One of my favourite evergreens I am never tired of reading is John Toland’s 1,400-page biography of Adolf Hitler. With so many biographies and war books available, the outlines of Hitler’s political career need not be repeated.

We know of his brilliance that led to his stunning successes in domestic politics and foreign affairs initially, and of his stupidities: his refusal to allow the besieged sixth army to break out of the Stalingrad trap and link up with the relief army; his inexplicable no to repeated requests by his naval chief (before his invasion of Russia) to take Egypt; his hubris in refusing Rommel the permission to withdraw from Alamein; and his madness in ordering a scorched earth policy for German territory before it fell to Western Allies.

While the Toland book covers all this in detail, it dwells a lot on many non-political aspects of Hitler’s life, especially before he joined politics. He is often referred to as a ‘Vienna tramp’, but the truth is he spent a lot of time in libraries and museums. Of course, he was broke, because he couldn’t sell his artworks in the streets without having a licence, leaving only the coffee shops where he could make money.

The result was poverty and hunger. The book quotes Hitler as saying: “For two years, my only girlfriend was Sorrow and Need, and I had no other companion except constant unsatisfied hunger.” According to author Toland, Hitler’s hatred of the Jews stemmed from his failure to secure admission to art schools, mostly managed by Jews.

Muhammad Ali Siddiqi delves into more of his Evergreens from his reading shelf in a seventh installment

Commenting about the widespread anti-Semitism in society, Toland says: “Freud would conclude that at the bottom of anti-Semitism lay castration fears, because of the Jewish tradition of circumcision.”

Hitler was a good son to his mother, as reflected in the poem he wrote (shortened here):

When your mother has grown older,/ And you have grown older,/ When her legs have grown tired/ And do not want to carry her anymore/ Then give her your arm for support,/ Accompany her with gladness and joy./ The hour will come when, weeping, you/ Will accompany her on her last journey!/ And if she asks you, answer her./ And if she asks another time, speak to her/ Not storming, but in gentle peace!/ The hour will come, the bitter hour/ When her mouth will ask no more!

Sir John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha), whom I quoted in my first Evergreens instalment (B&A, June 20, 2021), was an extraordinary amalgam of soldier and scholar. Post-retirement poverty forced him into writing, which fortunately became a financially rewarding profession.

One of his books, Haroon al Rasheed and the Great Abbasids, makes fascinating reading, for its pages show the profundity of the knowledge of a European heritage soldier-cum-scholar well versed in Arab history and culture.

When he told his friends he was going to write such a book, all of them said this was not possible, because there would be no surviving sources. When Sir John replied that records were available even from Roman and Greek times, all of them said: “But the Arabs, of course, were not like the Greeks or the Romans.” This, according to Glubb Pasha, was just one more example of the Western middle class’s ignorance of Arab history and culture and the Arabs’ role in enriching Western culture.

As he puts it, “Western European civilisation and power was largely founded on the culture, science and industry of the Arabs. Yet the history of the period of Arab world leadership largely is never mentioned in our schools.”

He named one of his books The Lost Centuries exactly because Western history books have virtually omitted that period of history which showed the Arab contribution to Western civilisation in science and culture.

The book on the Abbasids gives us a background to the anti-Umayyad revolution, the assumption of power by the Abbasids, the unsettled conditions during the reign of the first two caliphs, and the gradual consolidation of Abbasid power, leading to the glory that was the reign of Haroon Al Rasheed.

Nevertheless, the book also dwells a lot on the seamy aspect of Haroon’s character, especially toward the end of his reign, his change of heart toward the Barmakids, who were virtually co-rulers of the Abbasid empire for 17 years, and their physical elimination.

However, reading the book is a shock when you realise what the Fertile Crescent was then and what the conditions in the heart of the Middle East today are. The Arabs, he says, were in a “strong position. They had virtually no rivals in supplying manufactured articles to the West. While being self-supporting for food, they needed nothing in return.”

Because the Arabs possessed “the immense geographical advantage of being half way between the Far East and Europe”, they enjoyed “a lucrative transit trade, most of it carried in Arab ships. From Basra, Arab trading vessels reached the coast of China.”

Of the Arab industrial products exported, he says, “one of the largest items was textiles. Egypt manufactured garments of all kinds, including luxury articles of clothing for women, sometimes with gold thread worn into the material. Damascus was famous for silk and for textile materials and table linens reflecting the light, which is still known as damask. The Yemen was also noted for luxury garments, worn by the rich. Mosul was noted for delicate cotton fabric, still known all over the world as muslin, from the name of that city.

“Metal work also constituted a flourishing industry. Damascus was famous for centuries for sword blades, which were unequal both for the temper of the steel, and for their artistic graving and gold inlay... paper was manufactured all over the empire...”

The annual revenue of the imperial government in the reign of Haroon was 42,000,000 gold dinars — when Haroon died, the treasury contained 900,000,000 silver dirhams. During this period, Charlemagne tried but failed to have a gold coinage.

Says Glubb Pasha: “The empire... had reached its climax, soon to be followed by decline and collapse. But none of this was foreseen in Haroon’s time. On the contrary, it was generally anticipated that the Abbasid empire would rule the world until the day of judgement.”

Compare this with the situation in the Middle East today. There is anarchy in Iraq; Syria has been beset with a civil war for 12 years, Yemen is a battleground for rival Arab powers, and Lebanon’s state bank is bankrupt.

Leaving Haroon and his successors aside, I switch over to one of my passions — Hollywood movies. Frankly, even in this old age I feel the time spent in cinema halls was well spent. Some of the films I have seen many times over — such as the Guns of Navarone, The Night of the Generals, The Longest Day, Vera Cruz, William Holden and Nancy Kwan’s The World of Suzie Wong, and the Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn classic Roman Holiday.

No wonder I find the book A Hundred Years of Hollywood, by Carol Krenz, fascinating — though, frankly, by the time I had finished my education and had the money to go to cinema halls, many great actors mentioned in it had faded.

For instance, I could see only a couple of Clark Gable films. He was called “the king of Hollywood”, but his wife’s death in a plane crash in 1940 devastated him, and his subsequent films were flops.

The book’s sweep covers an era that begins with Charlie Chaplin and his silent movies, takes the reader to the challenge TV posed to Hollywood in the 1970s, with cinema halls closing down and people enjoying at home such entertainment as news about the Cold War and presidential debates. However, the movie moguls had one asset — the stars. They were warned not to appear on TV. Hollywood then bounced back with iconic films.

The book has pictures that caught movie celebs unaware, such as Alfred Hitchcock who had “a penchant for blondes”, bending like a waiter to offer a cup of tea to Grace Kelly on the set of To Catch A Thief. Kelly, incidentally, had a brief Hollywood stint and worked only in 11 films, including the all-time great Dial M For Murder.

Author Krenz shares jokes and hard truths with us about the stars and directors. Vivien Leigh, the leading lady in Gone with the Wind, hated Gable because of the bad breath from his broken teeth, and a director said of Clint Eastwood: “The hardest thing in the world is to do nothing, he does it marvellously.”

Cary Grant is quoted as saying, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” And Marlon Brando, known for his moods, remarked: “The only reason I am still in Hollywood is because I do not have the moral courage to refuse the money.”

Next: Ataturk by Lord Kinross.

The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 24th, 2024


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