Extracts from the Sep 2016 Journal
The murder of Jo Cox MP on 16 June 2016, shortly before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, was a shocking instance of political violence almost unique in recent British history. Such instances of politically motivated violence in Britain are mercifully rare. To find an assassination of a serving prime minister one has to go back to Spencer Perceval in 1812. Perceval’s assassin, John Bellingham, appears to have been motivated by a personal grievance, not by political conviction. More recently, the attack on the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, Nigel Jones, in January 2000, was also carried out by a lone attacker with a private grievance, exacerbated by mental problems.
Politically motivated murders in Britain over recent decades can, almost without exception, be traced back to causes external to the day-to-day run of domestic British politics. The most obvious case is the campaign of violence mounted from the 1970s by militant Irish Republicans, which culminated in the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in October 1984, killing five people. The Irish National Liberation Army murdered Airey Neave, Conservative MP for Abingdon, by blowing up his car in the Palace of Westminster car park in 1979. Ian Gow, Conservative MP for Eastbourne, was murdered by the IRA in 1990, while the IRA bomb intended for Sir Hugh Fraser, Conservative MP for Stafford and Stone, in 1975, succeeded only in killing the renowned cancer specialist Professor Gordon Hamilton Fairley. The attack on Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, in 2010, was carried out by a Muslim extremist in protest against the Iraq war.
The murder of Jo Cox, by contrast, was entirely a home-grown matter. Her alleged attacker, Thomas Mair, is British, and his motives were apparently rooted in domestic British concerns. As he launched a savage, cowardly attack on a defenceless woman, Mair is reported to have shouted ‘Britain first!’ or ‘Put Britain first!’; in court, he gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ Mair may well turn out to be a paranoid loner but he has a recognisable political agenda - that of the extreme nationalist (or even proto-fascist) far right, heightened by concerns about the erosion of national sovereignty, the dilution of ‘British identity’, and the supposed complicity of certain politicians, principally on the left, in those processes.
This is a pattern easily recognisable from Germany in the years of extreme turbulence that followed its defeat in the First World War. The suddenness of the German military collapse in autumn 1918 meant that German public opinion was unprepared for it and, on the right, unwilling to accept the reality of the Allied victory. Germany’s wartime military leaders, Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, who had effectively been in control of Germany since 1916, vacated the political scene as defeat loomed and, in an act of gross political cowardice, left the task of negotiating peace terms with the victorious Allies to civilians who had borne no responsibility for the policies that had led Germany to catastrophe.
The German delegation that travelled to Compiègne in November 1918 to sign the harsh terms of the armistice dictated by the Allies was led by a civilian, Matthias Erzberger, a leading politician of the Centre (Catholic) Party. Responsibility for accepting the terms of the armistice and, later, of the yet more onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles (June 1919) perforce rested with the civilian governments that shouldered the heavy burden of governing Germany in the wake of military defeat amidst extreme political instability. Many right-wing Germans chose to ignore the historical realities and believed the notorious Dolchstoßlegende, according to which the German armies, undefeated, had in autumn 1918 been ‘stabbed in the back’, Siegfried-like, by the treacherous machinations of left-wing revolutionaries and Jews operating on the home front.
Germany, which before 1914 had known little political violence, became fertile soil for it after 1918. The unstable coalition that attempted to govern Germany in November 1918, consisting of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the more militantly left-wing Independent Social Democrats (USPD), fell apart in late December 1918 as radical left-wing elements in the newly founded Communist Party (KPD) sought to initiate a revolution on the lines of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. To put down this uprising, the Social Democrat-led government was forced to rely on the army and, in particular, on irregular paramilitary units known as Freikorps. These were composed largely of aggressively nationalistic and anti-Semitic young militants bitterly opposed to the parliamentary institutions of the infant Weimar Republic, to any orientation of Germany towards the liberal democracies of Western Europe, and to any fulfilment of the terms of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles. Many Freikorps men were involved in the brutal conflicts that took place after the armistice in the former German territories in the east that had come under the control of Poland and the Baltic states, where they conducted actions against both local Slav nationalists and Bolshevik units.
