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Review: Private Peaceful (film)

Private Peaceful.

This film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel by the same name may be better critiqued by someone who has read the book and can compare the two. I have not, but having looked up the book and found it to have been classified as being appropriate for ages 8 to 12 (what used to be lumped into the broad classification of “Juvenile Fiction,” but these days could perhaps be shoehorned into “Middle Grade”), I can only surmise that certain liberties may have been taken with the plot to make the story more appealing to an adult audience that expects “adult themes” in its entertainment.

It stretches credulity that a career gamekeeper and forester would have neglected to teach his children never to approach during a shoot, because of the risk of their being mistakenly shot, and the possibility of their scaring away the game; nor to approach him when he was at work felling trees, or failing that, where not to stand when a tree was being felled: a forester of my acquaintance always knew exactly where any tree he chopped down would fall.

The battle scenes leave a little to be desired: the pyrotechnics are not as powerful as in other war films, and the cinematography not as skillful. There is a fine moment of irony in the accusation of “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” when “the enemy” becomes identified with someone not normally described by that term.

The continual jumping back and forth between flashback time periods gets a little wearing on the patience. The accents are sometimes difficult for this North American to decipher. At the end of the movie, a sudden caginess in the dialogue makes the viewer suspect that a plot twist is about to be perpetrated that makes the opening scene in the prison begin to look like a red herring: after the film was over, I replayed the last two segments to make sure that what I thought I’d missed hearing really wasn’t there.

The film does function as an interesting perspective on the primitive nature of the physical and social conditions of life only a hundred years ago, and the hazards appertaining thereto.

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Review: German Atrocities, 1914 (Horne & Kramer)

German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial.

This book is enough to give you nightmares.

With a thoroughness reminiscent of Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War, the authors of this scholarly work approach the evidence from every possible angle to determine the nature of German army conduct during the first month of the war.

The verdict: Yes, the German army committed atrocities against Belgian and French civilians, although a few of the claims made by traumatized refugees may have been exaggerated. Both the perpetrators and the victims of the atrocities are found to have suffered from different varieties and degrees of delusion, with the franc-tireur myth that motivated the German soldiers to react hysterically and barbarically being the one most deeply entrenched, both in the collective psyche of the German military (men, officers, and the higher command) and German civilians (in government and on the home front).

My personal assessment is that the upper echelons of the German command were more likely to endorse spontaneous harsh action by the lower level of the Imperial army against a perceived levee en masse or “People’s War,” because the last of the wars of German unification under Prussian rule were still a matter of living memory: the new German Empire could be seen as vulnerable to breakup should the other German kingdoms and principalities decide to rise against Prussian hegemony.

Moreover, many individuals among the troops who violated Belgian neutrality and invaded France certainly would have harbored some degree of guilty conscience over the campaign, despite the Emperor’s and the government’s loud and continual insistence that they were waging a “defensive” war. This feeling of guilt would have contributed to their edginess and propensity to overreact to any perceived threat, however spurious, while they were on foreign soil. Rationalization in defense of a guilty conscience knows no bounds.

In addition, some of the mutilations attributed to personally inflicted, malicious injury of civilians may be attributable to a personalized reinterpretation of the maiming sustained by those who were wounded by shrapnel or the flying remnants of high-explosive shells during the bombardment of cities and villages. Unprovoked, undeserved invasion conducted with artillery fire that caused physical harm and mental mayhem on a scale approaching that of a weapon of mass destruction would certainly be taken personally by the afflicted civilians, especially where women and children were concerned.

While most losses of hands or mutilation of breasts could reasonably be blamed on shellfire, the intentional severing of women’s hands by German soldiers could have occasionally occurred, motivated by pillage (the thieving of jewelry), although any such instances probably happened after the victim was already dead. Severing the hands of living children would have served no purpose (not even for intimidation), because the victims would have bled to death within minutes, and could not have been the refugees with bandaged stumps that were reported to have been seen.

The research includes a detailed examination of German obfuscation, counter-charges and cover-ups undertaken during the interwar period, in an effort to get out of paying reparations and accepting war guilt: the tactics of a strategy which eventually achieved temporary success, as postwar pacifism propounded its theories of futility, collective guilt, and appeasement – which ultimately backfired twenty years later. (NB: Although Hitler had repudiated payment of the reparations, payments were resumed sometime after the Second World War, and Germany finally paid off its punitive debt for the First World War in 2010.)

The book is illustrated with period artwork from newspapers, books and magazines. It concludes with appendices of raw data (with an extensive explanatory note), selected sections from the Hague Convention (IV) of 1907 and the Treaty of Versailles, and details from allied demands for extradition. The copious end notes include a table of abbreviations, and are followed by a bibliography and an adequate index, although both of the latter are printed in an extremely small font that requires the use of a magnifying glass.

The detail of the research can make a daunting read, but its psychological slant is thought-provoking and well worth the effort.

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Review: Royal Cousins at War (video)

Royal Cousins at War.

An excellent 2-part documentary that brings to light many little-known details about the convoluted family tree that bore the bitter fruit of the First World War.

Here’s an abbreviated family tree, with the major players highlighted:

 

Through informative narration and unique period film footage and still photos, we learn a lot about Willy, Nicky and Georgie, their vastly disparate upbringings (despite their occupying similar positions of privilege), and the relationships that developed between the three cousins. It’s the kind of information that usually doesn’t appear in the history textbooks.

Their story is told through quotations from family letters and brief re-enactments, and period photos that are often color-keyed to identify the protagonists and antagonists. (Some of the vintage film footage was also colorized at some point, in garish hues that unfortunately distract from the ongoing narration.)

The video poses questions about the evolution of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s accession to power: What if his grandfather, Wilhelm I, had died sooner? What if his father, Frederick III, had lived longer?

I have a few questions of my own: What if the blame for Wilhelm II’s disabling birth injury had been borne by the doctor who delivered him, instead of its being foisted upon the mother, Princess Victoria, and the child himself? What might have happened to Bolshevism if George V had relented and accommodated Tsar Nicholas II’s need for asylum? What if Wilhelm II’s artistic talents, like those of the pseudo-emperor who followed him, Adolf Hitler, had been encouraged? Would the world have been spared the destruction wrought by two megalomaniacs? What if the Allies had persisted in getting the Kaiser extradited from Holland, tried, and punished for the war crimes he willfully committed?

We’ll never know. But we do know that the world we live in is the one we inherited directly from the Royal Cousins at War.

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