The Trains Did Not Run On Time

May 18, 2015

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I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini:  A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words:  shock and astonishment.  How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions?  I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right?  Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.

I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region.  Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came.  Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true:  at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.

Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear:  What is fascism?  Or what was it?  Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power.  Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself:  he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles.  Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.

The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:

  • Use violence to extort, intimidate, and sow chaos among enemies and neutral parties.  Use it without stint, and keep an eye out for the opportunity to extract advantage.  He did not deny his penchant for violence, he celebrated it as a central principle of fascism.
  • Control the news completely:  Mussolini started his political life as a journalist and newspaper operator, and to a great extent, his reign resembled that of a ruthless media tycoon who also happened to control an army of violent thugs willing to do his bidding.
  • Divide and rule without reserve:  Eventually, the Fascist party Mussolini himself created became a potential threat to his own power.  He had no compunction at setting its members against one another to keep it as weak as he needed it.
  • Abandon consistency:  Perhaps this is the most truly astonishing part of Mussolini’s rule.  The freedom with which he would contradict himself, often within a day, was incredible.  He started as a revolutionary socialist, then he advocated corporate industrial control of society, later he went back to the socialist stance.  It all depended on who he was trying to outmaneuver at the time, and since he controlled all the press, each contradictory expression would be reconciled with his other statements by judicious “erasures” within the archives.

With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie.  Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)

His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts.  Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway.  Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful terms in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack.  It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.

How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state?  The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes:  Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power.  He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty.  He was a demagogue, in other words.  And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story.  Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence.  But he was willing to live with that…  Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him.  They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor.  They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.

Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos.  As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important;  to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.

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Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

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The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.

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Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

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Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale


Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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Fear – A Novel of WWI

June 10, 2014

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There are many fine novels and memoirs about the unspeakable human butchery known as World War I, and Fear (1925) by Gabriel Chevallier, stands very high among them in my view, although it is not as well known as others.  One reason might be that it was suppressed by the French government for many years, and, naturally, in the Anglophone world, the English writers are better known.  And unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, nobody made a great film out of it.

Each of these books has a distinctive tone:  All Quiet is epic in its seriousness and anti-war message; Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929) is mournful and bitter, a wrenching confession of betrayal and loss is how I recall it; Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger (1920) is powerful, and unusual because the author thrived on the horrible challenges of trench warfare, but all are steadfastly unsentimental and unromantic:  they are at pains to rip the gauzy cloak of patriotic jabber off the horrific body that was warfare on the front.   Paul Fussell’s profound study of the presence of WWI in English literature, The Great War and Modern Memory, contains so much material from primary sources, it reads like a powerful memoir steeped in dramatic irony.  The very distinctive contribution of Fear to all of this is its tone of cutting sarcasm and irony that shrinks back from descending into ranting, and its emphasis on the primary emotion of a trench solider – fear.

The author was French, and much of what he describes is characteristic of the French war effort.  Englishmen rave against the stupidity of the generals, but they also talk a lot about the flower of the elite classes sharing the trials of the men, and dying with them.  The French officer class was notorious for its pig-headed stupidity, and complete unconcern for the welfare of the troops, and it was only the French army that experienced widespread mutinies during the war.

The novel is largely autobiographical – how could it not be?  You had to live through the hell to write about it.  The young man who narrates it joins up at the beginning of the war, out of curiosity mostly, completely unaware, as was everyone else, of what he’s in for.  He is educated, and is granted minor privileges now and then when he’s not on the front line by virtue of his class standing, but for the most part, his lot is that of every other poor soul trapped, waiting to die in the trenches.   Here are some excerpts:

He is wounded, hospitalized, recovers, and given some leave to go visit his family.  The gulf between the civilian patriots and the men who fight for the cause is unbridgeable:

‘Let me introduce my boy who has just come out of hospital after being wounded.’ [my father] says, shaking hands.

These important men interrupt their games of cards to greet me warmly.

‘Excellent! Bravo, young man!’

‘Congratulations on your bravery!’

‘I say, Dartemont, what a fine chap!’

Then they go quiet, not knowing what further encouragement to offer me.  The war is out of fashion, people are getting used to it.  Military men on leave are everywhere, giving the impression that nothing bad ever happens to them.  And I am just an ordinary soldier, and my fathers’s business is hardly flouring.  These gentlemen have been generous to take such an interest in me.  …

‘You have some fun out there then, eh?

I stare in shock at this bloodless old fool.  But I answer quickly and pleasantly:

‘Oh, gosh yes.  I should say so sir…’

He beams happily.  I have the feeling he is about to exclaim: ‘Oh-ho, those good old poilus!’ [doughboy, literally, “hairy one.”]

Then I add:

‘…We really enjoy ourselves:  every evening we bury our pals!’

His smile goes into reverse and the complement freezes on his lips,  He grabs at his glass and sticks his nose in it.  In shock he swallows his beer too fast and it heads straight for his lungs.  This is followed by a gurgling noise and then a little jet of spume that he spouts into the air and which descends on to his stomach, in a cascade of frothy bubbles.

‘Something go down the wrong way?’ I inquire mercilessly.

The Germans, referred to as The Boche, mount an attack, for which the author’s units are well prepared:

‘We had six machine guns in action right off.  Can’t do anything against machine guns!…I never seen so many going down as I did then!’

‘Not as many as I have,’ says the machine gunner sergeant who is listening to us.  ‘When we were fighting in open country, I was with the Zouaves.  There was one time when there were three of us gunners dug in behind tree trunks on the edge of a forest on a little rise.  we opened fire on battalions that were coming out at four hundred meters, and we didn’t stop firing.  A surprise attack.  It was frightful.  The terrified Boche couldn’t get out of the way of our bullets.  Bodies piled up in heaps.  Our gun crews were shaking with horror and wanted to run.  Killing made us afraid!…

There is much more graphic description of the carnage of the front, and it is difficult to read, even when the author polishes off the description with a bit of rapier wit.  And then, there is is scathing contempt for the officer class, the directors of the war:

The officers of the colonel’s entourage…are carefully shaved, powdered and scented:  these are men who have time devote to their toilet…

Finally the colonel shows up.  He’s tall and slim, with a long Gallic mustache, dressed in khaki, cap pulled down over one ear, chest pushed out – very much the musketeer. . . He pulls himself to his full height when he sees a solider, fixes his magnetic gaze upon him, and salutes him with a fulsome gesture which might signify, ‘All honor to you, bravest of the brave!’ or ‘Always follow my plume! [an allusion to a famous statement of Henry IV].  Unfortunately, at the moment of a skirmish, that plume will stay put rather far in the rear…I am only going by appearances, and I do not know the true worth of the colonel, apart from his theatrical salute.  But I never trust people who give themselves airs.

His audience over, the captain rejoins us.  We leave Versailles…

The historical allusions to Henry, the satirical reference to Versailles – we are in the presence of an educated, intelligent, and deeply comic narrator.  His willingness to tentatively suspend judgment, despite having seen scores of men sent to their deaths on pointless missions ordered by men who look like the colonel, is part of his engaging nature.

At one point, knowing the war is grinding down, he delivers, to himself, an impassioned denunciation of everything associated with the entire sick enterprise:

‘I’ve had enough of this!  I’m twenty-three years old, I’m already twenty-three.  Back in 1914 I embarked on a future that I wanted to be full and rich, and in fact I’ve got nothing at all.  I am spending my best years here, wasting my youth on mindless talks, in stupid subservience……My patrimony is my life. I have nothing more precious to defend.  My homeland is whatever I manage to earn or to create.  Once I am dead, I don’t give a damn how the living divide up the world, about the frontiers they draw in their maps, about their alliances, and their enmities.  I demand to live in peace, far away from barracks, battlefields, and military minds and machinery in any shape or form.  I do not care where i live, but demand to live in peace to slowly become what I must become.  …Killing has no place in my ideals.  And if I must die, I intend  to die freely, for an idea that I cherish, in a conflict where I will have my share of responsibility…’

‘Daretemont!’

‘Sir?’

‘Go and check where the 11th have positioned their machine guns.  On the double.’

‘Very good, sir!’

The photo at the top is from a collection of color photographs, yes color!, taken by the French during WWI, and you can find more here.  My guess is that they tidied things up a bit before shooting the pics.


Target London – Where’s the damn map?

January 15, 2014

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Target London, by Christy Campbell, tells the story of the second London blitz of 1944 by unmanned flying bombs and supersonic rockets.  The story is told in detail – great detail.  In fact, the first half of the 400 pages, before the first V-1/buzzbomb/doodlebug hits England, is at the same time extraordinarily tedious and gripping, narrating as it does the years of intelligence work that preceded the first attacks.  We have a front seat on the bureaucratic infighting, brilliant and difficult personalities, blunders and  intellectual coups transpiring as the British sifted through mountains of intercepted messages, once they had cracked the Enigma codes, of course.

All of this was done before the digital age had dawned, although they did have the essential help of the earliest of computers, which they called “bombes.” All very, very, Ultra secret.  Only a select few were allowed to be “in the picture.

Part of the British intelligence game was not letting the Germans know how much they knew about what the Germans were doing. Giving that game away would prompt the Germans to change methods, tighten up security, adopt different covers, which would then have to be blown again.  There was a lot of deception, misinformation, cover stories, hoaxes, some of which seems to have amused the directors greatly.

When the Germans finally got their V-1 (V for victory and revenge, revenge for the British terror bombings of civilian urban centers) buzzbombs flying into London, the engineers needed accurate information on where they struck. This was essential for evaluating and improving their performance.  Juan Pujol, a London-based Spanish  double-agent under British control was tapped by the Germans to report. They wanted information on bomb strikes plotted on a London map, ruled into squares, a grid.  As Campbell relates:

Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, still had to get the right map on which to plot where the Maikäfer [Maybugs – the German nickname for the V-1] were falling. It was proving a problem. Garbo radioed his control, and bought the Baedeker guide to London from a second-hand bookshop. But Control insisted on the Pharus version. Garbo’s research took him to the British Museum Library, where he found “the only copy in existence. I learn that the German map was edited in 1907 and therefore is very antique indeed. It seems to me very strange that the war plans are worked out in Berlin on such antique maps.”

But now, at least, everyone was working from the same grid.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, made the idea of gridded London famous.  In the first part of the story, exactly that type of map – it probably was not a Pharus! – is tacked to the wall of the flat where Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, and other servicemen are living during the V-2 assault.  The map shows a strange convergence of data:  Slothrop’s female conquests and the rocket strikes seem oddly congruent.

Ah, yes, if you are not all using the same set of coordinates, your data will be meaningless.  I know about that personally.  Here is the map that the German rocket masters wanted to use – German, of course – and very nice indeed.

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Well, it’s not just German commanders who have some problems with maps:

HOTSPUR: Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, Will you sit down? And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!

I have forgot the map.

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

William Shakespeare Henry IV (Part 1)

The British were able to defend against the V-1 to some extent.  Fighters and anti-aircraft guns could shoot some of them down, and their noise and relatively low-speed provided warning to civilians.  The V-2 was a different story.  Here is another peek at a stamp issued late in 1944, I think, that celebrates the launching of the ultimate revenge weapon, the V-2 rocket, against which there was no defense possible.  The image is pure propaganda: rockets ascended vertically and were never launched in such salvos.  Just as British intelligence confused and conflated the flying bomb and the true rocket for a long time, this stamp combines the powerful launch of the V-2 with the slanting trajectory of the V-1, which was shot from a ramp.

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Here is a reconstructed V-1 on a launch ramp.  As you can see, the ramp is light, and easily transported.  The Germans developed portable pre-fab ramps after the Allies started bombing their hardened launch sites.

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The bombing wasn’t all that effective, but it did disrupt testing and perfecting the V-1.  Precision bombing isn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, or today.

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The work of building the flying bombs and rockets was moved to a fantastic underground system of factories excavated and manned by slave labor overseen by civilian engineers and managers. Wernher von Braun, later the leader of the American rocket development effort for war and peace, was as undisturbed by these facts as are the suited civilians in second photo below.  These incredible color photos were taken by Walter Frentz, a colleague of  Leni Riefenstahl, apparently as part of propaganda/selling job for the project.  Notice how nicely groomed the slaves are.  Of course, those needed for skilled technical labor stood the best chance of surviving.  More photos and history at this excellent site.

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“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.   

Tom Lehr

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Dreams of Canon Law

September 5, 2012

In my high school days, happily loosing myself in medieval history, tracing the rise of languages, governments, architectural styles, and nation states themselves, I dreamed of a happy life if I had been born centuries earlier, and found myself cast by fate in the role of a canon lawyer arguing for the supremacy of the pope over bishops and even kings. I dunno…it’s a project!  A mission, something to do…  Spending my days retrieving monastic forgeries and corrupt texts, coming up with novel arguments to dispossess the local feudal barbarian lord or the king of the revenue from some benefice, monastery, town, and so on. 

The papal supremecy issue was whether the pope or the regional bishops were primary – the pope was only the bishop of Rome, according to the anti-papal line, or whether the pope or the local king had control of the vast revenues of the church, the power to appoint bishops, and on and on.  It all seems tedious and pettyfogging, but momentous issues of power and money were at stake.  Sometimes the pope won, sometimes he lost. 

What’s a poor Jew-boy to do but hitch his cart to the papal star?  Not hardly…but I could dream.  I even started to learn Latin, just for the fun of it.

I just finished a book on Jean-Baptiste Colbert, The Information Master, that deals with the other side of the equation, and a later period, i.e., the effort by the secular state, specifically Louis XIV, to gain absolute power over the nobles and the church, and the role of Colbert in that effort.  The book, by Jacob Soll, describes Colbert’s relentless aquisition of documents and libraries in the service of the absolute monarchy.  Knowledge is power says the old saw, and when it came to making a legal case for the king’s right to confiscate, tax, or simiply claim all or a part of local revenue, documents were essential.  The endless battle to aggrandize Louis’ power over France was fought on paper, not on the battlefield – not since The Fronde, when he was a boy, anyway: an experience he did not wish to repeat! – and Colbert was the general.

He created archives, libraries, secret information gathering cadres, and recruited a corps of document writers, to produce an endless stream of propaganda justifying the royal perogatives.  In other words, he actively engaged in what is called today knowledge production, in the manner of think-tanks, institutes, and foundations we have now.  The monks of the medieval period were known to sometimes create deliberate mis-information, e.g. The Donation of Constantine, but Colbert relied on overwhelming his adversaries with real documents.  Often, the nobles  were unprepared:  what did aristocrats care for deeds and charters, and scribbling?  They learned the error of their ways.  Churchmen, with centuries of infighting behind them, were usually better placed to make a counter-claim, but they lost over time.

Colbert also did Louis’ dirty work, including creating the ‘overwhelming’ case against Fouquet, who had mightily pissed-off Louis.  As was typical in such affairs of state, the first arrests included paper as well as people:  whole libraries were carted off to the royal archives to deprive the victim of documentary evidence in his support, and to supply more ammunition for the king.

The book is well written, but falls into breathless comparisons between Colbert and Bill Gates, his archives and Google, that show more about Soll’s lack of understanding of database technology than anything about l’Ancien régime.  There is far too little description of how Colbert’s archives actually worked, rather than Soll’s repreated remarks that he developed many new techniques to manage the storage and retrieval of the vast amount of paper.  Indeed, there is too little discussion, I think, of how effective these efforts were:  We are told that they were crucial to Louis XIV’s absolutist project, but we are given few concrete examples of how they brought it to fruition.  I felt a suspicion that Colbert was perhaps an information-obsessed control freak who seemed more effective than he was. 

In fact, in his conclusion, Soll writes that Colbert ‘misunderstood the nature of  his own project,’ and that his penchant for secrecy undermined his goal of building an efficient state machine.  After Colbert’s death, the system fell apart, Louis perceived it as a threat to his power, and he reverted to a pre-bureacratic mode of kingship that focused on playing minsters and power centers off against one another.  So, who was the master?


Shamans and Heretics

September 3, 2011

Once again, I have to ask, “Who were they?”  These cave paintings of bison at Niaux are as good as it gets with freehand drawings.  Done by torchlight, in the back of a long dangerous cave passage, with primitive brushes no less…about 15,000 years ago.  The large domed chamber near these images has an excellent echo, and the guide suggested it may have been a hangout for shamans.  The cave is not easy to get to, and the view from the entrance of the glacial valley is impressive.  I wonder what the artists thought of it.

Meanwhile, back in the near present, i.e. about 800 years ago, this land was the Pays du Cathar, a region where a heretical sect, a sort of Manichean twist on Christianity, held sway along with the local language, langue d’oc.  (Up north, ‘yes’ was oui, but down here it was said oc, thus the language of ‘oc)’.  Although closely related to Catalan, it didn’t survive as well.  The northern French, with the agreement of the Pope and the creation of a special French Inquisition, launched an internal crusade, known as the Albigensian Crusade after the city of Albi that was a political center of the heresy, and successfully stamped it out with great brutality.  The castle at Foix, located in a stunning valley, is one of the many strong points that couldn’t hold back the tide of the north.