Roll up, roll up, read all about it – for the first time ever (I think), I have actually read to completion a book that I claimed I was going to read after adding it to a Nonfiction November post. What do you mean, it’s now February? What nonsense – it can’t possibly be February. After all, the audiobook was only 15 hours long. Anyway. I have finally completed Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World by Alex von Tunzelmann. As I said in the original post, I was inspired to read this by The Hour, a BBC drama that rapidly became one of my favourite TV programmes ever after I watched it last August. It’s a part-Cold War thriller, part-period drama, very-small-part-romance set in a 1950s newsroom against the backdrop of the Suez crisis. I enjoyed it so much that I am already on my second viewing.
This is not a review of The Hour, though – this is a review of Blood and Sand. I realised as I was watching the show that I hardly know anything about the Suez crisis, except a) a vague impression that it had repercussions throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and b) that it “did for” Anthony Eden. (One of the first surprising things that I learnt from Blood and Sand is that Eden did not die until twenty years later – so closely is it associated with his failure in British popular culture that I was under the impression that the stress and fallout had literally killed him). Blood and Sand gives a brief overview of events in the early fifties as set-up for the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but focuses primarily on the events immediately prior to and during the crisis itself.
Before reading Blood and Sand, I thought that the Suez crisis was mostly a British endeavour, with some involvement of Israel. I hadn’t realised that France was involved at all – let alone that France, Britain, and Israel were literally conspiring together to support an invasion of Egypt. The interrelationships between the various countries involved on either side, and their motivations, are extremely complex, and I am not sure I had the hang of them by the end of the book. They encompass Algerian protests against French occupation, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the US election, and lingering antisemetic sentiment both from some Egyptian and some American advisors. There were all sorts of pacts of alliance and treaties and declarations being honoured or broken all over the place, and I think the fact that I didn’t completely understand it all by the end has more to do with the fact that I was starting from a very low baseline, rather than a fault of the book itself. I definitely finished the book having learnt more about events – for example, I had not realised that Britain and Israel’s actions in Egypt meant that the US was not able to intervene and support the Hungarian revolution against Soviet occupation.
Something Blood and Sand really drove home for me is that the men who were making decisions at this time of huge global crisis all carried the trauma of at least one and often two world wars. I think the author makes a good case that Eden’s experiences of trench warfare in WWI, for instance, coloured all his foreign and defence policy decisions for the rest of his life. He also advocated for early intervention by the League of Nations to stop Hitler and was haunted by his regret that this did not happen. Von Tunzelmann never excuses or justifies Eden’s more inexplicable decisions by blaming them on his past trauma, but she does set them in that context. In particular, Eden seems to have been genuinely concerned about Egyptian aggression towards Israel and antisemetic messaging – given the shadow of WWII and the associated atrocities. Von Tunzelmann also makes the case that corresponding Israeli aggression towards its neighbours came as a direct response to antisemetic propaganda, which portrayed Jewish men as weak and effeminate – giving rise to the popularisation of “Muscular Judaism”, a philosophy that taught that Jewish men (and, to a lesser extent, women) should be strong and athletic. Although I already understood that WWII was a factor in the end of the British Empire, I hadn’t really considered the role that individual politicians’ experiences might have had on their perspectives and decision-making.
As I often find with history books, I didn’t especially enjoy the last chapter, which was synthesis and application. The sections identifying the immediate and medium-term repercussions for peace in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are both excellent. However, von Tunzelmann really wants the reader to be impressed with Eisenhower “doing the right thing, for the right reasons” – which is indeed impressive, but also seems like it should be the minimum standard of behaviour we expect from elected officials? I don’t really like being told an the author how to feel about a particular event. I prefer to have the facts and analysis presented, and draw my own conclusions about whether someone’s behaviour was right or not. I am not, for example, convinced that the US administration was philosophically anti-imperial (then or now), given e.g. Hawaii, and also given every one of the sixty-six years since. Eisenhower may well have been opposed to colonialism personally – the sources quoted give that impression, albeit I think more weakly than the author infers from them. Still, I think that the US administration’s decisions as a whole may have had more to do with a) antipathy towards war among US voters and b) a desire for increased soft power as Britain’s and France’s influence waned. I wonder if the US subtitle (Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace) was the original one, reflecting von Tunzelmann’s underlying interests.
Incidentally, since my desire to read this originally stemmed from The Hour, I want to comment on how much the events in the TV series correspond to actual reality. One of the criticisms I have seen made of the show by many people – usually about my parents’ age, i.e. born at or slightly after the events of Suez – is that it’s modern values dressed up in fifties costumes. The detail is never really specified in these complaints, and the social attitudes – on race, sex, marriage, homosexuality etc – seem to correspond to those held by younger characters in novels written at the time. I therefore assumed that the criticisms were about the portrayal of the public opposition to Eden’s intervention in Suez, except for a handful of Tory diehards.
Reading Blood and Sand, though, I found that (if anything) the show underplays the extent of the objections – not just from the public, but from the opposition, from other MPs in Eden’s party, and from the key figures in the military being asked to carry it out. It really was seen by many, many British people (including, allegedly, the queen) as a catastrophic and stupid mistake by a man who was losing his mind. Around half of reliable conservative voters were in favour of the intervention initially, but even among that group support seems to have fallen pretty rapidly, and something like 89% of Labour voters were opposed from the start (both figures are from memory – I forgot to write them down, which is part of the problem with history audiobooks). I’m sure there were still a lot of people who were in favour of the war, but it sounds like The Hour has accurately portrayed younger professionals, working class voters, and university students – a.k.a the people it was aiming to portray.
Overall, I learnt a great deal from the book, though I want to read more about this period to try and get to grips with all the complex issues that were going on. Definitely recommended if you are at all interested in these events!