German but a Swiss scholar, Paul Henri Mallet, who added the Norse sagas – and thus pagan religion – to the Germany described by Tacitus. The scene was now set for a much more aggressive version of the myth to be mobilised. This reached pathological intensity during the struggle against Napoleon with Heinrich von Kleist’s Herman’s Battle, a manically bloodthirsty orgy of vindictive violence. With this aggressively xenophobe exploitation of Tacitus’s myth we reach Krebs’s thesis summed up in the title – A Most Dangerous Book. It is not long before we get to the Nazis proclaiming that Germania was a ‘bible t ha t ever y t h i nking Ger man s hould possess ’ and Heinrich Himmler expressing regret that the punishment inflicted by the ancient Germans on homosexuals – sinking them into a quicksand, clothes and all – was no longer thought acceptable. Unfortunately the rising trajectory of Krebs’s argument is not accompanied by a
S e t t i n g o f t h e B l o o d - D i mmed S u n IMPERIAL ENDGAME: BRITAIN’S DIRTY
WARS AND THE END OF EMPIRE
By Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon (Palgrave Macmillan 478pp £16.99)
POSTWAR ITALIAN GOVERNMENTS avoided war-crimes trials for atrocities in Ethiopia or Libya simply by preventing historians from examining the relevant documents in the Ministry of Defence. This sleight of hand is not restricted to a nation in which being furba (crafty) is considered a virtue. This April, the British government decided to ‘regular ise’ 2,000 boxes of Foreign and Commonwealth Office files occupying some 110 feet of shelving in an obscure repository. These documents were ‘released’ – to use plain English – because some of their contents were about to be made public, due to court orders in a compensation case brought by four elderly Kenyans who claim they were grievously tortured during the Mau Mau emergency. While he has not been able to use documents that have not been officially acknowledged for half a century, the US historian Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon has done an outstanding job in assessing British counterinsurgency operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden during the winding-down of the empire. The tone is altogether more dispassionate than that of the recent advocacy history of Harvard historian Caroline corresponding level of evidence; rather the reverse. He is very good on the classical period (his speciality), solid on the Middle Ages, but increasingly thin and patchy when the early modern per iod is reached. The bald assertion that ‘in most if not all respects the National Socialist vision of the Germanen would be a mirror image of the humanists’ does not car ry conviction. More generally, the book sits uneasily between a scholarly monograph and a popular thriller. This TheodorMommsen-meets-Dan-Brown flavour is revealed in the very first sentence: ‘With the speed of those who know that their days are numbered, the SS detachment charged up the pebble-and-sand-covered driveway.’ At the other end, after all the talk of the perils of Germania, the conclusion reached in the last sentence – ‘in the end the Roman historian Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book; his readers made it so’ – is somewhat lame. To order this book for £15.19, see LR bookshop on page 12
Elkins in her sensationally titled Britain’s Gulag. GrobFitzg ibbon has mined a huge range of unpublished sources in several archives to give a largely fair-minded account of a process increasingly distorted, rather than elucidated, by historians who act merely as adjuncts to crusading lawyers.
Grob-Fitzgibbon’s book is primarily a contribution to comprehending how the military adapted to their circumstances, accurately compared by John Nagl with learning ‘how to eat soup with a knife’, and to understanding the illiberal means that were sometimes used to accomplish liberal outcomes. Surely it was preferable that, when the British relinquished control, neither the ethnic Chinese communists came to power in Malaya, nor the Mau Mau in Kenya? Grob-Fitzgibbon claims that both overall strategy and military tactics were crafted to ensure independence on British terms. His object is to revise a narrative of the end of empire based on drift and despondency in favour of one that perceives much more method amid so much madness. There are only a few slips, such as locating Lidice in France rather than the former Czechoslovakia, and only one major bibliographic omission: how can a book like this not even refer to Piers Brendon’s estimable Decline and Fall of the British Empire?
Paradoxically, the book begins with the one major instance where British forces were defeated by an insurgency and forced to ‘scuttle’ with indecent haste. The brute force employed to crush the 1936–9 Palestinian Arab Revolt was not repeated in the same degree against Zionist terrorism in the later 1940s, notwithstanding individual instances of British personnel waging a dirty war. Neither the US nor the Soviets (nor France) were sympathetic to the British position, which was further undermined by the Zionists’ adroit combination of terrorism and passive aggression, notably attempts at immigration to
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011