Don’t Mention the War

Basil Fawlty trying not to mention the war
Basil Fawlty trying not to mention the war

During the 1990s Perry Anderson and the New Left Review, the journal he has intermittently helped edit for nearly five decades, strongly opposed the Nato intervention into the former Yugoslavia. It was a controversial position which caused much heartbreak within the magazine: several long-time editors left the journal (or, depending on which account you read, were kicked off the masthead).

 

In the latest issue of the New Left Review, Anderson has a wide-ranging, characteristically Olympian survey of contemporary Germany, showing that the wounds from the 1990s still smart.

 

Writing about the foreign policy of the Red-Green coalition of the 1990s, Anderson notes: “Within a year of coming to power, [the Social Democrat–Green government] had committed Germany to the Balkan War, dispatching the Luftwaffe to fly once again over Yugoslavia.”

 

I think this sentence about the Luftwaffe flying “again” over Yugoslavia is 1) very funny and 2) completely unfair. Perhaps the humor of it comes from the unfairness. Obviously the Luftwaffe of the 1990s had nothing in common with the Nazi air force, so the drawing of a parallel hits you with unexpected force as a bit of comic overkill. In tone, the sentence is a high-end variant of Basil Fawlty muttering “don’t mention the war” whenever a Teutonic tourist visits his hotel.  

 

In addition to that sentence, the rest of Anderson’s article is the sort of magisterial performance one would expect from him. Other writers are content to review books and movies; Anderson, multi-lingual and a master of many disciplines, reviews entire nations. As in his early surveys of France, Russia, Italy and Turkey, Anderson gives a thorough guide to the country’s politics, economy, and culture. (Many of these articles can be found  here; my understanding is that they’ll also be gathered together in Anderson’s forthcoming book The New-Old World).  The Turkish articles were the only one in which Anderson had to rely on sources not in the native tongue, and even there he did a remarkable job of pinpointing the nation’s internal fissures dating back to the days of the Armenian genocide and the rise of the Young Turks.

 

In his article on Germany Anderson is particularly good on the special status of East Germany, which experienced 1989 not as national liberation (the common experience of the East European nations) but as a form of internal colonization. Anderson also provides a compact history of Merkur, Germany’s most important intellectual journal. About the only substantive fault of the article is that it was too short: I for one would have liked to hear more from Anderson about recent German cinema, which he rates higher than it’s Italian and French counterparts.

 

 

Perhaps because he’s so learned, Anderson can be forgiven an occasional testy aside about the Luftwaffe.

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