Sunday, 24 February 2013

Who voted for Hitler, 1930-33?

In the Reichstag election of May 1928, the Nazi Party received less than 3% of the German national vote, and only the complex system of proportional representation allowed the party its 12 seats in the Reichstag. Yet in September 1930 the Nazis scored their first real electoral breakthrough, winning 107 seats, and in July 1932 they became the largest party in the Reichstag, with 230 deputies elected. In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and he cemented his power with almost 44% of the vote in March of that year, and the subsequent Enabling Law which gave him dictatorial powers. How and why had this astonishing rise in Nazi support happened?

It is necessary first of all to have a quick summary of events. Pre-war Imperial Germany had a democratically elected Parliament, the Reichstag, but it was in reality little more than a talking-shop, without any real control of the Kaiser’s government. Then following defeat in the First World War, a new constitution was established, known as the “Weimar Republic”. There was an elected President, with widespread emergency powers, should he choose to use them, and a Reichstag elected by proportional representation. This had the twin disadvantages that even very small parties were represented (such as the Nazis in their early days), and that no one party ever commanded a majority of the seats. Consequently all governments had to be coalitions of several parties, and were often weak, unstable and short-lived.
The history of Weimar was a story of catastrophic failures. Many Germans blamed the democratic politicians for the surrender in autumn 1918 (the “November criminals“); maintaining, quite untruthfully, that Germany would have won the war if only the leaders had kept their nerve. Then there was the Treaty of Versailles, which almost all Germans saw as unjustly punitive. There followed the hyperinflation of 1922-23, and from 1929 the Wall Street Crash and the great depression. Germany had no tradition of democratically-elected politics, and now it seemed clear that democracy had failed. Votes for the extremist parties, the Communists and Nazis rose dramatically from 1930.
Following the Nazi electoral breakthrough in 1930, there was never any concerted attempt to stop Hitler: indeed, most politicians on the Right were trying to bring him into government, and the only surprise in retrospect is that it took so long. The Chancellor from 1930 to 1932, Bruning, had no majority in the Reichstag, nor did his successors, and had to try to run the country by emergency Presidential decree, while the economic situation continued to deteriorate. The Nazis could supply the numbers. Hitler  could have entered the government at any time, as a member of a coalition, but for almost three years he refused all offers.
The President was the old Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who despite his great age was persuaded to stand again for election in March 1932, backed by all the main constitutional parties, but opposed by the Nazis and Communists. In these elections Hitler came a strong second. Soon afterwards Bruning was sacked and replaced by an extremely weak aristocratic cabinet under Franz von Papen, an obscure Catholic politician. Papen’s only hope of gaining a Reichstag majority was to persuade Hitler to join him, so conciliatory gestures were made: the Nazi paramilitaries (the SA and the SS), which had been banned, were now legalised, and the government of Prussia (which included Berlin), that had been under Socialist control, was dissolved and brought under direct central control.
The Reichstag elections of June 1932 were a triumph for the Nazis, who became the biggest party in the Reichstag, with 230 seats. Hitler was now offered the post of Vice-Chancellor. He turned it down, instead demanding to be made Chancellor, with dictatorial powers. His arrogance and rudeness seriously angered the old President. Instead, the Nazis in the Reichstag voted in support of a Communist motion of censure on the government, and von Papen was overwhelmingly defeated.
New elections were held in November, and the Nazi vote fell sharply, whereas the Communists increased their Reichstag representation to 100 seats. It looked as though the Nazis had shot their bolt, but at this point political intrigue took over. An army friend of Hindenburg, General Schleicher, persuaded the President that he could manage to bring in Hitler where others had failed; so Papen was dismissed and Schleicher appointed Chancellor in his place. But Hitler still turned down an offer of a subordinate post. Goebbels was in despair: the Nazi party was bankrupt, its vote collapsing, and Hitler’s obstinacy seemed incomprehensible. But von Papen was now eager for revenge on Schleicher, and in negotiations over Christmas and New Year he agreed to serve as Vice-Chancellor in a government to be headed by Hitler. It appeared that he had won a good deal, giving Hitler no more than an empty semblance of power: there were to be only three Nazis in the new cabinet (Hitler, Goering and Frick), and all the key ministries of defence, foreign policy and finance were to be held by conservative friends of von Papen.
“We’ve hired him!” Papen triumphantly announced to Hindenburg. And yet within a few months Hitler had established a dictatorship. . At the end of February the Reichstag building mysteriously burnt down, which was promptly labelled a Communist outrage, fresh elections were held in a feverish atmosphere (in which the Nazis still did not manage to reach 50% of the vote), and then Hitler demanded an Enabling Law giving him emergency powers. To their eternal shame, the Catholic Centre party voted for the measure, and democracy in Germany was dead. All political parties other than the Nazis were banned, the trades unions outlawed and the structures of local government abolished. There was remarkably little resistance to all this.

