WARBURG IN ROME by James Carroll

(Vatican City, Italy)

As a person who has enjoyed James Carroll’s work over the years whether he was presenting his history of the Church and Jews in CONSTANTINE’S SWORD; the difficulties of a father and son relationship during the Vietnam War in AN AMERICAN REQUIEM; or an exploration of the Pentagon and the expansion of American power in HOUSE OF WAR, I have grown to expect an absorbing read each time I pick up one of his books.  Carroll, who is an ordained Catholic priest who left the priesthood to become a writer, is also a novelist and his newest book, WARBURG IN ROME did not disappoint.  Carroll’s historical research and clerical background allowed him to explore numerous plots in his latest effort as he struggled with the role of the Catholic Church and its bureaucracy during and after World War II.   The story centers on David Warburg, a Yale University trained lawyer who worked in the Treasury Department and is assigned to head the War Refugee Board (WRB) in Rome in 1943.  We learn that the reason Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Morgenthau, Jr. appointed him was that he believed he was part of the Jewish Warburg banking family which would solve a number of political problems for the Roosevelt administration.  The fact is Warburg is from Burlington, VT which came as a surprise to many politicians and bureaucrats.  Since the appointment could not be withdrawn, the New England as opposed to the New York Warburg headed off to Rome to facilitate the removal of Jews from Nazi extermination camps.

The title WARBURG IN ROME is a misnomer as there are a number of characters who are as important to Carroll’s story as the new head of the WRB.  The story traces Warburg’s own personal voyage of faith and rediscovering his Jewish roots.  Driven by the world’s insensitivity to the plight of thousands of Jews who remained in European deportation camps following the war; with Palestine closed by the British, the United States closed by the State Department, Warburg’s journey progresses from casting his father’s tallit to opening his heart to a new found Judaism.  Warburg resigns from the WRB and begins working illicitly with the Jewish Defense Committee to break the “ratline” that Himmler had set up to assist Nazi higher ups attempted to flee Europe and reach Argentina.  Marguerite d’Erasmo in 1943 was the head of the Women’s and Children’s Committee for Italy.  After the Nazis seized Rome after Mussolini fell she worked in Red Cross refugee camps and hid records of Jews the remainder of the war to save them from extermination.  D’Erasmo personal voyage is as important as Warburg’s.  Her journey begins as a devout Catholic in Rome, morphing into a partisan fighter in Yugoslavia.  After witnessing the horrors of Croatian anti-Semitism and murder, she goes on to try and save women and children in a Nazi detention camp.  Failing to free these people from the grip of the Nazis she moves to Palestine and converts to Judaism.  Upon her return to Rome she gather’s intelligence to block Himmler’s escape route from Vienna, through Rome, on to Argentina using the Vatican as its conduit.  Other characters emerge that are part of the novel’s core; Father Kevin Deane, sent by Archbishop Spellman of New York to Rome to oversee aid to refugees.  Giacomo Lionni, a partisan fighter in the Balkans nicknamed, “Jocko” devotes his life to saving Jews. General Peter Masters, at the outset a friend of Warburg, works at cross purposes with the WRB as he represents American intelligence agencies that are cooperating with the Vatican, Nazis, and Croats against the Soviet Union as relations with Stalin continued to deteriorate.  There are a number of characters who are part of the Vatican bureaucracy, Monsignor Tardini, the Director of the Pontifical Relief Committee, Cardinal Maglione, the pro-Nazi Secretary of State for the Vatican, and of course, Pope Pius XII who hated communism and did not want a victory against Hitler to be turned into a defeat by Stalin.


Carroll’s novel spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Vatican after World War II.  The church did hide and assist many Jews, but it also hid many Nazis and facilitated their escape from allied hands.  The church was vehemently anti-communist and was involved in trying to over turn the allied policy of “unconditional surrender,” and make a separate peace with Germany in order to restore a Catholic Danubian Federation under the Hapsburgs as a bulwark against communism.  After the federation failed, the church worked to restore members of the Ustashe, the Croat Nazis to power in a new Catholic Croatian state that would be anti-Tito.  What stands out in Carroll’s narrative and dialogue between characters is that the reader is witnessing history and in a sense what the author has created is a history of the refugee crisis, the flight of the Nazis, and Vatican machinations to create an anti-communist coalition during and after World War II wrapped up in a novel.  Carroll’s book is sound historically and reflects tremendous research and through his characters presents the dilemmas facing allied policymakers after World War II in coping with the remnants of the Holocaust and how to deal with an emerging world power in the Soviet Union.

