Dunkirk – film review

The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.

The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…

Dunkirk – the background

On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.

A triptych

Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.

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Max Schmeling – a summary

One of most politically-charged sporting events took place in New York’s Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938 – a boxing match between the then heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’, and the German, Max Schmeling, the unwilling darling of the Nazi Party.

Born in 1905, Max Schmeling had advanced through the boxing ranks within Germany and Europe and even impressed Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion, in a friendly fight during the champion’s tour of Europe. But to be a true star of the boxing world, one had to conquer the US. And it was to America, in 1928, the 23–year-old Schmeling travelled.

The Low Blow Champion

It was an astute move, and the young German was soon a sensation winning his initial fights on American soil. In 1930, the reigning heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney, retired and Schmeling was pitted against fellow-contender, Jack Sharkey. Schmeling won the fight but not in a manner that he would have liked – Sharkey had knocked the German to the floor but was disqualified for throwing a punch below the belt, leaving Schmeling floored and clutching his groin. Thus, with Sharkey disqualified, Schmeling had become World Heavyweight champion by default. The press derided Schmeling’s victory, calling him the ‘Low Blow Champion,’ a nickname that must have hurt. Sharkey’s team, feeling grieved, demanded an immediate re-match.

As heavyweight champion, the only German to have been so, Max Schmeling dispatched a boxer called Young Stribling, before facing Sharkey again in 1932. This time the fight went to 15 rounds, and Sharkey, to the astonishment of neutral onlookers, was given the fight on points, stripping Schmeling of his title. ‘We woz robbed,’ screamed Schmeling’s Jewish trainer, Joe ‘Yussel the Muscle’ Jacobs. The newspapers, and even the mayor of New York, agreed.

Hitler’s Boxer

The following year, Hitler came to power as German Chancellor and the persecution against Jews began in earnest. Max Schmeling’s exploits came to the attention of the Nazi Party and they took the young boxer to their breasts as typical of the Aryan ideal. The Nazis enforced a ban on Jews playing any part in boxing, whether as fighter, trainer, promoter or even fan. Schmeling was told to ditch his Jewish trainer, and to Schmeling’s credit, he refused to do so.

New York, with its large Jewish population, associated Schmeling with the new German regime, not helped that Schmeling’s next fight, in June 1933, was against Max Baer. Although himself not a Jew, Baer’s father had been, which, under Nazi classification, made him a Mischlinge. Bauer came into the ring with the Star of David stitched onto his shorts. The fight was seen as good versus evil, with Schmeling cast as Hitler’s representative in the boxing ring. Baer, much to America’s delight, won.

Schmeling v Louis

Despite the loss, Schmeling was offered the chance to fight fellow-contender, Joe Louis (pictured). Louis was not only the role model of African-Americans but of Americans everywhere as the embodiment of a rags to riches tale, a man living the American dream.  Against him, Max Schmeling represented the polar opposite, the land of anti-Semitism and oppression. The Nazis were displeased that Schmeling should deign to fight a Negro but the fight went ahead on 19 June 1936. Schmeling, the underdog, floored Louis twice, knocking him out in the 12th round and winning convincingly. Schmeling was delighted but not overly surprised: ‘I wouldn’t have fought a colored man if I didn’t think I could lick him,’ he told reporters.

Schmeling returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany not by ship but by another symbol of German superiority, the Hindenburg airship. Schmeling’s victory was ‘not only sport’, crowed the Nazi weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), ‘it was a question of prestige for our race.’ A new film was released, Schmeling’s Victory: A German Victory, and shown throughout the country. Schmeling was feted as all that was good in Nazi Germany, appearing smiling at the side of Hitler, a fan of boxing, and Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. (Indeed, Schmeling’s wife, Anny, listened to the fight on the radio in Goebbels’s living room). When later quizzed about his meetings with Hitler, Schmeling responded by saying, ‘I once went to dinner with Franklin Roosevelt; that did not make me a Democrat’. But Schmeling did attend Nazi rallies at Nuremberg and supported Nazi charities.

