Letters to the Editor - January 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
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War on Peace
Fredrik Heffermehl may be technically correct in saying that the Nobel Peace Prize is no longer awarded strictly in accordance with Alfred Nobel’s bequest (History Matters, December 2011), but he is wrong in criticising the committee for taking this course.
Nobel’s will envisaged peace-making in terms of war and relations between sovereign nation states. This may have been correct at the time, but in the last half of the 20th century inter-state wars became a relative rarity. Other forms of conflict, however, became more frequent: conflicts within states; those instigated by transnational bodies such as NATO and the UN; conflicts involving non-nation states (e.g. the Vietcong, the IRA, al-Qaeda); and military interventions by nation states in other nation states.
None of the above would be covered by the terms of Nobel’s will. A peace prize whose requirements prevented such considerations would be regarded at worst with contempt and at best as not worthy of serious consideration – yet that is what Heffermehl is arguing for. It seems to me that the committee faced a choice: to revise the understanding of peacemaking (as, for example, Quakers have done over the centuries), or to adhere strictly to his formulation. In the latter case, the logical conclusion would be to acknowledge the contemporary irrelevance of Nobel’s will and stop awarding the prize.
It may be easier to accept the revision if we recognise that Nobel’s understanding in 1895 may have been flawed. After all, the bloodiest and most destructive conflict which occurred in his lifetime – the American Civil War – would have stood outside the kind of peacemaking on which he based his bequest.
I found Tim Grady’s article, ‘Germany’s Jewish Soldiers’ (November, 2011), very interesting but was disappointed that he did not discuss Jews who were awarded the Iron Cross in the First World War.
The number of Jews serving in the German army was of a much higher proportion than would be expected relative to the general population. One fifth of the Jewish population – 100,000 – volunteered. Of these 12,000 died, 30,000 were decorated and 2,000 became officers.
Consequently the results of the Jewish census conducted in 1916, which Grady mentions, were never published because they did not support the instigators’ aim to show that the Jews’ shirking of military duty was the cause of Germany’s failure.
Many of those who received the Iron Cross wrongfully believed it would give them immunity from subsequent Nazi persecution.
In many cases the timing of the recognition of their war record was unfortunate. The historian Jeremy Godden told me that his maternal grandfather, Hugo Steinhardt, was wounded in the First World War and later received the Iron Cross. However, as a Jew he was dismissed as a teacher in a state school on January 26th, 1933. The document acknowledging his war record only reached him in January 1935.
A few realists like Henk Huffener warned that Jews who regarded their award as protection were misguided. In some cases decorated Jewish soldiers who were rounded up in the early years of the Nazi regime were released; but when it came to the Final Solution fighting for the Fatherland did not offer the protection the veterans expected.
Agnes Grunwald Spier
I read Taylor Downing’s article (‘Spying From the Sky’, November 2011) with great interest as my father joined the RAF in 1926 and was immediately sent to photographic school. By 1929 he was on the North-west Frontier mapping India and Afghanistan from a biplane and photographing Afghan warlords and their families living in caves after being bombed by the RAF.
Altogether he spent 28 years in the RAF, ending as a section leader in the Joint Air Photographic Intelligence Centre in Egypt in the early 1950s. His whole career therefore was spent in aerial reconnaissance.
I have recently handed over to the Imperial War Museum a collection of photographs ranging over India, Burma and Singapore, aerial views of RAF stations in Britain, ships being sunk in the Channel, bombing raids over Germany as well as sorties in Egypt and the Middle East.
In retirement my father set up a darkroom in the loft and I was taught the rudiments of exposure and development, as well as scrutinising negatives and prints, using the ‘tools of the trade’, as in your article’s illustrations.
I do not therefore understand why photo interpretation was a ‘new science’ which had to be invented in 1939; nor why there had to be a ‘sudden realisation of the vital importance of aerial photography’ in 1941. The work of the photo interpreters is impressive but surely the expertise in RAF Medmenham was built on that of the interwar years.
My father spoke little of the details of his service owing to his allegiance to the Official Secrets Act. Such photos as remained in the house at his death and his service record are all I have. I feel sure, however, that the skills Mr Downing speaks of were still practised by the RAF in outposts of the British Empire and not entirely ‘forgotten’.
Mind Your Language
I have been an avid reader of your magazine for about ten years now and find myself enthralled by its content. I do, however, have one small gripe: I often find that foreign language quotes are used to highlight a point. It would be most useful to myself and, I suspect, others to have a translation in brackets following said quote. While my passion for history would match your more learned readers my linguistic skills are restricted to English.
One other request: please don’t go solely digital.
Battle of Bosworth
I am sorry that Richard Bosworth (Reviews, October 2011) so signally fails to grasp that the principal task of my official history of SOE in Italy – Mission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1939-1945 (The Bodley Head) – was to provide an account of what SOE did in Italy during the war and not, as he would clearly have preferred, to provide a ‘nuanced account’ of Italian society under Fascism and Nazi occupation. It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, that his limited perspective as a self-declared ‘Italianist’ blinds him to the need to explain and comprehend the operational complexities of a British organisation and its agents during the Italian campaign, nor indeed that he appears ignorant of SOE’s genesis and history. But it’s a shame that in this omission he so badly lets down the readers of History Today, who have thus been denied the chance to learn what the book is actually about.
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