The musings of Mr Monkeysized


A blood-sodden Germanic disneyland by monkeysized

I am a sucker for podcasts; I am a sucker for history; I am a sucker for history podcasts. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you (the subtly titled) ‘New Books in History’.

So far I’ve only listened to one podcast – an interview with Mark Mazower about ‘Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe”.

The book is a cracker, and the podcast illuminating.

When looking back at the whole fateful Nazi project it’s easy to be blinded by the big, familiar narratives – the Holocaust, the war fighting, the personalities. However much of what I find interesting about the Nazis is contained in Mazower’s book. The war was a means to an end – the Thousand Year Reich, and all that concerned for Europe. It wasn’t just about killing jews, extinguishing Bolshevism and conquering territory, but setting up a whole new way of organising the political structure of a continent. The specific element that intrigues me the most concerns the Nazis within the context of what I might amateurishly term modernist romantic neo-scientific responses to new-nationalism in the pre-industrial east (sorry).

By this I mean the Nazis were deeply concerned with how the pre-industrial east, with its scatterings of agriculturally-occupied ethnicities (that persisted under the various empires of Ottomans, Habsburgs and Romanovs) could coalesce into coherent political entities in the national age, buttressed by scientific racial theories and a mawkish attachment to romantic conceptions of the past.

Obviously a spillover from this concern led to the destructive racial theories that obsessed Hitler and turned, in the ad hoc way the Nazis prosecuted the war, into bureaucratised industrialised genocide. It also led to neo-pagan ceremonies, the use of runic symbols and torchlight parades.

The other consideration was the hodge-podge of ethnic German communities that were scattered across Europe, all the way to the Volga Germans over in Russia, and including the fortified Saxon communities of the Transylvanian frontier that dated back to the 1200s.

The Twentieth Century and its political experiments were unkind to these communities, which is ironic given the apparent intention to use such frontier soldier-farmer-settler communities as a model for settling Lebensraum in the newly-conquered East. First these ancient communities were ‘welcomed back into the Reich’, complete with strange Germanic dialects and sense of dislocation. These populations of errant ethnic Germans were also ear-marked to re-form into fortified settler towns such as Himmlerstadt (otherwise known as Zamosc). It was a bizarre attempt to reform pre-industrial Eastern Europe in the shape of a Germanic master race – but heavily frosted with overtones of pre-industrial ethnic romanticism, as though the Nazis were keen to rekindle a Hansel and Gretl rural frontier past.

I’ve just spent a week in the stretch of Transylvania where the Saxons used to live, in their fortified churches with lookout towers to watch for hordes of Huns, Mongols, Tartars and Turks from the eastern wastes. The Saxons themselves – the ones who weren’t destroyed by the Fascist Beast itself – left under Communism, with the Bundesrepublik paying for exit visas while the Commies pocketed the hard currency before selling their properties on.

The region remains ethnically mixed: Romanian, Hungarian and Gypsy. The signs are bi or trilingual (German, rather than a Roma-based language (they speak Romanian)).

Where the distinctive Saxon properties, with their internal courtyards lying behind hexagonal fascades, were sold to Hungarians, the relative wealth of the new occupants often resulted in destructive renovation. When poor families, often Romanian, bought them, they were preserved through a lack of funds (many are now being preserved through bodies such as UNESCO). Where the properties were sold cheaply to property-less Roma (often in a governmental attempt to get them to settle down) the result has often been dereliction.

It’s a sad end to eight or so centuries of Saxon habitation in what was always a frontier land, and an intriguing footnote to the Nazi’s wider project that would have turned swathes of Europe into a blood-sodden Germanic theme park.



Spies are public sector bureaucrats by monkeysized

I learn a lot from Ed Lucas, the Economist’s central/eastern Europe guru. And today’s lesson is about spying.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is perhaps my favourite DVD. I watch the entire series once every year or even six months. But I harbour no illusions about the glamour of spying. It’s a merry-go-round of betrayal, loneliness and duty, with a very military sense of fighting for those in the system immediately surrounding you, and climbing a bureaucratic career ladder, rather than any higher allegiance to some lofty ideal. Mostly.

I heard Ed Lucas on the Today programme a couple of days ago, talking about the cabal of spyage that’s been unmasked in the USA. He evidently knows a lot about it, but in illuminating aspects of the story, he drew much of the glamour out of it. In today’s Europeview column he goes further.

The standout idea is that

“The business of spying has far more similarities with the world of public sector bureaucracy than differences from it.”

He goes on to unpick the priorities of the secret services in the countries of his patch. The Hungarians spy on their NATO neighbours with large Hungarian minorities; The Czechs are good in the Arab world, but fail to update their website (perhaps tactically); The Poles are concerned with who has what finger on what Kaliningrad trigger; Slovenia and Croatia are unlikely to stop spying on each other, even if/when both are in the EU; The Romanians are predictably pretty good at Moldova.

In the course of my own journalistic career I came across and had contacts in the intelligence world, and it seems clear to me that these are casual asides based upon very real knowledge and contacts, possibly trailing back decades. It’s also the most illuminating thing written about the Russian spying cabal. This week, like most weeks, we can thank Ed Lucas for being a journalist who helps us understand more about the world and the strange way it ticks over. We need more like him.