Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Road to Berlin

If you mention the name “Al Stewart” to someone, if he recognizes the name at all, he’ll say, “Oh, yeah— isn’t he that pop singer from the ‘70s, the one who sang ‘Year of the Cat.’?”

Al Stewart is indeed that singer, but there’s a lot more to Al Stewart than “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” He has an unsurpassed body of work, and is still composing and performing excellent songs.

Raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945Stewart’s music is intricate and sophisticated, but his lyrics have always been what capture my attention. I consider him the greatest living lyricist writing in English. To top it all off, he’s a history buff, and many of his songs delve into historical themes with an eloquent attention to detail. He has released two albums, Past, Present, and Future (1974) and Between the Wars (1995), which are devoted entirely to historical themes.

We have occasionally alluded to and quoted from Al Stewart lyrics here at Gates of Vienna, but it’s time to feature an entire song. This is one of his finest: from Past, Present, and Future, it tells the story of the Second World War from the point of view of a low-ranking Soviet soldier.

The music is just as good as the lyrics; I recommend buying the CD. Various other songs on the album feature Warren Harding, Ernst Röhm, and Admiral Fisher.
- - - - - - - - - -
Roads to Moscow
by Al Stewart

They crossed over the border the hour before dawn
Moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
Waiting for orders we held in the wood — word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away
Ah, softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and our knees
And all that I ever was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting the smoke on the breeze

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolyensk and Viyasma soon fell
By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel
Closer and closer to Moscow they come — riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill
Winter brought with her the rains, oceans of mud filled the roads
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground while the sky filled with snow
And all that I ever was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting the snow on the breeze

In the footsteps of Napoleon the shadow figures stagger through the winter
Falling back before the gates of Moscow,
Standing in the wings like an avenger
And far away behind their lines the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise
You’ll never know, you’ll never know
Which way to turn, which way to look, you’ll never see us
As we’re stealing through the blackness of the night
You’ll never know, you’ll never hear us
And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming

Two broken Tigers on fire in the night flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin
It’s been almost four years that I’ve carried a gun
At home it’ll almost be spring
The flames of the Tigers are lighting the road to Berlin
Ah, quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can’t slow us down
And all that I ever was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening now, it’s the end of the dream

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask me of the time
That I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
“They only held me for a day, a lucky break”, I say;
They turn and listen closer
I’ll never know, I’ll never know
Why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of Holy Russia
And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I’ll be home again and the morning answers, “Never”
And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies go on forever

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The image at the top of this post is the official photograph of the raising of the Red Flag over the Reichstag on May 2, 1945 after the Russians entered Berlin. But this photo was staged; the flag was actually first hoisted atop the Reichstag on April 30th. The original was knocked off by a German shell at some point; the flag was raised again on May 1, and then the final, official version was created for the photographer the next day.

But even that illustrious publicity stunt had at least two versions. One version, featured below, was deemed unsuitable for official propaganda because expensive plundered wristwatches are clearly visible on the wrists of the soldiers. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the soldier helping to steady the man holding the flag actually has two watches, one on each wrist.

Raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945

The photo finally chosen to be the icon of the Soviet victory was carefully airbrushed and lacking in wristwatches.

All this is a reminder that fauxtography was an established institution more than sixty years before the phrase “reutered photograph” was coined, and the Soviets were the undisputed masters of the art. The group photo of the Old Bolsheviks stands as an exemplar of the genre, with all the old cronies airbrushed out one by one as they were liquidated, leaving nothing but Lenin and Stalin — and all those mysteriously blank stretches of wallpaper in the background — looking into the camera.


Zerosumgame said...

I had this on a greatest hits album.

I am surprised that he could have survived in the recording industry writing a song that defamed Communism.

El Jefe Maximo said...

As Christopher Duffy chronicled in Red Storm on the Reich, Cornelius Ryan in The Last Battle, and more recently, Max Hastings in Armageddon, no nation has ever received more codign punishment for its crimes than Nazi Germany in 1945.

As history, no event causes such mixed emotions in me. I'm too much interested in European and German history not to be sorry about the disappearance forever of Konigsberg, Breslau, Bromberg, Memel, Silesia, the Pregel River... and on, and on. All of this re-mapping is the paper manifestation of a great orgy of ethnic cleansing marked by the murder, rape and displacement of millions of people, many of whom were completely innocent.

