Saturday, 27 December 2008

Murder and Madness on Sunset Strip

The so-called Holy Land is one of the unholiest places on the planet. And there a war is being waged against an imprisoned people; a people living in what is euphemistically called a 'strip', a 'strip' which is in reality a prison. These people have no medicine, food, water or other resources of their own and depend on UN charities and other charities to survive. In desperation a few rockets which are not much more than hand-grenades on sticks and lack guidance systems are launched in the direction of the enemy; an enemy armed to the eyeballs with all the latest hi-tec American equipment and an arsenal of atom bombs.
Today, at first count 155 inhabitants, including the usual percentage of women and children, of the 'strip' are dead and 250 more are seriously wounded. A massive air attack by Israel is responsible. It is an outrage. It is disgusting. It is criminal. No, it is worse than criminal. It is beyond belief that a powerful military machine can be used with impunity to put down what is little more than a token of defiance from the impoverished and imprisoned. There must be a law against it. Those responsible must be brought to justice.
Tonight on the 'strip' the sun will set yet again on a scene of misery and devastation. Throughout the world the suicide bombers will already be forming new and longer queues ouside the mosques and prayer houses. The rest of us may ultimately have to count the cost of Israeli stupidity.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Remembering a real hero, 50 years on

In one of the buildings where I used work there's a plaque on the wall. I, and many others, would pass it every day. Many times I would stop and read it. Sometimes I would point it out to a visitor. On the plaque is written:
This tablet
is erected to perpetuate the memory of
James O'Donnell MM & Bar Detective Inspector
County Borough of Blackburn Police
To whom has been posthumously awarded
'The Queen's Police Medal for Gallantry'
who died from gunshot wounds received
in the execution of his duty
on the 13th December 1958

Mike Griffin, the editor of my quarterly pensioners newsletter writes: On this 50th anniversary of his death, it is proper to remember with gratitude and pride the service that this remarkable man gave to this country. I agree.

James O'Donnell was a native of Bolton, then a County Borough in Lancashire. During the war he served in the Irish Guards. On the 10th May 1940 the German Army invaded neutral Holland. Three days later, manning an anti-aircraft gun on the Hook of Holland jetty which was being bombed and machine-gunned, Lance Sergeant O'Donnell fired a continuous stream of tracer at enemy aircraft until he lost consciousness from machine-gun wounds. This courageous action gave Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Government the opportunity to sail to Dover. Two days later, lying in hospital in the Hague, O'Donnell was captured.
He soon found himself in prison in Poland. He managed to escape on at least a dozen occasions, including once by hiding in a box and another time by hiding in a sack, but always, being unable to get passable forged papers, he was recaptured within a few days. One Gestapo official managed to catch him twice. The longest time he was able to remain at large was for a period of 10 days. Finally, in April 1945, he escaped for good and rejoined his regiment in Bergen after an absence of 4 years and 11 months.

After the war O'Donnell rejoined Blackburn Police where he rose to the rank of Detective Inspector and head of the Criminal Investigation Department. It must be remembered that British Police Officers in uniform and their detective colleagues were in those days, as they are today for the most part, unarmed.
On 12th December 1958 at 11.35pm two constables, Jack Covill and Jack Riley, were called to a terraced house in Brewery Street, near to the police station. On arrival they found the front door barricaded and the occupant Henry King standing at the back door with a shotgun in his hands. King had been drinking heavily. He had purchased a shotgun earlier in the day. It was his intention to kill his wife and baby. The family was crowded into the back room.
Constable Covill told King to hand over the gun. King immediately shot Covill in the groin. He then turned the gun on his wife and fatally shot her. Meanwhile Constable Riley, acting swiftly, was able to pull his colleague to safety. It would take Covill a year to recover from his injuries.
Detective Inspector O'Donnell and Detective Inspector Harrison arrived at the house and King, who knew O'Donnell, allowed them entry. Shortly after they had entered King fatally shot O'Donnell in the chest at close range. Detective Inspector Harrison then threw a chair at King, who was now pointing the weapon in his direction, and in the confusion managed to get out of the house. The incident ended at 2.15am the following morning when armed police officers entered the house after using tear gas and arrested King.

In a world where the term 'hero' is much abused we would do well to reflect on what the word really means, or what it ought to mean.

Updated 6 July 2012: Please see comment box re information forwarded by M John Halliwell re another 'hero' in connection with this post. I am sorry for the inadvertent omission. GW.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Craig Ewart, dying with dignity

Hamlet: To be, or not to be - that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep -
No more - and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consumation
Devoutly to be wished. To die - to sleep -
To sleep - perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause [...]
[...] Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all [...]

The case of Craig Ewart, 59, a former university lecturer from Yorkshire, England, has raised a stormy debate in Great Britain. Ewart took his own life at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. He swallowed a handful of tablets and turned off his own oxygen supply. There was no-one forcing him to do this. It was his free decision. It was his own life that he himself was ending.
Phil Willis, the Member of Parliament for Ewart's constituency in Yorkshire is reported, in The Northern Echo, to have said: I don't believe anyone has the right to take their own life.
What Mr Willis and his ilk believe is naive in the extreme and irrelevant. People have always taken their own lives and will doubtless continue to do so. Mr Willis might like to consider the situation in countries such as Roman Catholic Austria where any discussion of suicide is conveniently swept under the nearest church doormat. In these types of societies persons determined to take their own lives often have do so in a way designed to protect their families from the stigma attached to suicide; for example by crashing their car at high speed. Unfortunately this tactic all too often results in the deaths or serious injury of innocent persons who happen to be in the vicinity.
Presumably, as Mr Willis ruminates it, it is better for potential suiciders in his constituency to consider the use of tried and tested methods like blasting one's teeth into the bedroom ceiling with a double-barrelled shotgun or cutting into one's jugular in the bathtub. Never mind about the shock and trauma this will cause to family and friends. Or about the mess that somebody else will have to come and clean up.
Far better then, than all this hypocrisy, would be to provide the terminally ill patient whose mind and body is in rapid decline, after appropriate discussion with doctor and family, the opportunity to end his own life with dignity and to depart with his mind at peace with the world; leaving one's nearest and dearest with no fardels to bear.
One of several advantages that the Dignitas method of taking one's quietus has over traditional methods is that of time factor. It takes longer. Hamlet has time to mull on the consequences. He has time, in Shakespeare's tragedy, to change his mind. This is something that the suicider who leaps into the air from the roof of the multi-storey carpark doesn't have. He cannot change his mind at the last second and propel himself back to his starting point. He must go on with the act. The tragedy is, he may survive; his crumpled and crippled body may be saved by medical skill.
Another advantage of the Dignitas method is that some inncocent stranger is not forced to particpate in the act. Consider the inter-city train driver who suddenly finds a suicider standing on the line. The driver has no time to react. He has no choice but to kill. It's the nightmare scenario in the real sense of the word. The driver is left with Hamlet's fardels. What shall he do with them Mr Willis? He can only take them home. It's all part of the job.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Laughing Hangman and other stories

Country squires in fur coats and farmers in rags, all lumped together. And all ages from confused old men to frightened children. And alone, in groups, or in lines; from trees, from telegraph poles, or the gallows. Some with their caps and hats on their heads. And also two women; both young and pretty. And the spectators, often posing for photos. A soldier who appears to be amused stands over the body of a Ukrainian priest. Nazi criminals? You have to ask!
Anton Holzer's collection of photographs speaks volumes. And will shock; for the facts are not yet known in the wider world. It's a photographic story that demonstrates that the old Austrian K.u.K. Army in the Balkans, in Poland and in Russia was not very much better than the German Wehrmacht in World War II with its contribution to the Holocaust. In Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, along the Adriatic and in Galicia not thousands but tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the vast majority without any legal process and only because of hysterical outbursts from K.u.K. officers who thought every civilian was a spy, were summarily executed.
The worst affected were the Ukrainians and the Jews. In East Galicia every constable, watchman, sergeant, had the power to order that every alleged spy, every arbitary suspect, could be hanged without any formalities. The newspapers carried photos of arrests and public executions; Russian Spy Arrested, Farmer is Suspected Spy, Suspicious Female Spy Captured, German Gendarme with a Jewish Spy, were typical captions.
The public hangings were photographed and went on sale as postcards. The fear of spies had to be widely spread. Training courses for potential hangmen were available.
The K.u.K. army was ordered to spread terror: In Serbian border towns and villages take hostages. In the event of any incidents and to justify hostages burn down the place, to paraphrase an instruction to military commanders dated 12th August 1914. The first massacre of Serbian civilians took place in the third week of the war.
At an execution of a prominent prisoner a photograph was taken of Vienna's laughing hangman, Josef Lang, who was brought in for the occasion; dressed in bow-tie and bowler hat Lang stands smiling over the corpse of Cesare Battisti. He is surrounded by a laughing crowd of civilians and soldiers. Battisti, a former K.u.K. politician was an Italian patriot and had therefore joined the Italian Army. When he was captured by the Austrians, he was imprisoned, charged with betrayal and hanged in public.
In Sabac on 18th August 1914 Field Marshal Lieutenant Kasimir von Lütgendorf ordered three of his own soldiers to be executed for being drunk. The bloody execution, carried out with bayonets, took place in the square directly outside the town's church. In 1920 Lütgendorf was sentenced to 6 months military detention but without loss of rank or military honours.
Anton Holzer's book Das Lächeln der Henker - Der unbekannte Krieg gegen die Zivilbevölkerung 1914-1918* (Primus Verlag) will not be widely read in Austria says reviewer Hellmut Butterweck in the Wiener Zeitung newspaper dated 12th December 2008.
This theme is an indigestible morsel for Austrian self-image, he concludes.

