Page Text

HISTORY

10 per cent of the local population.

But despite all the abuse and violence heaped upon them, the outcasts were never entirely eliminated, their ranks constantly replenished by a regime that for political reasons needed dark revisionist forces to be lurking in the background, ready to overturn power. During the Cultural Revolution, it was a call from Beijing to eliminate counter-revolutionary f actions that fuelled the pogroms, which were particularly g ruesome in the mountainous areas of Guangdong and Guangxi, regions where traditional clan feuds were now justified on ideological grounds. The campaign directives, as the author points out, were always vague, and they never called for collective killings – although Andrew Walder has shown in his Fractured Rebellion how by 1967 news of Red Guard killings in Beijing and other cities was widespread. As the methods of execution were left up to the people on the g round, Mao’s willing executioners stepped forward and took it upon themselves to organise

MAX EGREMONT

GENERAL I NCOMPETENCE

WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL: VICTORY AND DEFEAT IN 1918

By David Stevenson (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 688pp £30)

IT IS OFTEN said that the Germans came nearest to winning the First World War twice – at the start in 1914 and near the end in 1918. In his new book, David Stevenson turns this on its head. He contends that the huge German offensives in the west that began in March 1918 set off a process that led to Germany’s defeat later that year. He also makes clear that when, with their ally Austria–Hungary, the Germans started the war in 1914, they took a ter r ific gamble the odds of which were already against them. So a predictable result was merely delayed by four years and the deaths of millions. The predictability, however, was obscured by the often poor generalship of Germany’s enemies. What happened on the battlefields was only one part of the war. Stevenson’s detailed examination of each belligerent in 1918 makes it plain how much was owed to the efficiency of the factories and transport systems, the morale on the home fronts and the character and abilities of the politicians and administrators. Economic power was also vital: Britain and its empire financed much of the war, even after the entry of the United States in 1917. With Our Backs to the Wall, with its mass of statistics and its methodical tracing of often shifting decisions, is witch-hunts against ‘traitors’, ‘spies’, ‘capitalist roaders’ and other ‘class enemies’. As the author puts it: ‘There was no systematic bureaucratic machinery of genocide; rather, neighbors killed neighbors. Days of rage in the squares brought rivers of sorrow that still flow through the villages today.’

Yang Su has written a long-overdue study that leaves behind the well-trodden ground of the Red Guards in Beijing to focus unflinchingly on the violence of the countr y s i de. The author a l so p l aces the Cultural Revolution squarely where it should have been all along, namely in the area of genocide studies. At long last such classic works as Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime are being invoked to understand the chains of interests and complicities that extended all the way down to the village. As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village’ – to kill collectively. To order this book for £15.99, see LR bookshop on page 22

not always easy reading. It is, however, an immensely useful study, emphasising the crucial importance of morale, political stability and trust. The title comes from Haig’s famous order of 11 April 1918, when a huge German offensive had led another general to predict ‘a decisive defeat’ for Britain unless the French gave more help. ‘With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause,’ the British commander declared, ‘each one of us must fight on to the end.’ There is something bleak, unimaginative and unsympathetic about Haig, and his mistakes were often catastrophic. But those words impressed many. Vera Brittain, then nur s i ng a t t he f ront and not a f an o f t he High Command, wrote after reading them: ‘I knew I should go on, whether I could or not.’ National will was vital. It crumbled in Russia in 1917 and in Germany and Austria–Hungary in the last half of 1918. This never happened on a mass scale in Britain or France, although collective despair threatened both, particularly the French, in 1917. The greatest challenge to the Allies was to keep going against a background of grim news from the battlefields. For much of the war France and Britain faced military disappointment, often defeat; the fact that they had no serious civil disorder shows their political stability. Even though some senior French politicians were in the pay of the enemy and Britain’s democracy was limited, with a more restrictive franchise than Germany, the home front held in both countries. Another point that Stevenson brings out is that not until food shortages and obvious military failure did the different nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire start to desert in significant numbers. The only serious revolt from within a belligerent nation until 1918 was the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland, the Ottoman Empire having started to break up before 1914.

LITERARY REVIEW May 2011

8