All posts by Dorinda Balchin

Recommended Read – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that Hamnet will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright: a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

Hamnet was the son of William Shakespeare, but other than that we know little about him, save that he died young and was then immortalised by his father in what some believe is his best play. Miss O’Farrell brings this shadowy child to life in her compelling novel about life in Elizabethan times which is described in careful detail. Her beautiful prose brings to life the sights, sounds, and smells of the countryside, as well as the crowds and filth and stink of a capital city often ravaged by the plague. Her characters are beautifully drawn with a deft touch and an understanding of the emotional heart of us all.

It is an episode of the plague which opens this novel with Hamnet desperately seeking help for his sister who has suddenly fallen ill. Alongside this we have the story of how ‘the husband/father’ (William Shakespeare is never mentioned by name in the novel) meets and falls in love with the enigmatic Agnes. Both come from difficult backgrounds and recognise in each other a soulmate who can make them whole, they fall in love and are married. But Agnes comes to realise that she is perhaps not enough for him, and that her husband will never be completely whole until he is able to pursue a life revolving around writing and theatre in London. Agnes is strong enough, and understanding enough, to let her husband go, realising that this is perhaps the only way for her to keep his love.

Alongside this love story we see Hamnet’s struggle to save the life of his sister, a compelling tale even though we know the outcome from the historical record, (although we know that Shakespeare’s son died, we don’t know the exact circumstances). The death of the boy in the novel wrings at the heart-strings and is followed by a compelling description of the grief of a whole family in mourning. When Agnes hears about her husband’s new play, Hamnet, she travels to London to confront him, a journey which brings the novel to a fitting conclusion as the couple come to an understanding of how the loss of their beloved son has impacted both of their lives.

The death of a child is always heart-breaking – it seems to go against nature for a parent to out-live their son – and Miss O’Farrell has portrayed this with a sensitive touch which cannot fail to move the reader. Hamnet is a tale of love and loss, of how parents grieve in their own way for the loss of a child, and how this grief has the potential to tear them apart or to bring them closer together. As such, it is a tale for all people and all times, just like the tales told by Shakespeare himself.

Hamnet can be found on Amazon   

You can find out more about Maggie O’Farrell here 

How a symbol of good fortune came to symbolize hate…

There is no symbol in history which has such diametrically opposed meanings as the swastika. Many people know it only as a symbol of Nazi Germany, but its origins lie much further back in history – it has been used for millennia, and is older even than the well known ancient Egyptian symbol of the ankh. The symbol’s history can be traced back to the early Indus Valley Civilization some 5,000 years ago, the word swastika itself comes from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’ meaning ‘good fortune’.

Ankh

No one knows the true origins of this cross with its arms at right angles (sometimes with a dot in each of the four quadrants), but many historians believe it represents the movement of the sun across the sky.

The swastika was also used in many other cultures beside that which emerged in the Indus Valley. It appears frequently on coins from ancient Mesopotamia, and was known in pre-Christian European cultures where archaeologists have found the symbol on a number of artifacts.

Later in history, the swastika was called the ‘gammadion’ in Byzantine and early Christian art; in Scandinavia it was the symbol of Thor’s hammer.

Thor’s hammer

By the Middle Ages, although it was not frequently used, the swastika was well known throughout the world. In England it was called the ‘fylfot’, in Germany the ‘hakenkreuz’, the Greeks called it ‘tetraskelion’, the Chinese named it ‘wan’; it also appears in artifacts from the Mayan peoples in Central and South America, and was used by native American peoples, particularly the Navajo.

Navajo use of the swastika

For 5,000 years the swastika symbolized power, the sun, life, good luck and strength; even as late as the early 20th century it was used throughout the world as a decoration on buildings, coins, and even cigarette cases; during its early days the Finnish Air Force used the symbol, and the US 45th Infantry Division wore a swastika on their shoulder patches during the First World War.

US 45th Infantry Division shoulder patch

So, what happened to change of meaning of such an ancient and benign symbol?

Europeans in the 19th century were fascinated by the ancient civilizations of India and the Near East. One of the great archaeologists of the time was Heinrich Schliemann, who spent years searching for the historical site of the city of Troy; when he found it he also found ancient carvings of the swastika. Historians were surprised to find the symbol was very similar to others which had been found on German pottery and began to speculate that there was once a vast Aryan culture which spanned Europe and Asia. It was not long, however, before nationalists began to claim that Aryanism was not about a common culture but that the Aryans were a superior race, and that Germans were their descendants. After German unification in 1841 German nationalists began to see themselves as the descendants of this ancient master race – the Aryans – and adopted the swastika as their symbol. By the early 20th century the majority of nationalistic societies in Germany were using it, so when Hitler decided that his fledgling Nazi Party needed a symbol of its own he adopted the swastika, and it became the official emblem of the party in the form we now know in 1920 – a red flag with a white circle, and the black swastika in its centre. Hitler described his new flag in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ as “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” Hitler’s words were the first time that this ancient symbol of good luck was linked with anti-Semitism and death. In September 1935 Hitler went one step further and made the swastika the national flag of Germany. It was a powerful symbol utilizing the colours of Imperial Germany with an identification as ‘the master race’ intended to instill pride in the German people, and fear into Jews and other enemies of Nazi Germany.

At a rally, members of the Hitler Youth parade in the formation of a swastika to honor the Unknown Soldier. Germany, August 27, 1933.

At the same time that the swastika became Germany’s national flag the German government passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, including the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which further discriminated against Jews. Part of the reason for the enacting of these laws was the way in which the Nazi party, and the swastika, were being seen abroad. On 26th July 1935 the SS Bremen, a German passenger liner which was docked in New York, was the focus of a protest against increasing anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin, and the swastika was taken from the ship and thrown into the river. Although the police arrested a number of the demonstrators Germany issued a formal protest to the Americans, and when the courts freed the majority of the defendants Hitler passed the Reich Flag Law. In these laws, sexual relations and marriage were forbidden between Germans ‘or those of kindred blood’ and Jews, and Jews were banned from using the new national flag or even displaying the nation colours.

The use of the swastika as the national flag of Germany ended in May 1945 with the nation’s surrender at the end of the war. The Allied governments, who controlled the defeated nation, banned all Nazi organisations and their symbols – to use the swastika became a criminal act. Today the public display of Nazi symbols, including the swastika, is banned in Germany and many other European countries. It is not, however, against the law to display Nazi symbols and propaganda in the United States which has a strong tradition protecting the freedom of speech. In neo-Nazi groups throughout the world the swastika is still the most popular symbol.

National Socialist Movement USA (from Southern Poverty Law Centre website)

So, what does the swastika mean to people today? If you are Buddhist or Hindu you will still use it as a religious symbol of good luck, but the majority of the world is unaware of this and only see it as a symbol of hate. How can one differentiate between the two? Well, if you look closely you will see that the arms of the cross in the Nazi symbol radiate clockwise, whilst the symbol of eastern religions usually radiates anti-clockwise, although both are known in Hinduism – the left-hand/anti-clockwise is more technically known as the sauvastika and has always meant the opposite to the swastika – the right-handed standing for the good whilst the left-handed symbolises night, magical practices and Kali, the terrifying Hindu goddess; it is probably not surprising that Hitler chose the sauvastika version to represent the Nazi party.

Buddha with swastika

The right-hand/clock-wise symbol is the one you will see whilst travelling in the Far East. It must be a great sadness to Hindus to hear people calling the swastika a symbol of hate when, for them, it is the most widely used auspicious symbol in their religion, as it also is for Jains and Buddhists. For Jains it is the emblem of their Seventh Saint, as well as the four arms of the swastika symbolizing the four possibilities for re-birth, depending on how you live this life – birth in the animal or plant world, on Earth, in hell, or in the world of spirits. For Buddhists, the swastika symbolizes the footprints or feet of the Buddha; it is often found at the beginning and end of religious inscriptions, and it was via Buddhism that the swastika found its way to Japan and China where it symbolizes long life and prosperity.

Ganesh with swastika on palm

If you travel in India you will see the swastika, which is one of the 108 symbols of Vishnu, wherever you look – they are used on the opening pages of account books, during marriage services, on cars and lorries, on the walls of temples houses and other buildings, and even on clothing. In many pictures and statues gods and goddesses are shown with a swastika on the palm of the hand, and it is considered to be a very auspicious sign if a person has the shape of a swastika in the lines of their palm, the swastika might be worn as jewellery. It is even used as a girl’s name.

So, whenever you see a swastika take a moment to look closely at it and its context. Is it being used as a sign of hate? Or as an ancient symbol of good fortune?

The Lost Egg – A new book for young children

A new and exciting venture for me – children’s books! Please do take a look…

The story of the little brown hen who lost one of her eggs.

A terrible catastrophe has happened. Can the rooster, the cow, the sheep, and the rabbit help the little brown hen find her egg before it’s too late?

A classic tale of farmyard animals with a happy ending.

You can buy a copy of The Lost Egg here

Why not listen along as CBeebies presenter Chris Jarvis reads The Lost Egg for Little Radio in the Little Radio Library.

Hitler’s biggest mistake – Operation Barbarossa

Eighty years ago, on 22nd June 1941, Germany launched a massive attack against the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa. Hitler believed that this attack would play a key part in the eventual outcome of the war. He was right, but not in the way he thought…

In Mein Kampf, published in 1925, Hitler said that if Germany was to be secure for future generations she needed Lebensraum (living space), and that he intended to provide this by invading the Soviet Union. Racial policies developed by Nazi Germany described the population of the Soviet Union (along with the rest of Eastern Europe) as non-Aryan untermenschen (sub-humans) ruled by Jewish Bolsheviks, it was therefore Hitler’s plan to kill, enslave, or deport the Slavic and Russian populations and replace them with Germanic peoples. Despite this plan for the east, Hitler wanted the early aggressive focus of his war to be on western Europe and so, in August 1939, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in which the countries agreed that they would not take military action against each other for ten years and, secretly, also agreed to divide eastern Europe between themselves including the partition of Poland. Stalin was willing to sign the Pact because he had conducted a number of purges in the army in the late 1930’s in which three-quarters of his senior officers had been shot or imprisoned leading to a drop in efficiency and morale in what had been the largest and one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world. The Pact would give him time to reorganise. The world was stunned to hear of the agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany. How could two such diametrically opposed countries reach such an agreement? And what did it mean for the rest of the world? The answer to that was swift in coming when Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939.

After Hitler’s swift victory in Poland the USSR annexed the eastern part of the country and, reassured by this, Stalin entered into a trade deal with Hitler in which the Soviets would provide raw materials (oil, wheat etc.) to Germany in return for military equipment and trade goods. Stalin was convinced that his military strength was far superior to Germany’s and so felt secure in the Pact, particularly as Hitler appeared to have his attention firmly focussed on the west.

The geopolitical disposition of Europe in 1941, immediately before the start of Operation Barbarossa. The grey area represents Nazi Germany, its allies, and countries under its firm control.

By the middle of 1940, with tensions between Germany and the USSR rising in the Balkans, Hitler decided that once his victories in the west were complete, he would turn east to defeat bolshevism. He couldn’t invade Russian with pro-British Yugoslavia and Greece presenting a threat to his south so, on April 6th 1941, Germany invaded the Balkans. Victory was swift with Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, falling on 12th April, and Athens also captured in less than three weeks. With his southern flank now safe the way was clear for Hitler to initiate Operation Barbarossa – his attack on Russia. Hitler believed that pushing into Russia along a line from Archangel in the north to Astrakhan in the south would create a buffer to protect Germany from Soviet bombers whilst also providing forced labour as there was a shortage of workers in agriculture and industry in Germany. Hitler believed that victory against the USSR would be swift and that Britain would then seek peace; if Churchill did not, then Hitler would be able to call on the vast resources of the Soviet Union to defeat the British Empire.

(© IWM HU 5086) German horse-drawn transport crossing a pontoon bridge over the river Dnieper at Smolensk. The infantry divisions were dependent on horses to pull their artillery and supplies, and some 700,000 were used in Operation ‘Barbarossa’. 

Hitler did not like the first plan drawn up for the push eastward so a new plan, named Operation Barbarossa, was put together. Many high-ranking Germans thought that an invasion of the USSR would create an economic burden on the Reich rather than being a benefit, but Hitler would not listen and the attack was launched on 22nd June 1941. At that time Russia had military strength in the region of 5.5 million men with a reserve force of 14 million in the process of being mobilized. This was a vast number, but units were dispersed and transportation lacking; on the positive side, the Soviets had 33,000 artillery pieces which far outnumbered the German resources. With 20,000 tanks Russia also outnumbered Germany’s 6,000; though not as modern or powerful as the German panzers they were still a formidable force. Yet Hitler was convinced that his superior weaponry and speed would defeat the Russians before their massive numbers could overwhelm his troops.

©IWM German PZKPFW 38(T) TANK Many of these Czech-built light tanks were used by the Germans during Barbarossa. The armoured divisions were well trained and led, but lacked the resources and reserves for a sustained campaign.

Hitler believed that victory over the USSR would be swift, as had been his victory over western mainland Europe. At 3.15 am 22nd June 1941 more than 3 million German and Axis troops swarmed across a 1,800-mile-long front. The Luftwaffe had total domination of the air and targeted Soviet airfields as the ground attack began. The Germans crossed the River Bug on the border between Russia and Poland and their panzers made rapid progress, reaching more than fifty miles into enemy territory in just two days. The Russian counter-attacks were badly organised and easily defeated, with tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner – Stalin had been caught off guard as he still did not believe that Hitler would invade. With a three-pronged attack – north towards Leningrad, south towards Ukraine, and towards Moscow in the centre – German panzers gained a quick advantage; in the first three days the Soviets lost 3,922 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost only 78, and millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. Following the army came the Einsatzgruppen (SS death squads) who began to wipe out civilians, particularly Jews, as well as execute captured enemy officers and many prisoners of war. The ‘Hunger Plan’ was also put into place – creating a food surplus to be sent back to Germany by deliberately starving the conquered populations.

(© IWM HU 8925) Weary German troops of Army Group North, their faces caked in dust, cross a bridge near Jonava in Lithuania. The infantry were expected to cover at least 20 miles per day. However, they still lagged many miles behind the panzer spearheads. 

The vast distances involved in the Soviet Union combined with the difficult terrain meant that the initial swift advance by the Germany forces began to slow; Hitler had also underestimated Soviet troop numbers for, even with the terrible losses they had already suffered, the Russian will to fight a patriotic war of defence was strong. Meanwhile in Britain, Churchill was relieved that the country was no longer standing alone against Hitler’s Reich, and said that any enemy of Nazi Germany was a friend of Britain’s no matter what their political differences in the past. He sent a mission to Moscow to sign a treaty of mutual assistance, although there was little Britain could do to help Russia apart from sending aid by sea.

(© IWM HU 111380) A burning T-34 and other vehicles destroyed in the encirclement battles between Bialystok and Minsk. Soviet tank units were badly handled during ‘Barbarossa’, and the standard of crew training was poor. The first T-34s were also prone to mechanical breakdowns.

It might have been possible for Germany to push on to victory – the Centre Army Group was only 200 miles from Moscow – but Hitler made his first big mistake by delaying the push on the capital in order to reinforce his troops in Ukraine to the south, where Kiev was eventually taken by the end of September. In the north the Germans surrounded Leningrad, although their forces were not strong enough to take the city which was then besieged for 872 days. Conditions in Leningrad were horriffic with very little food getting into the city – over 11,000 people died in November and more than 3,700 died of starvation in a single day in December – but the city refused to surrender.

Hitler’s diversion of troops to the south and failure to continue the push towards Moscow in August meant that rather than completing Operation Barbarossa by the autumn there was still a long way to go when the Russian winter set in.  The Soviets had had time to re-enforce the capital with the civilian population digging defences around the city, but it was the weather, not these defences, which were to lead to disaster for the Germans. On 8th October it began to rain, bogging down the enemy advance in a sea of mud.  A combination of the stiffening of Russian resolve and the rain meant that by the end of October German Army Group Centre was still 50 miles from Moscow.

(© IWM HU 5031) The graves of German dead are marked with a simple cross and their steel helmets. The Germans suffered over 750,000 casualties during Operation ‘Barbarossa’, with some 200,000 men killed. By comparison, 30,000 died during the campaign in the west in 1940.

Because he had been expecting a swift victory Hitler had not equipped his troops for winter weather and the advance slowed. By 4th December the leading units of the Central Army Group were just nine miles from Red Square, but temperatures plunged overnight meaning that weapons froze, tanks would not start, and soldiers suffered from frostbite. Things were so bad that the attack had to be halted on the morning of 5th December with the Germans confident that they would have the final victory in the spring.

Meanwhile Stalin had been anticipating an attack by Japan which had tied up troops in the east of the Soviet Union; when he was assured that no attack was forthcoming more than 30 Divisions began moving west towards the attacking Germans. Half a million soldiers well-equipped and well-trained in winter fighting were soon in the area around Moscow. As the Germans halted their advance on 5th December the Russians launched a savage attack against them and the Germans were forced to fall back before a force they had believed were on the point of defeat. The Russians continued their counter-attack for the next seven days. The German push towards Moscow became a war of attrition on the part of the Soviets, and Hitler’s first defeat of the war.

RIA Novosti archive, image #2564 / Samaryi Guraryi / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, Soviet Ilyushin il-2s flying over German positions near Moscow

Operation Barbarossa inflicted huge casualties on the Soviet Army and there were great territorial gains, but it failed to achieve Hitler’s primary objective – to force the capitulation of the Soviet Union. Hitler blamed the winter weather for this, but the key reason for defeat was that he had assumed Germany would win a quick victory so there was no long-term strategic planning, no preparations for a winter war, and inadequate supply lines. On a more fundamental level, Hitler underestimated the strength of the Russian will to resist when called upon to defend ‘Mother Russia’, in fact his own actions increased the Soviet determination when the treatment of POW’s and the civilian population became known. The failure of Operation Barbarossa was not the end of the fighting in the east, another massive German offensive took place in June 1942, but this met with similar obstacles and similar failure – the prolonged Battle of Stalingrad being a decisive factor.

(© IWM HU 111371) German motorcyclists pass one of the seemingly endless columns of Russian prisoners. Approximately 2.8 million Soviet POWs were killed by the German armed forces and other special units between June 1941 and February 1942, mainly through deliberate starvation and exposure to the elements. It was one of the most shocking acts of human atrocity in history.

During Operation Barbarossa about three million personnel of the Axis powers invaded Russia (in comparison only around 400,000 Allied troops took part on D Day – 156,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy with a further 250,000 in air and sea support), with 600,000 motor vehicles, and 600,000 horses for transport. Not only did the operation open up a new front geographically, but it was also responsible for the Soviet Union joining Britain as an ally. The eastern Front saw some of the world’s largest battles, highest casualties, and most horrific atrocities perpetrated against a civilian population. Approximately 5 million soviet combatants were taken prisoner during the years of Germany’s Russian campaigns, 3.3 million of whom were either shot or starved to death. The civilian population was systematically starved, whilst mass shootings and gassing operations murdered over a million soviet Jews.

© IWM HU 111384  German troops occupy a burning Russian village during Operation Barbarossa, summer 1941.

Far from giving German people the Lebensraum that he had promised, Hitler’s pre-emptive and possibly unnecessary attack on the Soviet Union played a significant part in his losing the war four long years later.

Recommended Read – The Slaves Of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Measuring out the wartime days in a small town on the Thames, Miss Roach is not unattractive but no longer quite young. The Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where she lives with half a dozen others, is as grey and lonely as its residents. For Miss Roach, ‘slave of her task-master, solitude’, a shaft of not altogether welcome light is suddenly beamed upon her, with the appearance of a charismatic and emotional American Lieutenant. With him comes change – tipping the precariously balanced society of the house and presenting Miss Roach herself with a dilemma.

Published just after the war (1947) The Slaves Of Solitude is set in 1943 and is a book about war from which war is remarkably absent. Set in the fictional town of Thames Lockdon (based on Henley-on-Thames) the novel reflects a provincial tranquillity where everything is touched by the conflict – from blackouts to food shortages, lack of small comforts to the arrival of the ubiquitous GI’s. Patrick Hamilton beautifully captures the narrow world and pettiness of middle England during the Second World War, portraying ordinary lives lived in extraordinary circumstance.

The central character of this novel, Miss Roach, left London after being bombed-out, and now resides at the Rosamund Tea Rooms with an eclectic mix of characters. In her mid-thirties, her prim timidity makes her the butt of the bullying Mr Thwaites, and she spends much of her time re-playing her conversations with him (and others) in her head. That is something which we all do, and Miss Roach finds herself with the same dilemma – does this re-playing of conversation clear up what was said or cloud matters even further! As the novel progresses, life brightens for Miss Roach (who hates to be referred to by her Christian name) when she meets a charming though somewhat enigmatic American soldier, and also befriends a German émigré – a woman not too far from her own age.

Building on the relationship between these three people and Mr Thwaites the story unfolds with gentle humour, quiet action and circuitous conversations. On the periphery of these interactions, we find Mr Prest who is seen as an oddity and ignored be his fellow residents at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, yet he pursues a secret life in London. As the book reaches its conclusion it is Mr Prest who is the instigator of Miss Roach’s ‘purification’.

The Slaves Of Solitude is a brilliantly written tragicomedy carefully detailed to evoke a specific time and place in which Miss Roach’s silent observations of her fellow guests tellingly reveal that this could be any time and any place. The characters are superbly drawn and the author has used his masterful knowledge of language to bring them to life with all their foibles; he handles the full range of human emotions with a light and deft touch which cannot but resonate with the reader.

