(The day after the Berlin Wall was opened the German people celebrate on the section of the Wall that abuts the Brandenburg Gate, November 10, 1989)

In German history it seems that November 9th commemorates many important twentieth century dates.  In 1918, following the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the Hohenzollern throne.  In 1923, Adolf Hitler launched his failed Beer Hall Putsch in trying to seize power in Munich.  In 1938, the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) against the Jews of Germany.  Finally, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down which is the topic of Mary Elise Sarotte’s informative and interesting new monograph, THE COLLAPSE: THE ACCIDENTAL OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL.  Sarotte’s thesis is evident in the title of her book.  She argues in a clear and evocative manner that the opening of the Berlin Wall was not planned and it came as a dramatic surprise when “a series of accidents, some of them mistakes so minor that they might otherwise have been trivialities, threw off sparks into the supercharged atmosphere of the autumn of 1989 and ignited a dramatic sequence of events that culminated in the unintended opening of the Berlin Wall.”  The purpose of the book according to its author was to examine not only the sparks, but the friction in East Germany that produced them in the first place; the rise of a revolutionary but nonviolent civil resistance movement; and the collapse of the ruling regime.”(xx)  Sarotte argues further that the wall did not come down on November 9th because of the actions of the superpowers, and the figures that brought down the wall were not internationally known.  The book is an important contribution to the literature on the subject because on the night of November 9, 1989, a peaceful civil resistance movement overcame a dictatorial regime.  “It is all too seldom that such a peaceful process happens at all, let alone leaves a magnificent collection of evidence and witnesses scattered broadly behind itself for all to see.”(xxv)

Sarotte has written a carefully constructed narrative as she tries to ascertain why the Berlin Wall came down when it did.  The book is cogently written, well thought out, and impeccably researched.  The reader is drawn into the reasons behind events leading up to November 9 and almost half the narrative is spent explaining what led up to the opening of the wall that evening.  The first half of the book describes the gradual growth of opposition in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR) regime under Erich Honecker and his replacement, Egon Krenz.  Sarotte lays out her argument carefully as the civil opposition movement gains the confidence and support it needed in order to confront the regime.  The reader is witness to the growing opposition that relied on churches in Leipzig and East Berlin to host prayer meetings that throughout the summer of 1989 continuously grew in attendance that in the weeks leading up to November 9 saw crowds of upwards of 500,000 people leave the churches and take to the streets.  These demonstrations were a key as dissidents adopted a peaceful approach in matching government repression and violence.  Sarotte effectively explores the leadership on both sides, analyzing their strategies and actions to determine why events evolved as they did.

(President Reagan tells Soviet Premier Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” on June 12, 1987 in a speech in Berlin by the Brandenburg Gate)

The three most important elements leading up to November 9 appear to be the dissident and church leadership during prayer meetings; the strategy, or lack of thereof by officials of the GDR government in trying to defuse the opposition by issuing looser travel restrictions into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, FRG); and decisions made during the course of November 9 that led to the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall.  The most important characters in this process were a pair of dissident filmmakers and their contacts in West Berlin, church leaders in Leipzig and East Berlin, the intransigent attitudes of Honecker and Krenz, and the draft of a new travel law by Gerhard Lauter, head of the GDR Interior Ministry that led to the uncertainties that resulted in the opening of the wall.  We must be kept in mind is that none of this could have taken place without the actions, or inaction by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Russian economy was in dire condition and Gorbachev made the decision that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to keep 380,000 troops in the GDR.  What is fascinating as Sarotte points out is that throughout the period leading up to and including November 9, the Soviet Embassy remained ignorant of what Lauter and his colleagues had drawn up.  Moscow thought that a “hole variant,” allowing one exit gate with severe restrictions was the policy that they approved of.  But in reality, that policy was obsolete and was replaced by a much more liberal plan.

The most interesting and surprising aspect of the book is Sarotte’s presentation dealing with the GDR Politburo meeting when Krenz announces the new travel plan and there is no opposition to it.  Following the meeting, Gunter Schabowski, a member of the GDR Politburo holds a live broadcast news conference in which he announces that “private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justifications—reasons for trips connections to relatives—be applied for.  Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.”(117)  This included emigration and short trips and when pressed on when this would take effect, Schabowski replied, “right away.”  What is incredible about the press conference that ended around 7:00 pm on November 9th is that Schabowski never read the new travel law before he made his presentation.  This lack of communication is a dominant theme throughout the book and as evening took over on November 9, border guards and other officials were taken aback as they had no clarification as to what to do when thousands of people approached different parts of the wall.  GDR officials tried to contact their counterparts in Moscow, but the Soviet Union was just completing a holiday and no one in authority was available.