(Heinrich Himmler, the mentor for Father Ricardo Lehmann)

Carroll does a splendid job exploring the contradictions and diverse viewpoints following the war.  For example, Warburg and Mates clash over the probable Irgun bombing of the British embassy in Rome following Prime Minister Atlee’s expansion of refugee camps for Jews on Cyprus, as Jews were denied entrance into Palestine.  Warburg is incensed that the WRB is shut down because of Mates’ OSS (precursor of the CIA) accused him of only working for Jews.  Mates offers the usual anti-Semitic rationale that Jews were most likely to be communist and a security risk as refugees, so they should not be allowed into the United States or Palestine.  Understanding Carroll’s storyline is like peeling an onion as layer after layer of the plot and the background of each character is laid bare.  We see Father Ricardo Lehmann, a German priest assigned to the Vatican whose mentor was Heinrich Himmler.  Following Himmler’s suicide Lehmann works to maintain the “road out” using Vatican documents that allowed Nazi war criminals to travel from Vienna to Buenos Aires, with an assist from the Croatian Catholic network of Franciscan monks.

(Father Maglione, Vatican Secretary of State who assisted Nazis fleeing Europe after World War II)

The story itself presents numerous moral decisions that characters must make, decisions that in real life have been explored by historians for decades to try and ascertain the true motivation of historical figures during and after the Holocaust.  Carroll makes a valiant attempt at doing so through his own characters as he has done in previous works of non-fiction.  As the story draws to a close, Father Deane realizes that because of Vatican machinations many church officials were “in bed with Nazis.”  Deane tries to deal with what he has witnessed and cries out, “ Pavelic, Lehmann, Strangl the Treblinka commandant, for the love of God!  Living in our religious houses.  Nazis in monasteries and convents.  Vichy collaborators protected.  The protectors promoted.  Gestapo killers with Vatican passports.  The church welcoming them in Argentina.” (353)  He prepares a report of Vatican culpability, and he knows it will go nowhere as he must submit it to Vatican authorities, raising moral questions he cannot deal with and comes to the conclusion that the church itself is not guilty, but church officials are.  The book provokes a great deal of thought on many levels and I wondered what Vatican policy might have been during this time period, if the current head of the Papacy, Pope Francis had been in office.  WARBURG IN ROME is an exceptional read.






(The US Embassy, Beirut, Lebanon after the bombing, April, 1983)

As I write, rockets continue to be launched from the Gaza Strip by the militant group, Hamas, and Israel continues to retaliate with massive bombing and ground forces.  As this tragedy continues to unfold, Kai Bird’s latest work that deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, THE GOOD SPY: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROBERT AMES is extremely timely.  When one thinks of the CIA operatives who have impacted the Middle East, the names of Miles Copeland, Kermit Roosevelt, and William Eveland come to mind, but usually not Robert Ames.  However, when one calculates the impact of these operatives on events in the region, Ames’ name should emerge near the top of the list.    Bird, who during his teenage years was a neighbor of Ames, recounts his private and shadow life as a CIA operative in great detail, but what he has written is more than a general biography.  He places Ames’ career that encompassed the years 1962 through 1983 in the context of events throughout the Middle East concentrating on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and the Lebanese Civil War that raged between 1975 and 1983.  What separates Ames’ work from others who have attempted to facilitate peace in the region is that he was the individual who “brought the Palestinians in from the cold” through his relationship with Yasir Arafat’s intelligence chief, Ali Hassan Salameh. (15)  The book opens at the White House with a smiling President Clinton cajoling Yitzchak Rabin and Arafat into signing the 1993 accord granting the Palestinians a degree of self-government in Gaza and the West Bank.  Bird argues throughout that this agreement would not have been possible without Ames, and that his death during the American embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983 was a blow to the peace process because of Ames’ ability to empathize with Palestinians, gain their trust, and behind the scenes work to establish a relationship between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the US government in order to foster negotiations with Israel for a permanent peace.

During his first posting in 1962 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia Ames became the protégé of Richard Helms who later would become the Director of the CIA.  Like Helms, Ames came to believe in human intelligence, not splashy technical operations or the application of force which tends to bring too much attention to CIA operations.  Ames wanted to remain in the “shadows” gathering intelligence from his contacts in making recommendations for policy.  For Ames “violence was usually impractical, ineffective, and costly.” (37)  In the early 1960s the CIA came to place a high value on officers who could develop human resources.  To do so they recruited agents who could remain anonymous, apply discretion and ironclad secrecy in cultivating sources.  These qualities were difficult to find, but along with “commonsensical powers of observation,” Robert Ames was the perfect operative.  Employing these skills for over two decades from postings in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Yemen, Lebanon, and Langley, Va., Ames developed numerous sources that allowed him to alter American Middle East policy and work to find a solution to the many conflicts in the region.

