Tag Archives: diplomacy

Jigsaw City

I look out to my left, and I see Prussia. Straight ahead of me lies Weimar Germany. Somewhere behind me lies the Third Reich. Below me is Cold War Germany. To my right, modern-day Germany buzzes along.

No city experienced turbulence in the 20th century more than Berlin. With 5 different forms of government (imperialistic monarchy, democracy, fascist dictatorship, occupation & communist dictatorship) in less than 50 years, every time I visit a distinct feeling of this jigsaw history being forced together is impressed upon me.

The Brandenburg Gate, to the left of my position at the top of Lord Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome, is the symbol of old Prussia. Built by Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm II, its victorious quadriga swiftly became established as a symbol of Prussian power and might after it was regained from Paris at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Bombed during the Second World War and used to host demonstrations during the Cold War, these 6 columns represent the inherent imperialistic foundations of the capital.

Interwoven amongst subtle memories of the kaisers (more prominent in the cathedral, where the mighty organ & lavish masonry of Friedrich I Barbarossa’s tomb seem to be superseded by memorials not to the hegemony of Prussia but to the oppression of its peoples by national socialists and communists) lie the hints of embryonic modern Germany. Between the downfall of Kaiser Wilhelm II following his 1918 abdication and the nefarious advent of the Nazis in 1933, Germany was a democracy, with proportional representation* and a functional parliament. The cries for this seem to be eternally etched onto the front of the Reichstag now – “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“TO THE GERMAN PEOPLE”), carved in 1916 as support for the monarchical autocracy dwindled, which, to the modern onlooker, evoke feelings of a wider significance. Throughout the 20th century, Germany rarely fully belonged to the German people, blocked by a warmongering kaiser, coldly efficient purist national socialists and administrations comprising of Soviet puppets.

Rightfully afraid of an upsurge of Neo-Nazis, the site of Hitler’s bunker during the Battle for Berlin is unmarked. It’s a car park now, not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Like the Residenzstrasse in Munich, simply standing on the street where some of the most pivotal events of Nazi history – the final days of the regime and its first steps towards the seizure of power respectively – is eerily poignant. Just imagining the realisation of the lost war, enactment of scorched earth policy, suicides & cremations which happened all around that point is strangely silencing. It’s the same with Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse-8. The headquarters of the SS. Beck, Canaris, Bonhoeffer, Oster…the names of the lions of the anti-Nazi resistance swim around in my mind as I stand above the excavations of their holding cells.**

The memorials to the victims of Hitler are dotted all around the city; the Holocaust Mahnmal a few seconds away from the Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum (which actually also documents wider Jewish history), the Topography of Terror museum & various plaques. But what I find the most thought-provoking is not the extensive displays of little collections, but rather the places; the spots where Bormann’s skeleton was found, where the grand march of SS troops was held in 1933, where the various ministries ordered the subjugation of what was to become the Third Reich.

Other ‘memory spots’ are to be found in the centre of the city, where the Berlin Wall sliced the world in half overnight in 1961. A line of cobbles traces it outside the Reichstag, in other places a double white line or isolated blocks of it decorated with art and graffiti (East Side Gallery & Potsdamer Platz). The spot where Allied & Soviet tanks faced each other, either one with the capability to incinerate much of our planet through starting a nuclear war, is now a McDonald’s – says a lot about modern society. Checkpoint Charlie is a monument to souvenir hunting and photo opportunities, itself being a replica – the spot itself is far more vivid and evocative.

And although it was torn down in 1989, amidst worldwide festivity, the Wall continues to embody a discrepancy in Germany today. It is widely documented that the wage, employment and quality of life gaps between the former East & West Germany prevail, but I do not refer to this. This discrepancy is much wider, obscure and threatening. It is not the failure of Khruschev & Kennedy to become amicable diplomatically in the 1960s: it is the failure of society today to recognise that those differences are, at present, irreconcilable. The Wall may be down, but its footprint is still there. Although on the face of it East/West relations seem to be effective, in reality, as we are now beginning to witness in Crimea & the Eastern Ukraine, they are probably as dire as in 1961. The routing of capitalist/communist sympathisers may have ended with the death of the latter form of government in Russia, but the propaganda prevails. It is crucial to repair relations with Putin immediately if we are to avoid another century of European turmoil.

