Vol. 15 No. 24 · 16 December 1993

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Praise for Mrs Thatcher

R.W. Johnson (LRB, 2 December) makes many telling points about Mrs Thatcher’s time as prime minister. One point that he gets completely wrong, however, is her claim to have influenced Reagan’s SDI policy. She in fact played a decisive role in ensuring that the United States did not ‘break out’ of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was the goal of Edward Teller and many SDI-backers in the Pentagon. Mrs Thatcher’s role in converting the US Administration’s policy on this issue from anti-ABM Treaty to pro-ABM Treaty was spelt out in detail by John Newhouse, the American writer on arms control, in the New Yorker (22 July 1985). According to Newhouse, Mrs Thatcher told President Reagan ‘to his face’ at Camp David in December 1984 ‘what is wrong with Star Wars’. He goes on to say: ‘she may be the only one who could do so without creating friction, because their relationship is such a strong one.’

The outcome of that meeting was a joint Reagan-Thatcher agreement drafted by the British, setting out four fundamental points which would govern the SDI programme: 1. the US would not seek strategic superiority; 2. potential deployment of SDI systems would be a matter for negotiation, as required by the ABM Treaty; 3. the goal of SDI would be ‘to enhance, not undercut deterrence’; 4. arms-control negotiations based on the existing ABM and SALT Treaties would be pursued. Although the clear purpose of SDI, as stated initially by President Reagan, would have been to deploy ABM-systems in space in violation of the ABM Treaty, the acceptance of these four points implied that the SDI programme was only a research programme, and as such allowed by the treaty.

Immediately after the Reagan-Thatcher meeting the US State Department arranged to send a telegram to its embassies abroad explaining the new policy, but the Pentagon vetoed the telegram. Inter-agency fighting in Washington followed until June 1985, when the decision to abide by the treaties was accepted formally by President Reagan as a result of further pressure from Mrs Thatcher and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is difficult to think of any previous situation in modern times where a British politician played so important a role in determining US policy. The only remotely similar episode which comes to mind is the Quebec Agreement between Churchill and Roosevelt when the US agreed not to use nuclear weapons against third parties without UK consent.

Mrs Thatcher may well claim that her mastery of SDI issues followed from her scientific training. While it is easy to be snide about this by pointing to her ‘Second in Chemistry’ and her making ‘the filling for jam rolls’, the important point is that her background in science allowed her to take a serious interest in the technicalities of SDI and nuclear deterrence theory and not leave those matters to the ‘experts’. It is difficult to imagine her successor or any of the other management consultants, accountants and lawyers on the Government Front Bench following her example. Mrs Thatcher’s achievement on SDI paved the way for glasnost and may well be seen by future historians as the most important of her term of office.

Norman Dombey
University of Sussex

de Mania

If Richard Harrier (Letters, 18 November) wants to indulge in philologico-political innuendo, he should get his facts straight. He complains that ‘even’ (sic) in David Bromwich’s account of ‘the de Man case’, two ‘conditions’ have not yet been sufficiently stressed. First, the ‘condition’ that ‘English was probably de Man’s fourth or fifth language,’ since he ‘probably grew up speaking Dutch, German, French and perhaps Flemish’. A minimal amount of research should have enabled Harrier to realise that Flemish is that variety of Dutch spoken in the southern part of the Dutch speech-area (itself comprising the Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium). For the record: de Man grew up speaking Flemish (his native language) and French (the then culturally dominant language in Belgium); German and English he would have been taught in school. To what extent this may have accounted for de Man’s alleged ‘deaf[ness] to the nuances of English’ is a question best addressed by those who are not themselves arrogantly deaf to the history of Germanic languages. As it is, Harrier would still have to demonstrate that de Man’s comments on Wordsworth and Yeats are indeed exercises in ‘irrelevant problem-making’.

The second ‘condition’ involves ‘de Mans’sense of cultural exile’: Harrier’s ‘guess is that [de Man’s] acceptance of German hegemony in the historical continuum was based upon a conviction of the superiority of German culture and its language.’ Instead of substantiating this guess by anything remotely resembling relevant textual evidence, Harrier lakes off at a tangent invoking, via R.F. Jones, 17th-century English antiquaries’ indebtedness ‘to a more or less conscious movement in most of the Germanic countries, a movement slightly prophetic of the Nazis’ in its ‘extravagant praise’, corroborated by ‘citing Tacitus on the virtuous German character’, for ‘the Germans and all things German’. Harrier then homes in on the work of ‘John Van Gorp, a Flemish physician (1518-72), who went so far as to claim that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was German, and that the Old Testament was first composed in pure German, only to be muddied by Hebrew translation.’ Harrier acknowledges that de Man’s ‘necessarily troubled admiration of German poets and philosophers was more soberly based’, but adds that ‘it was pervasive nevertheless.’ I am not quite certain what to make of this ‘nevertheless’, but it does seem to suggest that to admire Goethe and Hölderlin is somehow to be guilty by implication of sinister silliness such as that imputed to ‘John Van Gorp’. (Incidentally, as his name indicates, Jan van Gorp hailed from Gorp, near Hilvarenbeek, which makes him Dutch, not Flemish, though he spent much of his time in Flanders. The word ‘van’, I might add, is Dutch for ‘of’ or ‘from’, and like ‘de’ in de Man or even de Graef, is generally capitalised in non-initial position only according to a mistaken assumption that to use a lower case indicates noble descent – but that is another story.)

The irony, however, is that Jan van Gorp, aka Johannes Goropius Becanus (in accordance with the Humanist habit of Latinising proper names), did not claim, pace Jones, that ‘German’ was the original Edenic language: instead, he argued, having recourse to spurious etymologies, that this original language was ‘Diets’, a word that still transpires in the German for ‘German’ (Deutsch) and the English for ‘Dutch’ (Nederlands, in Dutch), but which in Becanus’ usage designated the language of the Low Countries as distinct from Latin, German and French dialects. (More recently, the term has been reserved for the register of usually right-wing ideologues who seek the dissolution of Belgium and reunification with the Netherlands, a movement that de Man, for one, explicitly rejected in his war-time journalism.) As there was no standard language in the Low Countries in the 16th century, Becanus further specified in his 1569 Origines Antwerpianae that genuine ‘Diets’ was the language spoken in Antwerp: the people of Antwerp were the true descendants of Japheth, whose tribe was not present when the Tower was built, and their language was consequently untouched by the confusion of Babel.

If, therefore, de Man had been guided by anything like Harrier’s scenario, he should have propagated the superiority, not of German thought and literature but of his own native Antwerp – in practical terms, this could have entailed promoting the work of his great-grandfather, the mediocre but highly popular Romantic poet Jan van Beers (1821-88). His authoritative source would not have been Tacitus but more properly Caesar: ‘Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae.’ The only problem being that these ‘Belgians’ were predominantly Celts, related to those that had moved to England in the first century BC. Here, then, is a new hypothesis which Harrier might want to ponder: perhaps the real reason why de Man was deaf to the nuances of English is that he was actually Irish. And we all know what that means: fear the neighbourhood of that unstable Celtic blood.

Ortwin de Graef
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

Richard Harrier claims that de Man ‘published in Flemish’, and wonders ‘whether he wrote that article himself or whether he needed to have it translated for publication’. The observation and query display a lack of familiarity with the Belgian linguistic situation that is, alas, widespread, extending even to the authoritative American Heritage Dictionary, which misleadingly defines Flemish as ‘the West Germanic language of the Flemings’. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers a better though incomplete definition: ‘the Dutch language used by the Flemings’.

The confusion is due to the fact that two uses of the term co-exist; they should, however, be kept apart. First, the various spoken local dialects of Northern Belgium (e.g. of Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Louvain) taken as a group are sometimes – very loosely – called Flemish; in fact the dialect of Ostend is linguistically more properly categorised as a West Flemish one, that of Louvain as a Brabant one. Secondly, the written and spoken Dutch language, officially used in Northern Belgium since 1898 and taught at school as the mother-tongue since 1932, is also sometimes labelled Flemish. But the latter is more often simply called Dutch (Nederlands), as it distinguishes itself from the Dutch spoken and written in the Netherlands mainly by a few differences of vocabulary, largely reflecting distinctive institutional forms. A parallel would be the distinction between the standard German of Germany and that of Austria (not Switzerland, where a highly distinct Swiss-German standard language exists), though Austrian German would seem to be marked by a separate standard of pronunciation. In Flanders, the confusion Flemish/Dutch is exacerbated by the fact that many people try to use standard Dutch, but cannot avoid betraying their various local dialects, often unwittingly, through their pronunciation, word order, idiom etc.

As to de Man, Ortwin de Graef has already commented, in the University of Nebraska’s Responses, on his early linguistic situation, which he calls ‘a complicated form of pseudodiglossia’. De Man grew up a member of a well-to-do Antwerp family, speaking both the local dialect and French, which continues to this day as the standard language of a sizeable part of the Flemish bourgeoisie. At school (the Antwerp atheneum) he would have witnessed the introduction of Dutch as the standard language, at first still vying with French, the former standard. He went on to study at the francophone Université Libre de Bruxelles from 1937. These facts taken together would explain why de Man’s ten contributions to the Dutch-language Het Vlaamsche Land were marked by an insecure and inaccurate Dutch that betrayed the Antwerp dialect he was more familiar with, and why he felt more at ease writing in French, say for Le Soir.

Gert Buelens
Sint-Martens-Latem, Belgium

Say what you will about Harold

Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 2 December) asks the question: ‘Would anyone from Pimlott to McKibbin to Howard to Zeigler care to mention one – even one – attainment of the Wilson period that could bear comparison’ with Attlee’s. I am none of these folk. But from a position of having lived with the Wilson era in the Commons and of agreeing with Hitchens on Wilson’s craven economic, monetary and Vietnam record, his regime had social victories to compare with Attlee’s economic ones.

The reform of abortion, divorce and homosexual law could not have taken place without his prime ministerial support, particularly in the face of primitive, vicious, Calvinist opposition from his Scottish Secretary, Willie Ross, which Wilson, for all his ‘homespun Yorkshire chauvinism’, resisted; and comprehensive education would not be so entrenched as it still astonishingly is without Wilson’s recantation of his foolish ‘over my dead body’ grammar-school utterance and his willing acquiescence in Anthony Crosland’s passionate egalitarian policies. Wilson was at heart pragmatic not ethical; and he left behind him in Britain some solid and enduring social gains.

Christopher Price
London NW5

War on Heisenberg

Charles Maier (LRB, 18 November), commenting on a study of German war resisters, suggests that the disorientation of the Marxist Left has opened the way for a revisionist approach to the history of Nazism. Max Perutz’s review of a biography of Heisenberg and of the Farm Hall transcripts in the same issue goes some way to making Maier’s point for him. Perutz sees Heisenberg as a German patriot, out of sympathy with the Nazis, and the German physicists as a group reluctant to try to build an atomic bomb because the idea was abhorrent or at best impracticable. This is a kinder judgment than a number of previous historians have been prepared to make. Although they have only just been published in full and are currently being presented as if novel, extracts from the Farm Hall transcripts have been available for many years. They were drawn on by Robert Jungk in his pioneering book Brighter than a Thousand Suns in 1958 and quoted by Joseph Haberer in his excellent analysis of scientists under the Nazis, Politics and the Community of Science in 1969. Haberer quotes verbatim from the transcripts and summarises the initial reactions of the interned physicists at Farm Hall to the news of Hiroshima thus:

All the interned scientists, with the exception of von Laue and possibly Hahn, reacted in the following pattern: first, despondency and questions about how and where did we fail? How did the Americans do it? Expressions of personal failure and self-castigation followed: if they had worked harder, had tried to convince the Government to give full support, they probably would have beaten the Americans. A search for scapegoats followed these first two reactions. This included recriminations by some younger scientists to the effect that older colleagues, especially Heisenberg, had blundered and were to blame for the failure. Scientific leaders (such as Heisenberg and Weiszäcker) blamed the German Government for shortsightedness and for failing to support ‘real’ science.

This does not sound like the response of men pleased that they had diverted the Nazi Government’s atomic effort into the building of power plants. Only later (‘after the initial shock had passed’) did the physicists begin to develop the argument that they had not wished to build a bomb anyhow. In other contexts this belated expression of moral principle might be interpreted as little more than self-justificatory sour grapes. Haberer’s pains taking catalogue of the German non-Jewish scientific community’s complacent co-operation with Nazism from its early days in power until the final collapse in 1945 leads him to describe it as ‘the politics of prudential acquiescence’, a political stance that he also applies to the US physicists in their relationship to US post-war nuclear policy, of which J. Robert Oppenheimer’s conversion to the case for the H-bomb (‘It was technically sweet; we had to go ahead and do it’) stands as the epitaph.

Unlike the many millions who died, German scientists had a relatively good war and many, even those who had been responsible for the murderous science of the concentration camps, went on to have a good peace, picking up the threads of their respectable careers, culminating in scientific directorships and Nobel Prizes, with scarce a pause for breath. If, half a century on, we are to learn anything from this terrible history, the last thing that is needed is retrospective moral absolution.

