Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alex Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy

Reading Alex Callinicos' Imperialism as the West once again began to bomb Iraq for the third time and in the aftermath of a summer of Israeli assault on Palestine, I was struck by the clarity and importance of the Marxist analysis of Imperialism. In this book Callinicos traces the history of Imperialism, both as a political concept, and as a force that shaped, and continues to shape, the world we live in. Imperialism has had many meanings, frequently depending on the different historical societies that it is being used to describe. In the first chapter, Callinicos examines the particular imperialism of Empire - Ancient Rome for example - followed by the nature of military and economic competition in Feudal Europe. But this is very much a backdrop to a description of whole Imperialism under capitalism has become a qualitative and quantitatively difference force.

"Economic competition we have already encountered as one of the two interconnected relations constitutive of capital. Geopolitical competition comprises the rivalries among states over security, territory, influence and the like.... The historical moment of capitalist imperialism is when the interstate rivalries become integrated into the larger processes of capital accumulation."

This understanding underpins much of Callinicos' argument. Imperialism is, as the classical Marxist analysis explains, a product of capitalism's economic development. It has, over time, taken different forms within capitalism that relate to the different political, social and economic circumstances. It is not enough to explain imperialism by "reducing the motivations behind public policy to direct economic interests" even though they are often crucial. Nor is it enough to see imperialism simply as the powerful states exploiting the weak. Callinicos quotes an excellent summary of this by Anthony Brewer,

"It is easy to misunderstand the classical Marxist theories of imperialism since the very word has expanded and altered its meaning. Today the word 'imperialism' generally refers to the dominance of more developed over less developed countries. For classical Marxists it meant, primarily, rivalry between major capitalist countries, rivalry expressed in conflict over territory,m taking political and military as well as economic forms, and leading ultimately to inter-imperialist war. The dominance of stronger countries over weaker is certainly implicit in this conception, but the focus is one the struggle for dominance, a struggle between the strongest in which less developed countries figure primarily as passive battlegrounds, not as active participants."

Understanding how Imperialism has arisen under capitalism requires Callinicos to examine the historic development of capitalism, in particular the origins of the nation state. It was this part of the book that was perhaps the most challenging as it seemed the least directly relevant to the matter at hand. Callinicos discusses extensively the work of Marxists like Ellen Meskin Wood and Robert Brenner as well as other authors who have written about world history in various ways. But this section of the book turns out to be particularly important as it gives us the context for the modern nation state - the unevenness of historical development giving rise to uneven concentrations of capital. This is mirrored within capitalism itself. Capitalism itself requiring and causing further concentrations of capital while leaving under-development elsewhere. Lenin's five-fold definition of imperialism reflecting this reality,

"(1). The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation, on the basis of this 'finance capital', of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as opposed to the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed."

Locating Imperialism as arising out of the very life of capitalism in this way, Callinicos is able, like Lenin and others historically, to comprehensibly demolish those who argue that there is a potential for a "ultra imperialism" which makes war impossible. As another great classical Marxist, Nikolai Bukharin pointed out "war is the central problem of the present day."

The mid-part of the book looks at the Marxist idea of the state in the context of Imperialism and the growth of capitalism, discussing the evolution of the state and the various rival analyses of its importance. I don't have time and space to review all of the extensive discussions here, but I was particularly struck by Callinicos' description of the state, not as a conspiracy of capitalists to exploit and oppress, but rather "to think in terms of state managers whose specific rules of reproduction endow them with certain interests - in particular, maintain and, if possible, expanding the internal and external power of the state."


Callinicos points to three key periods of imperialism, Classical Imperialism, from 1870 to 1945; Superpower Imperialism, 1954 - 1991 and Imperialism after the Cold War. In the contemporary era-the dominant imperialism of the United States continues to try to shape the world in its own interests. For instance, writing about Central and Eastern Europe, Callinicos notes

"the historic achievement of the Clinton administration was to preserve the position of the US as the hegemonic power in Europe, in particular by linking the enlargement of the EU to that of NATO as an integrated process of extending the 'Euro-Atlantic' world deep into Eurasia."