Schmeling returned to New York in May 1937 and had been booked onto the Hindenburg but a last minute change of plan meant he travelled instead by sea. Thus, by a quirk of fate, Schmeling missed being on the Hindenburg when, arriving in New Jersey, it exploded into flames, claiming the lives of 36.

In New York, Schmeling became a spokesman for Germany, often quizzed about life under the Nazis. For Schmeling the pressure must have been difficult especially when the pressure came from Hitler himself: ‘When you go to the United States, you’re going to obviously be interviewed by people who are thinking that very bad things are going on in Germany at this moment. And I hope you’ll be able to tell them that the situation isn’t as bleak as they think it is.’ Hence, in one interview, he said, ‘I have seen no Jews suffer… whatever pain they are undergoing they have brought on themselves by circulating anti-Nazi horror stories in New York and elsewhere.’

Schmeling v Louis: the re-match

Having beaten Joe Louis, Schmeling now wanted a chance of regaining the title from the reigning champion James Braddock, but Braddock’s camp feigned injury, not wanting to be involved with the man they considered a Nazi puppet. Instead, Braddock fought Joe Louis and lost. The Brown Bomber was now the heavyweight champion of the world.

The much-anticipated Louis–Schmeling rematch of 22 June 1938 (pictured) was billed as the ‘fight of the century’, with its politically charged rivalry between the land of the free and the land of Aryan racial purity. Among the 70,000 audience were Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. As he approached the ring, Schmeling was greeted with jeers and pelted with rubbish. The fight lasted all of two minutes and four seconds when Schmeling was knocked out. He spent ten days in hospital recovering from his injuries which included a number of broken ribs. Louis had got his revenge and democracy, it seemed, had triumphed over fascism. But ultimately it was about boxing and that on this particular occasion, the American was better than the German.

The German ambassador in America tried to persuade Schmeling to claim foul play against Louis but Schmeling refused. This time, when Schmeling returned to Germany, by humble ship, there was no celebration, no welcome party. Schmeling, now considered a loser, was shunned by the party that had been so keen to embrace him.

Schmeling may have previously appeared as an apologist for the Nazi regime but when faced with its reality, he demonstrated true courage. On the night of 10-11 November 1938, when the Nazis unleashed their battering of Jews and Jewish synagogues and businesses during what became known as Kristallnacht, Schmeling hid two Jewish brothers in his hotel suite for two days, sharing what food he had with them and refusing all visitors, claiming he was ill. Later, Schmeling spirited the boys and family out of Germany. One of them, Henri Lewin, speaking in 1989, paid homage to the boxer, saying that had they been discovered, ‘I would not be here this evening and neither would Max’.

Private Schmeling

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Schmeling was forcibly drafted into the German army as a paratrooper (pictured) and, as a 36-year-old private, saw action during the Battle of Crete in 1941 where he was wounded. Schmeling believed that the particularly perilous assignment had been the Nazi Party’s revenge on him. No doubt they hoped he would be killed and provide them with a new martyr. When ordered by Goebbels to fabricate tales for the press relating to supposed British barbarity against German prisoners, Schmeling refused. He was promptly court-martialed on the personal orders of the Propaganda Minister.

Post-war, Schmeling, living in Germany and in need of money, fought five more matches, his first fights since before the war. He fought and lost his final fight in 1948, as a 43-year-old. He started working for the German branch of Cola-Cola, eventually running his own bottling plant and becoming very rich in the process. Meanwhile, in the US, Joe Louis fell on hard times, unable to pay mounting tax debts. Schmeling visited his former boxing rival in the US and helped him along financially. When Louis died in 1981, Schmeling contributed towards the cost of the funeral.

After 54 years of marriage, Schmeling’s wife, Anny, died in 1987. Anny, a former actress of Polish-Czech descent, had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film, Blackmail, Britain’s first talkie.

Max Schmeling died 2 February 2005, seven months short of his hundredth birthday.

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World War Two’s RAF Bomber Command

On 28 June 2012, the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, unveiled a new memorial, the Bomber Command Memorial, to the airmen of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command who fought during the Second World War.