Bird does an excellent job explaining the background history of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict as well as the Lebanese Civil War through the lives of the most important historical characters.  He focuses on many individuals but zeroes in on those who interacted with Ames the most.  The two most important people are Ali Hassan Salameh, who followed in his father’s footsteps by fighting for Palestinian statehood and eventually he was recognized as one of the top two Palestinian military commanders and the eventual successor to Yasir Arafat.  The second was Mustafa Zein, educated in the US and was a very successful business consultant in Beirut.  Zein had many contacts in the Arab world and believed he could help bridge the political and cultural divide between America and the Arabs.  Ames would develop genuine friendships with these individuals and would work behind the scenes using Zein’s contacts to foster a strong relationship with Salameh.  Bird details how Ames was able to ingratiate himself with a man so close to Arafat and once he is able to do so, what the implications of that relationship were.  Though Salameh was seen as a terrorist by the US and Israeli governments, Ames were able to convince CIA and other national security officials in Washington of the benefits of establishing some sort of tie to the PLO.   At the time the PLO was labeled a terrorist group by the US and officials were banned from having any contact with them. In the early 1970s Ames relationship with Salameh established a back channel for PLO-US communication that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were aware of, and Arafat approved.  With the Jordanian Civil War and the formation of Black September resulting in the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 Ames worked through Zein to establish further links with Salameh who grew distant at times when elements other than Ames within the CIA tried to officially recruit him.  Ames realized that would make Salemeh a candidate for elimination by radical elements and just wanted to maintain his “friendship” with him.  The book at times is a dual biography of Ames and Salameh and stresses how their lives interacted as each tried to use each other for the benefit of the causes they believed in.

(Robert Ames)

Bird does a superb job explaining the intricacies of the political rivalries within the Arab world and how the US could take advantage of it.  He explores the relationship between the CIA and the Israeli Mossad and the conflict that usually remained dormant between these two intelligence groups.    The Mossad resented Ames’ work with Salameh who they blamed for the Munich massacre.  On a number of occasions Ames warned his source about assassination attempts against him, in part because of his friendship, and in part because he was so integral to what Ames was trying to achieve.  As their relationship progresses it becomes clear that Ames is not objective when it came to the Palestinians.  He developed an emotional attachment to them and in a number of ways reminded me of an American version of T.E. Lawrence.  As Bird writes, “to say that Bob Ames was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would be an understatement.  He empathized with them deeply and admired Ali Hassan to a degree that is hard to explain.  He knew that Salameh had done some terrible things” and he wrote his wife Yvonne, “It is hard to believe our friend was what he was.”  But, being that Ames was the CIA’s only conduit to the PLO he was given great latitude and to his credit usually his subjectivity was not an impediment to his work.

The most important parts of the book aside from development of the Ames-Salameh partnership was Bird’s description of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1983.  Bird explains the different Lebanese factions and how they came to be and how they impacted events.  Bird also explores in detail the connection between events in Lebanon and the development of a plan in the early Reagan years to use Arafat as a vehicle for peace.  Ames was directly involved in negotiating an Arafat-US rapprochement, especially after he and his fighters were forced out of southern Lebanon and were given safe haven in Tunisia.  Bird’s description of the harrowing bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed Ames and the bombing of the US Marine barracks shortly thereafter are very accurate.  As he does throughout the narrative Bird relies on his firm grasp of history and numerous sources within each government and movement.

The last section of the book focuses on who might have been responsible for the various acts of terror that occurred in Lebanon and an exploration of the role of Iran and its allies in the bombings.  Bird’s conclusion is that the perpetrator of these acts is currently living comfortably in the US under CIA protection is very disturbing.  Bird also reiterates his thesis that Ames laid the ground work for the 1993 accords and conjunctures as to what might have been accomplished had Ames not perished in the 1983 embassy bombing.  Bird’s writing is crisp and his conclusions reflect a great deal of thought and are usually very accurate.  The book is an important addition to the literature of its subject, and if one would like another perspective in trying to understand what is currently presented on the news each hour, then Bird’s book is for you.

JAPAN, 1941 by Eri Hotta

(December 7, 1941, Japanese attack Pearl Harbor)

The last half of 19th century was a period when European nationalism flourished and began to spread its influence eastward.  The lessons of nationalism were absorbed in Asia, and Japan became an excellent pupil of western industrialization and expansion.  Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan slowly remade itself by emulating the west.  Unlike China, Japan had no difficulty in assimilating western institutions in order to develop into what they perceived to be a great power.  By the 1890s Japan was able to defeat China in the Sino-Japanese War, and in the following decade she surprised Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, the first time a non-white power defeated a Caucasian power.  Japan continued its program of making Asia safe for Asians and projecting themselves as a power on par with the west.  During World War I it asserted its rights to expansion with its Twenty-One Demands to gain suzerainty over parts of China, and in 1931 it invaded Manchuria and set up the “puppet state” of Manchukuo. Japan continued its attempts to dominate China in 1937 by precipitating an attack that justified an invasion.  From 1937-1941 Japan fought to defeat the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek, but despite repeated military victories it was unable to gain total control as Chiang’s army retreated into the interior.  The war in China used tremendous resources and brought Japan into conflict with the United States.  At a time when the long drawn out war in China was reaching a stalemate, why would Japan contemplate a war against the United States?  In her new book, JAPAN, 1941, Eri Hotta seeks to answer that question.

Hotta’s work is a marvelous work of historical synthesis that seeks to explain how the Japanese government reached the decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Many are familiar with the works of Gordon Prange, Robert Stinnet, Walter Lord, Herbert Feis, and Roberta Wohlstetter.  The story has been told by many; whether from the American diplomatic viewpoint, the intelligence breakthroughs, the military story, and conspiracy theories concerning Franklin D. Roosevelt.  However, no one has attempted to mine the Japanese sources extensively and try and understand how the Japanese bureaucracy and government officials reached decisions that would ultimately result in the destruction of their country by 1945.  This is the task that Hotta takes on and with excellent command of the primary materials and the internal working of the Japanese government from 1931 onward reaches the conclusion that Japanese “leaders, after numerous official conferences, made a conscious and collaborative decision to go to war with the West.  Having talked themselves into believing that they were victims of circumstances rather than aggressors, they discarded less heroic but more rational options and hesitantly yet defiantly propelled the country on a war course.” (15)  Hotta’s conclusion is presented in a thoughtful narrative, and supported by a well reasoned thesis.

Hotta’s approach is an interesting one.  Though she devotes most of her time to discussing the bureaucratic machinations of Japanese diplomatic and military politics by integrating the major figures involved, ranging from Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro; Tojo Hideki, who served as army minister in Konoe’s cabinet and later Prime Minister; Matsuoka Yosuke, Konoe’s Foreign Minister; Kido Koichi, Emperor Hirohito’s closest advisor; Shimada Shigetaro, navy minister; Yamamoto Isoroku, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor; and Emperor Hirohito among many government and military officials.  The author also discusses the role of Japanese citizens outside of government service.  For example, the integration of the thoughts of the novelist Nagai Kofu, who represented, in part the anti-militarist sentiment in segments of Japanese society, providing insights into the private thoughts of Japanese citizens who were afraid to make their feelings known publicly.  The work of Richard Sorge, a German journalist based in Tokyo, who was also a Russian spy and was good friends with the German ambassador to Japan is also fascinating.  In addition, the mini-biography of Soldier U, who in 1941 in his late thirties was recalled to military service and sent to China, and later to Indo China has a story that could be a separate book in of itself.  These individuals and others present a well rounded picture of all aspects of Japanese society, as their government was privately was planning on expanding their war for control of Asia.

What separates Hotta’s work from others is that aside from presenting the Japanese viewpoint, she also includes intimate details of the rifts that existed on personal and diplomatic levels between the major players in the Japanese government, i.e.; Prime Minister Konoe and Foreign Minister Matsuoka.  The reader is given a snapshot into the decision making process as Hotta relies heavily on liaison meetings of the Japanese government throughout the book.  These meetings included the most important senior officials, both civilian and military.  She singles out the most influential figures and allows the reader to understand the reasoning behind the decision-making process of each person as debate evolved throughout 1941 as to whether war was the only option, or should diplomatic avenues have been explored further. The positions of men like Konoe, Tojo, Nagano and the bakuryo  officers, (mid-level bureaucrats who prepared most of the positions taken) are analyzed and one can witness how difficult it was to achieve any consensus on policy in this environment.  However, once a consensus was reached, no matter how convoluted the decision making process and delusionary some of the ideas of policy makers were it was almost impossible to alter or change the course toward war.  Hotta proves without a shadow of a doubt that the Japanese leadership suffered from self-delusion as they constantly came up with arguments to buttress themselves against the sound reasoning that a war against the United States was futile.  In large part, Japanese pride and belief in their own superiority led them to take such a huge national gamble.

