I would like to add some footnotes to Patrick Cockburn’s reportage from the Middle East (LRB, 18 December 2014). If anyone else’s reports exceed his in value, I have missed them. On my last visit, pre-IS, I tried to persuade the Kurdistan Regional Government’s amiable president, Massoud Barzani, to fund a basic training programme (nothing fancy, just 12 weeks of fire and movement, plus anti-armour) for his fierce-looking peshmerga who, like the last round’s fierce-looking Hamas warriors and other such fierce-lookers, were unready actually to fight anyone but disarmed civilians. Barzani politely declined: turning Irbil into another Dubai filled with bombastic buildings was the priority.
With respect to Kurds joining the enemy, the disaffection of Halabja has long been intense – they keep being used as symbols of Kurdish suffering while no money trickles down from Irbil. The significance of the selection of ar-Raqqah as Islamic State’s capital rather than very much larger Mosul has been missed: when in 796 the Abbasid star caliph Harun ‘Al-Rashid’ turned from carousing and culture to jihad against the Romans, and had another go at Constantinople (his huge venture in 782 had come close), he removed himself to ar-Raqqah from Baghdad’s urbanity, and long stayed there.
Left alone, the Islamic State would have kept fighting the Shia in Iran, but all it took was a couple of beautifully filmed videos to suck in the Americans to fight their third, wholly unrequited, war for Iran (in 2001 it was against Iran’s Afghan enemies; in 2003 against Iraq).
Barack Obama’s attempt to stick to his bitter recognition that total inaction is much the wisest course in every conflict in the region was overwhelmed by the howling mob demanding revenge for the two killed journalists, while not one of Washington’s myriad think tanks held a meeting to address the question of why the Islamic State invited the US to bomb it.
The all too obvious reason is that the Americans would bring in the Saudis and Emiratis, who could then be denounced as un-Islamic for bombing fellow Muslims on behalf of unbelief. The Islamic State needs an outlet to the sea: it is blocked by too many Shia on the road to Basra, but swinging round to the Gulf via Saudi Arabia could do the trick. Of course the Saudi National Guard and army might fight them off – or join them. Nobody knows, certainly not the Saudi rulers themselves. The US might be in the process of bombing its way to $1000 per barrel oil to the greater glory of Houston, Caracas and Tehran.
Finally, why is the ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah, the State of Islam (or more precisely the government of Islam) persistently mislabelled ‘Isis’? Is it to play along with the pathetically earnest declarations by Cameron, Blair, Hollande, Obama etc that the Islamic State is un-Islamic? The volunteers they keep attracting know better.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Why I Quit
In light of the correspondence following Marina Warner’s piece about why she resigned her position at Essex (LRB, 11 September 2014), I present a letter sent in 1965 by Arnaldo Momigliano, the Italian historian of late antiquity, to his head of department at UCL, Alfred Cobban, following a demand that he account for his use of his time.
In my Continental timetable of 24 hours a day I divide my day as follows:
(I understand that dreaming is now equivalent to thinking.)
2 hours’ pure sleep
1 hour’s sleep cum dreams about administration
2 hours’ sleep cum dreams about research
1 hour’s sleep cum dreaming about teaching
½ hour of pure eating
1 hour of eating cum research = reading
1 hour of eating cum colleagues & talking about teaching and research
½ hour of pure walk
½ hour of walk cum research (= thinking)
12 ½ hours of research cum preparation
(= reading, writing, or even thinking)
1 formal hour teaching without thinking
1 formal hour administration without thinking
Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
National University of Ireland, Galway
The state washes its hands
It’s a pity that Austin Mitchell is so hostile to ‘left-wing lawyers defending legal aid’ since he is one of the few opposition members of the Public Accounts Committee, which is examining the effect of civil legal aid cuts (Letters, 18 December 2014). His letter scorns concepts like access to justice and equality of arms and instead elides two separate issues: first, whether a public defender system would be better than giving legal aid money to private lawyers; second, whether an inquisitorial system in the courts would be better than the current adversarial system.
Like many legal aid lawyers, I started off working in a law centre, but I ended up running my own firm of solicitors for 25 years. This was not because of any ‘relish’ for the ‘public subsidy of private enterprise’ but because of the lack of resources and career progression in law centres. Far from growing as a counterweight to the cuts, law centres have suffered even more than private firms: ten have been closed down in recent years. Law centres and public defender systems which are underfunded and undervalued result in miscarriages of justice and poor quality service for those without money. One only has to look at the US Public Defender Service, where lawyers straight out of college represent people facing the death penalty, and fail, inevitably, to do so properly. I (and I suspect many other legal aid lawyers) would have been happy to work on a salaried basis for a well-funded and independent public service, but this was never going to happen. Even before the cuts, it would have been more expensive than paying private lawyers and making them do their own financial management. I stepped down from running my firm, Christian Khan, in 2010, precisely because this was the side of things I disliked most. To compare running a legal aid firm with ‘private enterprise’ displays a real ignorance of the problems involved in dealing with the Legal Services Commission (the Legal Aid Agency, as it now is): bureaucracy, long delays in payment, unfair decision making, to name a few.
Mitchell says a shift to an inquisitorial procedure is inevitable. He cites the ‘enviably high conviction rates’ in Germany, which are as high as 90 per cent, and claims – somewhat inconsistently – that fewer people will be locked up under an inquisitorial system. I served on a jury at Wood Green Crown Court last year and was extremely impressed by the care and thought with which my fellow jury members approached their task (in the end, we convicted). An inquisitorial system would take away the right to be tried by your peers and hand it to a judge. It would be catastrophic for the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. The high level of incarceration is down to the decisions of judges, to whom Mitchell wants to give more power, and to the lack of options open to them, because of government policy. And the situations that he claims would be solved by inquisitorial courts – Plebgate, prosecuting Blair, undercover police – would of course not be. It isn’t just an idle generalisation to say that judges are always going to be more deferential than juries.
As Frederick Wilmot-Smith made clear, the legal aid cuts are not about saving money (LRB, 6 November 2014). The amounts saved are very small. They are ideologically driven, intended to prevent challenges to government by poor people facing savage welfare cuts.
Pay your rent
Charles Nicholl writes that having failed to establish a theatre in Blackfriars in 1596, Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, were ‘evicted from the Theatre in Shoreditch the following year’ (LRB, 8 January). In fact although the lease on the site of the Theatre expired in March 1597, it was at least another year before the company moved out. In the court case against the Burbages arising from the players’ dismantling and taking away the theatre they had built on his land, Giles Allen agreed that he had allowed them ‘to enjoy the premisses after the first lease expired for the space of a year or two’, paying ‘only the old rent’. (Records of the case were found by C.W. Wallace and excerpted in his The First London Theatre in 1913.)
This was quite an admission by Allen, since his acceptance of the rent constituted an extension of the lease, which contained the crucial clause that the players could take away any buildings they erected on his land. If he wanted the players out, Allen ought not to have accepted the rent. (The same principle keeps the US government in possession of Guantánamo Bay. After the revolution the Americans wisely continued to send rent cheques and someone early on in Castro’s administration made the mistake of cashing one, thereby implying continued acceptance of the terms of the treaty of 1903.) Any renter whose relationship with a landlord is breaking down should draw a lesson from the history of Shakespeare’s company and carry on paying the rent while working on alternatives.
De Montfort University, Leicester
I read Jeremy Harding’s piece about Albert Camus with particular interest (LRB, 4 December 2014). I am one of the few English-speaking foreigners, apart from some Foreign Legionnaires, who lived in Algeria during the tragedy. I spent 1958 and 1959 in a town in western Algeria and in 1962, as a journalist working for a Canadian magazine, roamed the country between the ceasefire and the election on 1 July. It was a period of awful mayhem: I described it at the time as like being in a shooting gallery.
