From an early age I was interested in history. I remember poring over my parents’s Grand Larousse illustré, probably a 1920’s edition, the beautiful tables of uniforms, grades and weapons of the belligerents of the Great War, and articles, once I could read, detailing the manoeuvres and strategies of the heroes of the allied victory. Later, I would discover the Empire and the myth of Bonaparte’s greatness. Already I had questions. My paternal grand father had come back in 1918, gassed and fatally wounded only to die the year of my dad’s birth in 1920. This was the great tragedy of my grand mother’s life, and hence of my parents. My father had been a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, and had told me of his experience, as a young engineer, drafted to the german war effort. Compared with many other prisoners his life had been then relatively privileged: his skills were required, the war in the East demanded superior engines and mechanical acumen. My dad told me also about the others, Russian prisoners treated like slaves, and the horror of cities reduced to cinder: Stuttgart, where he lived and worked for four years, was reduced to ashes by US phosphorous bombs in 1944.
The more I understood, the more questions I had. History was to remain my strongest subject, even stronger than mathematics, during all my school years. In the late 50’s I listened to the news on the radio, and I was aware of, and would remember, dates of important events, 1953 (death of Joseph Stalin), 1954 (Dien-Bien-Phu), 1956 (Hungary uprising), and others. In 1958 I was well aware of the war in North Africa, and of the events of 13 May. I would become, later, a student of Charles de Gaulle’s life. De Gaulle had for me the fascination of belonging to two worlds: that of the first World War, of the Russian revolution – he had been as a young officer detached to the Polish army in its fight against the Bolcheviks – and what I knew: post-War France, the narratives of the Resistance, England and the last colonial wars.
My parents, my brother and I, lived then in a small town of Eastern France, surrounded by the ever present artefacts of a long history. In the small nearby village of Varennes, in 1791, Louis XVI and his family had been arrested on their flight to the émigrés and Austrian armies; at a short distance from the town were the Champs Catalauniques, where the tradition locates the final battle against the Huns’ of Attila, fought by a coalition of Romans, Gaules and Germanic warriors. All around, WWI munitions littered the chalky ground, sometimes buried just below the surface: the landscape was a battlefield. Every autumn farmers died, after their plough had hit a 75mmm unexploded shell. A little further to the North-East was the Ardennes, and just across the Belgian border the site of the last Nazi offensive of the Western front in 1945, the battle of the Bulge.
On 22 November 1963, in the evening, I was sitting enjoying a film at the small local cine club organised by students of the local engineers school. At the pause one of the organisers came on stage, visibly shocked, and announced that the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been assassinated in Dallas. We were stunned to total silence. It was incredible, beyond belief, and suddenly a wave of questions submerged the mind of this sixteen year-old. How can this be? Where is Dallas? Why? Who? What happens now?
Those questions stayed in my mind ever since. On 11 September, 2001, and many times in-between, similar questions came to haunt me. I kept questioning, about current events, the frequent outrages that marred this period of our lives we called the Cold War, and those real wars that followed, but also about the past, about history. To this day I cannot imagine how anyone, uninterested in history, who does not read history, can ever understand anything about the world where we live in. Yet a majority of people do not care, or seem to care. I have also wondered why that was.
I am now looking more systematically for answers, through common sense, patient research, and reading authors who matter.
Image: « Tranchée de première ligne : groupe de poilus devant l'entrée d'un abri ». Bois d'Hirtzbach, Haut-Rhin, France. Autochrome. base mémoire Ministère de la Culture (France) - Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine - diffusion RMN, N° photographie CA 000500
After the war
Being born two years after the end of the second World War, the war itself, as well as the events that preceded and followed it, weighed heavily on my youthful and later adult reflections. The war itself, the occupation of France, the war in the East and the Pacific, were full of mysteries, as well as extreme horrors. There were questions at every corner, as I attempted to unmask the undisputed historical facts: the origins of the war, which I saw as the second even more hideous chapter of World War I, who had funded the Nazis, indeed who were the Nazis, why had Hitler launched Barbarossa, why had the Soviet armies retreated for the whole of 1941… what was the truth about the Resistance.
Much later I would read Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers, about the origins of WWI, and even later, as I came to live in Berlin, started to unpack the history of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. Memorials to the Red Army are everywhere in and around Berlin. I read Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, Chris Bellamy’s Absolute War, and more recently, Visaly Grossman’s Stalingrad (aka For a Just Cause) and its sequel, Life and Fate. Christopher Clarke’s Time and Power caused me to question historical motivations, the “why?” gradually becoming enmeshed with “where in history?” This concept of the position of events, and of the decisions that led to them, were shaped by how the leading actors saw themselves in history, became to my mind, the right key to dissipate the confusion of events. I know now that the “official” version of everything is often only part of the truth, and sometimes, not even that. Reading Grossman convinced me to put in writing these thoughts, as a clarification, for my own sake, perhaps even as a justification, for the time I spend now reading history. Another motivation came after reading Laurent Guyénot 50 Years of Deep State, that brought me back to my early years, 22 November 1963, and 11 September 2001.
