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Favourites of 2019: Slow Horses on Spook Street

Photo: Unsplash
Photo: Unsplash
Published 9 Dec 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year. And because I'm the editor, I'll send myself in to open ...

It’s a delightful scene. The wizened old spymaster, retired from a storied yet secret career fighting Soviet espionage, presents his young grandson a birthday gift, the collected works of John le Carré.

“They’re made up,” says the O.B., “But that doesn’t mean they’re not true.”

What difference lies between fiction and fact seems an endless debate nowadays, and the grandfather’s type of pithy observation is common to the pages of Mick Herron’s Slough House novels. It’s a series that was recommended to me earlier this year and that I have been encouraging friends to read ever since. Although occasionally the characters run to cliché, Herron has a droll grasp of public-service rivalry and a deft fashion for misdirection. Comparisons with spy novels by Le Carré, the late Charles McCarry, or Graham Greene are not out of place.

Herron’s Slow Horses, the opening of what to date is six books plus a couple of short story spin-offs, was first published in 2010. What struck me reading this year with the benefit of hindsight was how prescient his musings seemed. Set in Britain, the “slow horses” are washed-up MI5 agents, led by the farting, smarting, deadly protagonist Jackson Lamb, a group exiled by senior management to perform mundane duties at a run-down outpost in a bid to bore them out of the service. Yet a terrorist kidnapping with a threat to behead the victim and broadcast the gruesome killing live over the internet drags this motley throng out of their bureaucratic stupor.

Another book in the series deals with the fascinating conundrum of what to do with an old spy who in his greying years suffers dementia and begins to randomly spout all sorts of hoary state secrets.

Herron’s harrowed imagining came before the unfurling of the worst excesses of the so-called Islamic State, although of course had been evident earlier in the tactics adopted by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi following the US-led invasion of Iraq. For a time, after Zaraqawi was killed and his network unravelled, and then with the eventual hunting down of Osama bin Laden, terrorism faded as a focus of attention for the public and key policymakers alike. Herron, it seems, appreciated the continuing threat.

The danger from far-right terrorism is also evident – again prescient, or felt so as I read the first book not long after the Christchurch massacre in March ­– but Herron’s writing is not all so despairing.

Dead Lions tells of sleeper agents long dormant, reminiscent of the Russian “illegals” network uncovered in the United States in 2010, a plot that bemused most at the time yet again with hindsight made for exactly the type of information saboteurs to help influence an election. Elsewhere, another character, a pugnacious, puffed-up politician, recalls Boris Johnson, although perhaps absent the same prescience to see him become prime minister. Another book in the series deals with the fascinating conundrum of what to do with an old spy – the elderly grandfather, or Old Bastard – who in his greying years suffers dementia and begins to randomly spout all sorts of hoary state secrets that are not meant for the woman behind the counter at the local post office.

The intrigue of fighting enemies not only from abroad but also within the system at home adds to the appeal of these books. The key message, no matter the challenge, is one familar to cynical views of the public service, that the number one rule, or as Herron puts it, London Rules, is cover yourself first.


Favourites of 2019: ABC primetime returns to the Pacific

A must-watch for political junkies, ABC’s Q&A broadcasts an episode from Fiji on 2 December
A must-watch for political junkies, ABC’s Q&A broadcasts an episode from Fiji on 2 December
Published 10 Dec 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year.

Earlier this month, Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, hosted its flagship Monday night program Q&A in Suva, Fiji. For Australian political junkies, this live broadcast of panel discussion involving an interactive audience both in the studio and from home is must-watch TV, and in its more than 500-episode run, Q&A has only ever broadcast from abroad three times (Shanghai, Jakarta, and New Delhi).

This episode in Fiji was the fourth, which was long overdue and most welcome, and I had the privilege of being in the audience for the broadcast.

In true Fiji fashion, the audience was surely the most colourful in Q&A’s history, with bula shirts the spectrum of the rainbow and not a single “Stop Adani” t-shirt in sight (though some expats told me they’d threatened to dust theirs off).

The producers had the difficult task of appealing to an Australian audience that knows next to nothing about the Pacific, and a Pacific audience that know the issues back-to-front.

Endeavouring to make the show not only broadcast from the Pacific, but featuring voices from the Pacific, the producers made sure that the white-man quota was low and filled appropriately – by moderator Tony Jones and Australian Minister for Pacific Alex Hawke. The Pacific voices on the panel were formidable professionals and politicians from across the region. The standout of the show was feminist and political activist Virisila Buadromo, who stared down the Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – which delivered some of the show’s most heated moments. Broadly though, the conversation remained true to Q&A’s mantra of talking about difficult topics in a civil way. The friction between the panel and audience and Australia’s policies on climate change was of course the most obvious example here. For me, the only missed opportunity was not having every Pacific nation represented – something the format of the show simply couldn’t cater for.

