Talk: Russian-Ukrainian conflict: An ‘unexpected’ crisis

Today I attended a presentation at Liverpool Hope University’s Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies entitled ‘Russian-Ukrainian conflict: An ‘unexpected’ crisis‘.  One guest and two staff speakers for about an hour then 20 minutes of Q&As.

The main talk was by guest Dr Vsevolod Samokhvalov (university lecturer, research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, policy analyst and journalist).  He told us about the two main narratives: the Russians invaded or it was the West’s fault.  Both are reductionist; he said the real situation is messier than messy.  He went on to explain the cultural history, how the Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia are closely related – “One nation divided by history” to use Putin’s words.  Sevastopol is culturally important to Russia as part of the Black Sea Region going back to ancient Greek times.  The region is ethnoculturally nationalistic Russki.  What the Russians really want is recognition by Western Europe.  The revolution in Ukraine was inevitable; the invasion of Crimea was an opportunity albeit “worse than a crime – a political mistake“.  Vsevolod gave us reasons for why this occurred, but this is a summary, not an essay.  Buy his book.

Next was Dr Natalia Vibla (Lecturer in Criminology at Liverpool Hope University).  She spoke of the human rights tragedies: over 10,000 killed (a quarter of them civilians) and 25,000 injured since 2014.  Some 25,000 people have been displaced.  There are hundreds in captivity and torture is being used by both sides.  Potential objectors are being accused of terrorist plots and typically get 20-year sentences.

Finally was Dr Taras Khomych (Lecturer in Theology at Liverpool Hope University).  He gave us the history and structure of the Orthodox church in Ukraine and the reaction of the various sections: unity, with the exception of the Orthodox Russian Church.  It has been a strongly religious country since post-Stalin.  The churches supported the protesters, as did the Jewish and Moslem leadership.  Protesting was seen as a pilgrimage from Russian fear to Christian dignity.  Many Russian Orthodox Church members left, and a number of Russian Orthodox Church parishes changed to other sections of the Eastern church.  Tartar Moslems offered the use of their mosque to Orthodox Christians, which was accepted.

Much of the following Q&A was about Russian fears and intentions.  Also questions about whether this was a new or continuing Cold War.  I think the consensus was Putin saw the opportunity to re-unite Russkis as part of his right wing ethnocultural nationalistic agenda and no further expansion was likely.

This morning there was a report on the radio about the armed forces needing more money to face the Russian threat.  BBC: “Army chief calls for investment to keep up with Russia“.  Telegraph: “Britain cannot keep up with Russian military advances, head of Army to warn as he makes case for more funding“.  In the context of today’s talk, that seems to me either the armed forces or NATO asking for funding for themselves.  Scaremongering to supplement the arms industry and their own ends.

The Guardian seems to agree in their analysis: “Does the UK really need to increase its defence spending?” – no.

Advice on assessing a source

I have just read a free ebook and I cannot determine if it is factual or not.  If anyone else is familiar with it, or looking for a distraction, I’d appreciate another’s opinion edit: no need; I’ve worked it out.

Title: The Diary of a U-boat Commander

By: Sir William Stephen Richard King-Hall

Described on FeedBooks: http://www.feedbooks.com/book/4208:The diary of a World War One U-Boat commander. As well as being a fascinating glimpse of life on the German U-boats during the intense submarine blockade, this also reminds us there were humans involved – on both sides of the action – as we read too of the intimate thoughts and intense love of a man longing for his sweetheart.

It begins after World War One with a U-Boat commander requesting a British officer returns another U-Boat commander’s personal diary.  The British officer refuses and decides he will get it translated and published.  What follows is the German’s diary, with translator’s notes.

It is categorised in the ebook collections as non-fiction.  But reading it, it doesn’t feel right.  It feels like someone writing a fictitious diary designed to show what a horrid man a German U-Boat commander is, but who could not get it published before the war ended and published it as it is instead.  As if it was meant as propaganda: “Look what we found”.

It is by (note I am careful to say he is not the author) Sir William Stephen Richard King-Hall.  He was a journalist, politician and playwright, suggesting he may have made the book up.  But he was a naval officer until 1929.

Wikipedia lists this book against Stephen King-Hall link and suggests he was the translator, for what that’s worth.

On ManyBooks, it is listed under ‘Fiction and Literature’ and the reviewers conclude it is fiction, yet plausible.

A quick skim through  A North Sea diary, 1914-1918 by Commander Stephen King-Hall, does not refer to the incident of him getting access to a U-boat commander’s stuff.

A description on Archive.org suggests it is fiction – warning contains spoilers.  They have an online copy of the original, with one review which also cannot determine if it is fiction or not.

A search for the details of the U-boat commander, Karl von Schenk of U122 … gives me the answer.  Of course there are fanatics who trace every ship and its commanding officer, duh.  I knew that.  Should have done that first.  He never existed.

Now, having written all that, I’m going to post it anyway, just as a way of reinforcing the message to myself: do not automatically trust sources that say they are genuine, even when published by distinguished honourable gentlemen with titles, honours and military careers.  (After all, he was also a politician… thoughtful )


Advice given to me:

For what it’s worth, Simon, I tend to look for reviews of books about which I have doubts in academic journals. If no academics have reviewed the book then I start to wonder. Obviously with so many books being published, many will not be reviewed so that’s not the end of it. In this case, I would have wondered about the fact that the author also wrote plays, children’s books and for Children’s Hour. Again, no doubt there are excellent historians who also write or wrote fiction, but, again, it raises a question. However, I gather from the reader reviews that it becomes obvious as you reach the final chapters that the book you asked about is fiction.

But even that isn’t enough to discredit it. King-Hall was apparently awarded a gold medal by the Royal Institution of International Affairs for his thesis on submarine warfare and served in the 11th submarine flotilla in the First World War. There is a possibility, therefore, that the technical detail could be accurate.

On the whole, though, if I had been faced with this question I would probably have put the book aside on the basis that I’ve got too much information from reliable sources without getting bogged down in figuring out how good this is.


My response:

You’ve described the path I took very accurately.  I bounced up and down on that see-saw of doubt many times.  I would have put it aside as irrelevant but for an essay but I wanted to use to practise determining the veracity of sources.  I get the impression part of A327 is teaching us to think “just who really wrote this, and why?*

I particularly wanted to know because the main character is not at all likeable, but totally plausible.  As a Prussian Junker, he gave opinions that seemed to explain how Germany was led by the sort of people who would start a war of conquest as a matter of entitlement.  What made me suspicious was the main character got to do a couple of cross-service activities on short postings and that felt unlikely.

But it was the consequences of its accuracy that bothered me.  Either I was learning valuable insights about German society and culture from a painfully honest artefact written from the heart, or I was being misled by a disingenuous and fatuous work of propaganda or revenge from an embittered victor.

Upon reflection, now knowing it is fiction says more about its author than it does about the Germans.  Knowing it to be fiction being passed off as factual diary, one could use it as evidence to claim “Look how the British want to blame the Prussians for the war, rub Germany’s nose in their loss, obviously the British wanted revenge out of hatred, and would make up lies to show how bad the Germans were, no wonder the Germans complained about the reparations, the reparations must have been unfair, WW2 was the fault of the British“.  Same artefact, totally opposite potential interpretation of history from the one deviously intended by the author.

Was there much material like this?  Were loads of people putting out anti-German literature or was this unusual?  Did it influence the Paris peace talks and European relations in the next two decades?  Alternatively, would anyone reading it at the time have laughed it off knowing full well it was just a light-hearted jab at the nasty stereotypical Hun by another veteran letting off steam?  I don’t know, and it makes me wonder.  What I suppose I’d need for that would be reviews of the book written at the time.

* They are.  Learning outcome 4: The ability to identify, gather and evaluate historical evidence and the work of historians critically; to appreciate the qualities of different kinds of texts, images, audio and visual sources; and see the need to adjust your approach in line with purpose.

Moslem or Muslim or what?

Taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Mussulman – plural Mussulmans or Mussulmen – archaic term for Muslim. From Persian musulmān, from muslim. [So it is valid, just old.]
  • Moslem – variant spelling of Muslim. [So that is also valid.]
  • Muslim – a follower of Islam. From Arabic, active participle of ‘aslama. [So if in doubt, use this.]
  • Muhammadan or Mohammedan – not favoured by Muslims and should be avoided.
  • Islam – from Arabic ‘islām meaning submission, from ‘aslama meaning ‘submit (to God)’.
  • Islamism – Islamic militancy or fundamentalism.
  • Islamist (or Islamicist) – derivative term from Islamism, so militant Islamism or Islamic fundamentalist.

So, IS / ISIS / ISIL could be called ‘the Islamist terrorists’, although there are other groups so it would not differentiate them from the others. ‘Islamist State’, perhaps?  It would be accurate, and annoy them by not quite being what they call themselves.

The call for “Why won’t Moslems protest against Moslem terrorism” could be responded to with this:

We say they are not Moslems, they are Islamists, and we believe what they do is against Islam, not for it” and possibly add “and that is why we say they are not Moslems.

Does that help?  It has helped me.