In by far the best book published this year, the Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein tells the story of how his parents survived hell itself. It is so good that I forgive him his politics. The cosy title, Hitler, Stalin, Mum And Dad, is clever precisely because the events it describes are the opposite of cosy.
They happened to people much like us, people who lived in modern houses and flats, read the latest books, went to the cinema, to restaurants and cafes, drove about in the latest cars. In the book you will see pictures of the ultra-modern house in what was then Polish Lwow, and the up-to-date Amsterdam block of flats, from which these twin journeys to the inferno began.
It is a superb account of the Devil’s Alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich, in which so many were crushed as between two steamrollers. He describes in howlingly painful detail the courage and endurance of his grandparents, two of whom were worked and starved to death by utopian dictators, while fighting like tigers to keep their children alive (and, thank God, succeeding).
He is still furious at the way so many still cannot see that the twin tyrannies of Moscow and Berlin, supposed to be enemies, were allies against all the good things, freedom, democracy, tolerance, kindness.
A few years before the sky fell down on their heads, his parents and grandparents had no inkling that death was hurrying towards them with his bony arms outstretched to gather them up.
The things which would happen to them were like something out of the Middle Ages, only made worse by the power of machines and electricity and by the relentless efficiency of modern bureaucracy (always at its worst when engaged in evil).
Few in the Arab world will ever truly accept the Jewish state’s existence, and only the moral and physical support of the free West will persuade them to find a way of living side by side. Pictured: Gaza on 12 October
Having lived most of my life in a post-war era, I now find myself in what looks unpleasantly like a pre-war age. Pictured: Bucha, Ukraine, on April 6, 2022
Are we so sure that, because our lives are likewise modern and often prosperous, that we live in a safe world? We shouldn’t be. Hell will be worse with computers and CCTV than it would have been without them.
In an X/Twitter debate the other day, as I explained that Israel existed as a refuge from persecution, I was asked by a smug person where exactly Jews were being persecuted in today’s world.
I replied that the most striking example had been in Israel, just outside the Gaza Strip, on October 7. But I am sure that, across Europe there are many Jews who look with worry at anti-Israel demonstrations, at Stars of David scrawled on walls, and other signs that the beast of anti-Semitism is not dead, but only sleeping.
An equally smug person might have asked much the same question of Europe in 1932, especially pointing to the successful integration in German society of many Jews, decorated war veterans, statesmen, lawyers, doctors. These were intelligent people well aware of what was going on around them. Very few foresaw what was to come, because it seemed so unlikely.
Many of those who did guess their danger even so hurried in the wrong direction for safety, finding at the end of the line that their would-be murderers had caught up with them.
The trigger for the disaster which engulfed Daniel’s forebears was something almost nobody had foreseen. To this day, most in the West know very little about it.
It was a pact made in August 1939 between Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov. Fittingly, its details were cooked up in a Moscow house in a street called ‘Death Lane’ (‘Myortny Pereulok’).
It happened so suddenly that, when the Soviets needed Nazi flags to line Ribbentrop’s route from the airport to the Kremlin, they had to get them from a movie studio where they were making an anti-Nazi propaganda film.
But within a few weeks of it being signed, Nazi and Soviet troops were parading jointly in the conquered Polish city of Brest-Litovsk, and their two secret police forces were swapping prisoners.
Trains of sealed cattle wagons began to rumble, carrying previously contented, happy people to torment and death, sometimes for belonging to the wrong class, sometimes for belonging to the wrong ethnic group. They rolled towards Siberia (carrying Daniel’s father, then a young boy) and soon afterwards they rolled towards Belsen (carrying his mother, then a young girl).
Stalin is supposed to have remarked that while ‘a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic’, and it is unpleasantly true.
As you read of the iron bureaucracy, the frozen semi-starvation, the health-wrecking hard labour and the foul diseases caused by neglect and hunger inflicted on people much like you, you will perhaps realise for the first time the meaning of what has previously been no more than a flat sentence in a school history book.
Pictured: Beds representing the the number of Israeli hostages held by Hamas since 7 October are pictured outside the Jerusalem Municipality building on October 30
Too much passion and rage are loose in the world. Shouting, angry demonstrations fill the streets. The desire for sane compromise seems to have left us. Pictured: Pro-Palestine protest in London 4 November
You may be tempted to call the survival of Daniel’s parents ‘miraculous’. I would not do so. Amid the millions of destroyed lives, chance and officialdom sometimes left loopholes, but if Daniel’s forebears had not been people of exceptional courage and determination, that would not have been enough.
How does all this matter now? I should say it is because too much passion and rage are loose in the world. Shouting, angry demonstrations fill the streets. The desire for sane compromise seems to have left us. Some want perfect, utopian resolutions of things which simply cannot be fixed, like the endless argument about Israel’s existence.
For that is what it is. Few in the Arab world will ever truly accept the Jewish state’s existence, and only the moral and physical support of the free West will persuade them to find a way of living side by side.
Other idealists, especially those in the U.S., think American power can remake the world. They spent years attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan, before giving up and once again accepting Taliban rule there. They shattered the Middle East trying to create a democracy in Iraq, and have now given that up too, along with their equally doomed attempt to overthrow the Syrian state with the aid of Al Qaeda, and their creation of permanent chaos in Libya.
Next on their list of expensive idealistic failures is Ukraine, now full of graves and ruins. Most of these well-meaning adventures have helped fuel the migration crisis which has made Europe more unstable than at any point in my lifetime.
Each has made the world too used to war. Having lived most of my life in a post-war era, I now find myself in what looks unpleasantly like a pre-war age.
Daniel Finkelstein’s book, with its reverence for reason, is a still small voice, warning urgently that our sweet, peaceful and kindly world is a rarity in the history of humanity, easily overthrown by anger, power, greed and intolerance. Before we grow too righteously furious with our neighbours, we should heed its message.