A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (NYRB Books). In December of 1933 Leigh Fermor, an openhearted, precociously learned and poised eighteen-year-old, weary of partying among the bright (no longer) young things of London's high bohemia, decided to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He packed the Oxford Book of English Verse and the first volume of the Loeb Horace in a rucksack and traveled for eighteen months through Central and Eastern Europe as it was accommodating itself (enthusiastically, warily, or with foreboding) to a newly Nazified Germany. He encountered beer-swilling storm troopers and was befriended by Magyar swineherds, a rabbi high in a Carpathian lumber camp, and—in the remote reaches of the Great Hungarian Plain and deep in the Transylvanian forests—"overcivilized boyars up to their ears in Proust and Mallarmé," who hosted him as he wandered from castle to castle "sipping Tokay out of cut-glass goblets" (a young man of abundant charm, Leigh Fermor seems to have possessed an absolute genius for freeloading). When the war started, he enlisted in the posh Irish Guards and spent most of 1942-1944 as an agent in German-occupied Crete, disguised as a shepherd, living in caves, where he organized the resistance and, as he offhandedly noted in his Who's Who entry, "commanded some minor guerrilla operations" that included the swashbuckling and successful kidnapping of a German general, who was whisked to Egypt. After his wartime buccaneering he became one of the most esteemed travel writers of the twentieth century. In these two volumes of extraordinary lyrical beauty and discursive, staggering erudition, Leigh Fermor recounted his first great excursion. Written in 1977 and 1986, they were for years unbelievably and criminally out of print (thank God, again, for the unerringly discerning editors of NYRB Books). They're partially about an older author's encounter with his young self, but they're mostly an evocation of a lost Mitteleuropa of wild horses and dark forests, of ancient synagogues and vivacious Jewish coffeehouses, of Hussars and Uhlans, and of high-spirited and deeply eccentric patricians with vast libraries (such as the Transylvanian count who was a famous entomologist specializing in Far Eastern moths and who spoke perfect English, though with a heavy Scottish accent, thanks to his Highland nanny). These books amply display Leigh Fermor's keen eye and preternatural ear for languages, but what sets them apart, besides the utterly engaging persona of their narrator, is his historical imagination and intricate sense of historical linkage. (He's one of the most allusive writers of the past century, and as Walter Bagehot pointed out, "What truly indicates excellent knowledge, is the habit of constant, sudden, and almost unconscious allusion, which implies familiarity, for it can arise from that alone.") In a single paragraph describing the significance of the topography he saw from Ulm's medieval cathedral's steeple (the highest in the world), he leaps across centuries, from the Roman frontier walls below, which followed the Danube's southern bank "all the way to the Black Sea," to the way the same valley functioned for centuries as a funnel for barbarian invaders from Asia, to the route of Charlemagne's mission to subdue the Avars, to the sieges of the Thirty Years' War, to the Battle of Blenheim, to "the scarlet banner with the swastika on its white disc" that he saw fluttering below—and then he shifts to the future (the reader's and the author's present) and remarks that three quarters of the city below him would be destroyed in the war to come. Few writers are as alive to the persistence of the past (he's ever alert to the historical forces that account for the shifts in custom, language, architecture, and costume that he discerns), and I've read none who are so sensitive to the layers of invasion that define the part of Europe he depicts here. The unusual vantage point of these books lends them great poignancy, for we and the author know what the youthful Leigh Fermor cannot: that the war will tear the scenery and shatter the buildings he evokes; that German and Soviet occupation will uproot the beguiling world of those Tolstoyan nobles; and that in fact very few of the gentle and highly cultivated people who became his friends on this marvelous and sunny journey will survive the coming catastrophe.