Algeria was a complicated place. Camus understood that complexity. Some of the European Algerians – because that is what they were – were fifth and sixth generation; I knew no one who was less than third generation. And they were ordinary working people. The mayor of Oran was a communist.
Algeria was not a colony and it irritates me when I hear the dreadful business described as a colonial war. It wasn’t France. But it wasn’t a colony. In the summer of 1959, with great difficulty and some risk, I crossed the Sahara Desert from Algeria to what is now Mali and entered the colonial world. It had a totally different atmosphere. A year later I crossed into South Africa and the atmosphere again became something like Algeria. I have never understood why, in the Anglophone world, apartheid South Africa is never described as a colony and French-speaking Algeria is. I suspect that as many European Algerians lived in Oran as European South Africans in Durban.
Jeremy Harding writes: Guy Mollet said in 1957 that to talk about Algeria in terms of ‘colonialism and anti-colonialism’ was to misunderstand the nature of the conflict. That’s not surprising. But even the FLN, in their first public declaration of 1954, never used the c-word. The big thoughts, then and later, were about nationhood, self-determination and independence, or ‘national liberation’. The FLN were keen at the time to ‘internationalise’ their struggle, France was equally keen to keep it in-house. But the Front began to prevail at the Bandung conference in 1955, where it was invited as an unofficial non-state party. From then on, in much of the world, the understanding of the conflict as an anti-colonial war gained ground.
What exactly is a colony? Peter Stollery is right to ask about apartheid South Africa, even though apartheid might never have happened if the Dutch hadn’t established the Cape Colony in the 17th century and made their way inland. Settler colonialism sinks deep roots. Algeria and South Africa are good examples; so were Portugal’s colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. The settlers’ bond to the land is real: they have worked and tilled it, as the etymology of ‘colony’ tells us. Generations have lived and died in the process. This doesn’t change the fact that a colonial arrangement brings structural injustices, which indigenous people never fail to notice (Israel? Western Sahara?). The result is invariably a call for property restitution and then for national liberation.
Stollery knows from personal experience that the whites in Algeria were mostly hard-working, ill-paid people (poorer on the whole than their counterparts in mainland France). Camus understood this because he was raised in poverty. But there were other people of non-indigenous origin who sided with the FLN, as Camus never could. Quite a few, like Stollery’s mayor of Oran, were communists or fellow-travellers. Not just Henri Alleg, who survived, but his friend the mathematician Maurice Audin, the nurse Raymonde Peschard and her partner, the trade unionist Fernand Iveton, who all lost their lives in the fight for independence.
Many of the unsung heroes of national liberation in Africa – in South Africa, Rhodesia and Angola especially – were descended from settlers or were sent out to the colonies (sorry), as Orwell was to Burma. Was the process as abject and horrible as Stollery suggests (and he’s right to remember the open season on French people in Algeria after the signing of the Evian accords)? The answer is yes. Is the Sahara still as beautiful as it was in the mid-20th century? Twenty-five years ago in Western Sahara, you could see gazelle and rodents in the desert; there was plenty of mustard bush and acacia. The territory had already been colonised by force and if the new proprietors, the Moroccans, spotted anyone dallying around the flora and fauna in contested territory, they’d see them off with two rounds of artillery fire (despite US and French support that was as much as they could afford). The species count in postwar Mozambique suggests that plants and animals thrive when humans are at odds with one another in large areas of wilderness that neither side has the resources to desolate.
I love Alan Bennett, of course, always read him with pleasure, and am in addition glad to find he watches the Tour de France for the topography, as I used to do when a single mother with a fractious baby (LRB, 8 January). But I am sorry that he dismisses my grandfather with a single word – ‘the dreadful Geoffrey Fisher’ – without saying why. I try to interpret his tale as meaning just that Geoffrey Fisher would have been a far worse ex-archbishop of Canterbury than Rowan Williams to have witnessing one’s own sermon. That may be so. But still that unspecified ‘dreadful’ rankles. The further clause, ‘who when I was young was for years synonymous with the office’, doesn’t explain it. Was his dreadfulness so well known and all-encompassing that no reason needs to be given?
