August 20, 2009

GSTAAD—Gee whizz, couldn’t someone have told me about it 19 years ago? Did I have to read it in Toby Young’s column? Someone should be held responsible, but who? It was only two weeks ago that I discovered that there is a scale of recognition in British public life—“an unofficial honours system’”—and that Desert Island Discs is undoubtedly near the top. Hooray! Had I known, I would have done something about it. Such as snubbing slobs like the Abramovich, Sugar and Green lot, not to mention parvenus like the Blairs.

When I was invited to become a castaway, the sweet and attractive Sue Lawley sat opposite me and guided me through the programme. She had pretty legs and I commented on them, and she could not have been friendlier. We laughed a lot while the music was on, especially when I told her that I suspected that footballers and their ilk picked the most serious and challenging music. She admitted it was true.

But after the broadcast, I didn’t notice a thing. No change in status at all, just more libel suits to go with my hangovers. Toby is surely pulling our leg. And, speaking of status, I’ve been hard at work trying to find a picture of Abramovich selling rubber duckies in front of Moscow restaurants, but until now nothing. I suppose he’s had them all traced and destroyed, but surely there must be one showing him going ‘quack, quack’, while squeezing them for mums and their kiddies.

Still, from rubber duckies and going ‘quack, quack’ to missile-resisting super-yachts is quite a climb, an ascent that even Marie-Christine of Kent would admire, but I’m getting away from my subject. Which is history. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, sitting on a boat looking at sandy beaches can be tedious without a good book or a pretty girl. I met three beauties this last trip—the best was Leah —but I’ll stick to historical books. And my friend Andrew Roberts’s last desperate effort for a peerage. Paul Johnson reviewed it for The Spectator (8 August).

In The Storm of War, Andrew has a pen portrait of ‘Bomber’ Harris, who in my opinion should have been tried for war crimes along with those at Nuremberg. Here are a few personal observations, not from Andrew’s book, which I will read in the future: Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were human catastrophes never before or since equalled, except perhaps by the Black Death. Hospitals, schools, homes, churches, offices and theatres were burned to a crisp. Millions of innocent civilians — old men, women and children in reality — were killed. Even the zoos in those cities were destroyed, with monkeys, zebras, jaguars and tigers blown up or crazed by fire. Facts and figures cannot do justice to the sheer horror of the acts we — the civilised ones — committed against the evil regime of Hitler and the nationalist government of General Tojo.

Japan’s torture by fire was even worse than that of Germany. The Americans claimed the atomic attacks were justified because of the casualties an invasion would inflict. I say horses**t. Although women and children would surely have fought to defend the Fatherland, Japan was an island nation with no viable navy, no viable air force, no supplies or raw material to continue the war. Japan’s empire building was over. Military leaders were willing to discuss surrender, but not unconditionally. So why insist on unconditional surrender? That’s an easy one. Anglo-Saxons love to commit crimes from 25,000 feet, it makes them feel innocent, and having lost 2,000 sailors in Pearl, they wanted revenge. I am all for war when it’s justified, except I can’t think of one where jaw-jaw would not have been better. As a friend of mine wrote, was it better to be a betrayed Czech with 100,000 dead, or a Pole to whom we remained loyal and 7 million dead?

I take a back seat to no one in my willingness to defend my country and my freedoms, but dying for one’s country is not the only burden one must bear. To kill others imposes extremely serious obligations on those doing the killing. The war had better be just, and, even if it is, murdering civilians from the air may be an Anglo-Saxon trait but it ain’t mine. Historians have responsibilities and should never cheerlead.

Dresden today is a restored baroque fairyland surrounded by socialist-era sprawl. When I visited I was appalled by the camera-toting tourists and the expensive jewellery shops and overpriced cafés. The Dresden where my grandfather was educated is no more. Culture, which Dresden exemplified, did not save the city. (Bombing apologists insist that there was an underground railway and underground factories, but they would say that, wouldn’t they?) The restored Dresden and its culture have also failed to save the place. Ten million tourists in a city of half a million simply poison a metropolis’s soul. It’s happened to Venice and Florence, even Rome, and now it’s the tragic Dresden’s turn. Next week we’re back with Madoff.


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