The fruits of such attitudes once they were let loose amidst the political turmoil of Germany in 1918/19 rapidly became clear. The leaders of the Communist Party, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by Freikorps men in January 1919 in the wake of the failed uprising in Berlin; the leader of the USPD, Hugo Haase, was assassinated that autumn; and in Munich, where a radical left-wing regime had assumed power, the left-wing leader Kurt Eisner, a Jew, was assassinated by a right-wing extremist. That act of terror set in train a sequence of events that led to the ‘cleansing’ of the city in May 1919 by right-wing paramilitaries led by men like Franz Ritter von Epp. Later, Epp would re-emerge to abolish the Bavarian government in March 1933 and hand power to the Nazis. Among Epp’s men, who indulged in atrocities like the savage killing of the pacifist anarchist Gustav Landauer, a Jew, was the future leader of the SA (Brownshirts), Ernst Röhm. There were numerous Freikorps units, including the Freikorps Roßbach, which numbered the future commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, among its members, and the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, under Captain Hermann Ehrhardt. Robert G. L. Waite’s study of the Freikorps is aptly entitled Vanguard of Nazism.
Political murders rocked the unstable foundations of the Weimar Republic. Matthias Erzberger was murdered in 1921 and in June 1922 Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, a Jew, was assassinated by young militants implacably hostile to Germany’s new parliamentary democracy and to Jews, socialists and those who sought to stabilise Germany’s position within the new post-1918 European order. Ehrhardt’s Freikorps mutated into the Organisation Consul, which was responsible in the early 1920s for hundreds of political murders, mostly of those suspected of ‘betraying’ Germany by co-operating with the Western Allies, either directly or, like Erzberger and Rathenau, by indirect association with the ‘enemies of the German people’. The frightening mentality of these young right-wing extremists was the subject of Klaus Theweleit’s study Männerphantasien (Male Fantasies) (1977), which reveals the aggressive, proto-fascist attitudes, the virulent misogyny, and the glorification of ‘hardness’ that characterised them.
The Organisation Consul came into its own during the period of the great inflation in Germany that culminated in the political, social and economic turbulence of 1923, starting with the French occupation of the Ruhrgebiet in January of that year. The extreme right dispensed a bizarre and brutal form of justice, whereby alleged traitors were sentenced to death by secret tribunals modelled on the medieval German Vehmgericht (a mysterious, sinister institution best known for its appearance in Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen), and promptly murdered. To strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, these right-wing vigilante units adopted the menacing motto ‘Verräter verfallen der Feme’ (‘Traitors will be dealt with by the Vehmgericht’). Freikorps men struck at ordinary people suspected, for example, of giving information about hidden arms dumps to the French authorities, at left-wingers like the Bavarian Independent Socialist leader Karl Gareis, murdered in June 1921 for his efforts to expose the activities of local paramilitaries, and at alleged spies and informers, real or imagined.
A member of Organisation Consul was Albert Leo Schlageter, a fanatic who had already shown a frightening propensity for violence in the fighting against the Poles in the disputed region of eastern Silesia. In April 1923 Schlageter was arrested by the French occupying authorities; he was charged with sabotage and espionage, and executed in May. In the mythology of the far right, he became a nationalist hero, a martyr for Germany in her sacred battle for independence from foreign control and against domestic treachery. The dramatist Hanns Johst, a leading figure in the Nazi literary pantheon, wrote a play in Schlageter’s honour; the drama Schlageter (1933) completed the transformation of a murderous fanatic into a national icon, symbol of German manliness, heroism and self-sacrifice. His murdered victims were vilified or erased from the historical record. As long as the Nazis ruled, ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Germany’ might have been their epitaph.
The cartoon shows a man with a brolley arriving on a station platform, sadly watching his train depart ahead of him. A caption underneath is in Hungarian so there’s no chance of deciphering its meaning. What an impossible language! No connection or clues to the meaning of any of the words. I can get by in German, French and some other languages. Wasn’t Hungarian devised only for its native speakers? Surely no one can possibly learn it as a second language!
