Vol. 36 No. 11 · 5 June 2014

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The Italian Disaster

Despite its promising title, Perry Anderson’s article will be all too reassuring for Italian readers (LRB, 22 May). Saying effectively, ‘Italy is a disaster, but not much worse than the European average’ is to say exactly what the majority of Italians already believe. Berlusconi’s voters certainly share this view, and act accordingly.

Anderson offers an overview of the topic, but on two key aspects he is quite misleading. First, the demonisation of Giorgio Napolitano’s communist past. Napolitano is perfectly representative of the Italian Communist Party elite. The fact that he was on the ‘right’ of the Party made little difference. Left, right and centre of the Italian CP were always bound by Leninist discipline. Even the episode of a (possible) youthful fascist phase was quite common in the PCI leadership (and rank and file, for that matter). A quick glance at the index of Ruggero Zangrandi’s Il lungo viaggio attraverso il fascismo (1948, second edition 1962) is enough to dispel any illusion on that front. As Palmiro Togliatti well knew, there was no way one could create a mass party only with individuals with an unblemished anti-fascist record.

Second, pace Anderson, the Manifesto group was not expelled because of its stance on the invasion of Czechoslovakia (the only note of dissent in the Central Committee of the PCI came from Ambrogio Donini, who actually supported the invasion). The Manifesto group was expelled for the unforgivable crime of factionalism.

Finally, when he comes to Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement (M5S), Anderson drops his guard, and does his best to pass over Grillo’s faults, reluctantly admitting the ‘flaws and paradoxes’ of the M5S. Grillo and his movement – if they are at all serious – represent a renewal of a solid tradition of Caesarism and the politics of ‘ni droite ni gauche’ (as Zeev Sternhell would term it). To pin one’s hopes on the Grillo movement amounts to a triumph of hope over experience.

Guido Franzinetti
University of Eastern Piedmont, Vercelli, Italy

‘Italy possesses one newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, founded four years ago by a group of independent journalists that fears no one and breaks every taboo: a single such case from one end of the continent to the other.’ Thus Perry Anderson. I would be curious to hear his analysis of the role played in France in the last few years by Mediapart, which has been instrumental in unveiling, among others, the Cahuzac scandal.

Nathan Letore

Perry Anderson might have included Poland in his round-up of recent financial scandals in the EU. The fact that the prime minister, Donald Tusk, and his government are under the protection of the European mainstream media should not prevent our recognising that the government has collected a record number of financial scandals in its short history.

Piotr Sorokin Jankowski

Don’t close the IES

I write to express fury at the proposal recently presented by London University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group, a largely faceless collection of administrators with little connection to research and teaching, to close down the University’s immensely distinguished Institute of English Studies. Under the inspired direction of its director, Warwick Gould, and his staff, the Institute at Senate House has acted as a powerhouse for symposia, research projects, the nurture of doctoral students and research fellows, brilliant visiting lecturers, and fertile connections to similar institutions abroad. Through innovative programmes in book history, the study of Yeats and Eliot, and much else, it projects a bracing, interrogative, historically and conceptually sophisticated approach to the humanities, and is set to continue in this productive vein, as a look at its website will confirm. Those who hold fellowships or study there, and anyone who attends conferences, summer schools and lectures, can attest to this. The arguments produced for this cynical and philistine step are utterly specious, especially given the good financial health of the institute, and its attraction of a series of major grants. The proposal that it be broken up for bits is a scandal which must be stopped. A petition can be signed at There should also be demonstrations in Malet Street, and heads should roll.

Roy Foster
Hertford College, Oxford

Who burned the Reichstag?

Although I am honoured that my book Burning the Reichstag has drawn Richard Evans’s attention, his critique neglects crucial lines of my argument (LRB, 8 May). Evans makes no mention of what I present as the main flaw in the Fritz Tobias/Hans Mommsen ‘single culprit’ theory: every scientific expert I have consulted, or who was called on to give an opinion in 1933, has found it ‘very difficult’ or ‘impossible’ to imagine how one man armed with nothing more than matches and firelighters could in fifteen minutes have set the fire that destroyed the Reichstag’s chamber. The experts I consulted dismissed the explanations for the fire put forward by Evans’s preferred authors, like Fritz Tobias and Sven Felix Kellerhoff, as uninformed and misguided.

