Tag Archives: Antony Beevor

The Spanish Peninsular

I am reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a 900+ page door stopper, which I have been told “all literate people should read”. After nearly 200 pages I am still wondering why, and because I can only read for about one and a half hours before I am near to screaming pitch, I have been reading alternative books at the same time.

I Am SpainI am Spain is one such “alternative”. It covers the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 from the point of view of the International Brigades, the people who went out to fight for the Spanish Republicans from countries across the world. David Boyd Haycock centres his book upon the lives and experiences of the more famous participants: Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and many others, but since they were, in turn, writing about the experiences of those ragged, untrained but willing volunteers from all quarters of the globe, one does somehow get a picture of the Civil War which gets right to the heart of the action.

The more magisterial approach, that say of Antony Beevor, probably gives the reader a rounded, less partisan picture but Boyd Haycock, by presenting a black and white panorama, gives us a clearer notion of what the war was about, and why it mattered to Europe and America in those years between the two World Wars.Beevor on Spain

It is interesting to speculate, as Boyd Haycock does, whether had either America or Britain taken a different interventionist stance and by doing so, defeated Franco, this might have given Hitler pause for thought, and thereby preventing the global conflict, of which Spain was but the testing ground.

scan0009Another book which focusses upon these same “personalities” is Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill. Equally giving the reader a taste of the time. Hotel Florida in Madrid, towards which many of the journalists and photographers gravitated in order to report on the war, was a base from which they could leave to get nearer the action and retreat to in order to write up their reports. Hemingway and Gellhorn had adjoining rooms, and a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, the characters that land up there include many famous names, not least Capa and Taro.

War is not about personalities, but it is in their records more than those of the many volunteers that capture the vile nature of that particular conflict.

DisinheriteeAn even more generalised account of the mass exodus from Spain, as a result of war, persecution or deprivation comes in the form of a book by Henry Kamen. This volume does of course include characters whose lives were affected by the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and many others, but its scope and focus is both broader and wider. For The Disinherited, is a study of The Exiles who created Spanish Culture” and demonstrates how much the whole of Europe and America have benefitted from the contribution that exiles have made to culture.

This is a picture of a country that for centuries exiled some of its most talented citizens in wave after wave of persecution or political necessity, and those exiles’ creative response to their situation. Prevented forever from returning to Spain, they created a mythic, romantic Spain – the Sephardic Jews in Holland, the exiled Moslems from Granada in Morocco to the painters and sculptors in Paris. Each one helped to create a “virtual” Spanish culture whose impact on the world has been immense.

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Hitler’s Last Gamble

ArdennesBlood, sweat and tears. This is what Winston Churchill offered the stunned British people at the beginning of World War II, when we stood alone against a powerful enemy. By 1944 in Europe, when that hideous and lengthy conflict had brought into its insatiable grip even the Americans whose reluctant President Theodore Roosevelt had finally joined with Churchill and Joseph Stalin in the fight against Hitler and Japan, the war was to all intents and purposes won by the Allies.

In spite of growing doubts expressed by his generals, Adolf Hitler decided to throw his army once more into France. By this time, his paranoia was bordering on madness, two failed attempts on his life increased his sense of isolation but did nothing to increase his sense of reality. With the forces of the Russians bearing down on his country from the East, he took charge of all military strategy and focussed on a doomed attempt to throw the Allied Armies out of Germany and out of the war.

So began the Ardennes offensive, know now by its more familiar moniker: The Battle of the Bulge. With tremendous and successful secrecy, the German army moved soldiers, tank and armaments towards the Albert Canal, which ran from Antwerp to the River Meuse (Maas). From there the intention was to smash their way past the Americans and British and to recapture France.

Partly because the Allies had in mind that victory was in their grasp and partly because this action was unexpected (and with hindsight pointless) initially the Germans were successful in punching through a large area of recently retaken territory. In his new book, Ardennes 1944, Antony Beevor brings to the page yet another masterpiece of research and writing.

mapThe territory was difficult, the weather was appalling and the surprise was absolute. The Panzer divisions smacked right through a weakened front, which because it was wooded, hilly and full of deep escarpments, the Americans had assumed was secure. The effect of the surprise attack was nearly disastrous. Small groups of men were dug in among the trees with little visibility and poor communications, the foxholes were small and not deep because of the tree roots and after days of fierce fighting the Germans won back village after village as the Allies retreated towards Bastogne.

Reading the accounts, garnered from diaries, letters and official records one gets the visceral, bowel-loosening horror of fighting. It was bitterly cold and wet, rations often had to be eaten cold and insomnia, wet feet and misery was increased once the shooting began. In the morning there was fog to contend with, so that the noise of moving tanks, mortar fire and small arms fire was muffled and hard to locate; the Germans had obtained, from their prisoners of war American uniforms, so that road blocks had to be mounted at all times in case of infiltration.

Fortunately for the Allies, the parachute drop behind their lines was a failure, this was partly due to the weather and partly inexperience. Many of the soldiers in this exercise were between 16 and 19 years old, were virtually untrained and were not told that they were dropping into battle stations until they were actually in the air and above the drop zone. In the end, only 150 of them dropped any where near where they should have been, and eventually their commander, Oberst Friedrich August Heydte, told them to split up and try to get back into Germany.

This one theatre of war was costly, there were terrible losses on both sides and the Germans broke several rules of engagement. Among these was the wearing of Allied uniforms and the mass killing of Allied prisoners, the massacre of Malmédy being the most egregious – about one hundred and fifty unarmed Americans were marched into a field and their captors opened fire; eighty-five were killed, several got away into the trees. This was the worst but there were many other examples, and in the end the retaliation and retribution was just as fierce. Belgian citizens were not any better off, many were shot even women and children.

There were remarkable successes for the Germans to begin with, several thousand American troops were captured, although the Germans were astonished at the resistance that the Americans put up, they had been told that this was an all-but-spent force.  However, small groups of determined men fought heroically, holding up the Panzer divisions long enough for the Allies to re-group.  Once the Allies took stock, other enterprises were halted and a concentrated counter attack, led in part by General Patton, turned the situation around and the push towards Berlin began again in earnest.

This is the content of the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. Band of BrothersWhile Antony Beevor gives us the historical detail, the mini-series gives us the visual taste of what it was like, adding also pieces by the surviving soldiers who took part on one of the bloodiest, most brutal and most terribly wasteful theatres of World War II.

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LFF Sunday 23 October

On Sunday morning (I got up at 7:30 and attended the 9:30 service) we saw a ground-breaking Spanish film called The Sleeping Voice. Followed by a less than successful coming-of-age film Corpo Celeste and finally a film that I consider is a Requiem to small-scale farming Last Winter.  A long day but worth it.

The Sleeping Voice is a film placed in and around the women’s prisons in Madrid in the years immediately after the Civil War, ie:1940, when Franco was busy annihilating the Communists – men and women – the full horror of which has only recently been talked about because of the tacit agreement throughout Spain not to ‘remember’.
The film shows (implicitly) why this non-remembrance was so important, for in the principal relationships of the film: the two sisters are on separate sides; in a middle class family the husband, a doctor turned accountant, is a Communist sympathiser and his wife is a Franco-ist, his father-in-law is a General in El Caudillo’s regime.
Maybe some of the characterisation is stereotypical.  The heroes and heroines are beautiful. The villainous prison warders are brutal caricatures, as are the woefully un-Christian nuns.  But then cinema similarly treats German war personnel in this way – I suppose we NEED to be reminded that ordinary people became both heroic and brutal, the difference is that these are Spanish.
It will surely get UK distribution and when it does I urge you to take time to see it. This is an important film in many ways, but we will not get the full measure of its importance if we don’t contextualise it historically – for that I urge you to read Antony Beevor’s brilliant book, re-worked in 2005 and published as The Battle for Spain. (The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939).  There is also, of course, Hemingway, George Orwell and another new book called The Disinherited. (The exiles who created Spanish culture) by Henry Kamen which goes back centuries but covers this period in the final chapters.
Corpo Celeste is a strange film, very uncomfortable to watch in many ways, with occasional flashes of brilliance.  We follow a young girl (Yle Nianello) called Marta, recently arrived from Switzerland and finding it hard to settle into her new community and undergoing Catechism Classes prior to Confirmation.
There are two principal themes going on here – one is the importance of Catholic rituals in small urban communities in Southern Italy – the other is the decline of the Church in the rural areas – the padre from the first goes to collect a Crucifix from a church in the countryside which has disintegrated through non-use, in fact the whole village seems to have been abandonned.  The rebellious Marta is involved in all these events.
Furthermore, there is a Church/Political thing going on which is not explained, but is clearly somewhat clandestine as the Padre is getting his congregation to sign up support for a candidate whether they understand what it is they are signing up to or not.
There are amazing flashes of genius in this debut feature film by director Alice Rohrwacher (ANOTHER woman) and Yle Vianello is superb in the role of the young girl but a film that needs to be explained  in the Q&A is a film that has failed in some respects since later audiences will not have this privilege.  I am glad to have seen this film and it certainly drew praise for its presentation in Cannes.  Great things may come later, but not I think with this film.
Last Winter is another debut feature film by a documentary director turned feature film maker, the American-born John Shank.  However, this is a European film – its outlook, its message, its style and its content are fundamentally grounded in Europe.  It is a film about the land, the people of the land, the landscape and the ancestral ties that bind people to place.
Filmed in the Massif-Centrale in France (shades of Terrence Malick in the sweeping wide angle landscapes) the film is about a young farmer who is struggling against the tide.  Johann (Vincent Rottiers) belongs to a co-operative (a common feature of the French farming community) set up by his own father.  Things are not going too well and an offer comes to change over to raising calves for the Italian veal market, Johann is against this and the vote goes his way.  However, he experiences a personal disaster from which there is little hope of recovery and although he hides away from it, in the end other factors take over.
On a personal level too, we find that his sister (Florence Loiret Caille) has mental problems and his relationship with his neighbour (Anais Demoustier) founders because of his own inability (bordering on neurotic) not to face up to things.  The Wake for the death of a local landowner (both father-figure and opposition to Johann) is the culminating theme in this film – the (Verdi’s Requiem aeternam as the sound track) endgame so to speak for Johann and implicitly for the whole community.
In the Q&A John Shank sounded a more hopeful note for farming like this, but as Johann says in the film changing one thing in farming alters the whole way of farming.  So in bovine agriculture, if you fully wean your calves for market as meat you do not have to milk the cows; if you separate the calves from their mothers for raising in batteries then you have to raise more calves AND milk your cows – even if you don’t market your milk.  Either way, the physical structure of the farm buildings has to change, the feed pattern and the head of cattle raised has to change and in changing that you have inextricably altered small-holding and there is no going back.  So in an oblique way this film is also a requiem for farming on a small scale.

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