Sunday 18 December 2016

My History Picks for 2016 - Celia Rees

It's that time of the year as Elizabeth Fremantle pointed out earlier this month. The book pages of the weekend papers are full of round ups as reviewers and writers select and present their choices from their reading over the last twelve months. We look among these mini reviews for ideas for presents or pointers to titles we might have missed. Here's some of my reading from 2016. For me, it was a year of reading seriously. A lot of non fiction, much of it historical. I often read non fiction when I'm writing - I don't want too many other voices in my head. Some of my reading comes under the (sometimes very) loose cover of 'research'- it feels like working - other books just caught my interest from those very newspaper pages, or hearing about them from the radio, or browsing the bookshop shelves.

No Woman's World was first published in 1946. Iris Carpenter was one of a band of courageous female war correspondents who covered the latter stages of the war in Europe. Carpenter arrived four days after the D-Day landings, traveled across France, was at the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. She went on to cover the meeting of U.S. and Russian forces and the final fall of Berlin. I've been reading quite a lot about the women reporters and photographers who reported on the Second World War. Martha Gellhorn and Lee Miller are perhaps the most famous, but there were others, like Iris Carpenter, who made a major contribution to the journalism of the Second World War. 

Edmond Taylor's The Fall of Dynasties begins with Gavrilo Princip's fateful shots in Sarajevo which left Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife bleeding to death in the back of their open top car. The Archduke was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and with his death, a dynasty, a whole way of life, began to topple. In this thoughtful and thought provoking book, Taylor covers the period from 1905 to 1922 and the collapse of four dynasties: the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Ottoman and Romanov. Their astonishingly swift downfall was precipitated by the shots in Sarajevo and the consequent World War but the reverberations from this calamitous collapse continued to be felt throughout the Twentieth Century and on to the present day. Edmund Taylor's offers a different slant and new insights into the vexed and contentious issues surrounding the causes of the First World War and the consequent effects that the conflagration had on the world. 

In The White Island Stephen Armstrong gives us a beguiling and eclectic guide to Ibiza. Part history, part guide book, it covers everything from the Carthaginians to 20th Century clubbing culture, by way of pre-war hedonists, 1950s bohemians and 1960s hippies. The island was a magnet to artists, musicians like Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd and writers and Janet Frame. I read this book on the plane to Ibiza. It proved the perfect holiday read, not too taxing but full of fascinating snippets of information, not only telling you where to go but why you should go there. Even if you aren't planning a visit, once you've read it you'll want to go there and if you've already been, you'll want to go back! 

In my local park, there is a monument to Jozef Gabčík, Jan Kubiš and the other Czech agents who undertook the suicidal mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. It is there because during the Second World War, the Free Czech Army was billeted in my home town of Leamington Spa. The recent film, Operation Anthropoid, tells their story. Callum Macdonald's The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is considerably more detailed than the film but no less nailbitingly exciting.
Czech Fountain. Jepson Gardens. 
A ruthless and fanatical Nazi, Heydrich was among Hitler's most trusted lieutenants. He was one of the architects of the Final Solution, chair of the Wannsee Conference. The Czech agents succeeded in carrying out the only successful assassination of a senior Nazi officer during the War but it was a suicidal mission. They were betrayed, hunted down and killed. Their action exacted terrible reprisals, including the annihilation of the village of Lidice and the arrest and deportation to concentration camps of thousands of Czech citizens. Heydrich was deeply mourned by Hitler and given a huge state funeral in Berlin. Following his death, the policies formalised at the Wannsee Conference were accelerated. The mass killings that followed came under the title: Operation Reinhard.

In his Baillie Gifford Prize winning work East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, Human Rights lawyer Philippe Sands  offers a very particular, highly unusual and deeply personal view of the Holocaust centred round the city of Lviv, now in Western Ukraine. Even the changing name of the place betrays its uncertain history, moving from German Lemberg, to Polish Lwów, Russian Lvov, to Ukrainian Lviv. Sands traces the story of his maternal grandfather's escape from a city that would see the annihilation the family left behind. He also follows the lives of two Nuremberg prosecutors, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, who were also Jewish and lost their families in Nazi held Lviv. It was through their efforts that the terms 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' were included in the Nuremburg judgement and came into our parlance and consciousness. Across the court from them sat the defendant, Hans Frank, Hitler's personal lawyer and Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland, he set up his headquarters in the castle that overlooked the city that connects them all. This clever book is utterly absorbing, part personal history, and part legal examination of the concept of International Law, the nature of genocide and crimes against humanity. By focussing on individuals and their different family histories, Sands reveals the enormity of a crime that is almost beyond comprehension. His book is both profound and profoundly moving, beginning in the court room in Nuremberg and ending in a quiet woodland glade where the remains of three thousand five hundred Jewish men, women and children still lie, some of them relatives of Sands, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, all of them victims of Frank who would hang for his crimes.   
Forgotten Land, Max Egremont's fascinating history of East Prussia visits a  land that is no longer on any map, although it was once powerful and thriving with an ancient and proud history, dating back to the Teutonic Knights. A deeply forested, fertile land with a long and proud military tradition, the birthplace of Immanuel Kant. Divided after the First World War, it paid the price again for Germany's defeat in the Second and the crimes committed in its name, like those exposed in East West Street. Subject to Stalin's 'terrible revenge', carved up between Poland and the USSR, its people forced into exile, it ceased to exist. Max Egremont takes a remarkable journey through landscape and memory, weaving the stories of ghosts and survivors to create a memorable and sobering meditation on the transitory nature of national and cultural identity. 
Looking back over my selection, I realise that they don't comprise the cheeriest of reads. Maybe my New Year's Reading Resolution should be to lighten up in 2017!

Celia Rees


Pippa Goodhart said...

I've just read East West Street, and, my goodness, it makes a fascinating and absorbing and disturbing and hopeful read. Those personal stories reflecting and shaping world events have so much to teach us. Such small details that tell so much. Two sentences telling that a new housekeeper was appointed for the housing block for Jewish university students. Her name was Paula Hitler, and her brother was Adolf.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for these recommendations, Celia. I've read a couple, but the others are new to me.

Celia Rees said...

Yes, East West Street makes disturbing reading, Pippa, but in a good way. We need to be jolted to of our familiarity with the Holocaust, which Sands does time and again. I love other people's lists, Sue, as a way of discovering new books. Glad you found mine useful.

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