Yet...the Germans did that and worse throughout European Russia, with much less cause. When that bit of the past is considered, the fact that any Germans at all survived in Berlin and other places overrun by the Soviet Army is testimony to the fact that Russians are basically forgiving.

I've seen the version of the photo with the soldiers and their looted watches. Surviving what they probably had...I don't begruge them those watches. I hope they enjoyed them in good health, and as they got older, and more distant from Berlin in 45; appreciated and understood the pain and sadness of so many others, too.

Zerosumgame said...

El Jefe Maximo:

As a Jew, I have no debate about the harshness of the punishment meted out to Germany.

It was nowhere near harsh enough.

Daniel Greenfield said...

Germany fought an absolutely ruthless and brutal war of terror against the rest of Europe, engaging in ethnic cleansing on a scale of millions, mass bombardment of cities, massacres of prisoners of war on a large scale and too much else to count. These were not the crimes of an outlaw government but supported and carried out by the German people. As with Japan, their own crimes came back on them.

On the Western side the Allies coddled Germany executing a handfull, imprisoning some more who were quickly released under pressure from the new German government (including those responsible for the execution of American soldiers.)

On the Eastern side the defeated Germans encountered ruthless and enraged Soviet troops who for all they did, treaedt Germans with a fraction of the harshness that Germans treated the Poles or the Russians.

El Jefe Maximo said...

I don't disagree that Germany had it coming, not one bit. I completely agree that they (or most of them anyway), supported Hitler right up till things turned bad. . .but the last act was still awful. Necessary, but horrible just the same.

As an aside, nobody, IMHO, fought with more cause than those Soviet soldiers with the watches. That particular photograph, for me, is one of the more memorable WWII photos, along with the Marine flag-raising picture at Iwo Jima (I believe I read that the Soviet photographer was aware of that photo, and was looking for a similar effect).

Evan said...

I love Al Stewart. The first time I heard his song "Running Man" I thought that it was a bizarre topic for a pop song -- the tale of a spy or wanted man (I was never sure which) constantly on the run from the authorities. He also had a song many years ago called "The World Goes to Riyadh" whose lyrics can certainly be read differently now than when they were released in the 1970s:

In a camel's eye far in a distant land
The sun comes up on sands of endless deserts
See tomorrow run by hand in hand with yesterday
Where once the time hung still forever
In the wink of an eye the veils are drawn
And shadows hurry away
And the world goes to Riyadh, today
See the light of the moon on the dunes
You almost feel the ghost of Lawrence riding by them
See the infidel run as the sabres flash,
The desert tribes come with the sun behind them
At the turn of a page see the moving finger
Writing new words to say
And the world goes to Riyadh, today
You can never be sure what the dawn will bring
So just be carefull how you choose your friends now
Every turn in the night of the wheel of fortune
Changes everything, don't loose your head now
Like a storm on the ocean, empires wax and wane
And crumble away
And the world goes to Riyadh, today

(One of the greatest contributions of the World Wide Web is the ability to look up previously undecipherable rock lyrics. At the touch of a button.)

Don Miguel said...

When I first Gen. Heinz Guderian mentioned in a pop song (Roads to Moscow), I knew that there was at least one lyricist who knew some history!

foxcharles said...

For a fascinating visual account of communist fauxtography you may want to check The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs & Art in the Soviet Union by David King

Subvet said...

Ouch! That last part where the soldier is asked about his capture and release by the Germans, then taken away to Siberia really hits hard. That routinely happened to the Red Army soldiers who were POW's for any time, no matter how brief. Seems "Uncle Joe" saw enemies everywhere. Stewart knows his history alright. Gotta get that CD.

RadioActive Chief said...

I had heard that song, along with other Al Stewart stuff years ago - but had forgotten it until I saw this post.

Talk about evocative - all that the Russians have had to endure (and to some extent still do) over the centuries is both sadly tragic and triumphant at the same time. They deserve better...and yes, Al Stewart knows his history!

Even worse was what happened to the Russian POW's that were "liberated" from the Germans by the western allies - US, UK, and France. After the war they were forcibly repatriated to the USSR at the point of OUR guns and bayonets (sometimes after rioting in protest). Of course the Soviets didn't even bother to let them off the trains...they just shunted them straight on through to the transit camps of the GULAG and thence to a life of slave labor.


RadioActive Chief