It is, of course, not possible to find out which individuals voted for Hitler, but it is known in what districts of Germany the Nazi vote was high, and in what districts it was lower. There are also lists for Nazi Party membership, which can be broken down by age and class, and from these  it is possible to construct a profile of a typical Nazi supporter.
It is hardly surprising that between the elections in 1930 and the seizure of power in 1933 the party increased its membership six fold, to almost 720,000, but what is most noticeable is that it was overwhelmingly a young people’s party, with 43% of the members being under thirty years old. (Hitler became Chancellor at the age of just 43; the youngest government leader in Europe; and all his principal lieutenants, such as Goering, Goebbels, Hiimmler and Hess, were even younger)
In terms of social class, a third of Nazi Party members were described as “working class”; but since the working class made up 46% of the population of Germany, this class was somewhat under-represented in the Nazi Party. Small farmers, who made up no less than 20% of the population, were also under-represented, whereas the classes known to British sociologists as C1s and C2s; the clerical workers, teachers, self-employed artisans and shopkeepers, were over- represented. Nazism has been described as “the panic of the lower middle class”: people whose living standards were under threat from the great depression, who felt the existing political system was doing nothing to help them, but who were afraid of the threat of Communist revolution. The typical Nazi enthusiast would therefore be in his twenties, from a lower middle class background, and worried about the future, both for himself and for his country.

Where did the Nazi voters live? Germany at the time was a federal country, divided into 35 districts (Lander). It was also divided in religious terms. It was possible to draw a diagonal line across the country, from the frontier of Holland to the western corner of Czechoslovakia, and say that, in general terms, south and west of this line was Catholic, and north and east of it was Protestant. Once that is done, it becomes immediately evident that the highest Nazi vote was Protestant northeast; running in 1933 at well over 50% in East Prussia, Leignitz, Frankfurt-on-Oder and Pomerania. By contrast, although the Nazi movement began in Catholic Bavaria, by 1933 the Nazi share of the vote was below average there. The other noticeable feature is that the Nazis polled strongly in the rural areas and the small towns, but much less impressively in the urban industrial centres. In Berlin the Nazi share of the vote never rose above 31%, and in the Rhineland, which was both Catholic and industrial, in Westphalia, Cologne and Dusseldorf, it remained no higher than 35% even in 1933. The typical Nazi voter, therefore, lived in a small town or village in the  Protestant rural areas of the north and east.
Why should this be? And what attracted such a voter? It was partly due to the structure of the German political parties. One of the largest parties was the Catholic Centre, which always took much of the vote from all classes in the Catholic areas. The Socialists and Communists, although well organised, never sought to extend their appeal beyond the urban working classes, where they remained strong throughout the period. On the other hand, there was no single large conservative party in Weimar Germany; just a mass of small factions, none of whom ever mounted much of a popular campaign to win mass votes. Consequently, when the Nazis took the trouble to campaign in the countryside they were, literally, the only game in town. In 1930-33 the votes of the smaller parties collapsed as the Nazi vote rose, though the Socialists, Communists and Catholic Centre remained strong to the very end, when all rival parties were prohibited.
What ideas attracted these voters to Nazism? It is unlikely to have been anti-Semitism. It is noticeable that in the great election campaigns after 1930 the Nazis suddenly acquired spokesmen on agricultural issues, and policies calculated to appeal to the farmers, whereas anti-Semitism, which had little relevance to the rural areas, scarcely featured in their propaganda.
Hitler made very few specific policy promises in these elections. Instead he spoke much about the “November criminals” of 1918, the oppression of Germany ever since, and the danger of Communist revolution. There is no doubt that he possessed a powerful charismatic appeal, promising some kind of hope to the young, the unemployed, and to those fearful of the future. Above all his success was a product of the alarming times of the early 1930s, and the fact that none of his rivals took the Nazi threat seriously until it was far too late. Coupled with this, there was manifestly a loss of faith in the democratic system itself. Although the Nazis never won more than 43% of the vote, a majority of Germans by the end of 1932 were casting their ballots either for the Nazis or the Communists. Hitler always told the Germans that they were faced with a straight choice: him or the Communists. He may even have been right.

