Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson’s The Death of the Fronsac, his first novel, came out in 2017. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the Observer and wrote scripts for the documentary series Cold War and The World at War.

Imperial Narcotic

Neal Ascherson, 18 November 2021

Two fantasies of greatness were in conflict: the outworn vision of a global British ‘family’ radiating from the mother country, and the idea of the Commonwealth as a mighty moral example, showing the races of the world how to live in peace and unity. Both fantasies shared the belief that Great Britain was not an ordinary nation but – even in the post-imperial period – one summoned to follow a messianic destiny.

White Sheep at Rest: After Culloden

Neal Ascherson, 12 August 2021

Howdid the Duke of Cumberland become the ‘Butcher’ of Culloden? Before and immediately after that battle, he was adored as the saviour of Hanoverian Britain from Jacobites and papists. As George II’s soldier son, he was the ‘martial Boy’; for Drury Lane audiences, ‘The noble Youth, whom ev’ry eye approves/ Each tongue applauds, and ev’ry...

Britain in 1815 emerged emaciated and simmering with unrest after three huge wars in a generation, but developed no written constitution. The best that can be said is that people start scribbling most frequently in stormy times, when the existing state of governance no longer carries conviction with subjects, rulers or both. All the same, Linda Colley’s book proves that constitutions can sprout from all kinds of earth. They can limit a ruler’s power, or sanctify and entrench that power. They can be grants of universal rights, or ‘no tres­passing’ notices designed to keep natives, women, immigrants and the poor out of decision-making. Some are manifestos for a political movement. Others are found­ational documents for a nation’s fresh-won independence. But the case for imposing a written constitution on ancient Britain, while touching on several of those motives, is more elementary. The ‘unconstitution’ has worked only because England’s ruling elites, out of decent self-interest, have never fully exploited its incredible lack of formal constraint on executive power. That convention is now ending, and the executive is pushing hard at its boundaries.

Who Betrayed Us? The November Revolution

Neal Ascherson, 17 December 2020

Romantic nationalists​ relish the idea of a national essence. ‘When was Serbia truly Serbian?’ Or as Gwyn Alf Williams put it, with a historian’s affectionate irony: ‘When was Wales?’ German nationalism, especially in the 19th century, answered this question in several ways. ‘When Arminius/Hermann and his Teutons cut down the Roman legions,’ or...

They saw him coming: The Lockhart Plot

Neal Ascherson, 5 November 2020

Most​ successful conspiracies are home-cooked – designed and carried out by men and women in their own nation (that leaves aside mere assassinations or terror bombings, which are frequently committed by intruders). It’s rare to come across a full-dress conspiracy, a planned scheme to overthrow and replace a government by violence, successfully mounted by one country against...

Bye Bye Britain

Neal Ascherson, 24 September 2020

In​ 2019, Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 2020, he shrank into being prime minister of England. For the second time in less than seven years, the union is in trouble. But this time the problem needs a new question. Forget: ‘Should Scotland be independent?’ The Scots will take care of that. Ask instead:...

MarieFouillette died in France in 1975. By then, Harry Rée was a teacher at Woodberry Down Comprehensive in North London, back doing the job he loved best. But a little over thirty years before, they had been together in the French Resistance. Harry (‘Henri’ or ‘César’) was an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), parachuted in by London to...

Warrior Librarians: Cultural Pillaging

Neal Ascherson, 2 July 2020

Afewmonths after the end of the Second World War, Stephen Spender returned to Germany. His plan was to contact German intellectuals. This was not very fruitful: most were dead or in exile, and Ernst Jünger, whom he did meet, evaded his invitation to show unqualified guilt for the Nazi past. But then Spender was asked to reopen libraries in the British zone of occupation, having first...

Secrets are like sex

Neal Ascherson, 2 April 2020

Like sturgeons​ and swans in medieval England, public information began as royal property. Today, we understand more vividly than ever before that information is also a commodity: I have it, you don’t; if you want it, you must pay me for it; if you don’t, I will use your lack of it to control you. Against this, and very reluctantly, a public ‘right to know’ has been...

On Jonathan Miller: Jonathan Miller

Neal Ascherson, 2 January 2020

I first met Jonathan’s knees. This was because Cambridge sofas in the 1950s had broken springs. Once they had buoyed up culture heroes like Rupert Brooke, John Cornford or Guy Burgess.

‘It’s a​ disgusting case – her face lights up whenever that animated little deformity so much as turns to her.’ This was Diana Manners, writing to her fiancé, Duff Cooper, in 1919. ‘Her’ was Venetia Montagu, the light of Herbert Asquith’s life when he was prime minister, but now sharing a Paris hotel room with a small, grinning Canadian...

As the toffs began to retreat: Declinism

Neal Ascherson, 22 November 2018

There is a fine Scots word for the sale of the contents of a house, farm or factory: a ‘displenishment’. We have certainly witnessed the displenishment of Great Britain. James Hamilton-Paterson’s grief, his sense of injury and loss, is eloquent. But, speaking for myself, I can’t share that ‘brand’ nostalgia. I would trade a hundred Hillman Imps or a dozen Bristol Britannias for one Man from the Ministry, standing outside an ‘advance factory’ waving an Industrial Development Certificate. He didn’t stand around in a wasteland of nail-bars and food banks, squeaking that ‘Britain is open for business!’ He planned the business, planted it where it was needed and gave it a launching push with public money.

In police files, as I found from my own Polish dossier, it’s not only a younger half-forgotten self that you meet. It is also an unrecognisable stranger – yourself, as others have seen you. For nearly thirty years, hundreds of thousands of people have been reading their secret police files, the records of surveillance, denunciation and manipulation compiled by the spooks of communist Europe. Nobody, I think, remains quite the same after reading their file.

In a corner​ of the eastern Mediterranean, where the coast of Anatolia turns south towards Syria, a mountain massif rises by the sea. Its name in Ottoman times was Musa Dagh, the Moses Mountain, and its summit forms a high plateau called the Damlayik. Just over a century ago, as the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was reaching its climax, four thousand Armenian villagers...

Big Man Walking: Gorbachev’s Dispensation

Neal Ascherson, 14 December 2017

Not many people change the world. Fewer still are thanked for it. Adolf Hitler changed the world on 22 June 1941: by invading the Soviet Union, he delivered ‘Hitler’s Europe’, the divided continent we lived in until 1989. We were not grateful for that. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev changed the world, as so many adoring millions saw it at the time, by ending the threat of their extermination by nuclear war and by allowing Europe’s ‘captive nations’ to liberate themselves. But then, a Samson already blinded by his enemies, he brought down the gigantic temple of the Soviet Union on his own head, and his own power perished with it.

Diary: In Gdansk

Neal Ascherson, 19 October 2017

In Gdansk​, the walk to the museum takes me past the Patriotic Clothing Store. Two blonde, blue-eyed dolls stand in the window, wearing little T-shirts saying: ‘My parents are 100% Polish.’ They have their wee fists raised in what a visiting journalist from Warsaw suggested, a bit unfairly, was a fascist ‘Heil’. Inside, the shop is small and dour. Racks of grown-up...

Konrad Adenauer said that ‘peaceful Heligoland, set in the seas between Germany and Britain, will be in future a symbol of the will to peace and friendship of both nations.’ Few Britons now know where the place is. Still fewer know that it was once a British colony, a tiny offshore reminder that Britain is as much a European nation as it was ever a global power.

Into the Net: Records of the Spanish Civil War

Neal Ascherson, 15 December 2016

Eighty years​ have gone by. But there’s still no agreement on how the Spanish Civil War should be remembered. Nor should there be. The real tribute to the force of that human firestorm is the contest of judgments and feelings which still smoulders and still causes pain.

Where should the focus be? For many, simply on the stories: the recounting of sacrificial courage and suffering. For...

England prepares to leave the world

Neal Ascherson, 17 November 2016

I never thought I would see this opera again. ‘Rule Britannia!’ peals, the curtain parts, and there is a mad queen poling her island raft away into the Atlantic. Her shrieks grow slowly fainter, as the mainland falls behind. The first performance was in the 1980s. Who could forget Margaret Thatcher’s ear-splitting arias? But she never took the raft to the horizon, and never finally cast off the cross-Channel hawser mooring her to Europe. This revival is different. Theresa May says she’s bound for the ocean, and she means it. Or rather, she means it because she doesn’t mean it. Nothing in British history resembles this spectacle of men and women ramming through policies everyone knows they don’t believe in.

Volker Ullrich shows that Hitler did in fact have a private life, although a pretty boring one, and did have friends, most of them married couples where the wife would mother Adolf, feed him cream cakes and be rewarded with displays of ‘Austrian charm’.

At the British Museum: Celts

Neal Ascherson, 22 October 2015

‘Splendid​ specimens of the untrousered, strong-legged Celt’. That was what John Stuart Blackie, the founder of Scotland’s first chair of Celtic studies in 1882, liked to see about him in the Highlands. In Celts: Art and Identity (at the British Museum until 31 January, then at the National Museum of Scotland from 30 March until 25 September) he would have met several...

Brown Goo like Marmite: Memories of the Fog

Neal Ascherson, 8 October 2015

The little pub​ is still there, the Myddleton Arms, and in front of it the zebra crossing on the Canonbury Road. I came out of the pub that evening in early December 1962, and stopped as the door closed behind me. There was no crossing, no beacon pole. I could make out the paving slabs gleaming wetly under my feet, but not the kerb. With a painful jolt, I stumbled into the roadway. Shuffling...

Remarque apparently knew that The Promised Land would be his last novel, and meant it to be one of his finest, perhaps his masterwork – even in comparison to All Quiet on the Western Front. But he died in 1970, leaving it unfinished: a massive stub. Michael Hofmann, his translator, recalls some other unfinished fictions. But this is not The Mystery of Edwin Drood or The Man without Qualities. Those two books lack their ends, but what remains doesn’t feel raw or rough; they simply break off. The Promised Land in contrast feels unpruned.

Karl Miller Remembered

Neal Ascherson, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, 23 October 2014

People​ said things about Karl, but not often to his face. He might like the things or he might not, and that did not always depend on whether they were intended as compliments or the opposite. Personal remarks could be returned with interest, hot or cold. Whichever way, he remembered them with accuracy.

I can think of two personal remarks about Karl, in his early years, which reached him and...

What sort of Scotland?

Neal Ascherson, 21 August 2014

It was nothing​ but questions for the bus party. We heard them all across Scotland, we asked them and we tried to provoke them. The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the...

A Plan and a Man: Remembering Malaya

Neal Ascherson, 20 February 2014

The first thing​ to know about this big book is that it’s not really about the ‘massacre in Malaya’, the crime the media sometimes call ‘Britain’s My Lai’. Only a few pages deal in detail with the Batang Kali killings in December 1948, when a Scots Guards platoon executed 24 perfectly harmless Chinese plantation workers. Instead, Christopher Hale –...

Werner Schwieger, one of Maxim Leo’s grandfathers, hung out a big swastika banner after Hitler came to power. But he couldn’t get his father-in-law, Fritz, to accept one: Fritz was a left-winger. Twenty years later, in the German Democratic Republic, Werner hung out a big red flag, but he didn’t even offer one to Fritz. He thought Fritz wasn’t left-wing enough.


The first book ended with ‘To be continued’. The second with ‘To be concluded’. But the third book of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s famous walk from the Hook of Holland to ‘Constantinople’ was never completed. He died two years ago, rewriting and correcting and adding and tweaking almost to the end. The manuscript, some versions of it handwritten, some typed...

Albert wrote to his sister Mabel from the trenches. That Mary he’d danced with, could she find out if Mary ever thought about him? Mabel considered he was too young for all that, it wasn’t proper. So she didn’t ask. But then he wrote again, so she did.

‘My insides go all jumbly when I think about Albert,’ said Mary to Mabel. So Mabel put that in her next letter...

Marseille, 1940-43

Neal Ascherson, 18 July 2013

Say this city has ten million souls, Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes: Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

‘Refugee Blues’, W.H. Auden

Marseille is an old-fashioned town. ‘You still have a queen,’ the lady checking museum tickets remarked. ‘So why don’t you cut her throat? Kings and queens...

Hanging on to Mutti: In Berlin

Neal Ascherson, 6 June 2013

They always loved huge halls, the Social Democrats. They still do. Vaulted spaces taller than cathedral naves and vaster than locomotive assembly halls, mammoth sheds big enough to hold a battle-cruiser on stocks. This time I was in Augsburg, at the last SPD congress before the German federal elections on 22 September, but it was all familiar as I plodded towards the loudspeakers. The scent of bratwurst and mustard and German coffee; the aisles of lobby stalls promoting car factories, renewable energy, private health insurance or Bavarian tourism.

In High Stalinist Times: High Stalinist Times

Neal Ascherson, 20 December 2012

Anne Applebaum’s book begins with one group of women in the Polish city of Lodz and ends with another. The 45 years between the end of the Second World War and the emergence of a free, non-communist Poland separate them. But the younger women have decided to start again at the point where their elders left off – and to avoid their mistakes.

In 1945, the main railway station in...

A Gutter Subject: Joachim Fest

Neal Ascherson, 25 October 2012

To be right when everybody else has been wrong can be a lonely, even disabling experience. This may be a way of understanding the enigmatic character of Joachim Fest, the German historian, journalist and editor who died six years ago. His Berlin family belonged to the Bildungsbürgertum – roughly, the well-educated middle class – and rejected Hitler and National Socialism from...

In a few weeks, all going well, I will get to see my Polish file. Any foreign journalist who visited Poland regularly in the Communist period must assume that the old Security Service built up a dossier on him or her. Mine is now in the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, and I can read it. I don’t know what it contains. Much irrelevant rubbish, no doubt: surveillance teams have to justify their expenses. But one thing I am prepared for: reports to the secret police by people I considered to be friends or at least friendly acquaintances.

As the Soviet tanks drew closer, the East Prussian aristocracy took charge of ‘their people’ for the last time. In the bitter winter of 1945, ignoring Nazi orders to stand firm, they mustered their tenantry, farmhands and servants, and in long columns of horse-drawn wagons set off for the west. Many didn’t get there. The country roads were jammed with retreating soldiers,...

Memories of Amikejo

Neal Ascherson, 22 March 2012

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Those resonant, vatic words come from Alexander Herzen, the...

‘Don’t you come that stuff, Jim Garland. We always were English and we’ll always be English, and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!’ Those were famous lines, from a half-forgotten film made in a vanished kingdom. The Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico was shown in 1949, in a battered, dirty, rationed...

Looking at the imperial magnificence, the Habsburgian gigantism of public buildings in Edinburgh and Glasgow, you want to ask: where did all that wealth go? Looking at the stone ruins in the bracken of Lowland and Highland hills, you want to ask: where did all those people go – and why? These are questions rooted in the history of the British Empire, and they concern the very distinct...

Wolves in the Drawing Room: The SNP

Neal Ascherson, 2 June 2011

At first I thought: nothing’s changed here, nothing’s going to change. I spent part of my childhood in Greenock, and came back in 1999 to stand in next-door Port Glasgow as a candidate in the first Scottish Parliament elections. In my first spell there, the great estuary of the Clyde was lined for mile after mile with clanging, sparking shipyards, and every shop-sign in West Blackhall Street read ‘SCWS’ – Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society. When I returned nearly 50 years later, the yards had vanished. There were a few charity shops, an Asda; in grey housing schemes up the hillside, a shrunken population waited quietly for the council to repair broken doors and fences.

In 1954, it seemed that ‘People’s China’ was about to rejoin the world. The Geneva Accords on Indochina, which ended France’s colonial wars in South-East Asia and partitioned Vietnam, had been a personal triumph for the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai. Urbane, amusing and fluent in their languages, Zhou charmed foreign diplomats and journalists off their feet. Perhaps,...

Make them go away: Grossman’s Failure

Neal Ascherson, 3 February 2011

Some novels are met by such a hurricane of hostile criticism that they sink out of sight. Only word of mouth, the contrary opinion running from reader to reader, can occasionally bring them to the surface again. To the End of the Land has the opposite problem. It arrived on a foaming wave of praise which, when they actually get down to its pages, will leave many readers puzzled. Normally an...

Liquidator: Hugh Trevor-Roper

Neal Ascherson, 19 August 2010

Seven years after his death, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation is still a cauldron of discord. He would have enjoyed that. Steaming in the mix are the resentments of those he expertly wounded, the awe of colleagues at the breadth and depth of his learning, dismay at his serial failures to complete a full-length work of history, delight in the Gibbonian wit and elegance of his writing, and Schadenfreude over his awful humiliation in the matter of the Hitler diaries. In his lifetime, nobody was sure how to take him. Those who supposed they had his measure soon found that they were wrong. Mrs Thatcher imagined that the scholar who had written The Last Days of Hitler would share her hostility to a reunified Germany. But at the infamous Chequers meeting on Germany in 1990, Trevor-Roper faced her down and tore her arguments to pieces.

Poor Europa! The competition to give her an ancestry has been raging for generations. Now the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – the new, gorgeously refashioned Ashmolean, which reopened last November with 39 new galleries – has joined in.*The Lost World of Old Europe reveals a brilliant, imaginative, precocious culture that arose in south-eastern Europe in the late Neolithic period,...

Raging towards Utopia: Koestler

Neal Ascherson, 22 April 2010

Watched from a safe distance, Arthur Koestler’s life was like a Catherine-wheel breaking free from its stake. Leaping and spinning and scattering crowds, emitting fountains of alarming flares and sparks as it bounded in and out of public squares and unexpected back gardens, flinging dazzling light into dim minds, Koestler’s career left scorch marks and illuminations across the...

The 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall was merrier than the tenth. In 1999, Berlin was in the middle of a hangover. The European Union was plagued by doubts about its future course; the bloodbath in the former Yugoslavia had unnerved optimists; the Russian economy had collapsed; the sullen misery and unemployment in what had been East Germany seemed to mock the hopes of real unification....

Wedgism: Cold War Stories

Neal Ascherson, 23 July 2009

Long ago, when I was stumbling through the Malayan jungle in search of ‘Communist terrorists’ (or ‘bandits’, as the British colonial authorities quaintly called them), I heard a story from some other marines. One day, a young marine had left his patrol to wash in a forest stream. He suddenly found himself facing a group of Chinese guerrillas led by a slim woman with a...

On the night of 4 February 1983, Klaus Barbie was sitting on the cold metal floor of a transport aircraft. Kidnapped in Bolivia, the former head of the Gestapo in Lyon was being flown back to French territory, to be charged with crimes against humanity. As the hours passed, Barbie answered some of the questions put to him by a journalist. Much of his talk was a sulky protest about the...

How Does It Add Up? The Burns Cult

Neal Ascherson, 12 March 2009

The late Bernard Crick, who had a fine and memorable funeral in Edinburgh the other day, left a legacy of sharp opinions behind him. Among the least popular was his opinion of the British tradition of biography, and his remarks remain a stinging nettle in the path of all ‘life-writers’. In the introduction to his life of George Orwell, Crick said that most biographies were just...

On the way to the frontier, we stopped the car for a last look at Abkhazia. A new monument stood by the road, the effigy of a scowling, whiskered Abkhaz chieftain with sword and shield. The statue commemorates the war of 1992-93 which routed the Georgian army, cost ten thousand dead on both sides, and established an ‘independent’ Abkhazian state.