A second cartoon portrays two full-length Jewish-looking men engrossed in serious conversation, their spoken words transcribed below – but again in that ridiculous language. The reason why they are so earnest and why that man wanted to catch that train will have to remain hidden from me. And dozens more cartoons in the sketchbook. Lots of pairs of men, often contrasting in a humorous style - one fat and one thin, one tall and one short, one shabby and one well dressed, one policeman and one arrested criminal. All engaged in conversation, but their words unknown.
In the late 1960s, when I was a teenager concerned with - well, those things that teenagers are always concerned with - my mother went back to Hungary. Back in 1957 she had been given an exit visa on compassionate grounds as my father had fled with me in his arms a few months earlier. So she could legally return. My father couldn’t go back. He didn’t ever want to. And my own position had been uncertain.
When she returned home to London a few days later my mother showed me what she had brought back. An old and large book containing dozens of stuck-in original cartoons and caricatures and some framed family portraits in coloured chalk. ‘Who was the artist and which gallery have these come from?’ I had asked. ‘They were drawn by your grandfather who was an artist’ came the reply. So I asked some more.
My mother’s parents had enjoyed a wonderful life in Miskolc, Hungary, not far from the border with Ukraine. I had to find it in an atlas – and there it was. But only until 1944. A big house, big garden, tennis court, servants. She had been a proud housewife, bringing up a daughter; he had worked in insurance. And produced the most wonderful art in his spare time. Sometimes even for money. See this cartoon? It had been mass produced as a picture postcard for sale in the town. And that cartoon? It had appeared as an advert in the local newspaper for the local jeweller. But mostly just for pleasure. All prominently signed with the same carefully written name: ‘Szepesi’ - his surname.
When the war broke out they didn’t leave. Why should they? After all Hungary was an ally of Germany. Hungary was already on their side. And 10,000 Jews had died fighting for Hungary in the First World War. Yet in 1919 there had been pogroms against the Jews. And in 1938 Hungary showed solidarity with Germany by emulating the Nuremberg Laws: Jews were restricted from entering many professions and most were denied the vote. The antisemitic Nazi-like Arrow Cross Party achieved 25 per cent in the 1939 elections, so – thank goodness – wasn’t in power. We’ll just sit out the restrictions, they probably thought. Stay in our nice house in our nice town. Why would Germany invade its own ally? And later on: see, we’re right – Germany is now losing the war – in probably just a few months it will all be over, we’ll have made it. Whoops, they got that just a little bit wrong.
Germany invaded on 19 March 1944. And quickly forced Hungary to place 300,000 Jewish labourers at the disposal of the Reich. The Arrow Cross was quickly installed as the government – and the decision was made to deport all the Jews. The round-ups started in May. The Hungarian authorities co-operated enthusiastically. No time to lose. If the war ends too soon, might still be too many Jews left alive. Ghettos were created, the chance for escape was lost. Twelve thousand were sent away by train each day. Germany might have been losing the war against the Allies but it was increasingly winning its war against the Jews. The crematoria in Auschwitz couldn’t cope with the numbers arriving. My mother was only 21.
She was freed from Auschwitz early in 1945. Exhausted from making bombs for the Germans as a slave labourer. On the way back home she knocked on a farm door to ask for food. A gun was pointed to her head instead. Get lost, they said. She made her way back to Miskolc. No sign of her parents. Or anyone else she had known. Someone else was living in her house. She knocked on the door. She explained why she was there. The occupants told her to get lost. So she left for Budapest. And started a life there. Marriage (with a camp survivor of course – what else would she have in common with all the others now?). Children. Qualifications. Good jobs. Nice flat. Good area. Two children. The Communist regime had suppressed antisemitism. But when the revolution looked like succeeding and the antisemitism was emerging again, he decided to flee. With me in his arms. And she followed later. Reunited in London. Refugees for a second time. No good jobs now. Nowhere to live. No possessions. Qualifications not valid here. Can’t even speak the language. Hard times.