Hotta makes many astute observations as she points out the Japanese goal of creating a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity sphere under Tokyo’s leadership was very similar to how the United States approached the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere.  For Japanese policy makers what was the difference between theirs and the American approach to expansion.  Further, Hotta spends a great deal of time discussing Japanese perceptions of their own inferiority visa vie the west.  They saw it through the lens of racial discrimination that clouded their judgment when making decisions.  As Alfred Adler pointed out in his studies of the inferiority complex; that people (and nations?) who perceive themselves to be inferior; to overcome that self-perception must strive to be superior.  A case in point is the reaction to a note from American Secretary of State Cordell Hull on November 27, 1941.  It was seen by Japanese leaders as a provocation and a disgrace as they felt they were being bullied and humiliated.  The note itself was taken as an ultimatum, which it was not.

(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Hotta is able to review the history of Japanese modernization and expansion that led to World War II very nicely, but she does it  in such a way that she able to dissect the all too human characteristics of Japanese leaders that were torn by doubt in the months preceding Pearl Harbor, but could not overcome their own need to save face, and finally pushed Japan into a war because of their own incompetence and lack of political will.  The reader should gain a great deal from reading Hotta’s narrative which is enhanced by her integration of the words of the characters she employs.  JAPAN, 1941, as of now is the best work dealing with the Japanese viewpoint and decision making process leading to war with the United States, and should remain so for a long time to come.

SUN ON FIRE by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson



(Reykjavik, Iceland)

At first, SUN ON FIRE by Viktor Aranar Ingolfsson seems to be the type of mystery that is used as a gimmick at a theater party as everyone becomes one of the characters in the storyline.  Guests are left to determine which of the characters is guilty of murder, and slowly as the narrative unfolds characters are eliminated as suspects.  However, in the case of Ingolfsson’s book the mundane approach just described explodes into a real life “who dun it” as certain characters reveal further information that reflect the complexity of past events in their lives.  The two detectives who are the center of the investigation; Bikir Li Hinriksson, a refugee who survived the Vietnam War; and Gunnar Mariuson, who still lives with his mother and spends most of the novel on crutches, are interesting characters in their own right as they try and piece together the evidence and solve the murder of Anton Eriksson, an import export business type who deals in Asian slave labor and also happens to be a pedophile.

What attracted me to the author was my interest in foreign mysteries, particularly those taking place in Scandinavia.  Since the author is Icelandic and the book’s plot centered on investigators and protagonists in the Reykjavik area it fit right into my area of interest.  The story begins in the Icelandic embassy in Berlin on a Sunday afternoon when the Icelandic ambassador to Germany, Konrad Bjornsson hosts a gathering of eight people and at the end of the day one of them is murdered in the ambassador’s study.  Two Icelandic detectives are sent to Berlin to investigate the murder and the “game” is on.

The action soon shifts to the Reykjavik area of Iceland where the plot grows increasingly complex.  Ingolfsson’s writing is clear and precise reflecting a strong translation by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery, who capture the sarcasm and cynicism that often appears nicely.  I enjoy the author’s approach as he only uses the first names of his characters once their identification has been established and provides their personal history enhancing the depth of the story.  At the outset, the suspects for the murder include a ceramicist and his helper,  a gay couple involved in the fashion industry, an artist dying of cancer who as a nine year old was sexually abused by the murder victim, and a nationally known poet and his companion.  What emerges is a past that has a tremendous influence on the crime, a hippie commune where many of the suspects had lived in the 1970s, and a number of other characters, including a diplomat and a police chief who were also involved with the commune.  It all makes for a story that has unique twists and turns, and the final resolution of the case leads to two other crimes that will keep the reader totally involved.  Overall I would characterize the author’s approach as an Icelandic version of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, reflecting how successful the novel is.


(Images from the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo in 1995)

