to Britain, centred on 1948 but going back to the lives of the central characters (two Jamaican, two British) during the war years. ‘A thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society’, according to the Guardian reviewer. (Guardian top 100 title)
I’ve read loads of Laura Lippman‘s books, all of her Tess Monaghan series (a young, female PI based in Baltimore) and most if not all of her standalone thrillers, most recently Sunburn. Lippman described this one as her first venture into ‘noir’ and ‘noir’ it certainly is. Her work typically features dark secrets but this one is steeped in them, and in obsession, desire, and violence. But she never forgets the humanity of her characters, as messed up as they may be, and the gradual revelation of who they are and how they got here keeps us gripped to the final page.
Black Water Rising is set in the 1980s, in Texas, and its protagonist is a struggling black lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy when he witnesses a crime. Attica Locke is a powerful writer, and the racial politics give it a fascinating context and added tension. There’s a sequel, Pleasantville, set 15 years later.
I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.
Wolf Hall was the Guardian’s top 21st century book. It doesn’t actually make my top three, but it’s a deserving choice nonetheless. Hilary Mantel is one of the most versatile writers around, and one never knows quite what to expect from her – at least until she began her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since when all of her readers have been focused on the wait for the final volume. To read Wolf Hall is ‘to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes’ – a powerful and immersive experience. (Guardian top 100 title)
The Road is relentlessly grim but extraordinary. Cormac McCarthy forces the reader to inhabit this bleak world, and to accept how it works – ultimately to choose whether and when to trust. Whilst the notion of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is familiar in fiction and film, it’s unusual for the survivor group to have shrunk down to two, parent and child, which ramps up the tension and the terror. (Guardian top 100 title)
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is several novels in one. It’s a pre-war country house story about class and desire and adolescence. It’s a story of war and loss. And it’s the story of a story, about memory and guilt. There’s a revelation at the end which floored and shocked me but which on re-reading made perfect, desolate sense. (Guardian top 100 title)
Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin opens with a scene that neither the reader, nor the young policeman who witnesses it, will forget in a hurry. And when we move forward in time the mystery of that scene, and its emotional fall-out, are still potent and compelling. The follow-up, The Scholar, features the same detective and I will be sure to read that as soon as I can.
Succession is the first in Livi Michael’s trilogy about the Wars of the Roses. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
China Mieville’s The City and the City combines the police procedural with ‘weird fiction’, with a murder investigation across two separate cities that happen to occupy the same space. It’s a brilliant and unsettling concept, and requires concentration from the reader to hold on to it as the plot develops. It’s worth the effort, the narrative works on both levels (which demonstrates Mieville’s focus and discipline). Is this an allegory, or as the Guardian‘s reviewer puts it, a ‘police mystery dealing with extraordinary circumstances’? Or both?
Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a venture into true crime, the story of notorious serial killer Peter Manuel. She meets the challenge of how to create tension when the outcome of the story is already known, focusing on bit part players, whose perspective is fresh and unfamiliar. The Scotsman’s review said that ‘Above all, it is a story about telling stories. Everyone is a narrator, everyone is literary critic, assessing and judging the veracity and the honesty of the stories that eddy through the book.’
Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman is, as anyone familiar with Moran’s writing will expect, proper funny, and proper rude (NSFW, seriously, and NSF public transport too). It’s proper inspirational too, made me want to stand on a chair and cheer, punch the air, as well as laugh (and, at times, made me cry because it’s not all jokey, there’s stuff that hits you where it hurts). The Independent said that How to be a Woman ‘is engaging, brave and consistently, cleverly, naughtily funny’. And Moran also makes the very important point that one can’t change the world whilst wearing uncomfortable undergarments.
I read one of Sarah Moss‘s novels (Cold Earth) a couple of years back and made a note to self to read more by her. Bodies of Light is a brilliant and compelling narrative, set in Victorian Manchester. It went to some dark places; at times I almost didn’t want to go on, I was afraid for the protagonists. There’s a sequel, Signs for Lost Children, and a related title, Nightwaking, which was published before Bodies of Light but can be read at any point in the ‘trilogy’. (BTW, Josephine Butler features in the narrative – if you want to know more about her, read Helen Mathers’ excellent biography.)
Thomas Mullen sets Darktown in 1948 Atlanta, and gives us a pair of fictional black cops – amongst the first of the city’s African-American police officers. These officers had many constraints to work within: they only patrolled African-American neighborhoods, could not arrest white people, and while they were given guns, it was understood that they could not fire them. This is a brilliant crime thriller with a context that makes every detail hum with tension. There’s a sequel, Lightning Men.
As one blurb for Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife puts it, this is the story of Clare and Henry, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. It’s a fresh take on the kind of time travel paradoxes that make one’s head hurt – this makes one’s heart hurt as well. A sequel is in the offing, and Nifenegger’s second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is excellent too.
2006, when The Audacity of Hope was published, seems so very long ago. Barack Obama was still a Senator, and hadn’t yet announced his campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate. It is in many ways his manifesto and thus, as the Guardian reviewer at the time said, cautious in a way that his personal memoir, Dreams from my Father, didn’t have to be. It would be impossible to re-read it now, without hindsight and without the constant horror of the inevitable comparison between this eloquent, thoughtful writer and his successor in the White House. I don’t think I can quite bear to do so. But at the time, apart from setting out Obama’s political priorities and convictions it represented hope – the mad hope that there might be a black PoTUS, someone with integrity and empathy, and what that could mean for the US and the world.
I wasn’t sure which of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels to pick. And I could easily be talked into Instructions for a Heatwave, or her debut, After You’d Gone. But I settled on The Hand that first Held Mine. Her writing is always perceptive and subtle and in this novel she skilfully weaves together two different timelines – the 1950s and the present day – in a haunting study of memory and motherhood.
In Black and British, David Olusoga tells us of a ‘forgotten history’. To some extent this is not so much forgotten as ignored. No one is suggesting that in previous centuries our society was quite as diverse as it is today, but so much more so than it is usually represented – and every time a writer tries to represent the reality, which as Bill Potts says in Doctor Who is ‘a bit more black than they show in the movies’, there are howls of protest and shouts of ‘PC gone mad’. The history is there, and clear, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Olusoga presents so much that is new to me, even though I thought I knew a bit about this stuff, and some of it runs counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. And it’s a delight. The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.
Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is set in eastern Norway,and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
The first two volumes in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy fall outside the remit of this list, but the third just makes it. The Amber Spyglass (Guardian top 100 title). I re-read the original trilogy some weeks ago, in preparation for the new trilogy (the first volume of which, La Belle Sauvage, is wonderful and the second is due any day now), and they blew me away all over again. This is boldly imaginative fantasy, philosophical and literary, without the narrative ever losing impetus. As Pullman says, ‘the only thing that is interesting about fantasy is if you can use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature’.
The Naming of the Dead is the 16th in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is as stroppy and infuriating as ever (but we wouldn’t want him any other way). The setting is the 2005 G8 summit, and Rankin weaves the events surrounding the summit (protests, the award of the 2012 Olympics to London, and the 7 July London bombings) into this story of murder and corruption.
I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography, Life, because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
Sally Rooney is just getting started as a novelist, but her first two books have both generated an enormous amount of attention and praise. Normal People is her second – I’ve only read this once though I will undoubtedly go back to it (and will read Conversations with Friends, her debut). The ‘normal people’ of the title are, of course, not quite normal. Connell can pass for normal in his home and school environment, but only by hiding a lot of what he feels and thinks, and away from home he struggles to work out who he is and how he fits in. Marianne is regarded by her peers at school as weird, but comes into her own away from a damaging home environment. Their relationship is compelling and troubling – certainly not a conventional love affair – and Rooney doesn’t let us have a tidy or comfortable resolution.