(The figures are taken from: Noakes & Pridham; "Nazism 1919-1945: A Documentary Reader; vol. 1")

Sunday, 17 February 2013

J. R. R. Tolkien: the man

(See also my earlier post on Tolkien's moral ideas)

The first point to note about Tolkien is that he was an orphan. He can hardly have known anything of his father, who died when he was only three years old, and his mother died when he was twelve. Secondly, he was a dedicated Roman Catholic. His mother had been converted to Catholicism when he was eight; but this alienated her from many of her family, so when she died Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary were placed under the guardianship of a local priest, Father Francis Morgan, and lived in lodgings in Birmingham. Here Tolkien met another orphan, Edith Bratt, and fell in love with her; but Father Francis ordered him to break off all contact with her, fearing the affair would interfere with Tolkien’s studies.
     The third point is that Tolkien was a “scholarship boy”; first at King Edward’s School, Birmingham (still the best school in the city!), and then at Exeter College, Oxford. Here he came under the tutelage of Joseph Wright, a most remarkable man who had begun work in a Yorkshire woollen mill at the age of six, taught himself to read and write, saved enough to travel to Germany to study, and was now Professor of Comparative Philology. Tolkien graduated with a First Class degree in English, and never forgot his debt to Joseph Wright.
    By the time of Tolkien’s graduation, the First World War had broken out, and, as with so many of his generation, he volunteered for service. But first he married Edith, whom he had contacted again as soon as he reached his 21st birthday. They did not seem ideally suited to each other, since Edith shared none of Tolkien’s academic interests. They came to have four children. Tolkien survived the Battle of the Somme, when so many young officers were slaughtered, and was then invalided back to England with typhus; a stroke of good fortune which he shared with an older writer: A. A. Milne. Thereafter he was able to pursue an academic career; first at Leeds University, and then as a Professor back in Oxford, where he spent the rest of his working life. His speciality was philology: the structure and development of languages; particularly Anglo-Saxon and Early and Middle English; in which field he was a world-renowned expert.

Even at school Tolkien had liked inventing languages, and the scripts to go with them. He loved the sounds of words, especially of names (The two Elvish languages in “The Lord of the Rings” were based on the languages whose sounds he liked best: Finnish and Welsh). He also wrote and illustrated stories; some to be told to his children (the most famous being, of course, “The Hobbit”, begun around 1930), but others principally for himself. During the war he began to write a series of independent but interconnected stories which came to be known as the “Silmarillion”. The underlying theme of these was the three great magical jewels, the Silmarils, which had been stolen by Morgoth, the original “Dark Lord”, and which Elves, Men and Dwarves fought to recover (though, fatally, they also fought among themselves). The story which was always closest to Tolkien’s heart was that of Beren and Luthien. Beren, a mortal man, falls in love with Luthien, an immortal Elvish princess, but her father refuses his consent to their union unless Beren can bring him a Silmaril taken from Morgoth as a bride-price. This Beren eventually achieves, though the Silmaril brings disaster with it. Tolkien kept revising and rewriting this story, and its emotional importance to him can be seen on his gravestone in Oxford: wording puzzling to anyone unfamiliar with his stories: “Edith Mary Tolkien, Luthien, 1889-1971: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973”. (Many readers surely noticed how the story of Beren and Luthien is echoed in that of Aragorn, who cannot marry Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, until he has become king)

For intellectual stimulus, Tolkien always relied on exclusively male company: the “TCBS” when he was at school, and in Oxford with a group of like-minded friends who came to be known as the “Inklings”. They met in a masculine atmosphere of beer and pipe-smoking; their leading light being the man more responsible than any for Tolkien becoming a published fantasy-writer: C. S. Lewis. They found they had similar tastes, and Lewis maintained that it was Tolkien who persuaded him of the truth of Christianity.  Lewis was shown a version of the Beren story, which he read with enthusiasm, and urged Tolkien to write more. Some time around 1937, Lewis said to Tolkien, “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves”. Both men set out to do this, but it was Lewis who was more immediately productive. Tolkien was probably a little jealous of the ease with which Lewis churned out large numbers of books: Tolkien found it difficult to complete anything, and was forever rewriting and starting again. Later, he would probably never have completed “The Lord of the Rings” without Lewis urging him on.

“The Hobbit” was published in 1937, andwas an immediate success. The publishers, Allen & Unwin, naturally asked for a sequel, and Tolkien began to write “the second Hobbit”. It was only after a while that he realised what the setting was: the world of the “Silmarillion”, but several thousand years later, so that the “Silmarillion” stories would form the ancient history and mythology of the Hobbit-world - though no hobbits had appeared in the "Silmarillion". The work now took on an altogether grander aspect. Also present was Tolkien’s version of the Atlantis myth: Numenor; the great island which sank beneath the waves, from which a few survivors escaped to bring civilisation to Middle Earth. Thus “The Lord of the Rings” emerged, after sixteen years, and many revisions and rewritings.