For the past few years numerous books have been published dealing with aspects of the First World War. The plethora of books is due to the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that touched off events that resulted in the “war to end all wars.”  Tim Butcher’s THE TRIGGER is part of slew of new publications, but it is not a traditional discussion of the causes of the war and who was most responsible for the debacle that followed.  Butcher’s book is hard to categorize.  It is part travelogue through the battlefields of the Yugoslavian Civil War that dominated the 1990s in the Balkans.  It is also a book that tries to explain how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip resulted in the death of millions of people between 1914 and 1918 might be related to the slaughter that took place in Bosnia between 1992-1996.  The subtitle of the book, “Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War,” hints at what the author was trying to achieve.  By presenting a pseudo biography of Princip and following his route from his village in Serbia to Sarajevo the author uncovers new information that previous biographers and historians of World War I failed to uncover.  The reader is placed in a position to understand the events that led to the assassination, and by walking Princip’s route we get an insight as to how the events of 1914 still affected the Balkan region through the 1990s when Butcher was a journalist in the region.  As the author follows in Princip’s footsteps he relives the tragic events of the 1990s he witnessed, and in writing THE TRIGGER, Butcher provides a rare glimpse into mind set of Princip as well as Serbian nationalists who conducted the genocide that was Srebrenica in 1995.  The first of two strands in the narrative are Butcher’s journey that culminates with the Bosnian Serb massacre at Srebrenica that finally brought in NATO forces leading to peace talks resulting in the Dayton Accords.  The second strand sees Butcher describe Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the hunt for co-conspirators, the trial that followed, and the death of Princip in 1918.

What make Butcher’s work so fascinating are the important insights he brings to the table.  The author was a foreign correspondent who covered the war from 1994 onward and sees his role in part to remind people how the events of World War I are still responsible for much of today’s world conflict.  Butcher points out that most histories of the war cover the same ground, and he decided by returning to Bosnia he could follow Princip’s path, “trekking where he trekked, from village to village…..explore the Balkan towns and cities where he studied, worked and travelled, and….piece together as far as possible the setting and detail of the assassination, his influences and motivations.” (20)  To a large degree Butcher is able to meet his own criteria in creating an interesting narrative that should keep the reader fully absorbed from first page to last.

Butcher’s journey led him through the forbidden mountainous areas that were home to bears, wolves, and a significant number of unexploded mines from the Yugoslav Civil War.  Butcher was familiar with the areas he traveled because of his journalistic work in the 1990s and he marched onward with the assistance of his guide Arne Hecimovic, a man who spent his teenage years translating for reporters during the civil war.  The journey began in the small Serbian village of Obljaj where Princip was born and preceded across Serbia into Bosnia, a return to Belgrade and a later march to Sarajevo.  As Butcher describes the journey he integrates the relevant history that affected the region.  The author goes back into Ottoman history and describes their rule in the Balkans, as the Ottoman Empire becomes “the sick man of Europe” in the 19th century, Butcher continues by addressing the significance of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin that created Serbia and which many historians argue put Europe on the road to war.  Butcher describes the decade that preceded World War I highlighting the dynastic issues relating to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 by the Habsburgs, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 all in the context of the development of Princip’s sense of growing nationalism.  We see how nationalism became a disease in the 20th century and the damage it caused.  Once Yugoslavia is created after the Treaty of Versailles it is obvious the only way to keep the new nation together is with an iron fist.  We witness the fracturing of Yugoslavia as it is ripped apart by the Nazis who play divide and conquer splitting the catholic Croat population from the eastern orthodox Serbs, and Muslims who are remnants of Ottoman rule.  Following the war Jozip Broz Tito and his communist partisans who had liberated his country from the Nazis assumes power and applies a high degree of force to keep his nation together until his death in 1980.  From that point on it seems inevitable that the ethnic rivalries and hatreds that were subsumed for years overwhelms any sense of Yugoslav unity and in 1991 the road to civil war and the violence that tore apart the Balkans is under way.

What I found most interesting about the book was Butcher’s discussion of Princip’s belief system.  Historians have painted him as a Serbian nationalist who operated under the nationalist group, the Black Hand.  After significant research Butcher comes to the conclusion that Princip was a “not predominately committed to Serb nationalism.  His greater goal was freeing all Slavs, not just ethnic Slavs like himself,” his belief system centered around the greater Yugoslav ideal of defeating Austro-Hungarian colonialism, not just from Bosnia, but also “from areas to the north where other south Slavs – Croats and the Slovenes – were under the same occupation.” (247-8) Princip belonged to Mlada Bosna, a group that was not typical of nationalist movements in the Balkans in that they were “more romantic, inclusive” and believed in a political model that was far different from the “individual nationalist models of Serbs or the Croats.” (250)  Princip saw the poverty and that the basic feudal system remained under the Habsburg Empire and he wanted to free the southern Slavs from their control.

As Butcher’s travels take him through the route employed by Princip he revisits the civil war he covered.  He constantly comes across unmarked graves, underground bunkers, earthworks, and the destruction that was endemic to the fighting.  Butcher explains the shifting alliances that existed in the 1990s; Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Croats allied with Bosnian Muslims.  Then the Croats and Moslems allow their historical hatred to reemerge and the Serbs watch the former allies tear each other apart.  Some of the earliest examples of ethnic cleansing take place between the Croats and Muslims in 1993.  Interestingly, by the spring of 1994, after pressure from the international community they renew their alliance and concentrate their venom against the Serbs.