I came across Liz Rosenberg’s Indigo Hill by chance as a Kindle offer, and loved it. It doesn’t seem to have been widely reviewed, although she’s a fairly prolific writer, with children’s books and poetry as well as novels on her CV. Indigo Hill is about families, secrets and memories – and it’s beautifully written (one might have guessed that she was a poet).
In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes brilliantly and beautifully about the century when ‘classical’ music got difficult. He demythologises without ever dumbing down, and has a gift for the description or metaphor that makes something difficult suddenly clear, and for illuminating the context in which this music was composed. It isn’t, despite the title, about all twentieth-century music – jazz and rock and pop don’t get much of a look in except where they overlap with classical. But one book can’t do everything, and in shedding light on music that is often perceived to be impenetrable, he’s doing something wonderful, particularly for those of us who want to open our minds to it and yet still struggle sometimes.
The Plot against America is Philip Roth’s 2004 venture into alt-history or counter history, where he proposes that the 1940 US election returned Charles Lindbergh rather than Roosevelt to the White House. Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We see the tragic consequences unfold through one Jewish family (modelled on Roth’s own). Contemporary parallels are all too easy to draw… (Guardian top 100 title)
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea gives us three stories, three protagonists, and then brings them together in the final part of the novel in ways that one could not have anticipated. With each story the tone changes, and Ryan skilfully takes us from lyricism to black comedy and everywhere in between. (I also loved his earlier The Thing about December. There too is humour and tragedy, and a lonely young man trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it.) ‘Filled with love and righteous anger’, as the Guardian reviewer of From a Low and Quiet Sea puts it.
Philippe Sands’ East West Street weaves his own family history into the development of the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer.
Looking for Transwonderland is Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division.
I don’t know where to begin with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (Guardian top 100 title). Sebald is at the heart of my PhD thesis, and so trying to say something succinct when I’m so immersed is hard. It also means that a lot of the reviews annoy me quite a bit. I would probably have selected The Emigrants to represent Sebald’s work, but Austerlitz is the only one of his four ‘novels’ that falls within the twenty-first century, and it was his last – he died in a car accident not long after its publication. It’s about time, place and memory, and about a life that intersects with and is shaped by the darkest period of European history. It’s the most problematic of his novels, but endlessly, obsessively compelling.
Les Parisiennes is Anne Sebba’s fascinating account of the lives of women during the Nazi occupation of Paris, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between. Sebba draws on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaves them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were.
I was drawn to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go at first just for the title. But then I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Lynn Shepherd’s Tom All Alone’s is the second of her ‘literary’, postmodern crime novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, turned that classic upside down in a most entertaining way. I approached this one with caution because it riffs primarily on Bleak House, the best novel in the English language, and just as I am hypercritical of cover versions of songs I particularly love, so I am sceptical at least about anyone messing with my favourite novels. However, Shepherd recreates the atmosphere of Dickens’ London, even while she subverts his characters. It’s a gripping tale, darker – dare I say, bleaker – than anything Dickens could have published back in the day. There’s a slice of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in here as well.
I’ve read most of Anita Shreve‘s novels, including her last (she died last year) The Stars are Fire. But it had been a while, and when I thought about her work, the one that I knew had to be my choice was The Last Time they Met. There’s a link between this and an earlier work, The Weight of Water, in the central character, Thomas Janes. The Last Time they Met uses a reverse chronologicy to unravel the story of a relationship, and past and present are interwoven skilfully as in so many of Shreve’s books. This one is particularly heartbreaking and I still remember the sense of shock at its ending.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Guardian top 100) tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black American who died in agony of cancer in a ‘coloured’ hospital ward in 1951. This is about medical and scientific history – but also about race. Henrietta did not know her cells were being taken, nor did her family – and there’s a murky history of black hospital patients being treated as experimental subjects without informed consent. Billions have been made from these ‘HeLa’ cells, which showed extraordinary capacity to multiply and were used around the world to develop new drugs. But Skloot tells the story not just of ‘HeLa’ but of Henrietta’s life and death, and of her surviving children, and their struggles after her death.
I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). Again her warmth and humour permeates every page.
Ali Smith’s Hotel World is glorious. It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. The Guardian picked her novel Autumn, which I haven’t read, but will.
Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark (Guardian top 100 title) finds hope in activism, and in the notion of the Angel of alternate history. This is based on the angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a man in despair sees what the world would look like if he hadn’t been born. We may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse. Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can.
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon is an eloquent and rigorous account of depression. It comes from his own experience of this crippling illness and he tells his own story here, with painful honesty, but also explores the nature of depression, in terms of the science, the sociology, and how it is treated. ‘That Solomon has shaped a richly eloquent testament from his own seasons in hell kindles something like hope’.
I’ve read most, if not all, of Cath Staincliffe‘s work – her Sal Kilkenny PI series, the Scott & Bailey and Blue Murder novels, and her stand-alone titles, which, whilst they centre on a crime, are more concerned with the ripples from that crime as they spread out to victims and perpetrators and families. The Silence Between Breaths is a superlative example. I shall say nothing about the plot, but if you remember to breathe whilst reading it you will be doing better than I did. It’s gripping but also compassionate and moving. I’d highly recommend also The Girl in the Green Dress.
Another of the posse of brilliant young female crime writers whose books have given me so much enjoyment this century is Susie Steiner. Her detective is Manon Bradshaw, who made her debut in Missing, Presumed. What marks Steiner and her contemporaries out is the emphasis on character, rather than just on plot. Manon is a brilliant protagonist, but all of the secondary characters, whether colleagues or victims or their families, are subtly drawn too, with humour and empathy. There’s a sequel, Persons Unknown, and a new Manon title out next year.
The Hillsborough tragedy had a huge impact on me, even though I wasn’t there, and knew no one who died there. That afternoon and evening, watching the casualty count rise, trying to understand, are still so vivid in my memory. Since that day I’ve blogged regularly about it, as the fight for truth and justice for the victims and their families went on. Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now is both a personal account of that day and what followed, and an exploration of the broader picture in contemporary football.
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). The Gustav Sonata is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfection’, which is quite an accolade. The setting is Switzerland during the Second World War, which allows an exploration of the notion of neutrality. This quote, which comes towards the end and gives nothing away of the plot, goes to the heart of things: ‘We have to become the people we always should have been’.
Of all the Sarah Waters novels that I have read, Night Watch in particular stayed with me (The Guardian picked Fingersmith). It’s another tale told in reverse, but the Blitz is at the heart of everything that happens here. Gradually, as the story unfolds, we understand the characters, war and world weary, and the puzzling events that open the novel.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Guardian top 100 title) begins as a historical novel, telling with extraordinary and brutal power of the live of slaves in the American deep south. We’ve been here before, or so we may think. And then Whitehead swerves into a different kind of fiction altogether, without leaving behind the real stories of slaves, masters and abolitionists, but allowing us to see it afresh, from a different angle.
Having read Oranges are the Only Fruit, I thought I knew a bit about Jeanette Winterson‘s upbringing. But whilst that is moving and even devastating, it doesn’t convey the full awfulness, the full damage of that childhood and adolescence. Why be Happy when you could be Normal? pulls no punches. But it also has passages of great joy, particularly as the young Jeanette gains access to books, libraries of books, that open up new worlds to her. The story of her later life is devastating too, but throughout there is humour and self-awareness and compassion. One of the finest memoirs I have read.
