Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.
Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.
Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.
Connelly, 2013; p.3.
Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.
Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.
Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.
Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback.
I got Alone in Berlin as a Christmas present. My parents saw the 2016 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, and thought I would like the book. I did, and not just because it is about resistance. First published in 1947 under the title Every Man Dies Alone, the novel tells the story of the Quangels and their doomed attempt to resist the Nazi regime.
Otto and Anna Quangel are a middle-aged, working-class couple in Berlin during World War 2 who are just trying to keep their heads down and survive Nazi rule. Until they receive news that their only son has been killed fighting, and they can no longer accept the injustice and hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. They begin to carefully transcribe postcards with anti-Nazi slogans and distribute them in buildings around Berlin. Unable to tolerate even this limited resistance, the SS give Gestapo Inspector Escherich the job of hunting down the Quangels. For several years, the Quangels managed to evade capture, but it is clear to all involved that they would be caught eventually. The other residents in the Quangel’s block of flats also feature in the story, including the elderly Jewish woman on the top floor, the ardent party members on the floor below the Quangels, the mysterious retired Judge on the ground floor, and the opportunistic criminal in the basement.
Hans Fallada was an interesting character in himself, who struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout his life. A popular author in Germany before the Nazis came to power, he was no fan of Hitler’s, but decided to remain in Germany during Nazi rule. During this period he toed the line, doing just enough to satisfy the Nazis without giving in to to full scale fascism and xenophobia. After the war he was recruited by the Soviets to write an anti-fascist novel, and he apparently wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. He died soon after.
The novel is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel; this edition of the book contains photocopies of some of their postcards and other historical documents related to their case. Fallada himself found their story quite uninspiring, but he managed to turn the source material into a touching and thought-provoking narrative. The reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for some characters, and disdain, if not repulsion, for others, but they are all well-rounded characters, most of whom are just trying to survive in a violent and volatile society. In Britain, we are used to viewing World War 2 from particular angles, such as the fighting on the Western Front, the horror of the Holocaust, or the hardship and determination of the Home Front. Alone in Berlin looks at Nazi Germany and the War from a less common perspective, the German civilian. I found this alternative angle refreshing.
If you like your novels to have a happy ending, then Alone in Berlin is not a book for you. There is a small sliver of hope at the end, but from the very beginning there is a sense that the story is not going to end well, and that atmosphere of inevitable tragedy hangs over the novel like a guillotine. It’s clear Fallada was a skilled writer, who did an excellent job of exploring the actions of people who have been pushed to the very edge of their humanity.
Most cities have moments in their history that remind us of the extent of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Arguably, Berlin has witnessed more of it’s fair share of these moments. They are events that it would be easier and more comfortable to forget, but that is exactly why we must remember them. Memorials serve as physical reminders of our past, commemorating people and events that are triumphant and inspiring as well as dark and shameful. There are numerous memorials in Berlin that mark events that should never be allowed to be repeated. On a recent visit to the city, I visited many of these memorials, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, the Topography of Terror, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial that most resonated with my research interests, however, is the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which commemorates all those who stood up to the Nazi regime in various ways. It is housed in the Bendler Block, which was used by the military during the Nazi regime and was the centre of an attempted military coup on 20th July 1944.
Like other large memorials in Berlin, there are two key elements to the German Resistance Memorial Centre. The commemorative courtyard is the site where several of the officers involved in the failed uprising were executed on 20th July 1944. There is a statue and two plaques. The second element is a memorial and education centre, on the first and second floors of the building. It is designed to inform people about the motives, aims, and forms of resistance against the Nazi state. The Bendler Block also houses the Silent Heroes Memorial Centre, which commemorates people who helped Jewish people facing persecution during Nazi rule.
The commemorative courtyard is a fairly typical memorial space, calm and reflective, with a sculptor inspired by what happened there. The memorial and education centre feels more like a museum, although it displays very few objects. Instead, it uses text, images, and copies of documents to tell the stories of hundreds of individuals who used a whole range of tactics to resist Nazi rule. The Nazi state used a thorough process of dehumanisation to rationalise and justify their systematic persecution and murder of minority groups. Berlin’s memorials are highly effective at ‘re-humanising’ what happened, highlighting the stories of individuals, and putting faces to tragedies which are often difficult to comprehend because of their sheer scale.