Image: Soviet War Memorial, Schönholzer Heide, Berlin
As I reached some degree of maturity in my professional life in the 70’s, I was well aware that, until then, my generation, the generation of the Cold War, had benefited, in Europe and the US, of very privileged conditions, the so-called golden years of the Post-War period, whose demise was sign-posted as the Viet-Nam war was drawing to an end. I was equally aware that this prosperity was not everywhere, and not even equally, here, in Europe. As I would go to work and live in the UK, I built up experience in different sectors of activity, the defence industry, telecommunications, financial services and public services, and, as any thirty year old with a family, often forgot about history. However I would take an interest in economics, and more questions came my way: about consumerism, the long downturn, the waves of deregulations of the finance sector, the rise of neo-liberalism and the spectacle society. I realised that the transformation of society through the spectacle, as predicted in 1967 by Guy Debord, was a powerful process that depoliticised opinion, made Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no alternative” into a new creed, and the Mainstream media the main instrument of untruth. Then I understood untruth to be not the opposite, but the dilution of truth, in order to mask the real intents, and, of course, who the perpetrators were, à qui le crime profite. People were, are, fed stories that may have only a faint grounding in reality, just enough to make them appear plausible. The reasons, I suspected, were not a world-wide conspiracy, but rather the necessities of oligarchies determined to preserve their privileges and guarantee their own survival.
Image: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland talk with General Tee on conditions of the war in Vietnam. Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. U.S. Marine Corps.
I discovered The Long Twentieth Century of Giovanni Arrighi , and the writings of Robert Brenner. On the way, David Harvey, Ha-Joon Chang and Christopher Layne helped me to see some light. Assisted by those sources, and others, I propose to try and explain what, for me, untruth now means. Over those years the writers who attracted my attention belonged to two species: first there were the visionaries and witnesses, who through fictional work recreated the worlds they knew, as realist painters describe nature. They are, for example, Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, die Kameraden, Vasily Grossman, Albert Camus, La Peste, Max Gallo, Les Patriotes, Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War. Those authors inspired me to look further, to gain a deeper understanding of history. I knew about the horrors of the Viet-Nam wars before I read Bao Ninh. But after reading his book I thought about it in another, deeper way.
Kien knows the area well. It was here, at the end of the dry season of 1969, that his Battalion 27 was surrounded and almost totally wiped out. Ten men survived from the Unlucky Battalion, after fierce, horrible, barbarous fighting.
That was the dry season when the sun burned harshly, the wind blew fiercely, and the enemy sent napalm spraying through the jungle and a sea of fire enveloped them, spreading like the fires of hell. Troops in the fragmented companies tried to regroup, only to be blown out of their shelters again as they went mad, became disoriented and threw themselves into nets of bullets, dying in the flaming inferno. Above them the helicopters flew at tree-top height and shot them almost one by one, the blood spreading out, spraying from their backs, flowing like red mud.
The diamond-shaped grass clearing was piled high with bodies, killed by helicopters gunships. Broken bodies, bodies blown apart, bodies vaporised.
(The Sorrow of War)
I want to mention here William T. Vollmann, Europe Central, whose reconstruction of some of the characters and actors of WWII and Soviet Russia, belongs to a very special category, that of the imaginary, yet beautifully researched, representation of historical actors (for example his account of Lieutnant-General Friedrich Paulus in The Last Field-Marshal.)
The explainers, Arrighi, Harvey, Brenner, Layne, Guyénot, are the historians, analysts, economists, scientists who help to make sense of the realities behind events and headlines, who give us the intellectual tools to unravel truth, and recognise untruth. David Harvey’s expert monographies about “The Enigma of Capital”, “The Seventeen Contradictions”, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” , dissect the apparent complexities and myths of the prevailing economic narrative:
Financial and monetary crises have been long-standing features of the historical geography of capitalism. But their frequency and depth have increased markedly since 1970 or so, and we have to grapple with why this is happening and what might be done about it. The compounding rate of growth of global capital accumulation has put immense pressure upon the sate-finance nexus tofind new and innovative ways to assemble and distribute money capital in quantities, forms and locations where it is best positioned to exploit profitable opportunities. Many of the recent financial innovations were designed to overcome the barriers posed by pre-existing institutional and regulatory arrangements.
(The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, 2010)
My starting point was, and still is, Arrighi’s world system analysis, which exposes the principles that governed the rise and fall (Paul Kennedy) of the European and North-American “great” powers that dominated the world political and economic life for the most part of the last five hundred years. I am in debt to Arrighi for his magisterial explanation of why the successive would-be dominant powers, the Norhtern Italian city-states, as bankers to Imperial Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and now the US, all moved away in their ultimate iterations, from productive investment and the real economy to financialisation and speculation. Why indeed should England, once the workshop of the world, turn into the bloated financial services economy it is today?
The explainers may not agree with each other, and many aspects of the world we live in remain unexplained, shrouded in confusion and uncertainties. However those events that shape this world, and cause violent changes in peoples lives, their livelyhood, their security and their health, deserve our particular attention. The two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the creation of Israel, the Viet-Nam war, the implosion of the USSR, 9-11, the Iraq war, the successive crises of 1987, 2000, 2008 and the present conandrum around the Covid pandemic, are such events.
In following posts I propose to explore some of my findings.
Image: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-070-73 / Jesse / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5482619
A modest search for truth – 2 >>