Tag Archives: Aye Write Book Festival

Christopher Clark and Charles Emerson – Aye Write

On April 20 2013 I attended an event titled The Road to War, held as part of Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival. Two authors, Christopher Clark and Charles Emerson, talked about their latest books, each of which take a global approach to the events of 1913-14.

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emerson has a self-explanatory title. It is a book about the world in 1913, and is a global portrait, looking at 23 cities from all continents.

In 1913 there was great confidence in many countries and cities, including Glasgow, which was the second city of the largest empire in an imperial world.

It was a modern world to a surprising extent. The first aerial bombing campaign, by the Italians in Libya, had taken place two years earlier, albeit using very primitive techniques. Other features of the world of 1913 included Cubism, psychoanalysis, Grand Prix motor racing, the start of production of the Model T Ford, the building of skyscrapers and the start of the switch from coal to oil.

Emerson used accounts of travel, diaries and journals in his research. There was a great movement of people around the world in 1913; Canada had more immigrants that year than in any other.

His book is not about the causes of the war,and he has tried avoid hindsight in writing about a point in time when war was not expected; the world had survived previous war scares. Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, which was widely read, argued that war was by then so expensive that nobody sensible would want one.

Empires were then the key to how the world worked. Europeans assumed that they were culturally and racially superior.

The book is intended to be a panorama that adds up to a true picture of the world in 1913.

In contrast, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is a history of the causes of WWI. He agrees that the world was not necessarily heading for war. In July 1914 most statesmen thought that war was not imminent and that the threat of it had diminished over the previous 18 months.

He described the war as being the ‘original catatrophe’ of modernity. It is hard to see the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War, or the rise of Fascism and Nazism and the Holocaust without WWI, making it as big a disaster as you can get.

Even before the war had started, people were trying to apportion blame, pointing fingers at others who had allegedly forced war on them.

Aspects of the causes of the war are very modern. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, like President Kennedy, was killed in a car. The assassins were armed with guns and bombs and carried cyanide pills so that they could kill themselves rather than be captured, giving them similarities with modern suicide bombers. 9/11 was a single terrorist act with great symbolism. Franz Ferdinand was killed on 28 June, the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, an event with great symbolism to the Serbs.

However, there were several great powers in 1914; today, despite its perceived decline, the USA remains by far the most powerful country in the world.

Some aspects of the story, especially the Balkan setting, were airbrushed out of history after 1945. They have to be considered, and it is now easier to do so.

Clark has tried to change the question from why? to how? The two cannot be disentangled but how? leads in a different direction. Why? goes back to 1870, arguing that a series of scares move war from possible to probable to inevitable.

This, he argues, is not the way that history happens. The war resulted from decisions made by statesmen who had choices, as do their counterparts today.

He has tried to avoid a blame-centred approach. The question of blame no longer matters politically, but can lead to an insistence that one side is right and one is wrong in all wars. The war was not a consequence of a system, but of peope taking decisions.

In answer to a question, Clark said that some people wanted war, especially generals. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the Austrio-Hungarian General Staff, repeatedly recommended war, but was ignored as his advice was always for war. Helmuth von Moltke, his German counterpart, thought that it was better for Germany to have a war now rather than later. In France, General Noël de Castelnau and War Minister Alexandre Millerand urged the Russians to make war. The key question is how the views of these men became that of the polticial elite in 1914.

Clark was also asked whether or not a more specific guarantee by Britain to come to the aid of France and Russia would have prevented war. He pointed out that whichever side won a war in which Britain remained neutral would have been hostile to it afterwards. It is unknown whether or not a proper alliance would have deterred Germany, but it would have goaded on France and Russia.

The Triple Entente started with British fears over a Russian threat to the British Empire. This led to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and then the Entente with France during the Russo-Japanese War. Russia was weakened by its defeat and signed a Convention with Britain in 1907. It dealt with Persia, Afghanistan and other imperial issues, not Germany.

Clark concluded by saying that history should remind us not to fall prey to the doctrine of inevitability; there are always choices. The war that ensued was not the one that people thought that they were bargaining with. They feared the end of civilisation, but hoped for a short, sharp war.


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Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

Fascist Scotland – Gavin Bowd – Aye Write

On Saturday 20 April I attended a talk by Gavin Bowd on his book Fascist Scotland, given at Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival.

Gavin Bowd is a St Andrews University lecturer, albeit in French rather than Scottish or British history. He was introduced by the author Stuart Kelly, who pointed out that it has often been assumed that Fascism has attracted little support in Scotland over the years, a view contradicted by this book.

Bowd began by stressing that there were people sympathetic to Fascism throughout Scottish society. He then discussed a number of the individuals who appear in his book

He began by discussing Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland in May 1941. Hess intended to discuss peace terms with the Duke of Hamilton. Elements of the British aristocracy had shown themselves to be favourably inclined towards Nazi Germany before the war. The Duke denied having any sympathy with the proposed negotiations.

Archibald Maule Ramsay was the Unionist MP for Peebles and South Midlothian; the Scottish Unionist Party was legally independent from but closely allied to, the Conservative Party of England and Wales. At first he appeared to be just a good rural MP, but he then ‘discovered’ an alleged Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. He was involved with Tyler Kent, a cipher clerk at the US Embassy in London who stole secret documents.

Ramsay was the only MP to be detained under Defence Regulation 18B, and was interned until late 1944. He then resumed his parliamentary seat, but  did not stand in the 1945 General Election as he had been de-selected by his party. His last act as an MP was an unsuccessful attempt to repeal nineteenth century legislation giving Jews full civic rights.

Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists had limited success in Scotland. He had previously attacked the excesses of the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence and supported Irish unification. This cost him potential support from Unionists.

The BUF did not believe in discrimination against Catholics, thinking that they could be as good Britons as Protestants. This led groups such as John Cormack’s Protestant Action in Edinburgh to oppose rather than support it. Bowd suggested that the BUF was too tolerant for some Scots; perhaps bigoted against the wrong minorities would be a fairer way of putting it.

Some Nationalists were impressed by Mussolini’s Italian Fascists and looked for a similar movement in Scotland. They were not attracted to the BUF because it favoured devolution, but not independence for Scotland.

The poet Hugh McDiarmid, who held a great variety of different views over his lifetime, admired Mussolini in the 1920s. He argued in 1923 for a Scottish version of Fascism, and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a Fascistic para-military organisation that would fight for Scottish freedom. In June 1940 he wrote a poem expressing his indifference to the impending German bombing of London, which was not published during his lifetime:

Now when London is threatened

With devastation from the air

I realise, horror atrophying me,

That I hardly care.

Douglas Young, a future leader of the SNP, wrote in January 1939 that:

If Hitler could neatly remove our imperial breeks somehow and thus dissipate the mirage of Imperial partnership with England etc he would do a great service to Scottish Nationalism.

Young also suggested that the average German stormtrooper was more honest than a British bourgeoisie.

However, other Nationalists, such as John MacCormick, supported the war effort. See this article by Bowd for more on Nationalist attitudes to Fascism; it is the source of the quotes above.

During WWII the Germans established Radio Caledonia  which carried broadcasts by Donald Grant, a native of Alness. He was a loner, who was attracted to extreme ideas. He travelled to Germany in July 1939, staying on after the outbreak of war. All that survives of his broadcasts is some illegible transcripts. He received a light sentence, perhaps because he was not captured until 1946, emigrated to South Africa and is thought to have died in the 1980s.

In 1938 the Duchess of Atholl, the Unionist MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, resigned from her party and Parliament because of her opposition to appeasement. She stood as an independent in the subsequent by-election, but lost to the official Unionist candidate.

The Duchess opposed the British policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and published a pro-Republican pamphlet. In retaliation Charles Saroléa, a Belgian who was Professor of French at Edinburgh University, published a pro-Franco one. He had supported the rights of small nations before WWI, but later became obsessed with Bolshevism and Jews, and was part of a nexus of extreme right wing aristocrats and reactionaries.

Saroléa claimed that his pamphlet helped to defeat the Duchess, but Bowd notes that it was more significant that the Unionist establishment opposed her. There was also strong support from all classes for appeasement until Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

Jessie Jordan, a Dundonian hairdresser who had lived for many years in Germany, was arrested as a German spy in 1938. There were allegations that her late first husband was Jewish, so she may have been motivated by a desire to protect their daughter by showing her loyalty to Germany. Certainly, a large number of her customers in Germany were Jewish. She appears to have been a much better hairdresser than spy, making elementary security errors. She received a sentence of only four years, perhaps being lucky that she was caught in peacetime.

Lt-Col Graham Seton-Hutchison had a distinguished record in WWI, and was well known as an author of spy fiction, featuring the James Bond like Col. Grant, and military history. He became an anti-Semite and pro-Nazi, but later espoused Scottish Nationalism, believing in the clan system and attacking Jewish finance capital.

In the 1920s and 30s Italians were the largest ethnic minority group in Scotland. The Italian Consulate claimed that up to 40% of them belonged to the Fascist Party. Bowd says that it has been argued that many joined for social reasons, but he contends that there was a political edge.

He noted that there are remnants of neo-Fascism in Scotland, amongst both supporters of UK wide extreme right parties, such as the BNP, and extreme Scottish nationalists. He stressed that he is not accusing the current SNP of being Fascist, but thinks that it has failed to come to terms with aspects of its past.

This did not please SNP supporters in the audience, who criticised his assertions that some nationalists have espoused Fascism. For similar views see the negative reviews of the book on Amazon and the comments following an article that he wrote for 7 April edition of Scotland on Sunday. Bowd’s nationalist critics claim that his book is an attack on the SNP. They ignore the fact that he alleges that there were Fascist sympathisers in all parts of Scottish society, not just amongst nationalists.

An interesting talk on a book that brings a little known aspect of Scottish history to light.


Filed under Political History, Reviews