This doesn't mean, as Callinicos goes on to point out, that there is no conflict of interest between the US and say, France or Germany, but it does mean that events in this crucial part of the world are very much linked to the interests of US capitalism. As an aside, it is this that is a key driving factor behind the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as sections of capital in that country see either the EU (and NATO) or Russia as being their best bet for advancement.

Callinicos concludes,

"The combined impact of continuing slow growth in the core of the system and of a shifting global distribution of economic power is likely to create significant centrifugal pressures on the major blocs of capital that, it should never be forgotten, are in competition with each other. Maintaining both the political cohesion of the advanced capitalist world and US hegemony over it is not an automatic effect of a self-equilibrating system It requires a continue creative political effort on the part of the US, and ion particular the successful pursuit of divide and rule strategies at the western and eastern ends of the Eurasian landmass where the two zones of advanced capitalism outside North America are to be found."

The problem is that the world doesn't remain still. The US is aware that potential rivals exist and will grow, Russia, India or China for instance. This doesn't mean that war between these countries is inevitable. But the very nature of capitalism means that conflict and clashes are likely. Events in Ukraine are one example, as a proxy wars or economic clashes elsewhere. It also means that control over crucial economic and strategic regions, such as Iraq gain renewed importance as the US struggles to maintain its hegemony. A world that remains economical unstable can only make it harder for the US to control.

The World Wars of the 20th century had their roots in the capitalist system. The 21st century is a different place, but as Alex Callinicos has ably shown in this book, the underlying faults and contradictions of the international capitalist system still mean that competition and crisis can easily become military confrontation. As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq this will mean suffering on an enormous scale for millions of people. The point is, as Callinicos concludes, that understanding the system makes it easier for us to struggle for a different world. While this book doesn't discuss the mass movements that have historical arisen in response to war and imperialism, it should be read as a tool to develop those movements further. This book is a very important contribution to that understanding and should be read by radicals, socialists and anti-war activists everywhere.

Related Reviews

Callinicos - Making History
Callinicos and Simons: The Great Strike: The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jamie H. Cockfield - With Snow On Their Boots

The disintegration, mutiny and rebellion of Russia's troops on the Eastern Front was a central part of both the Russian Revolution and the ending of World War One. The soldiers, sick of the harsh conditions, the pointless battles, the lack of ammunition and supplies as well as the vicious discipline of the Imperial Army, refused to fight en-masse. Their rebellion helped drive the Revolution as the government that followed the fall of the Tsar refused to end the war.

But a less well known story, which follows a similar path, is the tale of the Russian Expeditionary Force that fought in France on the Western Front. Jamie Cockfield's book is the first recent book that I have found on this topic, though there are frequent references to the rebellion in accounts of 1917, such as Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution.

The presence of thousands of Russian troops in France from 1916 has its origins in the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two nations. France lacked manpower to fight in the trenches, particularly after the mincing machine of Verdun. Russia on the other hand had an enormous population but lacked the material resources to fight the Germans in the East. One Russian soldier who eventually made it back to Russia in the 1920s called his memoirs of his regiment's time in France as "Sold for Shells", an apt description of the transfer of men for munitions that took place. Of course, there was more to it than a simple economic transaction. Cockfield's book details the complex diplomatic discussions that preceded the embarkation of nearly 20,000 troops. Russia wanted to demonstrate its commitment to the war effort, and France hoped that the presence of Russian soldiers would demonstrate the broad coalition that was committed to fighting Germany. 400,000 troops were promised by the Russians though only two groups embarked. The differences in these two brigades' origins had a fundamental impact upon what took place on French soil.

