Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Robin Cross - The Battle of Kursk: Operation Citadel 1943

Stalingrad was the turning point of the World War Two on the Eastern Front. The destruction of the German Sixth Army marked a major change for the fight against Hitler. But the subsequent battle for Kursk, that developed out of the relative positions of the German and Russian armies at the end of 1942 was the beginning of the end for Hitler.

The German debacle at Stalingrad gave the Russians the opportunity to strike rapidly westwards, which they seized. But, as the German army recovered, the Russians lines were left with an enormous bulge, the Kursk salient, which stretched deep into German territory. This was a weak point for the Russian army, and the high-command were sure that German armies would be unable to resist attacking from the north and south in an attempt to behead the Red Army's troops within the salient.

Robin Cross details the extraordinary battle that followed. Firstly he shows how reluctant many of the German leaders were to engage in battle. After Stalingrad they had developed a healthy respect for their enemy's capabilities. Hitler too prevaricated, initially enthusiastic for Operations Citadel, he then began delaying it for weeks. In part this helped sow the seeds of defeat, for the Russians were able to pour enormous quantities of troops and material into the Salient, building up what is likely to have been histories greatest defence in depth. Millions of mines, thousands of guns and tanks, and above all millions of men.

Cross' descriptions of the build up to the battle are surprisingly readable, combining military history with the story of the various contrasting leadership styles. Hitler is increasingly unable to relinquish the reins of power, his inflexibility and in particular his terror at the idea of retreat, even tactically, condemns many men to death and armies to defeat. But by 1943 German industry was also problematic. The powerful Tiger tank could not, despite Hitler's fantasies, be produced fast enough to win the battle. But these weren't the only factors. The German army was also failing to learn lessons, and was preparing its Blitzkrieg for Kursk. Tactics that worked well in 1941 with the wide open spaces available during the opening assault on Russia, were inappropriate the what would be a close in style of warfare.

Nonetheless when the battle came, the Germans came close. The Russian airforce was initially driven from the skies and Cross relates terrifying eyewitness accounts of how, one after another, Russian T34 tanks were destroyed by the heavier German armour. But defence  in depth, and enormous Russian sacrifice, as well as brilliant commanding meant the Red Army could hold the attack. And then, unleash the counter-attack which the Germans had no expectation off. This counter-attack was to destroy German ability to engage in offensive attacks in the East and transform the situation post Kursk. German manpower and resources were reduced to nothing, a situation summarized by a leaflet dropped on the German defenders of Kharkov by the Russian airforce,

"Comrades of the 3rd Panzer Division, we know that you are brave soldiers. Every other man in your division has the Iron Cross. But every other man on our side has a mortar. Surrender!"

The German commander, General Manstein, met with Hitler and his subordinate, Hollidt presented the Fuhrer with figures that underlined the seriousness of the situation.

"My XXIX Corps has 8706 men left. Facing it are 69,000 Russians. My XVII corps has 9284 men; facing it are 49,500 Russians. My IV Corps is relatively best off - it has 13,143 men, faced by 18,000 Russians."

Hitler dodged the situation. More obsessed with Allied landings in Sicily and Italy he prevaricated and made impossible promises. The Red Army followed up the attack out of Kursk by driving the Germans across the Dnieper river. As one German German reflected "There were to be no more periods of quiet on the Eastern Front. From now on the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative."

The story of this crucial battle of World War Two is brilliantly told in this classic book. Robin Cross never fails to remind us though, that the battle which is inevitably described as history's greatest tank battle, was in reality a battle that involved millions of men. It is perhaps this approach that makes this such a readable work. But it is the scale of the battle itself that makes it so shocking, among all the troops movements described in achingly accurate detail, we are never able to forget that these are real men, fighting and dying.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is a novel based on six hierarchically nested stories that stretch from the diary of a 16th century mariner in the Pacific Ocean to the life of someone living in a post apocalyptic Hawaii. To be honest, I thought the novel would be more complex, instead their appears to only be the most tenuous of links between the century spanning stories. That said, Cloud Atlas, is extremely enjoyable and very readable. With each story Mitchell uses a different style, meaning that some chapters are very funny, others tragic and some disturbing.

Reading the reviews after the book, it seems that the literary types got carried away with how unique the book is. While the idea of characters being re-incarnated through history is unusual, it isn't unique. Kim Stanley Robinson does it brilliantly in The Years of Rice and Salt for instance. But Mitchell tries to minimise the links between his stories, with characters only very occasionally having flashbacks that the reader can knowingly enjoy but which leave the characters confused. Cloud Atlas is a fun, unusual and well-written novel that will appeal to the reader looking for something different. Its prognosis for the future of humanity is notably bleak though.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Paul N. Siegel - The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World

The question of religion has always been an important one for revolutionaries. This important, but slightly dated work, is an essential read for those attempting to understand the historic and social role of religion. Paul N. Siegel's work is from a Marxist point of view. He sees religion, not as a crude counter-revolutionary force which holds back workers and dims their outlook, but as Karl Marx did, dialectically. Religion is both the "opium" of the people and their "heart in a heartless world" offering hope for the future, a better life after death and on occasion, a radical way to interpret the world that can lead to radical action.

Siegel begins by looking at the origins of the Marxist critique of religion, seeing its roots in the French Enlightenment Materialists who came to an anti-religious position through a materialistic understanding of the universe. For those frustrated and annoyed at the contradictions of religion, there are entertaining sections here where Siegel summarises the materialist critique of Christianity. In particular the contradictions of the Bible, which frequently undermine claims of God as a benevolent force for good. There is much to build on in a critique of religion from a materialistic point of view. After all, religion does "foster ignorance", it is conservative, and it has frequently helped to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. The materialists also understood that the origins of religion lay in attempts to understand the universe. But Engels, Siegel points out, adds that only looking at this aspect misses a more important role of religion; that religion also reflects humanity's lack of control over social forces.

"Side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active - forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves... At a still further stage of evolution, all the natural and social attributes of the numerous gods are transferred to one almighty god."

Challenging religion then, means more than simply opposing it, or pointing out its inherent contradictions. Because it has a social origin and role, social change will ultimately be the way that society rids itself of the backwardness of religion. That's not to say that people cannot break from a religious understanding through argument or experience, but it is also true that this is not enough. Siegel quotes Freud,

"It is certainly senseless to begin by trying to do away with religion by force and at a single blow.... The believer will not let his belief be torn from him, either by arguments or by prohibition. And even if this did succeed with some it would be cruelty. A man who has been taking sleeping draughts for tens of years is naturally unable to sleep if his sleeping draught is taken away from him."

Religion offers an understanding of the world to the believer. It also offers a better world in the future, and sometimes, it is the radical language which believers use to try and change the world. The second half of the book looks at the social origins of the world's major religions. In doing so, Siegel shows how religion has often played a dual role. Early Christianity, for instance, offering a radical, revolutionary critique of existing Roman society and a political structure to organise. Siegel traces this role through history, examining for instance, how different Christian sects used different interpretations of the Bible  to push for change during the later years of European feudal society (and early, in some cases). The Quakers, the Diggers, the Levellers and many other Christian sects were trying to re-interpret the world and demand change in various forms. But often, when these movements were defeated,

"having laid down their weapons, they are co-opted and often transformed into the opposites through the influx of new members of different social classes. This process, epitomized in the evolution of early Christianity from a lower-class religion to the religion supporting the feudal structure, is repeated again and again."

But churches often themselves try to hold back the struggle. Siegel quotes Martin Luther King Jnr. during the Civil Rights Movement to illustrate this point, that

"too many Negro churches.. are so absorbed in a future good 'over yonder' that they condition their members to adjust to the present evils 'over here'."

Siegel thus outlines a clear Marxist understanding of the contradictory role of religion historically and, in contemporary capitalist society. His histories of the major religions are both interesting historically and illustrate his main points. While the religion may take different forms, there are many comparative points. Take Siegel's point about Hinduism and Buddhism, which both offer a better future in a future life,

"On the other hand, by performing one's caste obligations one could ascend to a higher caste in a future life and even, as later Hindu doctrine said, become a god... Everything is subject to change - except the caste system, which goes on forever. Instead of the everlasting reward and punishment in another world which the medieval Catholic Church used to maintain the social order, the Brahmans used an eternity of successive rewards and punishments in this world, with some transitory sojourns in another world."

Siegel's broad overview of religious history contains much of interest. The section on the appalling role of the Catholic Church during World War Two is very useful, as is his analysis of the origins of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States. Siegel's analysis of the origins of Islam and its role as both anti-imperialist, but also anti-socialist is also interesting in the light of events in the Middle East since World War Two. It is an analysis close to that of Chris Harman and will, even though it is now very dated, help inform anyone trying to understand the role of Islam today. Siegel also offers useful chapters tackling the question on whether Marxism is a religion (in the sense of a block of ideas passed down from a single, all knowing figure). This chapter feels particularly dated today, but Siegel was writing when the existence of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc allowed a bastardisation of Marxism to dominate. Also interesting is Siegel's study of religion after the Cuban Revolution. If at times the author is soft on the Castro regime, his suggestion that leading figures in that movement had a nuanced understanding of the role of religion is interesting. I was also struck by how contemporary the section on Zionism was.

The final section, which gives a brief overview of revolutionaries and religion is particularly important. Building on the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Siegel rejects absolutely the idea that religious people cannot be revolutionaries, or in revolutionary organisation. He also explains how the Bolsheviks, in the early years of the Russian Revolution were able to separate Church from State and to use this strategy to undermine the historic role of religion, an example of not trying to do away with religion "at a single blow".

This important book contains much of interest to the contemporary radical reader. It is a very clear alternative to those, such as Richard Dawkins, who think that being a vocal atheist is somehow enough to be radical (and whose politics as a result frequently ends up being reactionary). By putting the historical materialist method at the heart of his study of religion, and explaining the dialectical social role of religion, Paul N. Siegel's book is a must read.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Mike Ingram - Bosworth 1485

The Battle of Bosworth brought the Wars of the Roses to an end, and installed Henry VII as King of England. For such a momentous event, the battle was itself quite short, involving relatively small numbers of troops (Ingram estimates based on contemporary sources and the known size of the armies, that Richard III had between 10,000 and 15,000 men on the day). Contemporary accounts differ widely on how many casualties there were, but contemporary accounts differ on almost all aspects of the battle. One suggest that Richard III's army lost 1000 men and only 100 from Henry's. Another says 300 on each side, and a final one gives the total dead as 10,000.

These big differences are typical of what we have in the records of the battle. So in this short work, Mike Ingram balances informed speculation with archaeological evidence from recent excavations of the battle field. Amazingly, for such a significant battle, we've only recently learnt were it actually was.

The significance of Bosworth can only be understood with a grounding in the history leading to the War of the Roses. This is less because of the conflicts of the different factions and more because it helps the reader understand why particular lords and nobles lined up on each side of the battle lines.

Ingram also tells us a lot about medieval warfare. Bosworth took place at a time when firearms and cannon were beginning to come into their own, but were still cumbersome. Archers still dominated, but new technologies were coming to the fore. I was surprised to find out that even troops following a particular noble would rarely have the same outfits. No uniforms here, just an emblem and a banner to rally around.

The battle itself was violent and bloody. Medieval warfare was, and Ingram's explanations of how particularly weapons were used might induce winches. A hammer to incapacitate a knight, damaging armoured joints so he couldn't move, then flip the weapon over and use the sharp axe to finish the job.

Given the numbers on the field, Henry should have lost the battle. But Ingram suggests that he masterfully used the terrain and the position of the sun, to give him the maximum advantage. Marshy ground lessened the impact of Richard's artillery, and most importantly for Henry, the troops of the lords Stanley eventually were deployed in his favour at a crucial point in the fight.

The outcome, Richard's death and Henry's crowning on the battle field led to a new era in British royal history. The dead were buried nearby, and the wounded mostly died of gangrene and other infections a few days later. Richard's noble followers were mostly killed at Bosworth and those that remained quickly gave in to the new order, or were executed. Henry VII backdated his declaration of being king to the day before the battle in order to charge his opponents with treason. History rewritten in the process of being made. The spoils of war included a set of Richard's tapestries for William Stanley. He didn't enjoy them for very long, because he eventually turned against Henry and was executed for treason during on the of the final hurrahs of the Yorkist cause, a failed rebellion in 1495. The rather inglorious end to the Wars of the Roses is very well summed up in this excellent short introduction to the battle, which is nicely illustrated and filled with information for someone interested in history, or a visitor to the battlefield.

Related Reviews

Royle - The Wars of the Roses

Trevor Royle - The Wars of the Roses

Radicals often bemoan the way history is all to often the history of great men (and occasional great women). The contribution of ordinary people in making the world and changing it is omitted in a version of history that sees only those individuals at the top of society as being important. Kings, queens, generals and politicians are recorded, but those of the lower orders ignored.

This is not to say, however, that such individuals are unimportant. The dynastic conflicts of the War of the Roses helped shape British history, even if these were not conflicts about fundamental change. The various clashes were precisely those of individuals who wanted to take power or strengthen their position. The key position was, of course, King of England and during the Wars, a surprising number of individuals held this role. Trevor Royle's book is a history of that conflict. The Wars of the Roses dominated England for near 100 years and thousands of people lost their lives, usually because their lord or landowner needed them to join up and fight in his interest.

For readers who know nothing of this period, some of it will be surprising. I was quite taken, for instance, at the number of sieges and military clashes between lords over local disputes - for land, debts or other questions of wealth and power. Others might be surprised to find how fluid England itself was. At different times, "England" consisted of large parts of Normandy, with other bits regularly being given to or taken from Scotland.

But the key question here is the dynastic conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Royle roots the story in over a hundred years of earlier history, beginning with the 1300s and the Hundred Years War between France and England, with complicated questions of who governed the country arising mostly from Henry VI's usurping of the monarch in 1399. Ordinary people are rarely mentioned. They don't figure in this history, unless they are soldiers, or part of the occasional 'rebellions' that occur as one lord tries to force out another.

By the time England descends into protracted civil war, there is little political or economic basis to the conflict. In fact, at times, different kings are seen (in the manner of 1066 and All That) as being good or bad. A good king might be one that didn't raise taxes, a  bad one was one that spent freely. Usually though, few nobles who challenged the King dared to do this by accusing him of malpractice. Instead it was his retinue who were targeted as being greedy, irresponsible or practitioners of witchcraft. Trevor Royle writes of one famous monarch,

"In most respects Richard III conformed to the class from which he sprang, he exploited the hereditary principle to get what he wanted and then acted ruthlessly in his own interests and in building up his territorial power, but, shorn of valid support as he was, his violence of mind and action mean that when he fell he fell mightily."

Royle's book makes it clear that none of these kings, despite their rhetoric, had any real interest in governing England to improve it for all. They ruthlessly exploited their position for wealth and power, promoting their family and friends, executing, murdering and imprisoning anyone who stood in their way. At times, Royle's descriptions of how individuals change with the accession of a new King is almost comic - some people leaving the Tower, others being locked up - as though they were on a roundabout.

Warwick, the King Maker, who made shameless
maneuvering into an art form, leaving 1000s
dead on the battlefields.
For those with little heads for dates and the names of kings and rich nobles, Trevor Royle does an excellent job of telling you the complex and interwoven story. Given the number of times people changed loyalties, even in the midst of battle, this isn't always an easy task. That the English nobility seem to only like a handful of names for their children doesn't help with the clarity either. But Royle tells a complex story well.

The battles e describes, were rarely glorious. They were bloody, dirty and ruthless with the losing nobility being executed on their knees in the mud at the end. The battle that put an end to the dynastic struggle, at Bosworth in 1485, was hardly a great affair. While it left Richard III dead and Henry VII as the first Tudor king, this important conflict was little more than the latest in a long line of fights. Royle sums it up well when he points out it was a

"fitting end for a war which had done so much damage and had dominated English life for almost a century: the panoply of kingship reduced to the crown being retrieved from a bush and placed on the victor's head on a battle field whose exact location is not known to this day."

Of such inglorious events legends are made. One might reflect on what this says of the Monarchy in general.

Related Reviews

Ingram - Bosworth 1485

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

J.L.Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150-1500

This study of medieval England is far from a dry academic text. It is a detailed examination of an economic system that evolved over an extended period, exhibited extensive regional variations and was at times incredibly dynamic. The author, J.L.Bolton, covers a great deal of ground. Within the first thirty pages there is a description of the debate on the origins of open field farming systems, its links to manorialism, a discussion on which parts of England open field farming dominated and where it didn't (and the reasons for the variations), and the distribution of villeinage (unfree labour). There is even a passing mention of Cornish tin-miners and their position in the medieval hierarchy. All in the first thirty pages.

The greatest achievement of the book though, is the way that Bolton gets across the idea of an evolving, dynamic economic system. Bolton's medieval world is far from the unchanging economy that we sometimes imagine when thinking of this period. One key aspect to this is population which influences all sorts of other areas of the economy - the amount of land being farmed, the type and amount of exports, and the wage levels for instance. The conventional story, of population crash during the Black Death, followed by stagnation and wage rises linked to the undermining of serfdom isn't far from the mark. But Bolton suggests a slightly more complex scenario. He suggests that the Plague initially had few economic consequences. The countryside was full, and there were plenty of people to fill up vacant plots of land. It was, Bolton says, not until much later that changes become apparent,

"Real signs of economic change as a result of plague come only gradually and are not generally evident until the mid-1370s. Then prices began to fall, wages to rise, landlords began again to lease demesnes, holdings began to fall permanently vacant. As with the Great Famines of 1315-25, one disaster does not lead to demographic downturn. But a whole series of disasters will have a cumulative effect... Plague was now endemic..." 

For Bolton the plague accelerated existing economic trends, and acted as a brake on the recovery of the population to its former level. For recover it should have. "Fewer people meant more per capita wealth, an improved standard of living for the survivors. Land was now readily available, food was cheap, real wages high, a better diet with greater consumption of meat and dairy products was now possible.... But the population did not rise. All the indirect evidence suggests that after the major fall int the third quarter of the 14th century, the population remained at best static, at worst slowly declining until the last decades of the 15th century."
What this meant in the fields, so to speak, was interesting. "Wages moved with prices until the late 1370s", but after that the general trend of wages was up and grain downwards. Now this is a work of economic history, but Bolton doesn't neglect the reality of his figures. Take the wealth of the rich.

"royal revenue inclusive of taxation ran at about £60-100,000 per annum in the later part of the century... At the very top, a great earldom like that of Lancaster... had a yearly income of about £10,000. This was in a class by itself... Clare of Gloucester or Bigod of Norfolk drew £3-4,000 a year... whilst the 'average' earl would have had a net income of about £1,600. The archbishop of Canterbury's estates provided him with an average income of £2,128 in the thirteenth century."

Bolton points out that £20-£40 per annum, was enough to support a thirteenth century knight in comfort. To the ordinary peasant, the man or woman who created all this wealth, these were astronomical sums. Even an average earl had wealth beyond the dreams of the masses. And, as Bolton points, out conditions for the peasantry progressively got worse over the period. These were the "most exploitable" and exploited they were. Medieval lords became experts at finding the most efficient ways of getting money from the lowest orders.

"Population pressure was pushing up the value of land, to the obvious advantage of those who held it. This can be seen in two main ways, from the rising level of entry fines and of rents for free land. Rents from customary land in the form of money payments were hard to vary. Custom protected them. Services could be increased by redefinition of subdivision... but what the lord wanted was usually more money, not more labour. He could however, commute services and demand high payments for so doing, but this could produce resistance. A better way was to exploit the only truly flexible element in customary payments, the entry fine [money paid to take over a holding]."

These rose significantly. The quoted averages on Winchester manors was 24s. 4d a virgate between 1277 and 1348, compared to 1s to 1s. 8d in 1219. An enormous increase.

Image of happy peasants eating. The reality was often destitution
As a result of this exploitation, the peasant, Bolton points out was usually on the edge of destitution. So far I have concentrated on the peasant aspect to the medieval economy. Bolton does not neglect other important areas such as the growth and development of industry in England - particularly mining, fishing and cloth making - all significant contributors to various regional economies and national trade. Nor does Bolton neglect the rise (and sometimes fall) of towns and cities. Bolton looks at the many reasons why English industry barely developed, and indeed stagnated in places. The one industry that seems to be the exception to the rule was masonry, which "experienced two centuries of almost unbroken boom" - not surprising given the preponderance of medieval projects building cathedrals, castles and churches. Cloth, like other industries was very labour intensive, to produce a cloth of half length (12 x 1.5 - 2 yards) required 15 persons for a week. So wage costs were a significant factor in how the industry developed over time.

"By the late thirteenth century England was exporting some 30,000 sacks of wool per annum to Flanders. In return... Flanders seems to have sent back large quantities of finished cloth... More cheaply produced Flemish cloth was swamping the home market and to survive the English manufacturer had to try in all ways possible to cut costs. The simplest way was to use the cheap, unregulated labour increasingly available in the countryside."

But the biggest problem was the lack of capital. Which Bolton suggests was because of the English merchants and manufacturers had no access to home based banking systems, relying on loans and capital from overseas bankers, particularly those from Italy. This meant "the majority of English trade was not in English hands". Consequently,

"From the English point of view the economy had to operate within the constraints of inadequate access to capital. Consequently neither trade nor industry could offer a major alternative source of employment to the growing mass of peasants living on the brink of subsistence. At the very mist perhaps 10 per cent of population were engaged in non-agrarian occupations."

But things changed. In particular, by the 15th century there was a significant improvement in agriculture. While there "were poor men still, disease was rife, starvation possible, yet compared with the thirteenth century the fifteenth was one of quiet prosperity for the mass of the people."  Unfortunately though, this was actually the result of shortages of labour. Once the population began to grow, the position of the peasantry "became precarious" again.

By the end of the 15th century, England does not seem to be a country that has the potential to be a world power. Bolton sums it up well. Apart from the cloth industry, there was no industry of any size.

"No large-scale mining or metal working complexes emerged to rival those in other areas in Europe. There seemed to be a shortage of English shipping and the most profitable markets for English exports were served by alien merchants. Indeed, compared not only with modern industrialized countries but also in relation to the standards of the 'developed' countries of that time - Italy, the Low Countries and South Germany - England was an underdeveloped country. It had not broken out of the medieval straitjacket."

To break out would require major political, social and economic upheavals in the following centuries. Bolton's book is an excellent backdrop to understanding the economic situation before the 1600s fundamentally transformed things. Bolton describes the general picture as well as the developments and changes that are taking place below the surface. But this book is most useful for its detailed examination of the economic dynamics in the context of wider political and social forces. This book is a must read for anyone getting to grips with England in between the 12th and 16th centuries. It is one that I will reference countless times.

Related Reviews

Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Lacey and Danziger - The Year 1000
Ziegler - The Black Death