Evans also partly neglects, and partly misstates, the second major line of argument in my book: that the notion that van der Lubbe burned down the Reichstag by himself was, in its postwar version, little more than a desperate legal defence strategy on the part of war criminals. Helmut Heisig, Rudolf Braschwitz and Walter Zirpins had investigated the fire in 1933. After the war they maintained that they had always believed, and had argued in 1933, that van der Lubbe had set the fire by himself. But newly available evidence shows that they worked enthusiastically to arrest, frame and prosecute considerable numbers of Communists. Evans claims that these men did not have to fear prosecution for the Reichstag fire after the war (and thus had no incentive to lie), and even that the statute of limitations barred prosecutions for crimes from 1933. This is simply wrong. Criminal cases arising from their work on the Reichstag fire were launched against Heisig and Braschwitz. Braschwitz acknowledged that he would be in legal jeopardy were it proven that his 1933 investigations had focused on van der Lubbe while ignoring evidence against others. This point was clear to them all. The limitation period for most crimes from the Nazi period didn’t end until 8 May 1960, though any investigation started before that date could be continued. The case against Braschwitz dragged on until March 1962, by which time Tobias’s single-culprit theory was publicly established. Evans also neglects to mention that Heisig had deported Jews to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, that Braschwitz was involved in the dirty ‘anti-partisan’ war in the Soviet Union, and that Zirpins had commanded the criminal police in Lodz and the Lodz Ghetto.

Indeed, Evans is surprisingly insouciant about Tobias’s far-right connections and bad conduct as a historian. He doesn’t mention that Tobias contributed a chapter to a festschrift for David Irving. He downplays Tobias’s decision to republish his book with the far-right publisher Grabert Verlag, although in his own writings Evans has noted Grabert’s involvement with Holocaust denial. Tobias demonstrably falsified the historical record at many points, even wholly inventing a substantial story about one witness to the fire. He also suppressed evidence, in particular a letter written by the former Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels accusing a Nazi stormtrooper called Hans Georg Gewehr of being the main culprit. The letter was in Tobias’s possession, probably for decades. Evans downplays Tobias’s blackmailing of Helmut Krausnick, director of the Institute for Contemporary History, stating (incorrectly) that Krausnick’s Nazi Party membership was publicly known in 1962.

It is disappointing that Evans, the scourge of David Irving, is in this case willing to defend a man who so grossly flouted the core values of serious historical practice.

Benjamin Carter Hett
Hunter College, New York

Richard J. Evans writes: Benjamin Carter Hett’s letter contains the same non sequiturs and illogicalities as his book. As far as the forensic evidence is concerned: of course ‘experts’ consulted by those peddling the theory that there was a conspiracy to burn down the Reichstag in 1933 will oblige by providing the answers they think are being sought. ‘Expert’ reports from the present day about events that occurred eighty years ago are worthless. The fact remains that no traces of kerosene or other incendiary liquids were found at the scene of the blaze: an impossibility if they had actually been used to light fires in locations spread across the building. The fact that Heisig, Braschwitz and Zirpins were arresting Communists in 1933 proves nothing in relation to the authorship of the fire: policemen were doing this all over Germany, and doubtless would have done so at some stage during these months even had the Reichstag not burned.

Nor is the involvement of these men in war crimes of any relevance to the fire, or to their alleged fear of being prosecuted in connection with it, though Hett makes their supposed anxiety the principal reason for Tobias’s authorship of a 700-page book allegedly aimed at exculpating potential Nazi objects of prosecution for the fire. There were, it is true, a handful of prosecutions for Nazi crimes, including the pogroms of 1938, before the statute of limitations came into effect in 1960, but in the amnesiac culture of the Federal Republic in the 1950s, even major Nazi criminals had scant reason to fear arrest. The few prosecutions that were launched mostly ran into the sand or ended in acquittal or scandalously lenient sentences. Prosecutions begun before 1960 could be continued, but these were for cases of murder, mostly committed during the war. And anyway, the ‘case against Braschwitz’ never actually came to prosecution.

Hett’s ignorance of the legal and political culture of West Germany in the 1950s and early 1960s is also evidenced by his attempt to blacken the name of Fritz Tobias by alluding to his ‘far-right connections’. Nobody in West Germany at the time could avoid connections with ex-Nazis, who permeated the entire legal, political and media world. To suppose that Krausnick falsified history because he was being ‘blackmailed’ by Tobias is as ludicrous as it is offensive to a historian whose role in bringing Nazi criminality to account was outstanding. Hett’s point about the Grabert Verlag is already dealt with in my review. Finally, to portray Tobias as an old Nazi out to protect his former comrades from prosecution is to fly in the face of the evidence of his firm Social Democratic convictions as expressed in the concluding paragraphs of his book. If anything could be described as grossly flouting the core values of serious historical practice, it’s surely this.

How many furry animals?

Andrew Jameson refers to ‘Slavonic’ variants of sork/serk (Letters, 22 May). ‘Slavonic’ refers to Slavonia, the eastern province of Croatia: it is a term with a precise and exclusive meaning. All the rest is ‘Slavic’.

Branko Weiss
Uitikon, Switzerland

The Invention of Italian

The final sentence of Roderick Conway-Morris’s letter in the last issue should have read (and it’s our fault that it didn’t): ‘Significantly, toscan and italian are used synonymously by speakers of venessian (Venetian), another regional language that evolved independently from late Latin, to refer to the national language.’

Editor, ‘London Review’

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