Throughout his journey Butcher interviewed people and their families from all sides of the conflict, in Obljaj, the Milne’s family provided the Serb viewpoint; in Glamoc, the Zdravko family story recounts the experiences of the Croats; and two Imans, Kemal Tokmic and Muzafer Latic present the Muslim view as they fish with Butcher in the mountains near Bugojono.  In all the reader is exposed to the grievances and history of each side. One of Butcher’s goals is to relate how the events of 1914 affected the 1990s civil war and beyond.  The description of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing in Banja Luka is informative and maddening as western politicians stood by one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian War.  The ethnic cleansing, death camps, genocide that were perpetuated against the Bosnian Muslims throughout the fighting “inadvertently provided Islamic militants with a rallying cry used to justify later acts of terrorism.” (143) The nationalism that was responsible for June 28, 1914 reemerged with a vengeance during World War II, and exploded in the 1990s when the “hard fist” of Tito’s reign was gone.  As an aside I wonder how many remnants of Islamic fighters remain who may still be involved in Iraq and Syria as of this writing. The last quarter of the book is devoted to a detailed description of Princip and his co-conspirators planning and carrying out the assassination of the Archduke.  What is interesting is Butcher’s reconstruction of some of Princip’s pre-trial interrogation, trial transcripts, and psychiatric evaluation to determine his modus Vivendi.  It comes down to his hatred of the Habsburg monarchy, his detestation of the poverty he and his fellow Slavs were forced to live in, and his own self-perception of weakness.

(Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie moments before they are killed, June 28, 1914)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Butcher’s recreation of the commemorative march, called the “Mars Mira or Peace March.”  After the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo was near an end in 1995, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were forced to make an escape from the city to avoid extermination by the Serbs.  In addition to the genocide at Srebrenica, Serbs also overran Sarajevo and targeted Muslim males for extinction.  The only means of escape was a 50 mile march from the city through a path protected by forest.  Butcher interviewed Dzile Omerovic, a Bosnian Muslim survivor of the march who said, “It was like being trapped in hell, I know no other word for it.”  Omerovic suffers from PTSD, as he continued to repeat how he should have done more to save others.  While Butcher took part in the “Mars Mira” in 2012, he came across numerous mass graves and workers who continue to try to match the unearthed corpses, body parts, and bones to make to identify victims in order for families to finally come to closure.  For Butcher in 2012 he realized he was “dancing on graves.” (223)  Thinking back to 1996 Butcher presents a passage that reminded me of the Cambodian “killing fields” of the 1970s as he found himself stepping out of his jeep  a year after the fall of Srebrenica to find himself in a field where “all around lay skulls, vertebrae, femurs, rotting scrapes of clothes, footwear and a few personal possessions.  So thick lay the bones on the ground that when I returned to the jeep, I remember the back wheels lurching over a ribcage, but from nowhere a man appeared carrying a shotgun and told me to leave.  I still feel guilty for panicking that day, for fleeing the crime scene, relying on the presumption that it would one day be found by war-crimes investigators and the human remains properly identified.” (230)

(Bosnian Muslims victims of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav Civil War)

The book is an informative read and a testament to the author’s commitment to seek out historical truths.  It is loaded with personal vignettes that are striking in their authenticity and emotion.  If you are interested in placing World War I in proper perspective as it relates to the last 100 years, THE TRIGGER should be of much interest.

For a list of recent books on World War I consult the list below that should be reviewed at www.docs-books.com in the future.






THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE: THE ROAD TO 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

JULY 1914: COUNTDOWN TO WAR by Sean McMeekin



One of the best books on Princip and the outbreak of war is the classic,  ROAD TO SARAJEVO by Vladimir Dedijer published in 1966.

THE LAST MAGAZINE: A NOVEL by Michael Hastings

(President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished Speech,” May 1, 2003)

Recently, I saw an interview with Michael Hastings’s widow in which she described her husband’s last book published soon after his death.   I looked forward to reading it as her comments about the subject of the novel were very appealing, and having read some of his previous articles in Rolling Stone and Newsweek, I immediately picked up a copy of the book.  However, having just completed it, I am a little disappointed.  THE LAST MAGAZINE: A NOVEL encompasses a number of story lines.  The most important seem to be the battle that the print media faces as it tries to deal with the digital world of websites and blogs.  In addition, Hastings skewers the liberal media for its support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Finally, there is the character, A.E. Peoria, a journalist on the international desk for The Magazine, and his journey to achieve personal fulfillment.  Employing a cynical and sarcastic methodology the novel is at times reminiscent of the works of Kurt Vonnegut, but it does not have the depth or the symbolism that one would hope for.  I admit that there are a number of humorous asides, like describing the Clinton-Lewinsky episode as the “Pentagon of blow jobs.”  Or analyzing the problems of an American occupation of Iraq after the invasion, as Hastings concludes that “no one ever accuses America of being a nation of historians.”  Despite many astute comments, the novel is missing a degree of cohesiveness despite the fact that the narrator, who happens to be named Michael Hastings periodically, inserts his personal situation into the story as he as he writes a novel.

Hastings, the author, not the character integrates historical events throughout the dialogue.  In discussing the promise of the Bush administration that the invasion of Iraq would take three months and that American troops would be home by Christmas, Hastings brings up Lyndon Johnson’s similar promises during the Vietnam War, promises made by Pope Gregory VIII during the Third Crusade, and Napoleon’s promise as he invaded Russia in 1812.  Hastings historical observations are dead on as his characters discuss the American occupation of Iraq in relation to Japan and Germany after World War II.  The problem is that those successful occupations do not apply to Iraq as their situations were totally different.  The only similar occupations were in Vietnam and the Philippines, and we all know how that turned out.

The subject that Hastings is most concerned with is decisions that THE MAGAZINE’S editorial staff made in covering of events related to the Iraq War.  The main characters involved are Nishant Patel, an intellectual snob of Indian descent, who is the international editor; Sanders Berman, a southerner, who is THE MAGAZINE’S leading reporter; Michael Hastings, an intern; and A.E. Peoria, an investigative reporter whose personal identity crisis interferes with his work.  As with most of the American media in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, the editorial board of THE MAGAZINE goes all in for war.  The arguments that are presented ring of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neo-con crowd as Patel and Berman prepare articles researched by their intern to support the invasion.  The episode dealing with the torture and demeaning of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib highlight Hastings condemnation of the liberal media.  When the magazine places the story on its cover it is confronted with Bush administration denials and as anger across the country increases because of the articles lack of patriotism, in conjunction with the predictable worldwide Islamic backlash resulting in numerous Iraqi deaths, THE MAGAZINE and its editors go into full damage control.  To save its reputation Patel and Berman choose Peoria as its scapegoat send him to appear on CNN which results in a media disaster.   Peoria seems to apologize for the cover and article while being interviewed by a “Wolf Blitzer type” and the magazine follows up by instituting “new regulations to prevent this kind of mistake from happening again.” (211)  Peoria is suspended and he continues his emotional spiral that in the end will lead to what appears to be personal renewal. During the episode Hastings, the character, leaks the truth of the story, but it gets little press as the governor of Virginia is caught receiving a “blow job” on an Amtrak Acela train.

Hastings, the character, emerges once again in relation to Peoria’s resurrection at THE MAGAZINE.  It seems that the magazine’s darling, and acting editor in chief, Sanders Berman is a guest on the Don Imus radio program.  When Imus describes the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” Berman seems to snicker at the comment, and now is being branded with the broad brush of racism that encompasses Imus and his staff.  After three years on the syndicated program, Berman is incredulous that he didn’t know that Imus was capable of such remarks.  THE MAGAZINE cuts its relationship with the radio talking head, but it needs to refocus public attention away from Berman.  Enters Peoria with a story about an Iraqi war hero who was wounded during the invasion in 2003 and as a result lost the lower region of his anatomy and became a transvestite, or as Hastings, the  writer, calls a “sheman.”  Peoria who had saved this soldier, Justin and/or Justina’s life during the invasion, and becomes his or/her lover has this story that could save THE MAGAZINE.  At the same time, Hastings, the character, the mole inside THE MAGAZINE fills in on a blog entitled, wretched.com as a hedge against losing his position at the magazine, or as wretched.com’s head Timothy Grave calls “dead trees.”

(ICIS execution of Iraqi citizen, June 12, 2014)

In the current unstable political climate in Iraq and the threat of ICIS, Hastings reminds us of what a mistake the invasion of Iraq was and the tragedy that has resulted.  He also sends a message to the liberal media’s complicity in the 2003 invasion.  The book is encapsulated best by James Rosen in his review in the June 16th edition of the Washington Post, “Here is the duality that appears to have gripped Hastings most profoundly: America as Good vs. America as Not Living up to the Hype of Good.  He sees this in the Green Zone and in Columbus Circle.”