Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (658)
In significant times, some people of little prominence nevertheless have a major role to play, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk
In times of international crises, unknown or unfamiliar characters appear on the stage of events to play a role that no one had expected of them. Their roles vary from turning up the heat of the crisis to tempering its severity. As a result of these personalities entering the stage, their names sometimes appear in history books, although at other times they disappear with the close of the event. This occurred in the summer of 1939 when crisis seized international relations by the collar and the drums of war could be heard, leading Al-Ahram to examine the history of some of these personalities and subsequently publish their biographies when WWII broke out that autumn.
As noted above, most of the personalities who appear out of the blue to fill eyes and ears at the time when they are playing their role, soon disappear and go on their way following their performance. This calls for another look at their biographies and an invitation to historians and writers of drama to investigate the various aspects of their lives in order to present them in a manner fitting to the role they played, even if it was temporary.
Al-Ahram began to present these unknown personalities in relation to the flare-up of the Polish Corridor crisis. This was the corridor created by the peace treaties signed following WWI in order to allow the nascent Polish republic access to the Baltic Sea via German territory. This had been accepted by the vanquished German state following the Great War, but once it regained its strength, and particularly after the Nazis assumed rule in 1933, it was not expected that Hitler and his government would accept that a part of its national territory be removed for the benefit of a nation whose majority was at one time under the rule of the kingdom of Prussia, which had unified Germany.
It was under these circumstances that the Polish minister of foreign affairs, Colonel Beck, imposed his name upon the pages of newspapers and the telegraphs of news agencies. Al-Ahram was thus inspired to dedicate the first of its series titled "The men of today" to this nearly unknown personality, as the paper itself acknowledged him to be. It opened its discussion of him by saying, "The name of Mr Beck was restricted to a narrow scope in 1933, but his name has become, overnight, widespread among all political milieus since his assuming a post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He descends from a family that resided in Krakow, and his father held a high post. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was entrusted to him following the establishment of the Republic of Poland."
The subject of this biography received his education in engineering in Vienna and joined the Polish brigades that were fighting for liberation from Russia. When the war ended, he was in the artillery squadron, and following the war he became the head of the office of the minister of war, and then the undersecretary to the Ministry of the Interior in 1920.
Circumstances aided his taking up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the minister was rarely in the country, preferring to reside in Geneva and Paris and only returning to the Polish capital when foreign policy required him to attend sessions of the Polish parliament. This resulted in Beck undertaking the running of the ministry's affairs during the minister's lengthy absences.
On this personality that was, and remains, unknown to Egyptian and Arab readers, Al-Ahram stated, "His subordinates did not fail to fully appreciate his political abilities or his competency in management. Finally, the minister of foreign affairs, Mr Zaleski, resigned from the ministry and the prime minister, Mr Pilsudski, appointed him as a successor to the resigned minister."
From that time on, Beck applied a special approach to his policies that cannot be fully comprehended except by taking into consideration Poland's geographic location. These policies targeted, each and every time, the aspirations of Poland's two incredibly large and powerful neighbours, Russia and Germany.
Before closing the biography, its author remembered to offer a human touch about the man. He stated that Beck was married to a beautiful woman who had borne him two children. "He is passionate about string music and is talented in playing the violin."
At this point Al-Ahram halted its discussion of Beck and left it to other authors to complete the picture.
MR CORDELL HULL, the US secretary of state, was the second character Al-Ahram held as seeking an author. He was born on 2 October 1871 to middle-class parents. He obtained a law degree from Cumberland University in 1891 and continued his studies until he obtained a doctoral degree.
After obtaining his law degree, Mr Hull was registered as a lawyer. He remained such until 1897, when two years later he joined the army at the rank of captain and served in the Spanish-American War. In 1903, he was appointed a judge and was elected as a member of Congress in 1907, and he remained thus until 1931. Two years later, Franklin Roosevelt became president and entrusted him with the affairs of the State Department.
The author of Hull's biography showed his admiration for the man whose competence and individual judgment led the president to entrust him with many of the functions that he could have done himself. He thus enjoyed significant influence and was able to propose initiatives of an international scope, the most important of which was the "momentous proclamation" he directed on 16 July 1937 to all states. It included 14 points that Al-Ahram 's writer was careful to recount:
- General peace must be maintained.
- The use of force must be abstained from, as well as interference in the domestic affairs of nations.
- Self-control must be exercised in domestic strife within a single nation as well as with other nations.
- Problems must be settled through peaceful negotiations.
- International agreements must be respected.
- Treaties are sacred but open to revision in accordance with that demanded by circumstances.
- States must respect each others' rights and carry out obligations.
- International law must be strengthened and supported.
- Economic security among all peoples must be protected.
- Custom tariffs must be decreased and eliminated.
- Economic opportunities must be made equal between states.
- Arms must be limited and decreased wherever possible.