The Bomber Command Memorial, made of Portland Stone and situated in London’s Green Park, has, as its centrepiece, a nine-foot-high bronze sculpture of a typical seven-man crew, five of them gazing into the distance as if waiting for their comrades to return.

Many never did. 55,573 British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and other Commonwealth pilots and crewmen lost their lives and 8,403 were wounded, a sixty per cent causality rate, far higher than most other forms of armed service during the war. A further 9,838 were taken prisoners-of-war. Allied crewmen who survived being shot down in Germany, if not taken prisoner, were often lynched.

With only one in four aircrew surviving their allocated thirty missions, the attacks were eventually halted. Yet following the war, it took 67 years to officially appreciate what these men did. (The crews were even denied a campaign medal for their dangerous work.)

Designed by architect, Liam O’Connor, the Bomber Command Memorial cost almost £6 million to construct, the funding coming from public donations and private sponsors, such as Lord Ashcroft (a generous man for sure but could be accused of being overly greedy in his purchasing of so many Victoria Crosses for his own collection) and Bee Gee, Robin Gibb, who died in May 2012, but not, it has to be said, the government.

Initially, Dresden, the German city interminably linked with the destruction wrought by Bomber Command, objected to the memorial but an inscription commemorating all the lives lost during the bombing raids eased their concerns. The RAF’s last flying Lancaster Bomber flew over the proceedings releasing a shower of red poppies in a sign of remembrance for the fallen. Some 6,000 veterans and their families attended the ceremony, for whom the occasion was an emotional one.

‘The Few’

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The Battle of the Bulge – a quick summary

16 December 1944 saw the start of the German ‘Ardennes Offensive’ (the Battle of the Bulge). It was to be the US’ biggest pitched battle in their history, involving 600,000 American troops. The Allied forces were advancing towards Germany, pushing the Germans back town by town and believing the war to be almost won. But this was Hitler’s last attempt to stop the momentum. His aim was to advance through the wooded area of the Ardennes in Luxembourg and Belgium and cut the Allied armies in two and then push on towards the port of Antwerp, a vital Allied stronghold.

The Allies knew there was a build-up of German troops and equipment around the Ardennes but never believed Hitler was capable of such a bold initiative. Only the day before the attack, the British commander, Bernard Montgomery, told Dwight D Eisenhower, the Allies’ Supreme Commander, that the Germans would be incapable of staging ‘major offensive operations’. Captured Germans spilled the plans but their information was ignored. Thus, the attack came as a complete surprise.

‘Nuts’

Thick snow and heavy fog prevented the Americans from employing their airpower and the German advance of 250,000 men forced a dent in the American line (hence battle of the ‘Bulge’). Germans, dressed in American uniforms and driving captured US jeeps, caused confusion and within five days the Germans had surrounded almost 20,000 Americans at the crossroads of Bastogne. Their situation was desperate but when the German commander gave his American equivalent, Major-General Anthony McAuliffe, the chance to surrender, McAuliffe answered with just the one word – ‘Nuts’.

US soldiers near the town of St Vith were not so lucky and 8,000 of them surrendered – the largest surrender of US troops since the American Civil War 80 years before. Elsewhere, the Germans taunted the Americans, using loudspeakers to ask, ‘How would you like to die for Christmas?’

‘Lovely weather for killing Germans’

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The Sinking of Hospital ship Armenia

On the 7 November 1941, the Soviet hospital ship, the Armenia, was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazis. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers perished on a ship designed for not more than a thousand. A comparatively modest 1,514 died on the Titanic (1912) and 1,198 on the Lusitania (1915) yet the sinking of the Armenia on 7 November 1941 is all but lost to history.

Armenia shipSunk in the Black Sea, the exact location of the wreck is still a mystery and for years, the question remained – was a hospital ship, identified by a Red Cross, a legitimate target?

A stricken city

Designed for 980 passengers and crew, over seven times that number had surged onto the ship in the Crimean port of Yalta that fateful night of 7 November 1941. The reason was blind panic. The Nazi war machine, which had invaded the Soviet Union less than five months before, had overrun the Crimean peninsula and was bearing down on Yalta. People expected the city to fall within a matter of hours. The only possible means of escape for its stricken population was by sea – the roads outside the city having been sealed off by the Germans.

Built in Leningrad in 1928, the double-decker Armenia began its career as a passenger ship. In August 1941, following the outbreak of war, it was pressed into military service as a hospital ship. The day before its sinking, the Armenia had left the port of Sevastopol having taken civilian evacuees and the occupants of several military hospitals. Crammed with up to 5,000 passengers, the ship made for Tuapse, a town on the northeast coast of the Black Sea, about 250 miles east. But the captain, Captain Vladimir Plaushevsky, received orders to pick up extra people from nearby Yalta.

More civilians and wounded soldiers, some severely, crammed onto the ship amid scenes of chaos and utter panic. No register was taken, no names recorded of these additional two thousand passengers. Captain Plaushevsky then received orders to remain in port until escort vessels were at hand to chaperon him out. The delay frustrated the captain, he had to get going, they were cutting it too fine.

Torpedoed

The next morning, seven o’clock, the Armenia finally set sail, escorted by two armed boats and two fighter planes.

The escorts were unable to prevent a German torpedo bomber, a Heinkel He-111, swooping-in low and firing two torpedoes at the ship. It was 11.29 am, the ship was 25 miles into its journey. The first torpedo missed but the second one scored a direct hit, splitting the ship into two. The Armenia sunk within just four minutes. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers died, the survivors being picked up by a patrol boat.

The tragedy lay in the postponement of its departure. If Captain Plaushevsky had not lost those precious hours, the ship may well have arrived at its intended destination.

Lying at a depth of about 480 metres, the location of the Armenia wreck remains unknown despite the efforts of oceanic explorer, Robert Ballard, discoverer of several historical wrecks including the aforementioned Titanic and Lusitania.

A legitimate target?

Was the Armenia a legitimate target? As a hospital ship, it was clearly marked with the Red Cross, both on its sides and, clearly visible to the German pilots, on the deck. But it had a military escort, and it had two of its own anti-aircraft guns, so under the rules of war, it was a perfectly acceptable target.

But this doesn’t detract from the catastrophe of its sinking and today we should remember, if only momentarily, the forgotten tragedy of the Armenia.

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Erwin Rommel – and his forced suicide

‘We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.’

The words were Winston Churchill’s and the great general he was referring to was Erwin Rommel.

The Desert Fox

Born 15 November 1891, Erwin Rommel was, as Churchill suggests, respected as a master tactician, the supreme strategist who, in 1940, helped defeat France and the Low Countries and then found lasting fame when sent by Hitler to North Africa where, commanding the Afrika Korps, he earned the sobriquet, the Desert Fox. Germany, his nation, adored him, his troops loved him, Hitler treasured him and his enemies respected him. His Afrika Korps was never charged with any war crimes and prisoners of war were treated humanely. When his only son, Manfred, proposed joining the Waffen SS, Rommel forbade it.

In June 1944 Rommel was sent to Northern France to help co-ordinate the defence against the Allied Normandy Invasion but was wounded a month later when a RAF plane strafed his car. Rommel returned home to Germany to convalesce.

The July Bomb Plot

Meanwhile, on 20 July 1944, Hitler survived an assassination attempt in his Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, the July Bomb Plot, perpetuated by Nazi officers who hoped to shorten the war with his removal. Hitler, although shaken, suffered only superficial injury and those responsible were soon rounded up and executed. Rommel, although not involved and actively against any plan to assassinate Hitler, did support the idea of having him removed from power. Once his association with the plotters, however tenuous, came to light, his downfall was inevitable and swift.

On 14 October 1944, Hitler dispatched two generals to Rommel’s home to offer the fallen Field Marshal a bleak choice. Manfred, aged 15, was at home with his mother when the call came. He waited nervously as the three men talked in private, and then as his father went upstairs to speak to his mother. Finally Rommel spoke to his son and told him of Hitler’s deal.

Manfred’s story

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The Dieppe Raid – an outline

In August 1942, Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s wartime prime minister, flew to Moscow and there met for the first time the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Fourteen months before, on 22 June 1941, Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the largest military invasion ever conducted. Almost immediately, Stalin was urging Churchill to open a second front by attacking Nazi-occupied Europe from the West, thereby forcing Hitler to divert troops to the west and alleviating in part the enormous pressure the Soviet Union found itself under. Now, as Churchill prepared to meet Stalin, German forces were bearing down on the strategically and symbolically important Russian city of Stalingrad.

Churchill knew that if Germany were to defeat the Soviet Union then Hitler would be able to concentrate his whole military strength on the west. But although tentative plans for a large-scale invasion were afoot, to act too quickly, too hastily, would be foolhardy. Churchill withstood Stalin’s pressure. There would be no second front for at least another year. But, in the meanwhile, Churchill was able to offer a ‘reconnaissance in force’ on the French port of Dieppe, with the objective of drawing away German troops from the Eastern Front. Whether Stalin was at all appeased by this morsel of compensation, Churchill does not say.

Operation Jubilee

Dieppe Raid German defenceThus, in the early hours of 19 August 1942, the Allies launched Operation Jubilee – the raid on Dieppe, 65 miles across from England. 252 ships crossed the Channel in a five-pronged attack carrying tanks together with 5,000 Canadians and 1,000 British and American troops plus a handful of fighters from the French resistance. Nearing their destination, one prong ran into a German merchant convoy. A skirmish ensued. More fatally, it meant that the element of surprise had been lost – aware of what was taking place, the Germans at Dieppe were now waiting in great numbers.

Pictured: German soldiers defending the French port of Dieppe against the Anglo-Canadian raid, 19 August 1942.

What followed was a disaster as the Germans unleashed a withering fire from cliff tops and port-side hotels. A Canadian war correspondent described the scene as men tried to disembark from their landing craft: the soldiers ‘plunged into about two feet of water and machine-gun bullets laced into them. Bodies piled up on the ramp.’ Neutralised by German fighters, support overhead from squadrons of RAF planes proved ineffectual. Only 29 tanks managed to make it ashore where they struggled on the shingle beach, and of those only 15 were able to advance as far as the sea wall only to be prevented from encroaching into the town by concrete barriers.

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The 20 July Bomb Plot – an outline

The attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944 was the seventeenth known occasion that someone had tried to kill Hitler. Unlike other attempts however this, the 20 July Bomb Plot, was the most intricate, and involved plans for a new Germany following the successful accomplishment of the mission.

Count Stauffenberg loses faith

A fervent supporter of Hitler, 36-year-old Count Claus von Stauffenberg had fought bravely during the Second World War for the Fuhrer. Fighting in Tunisia in 1943, Stauffenberg was badly wounded, losing his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left. Once recovered, Stauffenberg was transferred to the Eastern Front where he witnessed the atrocities firsthand which made him question his loyalty. As it became increasingly apparent that Germany would not win the war, Stauffenberg lost faith in Hitler and the Nazi cause.

At some point in early 1944, Stauffenberg joined a group of German officers intent on bringing the war to a quick end and negotiating a peace with the Allies. Their biggest obstacle was of course Hitler.

But the plotters received a bit of luck when Stauffenberg was appointed onto the staff of the Reserve Army, reporting directly to General Friedrich Fromm, another officer who had lost faith in the Nazi cause. When Stauffenberg was invited to a meeting in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, East Prussia, for 20 July, the opportunity seemed perfect.

The conspirators hatched their plan, codenamed Valkyrie, and crucial to its success was Stauffenberg’s proximity to Hitler.

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Vidkun Quisling – a summary

On 24 October 1945, Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi, was executed as the ultimate traitor, and a new word entered common usage.

Born 18 July 1887, Vidkun Quisling’s life and early career had started promisingly. As a child, the son of a Lutheran pastor, he was considered somewhat a mathematical child prodigy and, as a young cadet coming out of military school, he gained the highest recorded marks in Norway.