Yet she had always wanted to go back. Now I knew the reason. It was the sketchbook and the framed portraits. After her family had been taken and forced into the Miskolc Ghetto their servant had taken the sketchbook and the framed pictures and brought them into her own home. And now she returned them to their one surviving owner.
I looked at my grandfather’s self-portrait. It was dated August 1943. He had been a humorous man, full of jokes. But here he is, looking to the left, deadly serious. Striped bow-tie and white collar. Hair carefully combed back. Why doesn’t he face the viewer? After all, he was probably looking at himself in a mirror? Isn’t that how you do a self-portrait? But not here. What has distracted him? And all in a black frame.
I turned to his portrait of his daughter, my mother. It was dated 1944 – no month. So just before the ghetto, the deportation, the camp, the labour, the return. But she too is looking away – to the right. Don’t you face the photographer or artist when they are capturing your image? Bright red headscarf. Deep blue blouse. Chestnut hair. A serious face. Sad and resigned eyes, firmly fixed into the distance – but on what? And all in a gold frame.
And what to do with all this artwork now? Parents and siblings gone. While I’m living the drawings are safe. Looked at and looked after. But there’s no one else to pass them to. There are no close blood relatives now. Maybe the two earnest Jewish-looking men are discussing whether they – together with their creator – will be remembered in the future. And the man on the platform with the brolley realising he’s missed his train is just wanting to travel into the future so he too doesn’t remain behind, forgotten.
So once again we have the prestigious BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery and once again I find myself scratching my head wondering whether or not I agree with the winners.
So the £30,000 first prize goes to … Girl in a Liberty Dress by third-time-lucky British painter Clara Drummond. And what made this delicate portrait of the shy girl with the light brown hair and hand over her mouth the best in show? Was it the Liberty print, reflecting cornflower fields, William Morris fabrics, Laura Ashley dresses, old-fashioned rural values? The subject, fellow artist Kirsty Buchanan, had, in fact, worked with Drummond on an exhibition with the William Morris Society Archive.
The second prize, £10,000, was awarded to Chinese artist Bo Wang for Silence, depicting his dying grandmother on her hospital bed. It looks death in the eye but is really reflecting, with great poignancy, all aspects of life. Third prize went to Benjamin Sullivan’s soulful oil painting of the poet Hugo (Hugo Williams, clasping his hands).
The Young Artist Award was won by 26-year-old Jamie Coreth for a monumental, neo-classical painting of his father, sculptor Mark Coreth, Dad Sculpting Me. The classical edge is provided by an assortment of figurines and statuettes on the wooden tables.
But then there are other equally deserving works: a photo-realism study of Poet Laureate Andrew Motion by Fiona Graham-Mackay is so faithful to the model that you are not convinced it is not a photograph. Another example of this technique is a portrait of former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman MP by Charles Moxon. I particularly liked Laura in Black by Joshua Larock, which expresses a milky, pre-Raphaelite feeling.
David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life is the sum of a two-and-a-half years’ output by Hockney on show at the Royal Academy. Each subject poses in the same chair painted on the same size canvas.
They are all striking and colourful images: from the gung ho Barry Humphries (of Dame Edna Everage fame), in trilby hat, red tie and pink trousers, to Rita Pynoos in brilliant red taffeta skirt. What stands out? Larry Gagosian’s penetrating eyes, Hockney’s sister Margaret’s sedate composure, and a studious young boy clutching a book. Helen Hockney’s face betrays a worldly knowledge while Dominique Deroche looks slightly out of proportion in an uncomfortable pose.
Hockney captures some innate quality of each sitter with apparently swift, Impressionistic brushstrokes. Sometimes there is no face at all, such as his portrait of J-P Gonçalves de Lima, portrayed head in hands. The hands of the sitters sometimes convey more than the face - relaxed, tense or strong, as in the case of Sir Norman Rosenthal. But many of them suffer from a lack of muscular awareness. For instance, a leg draped over a chair indicates nothing of its physical substance and sometimes the feet are disproportionately small. It wouldn’t be fair to suggest there is a caricature element here but many portraits lack the intensity and attention to detail of Hockney’s earlier work.