- The United States must maintain war power that enables it to defend itself.
- Alliances may not be entered into; it is sufficient to cooperate to support principles.
On the influence of Hull's proclamation, Al-Ahram wrote that two years following its issue the United States of America complied with it in regard to its policy towards Palestine after it announced that it was not able to interfere in the affairs of that country except to the extent required to protect the rights of its citizens there. "Among the most important of Mr Hull's recent actions was the amendment of the law on neutrality that prohibits interference through financial aid in foreign wars."
When Egyptian readers read the American secretary of state's biography in Al-Ahram the morning of 18 June 1939, the principles of American President Woodrow Wilson must have come to mind. He issued these principles when his country was entering into WWI, and they also amounted to a total of 14.
IT WAS IN A NARRATIVE STYLE that Al-Ahram presented the biography of the third character searching for an author. His name was Grigore Gafencu, and the post he held was that of Romania's minister of foreign affairs. Al-Ahram began his biography in the following manner.
"At the beginning of the 19th century, in the city of Edinburgh in Scotland, there was a man named John Sanders who was a curator at one of the art museums. One day, he was commissioned to undertake the same duty at one of the Tsar's museums in Petersburg. And thus he travelled to his new place of work, and his wife and their small son travelled with him.
"While he was performing his job in the best manner possible and thought that the air had cleared for him, the Tsar issued an order for his banishment to a small village in Bessarabia near the Romanian border. The reason for his exile was that they knew he was a Freemason. This man was the father of Gafencu, Romania's foreign minister. Later John Sanders left Bessarabia and sought refuge in Romania. He was 36 years old, and changed his name to Gafencu."
Following this narrative introduction, the writer presented the life of his son called Grigore, whose education concerned his father to the point that he sent him to a boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland. He then went to law school in Paris, and from then on began to practice journalism. He sent his articles to a French-oriented Romanian newspaper.
The writer of the biography then returned to his narrative style and told that one day, as our friend was sitting in a cafe in the French capital, he heard two young German men speaking about the French in a tone bespeaking contempt and scorn. He slapped one of them and scolded the other for his words, leading those present to intervene. One of them told him that he was a foreigner and not French, and he responded that he was in fact so, but that he was prepared to fight for the sake of France. And truly so, after WWI began, he volunteered in the French air force. His courage was great, and he was rewarded with one of the most honourable medals.
Following the war, Grigore returned to Romania and worked in journalism until he came to run Timpul newspaper, which was one of the most important newspapers in Bucharest at that time. The editorials he wrote indicated that he was one of the most competent journalists with the widest experience in the foreign policies of his country, to the point that some gave him the name of the British foreign secretary famous at that time, and he thus became the "Eden of Romania."
It was thus not strange for King Carol to select him for the portfolio of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had held several important posts prior to that -- the undersecretary of the cabinet, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then the minister of transportation -- and had secured his presence in each. This led the prime minister, who Romanians described as an "iron man," to select him as the minister of foreign affairs at a time when political crises were flaring up.
The author of the biography then returned a third time to a narrative style, saying that the telephone rang while Gafencu was engrossed in the writing of an editorial for Timpul newspaper. He answered, and heard a voice say, "Hello. Are you Gafencu? I am the king speaking, and I have entrusted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to you."
This writer also differed from those before him in the care he gave to the human side of the Romanian foreign minister's life. He dedicated considerable space to his Parisian wife, noting that she, in turn, played a role in journalism and supervised the women's page in Timpul newspaper. "After preparing her page, she would return to her home that she had made into a sanctuary of comfort in addition to its sophistication inside and out. She had a large collection of paintings and statues that she had created, as well as those of famous artists. And in addition to these art treasures, her husband's library comprised many precious books."
One imagines that those who read this article in Al-Ahram 's 30 June 1939 issue envied Gafencu for his wife more than for his post.
THE FOURTH CHARACTER in need of an author was General Gamelin. The reason for his selection was the agreement between Britain and France on him being a commander in their armies should war break out. The beginning of his biography began in the form of a story which told that during WWI, while General Joffre was preparing for the famous Battle of the Marne to prevent the German army from entering French territory, he entered the meeting place of the officers of his general staff with a piece of paper in his hand concerning resistance of the German army after the French had retreated before it. He called on Gamelin and asked him to read the piece of paper in his hand. He read it and then returned it to his superior. One word was written on it -- "attack." The author of this biography concluded from this fact that this officer had the confidence of his commander.
Following the war, the man continued to be promoted until Daladier, the prime minister and minister of national defence, issued an edict appointing Gamelin the vice president of the supreme war council and general commander of the French land, air and naval forces. "And thus he is equivalent to the commanders of the armies of other states who have been promoted to the rank of marshal."
By using the "flashback" technique, the author of this biography then went back to follow the military history of this new commander. Gamelin graduated from the Saint-Cyr military college in 1893 and earned a general staff diploma from the higher military college in 1901. In 1906, he joined the service of General Joffre, and was promoted to the rank of commander and then lieutenant colonel. In 1913, he joined the commanding centre for the north-eastern army, where he commanded a brigade.
Following the war his military and management skills were brought to the forefront when he was commissioned as the head of the French military expedition to Brazil. "Following the catastrophe of Suweida in the Druze mountains, he was sent to Syria to succeed General Sarrail. Through his political and military approaches, he was able to prevent the situation from boiling over in Syria and restore peace. He joined gentleness with harshness if that was required."
In 1930 he was appointed an aide to the general chief of staff, and when he reached retirement age in 1934, the minister of war, Marshal Petain, issued a decree extending his service. In the same year he made him the chief of general staff and the vice president of the supreme war council to succeed General Weygand, who had retired.
Following this, the author of this biography gave attention to Gamelin's work performance he was famed for. Despite surpassing 60 years of age, he was famed for his balanced mind, his perseverance in his work, and his understanding of all military matters pertaining to the army, especially after the material and behavioural changes that took place in armies following WWI. "Every day he goes to his office and calls his aides and reads and examines the files with them and discusses matters with them in detail. He is gifted with a memory that astonishes them."
As for his personal life, Gamelin was passionate about mountain climbing and tennis. He was skilled at riding horses despite his advance in years "and it is recounted that he was never sick and has health of steel. He follows no dietary regime, and sleeps early. He is passionate about reading and favours philosophical books of a humanistic nature. He loves history and is drawn to photography and music. He prefers classical theatre, and does not care to frequent the cinema."
If the author of the French general's biography had waited a few months, he would have seen WWII break out and the Nazi army sack Belgium en route to France without our friend succeeding in halting it. He was dismissed on 19 May 1940 to be succeeded by General Weygand, a fact that would have changed his lofty opinion.
THE LAST OF THE CHARACTERS in search of an author presented by Al-Ahram was British -- Stephen King-Hall, "one of the fiercest supporters of peace and the author of several books and plays that have enjoyed great success." He had worked in the British navy and left it 10 years earlier after having reached the rank of commander. He then preoccupied himself with literature and politics, two fields in which he gained widespread fame. His co-patriots viewed him as eccentric, and yet he "suddenly became known to all, not only in England but also in France, the United States, Germany, and the rest of the world."
The reason for this was in the face of the international situation causing anxiety, King-Hall decided to try out a unique experiment. "One evening his secretary carried to the mail department piles of letters, and the following day 50,000 Germans received a letter signed by Stephen King-Hall. In these letters the former officer explained to Germans in their own language the British perspective towards the international events and warned them against the lies and fabrications their press distributed."
These letters made a significant impact and their author received numerous replies. This led Goebbels, the Reich's minister of propaganda, to write a lengthy article that was published in all the German newspapers and included numerous insults to King-Hall and his country. The Nazi radio stations conducted a large-scale campaign against the British officer and his letters.
In response, King-Hall sent an open letter to Goebbels in which he expressed his sorrow over the violation of the freedom of his personal communications. "In reality, I am forced to make this conclusion as long as you continue this campaign via the press and the radio against the statements I made in personal letters sent to a number of Germans." He then turned satirical -- "I don't see your name in my address book but I will record it with all pleasure if you are interested in reading my news."
His open letter attempted to address all the falsities in Goebbels' response. He wrote, "You spend your time deceiving the people of your country, but you will be forced, sooner or later, to cease, for the truth will come out and you will not be able to continue laughing at the world forever."
The violent German response did not prevent King-Hall from sending a second batch of 50,000 letters, most of which reached their receivers despite the strict security precautions. Again, Goebbels responded, accusing the author of the letters of working on the advice of Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary at the time. Simultaneously, he followed King- Hall's lead in sending personal letters to a number of the English in Scotland. In them he attacked those letters, describing them as being issued from the stockroom of Downing Street (the headquarters of the British cabinet).
The second step of the British writer was to issue a weekly newspaper titled King-Hall's New Letters that sought to "stress the truth, reveal treachery, and do away with malice and hate." It was widely distributed in all corners of the world and its subscribers reached 55,000, some of whom were in Germany, Italy and Japan, in addition to distant countries such as Malaysia and the Seychelles Islands.
King-Hall received numerous responses from Germans, some of whom declared their full support for Hitler and others who stated that the German people did not want war but did not have any influence "and unfortunately are not able to freely express their opinion."
The author of King-Hall's biography concluded by noting that the man intended to nominate himself for membership in the House of Commons in the following elections, and that if he were elected, the issue of peace would gain a strong defender.
Yet closely reading this biography confirms that the issue was not far from the war between the British and German intelligence agencies. This is made clear by the massive scale of the letters our friends sent, a feat that greatly surpasses the abilities of a single individual.