Thus the arrival of the Russian troops was met with parades, flag waving and speeches that extolled the brotherhood of the allies. Yet even early on in their arrival in France, the Russian troops were typically neglected. During their involvement in one of the most brutal and vicious of the battles of the Western Front, the Nivelle Offensive, the Russian soldiers proved brave and tenacious combatants, officers and men winning medals for bravery and sacrifice. But the military disaster of this offensive led to an enormous mutiny in the French army, which was infected by a collective desire to stop fighting.

The Russian units too rebelled. Isolated from both the French army and events in Russia they had little idea what was taking place. But lack of supplies, conditions at the front and the horror of the war fed the propaganda they were beginning to receive from leftist Russian exiles in France. The (mistaken) belief that they were accorded second rate rations and medical care by the French also helped feed rebellion. Another important factor was that the Russians were still under the discipline that they would have experienced in the East. Their officers were rude and occasionally violent. In the early days of their arrival in France, angry soldiers had actually killed a Russian officer and control had only been reasserted by the imprisonment of several and the shooting of other ringleaders.

In a theme that was to become a key part of the French authorities concerns, the mutiny in the French Army was blamed on the negative influence of the Russians. As Cockfield stresses, "the blame for it fell, however, not on the real causes but on the innocent Russian bridages that had fought so well in Champagne.... It became convenient, therefore, to blame the Russians."

Yet there was clearly something taking place in the Russian units. The soldiers were organising, and their methods of organizing bore striking similarities to what was taking place in Russia. "On May 10 [1917] the radicals ordered new elections for a series of committees, one deputy for every fifty men and a separate Soviet of Officers' Deputies." Cockfield points out that an observer of the Russian army was "stupefied" that the "revolutionary methods adopted by the soldiers in Russia had been accepted so quickly". The troops went further than elections, with the Third Brigade acquiring its own printing press and publishing a newspaper.

The actions of agitators clearly had an effect. A newspaper influenced by Trotsky in exile had poured in revolutionary propaganda. But Cockfield notes that in the most radical of the two brigades, the First, most of the men were from Moscow factories and would have had experience, or at least knowledge, of the Bolsheviks' arguments during the 1905 revolution. The other brigade was mostly men from peasant areas who were more isolated from such rebellious ideas.

For their mutiny, the Russians were isolated and dispersed, as the rebellion grew and the refusal to fight continued the soldiers grew more confident. As the Kerensky government continued the war, and then the Bolshevik uprising began the presence of the troops went from being an embarrassment to the French to a major problem. For the revolutionaries in Russia it was a superb opportunity to make propaganda. Cockfield suggests that the Bolsheviks exaggerated stories of hardship, hunger and deprivation among the troops, though he also acknowledges they experienced real difficulties.

Eventually the refusal of the Russian troops to disarm led to military confrontation. Though cleverly, the French used the most loyal Russian troops in the Third Brigade against those in the First. After several days of shelling, and a handful of casualties (Cockfield says that later claims by the Bolsheviks that 100s died have no evidence) the soldiers gave in, to face more imprisonment while the authorities debated what to do. Cockfield notes though, that "notes of the ministry of foreign affairs, rather details before and very detailed afterward are nonexistent for the three days of the battle."

With the armistice on the Eastern Front, the troops had further arguments to refuse to fight. After all, why should they take up arms while no other Russian was still in the war. Some soldiers were given work in France, others remained in camps or were shipped to the Middle East. Those troops were were loyal and wanted to fight, did so, and eventually went on to form a small (but ineffective) core to the French intervention against the Russian Revolution in Russia. The shelling of Russians by Russians forming, for Cockfield, "a dress rehearsal for the Russian Civil War."

Eventually most of the Russians made it home, though many did not, and many were trapped in France. Cockfield meticulous history of this strange military and revolutionary episode details much of the rebellion and the lives of the soldiers. Those interested in the Russian Revolution will find much of interest here, not least the parallels in rebellion. The book is marred, in my opinion, by Cockfield's tirades against the Bolsheviks and their Revolution. While being scrupulously fair to those soldiers who are his subject, his accounts of the situation in Russia drifts, on occasion, into anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Writing of those who infiltrated France to ferment rebellion, Cockfield suggests that "many were by now Russian Leftists of some sort who were prostituting themselves for German gold, as Lenin did, and held little if any real allegiance to specific Bolshevik ideology."

Such statements ill-become a work of serious history and will certainly annoy readers who are more sympathetic to the Revolution and have knowledge of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, even with this personal bias, Cockfield captures the mood of those who hated the Revolution. At the surrender of the rebel First Brigade, an American General told another commander, "I did not believe, general, that you would get rid of this bunch of lice so elegantly."

While I also disagree with Jamie Cockfield's analysis of the Russian Revolution, I do recommend this book to those people who are trying to understand the Russian Revolution and find out the real history of World War One. The story of mass, armed rebellion on the Western Front among Russian (and French) troops is unlikely to appear in many commemorative books and programs. But it is a story that should be told, if only to remember those 1000s of Russian men, trapped in France, who only wanted to return home.

Related Reviews

Stone - The Eastern Front
Sherry - Empire & Revolution: A socialist history of the First World War

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Jack Vance - The Blue World

Jack Vance's 1966 classic The Blue World seems to be mostly remembered for its portrayal of a human society on a rather unique planet. The titular planet is home to the descendants of a spaceship that crashed 12 generations before the story begins. On the Blue world there is no land, only water. The population lives on floats, which seem akin to giant lily pads anchored to some distant ground, and surrounded by an enormous ocean full of dangerous creatures.

But society isn't precarious. The seas and the floats provide materials for food and manufacturing. Society itself has lost some of the stratification it had before the crash landing. Though different social castes still have very specific roles - fishing, building, communication - but retain their pre-crash names, advertisers, hooligans and bezzlers. We learn though, that the "Anarchists and Procurers" have long since disappeared since the crash.

But while many remember the book for its unique and cleverly painted alien society, what the reader should also spot is the subtle and clever tale of revolution. The priests of The Blue World have created a religion around a giant, violent sea animal that lives in the nearby ocean. These squid like kragen's live on food that grows on the floats, but can easily kill humans and wreck destruction. The priests have encouraged one of these kragen, the largest and meanest to protect them, while providing it with easy food. In doing so, they have created the reason for their own existence. Without the priests, the giant kragen would destroy the human settlement. But without its protection, the humans would be at risk from the more numerous, but lesser animals.

As a result society has stagnated. No change takes place. The priests block intellectual curiosity and prevent study of the texts that survive from the crash that marooned their ancestors. They also violently silence those who question their rule. Eventually though, a section of the population begin to think about what life might be like if they were to destroy the kragen and study some of the books properly.

Vance's novel is an adventure story, and good eventually triumphs. Or at least the new order defeats the old. The star of the book is the planet itself, though the tale is an old one.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Thomas Penn - Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

Henry VII is an overlooked English king. His great achievement was to bring stability to the realm after the War of the Roses, but he stands in the shadow of his more interesting and gossip worthy son, Henry VIII. But Henry VII's reign is a fascinating one, as is the story of how he clambered to the top. Precisely how Henry came to rule is a complicated story. He had spent years in exile and his defeat of Richard at III at the Battle of Bosworth was almost a chance affair. His victory, like those of several preceding Kings of England did not guarantee him power, indeed, as Penn points out, Henry's new position was by no means assured. Despite the "triumph and glory" of his coronation, this was a

"precarious claim to the throne, no large family clan and little hereditary land of his own, virtually no experience of government and heavily reliant on the doubtful allegiances of a group of Yorkists whose loyalties lay with the princess he now courted, there was little to suggest that Henry's reign would last long, or that civil conflict would not simply mutate again... Henry would be haunted by the specters of civil war, real and imagined. They would stay with him all his life and they would define his reign."