*The Smile of the Hangman - the unknown war against the civil population 1914-1918

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Recollecting - Looted Art and Restitution

Outside Vienna's Museum of Applied and Contemporary Arts there is an old car. The car is in a large red container with one open side. It is an exhibit in an exhibtion titled Recollecting: Raub und Restitution / Looted Art and Restitution. The car is a 1931 Fiat 522C. It once belonged to a respected Vienna citizen, a man called Moritz Glückselig. In 1938 the vehicle was confiscated by the authorities. The reason was simple. The owner was Jewish. As a Jew he had no right to posses a car. Did he not know of the Jüdisches Gut wird Volksgut law which said Jewish property is the People's Property? It would appear not.
By 3rd December 1939, another new law regarding motor cars and motor cycles was on the books. This new law prohibited Jews from driving. Not much use having a car then, even such a handsome and prestigious vehicle as a Fiat 522C. And anyway you can't drive a car when you are locked-up in Dachau and Buchenwald, as Mr Glückselig was soon to find out. Once Mr Glückselig was safely ensconced in his new quarters his People's vehicle was disposed of by the VUGESTA, the Secret Police for the Administration of Jewish Relocation Property whose other duties included collecting Reich Flight Tax (this has nothing to do with airline fuel surcharges by the way). Mr Glückselig did not perish in Buchenwald and he was not shipped to Auschwitz. He later surfaced in Argentina where he opened a Deli.
Brigitte Bermann-Fischer was fond of her Camille Pissarro painting Le Quai Malaquais et l'Institut until the VUGESTA knocked on the door and took it away along with all her other property including her books; her favourites being those on Austrian music. In 2002 she found her books in the Austrian National Library. She knew they were hers because they had her name and her ex libris inside their front covers. In 2007, after years of searching, she found her beloved painting. It was in the Kantonalbank in Zürich.
The People's new artworks were distributed by VUGESTA through the Zentralstelle für Denkmalschutz the 'Central Office for the Protection of Monuments'. This latter organization was renamed the Institut für Denkmalpflege the 'Institute for the Care of Monuments' in 1940. Under the Führervorbehalt that is the Führer Priority Proviso of 1938 a man named Hans Posse was appointed to select the works deemed suitable for the proposed Führermuseum in Linz, Upper Austria. The last photo of the Führer in his Berlin Bunker shows him gazing lovingly at a plywood model of the capital of Ostmark and presumably the Führermuseum.
The banker Phillip Gomprez was a wealthy man. He lived in Palais Tedesco (The German Palace) in Vienna's fashionable shopping street, Kärntnerstraße. He fled with his family to Brno (Czech) and made his way from there to Switzerland. His sister Marie died in Brno in 1940, the year the VUGESTA cleared out the Palais Tedesco. Cornelia died in Bern in 1944. Phillip Gomprez passed away in 1948 in Montreux. Ten of his artworks had the honour of being selected for the Linz museum. Art was moved by truck or train in the night. Sometimes in crates, other times under a tarpaulin. Paintings were sold in Switzerland or like two of Gomprez's favourite paintings, a Gauermann and a Spitzweg, they were hidden in tunnels in Austrian salt mines.
In 1945 the US Army created four collecting points in a former NSDAP building in Munich. Here works of art were brought with a view to restoring them to their owners. When the Americans closed the collecting points in 1950 they handed 1,000 artworks to Austria on the understanding that they should try to trace the owners and return the property. The Austrians decided to put the artworks in a safe place. And where is safer than a monastery? The Federal Office for the Care of Monuments situated in the Carthusian Monastery at Mauerbach was just the place. Here work to trace the owners of 8,000 stolen artworks could be carried on in an atmosphere of peace, tranquility and quiet. Or could it? Very few works were returned. Work seemed to go on at a snail's pace or more aptly at the pace of a monk wandering around a quadrangle deep in thought, deep in prayer. In 1996, following the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets "the remaining objects" were auctioned off at the Mauerbach Benefit Sale.
An interesting side to the exhibition is the appearance of lists of appropriated property with official Nazi stamps and signatures and comments regarding the estimated value of articles. A family's photos and other personal effects would be entered on the same typed official lists as artworks and then marked down by a qualified official in the appropriate column in red ink as wertlos, that is to say 'of no worth', before disappearing forever.