The firebrand preacher who put Martin Luther in the shade

‘Now tell us, you miserable wretched sack of maggots,’ wrote Thomas Müntzer, sounding like the love child of Owen Jones and Ian Paisley, ‘who made you into a prince over the people whom God redeemed with his own precious blood?’ The question Müntzer posed Count Albrecht of Mansfeld was, you’d think, rhetorical. Like his contemporary Martin Luther, if less unremittingly scatological, the radical millenarian preacher wielded a sharp pen. Don’t forget Ezekiel’s prophecy, he wrote to Count Albrecht’s brother Ernst: ‘God would command the birds of the air to feast on the flesh of the princes and command the unthinking beasts to lap up the blood of the bigwigs.’ Only

A horrifying glimpse of Syria’s torture cells

A young Syrian man is walking down a street in Damascus. He is a computer geek who likes rock music and basketball, and he’s enjoying his summer break from university. A car draws up beside him. He’s shoved inside and blindfolded. Shortly after, he finds himself strung up by his wrists in a dungeon. A thick power cable slices through the air and lands on his back. He screams. ‘You want freedom, right?’ yells the torturer. The lash descends again. ‘Here’s your freedom.’ The victim – the authors of Syrian Gulag protect him with the alias ‘Akram’ – had ‘liked’ a social media post criticising the Assad regime. Akram was

Rocked by rebellion: the short, unhappy reign of Edward VI

As Tory writers reflected on the safe passage of the Stuart dynasty through the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, an anonymous author urged contemporaries to learn the lessons of English history. The Rebels Doom (1684) offered some thumbnail sketches of various unsuccessful rebellions and attempted revolutions that had threatened the monarchy since the reign of Edward the Confessor, in order to show ‘the Fatal Consequences that have always attended … Disloyal Violations of Allegiance’. The writer paused especially over one Tudor insurrection from 1549, in which 10,000 rebels from Devon and Cornwall took up arms against the administration of Edward VI and besieged the city of Exeter, but were ultimately crushed

How I narrowly escaped joining Argentina’s ‘disappeared’

A bully-boy leader. A corrupt, out-of-touch regime. A twisted reading of history. An unprovoked, military-led landgrab. A domestic disinformation blitz. And an enemy that, contrary to all the aggressor’s expectations, fought back. We’ve been here before. Not on the scale of Russia’s attack on Ukraine perhaps, nor with the tragic cost to civilian lives. But wind back 40 years and something akin to Putin’s demented assault played out in the South Atlantic. In the last throes of a desperate government, Argentina’s military dictatorship ordered an assault on the Falkland Islands. When the news broke in early April 1982, the world gaped. Sabre-rattling from Buenos Aires was nothing new. But an

House of horrors: Girl A, by Abigail Dean, reviewed

If the last quarter of 2020 saw a glut of novels published, of which there were winners (Richard Osman) and losers (in a just world, Piranesi would still be at number one), January is a less frenzied time for new writers to launch. Even so, there are often hyped and hot new books — among which this year Girl A is one. It comes with excitable reports of huge international sales and an insistence that it will be everywhere. The accompanying blurb also manages to mention repeatedly that the author got a double-first at Cambridge, which, frankly, in these days of being ruled by Oxbridge inadequates who think that being

‘The most powerful and disturbing book that I have ever read’

I had assumed, after 40 years of researching and writing about war in the 20th century, that I was prepared for just about any horror. But Christina Lamb’s research, into the mass rape of women and young girls in more recent wars and ethnic cleansing shook me to the core. This is the most powerful and disturbing book that I have ever read, and it raises important questions. Lamb takes us from one zone of racial and religious aggression to another. The attackers have different motives and each persecuted minority is culturally unique, yet the pain and suffering of their victims are terrifyingly similar. She meets the Yazidi women, seized