Civil war, or at least discontent was, indeed, a major part of Henry VII's reign. In 1497 the Cornish rose up, refusing taxes imposed by Henry in order to finance war with Scotland, war designed in part to shore up his position and his allies. Later that year, Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne arrived in Cornwell hoping to ferment rebellion against Henry on the basis of the county's discontent. Both events ended badly for the rebels, though Warbeck was held in the tower of London as something of a curiosity at court before Henry allowed him to escape so that he could be recaptured and executed.

Significant sections of the book deal with that perennial preoccupation of feudal kings, their successors. Henry's clearly doted on his eldest son, Prince Arthur, who died shortly after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine herself plays a central role in this history, effectively being little more than a bargaining chip between Henry and the recently reunited Spanish monarchy. Her betrothal to Henry's second son, who became Henry VIII, is very much a marriage of convenience for Henry's rule, but its clear that Henry junior doted on Catherine, marrying her rapidly after his ascension to the throne. Catherine's fortunes waxed and waned with her marriages, but also as the various power relations between European monarchies changed.

Initially Henry appears to have shown little interest in the day to day upbringing of his son. Later though, Henry takes him in hand, and Penn shows how the future Henry VIII was moulded into a model English king. Trained in the military arts, Henry was a keen jouster and several tournaments are described in detail. Henry VII understood all to well the importance of a neat succession and did everything possible to make sure that when his son came to the throne he was untouchable.

Beneath the surface of Henry's reign though, things were far from ideal. Finance was a continuous problem for Henry, though he amassed an enormous fortune in land, property and treasure. Those around him also could do well. In particular, his advisers Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, made sure that controlling access to the king made them rich. But they had other ways of lining their pockets.

"Like all royal servants, their own interests blurred indistinctly with those of the crown. Showered with bribes, cash and land in exchange for 'secret labour' with the king, they took every opportunity that came their war - and proved particularly adept at doing so. Empson took bribes and fat ecclesiastical sinecures as danger money, for 'avoiding of his displeasure'; people paid him lobby fees to further their legal cases, only to discover that he was also accepting money from the other side. When the Sussex gentleman Roger Lewknor was imprisoned for murder, Dudley sold him a pardon in return for the title deeds to his estates."

But Dudley and Empson weren't simply about making themselves rich. It was their abilities that enabled Henry to bleed the rest of the country and in particualr the city,

"In Dudley's hands, Henry's tactics against the city reached fruition. He knew exactly how much the Corporation would be prepared to pay for renewal of its charters of self-government and trade privileges, and how much he could squeeze out of London's merchants in customs duties and the sale of export licenses.... As various London politicians pointed out uneasily, the king was riding roughshod over due process, changing procedures when he had 'none authority' to do so."

With Henry's death, Dudley and Empson's opponents moved against them. These two individuals had made many personal and political enemies. One of the most fascinating parts of Penn's book is how the news of Henry's death was "secretly kept" in order for the regime to be shored up, and to prevent Dudley and Empson from using their own power base to protect their wealth, positions and threaten the future succession.

Henry VIII's reign was very different, as an Italian ambassador noted, "all is milk and honey and nectar". The new king was more generous with his money and his favour, The old order was, to a certain extent, portrayed as a difficult, corrupt and dangerous time. The new order, at least according to the flunkies and poets, was to be a happier place.

Penn's book is an extremely detailed look at how the Tudor destiny was born and entrenched. Its detail unfortunately makes the book over long. It perhaps could have had 50 pages edited out. The author's enthusiasm for period detail and overlong explanation will tire even the most dedicated reader of Tudor history. That said, for those attempting to understand the long arc of English Medieval history this is a very useful work that is worth reading.

Related Reviews

Ingram - Bosworth 1485
Royle - The Wars of the Roses

Thursday, October 02, 2014

David Mudd - Cornwall In Uproar

As a former, but long standing Conservative MP in Cornwall, David Mudd is an unlikely author for this blog to review. Nonetheless this short book, one of a number he wrote for Bissiney Books is a useful one because it highlights several forgotten periods of revolt and rebellion in the South West of England. The accounts need to be read carefully. Despite the reports of strikes, rebellions and protests often involving hundreds or thousands of Cornish people, Mudd invariable puts the origins of the outbursts in the hands of a few "well known" troublemakers.

But there are some fascinating stories here. The story of the 1912 China-Clay strikes will be known to some labour historians. The miners in this industry, notoriously low paid and in dangerous conditions, hadn't struck previously. But (according to Mudd) under the influence of a troublemaker mass meetings voted to strike, and then reject a paltry offer of 4s (20p) a week from the mine-owners. While Mudd is frequently careful to make sure he describes the police in glowing terms, even he cannot hide the violence with which they met the pickets, who drew "their truncheons and waded into the demonstrators with gusto."

Typically, the author sums up the story of the strike negatively, though the quote from the union organiser tells a different story, "Nothing has been gained except that the membership of the Workers' Union has been increased and trade unionism is stronger in the district than ever."

Oher stories are more complicated. The tale of the battles between the Cornish fishing communities and their compatriats from East Anglia who fished on the Sabbath, known as the Newlyn Fishing Riots and the accounts of anti-Irish riots in other small villages in the 19th century are interesting in that they combine class struggle, scapegoating and the influence of the strong religious beliefs of much of the Cornish community.

Concentrating as he does on the more unusual tales, there are two chapters which at first seem to merely tell amusing stories. One, dealing with the 1932 attack on a High Anglican Church by a mob because the vicar used theatre, art and displays to tell his Christian message and another looking at riots in Newquay against the building of a luxury hotel, appear at first simply to be expressions of anger from small groups.

But they tell more complex stories, that the author doesn't seem able to (or willing) to explore in detail. The removal of stones in the wall on the Newquay headland, for instance, seems to this reader to be part of a collective response to the enclosure of a small plot of common land by business people interested in catering to well-off tourists, not the local community. A story that may well have resonance in Cornwall today. The tale of the church damaged in religious riots, is actually a more complex one about communities trying to understand and make their religion more relevant. Its much more than a simple outburst of anger.

Mudd's short book makes it absolutely clear that there is a rich tradition of struggle in Cornwall. Ordinary people fighting for the right to decent jobs, the right to worship and organise, to live as they want to. On occasion, in his desire to tell a story, Mudd downplays some events. So the Prayerbook Uprising of 1549 which involved the massacre of 1000s gets only a short retelling. And the 1347 Cornish Uprising, despite shaking the Medieval Regime to its foundations, gets no mention. Perhaps these reflect the prejudices of a Tory MP. The book is also weakened by having no over-arching history, and the episodes (frequently out of chronological order) are simply presented to the reader.

But the book, while flawed, contains much of interest and is a good starting point for a part of the country whose history often gets overlooked. The rebellions, mutinies, riots and uprisings mentioned within tell a very different story to the sleepy history tourists often get.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Robin Cross - The Battle of Kursk: Operation Citadel 1943

Stalingrad was the turning point of the World War Two on the Eastern Front. The destruction of the German Sixth Army marked a major change for the fight against Hitler. But the subsequent battle for Kursk, that developed out of the relative positions of the German and Russian armies at the end of 1942 was the beginning of the end for Hitler.

The German debacle at Stalingrad gave the Russians the opportunity to strike rapidly westwards, which they seized. But, as the German army recovered, the Russians lines were left with an enormous bulge, the Kursk salient, which stretched deep into German territory. This was a weak point for the Russian army, and the high-command were sure that German armies would be unable to resist attacking from the north and south in an attempt to behead the Red Army's troops within the salient.