By the time the great epic was published in 1954-55, the Inklings had ceased to exist, and Tolkien and Lewis were no longer as close as they had been before the war. Several factors were at work here. Charles Williams, an author largely forgotten today, had joined the Inklings when he came to Oxford. He lectured on Milton and Dante and wrote several “spiritual thrillers” (“War in Heaven” etc). Tolkien liked Williams as a person, but strongly disliked his books, and thought he had a very bad influence on Lewis’s writings. Tolkien did not like Lewis’s “Narnia” stories. Being himself a perfectionist, he thought Lewis’s imaginary world was a “rushed job”: poorly thought out and not credible. Then Tolkien was to be further estranged from Lewis by the latter’s marriage, which he found incomprehensible. But Lewis loved “The Lord of the Rings”, praised it fulsomely in public, and lobbied all his literary contacts to ensure its success.

Once again, the publishers demanded more; and Tolkien attempted to reduce  the multiple drafts of the “Silmarillion” stories to a single coherent book. But he was an old man now, and was unable to complete the task. The last book he managed to write was “Smith of Wooton Major”, published in 1967. This tells of Smith, who as a boy is given a magic token which allows him to visit the land of Faery, where he sees many strange and wonderful things, most of which he fails to understand. But eventually he is told he must give the token back, and he is unable to visit Faery any more. It is the only one of Tolkien’s stories which is clearly an allegory: the autobiographical story of an old man who realises his creative powers are failing. Tolkien died leaving the “Silmarillion” incomplete, and it was left to his son, Christopher, to reduce the mass of manuscripts to publishable form.


Tolkien was always a great letter-writer. After he became famous, fans would write to him asking him to clear up and explain aspects of “The Lord of the Rings”, and he would reply with letters running to seven or more printed pages. A Jesuit who asked him about the origin of certain “holy” words, such as “God”, was rewarded with a long discourse on the philology. But best of all is a letter he wrote in 1938. “The Hobbit” was being translated into German, and, this being the Nazi era, the German publishers wrote to ask whether he was an Aryan. Tolkien knew that, properly speaking, “Aryan” was a word indicating a language-group, and had nothing to do with race. He therefore replied as follows:-
    “I regret that I am not clear as to what you mean. As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, or any related dialect. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people”.
    I think this is magnificent  
(The extract is taken from “The letters of J. R. R. Tolkien”, edited by Humphrey Carpenter)

Tolkien dates

1892   John Ronald Reuel Tolkien born in Blomfontein, South Africa; son of  Arthur, a bank manager and his wife Mabel; both from England
1894   Brother Hilary born
1895   Mabel takes the boys back to England; Arthur stays in S. Africa
1896   Arthur dies. Mabel settles in Sarehole, a village near Birmingham
1900   Mabel converted to Catholicism. They move to Edgbaston
1903   Tolkien enters King Edward’s School, Birmingham, on a scholarship
1904   Mabel dies of diabetes. The Tolkien brothers are placed under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan, and move into lodgings
1908   Tolkien meets Edith Bratt
1910   Morgan forbids Tolkien to contact Edith until he is 21
1911   Tolkien gains an Exhibition scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford
1913   On his 21st birthday he immediately contacts Edith again
1914   Edith becomes a Catholic; she & Tolkien become engaged
1915   Tolkien graduates with a First Class degree in English. He is commissioned in the Lancashire Fusiliers
1916   Tolkien and Edith are married. Battle of the Somme: Tolkien’s battalion is held in reserve on the first day. In November he catches typhus & is invalided back to England
1917   Whilst convalescing at Great Haywood, Staffordshire, Tolkien begins to write a series of linked fantasy stories which come to be known as the “Silmarillion”. He spends much of the year in hospital, and is   never fit enough to return to the front line. His eldest son, John, is born in November
1918   With the Armistice, the Tolkiens return to Oxford. He joins the team researching for the new Oxford English Dictionary
1919   He begins to work as a freelance tutor of undergraduates
1920   Tolkien is appointed Reader in English Language at Leeds University
1925   Publication of his edition of “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight”. He is appointed Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford
1926   C. S. Lewis appointed a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He & Tolkien become friends, and come to form a social & intellectual group known as the “Inklings”. Tolkien continues to write, and  rewrite, “Silmarillion” stories, with encouragement from Lewis
1930   Around this time, Tolkien begins to write “The Hobbit”, but does not finish it
1931   Around this time, Lewis becomes a Christian, & begins to write a series of books on Christian issues
1936   Tolkien’s lecture on “Beowulf”. The unfinished “Hobbit” is seen by a former student who now works for the publishers Allen and Unwin
1937   “The Hobbit” published: an immediate success. The publishers suggest a sequel, which Tolkien begins to write; eventually becoming “The Lord of the Rings”
1938-45   Lewis writes the “Perelandra” trilogy; admired by Tolkien
1939   Tolkien’s lecture “On Fairy Stories”. Charles Williams joins Inklings
1945   Tolkien appointed Professor of English Language and Literature
1949   “Lord of the Rings” completed. Disputes with publishers. Around this time the Inklings decline and eventually stop meeting
1950-56   Lewis writes the seven “Narnia” books; Tolkien does not like them!
1954   First 2 volumes of “LOTR” published. Lewis is appointed Professor of English at Cambridge University, but continues to live in Oxford
1955   Volume 3 of “LOTR” published
1956    Lewis secretly marries Joy Gresham
1959   Tolkien retires from professorship
1960    Joy Lewis dies
1963   C. S. Lewis dies
1967   “Smith of Wootton Major”; Tolkien’s last published work
1968   The Tolkiens move to Bournemouth
1971   Edith Tolkien dies
1972   Tolkien returns to Oxford. He is awarded the CBE
1973   Tolkien dies, leaving the “Silmarillion” stories incomplete
1977   “The Silmarillion” edited and published by his son, Christopher Tolkien

