A revolutionary and a Gentleman

Christopher Hitchens’ tribute to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, travel writer, polymath and “irregular warrior”:

Leigh Fermor had lived in Greece before the war, had taken a part in the revolution of 1935, and had seen the German invasion sweep all before it. He spoke the language and loved the culture and could be fairly inconspicuously infiltrated onto the island of Crete. In 1944, with the help of some British special forces and a team of Cretan partisans, he managed to kidnap the commander of the German occupation, Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, and carry him over a long stretch of arduous terrain before loading him into a fast motorboat that sped him to Egypt and British captivity. The humiliation of the German authorities could not have been more complete. Perhaps resenting this, Gen. Kreipe was at first obnoxious and self-pitying, until the moment came when he was being taken over the crest of Mount Ida and a “brilliant dawn” suddenly broke. According to Leigh Fermor’s memoirs:

“We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: Vides et ulta stet nive candidum Soracte. [“See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.”] It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off. … The general’s blue eyes swiveled away from the mountain top to mine and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Have no fear, this did not result in some sickly reconciliation. Several of Kreipe’s colleagues were executed at the end of the war for the atrocious reprisals they took against Cretan civilians. One of Leigh Fermor’s colleagues, another distinguished classicist named Montague Woodhouse, once told me that Greek villagers urged him to strike the hardest possible blows against the Nazis, so as to make the inevitable reprisals worthwhile. He lived up to this by demolishing the Gorgopotamos viaduct in 1942,* wrecking Nazi communications. But the brutality of the combat doesn’t negate that moment of civilized gallantry at Mount Ida, where the idea of culture over barbarism also scored a brief triumph. (Woodhouse went on to become a Conservative politician and active Cold Warrior, but while fighting Hitler he was quite happy to work with Communist and nationalist fighters, and he wrote in his memoirs that “the only bearable war is a war of national liberation.”)

More tributes to this extraordinary man:

A personal tribute by Jan Morris: A war hero and a travel writer of grace, Paddy was the ideal English scholar

Obituary from The Independent by Paddy Leigh Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper

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About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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