Robin Cross details the extraordinary battle that followed. Firstly he shows how reluctant many of the German leaders were to engage in battle. After Stalingrad they had developed a healthy respect for their enemy's capabilities. Hitler too prevaricated, initially enthusiastic for Operations Citadel, he then began delaying it for weeks. In part this helped sow the seeds of defeat, for the Russians were able to pour enormous quantities of troops and material into the Salient, building up what is likely to have been histories greatest defence in depth. Millions of mines, thousands of guns and tanks, and above all millions of men.

Cross' descriptions of the build up to the battle are surprisingly readable, combining military history with the story of the various contrasting leadership styles. Hitler is increasingly unable to relinquish the reins of power, his inflexibility and in particular his terror at the idea of retreat, even tactically, condemns many men to death and armies to defeat. But by 1943 German industry was also problematic. The powerful Tiger tank could not, despite Hitler's fantasies, be produced fast enough to win the battle. But these weren't the only factors. The German army was also failing to learn lessons, and was preparing its Blitzkrieg for Kursk. Tactics that worked well in 1941 with the wide open spaces available during the opening assault on Russia, were inappropriate the what would be a close in style of warfare.

Nonetheless when the battle came, the Germans came close. The Russian airforce was initially driven from the skies and Cross relates terrifying eyewitness accounts of how, one after another, Russian T34 tanks were destroyed by the heavier German armour. But defence  in depth, and enormous Russian sacrifice, as well as brilliant commanding meant the Red Army could hold the attack. And then, unleash the counter-attack which the Germans had no expectation off. This counter-attack was to destroy German ability to engage in offensive attacks in the East and transform the situation post Kursk. German manpower and resources were reduced to nothing, a situation summarized by a leaflet dropped on the German defenders of Kharkov by the Russian airforce,

"Comrades of the 3rd Panzer Division, we know that you are brave soldiers. Every other man in your division has the Iron Cross. But every other man on our side has a mortar. Surrender!"

The German commander, General Manstein, met with Hitler and his subordinate, Hollidt presented the Fuhrer with figures that underlined the seriousness of the situation.

"My XXIX Corps has 8706 men left. Facing it are 69,000 Russians. My XVII corps has 9284 men; facing it are 49,500 Russians. My IV Corps is relatively best off - it has 13,143 men, faced by 18,000 Russians."

Hitler dodged the situation. More obsessed with Allied landings in Sicily and Italy he prevaricated and made impossible promises. The Red Army followed up the attack out of Kursk by driving the Germans across the Dnieper river. As one German German reflected "There were to be no more periods of quiet on the Eastern Front. From now on the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative."

The story of this crucial battle of World War Two is brilliantly told in this classic book. Robin Cross never fails to remind us though, that the battle which is inevitably described as history's greatest tank battle, was in reality a battle that involved millions of men. It is perhaps this approach that makes this such a readable work. But it is the scale of the battle itself that makes it so shocking, among all the troops movements described in achingly accurate detail, we are never able to forget that these are real men, fighting and dying.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is a novel based on six hierarchically nested stories that stretch from the diary of a 16th century mariner in the Pacific Ocean to the life of someone living in a post apocalyptic Hawaii. To be honest, I thought the novel would be more complex, instead their appears to only be the most tenuous of links between the century spanning stories. That said, Cloud Atlas, is extremely enjoyable and very readable. With each story Mitchell uses a different style, meaning that some chapters are very funny, others tragic and some disturbing.

Reading the reviews after the book, it seems that the literary types got carried away with how unique the book is. While the idea of characters being re-incarnated through history is unusual, it isn't unique. Kim Stanley Robinson does it brilliantly in The Years of Rice and Salt for instance. But Mitchell tries to minimise the links between his stories, with characters only very occasionally having flashbacks that the reader can knowingly enjoy but which leave the characters confused. Cloud Atlas is a fun, unusual and well-written novel that will appeal to the reader looking for something different. Its prognosis for the future of humanity is notably bleak though.