Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Phantom Flying Saucer

IF A BOOK CONTAINS hard facts about World War II, I find it hard to toss it aside even when the author inadvertently makes clear that he has fallen for a journalistic myth. I’m too scared of missing something vital. In Last Days of the Reich, James Lucas tells the awful story, not often enough told, of the atrocities that went on after the war was over. In some of the countries which had come under the control of the Soviet Union, or else of the Communist partisans, the locals strove to show any German civilians they could catch that the behavior of the Wehrmacht and the SS in Russia could have its counterpart in central Europe now that the tables had been turned. Hounded to death by the thousands, the victims were innocent civilians; but the victors were working on the principle that nobody was an innocent civilian. James Lucas, who died in 2002, was the author of a whole row of secondary books about various aspects of the war: the kind of book that is useful but not really essential. His Last Days of the Reich, however, would come close to being essential if it did not demonstrate at one point that the author can’t tell a fact from a myth. He reports that the German aircraft industry, in its last phase before it ran out of petrol, developed a flying saucer that flew at eighteen hundred miles an hour. Connoisseurs of sensationalist rubbish will have met this German flying saucer before. In Brighter than a Thousand Suns, Robert Jungk’s international best seller of 1970, the German flying saucer put in an appearance as if Jungk knew all about it. Excited journalists had to be told by aviation experts that if the Germans had developed a high-speed saucer, then it would have been copied straight after the war by either the United States or the Soviet Union, or perhaps by both. Already in contention for military supremacy, the two victorious superpowers had taken all the German aircraft industry’s experts and documents home. Besides, there could have been no such leap forward by an aircraft unless there was an engine to propel it. There was no such engine, nor any prospect of one. And so on: for once, the facts were so overwhelming that they even managed to kill a media myth, which is usually hard to do. World War II was, and remains, a potent inspiration to fantasy. There were people who were actually in the war who came away believing things that they should have known to be impossible. Gore Vidal would have been among the U.S. service personnel who invaded Japan if the atomic bombs had not been dropped. Yet he believed until the day he died that President Roosevelt tricked Japan into the war. There were plenty of ultra-right-wing Japanese madmen who were glad to have his support for their views; but really there was less than nothing in the idea. As the scientists say, the theory was so bad that it wasn’t even wrong.