And my three top books of the century are:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve read it several times and its impact never lessens. It’s personal, in a way, in that I lived in Nigeria at the time and during the events that she describes. The central characters begin in a period of peace and plenty, academics, privileged members of the wealthy Lagos business community, and ‘expats’. Gradually, as the country descends into pogroms and civil war, everything they have is gradually taken, their homes, their comforts, their food, their security. It’s an intensely powerful narrative – and it’s also about who gets to tell the story.
I love Kate Atkinson‘s work, her Jackson Brodie crime novels and, well, all of it really. But Life after Life is in a class of its own. Her writing is so perceptive, so piercing, often very funny, and often heartbreakingly sad. It’s a contender for my Desert Island book, in that I could conceive of reading it over and over again (alongside the Bible and Shakespeare).
Jon McGregor is an extraordinary author – If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things breaks my heart, no matter how often I read it. Reservoir 13 is not a detective novel, despite the familiar opening scenes – a missing girl, a community in shock, a search. The reader becomes part of the rhythm of time and the seasons which continue to pass whether or not we find her. The voices and lives of the community interweave – life and death, grief, betrayal, loss, love, warmth, joy. The cliché is that when something terrible happens, ‘life goes on’. That’s what Reservoir 13 is about.
So there we are. It’s a very personal list – it reflects not only my general preferences (history, crime), but my particular interests (French World War II history, West Africa, music). So literally no one else is likely to pick the same 100 titles. And nor will I, if I repeat this exercise twenty years from now…
If this list turns you on to an author you didn’t know, or a book you hadn’t tried, I’d love to know, and will be absolutely delighted. If I haven’t included an author or a book that you think should be there, do tell me (note that I respond better to recommendations than to reproofs for not having read your favourites!). If I include things you hate, or think unworthy, that’s fine, but no need to tell me, there’s plenty of room for your tastes and mine. Nothing on this list is here because I think it ought to be here, I’m not trying to prove anything, just to share some of the joy I’ve found in reading in the 21st century.
This is an edited version of a talk given at the 2019 Conference, Violent Spaces, of the Landscape, Space & Place group from the University of Nottingham.
Few late twentieth-century writers are held in such regard as W G Sebald. His work has inspired not only glowing reviews and a host of journal articles, edited volumes and monographs – but also responses by visual artists and filmmakers. There are certain themes that are most often associated with his work – time, loss, trauma, memory… These themes inevitably link to one particular aspect of his work – his writing about the Holocaust.
W G Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944, in the last months of the war. His father had served in the Wehrmacht, but after he returned home, having spent a couple of years as a prisoner of war, the things that he had seen, and done, were never spoken of. And when Sebald as a teenager was shown documentary footage of the camps (probably the liberation of Belsen) no context or commentary was provided. It was, in a way, what we’d now call a box-ticking exercise. Because, of course, the teachers were part of the context. Sebald, like many of his contemporaries, was unable to accept this collusive silence, and his increasing alienation from his homeland led to him working first in Switzerland and then moving to the UK, where he spent the rest of his life, teaching at UEA until his death in a car accident in 2001.
The Holocaust, indeed, became a presence in his poetry and his prose writing. It seems never to be very far away, invoked maybe by the name of a place, innocent in itself, but carrying the weight of history. In many of his works, it is addressed obliquely, but the figure of the refugee appears in several of his books. Max Ferber, one of the four protagonists of The Emigrants, left his home in Munich (capital of Bavaria) in 1939, following Kristallnacht, his father having obtained a visa for him by bribing the English consul. We are introduced to Ferber via the narrator, who does not ask about his history, why or how he left Germany, until their second meeting, at which point Ferber tells how letters from his parents ceased, and he subsequently discovers that they were deported from Munich to Riga, where they were murdered. In Sebald’s final work, Austerlitz, the Holocaust becomes text, not subtext, foreground rather than context.
Sebald’s (fictional) protagonist, Jacques Austerlitz, is an architectural historian, with a particular interest in what he calls ‘our mightiest projects’ – fortifications, railway architecture, what they used to call lunatic asylums, prisons and law courts.
He’s also fascinated by the idea of networks, such as ‘the entire railway system’. From the outset, whilst Austerlitz himself does not make any connection between these edifices and the event that shaped his life, we are given foreshadowing of that event. He says of railway stations, for example, that he can never quite shake off thoughts of the agonies of leave-taking – and we’ll see the significance of that later. He refers to ‘the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history’.
We meet the narrator first in a carceral space – Antwerp’s zoo. After his first conversation with Austerlitz, he is moved to visit Breendonk, one of the fortresses that Austerlitz had mentioned.
But it is not the history of how such places were designed, the flawed theories of defence against enemy incursion, that confront him there, but the much more recent past, Breendonk’s conversion into a concentration camp in the Nazi era – a transit camp for deportation to Auschwitz, and a place of torture.
- Originally built for the Belgian army 1906-13 to protect Antwerp – ‘it proved completely useless for the defence of the city and the country’
- Covered by a five-metre thick layer of soil for defense against bombings, a water-filled moat and measured 656 by 984 feet (200 by 300 m)
- Requisitioned by the Germans as a prison camp for political dissidents, captured resistance members and Jews
- Infamous for prisoners’ poor living conditions and for the use of torture. Most prisoners later transferred to larger concentration camps in Eastern Europe
- 3,590 prisoners known to have been imprisoned at Breendonk, 303 died or were executed within the fort itself and as many as 1,741 died subsequently in other camps before the end of the war
Sebald brings in a human witness here, Austrian writer Jean Amery, who was interned and tortured at Breendonk before deportation to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. He survived, changed his name from the obviously Germanic Hans Meyer, but committed suicide in 1978.
Our narrator finds Breendonk to be a place of horror. The darkness inside is literal, but also metaphysical, and it becomes heavier as he penetrates further into the building. He begins to experience visual disturbances – black striations quivering before his eyes – and nausea, but explains that ‘it was not that I guessed at the kind of third-degree interrogations which were being conducted here around the time I was born’, since he had not at that point read Amery’s account. Sebald is telling us that the narrator’s reaction to Breendonk is not, therefore, personal, not related in any way to his own experiences or even to things he had read, but intrinsic to the place, as if its use, or abuse, has changed its very nature, violence become part of its fabric.
Breendonk is the first of the trio of Holocaust sites around which the text is structured. It’s built to a star shape, a six-pointed star. This was a favoured design both for fortresses, designed to keep invaders out, and for prisons, designed to keep wrongdoers in.
According to Austerlitz this is a fundamentally wrong-headed design for a fortress, the idea that ‘you could make a city as secure as anything in the world can ever be.’ The largest fortifications will attract the enemy’s greatest numbers, and draw attention to their weakest points – not only that, but battles are not decided by armies impregnably entrenched in their fortresses, but by forces on the move. Despite plenty of evidence (such as the disastrous Siege of Antwerp in 1832), the responses tended to be to build the same structures but stronger and bigger, and with inevitably similar results.
As the design for a prison, the star shape makes more sense. It does not conform to the original layout of the panopticon, but it does allow for one central point of oversight and monitoring, with radial arms that separate the inmates into manageable groups. The widespread use of existing fortresses as places of imprisonment for enemies of the Reich was primarily opportunistic, of course, but the ease of this transformation illustrates Austerlitz’s arguments quite well.
Sebald had previously been struck by his encounter with Manchester’s Strangeways prison, which has the same shape, ‘an overwhelming panoptic structure whose walls are as high as Jericho’s’, and which happens to be situated in the one-time Jewish quarter. The coincidence of the hexagram star is implicit in the above. But it becomes entirely explicit when we look at the second of Sebald’s sites, Terezin.
- Some 70 km north of Prague
- Citadel, or small fortress, and a walled town, known as the main fortress – never tested under siege
- The small fortress became the Prague Gestapo police prison in 1940, the main fortress became the Ghetto in 1941
- Initial transport of Czech Jews, German and Austrian Jews in 1942, Dutch and Danish in 1943, various nationalities in the last months of the war as other camps were closed
- c. 141k Jews, inc. 15k children, held in the Ghetto 1941-1945. 33k died there (disease/malnutrition), 88k deported to Auschwitz, 23k survivors
This lies at the heart of his narrative. Austerlitz, as we discover gradually through the narrator’s irregular meetings with him, came to Britain on the Kindertransport from Prague in 1939, when he was not yet five years old. He was met at Liverpool Street Station by a couple, a minister and his wife from Wales, who fostered him, giving him a new name, and telling him nothing of his history. A teacher tells him his real name when he is in his teens, but rather than this prompting a search for his origins, Austerlitz turns away from his own past and consciously avoids any sources of information which might bring him too close to it. Thus, when he talks to the narrator about Breendonk, it is its history in the first, rather than the second war that he mentions.
Much later, after a strange encounter with his childhood self in the Ladies Waiting Room at Liverpool Street Station, by chance he hears a radio programme about the Kindertransport, and has a kind of epiphany, which prompts him to go to Prague and search for his family. He discovers that his father fled Prague for France, just ahead of the Nazi invasion, and that his mother, left alone there after the train had taken her child to safety, was deported to Terezin from where she was ‘sent east’, presumably to Auschwitz and presumably to her death.
Terezin shares many characteristics with other Nazi concentration camps. But there are elements of its history that mark it out. It was not a labour camp – it was presented as a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews, and its role was propaganda rather than economic, discouraging resistance to deportation with promises of comfort, and encouraging wealthier Jews to bring their valuables (of which, naturally, they were relieved on arrival). It was not a death camp – though the terrible conditions led to around 33,000 deaths from malnutrition and disease – but was a way station to Auschwitz. The particular make-up of the population of Terezin led to a rich cultural life, with music in particular playing a leading part.
However, the most notable feature of Terezin was that it was a ‘Potemkin village’, a place whose real purpose could be easily disguised. Indeed it was disguised in 1944, ready for a Red Cross visit, where it was presented as an ideal Jewish settlement. Overcrowding was addressed by the simple expedient of deportation, particularly of the less photogenic inhabitants, the old, sick and disabled. The place was cleaned up, shop fronts erected, and cultural and sporting activities organised for the prisoners. A film was made, which shows football matches and concerts, smiley, healthy looking people. The Red Cross appear not to have realised that they were being duped. Once they had left, of course, deportations were resumed.
W G Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 266-68; H G Adler, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community
‘I felt that the most striking aspect of the place was its emptiness, said Austerlitz […] the sense of abandonment in this fortified town, laid out like Campanella’s ideal sun state to a strictly geometrical grid, was extraordinarily oppressive, yet more so was the forbidding aspect of the silent facades.[…] What I found most uncanny of all, however, were the gates and doorways of Terezin, all of the, as I thought I sensed, obstructing access to a darkness never yet penetrated’
Austerlitz visits Terezin, having learned of his mother’s imprisonment there. He has been told that it is an ordinary town now, but he finds it strikingly empty, its streets deserted, its windows silent and blank. In its museum, he is confronted by the history he has been avoiding for so long – he studies the maps of the German Reich, in particular the railway lines running through them, that facilitated forced labour, deportations and genocide. The ground plan of the star-shaped fortifications is ‘the model of a world made by reason and regulated in all conceivable respects’, a fortress that has never been besieged, a quiet garrison for two or three regiments and some 2,000 civilians. But it seems to Austerlitz that, far from having returning to this civilised and reasonable state, the town is now filled with the people who had been shut in to the ghetto, as if ‘they had never been taken away after all, but were still living crammed into those buildings and basements and attics, as if they were incessantly going up and down the stairs, looking out of the windows, moving in vast numbers through the streets and alleys and even, a silent assembly, filling the entire space occupied by the air’.
Our human witness to Terezin is H G Adler, who, like Austerlitz, was born in Prague. He was sent initially to a labour camp in 1941, then to Terezin with his family in 1942. In 1944, he, his wife and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, where both women were murdered on arrival. Adler also lost his own parents and many other members of his family. From Auschwitz, he was deported to two successive sub-camps of Buchenwald before liberation. His research post-war focused on the archives of Terezin and formed the basis of his major work, Theresienstadt 1941-1945, which Sebald quotes and refers to extensively and which is still the most detailed account of any single concentration camp.
There’s one more fortress to consider. Kaunas, in Lithuania.
- 12 forts built in 19th century to defend against German armies
- All surrendered in 1914 and some fell into disuse
- Russians occupied in 1939 and used them as prisons
- 1941-45 German occupation: 7th fort used as concentration camp – 4k Jews killed there. 9th fort was execution and burial site for Jews from Kaunas and for other Jews shipped there during the Holocaust
- Abraham Tory reports in his ghetto diary that ‘single and mass arrests as well as “actions” in the ghetto almost always ended with a death march to the Ninth Fort, which in a way completed the ghetto area and became an integral part of it‘
We have no first-hand human witness here. Instead, we have Dan Jacobson, a South African writer whose book Heshel’s Kingdom describes his attempts to piece together a family narrative fragmented by history, the fate of whose members was determined by one event, the sudden death of Heshel Melamed in 1919, which freed his widow, children and grandchildren to emigrate from Lithuania to South Africa. Jacobson’s quest is to discover what happened to the other branches of the family, those who were left behind.
W G Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 414-15, Dan Jacobson, Heshel’s Kingdom, pp. 159-62
Jacobson tells us that the Russians built a ring of twelve fortresses […] in the late nineteenth-century, which then in 1914, despite the elevated positions on which they had been constructed, and for all the great number of their cannon, the thickness of the walls and their labyrinthine corridors, proved entirely useless. […] In 1941 they fell into German hands, including the notorious Fort IX where Wehrmacht command posts were set up and where more than thirty thousand people were killed over the next three years.[…] Transports from the west kept ]coming to Kaunas until May 1944,[…] as the last messages from those locked in the dungeons of the fortress bear witness. One of them, writes Jacobson, scratched the words “Nous sommes neuf cents Francais” on the cold limestone wall of the bunker.
Neither Austerlitz nor the narrator visits Kaunas. But Austerlitz gives to the narrator, before he sets off to continue his own quest for answers, a copy of Jacobson’s book. Sebald’s narrative leaves us at the end of Jacobson’s Chapter 15, in an underground corridor where, behind glass, are preserved the ‘wall scratchings’ – literal marks of pain – of French Jewish prisoners brought here – after the war had effectively been lost. These include Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44 – Sebald’s first name, and his date of birth; the fictional Austerlitz’s father’s first name, and last known location. What happened to these people, what happened to Jacobson’s family, cannot be known. Were they deported to an extermination camp – perhaps more likely, given the history of Kaunas, were they were killed right there?
Auschwitz is, of course, the fourth location that is implicit in the above.
