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Jewish Brigade: Soldiers of Zion

Having fled Hitler’s Berlin, Oscar Westreich gained a new identity in Palestine. He eventually joined the British army, whose training of Jewish soldiers proved crucial to the formation of Israel, as his daughter, Mira Bar-Hillel, explains.

Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, formerly Oscar Westreich (bottom left), with his company in North Africa. They wear the Buffs' Australian slouch hats and defiantly form a Star of David with their riflesOn February 27th, 1933, as my father was about to graduate from high school in Berlin and four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag building was set alight. Historians still argue about whether the arson was an attack by the Communists or a deliberate provocation by the Nazis. But for 18-year-old Oscar Westreich the message was loud and clear: it was time to get out.

That both his parents had died before he reached his teens probably saved my father’s life; there was no one to stop him going. He was idealistic enough not to worry about leaving Berlin with little more than the shirt on his back. And he knew where he was going: Palestine.

Shortly after arriving in the Holy Land my father did two things: he changed his name to Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (in memory of his father, Israel Hillel) and he joined the Hagganah, the Jewish defence organisation.

Plant dispersal: Atlantic crossings

Patricia Cleveland-Peck looks at the long history of plant dispersal between the New World and the Old.

Banana flower at La Huerta. Photo: Dean WoodThis year the August Old Spanish Days and Fiesta held annually in Santa Barbara, California will also include celebration of the 225th anniversary of the Old Mission Santa Barbara. This is one of the chain of 21 missions established by the Spanish which stretch up the coast of Alta California. As with all the missions founded by the Spanish in this and other parts of ‘New Spain’, the aim was to secure their hold on the territory and to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.

Today Old Mission S.B. is the site of a unique horticultural creation, a living museum known as La Huerta Historic Gardens. This orchard-garden, a ‘repository for the vanishing plants of California’s mission period 1769-1834’, was established in 2003 by Professor Jerry Sortomme and contains heritage plants and seeds collected from all over the mission area which have been planted by Sortomme and his team of dedicated volunteers. As well as plants imported by the Spanish, the huerta, which is in fact on the site of an old Indian pueblo, also contains a collection of plants grown and used by the local indigenous people, the Chumash. ‘Tasting tours’ and other multi-sensory activities are staged for visitors and schoolchildren to bring alive the history of the period.

The British Newspaper Library: Tough decisions to be made on hard copy

David Kynaston seeks answers to questions about the fragile future of an institution beloved by historical researchers.

A newspaper vendor in London. Photograph by KFHistorians have known for several years that the British Newspaper Library at Colindale in north London is entering the endgame. Established there in 1932 and serviced by staff who have become appreciably more helpful and friendly since I first went in the 1970s, it is now viewed by the British Library (BL) as no longer fit for purpose, above all in terms of storage and conservation. The BL, moreover, is in the process of implementing a two-site strategy: essentially, ‘front office’ for readers in St Pancras, London; and ‘back office’ for storage in Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

When is Colindale actually going to close? And what will be the state of access to newspapers after it does? Those were the principal questions in mind ahead of a recent meeting with Patrick Fleming, Associate Director Operations and Services at the BL, with a particular responsibility for the newspaper collection. He himself had a notable career in provincial newspapers before coming to the BL in 2007, is keenly aware of the value of news-papers as a historical source and in general revealed during our conversation a very constructive approach to the concerns of researchers.

Syria: Coup Proof?

Syria was among the most unstable states in the Middle East until Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. But, asks James Gelvin, can his son, Bashar, maintain the regime’s iron rule in the face of growing dissent?

President Bashar al-Assad (right) and his brother Maher (centre) attend the funeral of their father Hafez, Damascus, June 13th 2000 (Getty/AFP/Ramzi Haidar)In March 2011 the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became the latest Arab autocrat to face the wrath of his population. Troubles began when security forces arrested a dozen or so schoolchildren under the age of 14 in the provincial city of Dara‘a for the crime of writing anti-government graffiti on a wall. The government imprisoned and tortured them.

Two weeks later their parents took to the streets. The security forces opened fire, killing several. The following day funeral processions brought out 20,000 demonstrators who chanted anti-government slogans and attacked government buildings. Protests soon spread throughout Syria, from their initial flashpoint in Dara‘a in the far south to Jisr al-Shaghour on the northern border with Turkey and from Latakia on the coast to inland Deir ez-Zor.

Goya's Wellington: The Duke Disappears

James Whitfield on why the theft of a Spanish master’s portrait of a British military hero led to a change in the law.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington 1812-14 by Goya (National Gallery, London). - See more at: http://www.historytoday.com/james-whitfield/goyas-wellington-duke-disappears#sthash.ltr2IAx2.dpufOn August 3rd, 1961 the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square proudly unveiled its latest acquisition: what is known as the bust portrait of the Duke of Wellington by the Spanish master Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), painted during the Peninsular War and completed in 1814. Eighteen days later the duke went absent without leave from the gallery. His unauthorised removal made headline news, stumped all attempts by Scotland Yard to solve the crime and, in 1968, prompted the Government to introduce a new criminal offence.

