Thursday, February 01, 2007

31/1/2007 "A Short History of Nearly Everything" Bill Bryson

The proposer introduced Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". He said that it was an excellent book for non-scientists to get a general grasp of recent developments across a broad range of sciences. It was a great mixture of hard science and amusing anecdotes about scientific pioneers.

There was general agreement about the amazing nature of the book and a recognition that it required a non-scientist to have written it to make it comprehensible to the general reader. It was an important contribution to the cause of rational scientific analysis at a time when it was under attack from religious fundamentalism on the one hand and relativism on the other. The book brought out well the fragility of mankind's continued existence from the risk of catastrophes including volcanoes, earthquakes, asteroids, and general climate change.

One member indicated he had some negative reaction to the anecdotes - but found himself in a minority - and thought some diagrams would have been helpful. Nonetheless he acknowledged that he had been generally impressed by the book, in particular by the sections on areas of science he knew least well.

There was less discussion of the book than usual, partly because of the absence of some members at a sporting event, and partly because there was general agreement on the excellence of the book, both in terms of writing and content.

Not perhaps surprisingly discussion moved on to some of the issues raised by the book, in particular climate change. There was praise for Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", which was playing a similar role to Bryson's book in educating the public about current scientific thinking and the need for action on climate change.

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at:
30/11/ 2006 : “Barbarossa” by Alan Clark

The proposer introduced the book by saying it was one of the first two books on military history he had read, intriguing him so much that he had gone on a seven year long military history jag, culminating in organising military history tours. The book was the classic account of the Germany/Russia conflict in the Second Word War - a massive, underpublicized subject.

For him, the book had three dimensions, all excellent. There was firstly the military history itself; secondly the background history to the conflict such as the analysis of the psychology of Hitler and his Generals; and thirdly the work of an artist: the narrative, drama, suspense, tragedy and epic of the story. On the last dimension it was interesting that Clark in his introduction referred to its heroes belonging to the classical tradition rather than the modern Western tradition of “good” and “bad”. The imaginative power of the book - the epic feel of the greatest war in history, the tantalising closeness to Moscow, the mythic echoes of Napoleon’s campaign - was such that it transcended the military history genre. It was also amusing that Clark the self-opinionated, outspoken libertine peeked out from time to time from under the mask of the serious historian.

However, the book needed better editing. The occasional sentence was incomprehensible; particularly early on, he went into too much tactical detail on the battles; the maps and the text did not coincide; and in the 2001 paperback edition there was even an appendix with source numbers that were not reproduced in the text.

Clark lived from 1928-1999, and was the son of Kenneth Clark the art historian, by whom he felt overshadowed. As a boy Hitler had fascinated him. Clark was very rich, allowing him to be outspoken. He read history and had trained for the bar, but instead became a military historian. He then went into politics. He had come to prominence with his controversial 1961 book “The Donkeys”, castigating the British First World War Generals, which had inspired “Oh What a Lovely War”. The book had been revisionist in its day, but its opinions were now in turn being revised. Following a book on the Fall of Crete, Clark had published “Barbarossa” in 1965. Reading more recent books around the subject of “Barbarossa” had, however, added more detail rather than new perspectives, except for the strange story of Stalin’s collapse at the outset of the invasion.

Another member of the Group had now read the book twice, and found it fascinating again. It was a terrific book. Not just was it beautifully written, but, given that the Nazis were essentially defeated on the Eastern Front, it was an important counterweight to the normal British-dominated perspective of the Second World as taught at school. For example, he had recently looked at a book on the Second World War by Alan Brooke, which said almost nothing about Russia. The book helped to explain how the Russians viewed the world after the Second World War, and felt they needed to occupy countries that had fought against them. It explained the importance of the Russian-Japanese war, which was generally unheard of in Britain. It also gave a wider insight into the twentieth century as essentially the struggle between Germany and Russia. The book was beautifully written, had great photos, and a compelling selection of quotations.

The other members of the Group came new to the book, and generally new to the military history genre. In summary they found a lot more positive than negative in the book.

One felt that people should be encouraged to read it, because it opened one’s eyes to the appalling Nazi atrocities, and the precise, systematic way they were carried out. Clark conveyed this very effectively, not labouring it to excess, but with just two or three chilling lines from time to time. The horrors of the war recounted in the book certainly reinforced the case for setting up the EU!

However, he felt Clark showed some naivety in expressing surprise at Hitler’s inability to control his Generals, and their bureaucratic jostling for position. Someone with wider experience of working in big organisations would have known how commonplace this was, and this suggested a youthful lack of experience in the author, which tended to undermine some of his judgments. (An alternative view expressed was that the sort of confusion evinced between the roles of OKW and OKH, while it might be common in most big organisations, was rare in German ones, particularly the military where clarity of function and demarcation of roles was central to their way of operating).

Another member was attracted by the way the book brought out the office politics dimension of the campaign. The top Generals were busy vying for influence, and totally distanced from the atrocities at the front. The horror of it was that sense of distance. In a similar way people working in defence industries saw war as a matter of logistics, quite divorced from the reality. Unlike most members of the group, he liked the considerable tactical detail in the book, as he liked the war game feel of it, although he was therefore all the more frustrated by the poor maps. But - compared to a war novel, which would remain his preference - the chess-like description of battle did not bring out the fog and confusion of war. (However, others felt that the quotations - e.g. in describing the snipers, and the use of grenades, in Stalingrad - did a lot to convey the grimness of the actual experience). The book was also good in correcting misconceptions. It made the personality and role of Hitler much clearer. It dealt with the misconception that the Germans had had the best tanks and armour, and the Russians had simply won through weight of numbers. The lack of logistic skill on the German side was surprising, with for example the wide variety of tanks and guns, partly because of Hitler’s interference.

For another member, it was a very good book, but he would not have said so after the first hundred or so pages because he disliked the excessive detail. However, as the book went on it gathered momentum. The writer got caught up in the story he was telling and he himself seemed to lose interest in the detail. It demonstrated the sacrifice of the Russian people, and was a reminder of how horrendous the Nazis had been in the Second World War, and how chillingly bureaucratic they had been in anything they did. It made the war in the West seem like a sideshow. A minor irritation was that he found too much "Alan Clark" in the book, in the sense of the self-opinionated public figure he later became.

Another member had approached the book expecting to find it dull, but instead had found it gripping, enthralling and stimulating. He had been unable to put it down. It had awakened a new interest - opened a door. His interest had been such that he had broken with conventional wisdom and asked a German colleague about his knowledge of the Eastern Front. He had been intrigued to hear about his colleague’s father’s experiences of fighting there, and had been surprised to learn that Clark’s book was well known in Germany.

The subsequent discussion of the book and the issues it provoked ranged very widely. It was suggested that Clark could have brought out the relative scale of the Russian front by some comparative information about the weight of the different armies in different theatres – all he did was list the generals and armies involved. It would have been telling, for example, to note that there were seven German Field Marshals on the Eastern front, but only one in North Africa. Similarly, some felt that he assumed a lot of background knowledge of the Second World War on the part of the reader. Against that, it could be argued that he had an enormously complex subject to master, and that he would have lost focus and grasp if he had digressed into events in other theatres. For such a big subject it was a relatively small book. And towards the end of the book he did make clear the trade-offs that had to be made between Western and Eastern fronts. Other surprising omissions were much on the siege of Leningrad, and on the Nazi use of airpower in the campaign.

An intriguing judgement by Clark (p18, 2001 ppbk) was that the German General staff had been responsible during the First World War for “the single most catastrophic action of the century” in despatching Lenin and his colleagues to Russia in the famous “sealed train”. Is this Clark making a political judgment on the action, because in military terms the action successfully ensured Russia’s exit from the War? Or, in context, is he simply saying what Hitler thought?

