Michael Vestey

High living

High living

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Occasionally, one stumbles across something delightfully quirky on Radio Four that one knows would never be aired anywhere else; such was the case with The Reichsmarschall’s Table, produced by Dennis Sewell and tucked away on Monday evening last week. The table in question was for the Nazi general Hermann Goering in the 1930s and 40s at Berlin’s renowned restaurant Horcher’s, named after the family that owned it. It was here that Goering courted industrialists for their support for the Nazi cause while, at another table, members of the German resistance were plotting to arrest Hitler to consign him to a lunatic asylum. The plot failed, because the day Hitler was due back in Berlin, Neville Chamberlain chose to visit him in Bavaria.

The presenter, historian Giles MacDonogh, traced the history of this restaurant from its opening in Berlin in 1904 to the present day where, incongruously, it survives in Madrid serving food with Spanish names but of German origin, including Goering’s favourite dish, Viennese fried chicken. Like the original Horcher’s, it favours elites and royalty. There was a personal element to MacDonogh’s research for this programme. When Germany annexed Austria, Otto Horcher, the son of the founder, bought a fashionable restaurant in Vienna; its owners were Jews who were banned from running businesses and members of MacDonogh’s family. Later, the sybaritic Goering took over Maxim’s in Paris whose owner asked Horcher to run it during the occupation so as to protect the restaurant’s fine cellars from the Germans.

A tussle between Dr Goebbels, an austere Marxist who hated the high-living, flamboyant Goering, a flying hero from the first world war, led to the closure of the Berlin Horcher’s in 1943, and the family, who weren’t Nazis, were helped by Goering to escape to Spain. Photographs of its famous customers — not Goering, incidentally — adorn the walls. They include members of the Spanish and Dutch royal families and King Hussein. So, a restaurant steeped in grim, modern history, even more so had Hitler been arrested and war prevented. I found The Reichsmarschall’s Table a fascinating programme about a little-known aspect of Nazi Germany.

There comes a time when the one-sidedness of the debate about the war in Iraq and the Bush administration becomes wearying on BBC radio. I thought this on Monday morning this week when the first part of Start the Week was given over to a less excitable than Michael Moore but almost as deranged-sounding American film-maker called Eugene Jarecki, whose film Why We Fight appeared on the digital television station BBC Four this week. Whenever one hears a Moore or Jarecki, one listens, often in vain, for a counter-argument of some sort, but one rarely gets it. His other guests, a Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, historian Robert Lacey and a writer and former nun Karen Armstrong, all seemed to agree with Jarecki’s theme, which was roughly that America was an imperial force damaging the world and that the US military-industrial complex, a phrase first used by President Eisenhower, controlled the Bush administration.

Jarecki said solemly that the world had failed to notice that America had ‘slipped very, very far from democracy’. ‘America’s 200 years old and we’re not yet a democracy,’ he wittered. Surely someone around the table, even the presenter Andrew Marr, might have offered a different view or possibly a bit of devil’s advocacy, but no. Lacey thought his film was marvellous, ‘the thinking man’s Fahrenheit 9/11’, and ‘it chimed with all my feelings’. However, something was niggling Lacey, the staunch defender of that other great beacon of democracy, Saudi Arabia. Hadn’t the ‘crude might’ of America shifted people’s thinking in the Middle East, he wondered; why, people had been able to demonstrate in places like Lebanon and there were limited elections in Saudi Arabia. Jarecki wasn’t having any of that, adding, to sniggers from his fellow guests, that democracy doesn’t come from bombing people.

Lacey has delivered a lecture on Saudi Arabia this week and people, he thought, were a bit sniffy about the desert kingdom. Amnesty International had pointed out that there were 50 executions there last year, but, well, they were the result of ‘judicial process through Sharia law’, which is comforting to know. I think I’d prefer to take my chances in a redneck courthouse in Alabama than under Lacey’s preferred judicial process. What’s more, you can walk the streets of Saudi Arabia without fear of muggers, though, he added hastily, that he wasn’t advocating ‘hand-chopping in Britain’; Saudi society worked in its own terms. Sometimes Start the Week can provide thoughtful discussion, even if its guests are all promoting themselves, but at other times it lacks rigour.