In Britain, if we hear anything at all about German people living under the National Socialist regime, its that they quietly accepted the cruelty and violence. They were all too scared to speak up, or were perhaps willing to accept the excesses of the Nazi government as long as the economy continued to prosper. The German Resistance Memorial Centre completely turns that narrative on its head. It tells the story of hundreds of people who resisted the Nazi regime for religious, political, or moral reasons, or even just because they wanted to listen to genres of music that the Nazis frowned upon (Swing Kids, for example, liked to listen to jazz music, which the Nazis classified as “cultural degeneracy”). Resistance ranged from listening to foreign radio stations and printing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets to attempts to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the entire government. The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre tells the stories of Germans who hid Jews from Nazi soldiers, classified their Jewish employees as essential workers to prevent their deportation, and forged passports to enable Jewish people to escape Nazi-controlled territory. When even the most basic act of resistance carried the potential for severe punishment, or even death, I am amazed at how many people were willing to take action. I left the exhibition with more faith in the bravery and integrity of humanity than I had when I arrived, which is always a nice feeling.
The German Resistance Memorial Centre is not one of the best-known tourist attractions in Berlin. It is even not one of the city’s best known memorials. However, a visit there is not only educational and moving, but also unexpectedly uplifting. I highly recommend checking it out if you ever visit Berlin.
A few months ago, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. Whenever I visit a new place I try to find out as much as I can about its history of radicalism and dissent, and there’s no doubt that Warsaw has plenty of that. In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, and the ways that it is remembered in Warsaw’s streets and museums. Part 2 is about the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for 63 days in 1944. The Uprising has an entire museum dedicated to it, as well as an impressive monument.
During the summer of 1944, the German Army was retreating across Poland, pursued by the Soviet Army. The Polish Home Army undertook uprisings in several cities in order to help the Soviet Army, and to assert Polish sovereignty–there were fears that the German occupying force would just be replaced with a Russian one. As the Soviet Army advanced towards the Vistula river, the Home Army in Warsaw decided to begin their own uprising on 1st August. It became the largest military effort of any resistance movement during the Second World War.
The uprising was only ever supposed to last a few days, until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. However, the Soviets halted their advance on the eastern bank of the Vistula, and the resistance forces ended up fighting, almost entirely unsupported, for 63 days. The Home Army, aided by other groups including the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, quickly took control of large sections of Warsaw. These areas were separated from each other however, and communication was difficult. The resistance fighters had received training in guerrilla warfare, but they were inexperienced at prolonged fighting in daylight and severely under equipped.
On the 4th of August, the Germans started to receive reinforcements, and began to counterattack. The following day, they began a systematic massacre of civilians in order to crush the resistance’s resolve. The strategy backfired however, only making the people of Warsaw more determined. Resistance fighters captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (see Part 1), and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp. At the end of August, the resistance decided to abandon the Old Town; the area was evacuated through the city’s sewers, which also served as a major means of communication for the resistance. The resistance eventually surrendered to the Germans on 2nd October; the expected help from the Soviets never came. The city wasn’t captured until 17th January 1945, giving the Germans plenty of time to systematically destroy the city and transport many of its residents to work and concentration camps.
Life in Warsaw was very hard during the uprising, for civilians as well as resistance fighters. There were severe shortages of food; people largely survived on ‘spit soup,’ made from barley captured from the Haberbusch i Schiele brewery. The media flourished in the city however, multiple newspapers were published frequently, and 30,000 metres of film documenting the uprising was produced.
Warsaw Rising Museum
The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004, to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. The Museum contains more than 800 items and 1500 photographs and videos spread over 3000 square metres. It covers all aspects of the uprising, and provides visitors with a huge amount of information. It is arranged chronologically, and I would recommend following the order of the galleries carefully (you go from the ground floor to the top, then work your way back down, which could be more clearly sign posted). I think you need at least 3 hours to see everything, and I would recommend stopping halfway through for a drink and a slice of cake in the cafe, otherwise you will get too tired to take it all in properly. A highlight for me was the Kino Palladium, a small cinema that shows footage of the uprising that was used to make newsreels. I was also particularly moved by the collection of armbands. Soldiers in the uprising didn’t have uniforms, so used red and white armbands to identify themselves. Some people personalised theirs, and it really brought the human element of the uprising home to me.
Monuments and Memorials
The Uprising Museum is located in Freedom Park, where you can also find several memorials connected to the uprising. The memorial wall documents the name of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the fighting. Set within the wall is a bell dedicated to General Antoni Chrusciel, one of the uprising’s leaders. There is also a memorial to the estimated 150,000 civilians who lost their lives during the uprising, as well as the 550,000 who were deported from the city after the uprising failed.
Set into the city walls surrounding Old Town is the Little Insurgent, a memorial to the children and young people who served as orderlies and runners during the uprising. The statue is based on a small plaster statuette created after the war by sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszjiewicz. It was paid for by former scouts, and unveiled in 1983 by Jerzy Swiderski, a cardiologist who had served as a scout during the uprising. It is a moving reminder of how the uprising consumed every aspect of Warsaw; even children could not escape the brutality.
The best-known memorial to the uprising, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, is on a much grander scale. Located on the southern side of Krasinki Square, the momument was unveiled in 1989, and is up to 10 metres tall. The monument has two sections: the larger represents a group of insurgents in combat, running from a collapsing building; the smaller section, in the foreground of the above photo, shows fighters and civilian woman climbing into a manhole. This is an acknowledgment of the significance of the city’s sewer system to the uprising. The monument is impressive, and you’d be hard pushed to walk past without stopping for a closer look. Monuments and statues can often blend into the street around them, which I think defeats one of the key objectives of memorials; drawing attention to the event, person or people it is meant to commemorate. There is no danger of the Warsaw Uprising Monument failing to attract attention.
Like all cities, Warsaw’s past is inscribed into its streets, buildings and public spaces. Warsaw’s history is more violent than many cities–it has faced more than it’s share of death, destruction, and upheaval, and not just during the Second World War. There a number of different approaches to dealing with such a traumatic history in Warsaw: the city’s museums use different balances of objects and multimedia; and the monuments work on different scales, from the small and personal to the grand and official. Which approaches work best probably depends on personal taste, but the fact that so much effort and thought has gone into all of these commemorative practices demonstrates an admirable relationship with the past.
In July, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. The Polish capital is a vibrant city with a fascinating, if traumatic, history. As ever, I paid particular attention to the history of protest and dissent in the city, and Warsaw has plenty of that. Whilst under German occupation during the Second World War, the city experienced two significant uprisings. The first took place in the Jewish ghetto in April and May 1943, and is known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The second is known simply as the Warsaw Uprising, and engulfed the whole city between August and October 1944. In retaliation for these two events, the Nazis destroyed more than 85% of the city. The total death toll from both events is around a quarter of a million people, both combatants and civilians. It is hard to forget such awful events, but they are still actively commemorated in Warsaw, both in the city’s museums, and on the streets through memorials. This post will focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whilst Part 2 will look at the Warsaw Uprising.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was established not long after. More than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of little more than one square mile, and many died from disease and starvation. In 1942, the Germans began deporting people from the ghetto to concentration camps (mainly Treblinka) and forced-labour camps. Around 300,000 people were deported or murdered, leaving 55-60,000 fearing they would suffer the same fate. They began to develop resistance organisations; the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) decided to work together to oppose any further deportations. On 18 January 1943, the fighters manage to disrupt a deportation, and drive the Germans out of the ghetto.
Buoyed by this success, the ghetto population began to build underground bunkers in case the Germans tried any more deportations. Unfortunately, the reprieve was only temporary, and German soldiers re-entered the ghetto on 19 April. Most of the ghetto’s residents were hiding in the bunkers or elsewhere. The Germans put down the uprising by destroying the ghetto building by building, forcing people out of hiding. Resistance continued for almost a month, but on 16 May the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed to symbolise the German victory. Almost all of the remaining Jews were deported.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. It inspired uprisings in other ghettos and concentration camps. Although the ghetto was destroyed during the uprising, its memory is inscribed in the urban fabric of Warsaw through various memorials. It is also commemorated in the city’s museums.
Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Opened in 2013, Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews won European Museum of the Year in 2016, and it’s clear why. It uses the latest technology to explore 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and it is absolutely overflowing with information. The building was constructed in the former ghetto, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (more on this later). Personally, it was a little lacking in actual objects for my taste, but it’s still a wonderful museum. One of my favourite things about it is that it whilst it does cover the holocaust, it doesn’t dwell on it. Jewish history in Poland is so much more than World War Two, and Polin reflects that. It does, however, cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it does it well.
There are many memorials in the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish ghetto, but there are two that relate directly to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The first, as I mentioned above, is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, next to Polin. Designed by Natan Rappaport and Leon Marek Suzin, the monument was built in 1948, near to the location of the first skirmish between the Jewish resistance fighters and German soldiers. It is an imposing structure, built from stone that was originally bought to Warsaw by the Nazis; it was intended to be used for monuments to Hitler’s victory. There is a bronze sculpture on the western side of the monument, depicting both resistance fighters and civilians. It represents the resistance’s struggle, and the suffering that civilians experienced. On the eastern side is a relief of women, children and the elderly being led by German soldiers.
During a state visit to Warsaw in 1970, Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in front of the Monument in a solemn gesture of apology and regret. It was a fitting location for such a significant political act; the Monument has a very grand, official feel. The second monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that I visited feels much more personal.
A few hundred metres from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the corner on Mila and Dubois streets, is a large mound of earth surrounded by trees. It is all that remains on the bunker at 18 Mila Street, one of the largest bunkers built during the Ghetto Uprising. It it thought that more than 100 people died within the bunker, both resistance fighters and civilians. Many of their names are not known, but it is thought that Mordechaj Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the resistance, was killed there. Their bodies remain there, in the words of the monument, “to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.” I personally found this memorial much more moving than the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; it feels more connected to the extent of the human tragedy experienced by Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland.
Warsaw is a city that is thriving in almost every way, but you don’t have to look far to find signs of its traumatic history. Varsovians don’t try to ignore that history or sweep it under the carpet, but neither do they dwell on it. I think it is a city that has struck a good balance between learning from the past and looking to the future.
Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this post, about the Warsaw Uprising, here.
When we think of London during the Second World War, we think of the Blitz. When we think of the Blitz, we think of the Blitz spirit epitomising the British stiff upper lip. There is a collective imaginary of Londoners banding stoically together, facing down the Nazis with a grim smile, a cup of tea, and maybe a sing song. But London was not always united in the face of the enemy. The occupation of the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 14th September 1940, the 8th night of the Blitz, was a manifestation of some of these divisions.
In the early days of the Blitz, there was a serious lack of deep shelters in the East End, which was particularly hard hit due to the high levels of industry in the area. Pre-war planning by the government had rejected deep shelters in London, afraid that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop. They decided instead to issue gas masks and rely on surface level shelters, such as the Anderson shelter. It very quickly became obvious that this provision was insufficient. What shelters there were lacked facilities and were overcrowded.
The Communist Party immediately took up the cause. the London district printed 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters calling for better provision of shelters and the requisitioning of empty houses for the homeless. The East End Communists decided to march for better air raid shelters in the East End, and to highlight the fact that not all Londoners suffered the effects of the bombs equally.
With the help of some sympathetic waiters, between 40 and 70 protesters occupied the Savoy’s luxurious air raid shelter. The shelter was divided into cubicles, with beds and armchairs. Nurses and waiters served the hotel’s guests during raids. When the air raid siren went off, the Savoy’s manager realised he could not chuck the occupiers out; they would have to stay the night. After some negotiation with the catering staff, the occupiers were provided with tea, bread, and butter. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant way of drawing attention to the disparity of deep shelter provision across the capital.
The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done…One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.
Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006); p. 73. Phil Piratin was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and became one of the party’s first MPs in 1945. He was present during the occupation of the Savoy.
The Blitz was one of the darkest periods in London’s history. By the time it ended 43,000 British civilians had been killed, half of them in London. Protest and dissent was less common during the world wars than in peace time, but Londoners were willing to fight for decent air raid shelter provision. Thanks to actions such as the occupation of the Savoy Hotel, the situation greatly improved, making the lives of Londoners that much more bearable as the bombs fell.
Sources and Further Reading
German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.
Piratin, Phil. Our Flag Stays Red. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006.