"France's Downfall" (October 2001)
The most comprehensive account of the most sordid period in French history. By Eugen Weber
Pétain, by Charles Williams (Palgrave Macmillan). In 1914 Henri Philippe Pétain, an obscure and shrewd but unimaginative fifty-eight-year-old brigade commander, a serial fornicator from peasant stock who had never heard a shot fired in battle, was planning his retirement. Four years later he was a marshal of France and the most beloved French hero of the First World War, thanks to his masterly defense of Verdun—in which he displayed a deep concern for the infantrymen under his command who were enduring the bloodiest battle of the war—and to his 1917 revitalization, using an adroit combination of concessions and selective executions, of a demoralized and mutinous French army. But in May of 1940, at the age of eighty-four, he was appointed vice-premier and urged the government, in the face of France's sudden and shocking military collapse, to seek an armistice, upon which he was appointed interim chief of state at Vichy. At the end of the war a French tribunal found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death (though De Gaulle, his old nemesis, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment). Thus today his memory evokes the great blemish on the French nation, and he is the figure indissolubly linked to an episode that still engenders shame, bitterness, recrimination, and evasion. In this work of cool authority Williams—deputy leader of the opposition in the House of Lords and the author of biographies of De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer—places Pétain's actions and attitudes in their precise and proper context. The result will equally displease Pétain's few champions and many detractors. Williams's most important achievement is, quite rightly, to stress the hopeless military situation that confronted France on the eve of the armistice: having witnessed in the previous war with Germany carnage on a scale that Churchill could only imagine (the plucky prime minister's message to his ally in the spring of 1940 amounted to a rousing call to defend Britain to the last Frenchman), Pétain correctly concluded that French military defeat was unavoidable and that continued resistance to the blitzkrieg would only lead to the unnecessary slaughter of more French soldiers. In adeptly recounting the tense atmosphere at the close of the Battle of France, Williams accomplishes one of the most difficult of the historian's tasks: he strips away what we know now in order to reveal what his subjects knew then. Those who castigate Pétain for his willingness to give up the struggle—for the sake of what he rather mystically termed "the continued existence of eternal France"—should recognize that the issue he confronted is the most difficult one imaginable for people in power to face (indeed, it's one with which no U.S. statesman has ever been forced to struggle), and that the "right" stance, even the heroic one, is highly contextual. But as understandable as Pétain's defeatism was, Williams makes plain that a visceral anti-communism, rather than a realistic appreciation of Hitler's intentions, determined his sanguine vision of a Nazi-dominated Western Europe and of France's place in it—and, far more important, that the actions Pétain instigated or acceded to or was complicit in while ruling in Vichy must be judged as at best nasty and at worst murderous. Among other outrages, his government banned Jews from public-sector jobs and, under German diktat, expelled foreign Jews to the death camps. (Pétain protested, but his objections "were neither particularly strong nor particularly principled.") Still, as loathsome as these policies were, none were included in the indictments laid against Pétain. After all, hundreds of officials and ordinary citizens collaborated with the Nazis in their wars against the resistance and the Jews—and many did so far more enthusiastically than Pétain. The marshal was probably guilty (to a greater or lesser degree) of many offenses, but the one crime of which he was innocent, Williams flatly avers, was that of which he was found guilty: treason. The hypocritical and selective nature of Pétain's trial is entirely consistent with France's treatment of its dark years from 1940 to 1944—a period marked by some villains and few heroes, but defined primarily by the ever shifting lines between accommodation and defiance, cynicism and loyalty, and prudence and altruism through which the French negotiated their ordeal.
In Command of History, by David Reynolds (Random House). In a debate Churchill famously said to his opponent, "History will say that the right honorable gentleman was wrong in this matter. I know it will, because I shall write the history." For his entire adult life Churchill was obsessed with imposing his version of the past on posterity, and by far his most ambitious and successful such effort was his nearly two-million-word chronicle The Second World War—a work whose red-and-black spines were a fixture in the dens of this republic for two generations. Although those spines often went uncracked, Churchill's interpretation of the war dominates the popular imagination even today, more than fifty years after the completion of the six-volume opus. Reynolds, a Cambridge historian, superbly disentangles the complex publication history of the work (it was, as they now say, a global "publishing event," netting its author as much as $50 million in today's money, largely tax free, thanks to his wily lawyers); unravels the elaborate series of constraints and purposes that shaped each volume's contents; and traces how and by whom each was written and researched. (Churchill directed a team of historians and officials who drafted and wrote much of the books themselves, and who even learned to mimic the master's Gibbonesque sonorities.) Most important, Reynolds carefully and engagingly separates what actually happened in 1939-1945 from Churchill's version of those events. Although he's no crude debunker, he dryly demonstrates that those six volumes are a tissue of embellishments, distortions, and exaggerations. Churchill assiduously selected and artfully edited documents to put himself in the best light; he manipulated his chronicle in deference to political and diplomatic allies, to enhance his domestic political position and to maintain state secrets (most significantly the Ultra intercepts); he distanced himself from or glossed over disasters in which he played an important part (the Dieppe raid, the rout on Crete, the area bombing campaign against Germany, the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse) and asserted paternity over triumphs (Operation Overlord, say) in which his role was secondary. Written in the direst period of the Western-Soviet confrontation, the work almost completely ignored the Eastern Front, indisputably the decisive theater of the war; this was perhaps the volumes' most substantial twisting of history. But by Churchill's standards all this is of no matter, as Reynolds acknowledges. Edward R. Murrow, after all, in a 1951 review in this magazine of the fourth volume of the history, appreciated that "later historians who have access to full documentation may amend or reverse his conclusions," but they can't revise the past that he imperishably defined.
Reynolds's work shares the most recent Wolfson Prize, Britain's most prestigious history-book award, with another title about the Second World War, Forgotten Armies, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Harvard), a panoramic chronicle of the war in South Asia ranging from swank prewar Singapore to famine-ravaged Bengal, where three million people died in 1943-1944. The endeavors of the armies in its title encompass the scurrying of British troops down the Malay Peninsula as they fled the Japanese advance; the glamorous exploits of the Special Operations Executive and of Orde Wingate's Chindits deep behind enemy lines; the efforts of thousands of Indian workers to extend the strategic road from the high passes of Assam into Burma; the labors of British and Australian POWs to build the bridge over the River Kwai; the machinations of the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army; and the vicious internal intrigues of the Malayan Communist guerrillas. I reviewed this book elsewhere, so suffice it to say here that this is a brilliant marriage of social and military history and a work of extraordinary literary merit.