Churchill in Wartime

After the disasters of his earlier political career I described in my last post, by 1939 Winston Churchill had once again managed to rise to prominence within the Conservative party and had gathered some considerable support behind his cause of opposition to the government’s appeasement policy. When Britain was finally dragged into war in September of that year, he found himself once again on the front foot of Westminster politics.

Churchill, as the only person mentally prepared for war, was immediately made First Lord of the Admiralty again, and it was only thanks to Neville Chamberlain’s suddenly horrendous reputation attracting blame like a magnet that prevented him getting the blame for a series of naval disasters. After Germany had successfully invaded Norway and Denmark without a hitch*, despite some fantastically idiotic speeches from Chamberlain concerning Germany’s lack of military strength, Chamberlain was forced out of power and the process of trying to hash together a coalition government began.

[*For some reason, Britain took this as a cue to invade Iceland. Why is something of a mystery.]

Chamberlain’s main ally in pursuing appeasement had been Lord Halifax, and he wanted him to head up the wartime government. The only other major candidate for the job was Churchill, who had built up a sizeable base of support within parliament, and all knew that Halifax’s government would only be able to function with Churchill’s support. Churchill, Halifax, Chamberlain and David Margesson, the Conservative chief whip, met on 10 May 1940 and Chamberlain asked Churchill the pivotal question: would he be willing to serve in a government under Halifax? This put Churchill in a dilemma: saying yes would put the government in the hands of an ineffective, pro-appeasement leader, whilst saying no would split the government down the middle and wreak mayhem at a time when strength and unity were of critical importance. Unsure of what to do, he said nothing. Time ticked by. For two full minutes the silence endured unbroken, the other men present equally unsure what they were supposed to do. Finally, Lord Halifax spoke up, whether for purely political reasons or simply our of sheer embarassment, to make possibly the most important statement in the last century of British history: he suggested that it would be difficult for a member of the House of Lords*, such as himself, to govern effectively as opposed to a member of the House of Commons, effectively ruling himself out of the job. At Chamberlain’s recommendation following that meeting, King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister, and he duly accepted. That pregnant silence would prove to be among the most important two minutes in history.

[*The practice of an elected Prime Minister always coming from the House of Commons is a modern phenomenon not enshrined in law; since she ostensibly chooses who becomes PM, the Queen could in theory just tell a random member of the House of Lords that he was now head of government. That she doesn’t is partly good manners, but mostly because to do so would probably end the British monarchy in under 5 years]

At the time, there were many who thought that, what with Gallipoli and his long history of political failures, the coming of Churchill to power represented the final nail in Britain’s coffin. Unpopular among the MPs and Lord’s alike, the 65 year-old Churchill looked to have all the cards stacked against him. However, Churchill’s drive, energy, superlative public speaking ability and vehement opposition to appeasing the Germans single-handedly changed the face of the war, hardening the opinion of public and parliament alike against the idea of an armistice. In wartime, Churchill was in his element; a natural warmonger whose aggressive tactics were so often disastrous in peacetime, now his pugnacious determination, confidence, and conviction to continue the fight no matter what united the country behind him. It was he who not only organised but inspired the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, in which thousands of small civilian vessels mobilised to take part in Operation Dynamo, evacuating trapped British and French soldiers from the port of Dunkirk in the face of heavy German fire and aerial attack, he whose many inspiring wartime speeches have gone down in history, he who inspired Londoners and RAF pilots alike to survive the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, ensuring the country remained safe from the threat of German invasion. OK, so the ‘heroic’ events of Dunkirk overlooked the fact that it had been a humiliating retreat and the army had left all their weapons behind, but that wasn’t the point; the British were inspired and weren’t going to stop fighting.

One of the most morally ambiguous yet telling events about the spirit of defiance Churchill inspired within Britain came in July 1940; the French Navy was holed up in Algeria, with the British attempting to negotiate a joining of the two fleets. The negotiations went badly and the French refused to join the British fleet- and in response the British opened fire on their allies in order to prevent their ships falling into enemy hands. 1300 lives were lost. In just about any other situation, this would have been an utterly insane act that would only have caused the Allied war effort to collapse amid bitter argument and infighting, but then, with France all but completely overrun by German forces, it was nothing more or less than a simple statement of British intent. Britain were prepared to do whatever it took to fight off the Germans, and the sheer ruthlessness of this act is said to have convinced the USA that Britain had the stomach to continue fighting no matter what. Is this a moment to be proud of? No; it was a shameless slaughter and a fiasco in more ways than one. Did it make its point? Absolutely.

Some expected Churchill to win a landslide in the first post-war elections, but ’twas not to be; even the massive wave of public goodwill towards him was not enough to overcome the public desire for social change as Clement Attlee became the first ever labour Prime Minister in 1945. To be honest, it’s probably a good thing; Attlee’s government gave us the NHS and finally started to dismantle the badly-run, expensive remnants of the British Empire, whilst Churchill’s second term as PM (1951-55) was largely undistinguished save for some more post-Imperial restlessness. Not that it matters; useless though he may have been in peacetime, in war Churchill was every bit the national hero he is nowadays made out to be. Churchill’s great legacy is not just one of not having grown up speaking German, but in many ways he redefined what it meant to be British. Churchill inspired a return to the ‘stiff upper lip’ British stereotype that we are nowadays all so proud of: a living tribute to the idea to standing up and keeping going in the face of adversity. In many ways, what Winston Churchill stood for can be best summarised by simply reciting possibly the most famous of all his many great speeches:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

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FILM FORTNIGHT: The Counterfeiters

Very few people I know have heard of this film, not that I’m terribly surprised; it takes something pretty special for any foreign language film (the film is Austrian, so spoken in German) to make it big in the somewhat saturated UK film market, and we are hardly short of films about Nazism in any language. Still, that’s no reason to malign it straight off the bat, and I managed well enough with just the subtitles.

The film’s story covers yet another of the ‘hidden tales’ of the Second World War; some small aspect of the war plan of either side that was in its own way, big or small, somehow critical to the war’s outcome. It is a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t run out of these stories at some point, since there were only so many people in Europe at the time to have an Amazing True Story happen to them, but happen they clearly did. This particular story concerns a wing of the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where tens of thousands of Jews and political enemies of the Nazi state died during the war, either by being worked to death or systematically exterminated; many others were transferred to Auschwitz to be killed. However, even in Germany at the time there was some dissidence to the state’s fanatical Jew-hating; the Jews were a successful sect of German society, with many skilled doctors, engineers, bankers and such among them, and it was a truth that (understandably) went unsaid that by locking up, driving away and killing all these people the Third Reich was hamstringing itself. Apparently, even the high-ups recognised the potential usefulness of some of these people, and here our film takes up the story; our main protagonist is career forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), arrested for… well… being a career forger, as well as a Jew. However, his talents soon make themselves known and he is moved to Sachsenhausen along with as many other prisoners the Nazis can find with skills related to artwork, printing or forgery. Their task? Come up with a facility for the mass-production of dud British and American banknotes, with the aim to flood the market with them and thus destabilise the Allied economy through hyperinflation. Some might call this a slightly eccentric strategy, but after hyperinflation had totally annihilated the German economy in the early 1930s (paving the way for the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933) the Germans knew all too well how devastating this had the potential to be.

However, this complex historical context is all so much background noise, for the real meat of the film concerns our characters. Every one is representative of the complex mess of moral ambiguity and contradiction that the prisoners find themselves in; Sorowitsch is something of a cynical moneymaker, but finds himself in the role of leader and spokesperson for the band of forgers, and whether his priorities lie with his own survival or empathy for them becomes an increasingly grey area as the film progresses. Then there is the question of the act of collaboration; some are quite clearly happy to do whatever the Nazis want if it means they can stay alive, but others are quite plainly disgusted at the idea of working for those who would quite happily have seen them dead. This moral standpoint is personified by the character of Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose memoirs the film is based upon; not only does he vehemently hate the Nazis and does everything he can to fight back against them, but his every action is indicative of his moral repulsion against their situation. Because of the importance of their work, the forgers live a relatively well-off existence, with decent clothes, good living conditions and sufficient food. By contrast, the life of a less lucky prisoner was horrific; fed on scraps when they were fed at all (there are several accounts of prisoners starving to death as concentration camps and factories argued over whose job it was to feed them), they were subjected to backbreaking labour and near-constant systematic abuse from their guards. The death rate was correspondingly horrific. This gulf in quality of life between them and their fellow prisoners, never seen until the very end of the film to provide a stark, brutal contrast, is of personal significance to Burger (his wife is imprisoned elsewhere), and whilst his comrades dress themselves in the clothes of the dead, he remains clad in prison wear, a constant and undoubtedly effective visual reminder of the moral mess the film finds itself in.