Hilary Rose
London WC1

Greater Croatia

Having condemned both Serb and Croat Fascists as quislings who oppressed their own peoples on behalf of the Nazis, and who together with the Nazis helped implement the Holocaust (Letters, 21 October), I am condemned by Jasa Almuli (Letters, 18 November) as a supporter of a Croat ‘warring faction’ who has the aim of ‘making the opposing [Serb] faction guilty of killing the Jews’, and of ‘using Jews’ for ‘propaganda warfare’. Yet the truth is that the history of the Holocaust in Yugoslavia has become a major propaganda weapon of a Serbian regime seeking to justify its present-day genocide. The Serbian nationalist propagandists of today have attributed the anti-Jewish crimes of Croatian Fascists during World War Two to the Croatian people as a whole, while whitewashing the crimes of Serbian Fascists.

Anti-Jewish legislation was passed in Serbia even before the Nazi occupation: the legislation of October 1940, which restricted Jewish rights in commerce, industry and education, is reproduced in The Jews of Yugoslavia by Harriet Pass Friedenreich (1979). After the German invasion, the worst elements in Serbian society came to the fore, and the suffering of the Jews increased greatly. The source cited by Mr Almuli himself, The Crimes of the Fascist Occupants and the Collaborators against Jews in Yugoslavia, describes the anti-Jewish decree of 31 May 1941 in Serbia, which banned Jews from various jobs and from admission to cafés, trams and other public conveniences. The decree was enforced by the Nedic regime. The authorities of the city of Belgrade on 19 April 1941 helped the Nazis set up the Policija za Jevreje (Police for Jews), a Serbian police force who, between August and October 1941, rounded up about five thousand Jews for internment. On 22 October 1941, a Grand Anti-Masonic Exhibition opened in Belgrade, funded by the city council and depicting a Jewish-Masonic-Communist plot for world domination. On 30 January 1942, Metropolitan Josif, acting head of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, officially prohibited conversions of Jews to Serbian Orthodoxy. In August 1942 the Nedic Government claimed all Jewish property for the Serbian state. The Nedic regime set up the Serbian Volunteer Corps of several thousand under the Fascist ideologue Dimitrijc Ljotic, which captured and delivered Jews and Gypsies to the Nazis for execution. Serbian guards were used by the Nazis to push Jewish victims into mobile gassing vans. Mr Almuli accuses me of a ‘half-truth’ for mentioning the Banjica death camp in connection with the Holocaust. Yet he incorrectly puts the number of Jewish inmates of this camp at 455. At least 798 Jewish children alone passed through this camp.

To make political or moral distinctions between the Nedic regime and its Croatian Ustashe counterpart is to make distinctions between different shades of black. This serves only to present the Croats as a ‘genocidal nation’, while Serbian accomplices to the Holocaust are ‘only obeying orders’. Yet even in Croatia Jews fell victim to the Serbian Chetniks, acting independently of any German control, just as the Ustashe conducted their own massacres. Since in none of my letters have I written one word in defence of the Ustashe or against the Serb people, and since I have called in public and in writing for the military defeat of all Croatian forces in Bosnia today, I cannot be described as a spokesman of the Croatian ‘warring faction’.

Attila Hoare
Robinson College, Cambridge

Vico lives

Vico studies are less confined to New York City than John Robertson (LRB, 4 November) suggests. It is correct that Dr Tagliacozzo founded the Institute for Vico Studies there, but in Atlanta, Georgia is an active centre for Vico studies at Emory University, directed by Donald Phillip Verene.

Paul Grimley Kuntz
Emory University,


In a more or less rapturous review of Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, by Robert Hughes, Scott Malcomson (LRB, 23 September) credits the celebrated art critic with having written, among other surprising things: ‘Eliot’s rude line about Christ’s “offending feet" springs to mind whenever one looks at such a picture.’ A picture (it could only be) of Christ’s baptism in Jordan, like the one so marvellously evoked in ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’. Since Eliot’s lines seem to have fallen here among the verse-deaf and the theologically illiterate, quotation in full is possibly the best correction:

A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptised God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned

But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.

And while I think of it I wonder if Anthony Grafton (LRB, 10 June) could develop further for us his arresting thesis that ‘a set of frescos ‘of the late 1460s’ were painted ‘in ways that look forward to Boccaccio’ [my italics]? It happens that I feel a special, if not a specially educated, regard for these frescos, having visited them only last year in Ferrara, at the Palazzo Schifanoia. For Cossa and the other painters of the officina ferrarese Boccaccio wold have been a revered source of information about the pagan gods.

Allen Curnow

Lady Maude

I believe the BBC producer the late R.D. Smith may have been responsible for a series of limericks based on names in Debrett (Letters, 2 December).

Marian Sugden

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