In the meantime, Berlin, within whose boundaries the German government even now is vying for non-belligerent solutions to the Ukraine issue, sits atop its marshy ground, the jigsaw city, with all the answers to the future locked within its streets.



*(which elicited great instability of government)

**This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler. I’m currently researching the extent of the opposition  to the Nazis cocooned within their own regime, primarily within the secret service (Abwehr) which I hope to publish later this year.



Here we are, one week on from the conclusion of the latest installment of medal-fuelled tears and tension, with a diplomatic crisis brewing 400 miles from the Fisht Stadium.

The post-1946 decline in Western-Soviet relations was named the Cold War; perhaps this new one could be termed the Permafrost War. For although grass may grow atop, a façade developed in the uppermost layer of warmer soil, there reposes a hard layer quasi-malevolence beneath it.

I think it’s safe to say that the UK has one of the worst diplomatic relationships with Russia. Since a sizeable proportion of the population with memory or knowledge of the 1950s-60s still hasn’t quite sat up from the knock-out shock of the Philby deception (by far the most disturbing of those of the Cambridge 5), it may seem logical that the defection of another spy caused the newest period of frosty diplomacy between the two states. Alexander Litvinenko did, however, transfer his loyalty from the FSB (Russian secret service) to MI6, an act which, along with publications deemed caustic to the reputation of his former employers, secured his death sentence by the radioactive drug polonium in November 2006. FSB agents were blamed but subsequent inquests have proved inconclusive – handily for the Foreign Office. Finding the death of Litvinenko (under the protection of the British government) to have been, beyond all reasonable doubt, effectively caused by the Russian government on British soil would be more than a little harmful for diplomatic relations.

Yet in 2010, Gordon Brown (PM) and David Miliband (Foreign Secretary) expelled 4 Russian diplomats (apparently intelligence officers) from the UK in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the prime suspect in Litvinenko’s murder, Andrei Lugovoi, to be extradited. Also in 2010, Moscow expelled a British diplomat on charges of alleged spying. An associate of Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, was found hanged in Berkshire in 2013 in circumstances which will probably never be entirely clear. He was a long-term and defiant critic of Putin.

Ever since the Bolsheviks arranged the murders of the British king’s cousins, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their 6 young children in Yekaterinburg in 1918, relations between our two nations haven’t been the most cordial. The UK supported the Whites in the 1917-22 Civil War and the swathes of refugees, along with her ally France. Although Churchill and Stalin aligned themselves strategically in 1941 to end the Nazi evil, Churchill remained aware of the dangers posed by Stalin, politically prescient as ever, and it was he who, in 1946, coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’. Very much the ‘enemy within’ the Allies, the Soviets initially made a pretence of willing friendship after the conclusion of the Second World War, in order to rebuild trade and industry ravaged by the Nazi infiltration of the USSR, but the West, ever wary of that communist ‘man of steel’ (in the least super-heroic sense), declined and widened the breach. Then the Cold War truly began in earnest; the Berlin Wall; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cambridge 5 revelations.

Royalist Britain simply could not stomach the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917 by fairly poorly supported workers and recently returned ex-patriots – the 36 million or so killings in Stalin’s purges is even less of a cause to be friendly with the old regime. Having led the world in industrialisation, and arguably the most advanced country in the world by that point economically speaking, with a well-functioning political system, it was hard to see what was so bad about the tsar that he needed to be replaced with revenge-hungry killers.

In my own opinion, I believe the fact that 36m or so murders are far less well-known and documented than Hitler’s 11m speaks for itself. The communist USSR and the capitalist west are so ideologically different in so many areas that it would be near-impossible to have maintained diplomatic relations. That’s pretty obvious.

But now? Has the history between Russia and the west laid down insurmountable barriers to happy and productive relations? Of course not. Look at Germany – Hitler ruled for 12 years, murdering 11m of his own citizens and several hundred thousand of ours during that tenancy, and Angela Merkel is received warmly into the Houses of Parliament and the homes of the British PM and head of state. Of course. It would be churlish to insinuate that she is in any way responsible for the Nazis’ atrocities, or that our relations are in some way impaired by it (something closer to the mark would be the word ‘penalties’ – 90 minutes rather than 12 years).