This moral quagmire is, really, the film’s underlying theme, the question of what is right versus what will keep you alive ever-present. Other films have addressed this message, but the setting of this one makes it especially poignant; across the vast expanse of German-controlled Europe, countless of ordinary people really did collaborate with the Nazi occupiers, and the shame associated with this act still lingers today. In some cases, collaborators may have believed in the Nazi ideals, but doubtless most were simply trying to make life a little less hard in whatever way they could. Was what they did right? What is worth sacrificing, worth accepting, in order to stay alive? Far better philosophers than me have pondered that question and failed to come to an answer.

However, for me the crowning moral contradiction of the lot comes in the form of the prisoner’s Nazi controller, Herzog (Devid Streisow; in real life the operation was headed by a man named Bernhard Kruger). A softly-spoken family man who is proud to say that he never beats his children, it is Herzog who is responsible for the prisoners’ comfortable existence; and an undoubtedly ruthless Nazi who threatens to start shooting prisoners if anyone conspires to sabotage the operation (adding another layer of moral quandary to Burger’s sabotage attempts). In more ways than one, Herzog is symbolic of the strange quirks of moral reasoning of the Nazi party as a whole; a political party who, whilst happy to gas millions upon millions of Jews for no good reason, had very strong objections to hunting, cruelty to animals and smoking (they were the first to show that smoking is unhealthy, although nobody took them seriously at the time). Herzog is a metaphor for the system he represents, just as the film is a metaphor for a thousand stories of small-time collaborators across the continent.

The Counterfeiters is most certainly not a perfect film. Whilst it is grim, gritty, realistic and deals with some genuinely meaningful subject matter, director Stefan Ruzowitsky doesn’t seem able to differentiate between the gravity of different scenes, making those that should have packed a powerful punch seem rather tired and listless. Whilst not taxing for the brain, it is rather hard to enjoy for this reason, and whilst the moral ambiguity of the characters gives them purpose it is not done in such a way as to make them seem sympathetic and likeable. No, I cannot definitely say that I enjoyed The Counterfeiters, but I respect the hell out of it for telling a story that tries to mean something, and for having the guts to be unconventional.

PS: Reading around some of the source material for this film, I came across the story of Bernhard Kruger, the real-life version of Herzog. His story and the story in the film do not apparently synch up (even Adolf Burger is on record as saying that the film does not portray events as they really happened), and he was apparently just as much of a murderer as the likes of Rudolf Hoess (the commandant of Auschwitz); according to Burger, he murdered six ill prisoners in the final days of the war to prevent them from talking when they went to hospital. However, his story becomes interesting when he was put on trial for war crimes; several former members of his unit apparently gave evidence of his good treatment of them during the war, and he was acquitted; because this film didn’t have quite enough moral ambiguity on its own…

Who is most impressive?

As one or two of you may have noticed, the Olympics are almost over, prompting the requisite large party and giving some Brazilians a chance to wear odd clothes, dance about and generally play to stereotypes (probably- I’m feeling a little cynical today). However, in not too long a time that other, perhaps more understated, tetrannual sporting party will get underway: the Olympics’ disabled cousin, the Paralympics.

In some ways this will be a spiritual homecoming for the Paralympic Games- founded in 1948 for ex-servicemen with spinal injuries after the Second World War, it was the brainchild of Dr. Ludvig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Great Britain (the sports centre at Stoke Mandeville is still called the Guttmann centre in his honour, and one of the two mascots for London 2012 is called Mandeville). Guttmann was a Jew, and had emigrated from his native Germany in 1939 to escape persecution from the Nazi government of the time. He founded the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke in 1944, and founded the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ (to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics) in response to his feeling that sport could be use as a form of therapy for the seriously disabled, giving them purpose and self-respect. His vision was a great success, ballooning in size and popularity until, in 1960, it became officially tied to the Olympics proper (it wasn’t called the Paralympics until 1984). Guttmann himself was showered in praise for his work, being awarded (among other things) a CBE, OBE, and a knighthood in 1966.

Since then, the Paralympic movement has continued to inspire and amaze. Since 1960 non-war veterans have been eligible to compete, and multiple categories of disability have been entering since 1976. For many, the very existence of the Games has been a beacon of hope for lives torn apart by accident or injury, something to focus their otherwise unspent athletic energies upon, and thus fulfilling Guttmann’s vision of sport as a therapy. For a special few, they have been a springboard to their being able to compete amongst able-bodied counterparts, in sports ranging from sprinting to shooting to swimming.

Paralympians, obviously, do not have the physical capacity to match able-bodied competitors in the majority of situations, and as such, on a purely numerical basis, they are ‘less impressive’. Human nature dictates that we thus find them less interesting and compelling to watch for an extended period of time, a problem compounded by the sheer number of different classifications, leading to a huge number of medals and competitions and thus a confusing and some might say unfocused set of events that becomes impossible to keep track of (there are, for instance, six different classes of cerebral palsy 100m sprinting, giving the athletes concerned 6 times less attention, 6 times less focus and interest and making their medals seem only a sixth as valuable).  All this means that the amount of funding and (especially) media coverage offered to the Paralympics is significantly less than the Olympic equivalents, despite a great advance in recent years, and that they are simply not taken quite as seriously as Usain Bolt & Co.

All of which begs the obvious question: are Olympians really better than their disabled counterparts, or do the mental battles, financial struggles, and management of trying to hold down a paying job before we even consider the crippling physical impairment enough to render Paralympic Athletes even more impressive?

This question ultimately boils down to a question of which is more impressive- being the best in the world, or being merely far, far better than the rest of us mere mortals despite having to overcome. To consider an example, the world record for 100m sprinting in the most severe class of blindness is 11.03 seconds, less than a second and a half slower than Usain Bolt’s fastest ever time and far faster than anyone I happen to know- and this is done whilst entirely unable to see where you are going.

OK, you might say, but blindness doesn’t actually affect physical capability, so what about something that does. Consider the shot put, which involves throwing a large metal ball weighing 16lb (7.26kg) as far as possible with a rigidly monitored technique. 7kg is a surprisingly ungainly mass at the best of times, but when compacted into a small, dense ball thrown in one hand it becomes even harder to handle. I have thrown a shot in school, much lighter than an Olympic one, and got it about 2 metres. Karmel Kardjena is quadriplegic, as in all limbs severely damaged to the point of muscles not working properly, and can throw it 11.

These are just examples I can find on Wikipedia that make for a good comparison- I’m sure a dedicated student of the Paralympics could quote dozens more. Perhaps the most famous Paralympian of all, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (aka Bladerunner) won a silver medal in the 2011 World Championships INSERT BIT ABOUT 2012 WHEN HE’S DONE IT (competitions he entered despite a 2008 ruling, which he later successfully appealed, that the carbon fibre replacements for his amputated forelegs were giving him an unfair advantage). He is competing amongst the very best in the world, regardless of the fact that he has no calves or feet, and he is representative of the sheer quality that is surely present among Paralympians.

However, in order to judge our argument effectively, we must still consider how impressive our able bodied athletes are. I have already dedicated an entire post to just how superhuman these people are, but it’s worth taking another look around at the plethora of talent on display over the last fortnight to truly comprehend that. To take a parallel with Kardjena, let us consider the equivalent men’s shot put record. We must, of course, bear in mind that able bodied athletes are capable of not only taking a hopping run-up but also twisting the full trunk of their body, but even so, their achievements are staggering- the world record is over 23 metres (interestingly enough still shorter than the shortest discus throw in Olympic history, at 25).

So then, which is better? Well, to be honest it really comes down to a matter of opinion. Some may believe that the sheer quality of Olympic athletes cannot be made up for by the disabilities of Paralympians, whilst others will say that they more than cover for it and that the Paralympics is the home of real sporting greats. But, in many ways, this argument is entirely irrelevant, if only because we could argue until the end of time and not reach an answer. The real fact to acknowledge is simply that these Paralympians are clearly not here ‘just to take part’- they are serious athletes going in serious competition and capable of seriously amazing things. Whether Oscar Pistorius is better or worse than Usain Bolt matters not so long as we are all agreed that both of them are so great, so beyond what any of the rest of us can do, that they deserve every ounce of admiration we can muster. As the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, famously said: “The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well”

And sorry for the rather lame cop-out