Book Reviews

A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A.T.Williams

Almost ten years ago on a Sunday morning back in September 2003, British Troops raided a hotel in Basra. It was a difficult period in the occupation, six months on from the U.S. led invasion. Temperatures were more than 50 degrees centigrade. Members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (QLR) took ten suspects in for questioning from a hotel in the vicinity of insurgent weaponry. The Iraqis were hooded, plasticuffed, forced into stress positions and subjected to karate chops and kidney punches by the British. Other men and officers watched, walked by or wondered at the stench that resulted from vicious punishment. After 36 hours of torture, a 26 year-old hotel receptionist lay dead by asphyxiation. His grossly disfigured body bore 93 individual injuries. There are now in the region of another 250 individuals, men and women, whose families are making legal claims to have been killed in further encounters with British patrols or prison guards.A Very

Concern about what had happened, rather than why, quickly went upward through the ranks after the event. Those initially reporting the death, showing concern included a TA Intelligence officer whose normal specialism lay in the Russian language and East-West issues. The personalities involved are carefully delineated including the able and ambitious CO, Colonel Mendonca and his adjutant, Captain Moutarde. The latter had to report the incident to the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police. The description of the roles and responsibilities various officers and how their reactions combines detail with the pace of a thriller. The ambiguous functions of the investigators, the RMP, are clearly explained and the high level of feelings were also fresh in the recent memories of all the troops in the wake of the six members of the police that died in the horrific attack on the Basra police station.

The Author A.T.Williams
The Author A.T.Williams

The response of Daoud Mousa, the father of the dead man, who had himself served in the Iraqi police force for some 24 years was initially trusting. He had been present when his son was arrested. His eventual discovery of his son’s fate in the very same buildings where Saddam’s forces had caused so many individuals to ‘disappear’ is heart-rending. This is but one example of how the events are thoroughly grounded in a long and difficult history similar to that between Iraq and Britain over the key resource of oil. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Mespotamia as it was then known was under a British mandate. The discovery by members of the QLR1 of the ill-conditioned graves of earlier Empire troops, neglected by the dictator, in Basra supplies another poignant instance of this sad past.

A.T. Williams who is a Professor of Law as well as a director of the Centre of Human Rights at WarwickUniversity is especially effective when writing about the legal procedures at the subsequent court martial in 2006. He describes everything from the blue-carpet and fresh polished pine walls of the Bulford Court Martial Centre with the collection of be-gowned criminal barristers looking as ominous as ravens. The collective noun for ravens, he reminds the reader, with more than a touch of irony is”unkindness”. The Iraqi witnesses have been pitched into an entirely different context and closely questioned about identity of their attackers even though they might have been doubly hooded.

The highly skilled team of defence lawyers for the seven defendants are trained to build a coherent argument. As Williams deftly explains, the focus is on establishing the guilt or innocence of the defendants. The witnesses were subject to techniques which do nothing to ease the psychological pressure upon the witnesses who had previously been grilled, beaten and kicked. This description of the trial is uncomfortable to read but the clarity of the writing shows that from the witness box this process feels like abuse over again. These talents explain why this book gained its author The Orwell Prize for Political Writing in May 2013.

Aba Mousa and his family
Aba Mousa and his family

In July 2008, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay £2.83 million in compensation to Mousa’s family and nine other men, after admitting that the British Army had committed “substantive breaches” of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The Public Inquiry in 2011 was known as the Gage Report and called for by the Defence Secretary cost more than £12 million. This is discussed in the epilogue where the institutional knowledge of the BritishState that acts such as these are likely to happen is critiqued. This is especially true when final consequences of involvement have not been considered. This is not new; flogging and torture of the Mau Mau, callous brutality towards civilian populations in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Oman raise deeply worrying concerns about our own institutions and our values.

More about the Orwell Prize at

Book Reviews

On the Eve: the Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein

An old question, forever new: what does it mean to be Jewish? A religion? Judaism is, but few Jews practise it. An ethnic group? Unlikely, since ethnicity is a cultural concept and Jews have no common culture and no common language.

by Bernard Wasserstein

But why ask the question at all? It would be just as hard to define the French or the Germans. Jews themselves cannot answer it adequately. Kafka mused: “What have I in common with Jews?” And he answered ­indirectly by identifying himself with ­persecuted Jews. Freud could not quite come up with an answer either: he knew no Hebrew, he explained, he was estranged from the religion, did not share the Zionist dream, so what was there left to him that was specifically Jewish? His answer: “A very great deal … probably its very essence.” But this “essence” he, the Uber-shrink, the inventor of the talking cure, admitted, disarmingly, “could not … express clearly in words”.

Bernard Wasserstein cannot answer the question either but offers us instead an extraordinary and unparalleled mapping out of the “Jews” of Europe on the eve of the genocide. In 1939 there were some 10 million Jews in Europe, three-quarters living in only four countries: 3.2 million in Poland, 3 million in the USSR, 850,000 in Romania and 625,000 in Hungary. Another million or so were in the three leading Western European countries: Great Britain (380,000), France (320,000), and Germany (345,000). What emerges most strongly from this fascinating demographic anatomy of European Jewry is how different Jews were (and are) from each other. A minority were Sephardim (10 per cent, mainly in parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire). The others were all Ashkenazim, but they were deeply divided: the “Litvaks” in Lithuania, the Galitsyaner in Galicia, the Odessa Jews, the Polish Jews, the Western Jews, the Ostjuden (emigrants from Eastern Europe), the emancipated and “modern”

Jews of France and Germany. Each group carried stereotypes of each other. As Joseph Roth remarked: “The more Western the origins of a Jew, the more Jews there are for him to look down on. The Frankfurt Jew despises the Berlin Jew, the Berlin Jew despises the Viennese Jew, the Viennese Jew despises the Warsaw Jew. Then there are Jews from all the way back in Galicia, upon whom they all look down, and that’s where I come from, the lowest of all Jews.”

But is this so special? Many non-Jews, too, despise others because of the differences in accents, or wealth, or education, or beliefs, or politics. Perhaps Jews, like the English, the French, the Americans and many others, believe that everything about them is ­exceptional.

Wasserstein, dispassionately and with exemplary level-headedness, tells us where Jews are different. Since they were particularly urbanised, it is not surprising that there should have been so many among the urban self-employed. Still, the numbers are staggering. In Romania, for example, Jews owned nearly one-third of all private commercial enterprises. In Vienna, as many as 65 per cent of doctors were Jews, in Poland it was half. In Hungary, where Jews were only 5 per cent of the ­population, half the lawyers and one-third of the journalists were Jews. Access to the civil service was more difficult everywhere except in the Soviet Union, the country in Europe in which, according to Wasserstein, “Jews were most disproportionately represented in the power elite”. Though Soviet Jews were only 1.78 per cent of the total population, they were 15.5 per cent of university graduates in 1939. Jews qua Jews were not a primary target of the great terror –  Genrich Yagoda, a Jew, was head of the secret police from 1934 to 1936. (But then, that was a most dangerous job and Yagoda too was eventually executed.)

Most Jews were middling poor, like most people before 1939. The most prosperous, however, were the German Jews – so proud of their (German) culture, and so disdainful of the language and lifestyle of the Ostjuden. Hence their disorientation in the late 1930s when their material and social world ­crumpled.

Much of the distinctiveness Wasserstein attributes to Jews can be found elsewhere. Many Jews adhered only to some essential rites of passage: circumcision, religious marriage. Judaism was like an à la carte menu – just like Catholicism for many Catholics. Some refrained from eating pork but ate oysters; others did not smoke on Saturday but drove. Secular Jews viewed religious Jews with utter contempt (as many secularists do even now). “Modern” Jews considered Yiddish, on the retreat everywhere, a barbaric language, just as educated French and Italians looked down on those speaking patois. Divisions, even among the orthodox, could be formidable. An ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi regarded other ultra-orthodox, the Agudists, with unmitigated hatred: “The Agudists, may their name be blotted out … are worse than those dogs the Zionists.” A further example, it is said, of Freud’s thesis on the narcissism of small differences.

The Zionists were a minority everywhere and deeply divided into rival factions: in the centre the pro-British mainstream led by Chaim Weizmann, on the Left Poalei Zion,  and on the far Right the Revisionist Zionists of Vladimir Jabotinsky (whose legacy is carried by Benjamin Netanyahu). In Poland the left-wing Jewish Bund denounced the Zionists and their dream “of a Jewish state built on sand and English guns”.

Zionists shared with anti-Semites a belief in the impossibility of Jewish assimilation. Anti-Semitism was, then as now, the fuel of Zionism. There was no room for the Jews in our society, declared the anti-Semites, they must be expelled or destroyed. The Zionists agreed: Jews must have a nation state like everyone else. Both were highly critical of existing Jewish society. A Zionist wrote of other Jews: “They live like a worm reared in the gutter of a roof which then falls off the roof into a street drain but perforce acclimatises itself to the new environment.” Not surprisingly, in post-Anschluss Austria the SS assisted Zionists to organise the departure of Jews to Palestine.
Wasserstein wants to refute the view that the Jews of Europe did not react to their predicament, that they waited passively. On the contrary, they sought to meet the threat facing them in all possible ways: some tried to assimilate, some tried to emigrate, some converted, some enclosed themselves in a cultural ghetto, some became Communists, or socialists, or liberals, even Fascists. They tried to be actors in their own history but were never strong enough to be masters of their own fate.

Children of a Vanished World (S.Mark Taper Foundation Book in Jewish Studies by Roman Vishniac
Book Reviews Uncategorized

Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two by Daniel Swift

BomberCounty is, of course, Lincolnshire where squadrons of Beaufighters, Wellingtons, Halifaxes and Lancasters were huddled in hangars for combined raids against enemy targets in German occupied Europe. As the war progressed the targets escalated, from attacks against the German Fleet, the industrial complex of the Ruhr and later, with the aim of breaking enemy morale, the targets included the cities-including Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Cologne. Night after night, crews already warmly dressed in jerseys and thick woollen socks zipped themselves into flying suits and made their way towards the enemy coast. Conditions were cramped and the temperatures plummeted as they gained altitude flying by the light of the moon to their appointed destinations.

By Daniel Swift

Later in the War, navigators were able to use the hazy reflected signals of H2S to guide them over the changing relief of the land towards enemy territory. Ack-ack batteries, enemy nightfighters and heavy flax over the target took a heavy toll on crews. This book relates the loss of one pilot, James Eric Swift of 83 Squadron on a raid on Munster, early in June 1943. His body was later discovered washed up on a beach in Holland. In this multi-layered book Daniel Swift, his grandson, sensitively retells this family story. He is further inspired to explore a range of related issues from poetry and literature to the morality of the bombing campaign as it was conducted later in the War.

The cover of this handsomely produced volume depicts the distorted perspective of aerial warfare as depicted by Paul Nash; it shows that visual arts produced effective responses to combat. The contrasting situation in poetry is examined throughout the book in counterpoint to the narrative. From classical times Virgil declared Arma virumque cano ( I sing of arms and man) in The Aeneid but this kind of warfare has weaponry that operates at speed and men have little time for reflection unlike the poets of The Great War; Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon. Daniel Swift refers to the dirge like rhythms of Dylan Thomas’s A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a child in Londonwhich despite the title, is a deeply moving elegy. The author also has much to say of interest on TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf’s responses to the Luftwaffe’s raids.

Swift makes mention of a small number of poems written by pilots like those encouraged by C Day Lewis. There is an exhilaration in flight which has been memorably captured by the lyrical French writer Antoine de St Expurey. Poetry is also inspired by heroism and myths such as that of Ovid’s Daedulus and Icarus, Such matters prompt Swift to tender family reflections and musings on the writings of Auden and Isherwood. These considerations make this an unusual memoir for his Squadron Leader Grandfather about whom Swift has thoroughly researched the archives.

Poetry was very popular during the Blitz, however, it sits awkwardly with mass bombing and firestorming and its effect on civilian populations. Swift who teaches English Literature at SkidmoreCollege in upstate New York is aware of the arguments concerning the morality of debates on such issues which continue to rage on and indeed intensify in relation to more recent conflicts. Arguments and emotions proposed and expressed by Orwell, Churchill and the ethical arguments on the effect of such destructiveness by AC Grayling and other philosophers are briefly outlined.

The Avro Lancaster Bomber

Did the barbarism of the Nazis justify the adoption of the ruthless means of waging war that led to Slaughterhouse V? The poetry falters as we consider events that ended that conflict; the use of Nuclear Weapons and the emerging political doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Swift examines and acknowledges many of the issues including the guilt about delivering death at a distance –especially in relation to the poetic recollections of James Dickey; a poet to thank the author for here introducing to a wider audience.

This interesting, informative and hybrid book should remind us all that the poetry as Wilfred Owen stated, lies in the pity. This pity must eventually bring reconciliation. However, UN estimates on August 10th, less than a month ago, quoted in the Guardian of that date; show the number of child casualities in Afghanistan has soared by 55%, despite strict rules on the use of airpower by NATO troops. This heartfelt first book reminds us that the best memorial to lost  grandparents is to earnestly strive for peace for our grandchilldren

Book Reviews Uncategorized

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers

Heinrick Mann and Nelly Kröger-Mann were in a constant state of hazardous exile after the rise of fascism inGermanyin 1933. He became like Zola, his favourite author, a socially committed novelist and political activist and fierce critic of militarism. He was convivial, having a wide circle of friends that contained many creative artists, playwrights, socialists. He seemed drawn to the bohemians and the demi-monde. This elegant and sometimes formal gentleman came from the Hanseatic town ofLubeckwhere his father belonged to a renowned grain merchant family. These might be described as the haute-bourgeoise. There was an unusual degree of sibling rivalry between him and his less robust brother, the famous author of “The magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, Hendrick possessed a sensual nature and fell passionately and easily in love with a number of women. Of these his relationship with the Nelly, a fascinating woman, a seamstress and nightclub hostess, as full of contradictions as himself, was the most successful and long lasting. She followed him on the long painful journey into exile at first in Nice and later to theUnited States.

The Mann Family

This is an unusual book which is termed by its author a collective memoir and portrays the attempts of a generation of writers and poets to continue their work in dark and terrifying times. Exile placed a severe stress on the community of authors acrossEurope, their dispersed families and friends. Jews and political activists, amongst others were to be viciously and systematically persecuted, tortured and executed by the Nazis and the heart-braking news appeared a tunnel of night to those exiled men and women who escaped from one country to another. Escapees were to be faced with the further eruption of civil war inSpainwhich lay in the path of their escape. Some were forcibly returned to their persecutors. The news of Stalin’s tergiversations and show trials made the formation of a United Front harder still. Sensibilities of women, like those of Virginia Woolf or like gentle Nelly, who had early in her life suffered the traumatic loss of a child, were strained to the limits of their endurance.

Heinrich and Nelly Mann

The first part of ‘’House of Exile’’ contains many moving and poetic passages. The writing, which has been compared with W.G.Sebald, is quietly dazzling and also reminiscent of the American novelist, Andrea Barrett.  A lyrical chapter concerns Heinrich’s sister, Carla, of whom he was deeply fond. This darkly romantic actress encounters some Scandinavian biologists whilst transporting a skull in which she has concealed cyanide. Mention is made of nasturtiums which glow at dusk and we are given an exposition on Goethe who read Linneaus, as well as his beloved Shakespeare and Spinoza. The writing thus appeals on two levels as prose poetry and simultaneously this illumines the literary and philosophical background. Goethe propounds the concept of Anschauung which maintains the importance of intuition as well as observation and can be expressed in English as the notion of the Gaze. Juers here is also exploring how the imagination works in reconstructing the past.

These were indeed dark times and although Heinrich and Nelly found a temporary refuge in the South of France, the pressure of events mounted on both a personal and political level. Heinrich takes Veronal, an unreliable barbiturate to calm his nerves. Juers reminds us that despite these pressures he manages to keep working on his biography of Henry IV. There are interesting parallels between his difficult relationship with his brother, which is mirrored by Virginia Woolf, stoically sticking at her novels between headaches which forced her to take refuge in her bed and rather envying her artist sister, Vanessa having her children. Family festivities maintain morale with copious quantities of champagne and Baumkukhen even as troops march, dictators thunder, air raids threaten as does the internment of those unable to escape the gathering storm.

Evelyn Juers’s fascinating work

Although Freud and the stream of consciousness and historical novels are major themes in this work it is difficult to tell if Evelyn Juers consciously intends the jump cuts in the later section to conveys the fractionated experience of these writers. The author has spent ten years in research. The result is an excellent introduction to intellectuals as varied as Joyce, Woolf and in particularly the Germans; Brecht, Döblin, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Karl Schwitters and many, many others. It also describes the horrific realities of anti-semitism, mass aerial bombardment and consequent individual trauma. Juers is at her most moving in her depiction of the day to day harshness of life for women in exile and the personal cruelties dealt by fate and also men’s unkindness to poor Nelly Kroeger-Mann. She lost a child, her lover steals her story and destroys her manuscript and yet she transports him over mountains to escape, scrapes and scrimps to ensure their survival and is harassed by the FBI just as she was the brown-shirts. Finally she is constantly subjected to the snobbery of her brother-in-law. Little wonder she resorted to drink.

The Author

Exile literature is, of course ancient;’’ By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion’’. (Psalm 137). Classical authors such as Cicero and Ovid were subject to exile and the latter sang evocatively in the ‘’Tristia’’ in elegiac couplets. Evelyn Juers approach to imaginatively exploring this dark period of the European zeitgeist is striking; her innovative book, in its intensive exploration of the literary links of the German dissident writers from 1933 to 1945, known as exilliteratur contributes a new dimension to the understanding of post-war, post-modern consciousness – the state of loneliness, isolation and apprehensiveness in the face of political and military forces that threaten the individual and those he loves.