For a gentle and humorous read you would find it hard to better The Slaves Of Solitude.

The Slaves Of Solitude can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Patrick Hamilton here

Recommended Read – Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

When 14-year-old Sophie encounters a mysterious mentor who introduces her to philosophy, mysteries deepen in her own life. Why does she keep getting postcards addressed to another girl? Who is the other girl? And who, for that matter, is Sophie herself? To solve the riddle, she uses her new knowledge of philosophy, but the truth is far stranger than she could have imagined.

An addictive blend of mystery, philosophy and fantasy, Sophie’s World is an international phenomenon which has been translated into 60 languages and sold more than 40 million copies.

Sophie’s World is a unique look at the history of philosophy combined with an engaging and thought-provoking story. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the purpose of life? These are questions which we all ponder at one time or another, yet many people don’t delve into philosophy in the search of answers because they feel that it will be beyond them. That is precisely why Jostein Gaarder wrote this novel. I used Sophie’s World when teaching philosophy to teenagers who, without exception, found it a fascinating way to study the subject.

Sophie’s World leads the reader on a journey through time from the earliest history of philosophical thought to the philosophers of today, presenting their ideas in a clear and concise manner. The style of this novel, with a teacher-student relationship in which Sophie is able to ask the questions we, too, would like to ask, is an excellent vehicle for the subject. Mr Gaarder’s writing is clear, the different styles for the philosophical discourse and the ‘story’ making it clear as to where we are at that precise moment. Some of the philosophical ideas may require re-reading to fully comprehend but it is well worth the effort.

Alongside the philosophers we are introduced to fictional characters – Sophie, the philosopher, Sophie’s mother and friend, the Major and his daughter – all of whom are well-described and add to the well-rounded dimensions of this novel. Although Sophie’s World Might sound like heavy reading the ‘story within the story’ often has touches of gentle humour which lightens the mood, and none of the philosophical explanations is over long so the reader doesn’t feel ‘bogged down’ but encouraged to read on and find out who Sophie really is. This is a novel which I have read more than once, and each time I find something different to take away with me and ponder. Whoever you are and whatever your outlook on life, this novel will include your view and lead you to an understanding of where your personal philosophy comes from and how it fits into the whole world view.

Sophie’s World is a novel which everyone should read at least once in their life and I heartily recommend it to you.

Sophie’s World can be found on Amazon

You can find out more of my Recommended Reads here

When Boy Scouts went to war – the Gray Ranks of Poland

What do you think of if someone mentions the Boy Scouts? Probably songs around the camp fire, working for badges, and distinctive uniforms. Yet the Boy Scouts of Poland have so much more to their history. Within two years of their founding in 1916 they were participating in the Greater Poland Uprising, but their involvement in war didn’t stop there as they were also participants in the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918), the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921) and the Silesian Uprisings (1919-1921). The Nazis knew of this history of Polish Scouting and so, immediately after invading Poland in 1939, Polish Scouts and Guides were labelled criminals and the organisation banned. Rather than forestalling any action by the youth however, this simply led to Scoutmaster Florian Marciniak deciding to organize the boys to fight the invaders. Through contacts with the Polish government in exile and members of the home Army who had evaded capture by the invaders, the Scouts formed a resistance movement called the Gray Ranks (Szare Szeregi) in 1940 which actively fought against the German occupation of their homeland. Although formally independent the Grey Ranks worked closely with the official Polish Resistance movement.

Polish Boy Scouts who fought in the Warsaw Uprising

Before the war the Polish Scouting Association required an oath (Scouting promise) from the boys who joined. In this simple oath they promised ‘service to the people and country, and education and improvement of their skills’. When the Gray Ranks were formed the oath was extended to include ‘I pledge to you that I shall serve with the Gray Ranks, safeguard the secrets of the organisation, obey orders, and not hesitate to sacrifice my life.’ In addition to this code was a plan of action known as “Dziś – jutro – pojutrze” (“Today – tomorrow – the day after”) –

“Today” – struggle for Poland’s independence.

“Tomorrow” – prepare for an all-national uprising and the liberation of Poland.

“The Day After” – prepare to rebuild Poland after the war.

Scoutmaster Marciniak used the pre-war scouting structure to organise his new troops. Each member of the Gray Ranks was part of a 7-person ‘Squad’; three or four squads then formed a ‘Troop’, with the troops from a specific area (city district, town or village) coming together in a ‘District’ which was then part of a ‘Region’.

One of their first operations was to distribute propaganda leaflets amongst ethnic Germans who had been re-settled in Poland from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. By signing the leaflets SS (for Szare Szeregi) the Gray Scouts were deliberately sowing confusion amongst the Germans who thought that the information was coming from the Schutzstaffel – Hitler’s SS! During late 1939 and early 1940 the Gray Scouts also helped to smuggle people out of south-eastern Poland (which was occupied by the Russians) into Hungary. The Soviet Union captured a number of these young scouts and held them at Ostashkov prison; they were executed later in 1940.

As time went on and the children received more training their activities became more frequent, and more dangerous.

Boy Scout postmen during the Warsaw Uprising

The children within the Gray Ranks were divided into groups. Boys and girls aged 12 to 14 joined units called the Zawisza (named after a medieval Polish knight and diplomat) which were not allowed to take part in any activities such as sabotage and painting slogans on walls. Instead they were trained in secret schools to be auxiliary support once the national uprising took place, the most important role they played was the Scouting Postal Service which was organised during the Warsaw Uprising.

Members of the Zawisza (both boys and girls) couldn’t wait until they were old enough to join the Combat Schools (for ages 15 and 16) where the Scouts learnt about surveillance, communications, propaganda and reconnaissanace as well as committing small acts of sabotage to inspire local people to join the struggle against the Nazis. Amongst the actions these youths participated in were:

  • Surveillance of German military units and their movements, and passing the information to the Allies – this enabled the Allies to compile a complete list of German units stationed in Poland, their insignia and approximate complements.
  • Painting patriotic and anti-German slogans on walls.
  • Distributing leaflets and fake German newspapers to both the local population and German troops.
  • Destroying German flags.
  • Setting off fire alarms to disrupt German events.
  • Rescuing national monuments which were being removed by the Germans.
  • Letting off stink-bombs in cinemas used by German troops!
Monument to the Gray Ranks in Kaszub

When members of the Gray Ranks reached the age of 17 they joined the Assault Groups which were directly subordinate to the Home Army. The boys were trained at secret NCO schools as well as at officer schools for commanders of motorised and engineering units. As well as training for battle, members of the Assault Groups also attended underground universities to gain knowledge and skills which would be needed to rebuild Poland after the war.

The actions carried out by the Assault Groups was a step up from that on the Combat Schools with the young men taking part in acts considered to be ‘major sabotage’, and they were a key part of the Home Army’s special troops. The actions they took part in included

  • Liberating prisoners from German transports and prisons.
  • Blowing up bridges and other infrastructure.
  • Carrying out the sentences of special courts – including executions.
  • Fighting in pitched battles against the occupying forces.

There were many Assault Groups in Warsaw who were formed into a number of battalions which took part in the Uprising in that city in 1945 and were as successful, if not more so, as the adult members of the Resistance. Other units joined the partisan groups which operated in the forests covering the Swietokrzyskie Mountains.

Whilst the boys of the Gray Ranks were trained to fight the Nazis the girls formed units which worked as munitions carriers, liaison officers and nurses, as well as helping with propaganda and correspondence.

Girl Guides delivering post during the Warsaw Uprising

The Polish Scouts were so well trained that by 1943 the Gray Ranks were openly taking part in resistance operations, including playing a vital role in a raid on the Gestapo prison in Warsaw where they freed 25 prisoners, amongst them the important resistance leader Jan Bytnar. In 1943 the Gray Ranks also assassinated three SS officers who had committed atrocities against the civilian population.

After their invasion of Poland the Germans had created a ‘border’ between Polish territories annexed by Hitler and the parts of the country which were merely ‘occupied’. In the seven months from August 1943 the Gray Ranks joined with the Polish Home Army to target these border posts, thirteen were destroyed although the Scouts lost one of their best leaders – Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

The boys of Gray Ranks played a vital role in keeping up morale amongst the civilian population, and also seeking justice. Their chief target in 1944 was SS-Brigadefuhrer Franz Kutchera who ordered the mass executions of Poles and Jews; he was assassinated by members of the Gray Ranks in February 1944.

When the Poles heard about the Allied landings in Northern Europe in June 1944 there were more 8,359 members of the Gray Ranks who had a great deal of experience in fighting the Nazis. Ready to do their bit in the final push against the Third Reich they joined with the Warsaw Uprising which began on 1st August 1944, fighting with the assault groups which attacked and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp with the aid of a captured Panther tank. The prisoners who were freed from the camp joined in the ill-fated uprising which lasted for 63 days. The Polish Boy Scouts fought hard to the bitter end and suffered incredibly high casualties – the Zoska Battallion, for example, (named after Tadeus Zoska) lost over 70% of its boys. Those who survived the Uprising retreated to the forests and hills where they continued to fight the Germans until final victory in 1945.

Gęsiówka inmates and “Zośka”-battalion assault-group soldiers after the camp’s liberation

After the war the Polish Scouting Movement took back its pre-war name and the Gray Ranks ceased to exist. Yet the reputation of these youthful fighters was well known and they were seen as a threat by the communist authorities which now ruled Poland. The Scouting Movement was forced to become a part of the Pioneer Movement and was eventually banned in 1949 and only reinstated after the fall of communism.

Monument to Mały Powstaniec (Little Insurgent) in Warsaw, erected to commemorate all the children who fought and fell during the Warsaw Uprising

Caravans by James A Michener

First published in 1963, James A. Michener s gripping chronicle of the social and political landscape of Afghanistan is more relevant now than ever. Combining fact with riveting adventure and intrigue, Michener follows a military man tasked, in the years after World War II, with a dangerous assignment: finding and returning a young American woman living in Afghanistan to her distraught family after she suddenly and mysteriously disappears. A timeless tale of love and emotional drama set against the backdrop of one of the most important countries in the world today, Caravans captures the tension of the postwar period, the sweep of Afghanistan’s remarkable history, and the inescapable allure of the past. 

It is rare for a country to undergo change as rapidly as Afghanistan did following the end of the Second World War which makes this novel a fascinating insight to the dividing line between past and present, old and new. Caravans looks forward to the modernisation of Afghanistan through the eyes of well-educated men who had studied abroad and could see the potential within their homeland. These key characters are aware that the mullahs could halt this progress but look forward in hope to a more progressive and prosperous society. This changed Afghanistan existed when Michener wrote his novel in 1963 not knowing that the mullah’s would eventually take power and the country lose much of the progress it had made. One wonders if Michener realised that the interference of western powers which he writes about would be responsible for much of the damage that has happened to Afghanistan in the years since he wrot

The plot of Caravans revolves around the journey undertaken by Mark Miller to try to find Ellen Jasper, a missing American woman. Whilst there is adventure in spades the plot is not action-packed or a great thriller in the classical sense, its allure lies more in the sweeping vistas described in detail, and the lives of the people of Afghanistan from the political elite to the nomads who wander ancient routes irrespective of modern-day borders. The author’s knowledge of life in this remote country is incredible and described in vivid detail, but what really strikes home is his ability to get to the heart of what makes people tick. This novel delves into the nature of evil and forgiveness, the roles assigned to gender, societal expectations and a search for the unconventional. The character of Ellen Jasper is selfish and self-absorbed and I found it impossible to warm to her as a person, yet found her musings on the meaning of life fascinating at times. This ability of Michener to create multi-faceted characters is one of the things I like about this book; these could be real people who lived in 1946 or who live today, the psychology has not changed.

In some way this novel is very different from Michener’s sweeping historical sagas which follow the history of nations over centuries (think of Hawaii, Centennial, or The Covenant) as this has a more intimate focus on a single event, yet it is a fascinating story for all that. If you like historical novels that make you think then Caravans should be on your reading list.

Caravans can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about James A Michener here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

White Rose – the students who defied Hitler

April 2021 will see the issuing of a €20 sterling silver collectors coin in Germany to commemorate 100 years since the birth of Sophie Scholl. One side of the coin will feature a portrait of Sophie, and the edge of the coin will carry her words “A feeling for what is just and unjust.” Sophie Scholl was just 21 years old when she died, so why does the German government think it is so important to remember her 100th birthday?

Sophie Scholl was born in Forchtenbeerg in Germany in 1921, the fourth of six children. Her father was mayor of the town before the family moved to Ulm when Sophie was 10. The young girl was intelligent and loved learning, she was also very religious, being brought up in the Lutheran church and spending a lot of time reading about Christian philosophers and theologians.

As with the majority of young Germans in the early 1930’s Sophie joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) in 1932, when she was 12. She was quickly promoted in the movement but, as the years passed, she became disillusioned with the Nazi ideology this was based on. Her brother, Hans, who had been a keen member of the Hitler Youth, also realised that Nazi teachings did not sit well with their Christian upbringing and joined the German Youth Movement along with his brothers and friends. The boys were arrested for this in 1937, an event which had a profound effect on Sophie and her political thinking.

When the Second World War began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 Sophie’s older brothers were enlisted whilst Sophie graduated from high school in 1940. She wanted to go to university to study biology and philosophy, but a pre-requisite for university admittance was for a scholar to spend time working for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labour Service). Sophie wanted to avoid this if she could and so began training as a kindergarten teacher, but the ploy did not work and she was required to do the service before she could go on to study. She hated the experience with its mind-numbing routines and military outlook but persevered in the hope of finally being able to study and to marry her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, who was serving on the Eastern Front.

In May 1942, after her compulsory six months on the Labour Service, Sophie finally enrolled at the University of Munich; her brother, Hans, was already studying medicine there. Hans introduced Sophie to his group of friends, all of whom enjoyed the same hobbies – walking, swimming, philosophy and theology – as well as a similar political outlook. Sophie also spent time with philosophers Carl Muth and Theodor Haecker discussing how people of conscience should act under a dictatorship, a question of great importance to her as she was forced to do war service in a metallurgical plant in Ulm in the summer vacation of 1942 whilst her father was serving time in prison after having criticised Hitler.

At the same time, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends Christoph Probst, Kurt Huber, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Jurgen Wittenstein had decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance to the Nazi regime; they formed a group which they called the White Rose and, in the summer of 1942, wrote and distributed four leaflets calling for an end to National Socialism. The young men felt forced into this action by information they received from Fritz Hartnagel (Sophie’s boyfriend) about the atrocities he had see in the east where he had witnessed the murder of Russian prisoners of war and learnt about the mass killing of Jews.

Sophie saw some of the White Rose leaflets and found that she agreed with them. When she realised that her brother was involved in their printing and distribution she insisted on joining White Rose herself. The addition of a woman amongst their number proved valuable as she was less likely to be stopped randomly by the SS. Sophie began to help writing the leaflets using many of the ideas she had gleaned from philosophy and the Bible to support her intellectual argument for resistance, she also helped to copy and distribute the leaflets. At first the group posted the leaflets to thousands of people all over Germany, often getting friends from as far away as Hamburg in the north and Vienna in the south to post things for them so that the authorities would think there was a large nationwide network of members of the White Rose.

Christoph Probst

The aim of the leaflets was to prick the conscience of ordinary citizens and encourage them to stand up for what was right. The third pamphlet reads: 

“Our current ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. We know that already, I hear you object, and we don’t need you to reproach us for it yet again. But, I ask you, if you know that, then why don’t you act? Why do you tolerate these rulers gradually robbing you, in public and in private, of one right after another, until one day nothing, absolutely nothing, remains but the machinery of the state, under the command of criminals and drunkards?”

By the fifth pamphlet the group was encouraging sabotage:

 “And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present ‘state’ in the most effective way….We cannot provide each man with the blueprint for his acts, we can only suggest them in general terms, and he alone will find the way of achieving this end: Sabotage in armament plants and war industries, sabotage at all gatherings, rallies, public ceremonies, and organizations of the National Socialist Party. Obstruction of the smooth functioning of the war machine….Try to convince all your acquaintances…of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance!”