Monday, 11 February 2013

Joseph Conrad's "Secret Agent" and Anarchism

Joseph Conrad wrote his novel “The Secret Agent” in 1907, following an apparently motiveless bomb attack on Greenwich Observatory, in which the bomber, described as an “idiot youth” was killed, and his sister then committed suicide. Conrad uses this as the basis for his story, trying to imagine the motives of those concerned.
Conrad’s novel centres around Mr Verloc and his family. Verloc is an agent-provocateur acting within an anarchist cell in London on behalf of a foreign embassy (obviously meant to be Russia, though it is never actually named). Verloc’s controller, Vladimir, disgusted by the tolerant attitude of the British authorities towards foreign anarchist groups, commands Verloc to commit a revolutionary outrage which will compel the police to take action and deport the foreign-born anarchists: particularly Vladimir wants to get his hands on a Russian revolutionary called Michaelis, so he can be returned to the Gulag. Verloc, much against his will, plants a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory, but owing to an accident it blows up Stevie, his severely autistic brother-in-law. In further complications it transpires that the police are well aware of Verloc’s situation, and the Assistant Commissioner has his own personal reasons for not wishing Michaelis to be deported.
The actual bombing only takes up a very small part of Conrad’s novel, which mostly focuses on Verloc himself, his wife and Stevie. Several foreign-born anarchists make an appearance: they are mostly grotesque and completely ineffective, but include one clearly psychopathic personality known as “the professor”. The only thoroughly amoral and evil character is Vladimir, the Russian official who bullies Verloc into planting the bomb. Conrad, who was Polish by birth (his real name being Korseniowski) would of course hate the Russian government.

Anarchism was much in the news at the start of the 20th century, occupying much the same place in the public mind as Islamic terrorism does today. Anarchists were seen as wild-eyed fanatics who went around committing acts of senseless violence. The Empress Elizabeth of Austria was murdered by an anarchist in 1898, and King Umberto I of Italy followed in 1900. This was reflected in the fiction of the time. An early H. G. Wells story, “The Stolen Bacillus”, concerns an anarchist who swallows what he believes is a culture of cholera germs in order to start a deadly epidemic; and in 1908 G. K. Chesterton wrote the novel, “The Man Who Was Thursday”. The hero of this very strange work joins an anarchist network as a police spy. The seven members of the anarchist central committee are all named after days of the week (hence the title), but it transpires that six of them are police agents, and the seventh is, apparently, God!

The centre of anarchism, however, was Russia; and the stock cartoon anarchist, with his spiky beard, peasant smock, cap, boots and smoking bomb, was very much a Russian figure. Russian anarchism was of two distinct kinds: those with an optimistic view of human nature, who had an idealised vision of small, peaceful communities with no need for central government, and those who believed in the necessity of revolutionary action. The first kind was exemplified by Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921); the second by Nikolai Bakunin (1814-76). Bakunin, as well as numerous arrests and escapes from captivity, translated the “Communist Manifesto” into Russian, but later fell out with Marx, whom he accused him of preparing the ground for dictatorship, and who expelled him from the First International. In 1868 Bakunin was taken in by the young Sergei Nechayev, who took his money after telling him largely fictitious stories of huge conspiracies and daring escapes. Back in Russia, Nechayev then wrote “The Catechism of a Revolutionary”, and murdered a certain Ivanov, who disagreed with him, for which he was convicted as a common criminal and died in the Peter-Paul fortress in 1882. Nechavev inspired Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Devils”. At the same time Turgenev wrote his most famous novel, “Fathers and Sons”, featuring Barazov, who sees use only in science and is otherwise a Nihilist, believing in nothing. The novel was denounced by both government and radicals.