Blind into battle

Early every morning through the spring of 2002, US troops at Bagram airfield on the Shomali plains north of Kabul assembled on a makeshift parade ground. After the daily briefing, an officer announced the number of days since 9/11, read a short obituary of a victim of the attack and reminded the troops of their mission: to capture or kill those responsible for the worst terrorist strike ever in the US. Only a year previously, Bagram had been captured by the Taliban, who then exercised nominal control over 80 per cent of Afghanistan. Reduced to bombed-out buildings and a potholed, unusable airstrip, it was of limited strategic importance. Within weeks

A grand inquisitor

Hidden behind Kensington Palace, in one of London’s smartest streets, there is a grand old house which played a leading role in Britain’s victory over Nazi Germany. Today it’s owned by Roman Abramovich, apparently — it seems he paid £90 million for it. But during the second world war, and for a few years thereafter, 8 Kensington Palace Gardens was a secret interrogation centre known as the London Cage. This is where suspected spies (and, later, suspected war criminals) were broken down. Between 1940 and 1948, thousands of German servicemen passed through here, on their way to POW camps (if they were deemed innocent) or prison (if they were guilty).

Only obeying orders | 12 January 2017

Spare a thought for the poor Gulag guard: the rifleman standing in the freezing wind on the outside of the wire, almost as much a captive of the Stalinist prison machine as the inmates he’s guarding. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Evgeniya Ginzburg and Varlaam Shalamov have left the world a rich, searing portrait of the Gulag from the point of view of the prisoner. But the diary of Ivan Chistyakov is unique — a narrative of the brutal conditions in Stalin’s Gulag, told from the point of view of one of the captors. Chistyakov was a senior guard at the Baikal-Amur Corrective Labour Camp or BAMLag, and he wrote his personal diary

Power to the people | 5 January 2017

Jeremy Corbyn will probably enjoy this book — which doesn’t mean you won’t. Asked to name the historical figure he most admired when first standing for the Labour leadership, Corbyn answered that in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne.Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different. Lilburne, who should certainly be better known, was a leader of a group that came to be called the Levellers, which flourished at the height of England’s civil strife in the 1640s, and whose radical, democratising politics has sporadically appeared on the agenda of the left,

Preaching in pictures

To call Nils Büttner a killjoy is perhaps a little unfair, but not very. The professor at Stuttgart’s State Academy of Art and Design has written a revisionist biography of Hieronymus Bosch: one which tells us that the Early Netherlandish painter wasn’t, as many over the centuries have suggested, the devil incarnate or Satan’s crazed representative on earth. Instead, his graphically disturbing visions of hell — infernal soups populated by hybrid monsters — were actually the product of a devoutly Catholic, medieval mind. Bosch came from a family of painters in the town of ’s-Hertogenbosch near Antwerp and, following an orthodox education and advantageous marriage, became an important member of

Mao devours his foes

Frank Dikötter, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and winner of the Samuel Johnson prize in 2011, is the author of many studies on China, most notably two on Mao’s dark rule. This new book completes the trilogy. The first volume, The Tragedy of Liberation, made plain, more exhaustively than previous accounts, that from the beginning of his time as Chairman, Mao was paranoid and murderous, and that Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping egged him on. The second volume, the prize-winning Mao’s Great Famine, examined, in characteristic detail, the Chairman’s responsibility for the 1959–1961 famine, which killed 30 to 50 million Chinese. Now we are shown that

More blood and tears

Irvine Welsh’s 1993 debut novel Train-spotting flicked a hearty V-sign in the face of alarm-clock Britain. ‘Ah choose no tae choose life,’ crows its giro-cheating antihero Mark Renton, proudly enslaved to heroin instead of mortgage repayments. But when Welsh revisited his native Leith for a 2012 prequel, Skagboys, he threw over this bourgeois-taunting amorality for blunter politics: Renton, it transpired, first turned to heroin for pain relief after police beat him up on a picket line during the 1984 miners’ strike. In Welsh’s latest novel, it’s the turn of Renton’s psychopathically violent frenemy, Francis Begbie, to get an origin story involving the abuse of state power. As a boy (we

Trapped in hell

The mechanic, blinded in one eye by shrapnel, spent three days searching for his family in the destroyed buildings and broken streets of Darayya. Finally he found his father’s body in a farmhouse, alongside those of three boys, already starting to decay. ‘Can you tell me why they would kill an old man?’ he asked, before adding: ‘This is not my Syria. When I see the sorrow that happens in our towns, all I think is — this is not my Syria.’ Yet it is. Indeed, one mystery of the darkness that has descended on Syria is that so many gut-wrenching depravities could befall a place of such bewitching beauty,

Communism kills

I went to Budapest last year and did the usual touristy things. I climbed up the hill to the fantasy castle walls in Buda. I took a boat ride. I went to the Turkish baths — edging cautiously into scalding hot water and then summoning up the courage to tip a bucket of cold water over myself. Finally, I reached the grim end of the tourist trail: the so-called House of Terror. On the outside, it looked like every other Hungarian house on the boulevard. Inside, it was a museum set up in the actual place where first Nazis, then communists, inflicted imprisonment, terror and murder. Visiting it was a

The dark comedy of the Senate torture report

Like many journalists, I’m a bit of a know-it-all — when information is touted as ‘new’, especially in government reports, it sometimes brings out in me the opposite of sincere curiosity so essential to my trade. Thus when my French publisher asked me to write a preface to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s report on the CIA’s torture programme, and come to Paris to promote a translated edition, I was reluctant. Hadn’t I already read everything about this? As much as I detest the CIA and love Paris, a book tour to discuss waterboarding and forced rectal feeding struck me as less than appealing. Nevertheless, civic duty spurred me and a lawyer

Process of elimination: the horrors of Ravensbrück revealed

Concentration camps in Nazi Germany were originally set up in 1933 to terrorise Hitler’s political enemies; as war drew near, their function expanded to gratify his obsession (and that of Reichsführer Himmler, as head of the SS which administered them) with ‘purifying the race’ by getting rid of gypsies, Jews, ‘asocials’ — prostitutes, criminals, vagabonds — as well as the mentally ill and handicapped. An all-female camp at Ravensbrück, set up in 1938, soon afforded the prison doctors a steady supply of women — the ‘rabbits’, as these prisoners became known — for medical experiments . After war broke out in September 1939, Resistance fighters from France and other occupied

‘Torture is torture’ ignores the complex nature of intelligence gathering

On Thursday I was on the BBC’s ‘This Week’ to talk about the CIA and torture. It is, for many reasons, perhaps the most gruesome subject possible. And not just because of the hideous allegations involved, but also because it is one of those subjects which people wantonly lose their reason over. Like a small number of other subjects in our society at the moment, it is one which people try wilfully to simplify, usually in order to show the world what a moral person they are and, by contrast, what immoral people their opponents are. I will use this post to set out some of my own views and certain

Is torture acceptable if it helps save thousands of lives?

This week’s Senate Report on the CIA hasn’t settled the question of torture once and for all, as Bruce Anderson has pointed out. When we talk about the heroes of the Resistance, our deepest admiration is reserved for the fighters who didn’t give away their secrets under torture, so the claim that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques did not result in any useful intelligence is rather surprising: it’s too morally neat. British law has never condoned torture (though the Tudors found ways round that), and when the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria was trying to reform the European criminal justice system, Britain was already setting a good example: When Beccaria published

The CIA’s torture regime shames the United States. It will not be forgotten

We knew and we knew years ago. Anyone who has been paying attention has known for a long time that the CIA committed appalling acts of brutality in the years after 9/11. Anyone who paid attention has also long known that the agency’s torture regime – not too strong a way of putting it – produced very little in the way of useful intelligence. It was sadism masquerading as detective work; depravity disguising impotence and, in the end, the kind of programme that shames a nation. There are still some people who think it fine and dandy, still some people who think it’s a lot of fuss over not very much.