The producers also had the difficult task of appealing to an Australian audience that knows next to nothing about the Pacific, and a Pacific audience that know the issues back-to-front. They didn’t get the balance exactly right, but overall did a good job. With topics of discussion covering climate change, gender-based violence, fisheries management, the role of China in the Pacific, the horrific measles epidemic sweeping through Samoa, Australia’s migration policy towards the region, and the Pacific drug trade, they certainly covered a lot of ground. The most glaring omission for me was a discussion around media freedoms, particularly in Fiji, which still has work to do on this front. Though I do note that the ABC’s Media Watch ran a good complementary program on this topic the same night.

The show brought other benefits with it to Fiji. This is a program with high production values, with more than a dozen production staff on the ground. By partnering with counterpart organisation FBC, they were able to reduce their own costs while providing some practical capacity building. The show also illustrated the demand from the Fijian audience for more fora like this in a context where there is too little room for respectful public political debate.

These benefits made me reflect once again on the role of the ABC in the region, which will be the subject of some forthcoming research from colleagues at the Institute (watch this space). With the demise of the Australia Network in 2014 and the subsequent indexation freeze, the ABC has been struggling to maintain a Pacific emphasis. The Pacific Beat and Pacific Mornings team, along with their foreign correspondent in Port Moresby, still do a very admirable job. But the Pacific has always been something the ABC did on the side, not in the centre. It’s ironic that only after these cuts has Pacific coverage been so mainstreamed in ABC primetime.

If funding were to be restored, this is what I would like to see more of.


Favourites of 2019: When They See Us

Page 3 coverage in the New York Daily News, 26 July 1990 (Photo: Getty Images)
Page 3 coverage in the New York Daily News, 26 July 1990 (Photo: Getty Images)
Published 11 Dec 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year.

I moved into an apartment near New York’s Central Park in 1989 at the height of the hysteria over what became known as the Central Park jogger case, or more controversially just “the wilding”. A young white female jogger had been brutally raped and several other park visitors assaulted at the same time as a group of teenagers also rampaged through the park, sparking a ferocious debate about public safety.

Ten people were tried in relation to these events, but five African-American and Hispanic teenagers were ultimately convicted of rape and consigned to a torrid time in the New York prison system.

But they were wrongly convicted and had no involvement in the rape. It took until this year for the excruciating full story to be told in the four-part television series When They See Us made for Netflix and first screened in June.

My daughter, who is more captivated by American culture these days than I am, drew me reluctantly to this retrospective. Reluctant because, I have to admit, I recall vaguely accepting what is now the botched and politicised prosecution case and being a little unnerved about visiting Central Park after dark. But in reality, there were really a lot more interesting things for newcomer to the Big Apple to do than follow this case in detail.

But When They See Us is compelling viewing. Although by the fourth episode, when the story of the boy who served the most time in jail is being told, I found it simply sickening and could not keep watching for a while.

While these in some cases talented boys were brutally deprived of their youth, they seem to have managed to regain their self-esteem and productive lives since being cleared.

It is also fascinating because of the almost ghostly appearances by a young New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump who campaigned at the time for the return of the death penalty, further inflaming public opinion during the trials. He was still campaigning about this case as recently as 2014, when he opposed a compensation settlement after the convictions were found to be wrong.

As hard-hearted as this is, it does underline that contrary to the almost universal view in Australia that Trump is a parvenu, political lightweight, he has been part of the American, certainly New York, political scene for a long time. 

In the end, this is a story of shocking lows and ultimately some redemption in the US legal system, where prosecution cases are politicised but a small number of people often continue to search for truth. It also has an element of the American dream about it. While these in some cases talented boys were brutally deprived of their youth, they seem to have managed to regain their self-esteem and productive lives since being cleared in 2002, by which time they were all then out of jail.

In my own very small way, faith in Central Park was restored much faster. Two years after the attack occurred, I got married right on its edge. When They See Us prompted me to dig out the watercolour of the area known as the Sheep Meadow, which we bought from an artist in Central Park that day.


Favourites of 2019: The Twitterverse

Photo: Jaap Arriens/Getty Images
Photo: Jaap Arriens/Getty Images
Published 12 Dec 2019 09:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Or in this instance...