Russian radicalism, including anarchism, was a matter for the intelligensia (a typically Russian concept). Russian universities expanded greatly; they were provided with plenty of scholarships and were open to anyone who could pass exams. They were ignored by great nobility, and instead attracted many students from poorer backgrounds: children of tradesmen, minor officials, clergy, even some peasants. Many students were virtually starving! But these educated young people (who included many women) had no official role in Russia, where there was no such thing as a legal opposition to the Tsarist regime. The intelligensia were almost by definition anti-government, and the universities always a focus of disturbances, strikes and protests; full of radical discussion groups and secret societies. Every so often the authorities moved in to arrest all concerned. Many young radicals, from Herzen onwards, fled abroad and wrote propaganda to be smuggled into Russia.

In 1874 came the astonishing phenomenon called “Going to the people”. Inspired by anarchist and populist writings, 2-3000 young men and women, mostly from the upper classes, set out on foot to live amongst the peasants and instruct them. It led to severe disillusionment. Inevitably they found the peasants unreceptive and suspicious, and were soon caught by police. Kropotkin called this episode “The mad summer of ‘74”. 1876 saw the formation of  the movement “Land & Liberty” envisaging “peasant socialism” and the communal ownership of land. But it soon came under control of Bakuninites, controlled by a small central group of dedicated revolutionaries. There were big demonstrations, violently broken up by police, and massive political trials with many students receiving long terms of imprisonment or forced labour.

In 1878, after an imprisoned student was flogged for refusing to take off his cap, a young woman named Vera Zasulich visited  the police chief Trepov in office, and shot and wounded him. Amazingly, she was acquitted at her trial and escaped abroad. Other assassination attempts followed, to be met with executions, and the organisation ceased to exist. One of its leading members, Plekhanov, went to Switzerland and became Russia’s first Marxist.
Out of the ruins of “Land and Liberty” rose “People’s Will”, a small circle of conspirators whose aim was to kill the Tsar, Alexander II. After a number of failures, they eventually succeeded, with two bombs thrown in St Petersburg in March 1881. Alexander’s legs were blown off, and he died a few hours later. The terrible scene was witnessed by the Tsar’s grandson, aged 12, who later became Tsar Nicholas II. The conspirators made little attempt to flee, and five of them, including the 26-year-old Sofia Perovskaya, the daughter of a leading general, were paraded through the streets and hanged in public that April. A band played loud music to prevent any of their last words from reaching the crowd. Their place in history was summed up in the words, “They insisted on murdering a liberal intelligent Tsar to give the throne to a stupid and reactionary one”. (Alexander III)

“People’s Will” was broken, and the powers of the secret police greatly increased, together with clampdowns on the universities (One attempted remedy was to teach less science and more Latin. Another cunning plan was to recruit rebellious students into the army; which might have kept the students quiet, but would hardly have improved army morale), but assassination plots continued. In early 1887 a group of students planned to throw a bomb at the Tsar, but the police were onto them and no bomb was actually thrown. Fifteen young people were arrested and five condemned to death. Some names which would become famous in the future were involved. A Pole, Bronislaw Pilsudski, was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour, though his brother Josef, who was only slightly involved, escaped with no more than exile. Josef Pilsudski later became president of independent Poland. Amongst those hanged was a chemistry student called Alexander Ulyanov. He had a teenage brother who was later to be better known as Lenin.

In 1901 a new political group was formed, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). They included Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer, who became Prime Minister of Russia after the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917; but the party also had a terrorist wing, the “SR Combat Organisation”, which carried out assassinations by gun or bomb. The Minister of Education was murdered in 1901, and this was countered by  13 deaths when Cossacks charged a student demonstration. Sipiagin, the Minister of the Interior, was murdered in early 1903, and his successor Pleve followed in July. It transpired later that Pleve’s murder was organised by a certain Azev, a police agent within the terrorist cell. The most famous murder of this period occurred in summer 1911, when the Prime Minister, Peter Stolypin, was gunned down in a theatre in Kiev. The gunman, a student called Bogrov, was a revolutionary who was also a police informer. Exactly who was behind this murder has never been proved.

The Socialist Revolutionaries were never an organised, disciplined political party. Some SRs supported Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in November 1917, but they quickly became disillusioned with Lenin’s methods. Within a few months the SRs started to turn their guns on Russia’s new leaders. Lenin himself was shot and badly wounded by Fanny Kaplan, a young Jewish Socialist Revolutionary woman, in summer 1918. The Bolsheviks then turned on the SRs much as the Tsars had done, but far more effectively. Within a few years all surviving Socialist Revolutionaries were languishing in exile or in the Gulag, or were desperately trying to conceal their past heresies.

After the revolution, the venerable apostle of peaceful anarchism, Prince Peter Kropotkin, was able to return to his homeland after half a lifetime in prison and foreign exile. He did not approve of what Lenin was doing, and was not afraid to say so; but he was such a respected figure that he was left alone, and died peacefully in 1921. Anarchism in Russia died with him.