If Barry Cunliffe’s large and magnificent new book has a guiding motto, it is a famous sentence by Fernand Braudel about the Mediterranean, which Cunliffe applies to the whole continent and repeats several times in these pages: ‘Our sea was from the very dawn of its prehistory a witness to those imbalances productive of change which would set the rhythm of its entire life.’


Gazillions: Organised Crime

Neal Ascherson, 3 July 2008

Karabas was gunned down in 1997. He and his mob had taken over the port city of Odessa as law and order disintegrated in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. One might call his reign a comprehensive protection racket. But, looked at in another way, Karabas became the only reliable source of authority and social discipline. He arbitrated the city’s commercial disputes (10 per cent of net profits was his price); he kept the drug peddlers to one area of Odessa, and prevented the horrific people-smuggling in the harbour district from infecting the rest of the town. Using a bare minimum of thuggery, he kept the peace. Karabas seldom carried a gun. Everyone looked up to him, and levels of violence stayed lower in Odessa than in other Russian and Ukrainian cities. His murderers were probably Chechens hired to break Odessa’s grip on the local oil industry, a grip coveted by Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, who ‘during his ten years in power . . . presided over the total criminalisation of the Ukrainian government and civil service’.

Cape of Mad Hope: the Darien disaster

Neal Ascherson, 3 January 2008

Most of the institutions around us seem to have infancies – or at least paths of evolution along which they staggered in order to become what they are today. Representative democracy, a civil service, even contemporary war descend to us through strange-looking ancestors: the executioners of kings, the treasurer keeping the royal gold under his bed, the marquis riding with his tenantry...

Diary: among the icebergs

Neal Ascherson, 18 October 2007

On his way to the shore, the patriarch mounted a rock, a flat-topped outcrop of Greenland granite. The people of Ilulissat, who had been standing silently along the skyline above us, made their way down and gathered round him until the flat summit was packed and children clung to their parents’ legs to avoid being pushed down the rock’s sheer sides. He began to speak to them, words in English and Greek translated into Greenlandic. When he had finished, they began to sing to him, Inuit words set to old Moravian mission harmonies.

The Media Did It: remembering the Wall

Neal Ascherson, 21 June 2007

What you felt on seeing the Berlin Wall depended greatly on the Berlin you had seen before. Frederick Taylor first visited Berlin as a schoolboy in 1965, when the Wall had already been up for some years. He presumably thought of other normal, undivided cities he knew, and was horrified. And anyone who had known Berlin before the Second World War was horrified in the same way. For me, it was different. I had first seen Berlin in the 1950s, when it was divided, but only by ideology, and when one could still walk incredulously between two worlds. Here were the lights and the cars and the shops. Then the notice: ‘You Are Now Leaving the American Sector.’ And then suddenly the lights became darkness, the streets were deserted, the ruins were masked by gigantic red banners stirring in the icy wind from the east.

Diary: Scotophobia

Neal Ascherson, 5 April 2007

For the last six months, a Scot reading the London papers, or watching London-made political TV shows, could only conclude that a sharp dislike of Scots and Scotland is spreading across South Britain. The reports suggest a bout of Scotophobia without parallel since the violently anti-Scottish mood of the English mob in Lord Bute’s day.

The ignorance and nastiness of some of this...

Even Now: The Silence of Günter Grass

Neal Ascherson, 2 November 2006

The history of modern Germany is, in part, a history of silences. There were questions one learned not to answer, and things one learned not to say because ‘there is no point in talking about all that.’ With Grass, we meet such a German silence in one of Europe’s most prolific writers and speakers, behind one of the loudest voices arguing for honesty and humanity. But it’s worth asking how total this silence really was. Grass’s family knew, of course. Maybe he told a few friends. More curiously, hundreds of young men must have known him in those months, during training or in action; if they survived, they surely recognised their old comrade in the famous West German writer and knew what unit he had served in. They said nothing. And journalists and literary researchers in recent years could have dug up the facts, which were lying around in openly available documents; Grass had registered as an ex-Waffen SS soldier when he was released by the Americans. But even if some of them turned up those papers, none of them mentioned it. It seems certain to me that a quite large number of people, far from all of them admirers of his work or his politics, were aware that Grass had been in the Waffen SS but thought that ‘there is no point in talking about all that.’

End-Point: Imre Kertész

Neal Ascherson, 3 August 2006

‘There is an hour of the day which falls between returning from the factory and the evening Appell, a distinctive, always bustling and liberated hour that I, for my part, always looked forward to and enjoyed the most while in the Lager; as it happened, this was generally also suppertime.’ This is the voice of Gyuri, a 14-year-old boy from a Jewish family in Budapest, remembering...

Imagined Soil: The German War on Nature

Neal Ascherson, 6 April 2006

‘All history is the history of unintended consequences, but that is especially true when we are trying to untangle humanity’s relationship with the natural environment,’ David Blackbourn writes, in this magnificently compelling, vivid and often pioneering book. Its subject is Germany’s struggle to subjugate its landscape, above all its waters, over the last 250 years. But its implications apply to the contemporary world, to the gigantic struggles over the future of Amazonia or the Yangtze basin as much as to penitent thinking about what ‘development’ has done to the lands of the Danube, Dnieper or Rhone.

The Atlantic Gap: Europe since the War

Neal Ascherson, 17 November 2005

As soon as you realise how good it is, this book will frighten you. This is not just a history. It is a highly intrusive biography, especially if, like me, you belong to the British generations who were children before and during the war. When we were learning to read, Europe was a dark word, an inaccessible ‘over there’ place of suffering and menace. But as we grew up and the war...

Lust for Leaks: The Cockburns of Cork

Neal Ascherson, 1 September 2005

His son goes on to revive some of Claud’s maxims about journalism, and to update them against his own experience. ‘All stories are written backwards,’ he once observed. ‘They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.’ Patrick takes this disrespect even further. Reporters, he finds, ‘are ill-equipped to extract information which others do not want to impart’. Most great stories - Watergate, for instance - arise from deliberate leaks rather than from fearless investigation. ‘A journalist might like to be a spy but generally ends up as a conduit for information.’ True enough. I remember how in Warsaw the great German journalist Ludwig Zimmerer told his apprentice Chris Bobinski: ‘My boy, in this job you must learn to let your head be used as a latrine!’

Is this to be the story?

Neal Ascherson, 6 January 2005

Revolution is a staircase. In February 1848, the poet Lamartine found himself in charge of a Paris revolution, from an upper floor in the Hôtel de Ville. He identified on the staircase something as specific as a tornado: a roaring double helix formed of those fighting their way upwards and those pressing downwards. It appears whenever a society mutinies and decides to make a new world. I...

Victory in Defeat: Trotsky

Neal Ascherson, 2 December 2004

“The real abyss separating Deutscher from modern historiography is a moral one. An average British history graduate today will have been taught to evaluate revolutions on a simple humanitarian scale. Did they kill a lot of people? Then they were bad. Showing that some of those killed were even more bloodthirsty than their killers is no extenuation . . . Isaac Deutscher saw history differently. His standards are not those of Amnesty International. Instead, he measures everything against the cause of the Revolution. The Trotsky trilogy has a spinal column of moral argument running through it which can be reduced to this question: did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose?”

Law v. Order: Putin’s strategy

Neal Ascherson, 20 May 2004

“Where is legality, as we understand it, when it is considered perfectly normal for the police and public prosecution staff to break into a defence lawyer’s office during a trial and seize all his files on his client – as happened last October in the case of Platon Lebedev of the Yukos oil corporation? Those who try to justify this sort of thing have to fall back on an argument which is venerable, brutal, dangerous and yet not to be dismissed out of hand. The argument is that legality is not an adequate weapon against those whose power is itself illegitimate, and who consider themselves above the law.”

After the Revolution: In Georgia

Neal Ascherson, 4 March 2004

“Mikheil Saakashvili is 36 years old, dark and already a bit joufflu, wildly talkative and often indiscreet. His own rhetoric is ebullient. He will break down Georgia’s monstrous corruption, bring order to the chaos of state finances, set the nation on a course towards the European Union, get rid of the Russian military bases, deal (we don’t yet know how) with the ten-year-old secession of Abkhazia . . . everybody wants to share his optimism, and to believe in their own vaulting expectations. But Georgians have seen a lot of false dawns.”

Oo, Oo! Khrushchev the Stalinist

Neal Ascherson, 21 August 2003

“He was not paranoid, as Stalin was, but somehow drew energy from the idea that everything and everyone in the cosmos treated him as an upstart, a stubby-fingered boor who must not be allowed to succeed. He would show them. He did show them. The chip on his shoulder was the biggest carried by any leader in history, Napoleon and Hitler not excepted. It was heavy enough to crush the world, and in the Cuba crisis of 1962, it very nearly did so.”

Hitler’s Teeth: Berlin 1945

Neal Ascherson, 28 November 2002

Beevor uses his sources to bring into focus a rather touching picture of Eva Braun, preparing for suicide with her usual kindness and neatness. The new fox-fur would go to Traudl the secretary; the dressmakers’ bills must be burned; her sister could retrieve Eva’s broken diamond watch from the SS, who had found a prisoner to repair it.

The crocodiles gathered: Patrice Lumumba

Neal Ascherson, 4 October 2001

When Patrice Lumumba was murdered, on 17 January 1961, white women all over Western Europe, North America and the ‘settler’ countries of Africa began to see him in their dreams. I have met women in London and Cape Town, Berlin and Los Angeles, who talked about this haunting. Sometimes he was a black priapic bogeyman; more often, he was a dark and reproachful presence who inspired...

Reflections on International Space

Neal Ascherson, 24 May 2001

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down. It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses. It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

James Fenton, ‘A German Requiem’

The topic of international space is like one of those monstrous catfish which used to loaf around the hot-water outfalls of the Berlin power stations. You...

They came for Comrade Prince D.S. Mirsky, ‘aristocrat of critics’, some time in the night of 2 to 3 June 1937. He lived in a high, bare room which had a fine view over Moscow. It was five floors up, with no lift, so he had plenty of time to hear them climbing towards him. Many Soviet citizens slept little that year, listening for the boots on the stairs.

They buried Z/K (prisoner)...

Throughout this book, the poet Douglas Dunn provides epigraphs and quotations. His final contribution occurs in the last section, ‘Epilogue: The Last Day’, a sort of diary of what Tom Nairn did and felt on the unforgettable rainy Thursday of 6 May 1999. It was the first polling day for the reconvened Scottish Parliament. As Nairn drove back from Fife, where he had gone to say goodbye to a dying friend, he passed through some shaggy badlands country and was reminded of Dunn’s

Khrushchev’s Secret

Neal Ascherson, 16 October 1997

Most of us grew up – or were born – during the Cold War. We were formed by a quite extraordinary period, by events which did not take place rather then events which did. We never ceased to feel horror at the period’s architecture, ending in a wall of fire which we could at moments see quite plainly ahead of us. But over time we lost much of our sense of abnormality, imagining that there had been similar intervals in history when the known world had been partitioned between adversaries heavily armed but reluctant to shoot first. Perhaps the Roman Empire had known such situations; perhaps the Peace of Westphalia had ushered in such a stable confrontation. But all these reachings for precedents were abuses of the past. There has never been anything like the Cold War, and its very texture was so unfamiliar that many of the old methods of politics and military pressure twisted in the hand of their users, or produced terrifyingly unfamiliar results. In consequence, quite new maxims for diplomacy and influence had to be invented. It is only now, nearly a decade on and back in the primal soup of big and little nation-states jostling for nourishment and security, that we can recognise how weird those years really were.’

In the Hands of the Cannibals

Neal Ascherson, 20 February 1997

In this supposedly scientific age, the imaginative side of the historical profession has undoubtedly been downgraded. The value of unreadable academic papers and of undigested research data is exaggerated. Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic licence. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration. It is important to check and verify, as Carlyle sometimes failed to do. But ‘telling it right’ is also important. All historians must tell their tale convincingly, or be ignored.


Neal Ascherson, 8 February 1996

Good journalism often has a guising element in it, in which the voice of the journalist seems to come from an unexpected direction. The best journalism transcends this. But it is still true that many of the great practitioners who have written for the British or American press have been evasive about their native backgrounds and have used their trade to affect or colonise quite different ones. These are personalities who, while not exactly rebels in the out-and-out sense, feel dissatisfied and embarrassed with the social identity into which they were born and in which they were raised, and migrate into new ones – sometimes into several. Most people have come across the crypto-Etonian columnist with the Tyneside accent and the warm loyalty to working-class experience, or the swaggering Texan brute of a newshound, festooned with body-armour and film pouches, who began life as the only child of a Harvard professor of literature.

Revolutionary Chic

Neal Ascherson, 5 November 1992

The noblest and most innocent of all revolutionary manifestos is the Hessische Landbote, written by Georg Büchner in 1834 when he was 20 years old. Addressed to the peasantry of Hesse, the Landbote had almost no effect except to provoke a wave of repression against the young intellectuals who were behind it. It is written, deliberately, in language of Biblical simplicity, and its subtitle might have been spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!’

Up against the wall

Neal Ascherson, 25 June 1992

On 19 March 1970, Willy Brandt went out on the balcony of a hotel at Erfurt and the East German crowd roared: ‘Willy, Willy!’ Some famous photographs show him looking down at them gravely, almost in meditation. This was one of the grand moments in postwar European politics, or so it then seemed. A Chancellor of the Federal Republic had broken through the Cold War barricades and visited the German Democratic Republic for the first time. He writes in these memoirs:

Bring on the hypnotist

Neal Ascherson, 12 March 1992

The revolutions of 1989 were ‘the end of an era in which world history was about the October Revolution … Those of us who believed that the October Revolution was the gate to the future of world history have been shown to be wrong.’ Not many of the contributors to After the Fall are able to face that wrongness with the stoic honesty of Eric Hobsbawm. They face it, but often fail to contain their rage and misery. Some perform their own version of ‘Back to the Drawing-Board’, a dive back into the warrens of classic Marxist literature where – somewhere – the plague-rat of error must be hiding. Others, with much justification, relieve their pain by belabouring the goblins dancing on the grave of ‘actually existing socialism’: carpet-baggers, warmongers, Thatcherites, nationalist demagogues, and gutless intellectual capitulators to the New World Order. After the Fall is, for the most part, the voice of that homeless Left which wandered and prophesied in the sands between Communism and Labourism (or Continental Social-Democracy). Most of the contributions appeared in New Left Review. All but about three were written before the collapse of Soviet Communism and then of the Soviet Union following the putsch in August 1991, which gives them a flavour of antiquity. But the reader’s hindsight does not greatly diminish their perception. These writers all knew the game was up. Exactly which game that was, however, is a matter which divides them.’


Neal Ascherson, 19 December 1991

The war was finished – and so was the regime of occupation. Its most hated representatives had either fled or wound up in prison while their victims had been proclaimed martyrs. But all that concerned just a tiny section of the population: most of the people had not died, fled or gone to gaol, but merely gone on with their lives. Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday’s laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday’s crimes to be acts of heroism. They naturally regarded this change as a victory for historical truth and agreed that guilt must be assessed, wrongs put right and society purged.’

Down Dalston Lane

Neal Ascherson, 27 June 1991

In the winter of 1941, so I have been told, there were nights when it was never dark at the fighter airfield at North Weald. You could walk up the shallow ridge at the southern perimeter and see, twenty miles away, the whole horizon as an arch of intolerable red and orange light: London burning.

Where will this voyage end?

Neal Ascherson, 14 June 1990

Historians as a tribe are suckers for anniversaries, no less than journalists. And both professions are equally unwilling to leave a nice, juicy coincidence alone, in the spirit of that pre-glasnost Pravda phrase: ‘It is no accident that …’ These faiblesses ensure that, in our lifetimes and in those of our children, books and journals and Sunday papers will continue to gnaw and growl over the fact that a year of revolutionary upheaval in Eastern and Central Europe took place precisely 200 years after the beginning of the French Revolution. Parallels, some interesting and many frankly idiotic, will go on being drawn.

Who would have thought it?

Neal Ascherson, 8 March 1990

This book went to press in the previous decade, in a different geological period of European history, in the almost forgotten circumstances of the late spring of 1989. When it was first sent to me, I read several sections but then put it on one side. Some obscure motive, which might have been prudence, warned me that the autumn of 1989 might not be the right moment to review a book about Eastern Europe. Now, not yet twelve months since the last of these essays was written, it becomes fascinating to read through The Uses of Adversity from cover to cover, and to measure it against the new Europe which is becoming visible beneath the torrents of change.

Nairn is best

Neal Ascherson, 21 May 1987

Some sixty years ago, when David Thomson was a boy, he suffered from a condition that badly affected his eyesight. He could see, but poorly. He read Braille and, though this was forbidden, the printed page. On two occasions, when the condition grew worse, he was condemned to spend six weeks at a time lying on his back in a darkened room. In general, all heavy physical exertion was banned. His mother sent him away from London to live with her family at Nairn, in north-eastern Scotland, on the shore of the Moray Firth. The years that he passed there built the emotional and imaginative foundations of his life.

Citizen Grass and the World’s End

Neal Ascherson, 17 October 1985

‘In the early Sixties,’ said Grass – he was talking to an audience of Greek intellectuals in Athens, during the dictatorship of the Colonels – ‘I started doing day-to-day political work. The presumptuous élitist notion that writers are the conscience of the nation and should rise above the practical realities of politics has always gone against my grain.’’

Newspapers of the Consensus

Neal Ascherson, 21 February 1985

Readers who had encountered its first volume would have known that Stephen Koss’s work on the British political press was monumental. Now it has become his monument in another, brutally unexpected sense, for Stephen Koss died suddenly soon after the completion of the second volume. The outrage felt by everyone who had known or read him had something to do with his youth, but more to do with the cutting-off of his gifts. These included an almost superhuman capacity for tracking, retrieving, devouring and assimilating information in less time and from more sources than was previously thought possible. Koss was the archive-cruncher of his age. But he had another gift, which was to make the imparting of densely-packed information stylish, readable, often mockingly witty. Because of this, Koss is always present in his own work, an energetic, high-spirited, sceptical presence who gives off pulses of his own enjoyment. The old cliché about authors living on in their books is freshened up here: Koss bounces about this second volume like a cowboy, suddenly coming into view to crack a whip or wave a hat or whoop whenever the slow-moving herd of facts threatens to come to a halt.

Boswell’s Bowels

Neal Ascherson, 20 December 1984

James Boswell created the ‘Age of Johnson’, rescuing the late 18th century, above all, for the Victorians. The Boswell industry at Yale University has given an ‘Age of Boswell’ to the 20th century. This second volume of the grand Frederick Pottle-Frank Brady biography marks the climax of that long achievement. Climax, but not end: in some country-house loft or uncleared bank vault, I would bet, lies the huge bundle which is the missing Johnson-Boswell correspondence. But that discovery, if and when it comes, can only ornament what has already been done. We know more about James Boswell than about any other human being who inhabited the earth two hundred years ago.

Rumba, Conga, Communism

Neal Ascherson, 4 October 1984

‘Culture brings Freedom,’ José Marti once vaguely proclaimed. The attempt to make sense of this slogan during the Cuban revolution cost both these outstanding men – Franqui and Infante – their country. One of Fidel Castro’s closest comrades in the war against Batista, Carlos Franqui, came down with him from the Sierra as the bearded men took power; for the first five years after 1959 he was, more than any other single person, associated with the explosion of ‘revolutionary culture’ which amazed and moved Europe and the rebellious young of the Americas. He was the editor of the independent daily paper Revolucion, while Cabrera Infante, already famous as a journalist and novelist, ran the paper’s Monday cultural supplement, Lunes.’

