High Minds by Simon Heffer: A thunderous new history of the Victorian era

This is an extended paean to an era whose ethos and moral purpose navigated the transition from the chaos of the Industrial Revolution to the equanimity of late-Victorian Britain.

High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain
Simon Heffer
Random House, 896pp, £30
 
Not everyone was convinced that the Great Exhibition of 1851 would work. “An exhibition of the industry of all nations, forsooth!” exclaimed Colonel Charles Sibthorp, MP for Lincoln. “An exhibition of the trumpery and trash of foreign countries, to the detriment of our own already too much oppressed manufacturers.”
 
Soon, Prince Albert, the exhibition’s lead patron, was poking fun at all the potential crises that made the project doomed. “Mathematicians,” he wrote, “have calculated that the Crystal Palace will blow down in the first strong gale, engineers that the galleries would crash in and destroy visitors; political economists have prophesied a scarcity of food in London owing to the vast concourse of people . . . [and] moralists that England would be infected by all the scourges of the civilised and uncivilised world.”
 
Despite the Jeremiahs, the Great Exhibition, housed in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, went ahead. Its success and legacy in the Albertopolis collection of museums and galleries in South Kensington offered, Simon Heffer argues, perhaps the most comprehensive symbol of the spirit of a people, “one of ambition and of a determination to create institutions of a grandeur and permanence that would project not just the names of their creators but the advances made by Victorian civilisation, for ever”.
 
Heffer’s thunderous new history is an extended paean to an era whose ethos and moral purpose navigated the transition from the chaos of the Industrial Revolution to the equanimity of late-Victorian Britain. In his preface, he outlines the book’s scope: “It takes the great themes of that period and seeks to use them as the illustration of a spirit, or cast of mind, that transformed a wealthy country of widespread inhumanity, primitiveness and barbarism into one containing the germs, and in some measures the evidence, of widespread civilisation and democracy.”
 
High Minds is worthy to the task: serious, scholarly, grand and determined. And, as befits a monument to the mid-Victorian mind, it is occasionally backslapping. Through a history of ideas and the elite lives of those who embodied them – from Robert Peel and Florence Nightingale to Charles Kingsley – Heffer provides the intellectual architecture for a period of remarkable social and economic transformation.
 
Yet the account does not begin promisingly. Quite rightly, in his investigation of the 19th-century clerisy, Heffer starts with the influence of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby and the impact that his brand of Christian purposefulness had on a generation of young men. However, as the book’s prologue takes us through the life and times of one minor public school master after another, the sense of Victorian ambition is somewhat dissipated.
 
What is more, this over-concentration on the ideas of a southern, Anglican, landed elite militates against an appreciation of where so much of the energy of the period came from: the northern, Nonconformist, commercial mindset of Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent. Another lacuna is Heffer’s decision to avoid any discussion of imperialism, when one of the great advances of recent scholarship is an appreciation of just how significant was the experience of empire for domestic British culture – not least in the public schools.
 
Thankfully, Heffer then gets into his stride with incisive and innovative accounts of such Victorian staples as the repeal of the Corn Laws, the rise of Chartism and the Oxford Movement. Heffer’s 1995 biography of Thomas Carlyle, Moral Desperado, is a welcome companion to much of this history. Indeed, Heffer is particularly good on the interrelationship between some of the intellectual titans of the time: John Stuart Mill and William Gladstone; Samuel Smiles and Carlyle; John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin.
 
Heffer is also an excellent guide to the aesthetics of the age, giving us powerful accounts of the “battle of the styles” and the Victorian passion for Gothic. I would take the Midland Grand Hotel next to St Pancras in London or Manchester Town Hall as the architectural embodiment of Victoriana but for Heffer it is G E Street’s law courts on the Strand: “In so far as a building could manifest an idea of perfection, this, supposedly, was it . . . It remains one of the most celebrated and conspicuous monuments to the Victorian mind.”
 
The unapologetic place of Christian faith in the public realm is what makes the period so attractive for Heffer. At one point, he quotes Christopher Wordsworth, a nephew of the poet, who later became the bishop of Lincoln, with more than a hint of approbation: “What, gentlemen, is Conservatism? It is the application of Christianity to civil government. And what is English Conservatism? It is the adoption of the principles of the Church of England as the groundwork of legislation.”
 
Across civil society, the same “mission of benevolence” or “pursuit of perfection” was at work as philanthropists, civil servants, ministers and politicians sought to alleviate the poverty of an urban-industrial society and construct a civilisation true to the calling of Christian incarnation. Heffer’s sorrow is that such high-mindedness has vanished, as he charts a familiar line that begins with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and the Bloomsbury set’s disavowal of their forefathers. “A climate of prejudice about the Victorians still lingers,” he writes.
 
I am not so sure. Certainly, our inability to understand the Christian motivation behind so much Victorian improvement puts them at a distance. Yet from our renewed focus on the importance of “character” in education to our lament for a lost imperial purpose and a desire to build grand rail and road projects, all are framed within the context of a lack of ambition in contrast to our Victorian predecessors.
 
Heffer is a leading Daily Mail journalist as well as a historian. While it would be unfair to load on him all the gripes and prejudices of the Mail group, if we had to think of the single most influential contemporary voice set against ambitious developments, risky schemes, state expenditure, high culture or iconoclastic thinking, it would be his editorial colleagues.
 
Heffer’s day job is to act as the Colonel Sibthorp of the 21st century. By contrast, his extra-curricular activity is to produce works of great learning and insight into an era of ambitious duty and benevolence. We could all do with more of the latter.
 
Tristram Hunt is the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Labour), and was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Education in the 7 October 2013 Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. His books include “Building Jerusalem” ( Phoenix, £12.99)
Inside the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge