Tag Archives: Edinburgh Book Festival

The Assassination of the Archduke – Sue Woolmans

I recently attended an Edinburgh Book Festival presentation by Sue Woolmans about a book that she has written along with Greg King, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder that Changed the World. The publisher describes the book as follows:

In The Assassination of the Archduke, Greg King and Sue Woolmans offer readers a vivid account of the lives – and cruel deaths – of Franz Ferdinand and his beloved Sophie. Combining royal biography, romance, and political assassination, the story unfolds against a backdrop of glittering privilege and an Imperial Court consumed with hatred, taking readers from Bohemian castles to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in a compelling, fascinating human drama. As moving as the fabled romance of Nicholas and Alexandra, as dramatic as Mayerling, Sarajevo resonates with love and loss, triumph and tragedy in a vibrant and powerful narrative. It lays bare the lethal circumstances surrounding that fateful Sunday morning in 1914, examining not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.

Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, insisted on marrying for love, His wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, although an aristocrat, was too low down the social scale to normally be allowed to marry a member of the Imperial House of Habsburg. He was permitted to marry her by Emperor Franz Josef on condition that the marriage was morganatic, meaning that she could not share her husband’s title, rank or privileges and their children could not inherit the Imperial throne.

Rather than go through the whole story, I will concentrate on what she described as  myths and misconceptions that she was keen to dispel.

Sophie was a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella, who was keen that Franz Ferdinand should marry one of her daughters. He was a frequent visitor to the household of Isabella and her husband, Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen.

Woolmans said that it  is frequently asserted that Isabella assumed that Franz Ferdinand was interested in marrying one of her daughters and was furious when she discovered that it was Sophie that he wanted to marry. Woolmans argues that Isabella must have noticed Franz Ferdinand’s interest in Sophie and believes that she was so keen to have one of her daughters as Empress that she would have tolerated him taking Sophie as his mistress. However, Sophie and Franz Ferdinand, who were both very religious, would have refused to accept this on moral grounds.

Woolmans thinks that Franz Ferdinand intended to wait until he was Emperor before marrying Sophie. She would then have become Empress. However, Isabella forced his hand, in Woolmans’s opinion in the hope that he would marry one of her daughters, leading to the morganatic marriage.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were not naïve in visiting Sarajevo, being well were aware that they risked assassination by going there. Just before going there, he told Archduke Karl, the next in line to the throne, that he might be shot and where to find his plans for a United States of Austria. This was intended to give the Slavs more power in the multi-national empire. Woolmans suggests that one reason why Sophie insisted on accompanying her husband to Sarajevo was that in those days assassins sometimes hesitated if there was a risk that they might harm women or children.

The day of the assassination, 28 June, was not, as is often claimed, their wedding anniversary, but the anniversary of the  on which Franz Ferdinand signed the official papers stating that the marriage would be morganatic.

Gavrilo Princep, their assassin, was not eating a sandwich in Schiller’s Delicatessen, but standing outside it when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s car appeared in front of him. He could not have afforded to have bought a sandwich from a café; Woolmans believes that this story was made up by a TV dramatization of the assassination.

Sophie was not pregnant at the time of her death. She was then 46 and her last pregnancy in 1908 had produced a still born child.

Killing any Austrian leader might have satisfied the assassins, but may not have led to war. In previous crises, Franz Ferdinand was the man who urged caution.

Woolmans said that a meeting between Franz Ferdinand and his friend Kaiser Wilhelm in June 1914 was mainly a social event at which Franz Ferdinand, a keen horticulturist, showed off his garden to Wilhelm. It was not a war council, although there were some political discussions.

The presentation did  not cover the claim in the publisher’s blurb that it examines ‘not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.’

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Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure – Artemis Cooper

A few weeks ago I heard Artemis Cooper talk about her recent biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Leigh Fermor is best known as a travel writer. His travel writings included a trilogy about his journey on foot from Rotterdam to Istanbul. The final instalment, edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thurbon, has only just been published.

His journey began in December 1933, when he was 18. He reached Istanbul at the start of 1935, but then travelled in Greece, before living with a Romanian noblewoman until the start of World War II. I am most interested in his war career, so will concentrate on that, but Artemis Cooper’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure covers all his life, not just WWII: he lived from 1915 -2011.

Leigh Fermor wanted to join the Irish Guards, but was assigned to the Intelligence Corps, because of his language skills. He was trained by SOE for operations behind enemy lines, before being sent to Crete, a vital German supply base, in June 1942. He spoke Greek, but with a clearly foreign accent.

His time with the local andartes (rebels/guerrillas) was a mixture of danger and monotony. He relaxed with poetry and song.  After accidentally killing an andarte he became the target of a blood feud that was not lifted until 1972. Until then he was safe on his post-war visits to Crete only when in the company of somebody not in blood feud with his enemy. He loathed the Communist ELAS partisans because he had learnt of the famines in the USSR from his Romanian contacts.

After the Italian surrender in September 1943 Leigh Fermor escorted an Italian general off Crete. High seas meant that Leigh Fermor had to stay on the vessel that was taking the Italian to Egypt. He was parachuted back into Crete in February 1944, and planned to kidnap General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the brutal commander of the German garrison.

Bad weather delayed the arrival of the rest of the SOE party, including Captain William Stanley Moss. Müller was promoted and replaced by General Heinrich Kriepe. Leigh Fermor decided stick to the plan of kidnapping the German garrison commander.

On 26 April 1944 Leigh Fermor, Moss and a group of Cretan andartes kidnapped Kriepe. They drove him through 22 German checkpoints to a beach where they were picked up and transported to Egypt.

Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO, but always felt that the andartes received too little credit for their role in the kidnap. After the war Moss published an account of the kidnap titled Ill Met by Moonlight. It was made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor, David Oxley as Moss and Marius Goring as Kriepe.

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Deserter – Charles Glass – Edinburgh Book Festival

At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.

He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.

His website describes the book as follows:

The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?

The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.

The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.

Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.

John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.

He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.

After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.

He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.

Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.

The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.

The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.

American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.

A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.

A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.

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Jonathan Steele – Ghosts of Afghanistan – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is another in my series of posts on author talks that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Jonathan Steele has reported on Afghanistan since the Cold War. His book addresses what he considers to be 13 myths about Afghanistan:

  1. The Taliban has little popular support.
  2. The Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attempt to capture new territory.
  3. It led to a civil war.
  4. The resistance benefitted from Western support.
  5. The USSR suffered a massive military defeat.
  6. The Afghans have always beaten foreign invaders.
  7. The Stinger surface to air missiles supplied by the CIA to the resistance were decisive.
  8. The West walked away after the USSR left.
  9. The Mujaheddin overthrew the Kabul regime and won the civil war in 1992.
  10. The Soviets destroyed Kabul by artillery fire.
  11. The Taliban are the harshest rulers that Afghanistan has had.
  12. The Taliban invited Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan.
  13. The Taliban are uniquely harsh on women.

He did not have time to discuss all of these in a one hour talk, but made the following comments:

The word Ghosts in the title has a double meaning. It refers to the dead, but was also a Soviet nickname for their opponents, because of their skill at concealment. NATO troops may never knowingly see an insurgent during a six month tour of Afghanistan.

There are many similarities between the Soviet and NATO invasions. The USSR was supremely confident early one and initially gave great access to the Western media, but this was soon restricted. The current media coverage is too loyal. It is impossible to go unless you are embedded with NATO forces, and you will not be embedded again if you are too critical.

In the 1980s Kabul was quiet. Soviet officials had their families with them and local young women went about unveiled. The countryside was different; UN personnel could not leave the capital to supervise their projects. It is possible to control Afghan cities, even the communications between them, but the villages are much harder to control.

Before the Soviet invasion the Afghan government had been criticised by conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists, who disliked its reforms, especially of women’s rights. In March 1979 Soviet Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin told the Afghans that Soviet intervention would make things worse.

However, in December 1979 Hafizullah Amin became president of Afghanistan after a palace coup. He was Western educated and the Soviets feared that he would adopt pro-Western policies, with Afghanistan perhaps replacing Iran as a US ally in the Middle East. The USSR therefore invaded and assassinated and replaced Amin.

The USSR expected a quick regime change after its invasion, as did the USA after 9/11. General Tommy Franks, who commanded the 2002 invasion, did not want to repeat the USSR’s mistakes, so relied upon air power, special forces and the Northern Alliance. Both invasions led to lengthy wars, but there are some differences between Soviet attempts to end the conflict and the current situation.

In 1985 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the war was a stalemate. His generals told him that they could win only if the border with Pakistan was closed, which would require 250,000 men. He was unwilling to do so.

President Barack Obama also inherited the war, but was willing to send more troops, tripling the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan. He described Iraq as a war of choice and Afghanistan as a war of necessity.

Another difference is that the Pentagon is trying to delay the NATO withdrawal, whilst the Soviet military supported withdrawal.

A third difference is that the USSR looked for a political solution, whilst NATO is planning to replace its troops with Afghan ones. Steele believes that this will not work because of the ethnic composition of the Afghan Army. Pashtuns make up only 4% of it, but comprise 42% of the population.

The Afghan government has always struggled to control its provinces, but there is no demand by Afghan Uzbeks or Tajiks to break away.

Steele pointed out that the three Anglo-Afghan wars were different from the current conflict, or the Soviet invasion. The British went in, lost some battles, won others, changed the regime and left without attempting to occupy the country in the long-term.

In conclusion Steele believes the war to have been a mistake and to be unwinnable.

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Keith Lowe – Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the second of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Keith Lowe talked about his book, Savage Continent; Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He argued that the British view of the end of the war is fixed and cosy, different from that of the rest of Europe.

The end of the war was not clear-cut. A massive mess was left, which was inevitable after a war of this scale. American and British officials were shocked by what they found, including the level of destruction of German cities by bombing. Warsaw was 90% rubble. Millions of civilians had been killed. British deaths were far lower than those of countries such as the USSR, Poland and Germany.

Many people, such as refugees and former forced labourers, were in the wrong place. There were 18 million refugees of all nationalities in Germany. Huge numbers of starving displaced persons were crossing the continent. Messages to loved ones were left on trees and lamp posts at every crossroads.

Lowe told the story of Andre, a 9-year-old Polish refugee. Andre saw immobile and abandoned German wounded and huge numbers of PoWs with very few guards. Andre and his mother walked for a month and met nobody in any authority until they reached a UN Displaced Persons Camp.

Europe was full of very angry people who wanted revenge. Germans were universally hated. The Red army raped many women and large numbers of Germans were shot in Czechoslovakia. There was some symmetry between actions by the Germans during the war and actions against them after it, but nothing equal to the Holocaust.

Many of the Germans were guilty, but that does not excuse indiscriminate beatings and killings of Germans. The authorities did little to discourage these actions. In some cases they were openly encouraged; the Czech Justice Minister said that there was no such thing as a good German.

The fighting did not end on 8 May 1945. The Germans fought for another week in Yugoslavia and were massacred by the partisans after surrendering. The Greek Civil War started during WWII and continued until 1949. Nationalist partisans in the Baltic continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s. The last Estonian partisan was caught in 1978.

WWII was more complex than Allies versus Axis. There were wars of liberation, but also ones of national purity, culminating in ethnic cleansing, and class warfare. The defeat of Nazi Germany was only one step in this process.

A former member of SOE asked a question about the escape of Klaus Barbie after the war. Lowe said that one of the reasons why there was so much unofficial punishment after the war was that official punishment of war criminals was ‘rubbish.’

Lowe said that he paid particular attention to statistics as these are often used to feed national sensibilities and views. German refugees from the East became a big voting block in the West. They exaggerated the number of post-war German dead from the actual 0.5 million to 2 million in order to increase their victimhood. The Yugoslavs increased their deaths from 1 million to 1.7 million.

An interesting presentation on a book that shows how the experience of the end of WWII in the UK is not typical of that of the rest of Europe.

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Antony Beevor – The Second World War – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the first of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Antony Beevor talked about his recent book on The Second World War on 21 August 2012. He began by pointing out that every country has its own perspective on the war, as memories and experiences of different countries are so different. It was an agglomeration of many conflicts. The German and Japanese did not co-ordinate their strategies.

Beevor related a number of stories from his book. It follows his usual format of combining analysis of strategy with stories of the experience of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

He begins in January 1939 with the Khalkin Gol conflict between Japan and the USSR. It was small but influenced the war. The victory of the Red Army under Georgi Zhukov discouraged the Japanese from later attacking north.

As an example of the global nature of the conflict, Beevor described the story of a Korean called Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by US paratroopers in 1944. He had been conscripted by the Japanese at the age of 18 in 1938, captured by the Red Army in 1939, conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, captured by the Germans in 1943 and conscripted into Normandy as part of an Ost Battalion composed of men from the USSR. He lived out the rest of his life in Illinois in the USA, so had a better fate than many.

Beevor was surprised to see that a memorial to French Jews murdered in the Holocaust described them as having ‘Died for the Glory of France.’ A local explained to him that the French Jews had insisted that their memorial should have the same wording as that on other French war memorials.

The fighting on the Eastern Front was brutal. The Germans carried out mass killings and the Soviets retaliated. Soviet snipers shot starving children who were taking bread from Germans at Stalingrad. Zhukov was ruthless, even threatening to execute the families of PoWs. This measure, which was not implemented, would theoretically have included Josef Stalin, whose son was captured by the Germans.

In November 1942 the Red army launched two major operations; Operation Uranus to encircle the Axis forces attacking Stalingrad and Operation Mars near Moscow. Beevor disagrees with David Glantz’s opinion that Mars was the main operation.

Glantz argues that the Soviets subsequently claimed that Mars was only a diversion for Uranus because Uranus succeeded and Mars failed. Beevor points out that far more artillery was allocated to Uranus. He argues that an NKVD double agent betrayed Mars to the Germans as part of the Soviet plan to distract them from Uranus, which he believes to have been the main operation.

Much has been said about the differences between armies, especially comparing those of democracies with those of dictatorships. Much less has been said about the similarities of the majority of soldiers. Most men did little fighting. A few always fight, a few always run and most follow the majority.

In Asia the Japanese benefitted from the complacency of European colonists, who failed to learn from the Sino-Japanese War. It was also ignored by Adolf Hitler, who failed to recognise that an army could withdraw into the interior when faced by a superior but smaller opponent.

The war in Asia was vicious. Japanese society was militaristic. Soldiers feared disgracing their family and village. They were treated brutally by their officers, leading to them treating the enemy brutally.

The Japanese claimed to be liberators, but Beevor argues that their racial arrogance made the British colonial administration look like a model of liberal tolerance. Japanese officers not only condoned but actively encouraged cannibalism.

The US Marines were more aggressive and faster moving than the US Army in the Pacific. Hatred of the Japanese was reinforced by their suicidal resistance and brutal treatment of PoWs.

Beevor concluded his talk by stating that the Second World War defies generalisation, before taking questions. Some points that came out from these were that:

The pivotal moments were:
May 1940: Winston Churchill rejected Lord Halifax’s proposal to request peace terms from Germany via Italy.
June 1941: German invasion of the USSR.
December 1941: The geopolitical turning point. The Allies could no longer lose, but might have taken much longer than they actually did to win.
November 1942: The Axis lost the initiative.

The British were not good at prioritisation.

Hitler’s main weakness was pride. He would not retreat or give up capital cities.

The Press at army headquarters were not able to report military details so reported on the generals. Some, including Mark Clark, Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur, were obsessed with PR.

The best commanders were Erich von Manstein, who was not an admirable man, Bill Slim, who was the most admirable commander and Chester Nimitz. In the Pacific Nimitz’s island hopping strategy was superior to MacArthur’s plan to invade the Philippines. MacArthur was a political threat to President Franklin Roosevelt, making it hard to reject his ideas, and the USA had the resources to do both.

The Allied bombing campaign continued for too long, but a lot of effort was invested in it, making it hard to stop. It did have a military effect. The Germans had to withdraw fighters and anti-aircraft guns from the Eastern Front to the homeland, leaving them with no aerial reconnaissance on the Eastern Front. German bombing raids killed 500,000 Soviet civilians.

Dunkirk was appalling ground for tanks. Hitler was convinced by Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe could prevent the Allied evacuation, but he underestimated the RAF. Hitler, who wanted to save the tanks for operations against the French, was unfairly criticised by the army.

Alan Brooke was an excellent Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but his strategic ideas were not original. He supported the move throught Italy to save Eastern Europe, which Beevor called ‘mad’ because of the mountains. He opposed the US landings in the south of France, which were an excellent idea.

He described the atomic bombs as being the ‘best thing that could happen to Japan’. Only the shock of the second one led to Emperor Hirohito insisting on surrender. The Japanese military proposed forcing civilians to fight to the last armed only with sharpened sticks.

Arnhem and the Allied failure to secure the Scheldt Estuary in 1944 were big Allied mistakes.

An excellent presentation about what seems to be an excellent book, but the market for single volume histories of the Second World War is quite crowded.

Later the same day Beevor chaired a presentation by Anna Reid on her book about the siege of Leningrad. See this blog entry on her talk at the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow in March 2012.

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