Posts Tagged ‘nazi germany’

You may have heard of this person. The name sounds unusual. It doesn’t sound English. Is he something to do with music? Is he a painter? If you have anything to do with architecture or historic buildings you will know who he is, or rather was.

nikolaus pevsner, art, architecture, historian

Nikolaus Pevsner
1902-1983
‘Art history in England was, at its worst, an activity a bit like stamp collecting’

Often referred to as ‘Pevsner’, Sir Nikolaus Bernhard Leon Pevsner, was a German-born British scholar of the history of art and architecture. He is best known for his extraordinary series of county-by-county architectural gazetteers, The Buildings of England, published between 1951 and 1974, and for his classic An Outline of European Architecture published by Penguin in 1942 as a Pelican paperback. Outline has the notable quote:

A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.

An Outline of European Architecture went into seven editions, was translated into sixteen languages, and sold more than half a million copies.

Pevsner was born Leipzig, Saxony in 1902, the son of a Jewish fur importer. In 1933 he was forced out of his teaching post in Göttingen, where he lectured on the history of art and architecture, a result of the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state, though earlier he had been an enthusiast of Hitler’s proposals for regenerating Germany economically. He moved to England where he rebuilt his life. By the late 1950s he was a national institution.

nikolaus pevsner, european architecture

First published in 1942, Nikolaus Pevsner’s grand tour of Romanesque basilicas, Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance villas and Baroque churches has become a seminal work which has inspired countless students of architecture.

Amongst many distinguished positions, Pevsner was the first professor of art history at Birkbeck, University of London (from where he would eventually retire in 1969); he was acting editor for the Architectural Review between 1943 to 1945, he was Slade professor at Cambridge for a record six years from 1949 to 1955, and he was a founding member in 1957 of the Victorian Society.

The unique inventory of English buildings contained in the 20,000 pages and forty-six volumes of The Buildings of England, has been universally acclaimed as a triumph of scholarship, insight and perseverance. Is it said that no student or scholar of architecture would think of touring England today without a ‘Pevsner’ in their hand (perhaps one of a handful of nouns derived from the name of a person). But how did it all start?

In England, Pevsner was surprised to find that there was no comparable guide to English architecture along the lines of the invaluable Handbook of German Monuments published by the pioneering architectural historian Georg Dehio who had cycled his way round every important building in Germany. Following an invitation from Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, to suggest ideas for future publications, he proposed a series of pocket-sized county guides to be sold at an affordable price.

nikolaus pevsner, field trip, cathedrals

Nikolaus Pevsner leads a field trip on cathedrals

Work began on the series in 1946. Two part-time assistants, both German refugee art historians, were employed by Penguin to prepare notes for Pevsner, working in libraries and amassing a huge file of notes on every place of interest. Then during the Easter and Summer breaks, the only time that Pevsner could afford to take out from his other commitments, he would take off for the next county in his list in an old Wolseley Hornet car often driven by his wife Karola (‘Lola’). They would drive from dawn until dusk visiting each and every building of historic or architectural interest, usually briefly, with Pevsner scribbling in a notebook. They stayed in hotels, inns and B&Bs, and every evening long into the night, Pevsner would write the first draft at whatever table was to hand. It was a demanding and hectic schedule, a monumental task.

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david attenborough, naturalist, overpopulation

Sir David Attenborough, Naturalist (b1926)
‘The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us.’

Governments seem unable or unwilling to face up to the alarming consequences of an ever-increasing world population – projected by the United Nations to increase from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 million by 2050 (source) – and ever-increasing consumption. Climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels; water and food shortages; the destruction of forests, species extinction and loss of biodiversity; competition for dwindling mineral resources, as well as the inevitability of increasing human conflict.  Is this because voters in developed  (democratic) countries usually vote their governments in or out on the basis of whether they are able to deliver economic growth. Growth that has to be achieved at almost any price, and which at present relies on the exploitation of unsustainable resources?

So what chance is there that the governments of developing countries, with 5.9 billion people who like us will want cars and will want to fly to distant places, what chance is there that their governments will be able to act differently? For us as individuals, is it a case of out of sight out of mind? Are we expecting that technology will come to the rescue, that something will turn up?

This brings to mind the oft-quoted lines:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear:
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

winston churchill, gathering storm, second world war, house of commons, nazi

The Gathering Storm, the first of six volumes by Winston Churchill on The Second World War in which he recalls warning the House of Commons in 1935, to little avail, of the growing threat from Nazi Germany

This short poem was quoted by Winston Churchill in the first volume, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, of his six-volume history, The Second World War. On page 110, he recalls a debate in the House of Commons on 19 March 1935 on the air estimates (ie. money to pay for the production of aircraft) when as a back bencher he challenged the government’s assurances that the budget was adequate to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany, who had reached parity with Britain in the number of aircraft. He wrote ‘Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make  Parliament and the nation heed the warning  … was an experience most painful’.

Reflecting on the debate, he said ‘there lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown author about a railway accident, I had learnt from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton’. He then quotes the lines above, and ends ‘However, I did not repeat them’. In this clip from the 2002 TV film, The Gathering Storm, which stars Albert Finney as Churchill, and Vanessa Redgrave as Clemmie, his wife, Churchill angrily quotes the lines following his warnings being ignored by the government.

The poem was in fact taken from a much longer poem titled Death and His Brother Sleep which appeared in Volume 99 of Punch magazine published on 4 October 1890 and which was attributed to ‘Queen Mab’. The poem was written by Edwin James Milliken (1839 -1897) who, as well as being a poet, was an editor of Punch, a journalist and satirical humorist. The shorter poem is made up of the first two lines and last four lines of Death and His Brother Sleep, but how Churchill came to use only these lines is not known, though they do have a dramatic effect.

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Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax

Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax

Admiral the Hon. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, KCB, DSO, JP, DL was the splendidly named British half of the Anglo-French delegation sent to Moscow in August 1939 to discuss with Stalin a possible anti-Nazi alliance. This was before the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in September 1939.

Many historians have argued that Drax was a blimpish member of the naval hierarchy, when sending a general would be more appropriate, and that the delegation was deliberately lowly. The delegation was also sent by sea in an elderly passenger ship The City of Exeter, which took five days to get to Leningrad, arriving on 10 August. It was also said that the British Embassy in Moscow was appalled at the low status of the delegation, which ought to have been headed by Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, himself, as had been previously requested by the Soviet Ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky. However before he left, Drax had been told by Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, and Halifax, to try and spin the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. Maisky also found out from intelligence reports that the delegation would not be able to make any decisions on the spot. Negotiations dragged on for ten days despite an invasion of Poland by Germany becoming more and more likely.

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Christine Granville, Polish-born, British Second World War secret agent

Christine Granville, Polish-born British WWII secret agent

Over 140 agents from the highly secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) died in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. The SOE was formed in July 1940 on the direct orders of the prime minister, Winston Churchill, who wanted a clandestine army ‘… to set Europe ablaze’. If captured, these agents faced severe interrogation, and possible torture and execution. Over 60 women served in the SOE.

In Kensal Green Cemetery in west London is the grave of one of the women who survived the war, Christine Granville (born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland), who became celebrated for her daring exploits in intelligence and irregular-warfare missions in Nazi-occupied Poland and France. She became a British agent months before the SOE was founded, and began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville in 1941, a name she legally adopted on naturalisation as a British citizen in December 1946. Skarbek was one of the longest-serving of all Britain’s wartime women agents, and she was awarded the George Cross in 1944, and the Croix de Guerre in recognition of her contribution to the liberation of France.
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