Review: Cruel Crossing – Edward Stourton

cruelBack in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny.  The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.

The  “Chemin” has become a “walking memorial” for the Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society (who have a fascinating calendar of events including various other lengthy walks and bike rides).

Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route.  He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s.  His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.

Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.

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Review: Diary of a Man in Despair – Friedrich Reck

diaryIt would be easy to let the title of this book put you off it: Diary of a Man in Despair, does not sound as though it’s going to be an entertaining read, but I share the view of  Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations that this is an “extraordinary document”, a “unique testament” to the horrors the Nazi dominance in Germany in the 1940s.

I suppose one might ask why anyone would want to read a book like this – it’s not going to “entertaining” in any sense of the word, but my interest is in trying to understand how whole nations and communities can go so completely off the rails that they lost all sense of human values.  Anyone who reads books like this must wonder how they themselves would cope if the political systems of our own country changed and a Fascist regime came to power (British readers might want to beware the current anti-immigrant rhetoric!).  Reck gives an example of how one could behave, remaining true to oneself despite the immense pressure to conform.

I have collected a few books on A Common Reader which detail the lives of those Germans who opposed Nazi rule, but none is quite as vivid as Friedrich Reck’s diary (which was eventually going to bring an awful punishment on the head of it’s writer).  At the end of the book an Afterword by the historian Richard J Evans (author of the magesterial Third Reich trilogy) quotes the extremes Reck had to go to keep this explosive diary from secret, “Night after night I hide this record deep in the woods on my land . . . constantly on watch lest I am observed, constantly changing my hiding place”.   Later on he took to burying it in a tin box in a field.

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The ridiculous and the sublime

Perfect PeopleI’ve always enjoyed Peter James series of police procedural novels set in Brighton.  Peter has a close relationship with the Sussex Police, even to the extent of sponsoring a police car.  He has been able to go out with them on their investigations and his books have an air of authenticity about them.  His latest book, Perfect People, departs from his usual genre to focus on the topic of genetic engineering and designer babies.   The book has apparently been ten years in the making, suggesting that Peter James has a deep interest in this topic.  I regret to say that I found no evidence that the author’s ten years of investment in this project has paid off.

The story opens with John Naomi, a couple who lost their first child to a congenital disease cause by an unfortunate combination of genes from both of them, planning to visit Dr Leo Dettore in his off shore clinic to seek help in conceiving their next child without this unfortunate genetic make-up.   Dettore’s clinic is located on a huge  yacht in the Atlantic Ocean – his work is so cutting-edge that it lies outside the boundaries of what is permissible in any Western country.

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Review: Olivia Laing – To the River

To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf.  The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing.  Indeed, as she describes her walk down through Rodmell where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, we readers almost feel a concern that this walk may be too much for her to bear at this stage of her life (but of course, the fact that she wrote the book showed that our fears were ungrounded).

The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven.  I live in this area and walk bits of her route regularly and would say that it is on the whole a cosy landscape, containing a few pretty villages and the ancient market town of Lewes.  Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago.  I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print – although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing’s readers won’t be lacking information about it.

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Review: Forgotten Land – Max Egremont

forgotten landIn Forgotten Land, Max Egremont describes his travels among the old lands of East Prussia, bringing to the task a deep knowledge of modern history and the proficiency of an experienced writer.  The book is a mixture of history, travel-writing and personal interviews, a fascinating mix which builds up a compelling picture of these lands and the changes that the last couple of centuries, particularly the post-Second World War settlement, have brought to them.

For after the Second World War, the lands of East Prussia were parcelled out between Russia and Poland.  Those of the German population who could, fled westwards in the face of the retributive zeal of the advancing Russian troops.  Many others were recruited as forced labour by the Russians and found themselves in the Gulag system.  Towns and cities were renamed, gravestones were used as paving stones and so far as was possible, all traces of German residency were obliterated. The excellent Wikipedia article on East Prussia records that “a population which had stood at 2.2 million in 1940 was reduced to 193,000 at the end of May 1945”.

It is difficult for those who live on an island to understand what it is like to live in an area with fluid borders where skirmishes with neighbouring countries redraw the shape of your nation several times each century.  The reshaping and re-ordering of East Prussia however far exceeds that of anywhere else in Europe, involving the forced emigration of well over a million people and yet it is largely forgotten by a Europe which prefers not to dwell on the terrible events of the 20th century.

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Review: History of Britain and Ireland – Dorling Kindersley

Something different from me today.  I tend to stick to fiction but this book, History of Britain and Ireland, was offered to me for review and I couldn’t resist it – mainly because although I know some history in depth, my general knowledge of British history is poor – I left the Tudors and Stuarts behind at primary school and haven’t been back their since.

Dorling Kindersley are famous for their illustrated guides – I have some of their travel guides which are guaranteed to make you want to visit the places described – and this new history book is up to their usual standard.  I’ve been happily browsing it for the last few days and have found it to be a great book to pick up for half an hour or so and its certainly attracted the attention of any visitors to the house – most of whom seems to have as patchy a knowledge of Britain’s history as I do.

Of course, for most of the topics covered, the book will me more of a jumping off point for further reading – you can’t really expect to cover 3000 years in 400 pages.  But for a brief overview of each period, its about as good as any I’ve seen.  I would think it would be invaluable for families with enquiring children, but there are few adults who would be able to resist browsing it to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

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Review: Story of a Secret State – Jan Karski

jan karskiNote – since publishing this review, I have been sent some interesting personal reminiscences of Jan Karski which I have published in two parts here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

I have recently been engrossed in a first person account of the Polish resistance movement in World War II Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.
After the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, Jan Karski became a liaison officer with the Polish underground, travelling across closed borders to Paris and eventually infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto and taking eye-witness accounts to a sceptical Anthony Eden and Franklin Roosevelt.

You are probably going to hear quite a lot about this book in coming months – a recent article in The Observer reported that film-maker Ian Canning, the producer of The King’s Speech has acquired the rights to the memoir from Penguin with Ralph Fiennes being a likely contender for Karski.

It is difficult to understand why this book was never published in Britain when in America 400,000 copies were sold during the war.  This new edition contains additional information added by Karski before his death in 2000, material which he could not reveal during the war.

The bravery of Jan Karski was exceptional.  Reporting directly to General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister in London, Karski risked his life throughout the war, being captured by both the Russians and the Germans and suffering brutal torture at the hands of the SS.  Few people would volunteer to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Jewish Resistance, and later to infiltrate the Belzec death camp in the uniform of an Estonian guard.

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