It is both the archetype – we invoke this name above all others to stand for the Nazi machinery of mass murder – and the specific journey’s end for so many. Sebald doesn’t take us there though – it is present, always, but unseen and its name unspoken. We hear it only as an echo – in the name of our protagonist, in the mention of the Auschowitz springs which he visits at Marienbad. We don’t go there because we don’t need to – the phrase ‘sent east’ is already heavy with meaning.
Sebald gives us not only these closed places of death and terror but their apparent opposite – the transitory, liminal space of the railway station. Austerlitz’s fascination with the railway network was always tinged with a sense of loss, anguish even. In this, he reminds us of Max Ferber from Sebald’s The Emigrants who finds railway stations and railway journeys to be torture and who as a result, never leaves Manchester. And perhaps Sebald also was thinking of the passage in Elie Wiesel’s autobiography, concerning ‘those nocturnal trains that crossed the devastated continent’:
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea
Their shadow haunts my writing. They symbolise solitude, distress, and the relentless march of Jewish multitudes towards agony and death. I freeze every time I hear a train whistle.
Towards the end of the narrative, at the Parisian railway station with which he shares a name, Austerlitz feels that he is ‘on the scene of some unexpiated crime’. Indeed, the Gare d’Austerlitz was the station from which Jews rounded up in the city were crammed into cattle trucks and transported to the transit camps near Paris – from where they were later crammed again into cattle trucks for transport to Auschwitz. And of course, one of the most often used images of Auschwitz itself is of the railway tracks.
Austerlitz pieces together his mother’s journey, after her partner and then her son leave.
She is ordered to report to the Prague Exhibition Centre with her belongings. She and her fellow deportees go to Holesovice station and from there by train to Bauschowitz station, from where they must walk to Terezin. From Terezin, at some unknown date, another train takes her to Auschwitz.
His father’s journey is more speculative. Austerlitz knows that Max flew from Prague to Paris. After that, his mother had various addresses for him in Paris, but no communications. Austerlitz wonders whether he was rounded up in 1941, in the first wave of arrests of foreign Jews, or in the much bigger round-up in July 1942, the Vel d’Hiv, the first round-up to take not only men capable of work but women, children, the sick, the elderly. Austerlitz also learns that Max may have been at one time at the Gurs camp in southwestern France, originally set up for Spanish refugees after Franco’s victory, but appropriated by the Nazis for Jews and members of the resistance. Did he die there, of disease or malnutrition? If not, was he deported from Gurs to Drancy and from there to Auschwitz? Or was he taken from the streets of Paris via the Gare d’Austerlitz to Pithiviers or Beaune-la-Rolande, and from there to Auschwitz? We take our leave of Austerlitz as he prepares to continue the search for evidence.
Sebald does recount another train journey. One which ended on the threshold not of death but of the hope of a new life. Austerlitz as a child travels from Prague’s Wilsonova station with the Kindertransport, a series of initiatives undertaken between Kristallnacht and the outbreak of war to get children, mainly Jewish, out of Nazi Europe – around 10,000 were thereby saved during that brief window of possibility. Jacques travels through Czechoslovakia and Germany, to the Hook of Holland, from where he takes the ferry to Harwich and another train to Liverpool Street Station. This is no fairy tale – for the fictional Jacques as for so many of the children, their assimilation and acceptance of their new home (a new language, new customs, often a new name, and a new religion) and their new family’s understanding of them, were problematic. And all of them faced traumatic absences, losses that they couldn’t grieve, and questions they couldn’t answer. Most never saw their parents again.
Austerlitz’s new life, the one that started on the platform at Liverpool Street Station, would never be free of those marks of pain. His academic quest to make sense of the family likeness between ‘monumental’ buildings, places that impose and imprison, and of the railway network that links them, has been superseded by the unrecognised need that had originally driven it. To find his family, to know everything he can know about their lives and their deaths, to inscribe those human stories, his human story, on the bricks and stones of the fortresses, prisons and railway stations that witnessed them.
(Austerlitz, p. 183)
‘I often wondered whether the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away, or whether they might not still, as I sometimes thought when I felt a cold breath of air on my forehead, be sensed’
W G Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Fischer, 1992), English translation, The Emigrants, published 1996
__, Nach der Natur (Fischer, 1995), English translation, After Nature, published 2002
__, Austerlitz (Fischer, 2001), English translation published 2001
H G Adler, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community (Cambridge UP, 2017)
Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities (Indiana UP, 1980)
Dan Jacobson, Heshel’s Kingdom: A Family, a People, a Divided Fate (Hamish Hamilton, 1998)
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea (Schocken Books, 1994)
Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust. But not just The Holocaust. It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.
If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France. Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpetrators and bystanders. We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films. There is thus a vast archive of material on which we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.
If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘Torn from Home’.
This reminded me of an early blog post, published on 16 July 2012, the 70th anniversary of the massive round-up of Parisian Jews, which heralded the start of mass deportations to Auschwitz.
Thursday 16 July. At 4 in the morning, it is still very dark. The streets are deserted, the doors and windows closed. But on this early Thursday morning, police cars are converging on pre-arranged spots, carrying officers and civilian assistants. They consult their instructions, block the streets. Each small team has a list of names and addresses. Alongside the police vehicles, buses are parked along the pavements, awaiting their passengers. At the appointed moment, the teams go in. They knock. ‘Police – open up!’.
The occupants are escorted to the buses, and taken on to one of two destinations – single adults to transit camps, including a half-built housing estate on the edge of the city, recently cleared of many of its occupants to make room for this influx, and families to a nearby sports stadium. At the latter, no food or water is provided. It’s mid-July, and once the building is sealed, the heat rapidly becomes oppressive. The few working toilets don’t work for long. The people in the stadium are afraid, and some in despair throw themselves from the balconies to the floor below. A few manage to use the general chaos to slip out, provided that the police at the entry are either sufficiently distracted, or willing to be suddenly inattentive. A few manage to get themselves transferred to hospital (this may prove to be only a temporary respite). Once space in the transit camp has been cleared again, the families in the stadium are transported there. Until the trains take them, too, to their final destination.
Thursday 16 July 1942, Paris. The Vel’ d’Hiv round up, named after the sports stadium used to house the Jews who were dragged from their homes that morning and in the hours that followed. Drancy camp, next stop en route to Auschwitz. 13,152 were arrested, of whom 5802 were women, and 4051 children. Some of the adults – less than 3% – made it home after the Liberation, to search fruitlessly for news of their children at the Hotel Lutétia. None of the children came home.
It wasn’t the first round-up, but it was the first to seize women, children, babies, the elderly, the sick. It gave the lie to the official explanation, that the Jews who were being interned were heading to labour camps in the east. And the sight of it, for some witnesses at least, and for some of those who escaped the net this time, was a catalyst that led to resistance.
Torn from home.
But the process had started well before that July morning. The process had begun with rhetoric, feeding on the anti-semitism that was so strongly present in French politics. The Dreyfus affair which had divided the country had been concluded (with the full exoneration and restoration of military honours to Captain Dreyfus) less than forty years earlier. (Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz. ) The anti-Dreyfusard contingent had continued to be active in nationalist and often explicitly anti-semitic politics and the Occupation gave them their opportunity. (Indeed, Charles Maurras of Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.) From the very beginning of the Occupation, anti-Jewish sentiment was nurtured, rewarded and disseminated.