Last Leader

Neal Ascherson, 7 June 1984

After crossing the river, the little band of Palaeolithic hunters huddled together shivering on the far bank. They were cold and wet, but they still had their flint-tipped spears. Men and women together, side by side collected dry brushwood at the top of the sandy shore and tried to start a fire. Here at least the ground was firm, unlike the flat swamps of the south bank, and in the distance ahead they could see a line of northern heights, shaggy with forest. There should be deer there, perhaps a mammoth. The fire took hold and warmed them. Soon the group was spreading out and – without regard to colour, sexual preference, age, size or creed – beginning to gather the nuts, berries and tubers and to share them democratically, once more in balance with the environment and with one another. And as the evening shadows lengthened, the first members of the species Homo Erectus to arrive in London fell to their normal diversions, or ‘what we would consider a life of idle luxury – music, dancing, relating to each other, the constant flow of conversation’.–

Dance of the Vampires

Neal Ascherson, 19 January 1984

‘I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf.’ So declares Roman Polanski, moodily kicking his souvenirs about on the last page of this autobiography. Of all the films he never made, the most revealing might have been the project he cooked up years ago in Paris for a sexually-explicit Snow White, with a mongoloid news vendor from St Germain-des-Prés as Prince Charming, a homosexual yodelling choir as musical accompaniment and a troupe of midget wrestlers to play the Seven Dwarves. The treatment was put together by him and his friend Gérard Brach, equally underset and insatiable. The financier Pierre Braunberger, who failed to see that he was billed as the real Prince Charming in this revolting allegory, was happy with everything except the midgets, who proved too expensive. On their account, he withdrew his money and the film collapsed before a frame had been shot. He may have saved his family from the poorhouse by doing so, for Polanski, like the seven hammerlocking dwarfs, was a spectacular overspender.

Cross Words

Neal Ascherson, 17 November 1983

Rupert Murdoch’s decision to take on the Times was

Cushy Numbers

Neal Ascherson, 3 November 1983

‘The fascination exercised by the study of collaborationism on the historian (especially the Anglo-Saxon one) can be attributed partly to unfamiliarity with something outside the national experience, but, perhaps even more, to the sheer range of mutual personal situations involved.’ Even now, that Anglo-Saxon unfamiliarity remains immense. It seems, at least to me, that all the books and – especially – films of recent years about the German occupation of France, and about French behaviour during that period, have still taught the British little. All that has taken place is a retreat from our naive belief in an almost universal support for the Resistance, associated with righteous horror at the ‘handful’ of Collaborators (even though shaving girls’ heads was ‘going a bit far’), to the idea that the Resistance was a Communist fraud backed from London by leftist elements in SOE, operating in a France where Pétain was thoroughly popular even for assisting the Germans in the extermination of the French Jews.–

Diary: On A.J.P. Taylor

Neal Ascherson, 2 June 1983

Men everywhere supposed (as A.J.P. Taylor tends to begin sentences) that he would join in the general execration of Lord Dacre over the Hitler diaries. A lot of men, indeed, were looking forward to this: historians wrestling in mud is a common spectacle that never loses its power to give pleasure – like dissent between taxi-drivers. They were disappointed. Taylor stayed out of the mud. More accurately, he wrote in these pages that he found the whole affair boring – ‘cold mutton’, as he said about the Anthony Blunt affair. Perhaps he did. Historians are queer. Still, boredom is ruder than execration. I have nearly finished imitating A.J.P. Taylor’s rhythms now. Let me add this. I once wrote a whole book in what I conceived to be his style – short, choppy sentences bouncing the reader rapidly up and down so that he does not fall asleep. The book received a kind notice from Taylor, and sold almost no copies at all. Men thought it too expensive. I only paid the indexing bill years later. This was not because I was cross or indigent, but because I was mean.–

Believing in gringos

Neal Ascherson, 19 May 1983

‘The fire that is burning in our own front yard’. Three days after President Reagan used those words to describe events in Central America, as he addressed the joint Houses of Congress, the Polish police were out again on the streets of Warsaw and Gdansk and the crowds were fleeing from the teargas and the batons. Back yards have become front yards these days. The change in wording isn’t insignificant. In a back yard, something can be expected to be smouldering at most times. It smells nasty, but poses no threat: this is where the householder is allowed to do his own destroying. But in a front yard (not an altogether easy feature to imagine, unless you think of living in a stable), any fire can only have been lit by somebody else with hostile intent. In fact, any yard in which a dangerous fire is burning, capable of setting light to the house, automatically becomes a front yard. This both Russians and Americans seem to agree upon. They also concur that the fireman’s job is a dirty one, best left to friends and allies, although their own tanks or marines may have to be used in the last resort. But the techniques approved for firefighting differ a little. The Russians, in their thrifty way, appreciate friends who know how to use the truncheon, the censor’s scissors and the psychiatric ward. The Americans believe in denying flames oxygen by piling money on them, and they hand their friends sacks of currency with appropriate instructions.

Hard Men

Neal Ascherson, 5 May 1983

‘This book is written in anger,’ the author begins. ‘Anger at previous attempts to portray the British soldier. Anger at the violence and the hatred that became part of a way of life. Anger at the misrepresentation of the facts …’

Going Straight

Neal Ascherson, 17 March 1983

It is certainly time for a long silence. The long clamour about those who have come so strangely to be called ‘the Cambridge spies’, revelations malevolent, piteous or merely inaccurate, ought to be wound up after the publication of Michael Straight’s contribution. Very possibly, Anthony Blunt will one day write such a book himself. But the names have almost all been named, the questions of motive worn smooth, the titles and pensions (some of them) stripped like epaulettes, the spell in the pillory served. Let’s get the blanket over this parrot and enjoy a spell of peace.

By San Carlos Water

Neal Ascherson, 18 November 1982

When they heard that Britain was sending troops to recover the Falklands, many in this country were inclined to laugh. Some farcical anti-climax was expected – Anguilla on a wider stage, with penguins. Events which soon followed, ending with Mrs Thatcher taking the salute at a victory parade, have made it hard to remember why it all at first seemed so comic. But the early incredulity...


Neal Ascherson, 6 November 1980

It’s only a few years ago since Mr Callaghan started presenting Labour as the British National Party. Labour, we were given to understand, was the party of patriotic unity, of social cohesion, of organic harmony between interests and classes. The Tories, on the other hand, were supposed to be ‘divisive’. It was they who were setting bewildered sections of the loyal yeomanry against each other, inciting the banker against the worker tearing apart the seamless, woad-dyed robe of Ancient British tribal solidarity.