Monday, 4 February 2013

T. E. Hulme: A Staffordshire First World War Poet

Thomas Ernest Hulme was born in 1883 at Gratton in north Staffordshire, and brought up at Endon, near Stoke-on-Trent, where his father was a businessman dealing in ceramic transfers for the pottery industry. He attended the High School in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where his cleverness and interest in the arts blossomed. He excelled at maths and physics, edited the school magazine, played in the rugby team and dominated the debating society, but also emerged a rebellious, self-willed character with a sardonic turn of phrase, who did not care in the slightest what anyone thought of him.
In 1902 he won an Exhibition grant of £40 a year to read maths at St John’s College, Cambridge, but after two years he was “sent down” for a combination of riotous behaviour in the town and complete absence of any serious work. (Throughout Hulme’s life, his bad language and rowdy conduct frequently led to accusations of drunkenness: in fact he was a lifelong teetotaller!) He spent the next few years in Canada and in Europe before returning to live in lodgings in Chelsea in 1908.
In London he quickly established himself amongst the literary and cultural avant-gard. He was friends with Ezra Pound, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Robert Frost, and also the sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose work he greatly admired. He also met Rupert Brooke and D. H. Lawrence, but did not feel much empathy with them or their work. He strongly disliked Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury group. He declared himself to be a Tory; rejecting socialism, the whole notion of “progress”, and the essential “sentimental sloppiness” of Romanticism. He praised the rigid formalism of Byzantine art, which he had seen in the mosaics at Ravenna. He delivered lectures, wrote poems and articles for literary magazines, and had his work praised by T. S. Eliot. He met and admired the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and translated the latter’s “Introduction to Metaphysics”. Later he also translated Georges Sorel’s “Reflections on Violence”. (He must have had help with these, since his French was never good enough for him to be a professional translator). But to some extent he remained an adolescent: he never made any attempt to take a regular job or earn enough to live on: instead he relied on financial support from his aunt Alice Pattinson, in Macclesfield. At his death his total wealth amounted to no more than £232.
Hulme was part of the “Imagist” school. Poetry, he thought, should be simple, dry, accurate and formal, avoiding sentimentality and unnecessary waffle and verbiage. A few examples, taken from his “Complete Poetical Works” (1912), show how he was also influenced by Chinese poetry and Japanese haikus:-

Mana Amboda, whose bent form
The sky in arched circle is
Seems ever for an unknown grief to morn
Yet on a day I heard her cry
“I weary of the roses and the singing poets
Josephs all, not tall enough to try”

Far back there is a round pool
Where trees reflected make sad memory
Whose tense expectant surface waits
The ecstatic wave that ripples it
In sacrament of union
The fugitive bliss that comes with the red tear
That falls from the middle-aged princess
(Sister to the princely frog)
While she leans tranced in a dreamy curve
As a drowsy wail in an Eastern song.

“Embankment (The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold bitter night)”

Once in the finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy
Oh God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky
That I may fold it round me, and in comfort lie

A touch of cold in the autumn night -
I walked abroad
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

In 1912 Hulme successfully applied for readmission to Cambridge on the basis of his work on Bergson; but this time he lasted only a few months at the university. All his life he was a relentless pursuer of women, and now some sexually explicit letters he had written to a sixth-form girl at Roedean school came to light. He retreated to Berlin for a while before returning to London.

At the declaration of war in August 1914, Hulme immediately volunteered as a private in the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), and after some preliminary training was sent to the continent at the end of the year. He spent the early months of 1915 in the front line or on carrying fatigues, experiencing heavy fighting at Kemmel and Spanbroekmolen. He kept a detailed diary, and also wrote long letters to his father, describing his experiences in a typically laconic, unemotional style. A few extracts will have to suffice:-

Jan. 27th 1915
“We went up to a kind of circular reserve trench. I don’t think I’ve been so exasperated for years as I was in taking up my position in this trench. It wasn’t an ordinary one but roofed over most of the way, leaving a passage about 4 ft: absolutely impossible for me to walk through. I had to crawl along on my hands and knees, through mud in pitch darkness and every now and then seemed to get stuck altogether. You feel shut in and hopeless. I wished I was about 4 ft. This war isn’t for tall men. I got in a part too narrow and too low to stand or sit and had to sit sideways on a sack of coke to keep out of the water. We had to stay there from about 7 pm till just before dawn the next morning, a most miserable experience. You can’t sleep and you sit as it were at the bottom of a drain with nothing to look at but the top of the ditch slowly freezing. It’s unutterably boring. …….
“It’s curious to think of the ground between the trenches: a bank which is practically never seen by anyone in the daylight, as it is only safe to move through it at dark. It’s full of dead things; dead animals here and there, dead unburied animals, skeletons of horses destroyed by shellfire.”