The British Army: At ease with their heritage

Throughout its 350-year history the British army has been vulnerable to economic pressures and political interference. Its strength lies in the loyalty of its soldiers to their regiment or corps, argues Allan Mallinson.

Officers of the 17th Lancers photographed during the Crimean War, 1853-56 (Library of Congress / Roger Fenton)When I was military attaché in Rome an impressive Alpini brigadier asked me who were the ten greatest British generals. I thought for a moment then answered that there wouldn’t be much debate about the top five, but for the rest … He stopped me and with a sigh said: ‘The point is, we don’t have a single one. How do you think that makes an Italian officer feel?’

It was a powerful statement of the importance of ‘operational heritage’. Generalship does indeed breed generalship and fighting reputation inspires fighting spirit. General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, led NATO forces in Afghanistan during the 2006 Taliban offensive that looked as if it might succeed. Giving evidence to the House of Commons defence committee afterwards, he described how he would retire to his office and ‘have a conversation with Slim and Templer’. Field Marshals ‘Bill’ Slim and Gerald Templer had died in 1970 and 1979 respectively. They had both, however, been singularly successful fighting off the back foot east of Suez and, by extension, had things to say about taking the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan. When good generalship is a tradition it becomes sustaining.

Britain's Gypsy Travellers: A People on the Outside

Despite the popularity of shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Britain’s Gypsy Travellers still face longstanding prejudice, warns Becky Taylor.

A Gypsy family camped in the New Forest, Hampshire in the 1890sA wet cold December day at Dale Farm Traveller site in Essex is yet another day spent waiting for a 28-day notice to evict the long established settlement. Less high profile than President Sarkozy’s recent expulsion of Roma from France, the determination of Basildon district council to evict around 300 residents from their own land at a cost of £15 million is no less an indication of Travellers’ marginalised and reviled position in today’s society.With no place to go after the eviction, the families will be forced on to the road and face being moved from one place to the next by the authorities, repeating a pattern which has become familiar to Gypsies across the centuries.

From the Archive: A Quiet Revolution Begins

History Today was launched in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain. Barry Turner challenges Arthur Marwick’s impressions, first published in 1991, of the year that austerity Britain glimpsed a brighter future.

Skylon tower at Festival of Britain, 1951

Arthur Marwick (1936-2006) was not a historian to harbour doubts. His judgements were forthright and bold.  But looking back on the 1950s from his vantage point in 1991 he was uncharacteristically ambivalent. ‘Not a golden age’, he opined, ‘but not leaden either’, an airy dismissal that might apply to any postwar period.

To start on a basis we can all accept, the 1950s was a bleak decade. The Labour government, elected with a thumping majority in 1945, had laid the foundations of a welfare state but the benefits had still to feed through to a generation weaned on austerity.

Everything was in short supply. Rationing was still in force. Twenty million Britons lived in homes without baths and nearly a fifth of London’s housing was classified as slums. The brightest sights in the capital were the red buses. All else was black or sooty grey. Restaurant food was disgusting and service was a forgotten concept. The customer always came last. A repetitive refrain was heard throughout the land: ‘It can’t be done, Gov.’

The Battle of Towton

The ‘biggest, bloodiest and longest battle on English soil’ was fought at Towton in Yorkshire on Palm Sunday 1461. Its brutality was a consequence of deep geographical and cultural divisions which persist to this day.

Battle of Towton, as depicted by Richard Caton Woodville (1856–1927)

In his article Barriers to the Truth, published in the December 2010 edition of History Today, Ian Mortimer elegantly explained the difficulties caused by the fragmentary nature of medieval sources. However there are some vibrant gems from the later medieval period which instantly propel you back to the age of their creation. One such is William Gregory’s 15th-century Chronicle, full of the type of barbed jest that would please a newspaper columnist today. Take for instance his sneer at James Butler, 1st Earl of Wiltshire (1420-61) for deserting the Royal Standard at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455: ‘He fought mainly with his heels for he was called the most handsome knight in the land and was afraid of losing his beauty.’ In contrast to such jocularity there is the spiritually transcendent tone of John Blacman’s first-hand account of Henry VI (r. 1422-61; 1470-71), capturing, if unintentionally, the full extent of the king’s troubled mind.

Death of Enver Hoxha

The life and career of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who died on April 11th, 1985.

Hoxha in 1971
Hoxha in 1971

The man who held Albania in an iron grip for 40 years was a devout Marxist-Leninist, a fervent admirer of Stalin and a committed moderniser. When he was born to a Muslim family in 1908, Albania was still an obscure province of the Ottoman Empire. Enver Hoxha (pronounced to rhyme with ‘lodger’) came from a comfortably off family, was sent to a French school in Albania and in 1930 won a state scholarship to the University of Montpellier in France. R.J. Crampton, the historian of the postwar Balkans, describes him as ‘the only intellectual among the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe’, with the possible exception of Matyas Rakosi of Hungary. Hoxha joined the French Communist Party and lost his scholarship because of his involvement in leftwing politics. He returned home in 1936 to teach at his old school.