Exhibitions were held using stereotypical images of Jews, and portraying a narrative of covert networks of Jews controlling the financial sector and influencing political decision making. (In our own time there has been a resurgence of this narrative, purveyed by both the far right and by the left, invoking, for example, George Soros and the Rothschild dynasty.) This kind of propaganda was not new to the French. The anti-Dreyfus press used such caricatures and stereotypes to attack both Dreyfus personally, and by extension all Jews.
The stereotypes and canards perpetuated in the caricatures drew from both the antiquated ideas of Jewish usury and greed, but also modern ideas of conspiracy, as well as industry domination and control, which had been made popular by the publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Those ideas rose in prominence through the publication of caricatures showcasing Jews attempting to disguise themselves as non-Jews, Jews being portrayed as world dominators, and manipulators of finance and politics.
The Nazi message was in itself therefore not radical or shocking. And to a nation reeling after a sudden and unequivocal defeat, the handy provision of a scapegoat was, to some at least, very welcome. The propaganda went hand in hand with the implementation of a range of measures designed to say to all Jews, whether French citizens or immigrants, that they were not at home. It was all done incrementally – Jewish businesses had to declare themselves with posters in the windows, Jews had to register at the police station, Jews could only travel in the last carriage on the Metro, Jews could only shop between certain hours of the day, Jews could not go to the cinema or the swimming baths, Jewish businesses had to be owned by an Aryan, Jews were barred from an extensive list of professions, Jews could not attend University, Jews had to wear a yellow star sewn securely on to their coats… Every step led closer to the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp, but by stealth.
Louise Doughty’s novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, describes this process – and how it reaches its conclusion – vividly:
How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss. You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have. When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine. Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads. Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more. Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in. When we got here, they took those. They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp. So many people have been separated from their families. Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)
The Jews of France – many of them, at least – accommodated themselves stage by stage with the restrictions that were placed upon their freedoms. Until the round-up, the transit camp, the cattle truck, the death camp. Because each new restriction was designed to say to them, whether they were French for generations or new arrivals, you are not at home, can never be at home here.
The round-ups went on, right to the bitter end. As Allied troops were fighting their way through France after D-Day, Jews were still being arrested, herded into cattle trucks and deported to their deaths. Helene Berr and her parents, French for generations, were arrested in March 1944. The 1942 round-ups had targeted ‘foreign’ Jews, but by this time such distinctions were irrelevant. The Berrs were clearly being watched – they’d moved from place to place for months, staying with friends but never for very long, and went home just for one night. The knock on the door came the following morning.
And for those few who survived, the idea of ‘coming home’ was never really going to be possible. When they arrived at the gare de l’Est, they were often unrecognisable even to their closest friends and family. They were broken, physically and mentally. They were changed, utterly.
The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers.
(Levy & Tilly, p. 229)
They returned to find that they were alone, that everyone they cared about had perished. They returned to the place where neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.
I began this piece by explaining why, on Holocaust Memorial Day each year, I often focus on this particular bit of history, on what happened in France during the years of Nazi Occupation. There’s another reason.
Anti-semitic rhetoric, racist language, xenophobia, are all more prevalent today than for a long time. No one is suggesting that we are on the road to Auschwitz, but if we let ourselves become immunised to the shock of this language and of overtly hostile behaviour to perceived ‘foreigners’ we risk being numb to worse things. As we leave the community of Europe behind that risk is too great to ignore. As the hard right targets Muslims and Eastern Europeans, and invokes George Soros as a hate figure, whilst the left invokes the Rothschilds and a worldwide Zionist conspiracy, we have to speak out.
Britain is home to people from all over the world. It always has been. It must continue to be. We must never contemplate with equanimity the idea that anyone whose home is here might fear a knock on the door, might be interned indefinitely awaiting deportation, might be sent back to somewhere where their life is at risk because of their politics, their religion, their sexuality. We must never contemplate with equanimity our colleagues and neighbours being told to ‘go home’, that they’re not welcome any more. We must never contemplate with equanimity the casual slurs; the stereotyping of people of a particular nationality or religion; the language of ‘queue jumpers’, of ‘citizens of nowhere’, of ‘swarms’; the repetition of lazy untruths, whether about the largesse handed out to refugees or about the truth of the Holocaust.
The Jews of France registered without much protest when required to do so. They did not believe, could not believe, that anything too terrible could happen to them in the land of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, a land that for some had been home for generations, and for others that had offered a haven when persecution drove them from another country. They could not see where this path was leading. We know.
Helene Berr – Journal (trans. David Bellos, Quercus, 2008)
Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark (Harper, 2005)
Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Tallandier, 2010)
Renee Poznanski – Jews in France during World War II (Brandeis Univ. Press, 2001)
I wouldn’t have expected, even a few months ago, to have been sailing up the Danube on a luxury floating hotel. But my 90 year old father, who is partially sighted and deaf, needed a companion for his chosen cruise holiday, and, well, someone had to step up to the plate. Someone had to take one for the team. And it was fabulous.
The chances that I’ll ever be able to do it again are remote but if I could, I would, and if you can, do. (Riviera Travel, highly recommended (no, I’m not on commission…) – everything fantastically well organised, and the boat fantastically well appointed).
We arrived in Budapest on Day 1, too late to do any more than enjoy looking at the city lights as we had dinner. And then the real magic thing about a river cruise – you nod off to sleep and when you wake up you open the curtains to somewhere new.
Ezstergom, once the capital of Hungary, and now known for its basilica, the top of which apparently is and must by law remain the highest point in the country. Then onwards, and from Hungary to Slovakia, and its capital city, Bratislava.
That November afternoon as we sailed on up river it was unseasonably warm, and we sat out on the sun deck. The river was so quiet, all we could hear was the low hum of the boat’s engines, and the splash of the cormorants’ wings as they skimmed the water. I can’t remember when I last felt such peace.
On the cabin TV there was a channel which just showed the view from the camera on the front of the boat, all day and night. I took to leaving it on as I fell asleep, loving the tranquillity. (It was also reassuring when we were going through some huge locks, and things got a bit bumpy).
The first view of Bratislava from our mooring point was less than prepossessing, but the old city is beautiful. And part of the fascination of these cities that once lay behind the Iron Curtain is the juxtaposition of utilitarian concrete blocks from the Communist era with the rich baroque heritage. Many of the plaques in Bratislava commemorate the Second World War rather differently to those in Western Europe, mainly recording the heroism of the Red Army that liberated them from the Nazis. But others record the corrective to that simplistic version of history, as with this memorial to Anton Petrak:
For a history buff with a particular obsession with WWII and the postwar period, this stuff is obviously richly fascinating. And our local guide added to the story, with his parents’ memories of the Prague Spring, and of how after the fall of Communism the country split (‘without so much as a referendum’, our guide said, in one of many ironic Brexit references during the trip).
I’ll go back to Bratislava, if I can, and explore properly.
Onwards. En route, on the sun deck again, we glimpse a castle on the shoreline, Devin castle.
We slip quietly into Austria. Next stop Durnstein. We’ve lost the sun now, it’s a bit misty in the morning, which means the photos don’t do justice to the cruel crags above the village, and the ruined castle. (According to legend, Richard II of England was imprisoned there, and his loyal minstrel Blondel found him by singing outside the fortresses of Europe until he heard Richard joining in. Well, I did say it was a legend).
Durnstein is gorgeous, beautiful old – really, really old – buildings, and a fabulously ornate church. Back to the boat for lunch and on to Melk Abbey.
No photos allowed inside, but a really fascinating tour of a very imaginatively organised museum within this still functioning Benedictine abbey.
Next day we are moored at Linz. We’ve been forewarned that we’re going to be double parked, so we don’t fling open our curtains in the morning inadequately clad, only to see the passengers on another boat staring back. Another misty morning.
Some of our group go for a tour of Linz, but we board a coach and head off to Salzburg, which is just as fascinating and picturesque as I would have imagined.
It’s also my first sight of Stolpersteine, literally stumbling stones, plaques set into the cobbles of the city, commemorating those of its citizens who were murdered by the Nazis, usually adjacent to the houses where they lived. There are over 70,000 of these across Europe, and whilst some cities have rejected this particular way of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, the project has prompted them to find alternatives, ways of giving back to those people the names and the homes and the stories that the Nazis took from them, along with their lives.
These two Stolpersteine commemorate Catholic priests who were murdered by the Nazis. Father Gottfried Neunhauserer died at Schloss Hartheim, used by the Nazis for their T4 euthanasia programme, and the place where thousands of prisoners from Dachau, Ravensbruck and Mauthausen were taken to be gassed. He’d been a patient in Salzburg-Lehen mental hospital from 1920, and was taken to Hartheim in 1941 where he was murdered.
Brother Jakob Furtsch was murdered in Ravensbruck in 1943. He’d been expelled from his abbey in 1942, and went back to his home town, Neuensee, where he was arrested as a dissident and deported to Dachau, then to Ravensbruck.
We also saw plaques for Rudolf Erich Muller, a Catholic convert arrested as a Jew in November 1938, deported to Vienna and then to Theresienstadt where he was murdered, and Karl Rinnerthaler, a school janitor, who died in 1948 due to the injuries he’d received in various prisons, after his arrest in 1942 as a member of the illegal Austrian Revolutionary Socialist resistance group.
So through chance, in just a small area of the city, we encountered these stories which convey so much about the Nazi horror. A victim of Aktion T4, a worker who took part in resistance activities, a Jew and a Catholic dissident.
We’d sailed straight past Vienna on our way to Linz, so now we head back there.
Obviously, there is no possibility of doing justice to Vienna in the time we have, though our guide is (as they all have been) well informed and does a brilliant job of showing us as much as we can in the time. I will have to come back some time.
That evening we have a classical string quartet performing on the boat. Yes, they do play the Blue Danube waltz (I guess it was a contractual obligation) but also some Mozart and Haydn. I quite fancied a bit of Schoenberg but there you go… More seriously, it was lovely, and well pitched for the audience. (My father has fond memories of a previous Danube cruise where there were such concerts on board most days, as well as musical outings in several of the cities they visited, including one in Vienna with the orchestra all in full 18th-century costume. )
We’re on the last leg now. Onwards to Budapest. But the low water levels which have been causing problems for river traffic means that we aren’t going to get there in time for a proper visit, so instead we dock again at Esztergom and get a coach to Budapest, whilst our boat carries on (less heavy laden!) without us, to meet us again for our last night on board after we’ve toured Budapest.
Despite this, the daylight is already fading once we have the chance to walk around the city. We look around Heroes’ Square, and then on to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic/neo-Romanesque terrace which provides a wonderful vista of the old city, as the lights come on. Then we’re back to the boat for a gala dinner, and a performance of Hungarian folk music and dance to mark our final evening.
We didn’t get to see the Shoes on the bank of the Danube due to the rescheduling of that final day. Our Hungarian tour manager couldn’t speak of this, of its history and meaning, and of the fact that people still leave flowers there, without choking up. I will record it even though I didn’t see it for myself.
Film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created this memorial on the east bank of the Danube. Many Hungarian Jews were murdered even before the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944. But in those last months of the war, as the Red Army surrounded Budapest, the murder of those who remained was regarded as an urgent priority, hampered by the fact that they could no longer deport to the death camps. So, with the help of the fascist Arrow Cross militia, 3,500 people, including 800 Jews, were taken to the banks of the river, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot, so that they fell into the river.
This trip has been full of such contrasts. The picturesque alongside the reminders of genocide. The Communist concrete blocks alongside the baroque. If I get the chance to come back to these cities, it’s these contrasts that I will want to explore. I want to find the Stolpersteine in all of these cities, as I sought out the plaques on the walls of Paris that tell of resistance and persecution. In these cities that embody our notions of culture, of beauty, of civilisation, people were rounded up, herded into ghettos, deported to camps and murdered because they were Jews, or Roma, or gay, or communist, or because they opposed the murderous ideology that would destroy people because of who they were. That history is ever more vital, as so many European nations seem to be drawn to nationalism and xenophobia once again.
It was poignant to be in Europe on the centenary of the Armistice, and to recall that the young men in those three nations who would be commemorated would have all fought against ‘us’. I thought of this again watching Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall, which portrayed the 1914 Christmas truce through the voices of German, French and Scottish soldiers.
And I thought, with sadness and anger of how our union with all of those European nations is portrayed as something that oppresses and exploits us, rather than something from which we gain immeasurably, economically and culturally and in so many other ways. And I so wanted to dissociate myself from my government (and opposition) and from so many of my compatriots as our tour managers and guides made reference to Brexit, ironically, regretfully, in bafflement and in hurt.
So if I can I will go back, to Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, and wander around in the way I enjoy, looking for the places where history bubbles up into the present.
I’d also love to go back on the river though, to recapture that sense of peace.
I don’t want to do that whole ‘as a parent’ thing. It’s offensive to all the people who aren’t parents but who do give a damn (most people, I’d like to think, though it’s harder to believe that some days than others) to suggest that if you’ve never given birth or fathered a child you could contemplate with equanimity cruelty against the most vulnerable people, the people we are all, parents or otherwise, programmed to protect, the people who are our collective future.
It’s the 80th anniversary this year of the Kindertransport, when parents in fear of the future sent their children off into what they could not know would be a safer future, into the arms of strangers. Most of those children never saw their parents again. That window of opportunity was open so briefly – from the point where enough people realised the danger to the point when the borders slammed shut – and those who missed it, in many cases, were murdered. The children were undoubtedly saved, but they were not unmarked by that early separation (even those who were reunited with their parents post-war found themselves and their parents irrevocably changed by what had happened in those years).
I wrote about the Kindertransport in a previous Refugee Week blog. I’ve returned again and again to the vulnerability of children and to our shared responsibility to protect them.
Children are resilient, they’re tougher than you’d think, as all parents remind themselves on a regular basis. But how do those early experiences, that exposure to death and danger and horror, affect them as they grow? We can draw upon the stories of an earlier generation of children whose parents entrusted them to strangers, to be transported across Europe and to be taken into the homes of other strangers, to be kept safe, in the hope of a reunion that for many was never to happen. We know of the confusion that many of them felt, about their past, their identity (not all Jewish children were fostered in Jewish homes); and of the trauma of separation from parents and family, and in so many cases, of the discovery post-war that parents and family had been swallowed up in the barbarity and were lost to them for ever.
No one claims an exact equivalence between the circumstances in Nazi Europe and those we face now. But equally no one would doubt that in desperate circumstances children are the most vulnerable, least able to defend themselves, most open to abuse.
It is often asked, below the line, what kind of parents would abandon their children to such a fate. Firstly, it is a huge assumption that these children have been abandoned. Many will be orphaned. Many will have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight. And some parents, faced with the desperate choice to save some but not all of the family will have chosen to send their children on to at least the chance of safety, as those parents did 80 years ago.