Making history

Neal Ascherson, 21 August 1980

‘I was beginning to see revealed the higher and hidden meaning of that suffering for which I had been unable to find a justification …’ (1967). ‘It makes me happier, more secure, to think that I do not have to plan and manage everything for myself, that I am only a sword made sharp to strike the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them. Grant, O Lord, that I may not break as I strike! Let me not fall from Thy hand!’ (1973).

Red Souls

Neal Ascherson, 22 May 1980

We have come out of a long tunnel, and the view has changed. War is now quite clearly visible, not all that far off. That is not inevitably where we are going, the terminus. But most of us never expected to get so close, so suddenly. The Russians are in Afghanistan, aggrieved and astonished at the world’s reaction. Nato is buying itself a new armoury it does not need, deliberately presenting what is really a crisis of confidence within the Alliance as a response to a Soviet threat. The Americans fiddle with their weapons, dropping some of them. The hot lines have gone cold; the Gulf yawns. And something has happened within ourselves too. People are beginning to think that a nuclear war is probable, and that it won’t be quite so bad as those old CND people used to say. There are things one can do. There are places where most people will survive. There is no point in refusing to think about it, or treating it as one big bang which will bring total extinction. Sure, it would be terrible but it might not be a terminus after all …

Beyond Discussion

Neal Ascherson, 3 April 1980

‘Heh, heh!’ went the judge in the Thorpe trial, Mr Justice Cantley. According to Auberon Waugh, who sat in the press benches all through the six weeks of the Old Bailey proceedings, he made a habit of it: his own jokes, the floundering of witnesses, the incredible spectacle over which he was presiding, all presented matter for a good heh. Auberon Waugh purses his lips over this, but that’s his technique as a pamphleteer. When the judge titters, Waugh draws his pale brows together in distaste, but when the judge turns solemn and adjuring, Waugh puts his own glasses to the end of his nose and allows himself a snuffle of amusement.

What sort of traitors?

Neal Ascherson, 7 February 1980

The other day, I found myself in a taxi queue with Anthony Blunt. He looked frayed but fervently cheerful, much as if he had just been dug out of the ruins of his own bombed house. Never mind the furniture, the books and the glass: the ceiling had come down, but the dear old family dining-table had taken the strain. Nobody is going to try him, nobody is going to bump him off. The worst that can happen now is abuse by newspapers, and that will only hasten the process of reconciliation with his friends. Newspapers are ‘they’ and we, after all, are ‘we’. As Andrew Boyle relates, it turned out that a great many old acquaintances of Burgess and Maclean were much more horrified – felt, indeed, much more betrayed – by the fact that the late Goronwy Rees gave a version of their flight to the People than by the flight itself. When Stephen Spender showed the Daily Express a friend’s letter about Burgess, he was held to have disgraced himself.


Bye Bye Britain

24 September 2020

Neal Ascherson writes: I wrote the article to ask why UK citizens outwith Scotland might want to preserve the Union. The only answer Geoff Thompson provides is that Scottish votes are needed to save England from Tory misrule. Even supposing the remnant of Scottish Labour could be revived, can he imagine Scottish electors – after a Yes vote in a referendum – clamouring to renounce their...
Since the publication of my article about a forgotten European enclave, I have continued to receive inquiries from readers and other scholars asking for references and sources (LRB, 22 March). My first and best source, who convinced me that ‘Amikejo’ really had existed and was not a Polish novelist’s fantasy, was the American scholar Steven Press. He has now made his detailed research...

Former Selves

2 November 2006

Neal Ascherson writes: Robert Morgan tries to prove, triumphantly, that Grass was a ‘young Nazi seeking to serve the Nazi cause’ when he was drafted into the Waffen SS. But Grass has never denied that he was a fully convinced Nazi at the age of 18. It’s exactly because he has always admitted it that his refusal to name the formation he served with is so puzzling. It’s also mistaken...
The first two don’ts in Nelson Algren’s warning-for-life, which were requested by Ian Wylie (Letters, 29 October), are ‘Never play cards with a man called Doc; Never eat in a diner that offers “Mom’s Cooking".’ The third, as I heard the rules from an American journalist in Poland many years ago, was ‘Never sleep with a woman who has more problems than you.’...


15 October 1981

SIR: I feel injured – though more surprised than hurt – by Noël Annan’s reference to an article of mine about the late Albert Speer in his ‘De-Nazification’ review (LRB, 15 October). Paving his way to Burke’s famous quotation about the impossibility of indicting a whole people, he cites my article as a fit of ‘fervour for a perfect world’. Noël...
Neal Ascherson writes: I wondered how long it would be before the new Cold War glaciation, so welcome to so many political walruses, would revive the theory that the Russians did nothing much against Hitler but left it to poor old Britain to win the war. I remind Mr Wightman that more people died in the siege of Leningrad than in the British and American armed forces during the entire war. I think...

‘The subtlest​ of insults to Scotland is, it seems, to return to it,’ Neal Ascherson wrote in the Scottish political review Q in 1975. The historian Christopher Harvie described the...

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Coleridge’s​ favourite novelist, John Galt, had a gift for encapsulating disgrace under pressure, and his novels of small-town Scottish life are among the early masterpieces of British...

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Beast of a Nation: Scotland’s Self-Pity

Andrew O’Hagan, 31 October 2002

In Westminster Abbey a couple of years ago, I stood for over an hour talking to Neal Ascherson. It was one of those freezing January evenings – cold stone, long shadows – and we...

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Misha Glenny, 9 May 1996

In the late Twenties, the paternal grandfather of Dimitri, a close friend of mine from Thessaloniki, decided to leave Novorossisk, the Russian Black Sea port. The Soviet Government had ended the...

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Sylvia Lawson, 24 November 1988

The book’s title mocks the author’s own position. It comes from a newspaper column of 1985 in which he attacked what he saw as ‘the retreat from politics’ into nihilistic...

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The Rat Line

Christopher Driver, 6 December 1984

By chance, the evening I took this book to bed for the painful reading expected, I jabbed the tooth of a comb down a fingernail and cried out. As a reminder of what Klaus Barbie was about, not...

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Liking Walesa

Tim Sebastian, 15 July 1982

For nearly eighteen months Lech Walesa walked on quicksand, buoyant and for all the world supremely confident. In the summer of 1981 I asked him whether he was worried about the Soviet tanks...

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Poland’s Special Way

Keith Middlemas, 4 February 1982

In the six months since Neal Ascherson’s intricate but lucid account of the rise of Solidarity was finished, Poland’s affairs have become the latest world-heroic saga. While the...

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