The best thing I have read this year, and the worst, is Twitter.

Is Twitter an echo chamber? Sure, if you want it to be.

Twitter is the great modern meeting point for Australian political and foreign-policy commentators, offering an unrivalled platform from which to interrogate their views and test one’s own. Twitter also reinforces the natural human tendency among this community to write in ways that will win the approval of their peers. It is an endless source of links to good reading, without which I could not have written my book. It is a pitiless time-suck and a productivity killer. It is occasionally inspiring and frequently very funny.

Is Twitter an echo chamber? Sure, if you want it to be. Twitter is precisely as diverse as every user chooses, though it probably does not contribute to political polarisation or right-wing radicalism.


Favourites of 2019: The Trauma Cleaner

Photo: marty hadding/Flickr
Photo: marty hadding/Flickr
Published 13 Dec 2019 09:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year.

Sarah Krasnostein’s deeply affecting The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster is about exerting order over chaos. The title hints at several layers of trauma. The “one woman” of the title, Sandra Pankhurst, runs a business cleaning up sites of various awfulness: squalid and trashed properties, death scenes, meth labs and industrial accidents. But Sandra has her own traumatic past. Born as “Peter”, the book details a tumultuous history involving child abuse and negligence, rape, drugs, sex work, gender reassignment, love, multiple marriages, successes, and failures in business and politics.

Sandra’s own story is interlaced with evocatively described vignettes of the cleaning services provided by her business. It was particularly poignant that Krasnostein mostly provides cases of Sandra helping intelligent, well-educated women who have, through circumstance, found themselves living in squalor. How did these women get to this point? This aspect of the book hit a raw nerve: at some point, I threw the book down to engage in my own cleaning rampage, filling five garbage bags with old clothes, shoes and dried up cosmetics.

This history has contemporary resonance as debates about sex and gender, and who get to count as “women”, continue to rage in Australia and beyond.

In telling Sandra’s story, the book provides a fascinating social and political history of gender legislation in Victoria. This history has contemporary resonance as debates about sex and gender, and who get to count as “women”, continue to rage in Australia and beyond.

Sandra is a “long time Liberals supporter”, which as Krasnostein observes, “serves as a warning against the assumption that trans is an inherently radical position”. Her desire to be a “respectable” and “normal” woman reflects a conservative worldview.

At a time when the progressive side of politics in Western states such as Australia, US and the UK is struggling to formulate a coherent challenge to right wing populism, the book serves as a useful reminder that the personal politics of people can be messy, complex and seemingly contradictory.


Favourites of 2019: Wewak

Wewak might not be listed as a destination in your weekend paper’s travel section but it is well worth a visit (Photos: Shane McLeod)
Wewak might not be listed as a destination in your weekend paper’s travel section but it is well worth a visit (Photos: Shane McLeod)
Published 16 Dec 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year. Or in this case, a destination…

As far as capital-cities-as-a-bubble go, Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby is probably the world’s most effectively en-bubbled capital – cut off as it is by road from every other major centre in the country.

That’s why I’m pleased to highlight as my 2019 favourite a PNG destination far beyond the bubble: the capital of East Sepik Province, Wewak.

I’d never made it to Wewak, despite a few years living in PNG, so I was keen to see why so many Sepik friends had described it to me in simple terms: “Ah … Wewak”.

And now I get it. 

For those (mostly Australians) who think tourism in PNG equals a trek over Kokoda, Wewak gets a surprising number of international visitors.

Wewak town itself cultivates a vibe not unlike a lot of other laid-back tropical centres in the Pacific – bitumen strips along the palm-lined waterfront, yellow sand and waves hitting ashore.

Geographically it’s quite distinctive, set on a prominent coral-cliff headland, surrounded by blue seas and waves worth a surf. And, as a demonstration of the opportunities and challenges that communities across PNG are dealing with every day, Wewak is a great showcase.

The region has a thriving agricultural industry as the hub for PNG’s vanilla trade as well as cocoa and coffee. There’s a sizable military base, industry and business – and perhaps for those (mostly Australians) who think tourism in PNG equals a trek over Kokoda, Wewak gets a surprising number of international visitors.

Wewak was the main Japanese air base on the New Guinea mainland during the Second World War, and there’s still plenty of evidence of the military presence. Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe paid a visit here in 2014, and there are still many Japanese tourists who visit on a pilgrimage to the site of one of the final campaigns in the Pacific war.

Shane McLeod, and now he gets it.

Arts, culture, and community are a huge drawcard – and even at Wewak’s impressive local market are artefacts that show off the creativity and capability of local makers. I’m still impressed at how many bilums my PNG colleagues managed to buy in so little time (early Christmas present shopping?).

A visit to Wewak is a great reminder that there’s so much more to Australia’s nearest neighbour beyond the boundaries of Port Moresby.

Wewak might not be listed as a destination in your weekend paper’s travel section any time soon, but if you find yourself wandering the northern coast of PNG anytime soon, I can definitely recommend a visit.


Favourites of 2019: Ross Garnaut on climate

Solar panels (Photo: Rae Allen/Flickr)
Solar panels (Photo: Rae Allen/Flickr)
Published 17 Dec 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year.

Ross Garnaut’s Superpower has already been reviewed on The Intepreter. But can I include it in the context of “favourites for 2019”? This book marks not one, but two turning points in the climate debate. The first concerns the economics of renewable electricity. The second is in public opinion.

While the news media is still filled with gloomy narratives about impending climate doom, Garnaut’s message is both revolutionary and positive. The economics of renewable electricity is crossing a fundamental threshhold. Until recently it was debatable whether generating renewable electricity was profitable for a private entrepreneur or household, without distortionary subsidies or regulatory compulsion.

Even when optimists pointed to the fall in the cost of renewables, the sceptics would rehearse the problem of intermittency: the sun doesn’t always shine nor the winds blow constantly. South Australia’s problems in 2016, with their multiple causes, are taken as a demonstration of renewables’ failure.

What is the evidence that things are changing?

Exhibit One is the behaviour of the coal-based generators: they want to close down their plants. They will continue to operate only thanks to government pressure. Whereas some of us used to worry that the coal-generation lobby would want to keep their industry going forever, they want out.

Exhibit Two is that within all the fraught politics of the carbon debate, the problem of intermittency is being addressed. Not solved, to be sure. But addressed with substantive examples of the way forward. Snowy 2.0, South Australia’s Big Battery, and connectors between grids (including Tasmania’s hydro) illustrate what can and should be done. And these projects have been initiated with a federal government that displays little concern for the climate and a strong private-sector ethos. How miraculous is that?

Hallett Hill wind turbines, South Australia (Photo: David Clarke/Flickr)

Garnaut is so confident that renewable electricity is now profitable that his plan does not propose a carbon tax: the incentives are positive, even without a tax. And it would be even more profitable with the sort of taxes that are now common in Europe.

Let’s contemplate just how revolutionary it would be if the cost of stable renewable electricity (i.e., with intermittency addressed) were competitive with coal. Australians could divert our energies from the wearying arguments about who or what is causing climate change, how it will affect us, and how soon. Even those who say it is not man-made can’t argue against taking action to produce electricity by the cheapest means.

If generating renewable electricity is now profitable, without subsidies or regulatory compulsion, everything changes.

The intractable problem of collective action shrinks. No longer are we waiting around for someone else to take costly action on climate change. It’s in our own interest to cease “free-riding” and to take action ourselves, because this is the cheapest way to generate electricity. This is true, even for the developing economies which have used their poverty as a reason for inaction.

Contrast this with the earlier head-butting debate. All the sceptics had to do was to introduce an element of doubt about the climate science. For their part, the scientists who advocated action sometimes exaggerated the size and imminence of the disaster, to try to stir some action. When action was taken, the true costs were often fudged in order to reduce the criticism, disguising subsidies and regulatory advantages for renewables. No one was fooled: we were all paying more for our electricity when solar generators were offered over-the-top feedback tariffs or there was a compulsory quota of renewable generation.

Meanwhile, economists were trying to sell the idea that all you had to do was tax carbon and the problem would be solved. As Tony Abbott noted, any tax big enough to change consumer behaviour would overwhelm the budgets of ordinary electricity consumers: his “great big new tax on everything” jibe was a winner for the deniers.

But if generating renewable electricity is now profitable, without subsidies or regulatory compulsion, everything changes. There is no need to subsidise, or distort decisions through regulatory compulsion or dissemble about costs of action. It will happen by itself, if the market environment is right.

What’s needed is a well-functioning market, some coordination, and enhanced scale. The emphasis shifts away from direct actions, picking winners, and placating vested interests. Instead, the focus is on addressing obvious market failures, coordination, and enhancing scale.

Coordination and addressing market failures presents a formidable challenge, but a fascinating task for micro-economists. Markets are good at sorting out coordination problems over time, but might need some regulatory help in the transition.