It’s also often claimed that the children are a sort of Trojan horse – if we allow our hearts to soften and give them sanctuary here, their parents and older siblings will then emerge from the shadows and demand to join them. Or that they are not in fact minors, just young-looking adults. It takes a particularly determined brand of cynicism to look at these children in such need and see only threat and deceit.
Most of us will see instead both vulnerability and potential. If we take them in we can both protect them from the dangers they currently face, and allow them to fulfil the potential they have, to contribute to the country and the community that gives them sanctuary.
And today, how can we even talk about the children of the Kindertransport, the children crossing the Med in flight from war and terror, without talking about the children whose parents have tried to cross the border in hope of a better future and who are now caged, terrified, comfortless?
Don’t tell me those parents are ‘illegals’, lawbreakers. Lawbreakers can be dealt with humanely. Children are not lawbreakers. And no human being is an alien, an illegal. It’s not so many steps from that approach to the approach that condemned Native American children, Tutsi children, Jewish children to death because of their heritage. And the rhetoric from the White House takes us ever closer. Animals. Vermin. Infestation. We have to call this out, all of us. And especially when brutal policies are justified by quoting the Bible.
I know these children are unlikely to meet the legal definition of refugees. But how we treat the most vulnerable surely must define our values as a society. There is another, better America. There are other, better ways of dealing with migration and asylum. We have to find them.
To quote Sir Nicholas Winton, who himself was responsible for saving around 700 children from Nazi Europe, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.
With the resources we have, collectively, it’s not impossible. It can’t be.
In my first HMD blog, six years ago, I talked about how, in preparation for genocide, the power of words is used to dehumanise the intended victims:
The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives. First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity. For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice. Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability. As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed. This load may also scream.
That’s why we must call out such language when it is applied to refugees, immigrants, or any group of ‘others’, whenever we hear it and whoever is using it.
“How many Romanians are in? How many Polish are in?” she splutters in the midst of a diatribe about the NHS, over-crowded prisons and illegal immigration. “They are congregating like cockroaches into our major city centres, which are unable to deal with the crime that they bring.”
This quote featured in a 2007 interview with a well-known television writer. The interviewer, who herself was Polish, didn’t challenge her, partly, I suspect, through shock. Much more recently (in 2015) a notorious ‘newspaper’ columnist, speaking of the deaths of up to 700 migrants in a Mediterranean shipwreck, said:
“These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.”
This characterisation of people as less than human, as vermin, as a “virus” (as she did elsewhere in the article) irresistibly recalls the darkest events in history. It is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan media of 1994, when the radio went from statements such as “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches” to, shortly afterwards, instructions on how to do so, and what knives to use. (Zoe Williams, The Guardian)
Perhaps neither the TV writer nor the notorious columnist was familiar with the use of the term ‘cockroaches’ in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I don’t know. But surely anyone, however ill-informed, should baulk at describing other human beings in such terms?
It is no joke when people start talking like this. We are not “giving her what she wants” when we make manifest our disgust. It is not a free speech issue. I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her. Articulate the fellowship, the human empathy, that makes these deaths important. Stop talking about how many children were among the dead, as though only children matter. Start talking about everybody’s life as cherishable, irrespective of anything they might produce.(Zoe Williams, The Guardian)
For the sake of the future, we have to oppose, vocally and vociferously, those who use the language of genocide whether through ignorance or with deliberation.
But it’s equally important, as Zoe Williams says, to articulate human empathy, to talk about the lives of others as cherishable. And that includes those who are lost to us, who were murdered because they were seen as less than human.
I have reservations about fictionalising the Holocaust, when there are so very many first-hand stories yet to be told, and when there are still – always – those who claim that the whole thing is a fiction. But then I recall the TV series Holocaust, broadcast in the late 1970s.
For all its faults – and it had many – and for all the opprobrium that it attracted, from critics and from Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel, it served a tremendously important function. For many viewers it was a shock – it was for me, and I thought I was well-informed – and in Germany especially so. Despite all of the efforts post-war to educate and inform, it was this fictionalised account, not the documentary footage of the liberation of the camps, that really made many people understand. They saw people like themselves, living lives not unlike theirs, and then they saw what was done to them. In the course of the Holocaust mini-series, the Weiss family experienced Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt, Babi Yar, Auschwitz and Sobibor. Wiesel argued that this was a mistake, that ‘the story of one child, the destiny of one victim, the reverberations of one outcry would be more effective’.
What then is the answer? How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims? How are we to oppose the killers’ hopes and their accomplices’ endeavors to kill the dead for the second time? What will happen when the last survivor is gone? I don’t know. All I know is that the witness does not recognize himself in this film.
The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show
Clive James was more positive, although he acknowledged that no character existed except to make a point, or to illustrate a particular aspect of Holocaust history, and that (crucially) the script was clunky (‘the use of language was never better than adequate. As in all hack writing, the dialogue showed no sense of period. Prodigies of set-dressing were undone by a phrase’). However, he concluded:
There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember. Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among the common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied. Holocaust avoided that.
If Wiesel is right, and it is both impossible and vital to tell these stories, it is a task to be undertaken with trepidation. There are so few survivors now, so few still here and able to give their own accounts. But the way we tell their stories must honour the witnesses, the living and those who did not survive. It must be truthful, not just in terms of getting the facts right (details matter, when those details are disputed by those who would wish to assign the Holocaust to the category of fiction or myth), but in terms of creating people who ‘ring true’, and enabling us to invest in their lives and in their fate.
In Louise Doughty’s devastating and powerful novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, she draws us in to the world of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into their rich and complex culture, into the lives of one family, Josef and Anna, their new son Emil, and the kumpania to which they belong. We see even then the beginning of the assault upon their culture, with the introduction of laws that require them to be registered and fingerprinted and to inform the authorities of their routes and destinations. And if we know anything at all of European 20th century history, we know this will not be the end of it.
Much later, Josef, dying of a fever in a camp, reflects on the nature of loss:
How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss. You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have. When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine. Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads. Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more. Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in. When we got here, they took those. They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp. So many people have been separated from their families. Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … If I cannot even move my limbs, let alone raise my body to relieve myself with dignity, then I cannot really call my body my own either. All I have left are my thoughts – and breath, each small breath that comes so shallow and strange into my lungs. (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)
We do not need to share Josef’s (or Louise Doughty’s) Roma heritage to feel empathy, to recognise the humanity here. Within this one passage we follow and feel that inexorable progress from a bureaucratic attack on the Roma way of life (‘The implementation of Law 117 … to curb the nuisance caused by so-called Gypsies and other Travelling Persons and Vagabonds’) to the man alone and reduced to ‘the next small breath’.
There are many first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, from those who survived and from those who did not, but very few from its Roma victims. The destruction of whole communities, and with them of customs, and dialects, and names and histories, means that creative works of imagination are vital, to bring them back to life for us. And so what Louise Doughty does here is of profound value. Richard Rorty, in a passage which Doughty quotes at the beginning of her novel, talks about how human solidarity might be achieved:
It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, “They do not feel it as we would,” or “There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?” This process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel. (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. xiv)
The power of words, used to increase sensitivity to others, to extend our sympathies, as George Eliot put it.
“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne – The American Notebooks)
Words have immense power to hurt or to heal, to damn or to save. And when we say of a novel or a play that it’s ‘only a story’ we are forgetting that. Those that have the skill to create or recreate a world, to draw people in whom we can believe, to give those people words to move and engage us, their ‘stories’ can shake us from our facile assumptions and prejudices, and can arm us against those who want to make us hate ‘them’.
We need those words, now more than ever.
Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
(Primo Levi, If this is a Man)