Feb 10th
“We had seen shells bursting fairly near to us before, and at first did not take it very seriously. But soon it turned out to be very different. The shells started dropping in the trench itself. We shared this trench with the X regiment. About 10 yards from where I was a man of this regiment had ¾ of his head blown off: a frightful mess, his brains all over the place, some on the back of the man who stands beside me in the photograph. The worst of the shelling is, the regulars say, that you don’t get used to it, but get more and more alarmed at it every time. At any rate the regulars in our trench behaved in a rather strange way. One man threw himself down on the bottom of the trench, shaking all over and crying. Another started to weep. It lasted for nearly 1 ½ hours and at the end of it parts of the trench were all blown to pieces. It’s not the idea of being killed that’s alarming, but the idea of being hit by a jagged piece of steel. You hear the whistle of the shell coming, you crouch down as low as you can and just wait. ……
“The next night went up to new trenches altogether. This time we weren’t in the firing line, but in a line of dugouts, or supports. These dugouts were about 2 feet deep, so you can imagine how comfortable I was. They put me in one by myself. It felt just like being in your grave, lying flat just beneath the surface of the ground and covered up. And there I had to be for 24 hours, unable to get out until it was dark next night, for we could be seen from the German lines. ….. A man I know quite well had a bullet entered one side of his nose and came out near his ear. They sent him back to England and say he will remain. I’m getting more used to this kind of life and as long as I don’t get hurt or it doesn’t rain too much, I don’t mind it at all.”

March 21st
“I had myself one night the unpleasant job of carrying down one of our men who had been shot dead through the heart. This is a very unpleasant job when you have to go in pitch darkness a way you don’t know very well over mud and ditches. I’m glad it wasn’t a man I knew, but it’s queer as you carry him down shoulder-high, his face is very near your own. …..
“We spent one evening with some Belfast Tommies, men about 35 who had rejoined; very simple people with faces like pieces of wood, who told us fearful stories of this sort: Some Ghurkas were left in charge of German prisoners. In the morning all the Germans were found with their heads off. Asked for an explanation, they opened their haversacks, each of which had a German head in it and said, “Souvenir Sahib”. All this in the most wonderful accent you ever heard.”

His only printed war poem: “Trenches: St Eloi” (Published as “Abbreviated from the conversation of Mr T.E.H.”) was published from these experiences:-

“Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sandbags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess-tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly, Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, lying back miles.
Beyond the lines, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.”

In April 1915 he was shot through the arm and invalided back to England for treatment. He now applied for and was given a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Marine Artillery, but was not called up for service until late in 1916. In the meantime he resumed his writing, publishing “War Notes” under the pseudonym of “North Staffs”. His attitude was that, despite the appalling conditions and the incompetence of the High Command, which he never denied, the war was “a stupid necessity”, to save Europe from being dominated by “Prussian militarism”. He therefore clashed with Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell and other prominent opponents of the war. Hulme considered that pacifism “lacked the force to radically transform society”; the pacifists were addicted to ease and comfort, and suffered from the delusion that mankind was by nature “good” and benevolent. As ever, he fiercely rejected “the sentimental decadence of humanism”. He continued his friendship with Jacob Epstein, who produced a bust of him during this period.

In May 1917, after some time guarding naval bases in Scotland,  Hulme was sent to Belgium. He was to serve with the big guns preparing for the coming offensive at Ypres, better known to posterity as the battle of Passchendaele. He found the experience vastly preferable to being in the trenches, but it was just as dangerous. On September 28th he was hit by a shell and literally blown to bits. He was 34 years old. The book he was writing on Jacob Epstein was lost without trace. His gravestone at Koksijde simply calls him “One of the war poets”. There is a memorial window to him at St Luke’s church, Endon Bank, back in Staffordshire.

Hulme has been largely forgotten nowadays, but at the time many people noticed him; not all favourably. Bertrand Russell, years later, remembered him as “An evil man, who could have created nothing but evil”, and would, had he lived, have “wound up an Oswald Mosley type”. Would Hulme have drifted towards Fascism in the post-war years? Certainly Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis came to support the extreme Right, and it is difficult ever to imagine Hulme as a moderate.  But Epstein considered he was always a conservative, not a Fascist. T.S. Eliot in 1924 summed him up as, “Classical, reactionary and revolutionary …… the antipodes of the eccentric, tolerant and democratic mind of the end of the century.” Hulme was a product of his time, even though he was in revolt against what it stood for. The fact that he was remembered by the likes of Bertrand Russell and T. S. Eliot shows that he was a man of significance then.

(The extracts from the diary are taken from “The Short Sharp Life of T. E. Hulme”, by Robert Ferguson. Hulme’s papers are held at Keele University)