Friday, 27 December 2002

Berlin and The Truth

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson, The sound of the trio.

Just read:

Antony Beevor, Berlin.

This is a sequel to Beevor's very successful Stalingrad. It describes the Russian campaign to take Berlin in the first half of 1945. This was a brutal invasion, one that the Russians explicitly thought of as revenge for the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. The final outcome was never in any doubt. At one point Beevor says that Stalin had a larger force just attacking Berlin than Hitler had for his invasion of all Russia (Operation Barbarossa). Given this, it seems incredible that the Nazi regime held on for so long. Beevor describes the discussions, and comings and goings in the Reich Chancellory, and it's clear from these that Hitler was living in a fantasy world, denying the reality of his situation. He insisted that he would never surrender, and didn't let his subordinates do so either. (Until, if you like, his final suicide.) What I find surprising is that his subordinates pretty well toed the line. Perhaps the secret to this sort of “loyalty” is to have lots of different power bases underneath you. The Wehrmacht couldn't mutiny safe in the knowledge that they were the only ones with access to the guns, because the independent SS was an army in itself. (The USSR did similar things too: the main Army was accompanied by special NKVD divisions.)

Beevor tells the military story, the movement of armies, well, but is also very good on the diplomatic story happening at the level above the generals. He's pretty critical of the US leadership for not being sufficiently suspicious of Stalin. It can't have helped that Roosevelt was seriously ill and died during this period. Stalin might have made noises sufficient to convince Roosevelt that Poland was going to be a free and independent democracy after the war, but Churchill was rather more suspicious. Finally, Beevor is also good on the impact of the war on the German people, on both sides of the front-line. As part of this, he spends quite a time discussing the very many rapes committed by the Russian troops, claiming that this aspect of the war hasn't been much discussed until now. This is not the only aspect of the civilian experience that he discusses but he does seem to pay it disproportionate attention, for all that it might be a historical scoop.

Berlin doesn't have Stalingrad's depressing story of thousands of soldiers trapped thousands of miles from home in a savage Russian winter. Nonetheless, it's full of its share of the horrors of war. It's a good book, interesting and well worth reading. Just don't expect to be smiling at the end of it.

Terry Pratchett, The truth.

I read this on the plane from England to Australia, and greatly enjoyed it. I suppose I might find more to dislike in it if I read it again in more pleasant surroundings, but my memories of it are all good. This novel is set in Ankh-Morpork, and features familiar Watch characters (Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, Angua the werewolf, the Patrician, and “Slit me own throat Dobbler”, among others). The main heroes are new characters, however, which I liked. The plot doesn't involve any threats to the very fabric of the universe either, which I particularly liked. (Pratchett makes a joke of this feature of many of his earlier plots in the novel itself. The Patrician calls on the newly established newspaper, and makes a series of witty comments along the lines of supposing that the printing press was made from iron taken from eldritch sources, or that the newspaper's premises are on a inter-dimensional gateway.) There are all sorts of good jokes to be had in a newspaper business spoof, and the bad guys are also a very memorable duo. Perfect plane fodder, and a good, amusing read in any other situation too, I'd warrant.

On the TV behind me, England are losing the fourth Ashes Test match against Australia.

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