Among a million and one other things, I’ve returned to my work on the history of bombing for my Reach from the Sky lectures in January.
I’ve long admired Joshua Levine‘s work, and his Secret History of the Blitz is thoroughly impressive. Many others have picked their way across the bomb-sites before, of course, but there are genuinely novel insights to be found amidst the rubble and Levine is an excellent (and wonderfully literate) collector.
2015 is the 75th anniversary of the the Blitz of 1940-41. It is one of the most iconic periods in modern British history – and one of the most misunderstood. The ‘Blitz spirit’ is celebrated by some, whereas others dismiss it as a myth. Joshua Levine’s thrilling biography rejects the tired arguments and reveals the human truth: the Blitz was a time of extremes of experience and behaviour. People were pulling together and helping strangers, but they were also breaking rules and exploiting each other. Life during wartime, the author reveals, was complex and messy and real.
From the first page readers will discover a different story to the one they thought they knew – from the sacrifices made by ordinary people to a sudden surge in the popularity of nightclubs; from secret criminal trials at the Old Bailey to a Columbine-style murder in an Oxford college. There were new working opportunities for women and the appearance of unfamiliar cultures: whilst prayers were offered up in a south London mosque, Jamaican sailors were struggling to cross the country. Unlikely friendships were fostered and surprising sexualities explored – these years saw a boom in prostitution and even the emergence of a popular weekly magazine for fetishists. On the darker side, racketeers and spivs made money out of the chaos, and looters prowled the night to prey on bomb victims.
From the lack of cheese to the decreased suicide rate, this astonishing and entertaining book takes the true pulse of a ‘blitzed nation’. And it shows how social change during this time led to political change – which in turn has built the Britain we know today.
Very different in reach and tone (but also impressively literate), and in many ways much closer to some of the themes I want to address in Cambridge in January, is Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernment du ciel: histoire globale des bombardements aériens. Readers interested in these things will surely know his remarkable account of Giulio Douhet, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884–1939; the new book picks up from the last chapter of the previous one in many ways.
Here is the Contents List:
The earth, the sea and the sky
Towards perpetual peace
The colonial matrix
Civilisation, cosmopolitanism and democracy
The people and the populace
Philosophy of the bomb
Making and unmaking a people
Under the nuclear shield, ‘revolutionary war’
World governance and perpetual war
As you can perhaps divine from the chapter titles, this is at once an attempt to write a global history of the twentieth century through diagnostic episodes in bombing’s bleak history and a discussion of the political formations that aerial violence both presupposed and installed.
I stumbled upon a fascinating conversation between Thomas and Grégoire Chamayou (above) and since I provided a detailed commentary on Théorie du drone for those who can’t read French (you can access the full set here: scroll down for the links) I’ll try to do the same for Le gouvernment du ciel in the weeks ahead (and I’ll include some snippets from that extended conversation).
I don’t think my commentaries have been superceded by the publication of the translation, Theory of the drone, so I’m hoping the same will be true if there is an English version of Le gouvernment du ciel (though I can’t find any sign of one yet).