‘The other side of the coin’ (review) WHO BETRAYED THE JEWS? THE REALITIES OF NAZI PERSECUTION IN THE HOLOCAUST Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2016, 639 pp. hardcover, £30
I must confess that when I received this massive tome from the editor of the AJR Journal my heart sank. Surely not another book about the causes of the Holocaust! Is it not pretty well known by now who was responsible? [more...]
So now the Palestinians are saying that the concept of any historical connection between the Jews and Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount in particular, is pure myth and they are trying to get UNESCO to adopt a resolution to that effect.
I wonder what would happen if they tried to claim that there’s no connection between Christianity and Jerusalem. Their ability to totally deny proven historical facts and create a fictional reality simply beggars belief. Admittedly, Christianity’s association with Jerusalem is not entirely lacking in violence, murder and mayhem yet it cannot be denied that it existed and continues to exist. Understandably enough, the inhabitants of Rome don’t seem to be anxious to proclaim their connection with Jerusalem, though I believe the Pope is not averse to asserting Catholicism’s association with the city. But when all is said and done, the Vatican is an independent political entity and cannot be linked to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Jews should not need to be reminded that most of what Jesus preached was based on Jewish ethics and teachings. His presence in Jerusalem prior to his death served as the culmination of a life lived as a Jew in the Holy Land, where pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple for one of the three ‘foot festivals’ formed just one aspect of Jewish observance and he obviously participated in this custom (although that particular pilgrimage ended badly).
The Crusaders who conquered Jerusalem in the eleventh century and remained there for several centuries until they were defeated by Saladin and his army left their physical mark in the form of churches, fortresses and other mementos. Jerusalem is mentioned in numerous Christian texts and prayers, as it is of course in Jewish ones. To give just one example, anyone who attends a performance of Fauré’s touching Requiem cannot fail to be moved by the final chorus about ‘Paradise’, which ends with the tender repetition of the word Jerusalem by the choir.
Of course, the Christian references are primarily to celestial Jerusalem, perceived as a metaphor for heaven, a place of love and peace. That seems to be the vision perceived by the nineteenth-century English poet William Blake, whose poem Jerusalem, set to music by Hubert Parry, is tantamount to a second national anthem for England.
On a personal note, Handel’s oratorio Messiah contains several references to Jerusalem, all taken from the Torah. The beautiful aria ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain, O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem …’ refers quite clearly to physical Jerusalem, as do innumerable verses in the Bible. For me, hearing that particular passage is always a special delight because the far more concise Hebrew text reads Mevasseret Ziyyon and Mevasseret Yerushalayim, which are the names of the place just outside Jerusalem where I live. To be sitting in the church of the neighbouring Arab village of Abu Ghosh and hear this performed is an incomparable experience.
And, of course, the funniest thing of all is that the Quran doesn’t have a single reference to Jerusalem. The Muslims say that a verse mentioning ‘the far place’ is, in fact, about Jerusalem but that contention is flimsy in the extreme. Granted, Muslims or Ottomans did rule Jerusalem for several hundred years, as they did most of the area of the Middle East, and Suleiman the Magnificent built an impressive wall around Jerusalem in the fifteenth century, but Jerusalem is considered only the third most sacred site for Muslims. The original version of the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the Temple Mount in the eighth century CE (and rebuilt and extended several times after being destroyed by earthquakes and used as a palace by the Crusaders).
Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that Jews traditionally turn towards Jerusalem when praying, whereas Muslims turn towards Mecca, which means in essence that they turn their backs and behinds to Jerusalem (just visualise their position while praying). Nevertheless, as Goebbels remarked, the more outrageous the lie, the greater the chances it will be believed. Fortunately, Goebbels is no longer with us but it seems that those who lie as well as those who give credence to untruths remain.