The key point here, however, is that this kind of government intervention and coordination is not market-distortionary: it corrects market failures. Even the most dogmatic free-marketeer should agree.

What about the second threshhold: public opinion? Public support for climate-change action has waxed and waned (as tracking the Lowy Poll over the years makes clear), but is again peaking. This is not just a result of the bush fires. Nor is it just in Australia. Even in the corridors of staid central banks, climate risk is now topic-du-jour.

If the Morrison government could find the courage to shift its attitude on climate, it would find that it is pushing on an open door of public opinion.


Favourites of 2019: Richard Holbrooke, “almost great”

Richard Holbrooke, as Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council during the 1999 East Timor crisis (Photo: Evan Schneider/UN Photo)
Richard Holbrooke, as Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council during the 1999 East Timor crisis (Photo: Evan Schneider/UN Photo)
Published 18 Dec 2019 06:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year.

My favourite book of 2019 was Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, by George Packer.

Everything that Packer writes is worth reading, whether it is his depressing tale of America in Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate, or his recent article in The Atlantic on the culture war and American kids.

In Richard Holbrooke, though, Packer has the ultimate subject. Holbrooke was both the most talented American diplomat of his generation, and a sometimes appalling character. He was at once the man who helped to restore peace in the Balkans, and the man who kicked a pair of elderly Holocaust survivors off the official American bus to Auschwitz on the 50th anniversary of its liberation, so that he could be part of the delegation. Holbrooke always wanted to be a great man, but Packer concludes that, in part due to his awfulness, he was never more than “almost great”.

Some years ago I interviewed Holbrooke for my own book Rendezvous with Destiny, because he was the protégé of one of my characters, W. Averell Harriman, another flawed giant. At the time of the interview, Holbrooke was the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was an extreme disconnect between the crappy office suite in Foggy Bottom that Holbrooke had been assigned – a metaphor for his standing in the Obama administration – and the many photos on its walls featuring Holbrooke with presidents and prime ministers.

Holbrooke as US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in a 2009 Oval Office briefing ahead of a visit by Afghan president Hamid Karzai (Photo: Obama White House/Flickr) 

In the interview Holbrooke displayed some of the characteristics that Packer describes so vividly. At the appointed time, he bustled into the meeting room, put his feet up on the table, and started talking. He insisted that I record the interview because he wanted me to quote him. But being quoted was not enough: out of the blue, he told me that he had decided to write the introduction to my book. (I did not take him up on this offer.) By Holbrookian standards, he was perfectly pleasant to me, but I remember thinking that this was not normal behaviour.

Every few pages you come across a line that makes you stop reading and start thinking.

In his idealism and his egocentrism, in his bigness and his smallness, Holbrooke was very much like the country he represented for half a century. “He was our man”, writes Packer. “Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness – they were not so different from Holbrooke’s.”

Our Man is beautifully written, both gossipy and profound. Every few pages you come across a line that makes you stop reading and start thinking. It is like Shakespeare writing on shuttle diplomacy.

One cannot read this book without feeling a sense of loss. America’s leaders today are no less awful than Richard Holbrooke, but they are not even almost great.


Favourites of 2019: Yangyang Cheng

Hong Kong police fire tear gas towards marching protesters, 29 September 2019, a day of global protests ahead of communist China’s 70th birthday (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)
Hong Kong police fire tear gas towards marching protesters, 29 September 2019, a day of global protests ahead of communist China’s 70th birthday (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 19 Dec 2019 07:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Or in this instance...

For me, this year will be remembered as one where the world could no longer ignore the realities of the Chinese party-state. I realised that China – the country where I lived and worked and loved – may never want me back again. But the way I will remember my temporary home is through the words of Yangyang Cheng, my favourite for 2019.

This year, we watched from afar, in admiration and in horror, as the brave people took to the streets of Hong Kong. Students and teachers, pilots and lawyers, they stood up and they stood together against a repressive regime that brooked no dissent.

And as the protests increased in intensity, we in faraway places questioned how to respond to violence by protestors, born of violence by police. Yangyang wrote it was to be condemned in particular cases, but the violence served a purpose. “It is much easier to train the eye on a burning campus than on the structures of power behind the flame.”

“Your military pledges its allegiance first and foremost to the Party, not the people.”

As (some) fair questions were asked in (some) unfair ways – in Australia, in the United States, in Europe – Yangyang, a Chinese-born physicist working in the US, asked that Chinese scientists be allowed to stay. Politicians debated the too real threat of interference from Beijing, but risked casting aspersions on Australians and Americans of Chinese background, and the many Chinese people who had chosen our countries as their homes.

The world watched on 1 October as Xi Jinping paraded offensive military hardware, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. I read Yangyang’s birthday letter. She said “Your military pledges its allegiance first and foremost to the Party, not the people. At the time of your semi-centennial, I had no idea that your tanks had been on the same streets 10 years and four months prior, not as a ceremonial force, but an occupying one.” 

The 30th anniversary of the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square was commemorated around the world, held onto by governments and publics as a chilling reminder of the regime that we had underestimated. Within China, it was commemorated in whispers and cryptic poems, in posts of candle emojis and homonyms. Like the massacre itself, China’s censors were clinical in erasing the quiet records of the anniversary. Yangyang wrote “When an authoritarian government fears the truth of its slaughter, mourning the dead is no longer only a matter of personal grief, but also a manifestation of moral courage.”

2019 was a year of horror from the country I love. Stories about the disappeared and the silenced, the detained and the tortured. When I, and many like me, feel powerless to help the many people inside China who need it, Yangyang’s words, written in an adopted language with more power than anyone I read who writes in their mother tongue, bring hope. “Remembrance becomes an act of resistance against state power and time itself.”


Favourites of 2019: Babylon Berlin

A basement of a bank full of banknotes in Weimar Republic days (Photo: Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
A basement of a bank full of banknotes in Weimar Republic days (Photo: Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
Published 20 Dec 2019 12:00   0 Comments

As 2019 winds up, Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films, or TV programs this year.

There are perks to being unfashionably behind the cultural curve. By letting new shows, books and tech percolate in the court of public opinion for a few years, it becomes easier to separate enduring favourites and cult classics from the chaff. One great Netflix show that has been marinading in our morally fevered times for two years is the Weimar-era German detective drama Babylon Berlin.

Whatever our anxiety about current levels of social dislocation and great power intrigue, it is worth reminding ourselves that previous generations had it worse.

It is a well-crafted story that follows Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police inspector from Cologne, and his sidekick, Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a flapper from the slums, through a tumbling interwar society. But the true star of the show is glitzy and gritty Berlin. Set in Spring of 1929, in the midst of hyperinflation and just before the Wall Street crash, we are presented with an exultantly dark city that is at the centre of it all and yet teetering on the edge.

The night clubs of the jazz age are in full swing, imbuing the series with an excellent soundtrack. The Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy is beset by all sorts of extremes – from the ultranationalist far right to the Trotskyist far left. The Nazis are still dismissed as a fringe group. But we all know where this – and Germany – is heading. And that is the point.

The mystery is in the beginning not the ending. How do societies start to come apart at the seams?

Babylon Berlin successfully taps into our own contemporary malaise. The vertigo years of the first half of the 20th century have become a source of both entertainment and grim fascination. Partly it is therapeutic. Whatever our anxiety about current levels of social dislocation and great power intrigue, it is worth reminding ourselves that previous generations had it worse.

Partly it is that Babylon Berlin reminds us of the cyclical nature of history. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself but it does often rhyme. Our lives are prosperous and comparatively secure but, in the Trumpian post-truth age, we can relate to Gereon and Charlotte unpicking the narratives and counter-narratives eating away at the fragile centre ground.

The trouble today is that even the lessons of 20th century history can be fiercely politicised and deployed to suggest a pre-determined outcome. This year will be remembered for the thunder bolt that was Liberal MP Andrew Hastie’s op-ed in which he compared Australia’s China policy to the failure of the French to contain German expansionism in 1940. I would argue that falsely equates guarded diplomacy with strategic apathy.

Looking back with blinkers on is always risky. Take Brexit, a project fuelled by post-imperial delusions of grandeur. Ironically “Getting Brexit Done” may be the very thing that ends up dismantling even the original rump of the British empire – the one founded on the 1707 Acts of Union. Scotland voted as emphatically to remain part of the European Union as England did to leave it. If Brexit precipitates a Scexit that will be the end of the British state.

Better then to look to history to critically assess our preconceptions. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson gets ready for his first Christmas in Downing Street, he may well want to tuck into Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-1914 by Frederic Morton – a vivid portrait of the magnificent Hapsburg capital on the brink of losing its own centuries-old union of crowns.  

The only certain parallel with the first half of the last century is pervasive uncertainty. We are living through our own pregnant pause. As old certainties give way, what replaces it is anyone’s guess.   

The ghosts of republics and empires past wish you a very merry Christmas.