Another subject of debate was why the German people supported Hitler in his wars. Was it a flaw in the German character? Or would other countries have responded in the same way to a leader like Hitler? After all, there were plenty of other examples of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and treating other races as inferior, including the Hutus and the Tutus, the slave trade, and the Balkans, not to mention dubious behaviour in the British Empire.

In the case of the Nazis, the role of Goebbels and media propaganda was suggested to be crucial. For example, before the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Goebbels had spread false stories of German nationals being maltreated in these countries, to the extent that reasonable people might well feel invasion was justified. More generally there were many examples – including topical ones – of an idée fixe taking over in the media of particular countries which could lead to war, especially in societies with a military culture, a political leadership drawn from the military, or a dominant military industrial/ political nexus. The Nazis’ pseudo-scientific racial theories (in particular the concept of “untermenschen” explained by Clark) had also given moral license to the unbelievable brutality and extermination in the East, which was noticeably worse than that in the West.

Opinions differed on Clark’s self-confident habit of occasionally making sweeping generalisations. The most controversial were about the peoples of Europe, notoriously that the French were too fond of wine and adultery to put up much of a defence in 1940, or that the innate sadism in the German character was shown in their behaviour in Russia. For some, such ex-cathedra statements were arrogant and self-indulgent, and distracted from the book as a serious work. Others felt that they enlivened the book, and that Clark (once said to be opposed to political correctness before the term was invented) was courageous in offering broad judgements in a way that no modern writer would dare. For example, did the description of the Polish nation - “that strange, gifted and romantic people, doomed forever to be crushed between the callous monoliths of Germany and Russia” – not hit the mark precisely?

This led to a debate about how serious a military historian Clark was, and some wondered if the book were derivative. However, the consensus was that he had made much good use of primary sources, and that the book was a substantial, if in some respects unconventional, contribution to military history, remaining as it did the classic account of the campaign over forty years later. In addition it was unusually illuminating about the personalities involved. By contrast, one member felt Anthony Beavor’s later books about Stalingrad and Berlin were less well-written, lacked organisation and strategic focus, and used new research mainly to indulge a relish in the gruesome.

One member had been sufficiently intrigued by the question of why Hitler had undertaken this fatal invasion of Russia (which on the face of it was quite illogical, given the historic aversion of Germany to fighting on two fronts, and the foreboding precedent of Napoleon) to do further research into the issue. Reading of a more recent text, Kershaw’s massive study of Hitler, produced the same answers that Clark had sketched in: Hitler’s dominant motivation, bizarrely, was the idea that invasion of Russia would force Britain to the negotiating table. Less important were his longstanding opposition to Communism and prediction of a showdown between Germany and Russia as set out in Mein Kampf, his conviction that he alone was a great enough leader to win such a showdown, his fear that his mortality meant time was running out, the need to keep German public opinion buoyant with a string of victories, and his autarkic economic theory about the need to subsume more resources. The German military, which at one time would have violently opposed such a plan, had been ground into submission by seeing its opposition to earlier invasions being falsified by events.

On the other hand, it was suggested, there was some substance for the German view that the British could be brought round to be on their side, with a substantial segment of the British upper class being keen on Hitler. Hitler’s view that a blitzkrieg would have the campaign finished before winter did not seem so unreasonable given the astonishing successes of his earlier campaigns - above all with France falling in six weeks, in defiance of conventional military wisdom. However, like Napoleon Hitler had found his supply lines too long. Another factor might be that Hitler recognised his similarity to Stalin, and therefore feared the possibility of Stalin striking first. It should also be remembered that Germany in 1938 had territory much further east, with places such as Koningsberg, which are now part of Russia. Perhaps the nearest analogy for the Germany/Russia war was that between Rome and Carthage: similarly epic, with a desire to obliterate the other side, and similarly pointless as they did not need the territory they coveted.

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at: