france

Death and Rebirth – The 1950s at Le Mans

Le Mans is my favorite auto race. It competes for that position with the Indy 500, but it wins because it’s an entire day on a long, challenging, character-filled track. Yes, the chicanes on the line droit des hunaudieres are a travesty and those who approved them in the 90s should be retroactively shot… but even with that, it’s a beautiful thing. I’d love to see it in person someday.

So Quentin Spurring’s wonderful decade-by-decade look at the race, including the organization, each entrant and the events of the race itself, represent my absolute favorite piece of nonfiction reading. I like these even better than the Collector’s Press Horror/Science Fiction/Fantasy of the 20th Century series, and that’s saying a huge amount.

The 1950’s are not my favorite Le Mans Decades (those would be the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s), but Le Mans 1949-59 is a truly wonderful book anyway. The best thing about it is that it dedicates few pages to the 1955 accident.

For those of you who are new to this, that race is infamous because a Mercedes 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh crashed on the pit straight, got airborne and landed in the crowd, killing the driver and 84 spectators.

Cue the immediate overreaction in which several countries banned motorsport outright. Most countries saw how ridiculous that was almost immediately–only the dorky Swiss still insist on keeping the ban around.

Worse, however is the fact that so much ink has been spilled, all the way to the modern day, about that crash, as if it was a difficult phenomenon to explain. Essentially, it can be summed up in a few lines–in an era where speeds were increasing faster than most people expected, and crowd protection was laissez-faire, to put it mildly, something like this was in the cards. To a certain degree, considering that a lot of races were still run on open roads with people wandering in to see race cars capable of nearly 200 mph flashing past, it’s unfair that it happened to Le Mans.

Unfortunately, it did, and the French, to their credit, ignored the initial overreaction, corrected the public safety issues and went on with the race the next year.

What I love about this book is that the 1955 race report is not about the accident. It’s about the race and the drivers and the cars, which is how it should be. The accident is given its own section, much smaller than the race report proper. It was an important event (the deadliest motor racing accident in history, and a real tragedy), so ignoring it would have been just as bad as giving it too much space. Spurring got the balance exactly right.

Which is pretty much what I’d say about the rest of the book. It’s a hefty tome with a lot of minor teams and entrants profiled, yet it never bores the reader because there’s always something interesting about every last entrant… and I can’t even imagine what kind of research was involved in getting that data on obscure teams.

When you remember that this decade represents the rebirth after the destruction of WW2, one can only be thankful the race survived, and came back stronger than ever.

Anyhow, I can’t recommend this one to the general public because I fear a lynch mob as much as the next man. But if you’re a motorsport enthusiast, these are not only indispensable but fun.

Get them. Read them. You can thank me later.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster romp through the Darien Gap. It’s fun, too, and the title is Jungle Lab Terror. You can check it out here.

Forbidden Games – A Poignant War Classic

If you’re trying to make a film about World War II, you need to be a truly gutsy director to cast two children in the leading roles.  But that’s exactly what René Clement did in 1952’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games).

Forbidden Games - Jeux Interdits

By showing the war through the eyes of simple country folks who are more concerned with one-upping their neighbors than with the geopolitics of the conflict around them, and also through the innocence of childhood, this film manages to create more emotional impact than any number of soldiers being killed on camera and calling out for their mothers.

In fact, after the opening sequence, there is one death in the film… and that one is caused by a horse kicking a man who dies later.

The magic comes from two sources: the somewhat bizarre plot on one hand and the acting of Brigitte Fossey on the other.  Her performance as the little girl is mesmerizing, hypnotizing and memorable.  It’s peaceful, paused and innocent, while surrounded by poverty, death and, ultimately, betrayal.  This is one that I think will stick with me for a while.

The nice thing about young actors in old films is that many of them are still with us.  Apart from Fossey, there’s another surviving member of this films cast still around, Laurence Badie, who played the daughter of the simple country folk who picked up the little girl after her parents were killed by the Germans.

The one sour note was the very first scene which is completely different in tone from the rest of the film.  Of course the film showing German planes was documentary stock, so inferior in quality, but what really jarred was that a refugee column got attacked by Stukas, then bombed by heavy bombers before getting strafed by Focke Wulfs in the course of five minutes.  While this might have happened at some point in the war, it certainly wasn’t standard operating procedure.  Yes, I know: it’s symbolic of the brutality experienced by civilians… but come on.

Funny note on this one is that the child actor who played the male role alongside Fossey is one of the men who was later involved in the famous Priory of Sion hoax, which eventually inspired The Da Vinci Code.

If you watch this one, you will not forget it.  The director’s deft touch increases the impact.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the genres. If you are fascinated with war, the psychology behind it and the effects on those involved, you will likely enjoy his novel Incursion… in which a suicide mission suddenly gets even more complicated.  You can check it out here.

Quick Thoughts on the November 2015 Paris Attacks

November 2015 Paris Terror Attack

Everyone interested in world affairs has probably been glued to the news over the past twenty hours or so, so there is no need to review the horror of the crimes that have committed, but it’s definitely worth sharing a couple of immediate thoughts about the situation, as they may be worth reflecting on.

1.  Extremist groups, it seems, are incapable of learning.  We’ve examined before the fact that these extremists are incapable of accepting the inevitability of a modern, free and inclusive world, in which globalization is a given and women are equal to men, but the sheer stupidity of this latest series of attacks surprises even in that context.

In the first place, France has traditionally been a lukewarm supporter of the international war on terror, at best.  The French combination of arrogance and an anachronistic view of their own importance has seen the country often holding back nations who would pursue the war more aggressively.  In fact, as a staunch opponent of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, France has actually been hindering the war against ISIS.

While it’s true that France is the origin of freedom in the modern sense, and thereby represents a highly symbolic target, an armed insurrection that has been catalogued as a criminal enterprise by all respectable elements on the worldwide stage should be a little more pragmatic when selecting targets.  All this attack will do is galvanize the French people against ISIS… an organization that seems not to understand that ANY of the countries they are attacking could wipe them out in a few weeks if they have popular support.  And now, the French do – and after listening to Hollande last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent in troops and did just that.  It would be the best thing for everyone.

And ISIS can’t say that this is a surprise.  In 2001, Osama Bin Laden decided it would be a good idea to attack the US.  That ended extremely badly for him, his Afghan allies, his organization, and also for Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with any of it, but was a target of opportunity.  A people that had been supporting a fight against terrorism half-heartedly suddenly awoke, rallied behind an otherwise unloved president and kicked some ass.

ku klux klan

It’s not just recent examples that show how silly this is, either.  After the US Civil War ended, the Ku Klux Klan was born as a terrorist group to attempt to end Reconstruction, which, though a colossal injustice in practice had the might of the Union army behind it.  That original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was eventually disbanded… because the leaders understood that the terror attacks were only serving to intensify the crackdown, and that claims had to be pursued using other methods.  Which shows that even white supremacists, a group not noted for their brilliance, are less moronic than the current generation of Islamic extremists.

2.  Has Al-Jazeera replaced the BBC as the go-to news source when something globally important happens?  In the 1990s, especially during the first Gulf War, CNN was often the only international option to watch news live, and was the most complete coverage on cable.

But as more and more options became available, most global audiences grew to prefer the BBC’s news channel, as the stories were covered with a much more global and complete set of assumptions.  CNN was clearly too US-centric to be useful, while Fox news, of course was ridiculous (last night they referred to Hollande as the President of Paris).  Watching feeds from France and Italy last nigh left me impressed with the RAI’s coverage, while I think the French channels were in shock.  But both the RAI and the French channels are hampered by the fact that not everyone understands French or Italian (my own French means that I need to concentrate hard on that), while almost everyone interested in world affairs speaks English.  The BBC was plodding along, and Euronews, caught with it’s late-night anchors on the air, was a mess.

And then I turned to Al-Jazeera.  What a revelation.  Impeccable British accents giving the news without stridence or partiality, combined with interviews with security analysts from the US, political analysts from everywhere – including the middle east – and French government officials.   A near-perfect balance.

And they had a team on the ground, a hyper-professional impeccably dressed reporter (British accent, of course) and a couple of camera men.  And twhat they were saying was better and more informed than anything else going on at the time.

I’d never paid much attention to Al-Jazeera before, but a quick side-by-side with everyone else gives me the feeling that impartial audiences are going to keep increasing for them if they keep up the good work. I know I’ll be looking to them within the first few minutes (as opposed to just out of curiosity) the next time anything big happens.

Rheinland – Part 1

Edouard Daladier

Lost among the striking images we have of World War II are the often even more important political maneuvers that took place among political leaders before and during the war.  This fascinating chess game is often overlooked, which is unfortunate.  Luckily, however, we have access to excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental historical novel about the war – and she knows exactly how to highlight the important parts of that political history – whether it be in Europe, Asia, Africa or America.

Today, she takes us on a quick tour of the big picture as things began to heat up.

Édouard Daladier had become Prime Minister of France on January 31st, 1933. In March, Polish Dictator Marshal Piłsudski had suggested to him that Poland and France should together attack Germany and depose Hitler. Daladier, however, preferred the Four Powers Pact[1] Mussolini proposed on March 19th, 1933. When Deladier signed the Four Powers Pact, in June, 1933, Piłsudski decided it was time for Poland to come to terms with Hitler, and began negotiating a German-Polish non-aggression pact.

* * *

Adolf Hitler’s most unpopular act in his first year as Chancellor was a ten-year pact signed by Polish Ambassador Lipski in Berlin on January 26th, 1934, pledging mutual non-aggression between Germany and Poland[2], including a promise to defend each other against attack.

In France at this same time, a financial scandal brought down the government headed by Camille Chautemps. A new government formed by Édouard Deladier on February 6th was brought down by rioting that same evening[3].

On February 9th, Gaston Doumergue was named Prime Minister, and Pierre Laval was appointed Minister of Colonies.

On February 12th, Labour Unions in France had called for a national strike to protest the demonstrations of February 6th. Communists and Socialists also co-operated in the protest, working together for the first time in twelve years. It was a germinal moment for what would become the Popular Front.

* * *

“At a time when all of us have but the one earnest desire to heal the wounds of the past decades in peaceful cooperation with other nations,” Hitler was concluding his speech of March 7th, 1934, “we are happy to give to the world a visible demonstration of the background of the problems which concern us today and proof of the skill with which we master them. Thus I am happy and proud to declare the International Automobile Exhibition of 1934 in Berlin open to the public.”

In a later interview, Hitler told Louis Lochner that “the aim and the purpose of all progress must be to make a nation as a whole, and humanity as a whole, happier than before.”

Hitler wanted German automakers to mass-produce an automobile the average German could afford. Of course, the new factories necessary to build several million autos could be retooled to produce several thousand tanks or aircraft easily enough.

* * *

De Gaulle - Toward a Professional Army

In May of 1934, Colonel Charles De Gaulle’s book, Toward a Professional Army, was published in France. In it, he proposed the creation of an elite force capable of deadly strikes[4]. This force would total seven divisions composed of men serving six year enlistments, rather than the eighteen-month conscription which was the standard in France at the time. Six of these divisions would be armoured, with one regiment each of heavy and medium tanks, supported by a battalion of light tanks for reconnaissance, as well as engineers and artillery. The seventh division would be mechanized infantry.

De Gaulle’s book was not well received by the army overall, because it defied standard military procedures, and because his proposals were not compatible with France’s reserve system. It was even less well received by the general public, because a professional army was considered reminiscent of the military coup that had ended the Second Republic in 1851, and which re-established the French Empire[5].

* * *

On June 14th, 1934, Hitler flew to Venice to meet with Benito Mussolini. Although they made several public appearances over the course of three days, they spoke privately, without keeping any record of their discussions.

Time Magazine reported that the only official statement the two dictators made, issued after Hitler had returned to Germany, was that they had begun a “cordial spiritual collaboration,” but also reported that the two were rumoured to have come to an agreement concerning Austria.

* * *

Engelbert Dolfuss Assassination

On July 25th, 1934, Austrian Nazis assassinated Chancellor[6] Engelbert Dollfuss. Guessing that this was an attempt at Anschluss, Mussolini moved several army units to the Austrian border, indicating that German intervention in Austria would not be permitted. Obviously, the two dictators had failed to come to an agreement regarding Austria.

The assassins were apprehended in Vienna and executed. Kurt Schuschnigg became Chancellor of Austria.

[1] A plan under which Britain, France, Germany and Italy would arbitrate border adjustments between or among European nations. Mussolini’s intent was to obtain French and British assistance securing the borders of his Austrian and Hungarian allies against Hitler. The Poles and Czechoslovakians saw it as a weakening of collective security and an accommodation of Hitler at their expense. That France, with the construction of the Maginot Line, appeared to be planning for a defensive war against Germany, which would leave Hitler at liberty to attack France’s allies, greatly reinforced this perception. The French Parliament never ratified the Four Powers Pact.

[2] This meant that the western half of Prussia, as well as the small sections of Pomerania and Silesia which had been taken away under the Versailles Treaty could not be wrested from Polish administration by force until 1944. As it happened, the Polish Corridor would be the least of Germany’s concerns by 1944.

[3] Deladier, a Radical, had dismissed a conservative police official. Conservative protesters attempted to seize the Chamber of Deputies. It is not clear what their intentions were, but the establishment of a provisional fascist government was among the possibilities. One police officer and fourteen rioting civilians were killed in the mêlée, and more than a thousand injured.

[4] Foudre mortelle; literally, mortal lightning.

[5] Toward a Professional Army was highly regarded in Germany, where its principles were not only embraced, but enthusiastically applied when Hitler later created Panzer divisions capable of lightning war.

[6] He was in practice a dictator, modeling his “Austrofascism” after Mussolini’s example, having also aligned his government with Italy.