Vidkun Quisling, CBE

After leaving the army, where he had worked his way up to the rank of Major, Quisling worked as a humanitarian, helping with the great famines in Russia during the 1920s. It was in Russia he became an avid anti-Communist and, in doing so, helped British interests in their diplomatic wrangling with the Soviets. In 1929 the British, so grateful to Quisling for his help, awarded him the CBE.

Between 1931 and 1933 Quisling was Norway’s Minister of Defence but then, disillusioned with democracy, resigned and formed his own ‘National Unity’ party, a Norwegian equivalent of the German Nazi Party. But the Norwegians had little time for fascism and in the 1933 national elections, Quisling’s party polled little more than 2% of the vote and gained no seats.

Quisling and Hitler

With no support and no influence, Quisling looked destined to wither away into obscurity. But in Adolf Hitler, whom Quisling visited in December 1939, he had a friend.

In April 1940, Quisling met German agents in Copenhagen and divulged secrets concerning Norway’s defences. Six days later – Germany invaded. On 9 April, Quisling stormed into the studios of Oslo’s radio station and declared himself prime minister. German representatives demanded that Norway’s king, Haakon VII, recognise Quisling. The king refused but, in danger, went into exile to England and there formed a government-in-exile.

With German backing, Quisling ordered all resistance to stop. Once Germany had established control of Norway the Nazis put Quisling in charge of their government of occupation. So trusting were the Germans of their Norwegian puppet that two years later, in 1942, they appointed Quisling Prime Minister and granted him full license to run the country without interference.

But on 9 May 1945, the day after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Quisling was arrested. King Haakon returned to his country, arriving amidst emotional scenes of jubilation.

Norway had abolished capital punishment in 1905, but its government-in-exile reinstated it specifically for Quisling and his highest-ranking colleagues. Hence, charged with high treason, Quisling was executed by firing squad on 24 October 1945. He was 58.

The Definition of Quisling

The word quisling entered common usage during the war as a term denoting a traitor. Today, in the Oxford English Dictionary, a quisling is defined as, ‘a person cooperating with an occupying enemy force; a collaborator; a traitor.’

In 1940, King George VI revoked Vidkun Quisling’s CBE.

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Vera Inber – Leningrad Siege Diarist

Born 10 July 1890, Vera Inber was a Soviet poet and writer whose greatest legacy, Leningrad Diary, described daily the sufferings and deprivations suffered by the city during the 900-day siege of 1941 – 1944.

Vera Inber’s father, owner of a publishing house, was an older cousin to the future Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. As a nine-year-old, Trotsky lived in the Inber’s Odessa household at the time Vera was still a baby.

Inber worked as a journalist and lived in Paris and Switzerland before returning to the Soviet Union, first to Odessa and eventually settling in Moscow.

In 1941, with the outbreak of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, Inber joined the Communist Party. Together with her husband, Inber lived in Leningrad and recorded what she witnessed in a diary, published in 1946. In it, she wrote of the daily suffering of herself and people she saw around her. She described the hunger, the cold, and the struggle to survive. Inber, herself, came close to dying from starvation.

Being a party member, Inber never criticised the regime or the city authorities and, as a result, the diary is sometimes regarded as overly propagandist. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating account of the siege which includes a memorable account of sharing her apartment with a starving mouse, the rodent struggling to find even a crumb. She describes people pulling their deceased loved ones on sledges to the cemetery, of a dead horse stripped within moments of whatever flesh it had left, of the frozen bodies piled on top of each other and left to fester in apartment block cellars. Her greatest fear, she wrote, was ‘not the bombing, not the shells, not the hunger – but a spiritual exhaustion.’

During the siege, she composed an 800-line poem, The Meridian of Pulkovo, and often broadcast her poems on the radio. Her wartime work was much hailed and in 1946, Inber was awarded the Stalin Prize for literature.

In June 1944, five months after the siege was finally lifted, Inber and her husband moved back to Moscow. The final words of Leningrad Diary reads,

‘Farewell Leningrad! Nothing in the world will ever erase you from the memory of those who lived here through this time.’

Vera Inber died in Moscow on 11 November 1972.

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