This is history writing at its compelling best. Lynne Olson has beavered away to find an original angle on an oft-told story and does it with such force of insight that one's sense of the bigger story is given greater…
I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible "What If" question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16)
So, there's been seriously long radio-silence from Q in recent weeks. But this is not the result of inactivity. Far from it. Regulars will be pleased to hear that my book is seriously under way - with 5 out of 10 chapters now completed in draft. Phew!! There's going to be lots to blog on when it's done - but I don't have the energy or brain to do both at the same time! Nevertheless, I've been keeping up reading and stuff. Here are a few reviews of recent freebies I got on the Amazon Vine programme. There might be something of interest to someone...
The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook's The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of '48-'49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city):
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March - a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers' photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
It could have been at a rather upmarket fancy-dress party. The dress was certainly fancy; the guests well-to-do; the event evidently unusual. But as well as being a deeply solemn occasion, and even a family occasion, it was an era-defining moment.
The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks.
So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details - but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, "memory slips through one's fingers like sand." It's remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications.
Churchill famously declared during the Second World War that the "Truth is so precious that she must often be attended by a bodyguard of lies" - and the British military effort entailed the largest and most complex exploitation of deception in warfare to date. This involved the twin arms of message interception and code breaking (through the extraordinary work of Bletchley Park in particular), and the use of all kinds of deception tactics (including the use of double agents and entirely fictitious battalions preparing to invade the Pas de Calais around the time of D Day's Normandy landings).
I don't cry in movies. Sometimes I'd quite like to. But that's a different story. I just don't. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom.