Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

This was my summer vacation Zola for 2013. I started it in La Baume, Savoy and finished it a week later.

It is the first of the Rougon-Macquart series of novels. Like all the others I have read it is very readable. It is set very much in the context of historical events, in this way it is similar to La Debacle. Reading Zola makes a good way to learn 19th century French history.

I do find Zola a sympathetic person. He is interested in progressive ideas, but is not doctrinaire. I found the love of Silvere and Miette for each other and their tragic ends quite moving and not too sentimental. Of course, Zola’s real force is exposing the hypocrisy and venality of 2nd Empire bourgeois life. To that end ‘The Fortune’ does a great job. Where better to start than at the very beginning.

Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East by David Stahel

I read David Stahel’s book on Barbarossa a couple of years ago. This follows in the immediate aftermath to cover the encirclement and destruction of the Red Army’s Southwestern front around Kiev in 1941.

This book follows the argument of the first, that while short-term operationally the German effort was very powerful, it was in the end doomed to failure. Mainly due to lack of industrial base and the change of the war in the east to a positional war of attrition was exactly the type of war the Germans were going to lose.

Stahel writes well and his ideas seem well argued.

The battle is often called Hitler’s triumph, but it could equally be called Stalin’s failure. Also it lead Hitler to taking higher and higher risks which led to the catastrophic defeats at Stalingrad.

I read this on holiday at La Baume near to Morzine, France.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum

I read Anne Applebaum’s book on the Gulag a few years ago and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed this account of the initial phase of the imposition of communist (ie sympathetic) regimes by the Soviet Union after the war.

It actually concentrates on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary with much less on the other countries. It all seemed reasonable, but I was curious why this was the case.

East Germany was the heart of Nazi system, but always had a major problem with the existence of West Germany tending to show the general unreality of propaganda showing the superiority of the communist system. Also, at least until the Berlin Wall, migration to the west was easier, and East Germans did not have to leave their culture etc.. behind if they did leave.

Poland really did suffer badly in World War 2 with vast numbers of the intelligentsia killed. This lead to several consequences, such as the regime being more tolerant in hiring eg in the university system than similar countries.

Hungary seems somewhere in the middle, collaborationist with the Nazis, but not completely part of the Nazi system.

It reminded me just how oppressive the systems were. The imposition of a secret police in each country was just about the first action of the Russians. In each country the Russians made sure that the local communist parties had control of law and order. This helped the communists to take over exclusive control (along with help from the Russian occupation forces). This tells me something about the Soviet system, basically to understand it you need to understand the KGB (or whatever name is relevant for that time).

I had not realized just how acceptable ethnic cleansing was at this time. It was written into the Potsdam accords.

I was interested in the comparisons for the way the Catholic Church in Poland and Hungary dealt with their new political systems. The former somewhat conformist and the later definitely defiant. But perhaps the result was beneficial for the Polish church.

The purges of the party in East Europe were similar and different from 1930s Soviet Russia. One difference being that by the time of the purges, party members in East Europe had been underground for longer and more recently. Perhaps this made them more susceptible to psychological disturbance and dislocation than in the Soviet case.

The whole Noel Field saga and his role in the purges is something I’d not really aware of.

The cultural chapters were interesting. Wanda Telakowska and Ład raise questions about the concept of the Arts and Crafts in a Stalinist system. Morris had a definite socialist pedigree, but he did look back to a romantic medieval time and was at odds with modern industrial society. This seems at odds with a Stalinist push to heavy industry.

I enjoyed the material on art. The idea of left-wing artists heading to East Germany thinking they were freed from the constraints and conformism is Nazi artistic theory only to have their avant-garde work derided again. I guess similar things had happened in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps it was Stalin who was conservative. It shows the naivety of left-wing artists thinking that communists would be progressive. Sadder are those who modified their art of engaged in self-criticism.

Finally, it is worth considering just what was destroyed and how able the different countries were able to restore any civic institutions and any type of political system after the fall of the communist regimes. I wonder what this suggests about the movement from a totalitarian regime to a more inclusive political system. The latest suggestions from Arab countries, are not very encouraging.

I finished this on vacation in La Baume, near to Morzine in France.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I have been meaning to read this since 1977, when Clive Waddel read and enjoyed it.

To me it has a somewhat deranged feel, so many people experiencing strange experiences that they feel can’t really be true. Also parts like the banquet in hell, seem like some type of dream.

Is it subversive? At the time it must have been quite disconcerting, it was written at the height of the purges. While not quite being a death-sentence a la Mandelstam, it must have taken some courage to write. Maybe Bulgakov didn’t care.

It doesn’t quite mock the party, but it does mock, in very strong terms, the Writers Guild mechanism used to control the intelligentsia, and that was a key control element of the party. Quite why Stalin, who I always thought was pretty conservative in his tastes approved of it seems strange. Of course, it wasn’t published until much later.