Emma Tristram (née Fisher)
Arundel, West Sussex
Alan Bennett is right, the King’s Troop does still regularly exercise somewhere in London. It can be seen around Woolwich, its base since 2012. Where he saw outriders bearing lanterns fore and aft they now sport yellow tabards lettered ‘Think Bike.’ Still khaki-clad, the other horsemen – and now women – no longer lead just one riderless mount, but are sandwiched between two (MoD cuts?). One rider was recently seen looking sheepish, minus one horse. It had broken loose alongside the grim grey sheds of the PFI Queen Elizabeth Hospital and galloped homewards towards the tented mast of Nash’s Rotunda, a magnificent monument held by but apparently of no use to the army. The horse looked both ways as it shot across the junction with Cemetery Lane and Ha-Ha Road.
Let Fischer go
Ferdinand Mount questions the revisionist critique (led by Christopher Clark) of the Fischer thesis that German expansionism both underlay and triggered the outbreak of war in 1914 (LRB, 8 January). However, he seems to have misread some of the evidence deployed by modern historians.
Document 123, in ostensibly revealing German feelers for British neutrality on Saturday, 1 August 1914, was an artful part of the carefully constructed White Paper (or ‘dodgy dossier’ as Douglas Newton labels it) issued by the British government the day after its declaration of war on Germany. In fact, the German proposals designed to secure British neutrality had emanated from Chancellor Bethmann on Wednesday, 29 July, not from his ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, in London on 1 August. Unfortunately, the offer to respect French territorial integrity in exchange for British neutrality wasn’t sufficient. What was required was respect for Belgian neutrality (not to mention French colonial possessions). As Germany’s defence against the Franco-Russian alliance – and the threat of a two-front war it represented – relied on a massed assault on France, passing through southern Belgium, there was little that Bethmann could say other than that Belgium would be fully compensated after the war if it denied passage to German armies and Germany was thereby compelled to invade. France, which had no plans to attack Germany through Belgium, could give unequivocal assurances to Britain with regard to Belgian neutrality.
What actually happened that Saturday was not revealed in the White Paper, and Mount misconstrues it. Lichnowsky was approached twice by the foreign secretary, Edward Grey, with a proposal that Britain would remain neutral if Germany refrained from attacking France in the event of a war between Germany and Russia (Grey offered to guarantee French neutrality). The proposal was confirmed in a telegram Grey sent to his ambassador in Paris. Far from ‘wobbling’ when confronted with this possibility, the Kaiser grasped it with both hands, insisting that Moltke abandon the long-established plan (first drafted by his predecessor as chief of staff, Schlieffen) to march through Luxembourg and then Belgium en route to France. Refusing the order, Moltke burst into tears and went home. A telegram from Berlin to George V, seeking confirmation of this démarche flushed out Grey’s foolishness: there was, after all, no prospect of France abandoning its treaty obligations to support Russia in a war with Germany. Grey was forced to draft a reply citing a ‘misunderstanding’. A deflated Wilhelm recalled Moltke, and confirmed the original plan.
Of course, it could be argued (as it was by A.J.P. Taylor) that the Schlieffen Plan itself ‘caused’ the war: but it can equally be argued that it was the encircling Franco-Russian Treaty that ‘caused’ the Schlieffen Plan. Surely what matters in the Fischer debate is what was in the minds of the German leadership that July.
Mount claims that the Kaiser put ‘harsh pressure’ on the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, to launch a major retaliation for the assassination of his nephew. Actually, at a lunch with the veteran Austrian ambassador to Berlin, Wilhelm somewhat off-handedly assured his guest that the emperor’s request for support in taking steps against Serbia would be granted, subject to Bethmann’s approval (which duly followed). Yet the next day, 6 July, Wilhelm set off for a three-week Baltic cruise, having assured those military advisers who were not yet on holiday that no special preparations for conflict were required. Moltke himself was taking the cure at Carlsbad, as he did every year. Bethmann was about to return to his country estate in Hohenfinow. His deputy, Jagow, was on honeymoon in Italy. Tirpitz was summering on his own estate. If the provision of the ‘blank cheque’ to Austria was part of some carefully conceived plan of aggression, the German leadership disguised it well.
The main message from Berlin to Vienna had been to act quickly after the assassination, if action there was to be. But a large part of the Austrian army was engaged on harvest duty: so even a threat to Serbia couldn’t be issued till late July. By the time Wilhelm returned from his cruise, Austria had issued an ultimatum, and had rejected Serbia’s reply. Wilhelm (like Edward Grey) found the Serbian reply conciliatory – sufficiently so that he offered to act as a mediator between the parties. Later, he urged the Austrians to ‘halt at Belgrade’ (just across the border) as the sole token of military action. As evidence piled up that Russia was pushing Serbia to resist, Bethmann urged the Austrians – at whatever cost – to accept British mediation: ‘We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged by Vienna, wantonly and without regard to our advice, into a world conflagration.’ Wilhelm was still writing to his cousin the tsar on 29 July, offering to mediate between Belgrade and Vienna.
That was the day, according to another revisionist historian, Sean McMeekin, when a full-scale European war became inevitable, with Tsar Nicholas approving general mobilisation against Austria and Germany. This could not be reversed, and finally forced Germany’s hand on 1 August, when Nicholas refused to halt the process. McMeekin concludes, in words echoing Clark’s, that ‘the idea that Germany “caused” or “intended” or “willed” the First World War … is not supported by the evidence.’
Mount cites Fischer as claiming that dreams of a greater Germany – nurtured since Bismarck’s time – ‘were held consistently throughout the First World War, and shared by the erratic actors’: of whom Mount names the Kaiser, Moltke and Bethmann. Moltke, as it happens, was removed from office in September 1914; Wilhelm was sidelined by Hindenburg and Ludendorff in 1916; and Bethmann became a cipher well before he departed in 1917. The generals, of course, were fully signed up to Mitteleuropa, but it was not they who had stumbled into war in August 1914. Meanwhile, there were plenty of non-Germans who dreamed of a smaller Germany: Tsar Alexander told his ministers in 1894 that the point of the Franco-Russian Treaty was to ‘destroy’ Germany in its current form, and replace it with ‘a number of small weak states’. The wife of Alexander’s nephew told the French ambassador in St Petersburg on 22 July 1914 that ‘there’s going to be a war … our armies will meet in Berlin … Germany will be destroyed.’ Blame for the war may not be shared equally, but it was certainly shared. It is time to let go of Fischer.
Sorry to pull at a loose thread in Ferdinand Mount’s excellent analysis, but I had understood the phrase attributed to the Kaiser about the contemptible British army was propaganda made up in the War Office.
Read to me!
Marina Warner reminds us that Marie Antoinette had a rota of lectrices to read to her when she could not sleep (LRB, 8 January). The Hebrew Bible tells us about a Persian king, Ahasuerus, who also called for lectors when afflicted by insomnia. In Esther 6:1 we read: ‘On that night could not the king sleep; and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles, and they were read before the king.’ According to the Book of Esther, Ahasuerus’s lectors changed the course of history, ensuring the survival of the Jewish people when threatened by Judeophobes. Marie Antoinette’s lectrices did not have any such impact on French history. Perhaps they might have if they had read her the works of the philosophes, but I suspect that she wasted her insomnia on literary cakes insted of crusty French bread.
Are you a Spenserian?
Colin Burrow will be severely disappointed, and the ‘pleasurable tingle down the spine of this Germanically inclined logophile’ might turn into an upward-running shockwave, but Altertumswissenschaft is in no way connected with alterity (LRB, 6 November 2014). Altertum in German simply means ‘antiquity’ or ‘classical times’, and the plural Altertümer is used to designate antiquities as physical objects.