Is Russia so different? I’m afraid so. On top of all the negative history since 1917 go the recent espionage fiascos and the ostensible determination of Putin to supersede the west (his spokesman declaring the UK to be a “small island” that “nobody listens to” in anger over British proactivity over Syria and anti-corruption). The tenet that Russia has been ruled since the Mongol Conquest by silnaya ruka, the iron hand, seems to hold true, and this is not palatable to the modern west. As 19th century Slavophiles in Russia maintained, Russia is clearly different to the west, and therefore must develop differently. Whilst I’m not entirely adherent to that philosophy, the distinction between Russia and the west seems fairly apparent; but for the benefit of not only our children (cue spiel) but also for the global economy, peace and worldwide diplomatic fraternity.

In Alaska, they break away the permafrost with pick-axes of metal. We can break away this permafrost war with pick-axes of diplomacy, if only our politicians would.

Remembrance: more than sorrow and gratitude

This 11th November was unusual. Not only did it mark the 70th anniversary of the most remarkable bombing raid in history, but it was the last before commemorations for the centenary of the First World War begin.

Troops. Aerial bombing. Submarines. Industry. Alliances. All of these were hotly debated topics in European circles as the political climate ascended to uncomfortable temperatures, as imperial Britain, France, Russia and Germany raced to out-industrialise each other, made webs of treatises solidifying diplomatic inclinations between each other and hastily mentally compiled tactics, technical plans and time restraints.


Today, too, although hidden in the shadows, there are such problems. The British Armed Forces are making a myriad of professionals redundant and filling the personnel gaps with volunteers of the Territorial Army, whilst in Germany, compulsory conscription for all male youths was ended a few years ago. The seemingly incessant moral, technical and political debate regarding first drone warfare and now un-piloted programmed ‘planes is never long out of political military consciousness. The future of nuclear warfare is also under scrutiny, especially with frenzied efforts to determine the efficacy and longevity of possible Iranian and North Korean nuclear missiles. Observers in the US and Europe anxiously but almost secretively compare the growth figures of their own countries with those of China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Korea. And, through the highly diplomatic infrastructure of the United Nations, countries align themselves with potent partners.

War? No. Not yet. The present construction of world diplomacy is such that war of a scale of the Great War will be lethargic in construction, and easy to predict. The UN Security Council and summits should, theoretically, highlight international disputes and prove as a medium for serious debate before any serious military action is undertaken.

Nevertheless, we have to be watchful. A US-led coalition invasion of Syria to intervene in the ongoing civil war may provoke Assad’s supporters (or, at any rate, those who do not speak out against him) into action – China and Russia.  And any potential conflict with the US, Europe, Australasia, Canada and possibly India against the might of China, Russia and North Korea would end in utter devastation. Not only conventional methods, such as land and sea battles and conventional strategic and area bombing, but nuclear attacks, cyber-attacks and possibly even pathogenic warfare. In any case, an invasion would worsen the situation between the nations.

The British government frequents Beijing, attempting to accentuate relations between the PRC and the UK. But in all seriousness, this is precisely how such future conflicts can be prevented. Not consorting with evil such as Assad’s regime (due to their use of chemical weapons), but peaceful and economic relations with other potent and prosperous nations.

We cannot allow our militia to become so depleted that, should such a terrifying conflict come, we are unprepared. Professionals must be recruited from the highest walks of life to protect our country against the scores of cyber- and physical terrorists presently devising means to attack us, and also to prevent against international conflict. Whilst conscription would train our populace in readiness, should such an awful occurrence happen, it also is of detriment to quality, continuity and professionalism which marks out the UK Armed Forces as perhaps the best in the world. That can be left for a time of real need.

Remembrance Day for the next 4 years will not just serve to remind the younger generations of the terrible cost of all the troops, sailors and airmen in the First World War, but as a stark reminder of what could occur and how far society has perhaps progressed since.


Image credit: BBC 2012.