By early 1943 Sophie and Hans felt that they were making an impact as young people began to discuss their ideas and the authorities seemed to be increasingly worried by their activities. Some citizens were also changing their attitude after Germany’s disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and the members of White Rose felt emboldened enough to hand out leaflets in person to people at the university, and to write slogans such as ‘Down with Hitler’ and ‘Freedom´ on walls all around Munich. Their sixth, and final leaflet said:

 “Even the most dull-witted German has had his eyes opened by the terrible bloodbath, which, in the name of the freedom and honour of the German nation, they have unleashed upon Europe, and unleash anew each day. The German name will remain forever tarnished unless finally the German youth stands up, pursues both revenge and atonement, smites our tormentors, and founds a new intellectual Europe. Students! The German people look to us! The responsibility is ours: just as the power of the spirit broke the Napoleonic terror in 1813, so too will it break the terror of the National Socialists in 1943.”

On 18th February 1943 Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets in person at the university when Sophie threw some down into the atrium. Unfortunately, she was seen by the caretaker who called in the SS. Hans and Sophie were arrested by the Gestapo who found the draft for the seventh pamphlet in Han’s bag, which led to the arrest of Christoph Probst later the same day.


Mug shots of Sophie and Hans Scholl after their arrest by the Gestapo on February 18, 1943.

The three were interrogated and then subjected to a show trial on 22nd February 1943 where they tried to take responsibility for all the actions of White Rose in an attempt to save their friends, but Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and Kurt Huber were arrested later in February and put to death shortly after. The trial of the three White Rose members lasted for only half a day, at the end of which Sophie, Hans and Christoph were sentenced to death. When asked if she felt that her actins were a crime against the community Sophie replied ‘I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.

The three students were executed by guillotine at 5pm the same day.The chief enforecement officer of the Munich district court attended the execution as a witness and was struck by the courage shown by Sophie. Her final words were “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go… What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Image of Sophie’s indictment on which she wrote ‘Freedom’. Courtesy of Institute fuer Zeitgeschichte.

Although the execution of the three members of White Rose was barely mentioned in the German press it created a stir abroad. In April 1943 the New York Times published an article about the student opposition in Munich while, in June, a BBC broadcast aimed at the German population spoke of the actions of White Rose. A copy of the sixth leaflet printed by the group was smuggled to England where it was re-printed; copies were dropped over Germany by Allied planes in July.

Grave of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, in the Perlacher Friedhof, next to the Stadelheim prison in Munich

Remembering White Rose

The young people who formed White Rose represent the importance of following one’s beliefs, standing up for what is right, and fighting for freedom. The German  people have remembered them in many ways –

  • Since the end of the war many schools and streets in Germany have been named after Sophie and Hans Scholl, or the White Rose group.
  • The Hockbruck army base has been re-named the Christoph Probst barracks.
  • The main lecture hall at the medical academy in Munich has been named after Hans Scholl.
  • In 1961 a German stamp featured portraits of Hans and Sophie.
  • The Geschwister-Scholl Preis is a literary prize initiated by the State Association of Bavaria of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels and the city of Munich. Since 1980, they have annually awarded this prize to the book which “shows intellectual independence and supports civil freedom, moral, intellectual and aesthetic courage and that gives an important impulse to the present awareness of responsibility”.
  • The new instutute for political science in Munich was named the Geschwister-Scholl Institut.
  • The area in front of Munich University’s main building is named Geschwister-Scholl Platz  where the last flyer of the White Rose is set in the ground.

A memorial to the Scholl siblings and other members of the White Rose can be found in the atrium of the main building at the university.

The memorial for the White Rose in front of the main building of the Ludwig Maximilians University depicts the group’s flyers.
German Democratic Republic stamp from 1961.
2,000,000 went into circulation.

Recommended Read – Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii

Another brilliant book from Robert Harris written with his usual flair for fast paced narrative which keeps the reader gripped throughout. This novel is very well plotted with a number of sub-plots which keeps you guessing as to where they will take you next. The tension around the massive eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD gradually builds up to an explosive climax (pun intended!), and although we know the horrific outcome for Pompeii and Herculaneum we don’t know what happens to the fictional individuals who feature in Mr Harris’ novel and so are kept guessing until the very end.

As with all his novels the author has conducted a huge amount of historical research which brings the ancient Roman Empire to life for us. The historically accurate depiction of life in ancient Rome – the cities and towns, luxurious villas and dingy brothels, senators and slaves, baths and aqueducts, great feasts and hunger, decadence and poverty – are impressive, the contrast between every-day life and the sudden cataclysmic eruption is gripping. Although full of incredible historical detail (information about the aqueduct is fascinating) Mr Harris deftly reveals this great depth of knowledge as part of the plot rather than a ‘knowledge dump’ which enables you to come away from Pompeii knowing more about Rome without feeling lectured to or as though the plot has been side-lined in order to educate you.

As well as historically accurate the scientific information about the volcanic eruption which has been included works extremely well and gives an immediacy and truth to the narrative, as does the inclusion of Pliny who recorded the eruption and… (read it and see!) What the author has written about Pliny is an accurate rendition of what we know happened from his own and other historical sources and, as such, the reader can quite literally feel themselves right there in the centre of one of the most cataclysmic times in Roman history.

Pompeii is a well-crafted novel; the dialogue is totally believable which gives the reader an emotional attachment to the characters; the descriptions of the eruption are incredibly realistic and draw you in – you can almost taste the dust and feel pumice stone. I never hesitate to recommend books by Robert Harris and Pompeii is no exception; an easy to read, meticulously researched, fast paced page turner which will have any lover of historical fiction gripped until the very last page.

Pompeii can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Harris here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here