Sarotte concludes her book with the reactions in Moscow, London, Washington, and Bonn to events and she is very clear that western officials and intelligence officers were taken completely by surprise.  Sarotte brings her monograph to a close with an epilogue in which she examines the reunification of Germany as a year after the wall fell five new states that were carved out of the GDR were able to join West Germany on October 3, 1990.  Sarotte points out that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had moved quickly for fear of a Soviet change of heart based on hard line opposition to the reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Sarotte goes on to update the reader on the lives of the major participants in the drama she described, one of which was Vladimir Putin who was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden at the time, who returned to Russia full of regret of how the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe.  This would lead to his political career fueled by the desire to restore Russia to what he believed to be its rightful place in Europe.  The issues of justice also emerge as well as memorials to celebrate the events she describes.  One interesting aspect in closing is that there are more “wall memorials” in the United States than there are in Germany.  Sarotte’s monograph is an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in understanding why the Berlin Wall fell when it did and why it was so significant


(The Berlin Wall, 1961-1989 as it snakes through the divided city)

In EDGE OF ETERNITY, the third volume of Ken Follett’s 20th century trilogy, the author continues to amaze his readers with his lengthy fictional history of the last hundred years through the prism of five interconnected families that he developed in “FALL OF THE GIANTS, AND “WINTER OF THE WORLD.”  The construct of the Russian, English, Welsh, German, and American families continues as the novel opens with Rebecca Hoffman, a Russian language teacher at the Friedrich Engels Polytechnic Secondary School being summoned to an East German police station to be questioned by the Stasi.  Upon entering the Stasi office in East Berlin she learns that her husband is a spy and that their marriage was a sham resulting in the end of her marriage, and a Stasi officer husband who would pursue a revengeful course against Rebecca and her family for years to come.  With the first strand of the novel laid out, Follett develops the character of George Jakes, a young black lawyer who has just graduated from Harvard Law School.  Jakes agrees to take part in the Freedom Bus Rides then embarking for Alabama.  The result is white backlash and violence against the Freedom Riders as southern law officials stand by.  Jakes’ journey following his experience in Alabama leads him to a position in the Justice Department in Washington, working with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.  By presenting these two historical threads Follett begins to unravel his narrative by juxtaposing the lack of freedom in the “communist world,” represented by East Berlin and the lack of freedom in the “democratic world” in the American south.  A third thread leads the reader into the political machinations of the Kremlin through the characters of Dimka Dvorkin, an aide to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and his twin sister, Tanya, a reporter for the TASS news agency.

The evolution of these characters, in conjunction with numerous others will take the reader through the 1960s and culminates with the downing of the Berlin Wall with an epilogue featuring the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States.  During the journey, the reader will become engrossed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the Berlin Crisis, the Vietnam War; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet dissident movement, the rise of Solidarity, the Iran-Contra affair, and the development of rock music during the period.  Throughout, Follett links characters from the first two volumes in his trilogy to create further continuity with the current volume.  Based on the length of the narrative and the complexity of the different plot lines Follett must have engaged in a great deal of historical research and I would love to see the sources he consulted.

Follett’s representation of historical events is mostly accurate though there are a few missteps.  He does a superb job discussing the 1961 Vienna Summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev as he agrees with the standard account that the Soviet Premier walked out of the summit firmly believing that he could push the young American president around.  He follows this part of the narrative employing Dvorkin and other aides to powerful Kremlin figures in highlighting the debate concerning the exodus of people from East Berlin to the west and finally coming to the solution of building a wall to divide the city.  The reader is then lead through an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Many of the well known details of the crisis are available to the reader but some of the debate within the Kremlin and Kennedy’s cabinet seem general and lacking credibility.  For example, placing a young aide to Khrushchev to be in charge of riding heard on the conservative forces in the Soviet Defense Ministry as a main component of the narrative is hard to fathom even if we accept the artistic license of historical fiction.  The evolution of Dimka Dvorkin to such a position of power is very difficult to accept. In addition, Follett’s chronology dealing with the crisis is somewhat confusing.  The author is not clear about the Soviet downing of a U-2 plane, first alluding to the 1960 incident of Francis Gary Powers, and then finally mentioning the downing of a U-2 plane during the crisis.  More importantly it takes Follett more than half the book to allude to the role that Communist China played in the geopolitical world.  He forgoes any mention of the competition between Mao Zedong and Khrushchev for the hearts and minds of the third world.  Further, Follett’s elevation of George Jakes to being a primary aide to Robert Kennedy so quickly is also hard to accept as is the author’s integration of JFK’s sexual peccadilloes into the narrative, but leaving out his role in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.  Again, I accept that this is a work of fiction and there are certain needs that have to be met to draw the reader’s attention, but let’s at least stay the historical course.

Follett does a much better job detailing the Civil Rights Movement through his fictional characters.  We witness an accurate portrayal of Martin Luther King and the portrayal captures other civil rights leaders and the political roadblocks that needed to be overcome very nicely.  We see the waffling of the Kennedy administration over civil rights and the fear of how it will impact the 1964 presidential election.  Follett seems to favor Lyndon Johnson as a civil rights president after Kennedy is assassinated.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Follett weaves a “mini” history of rock music in the 1960s into the narrative by developing characters that go through the process of discovery, writing music, performing in the midst of the Cold War.  Follett also does an exceptional job developing the dissident movement in the Soviet Union through the character of Vasili Yenkov, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn type character who is exiled to Siberia and has his writings smuggled out of the Soviet Union through East Germany.  Once Follett’s narrative dealing with the Kennedys is complete the book seems to be on firmer ground and becomes a much better read.  We have the Jane Fonda type character in Edie Williams, the Angela Davis type character in Verena Marquand, the G. Gordon Liddy type in Tim Tedder, and for baby boomers it is fun to try and pick out which characters are replicating actual historical figures.

As previously mentioned, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel deals with rock music.  Employing the characters of Walli Franck and David Williams, Follett provides the evolution of a rock band in the context of the Cold War.  The character of Walli is especially important because it is intertwined with the situation in East Germany and a family that is haunted and harassed by a Stasi agent, Hans Hoffman, who is also Rachel’s husband.  We witness Walli’s escape to West Berlin as did his sister Rachel and her boyfriend before him.  Walli’s story is especially poignant.  He will escape East Berlin but his pregnant girlfriend refuses to leave.  It takes over twenty five years for Walli to finally be reunited with his daughter Alice.  The juxtaposition of Walli’s drug addiction and music career to events in Germany and Eastern Europe is accomplished successfully, and enhances the storyline as the novel comes to a conclusion, with the uniting of the Franck family as the Berlin Wall comes down.

(June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” in West Berlin)

The conclusion of Follett’s “century trilogy,” accomplishes a great deal.  It takes the reader through the most important events of the Cold War in Europe and the United States culminating in the end of communism as we knew it in 1989.  For those who are historically curious about this period they will emerge very satisfied with the characters and the role they play in Follett’s historical novel.  Events are fairly accurate considering this is a work of fiction and if one pays attention; the author provides his own analysis as the reader moves through the story.  Follett’s own view is clear as Tim Tedder, the former CIA operative watches the opening of the Berlin Wall and provides a toast to the end of communism, “Everything we did was completely ineffective.  Despite all our efforts Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua became Communist countries.  Look at other places where we tried to prevent Communism: Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Cambodia, Laos…None of them does us much credit.  And now Eastern Europe is abandoning Communism with no help from us.” (1093)

(The Berlin Wall comes down, November 9, 1989)

BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR by Robert Timberg

(Author Robert Timberg during a book presentation)

As most are aware the Vietnam War has left many scars on those who fought the war and the American people in general.  With 58,000 men dead and roughly 270,000 wounded, many like the author, Robert Timberg suffered life changing injuries that affect them psychologically and physically to this day.  Mr. Timberg, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and a Marine Corps officer suffered second and third degree burns to his face and parts of his body on January 18, 1967 when his armored vehicle went over a North Vietnamese land mine in the vicinity of Da Dang, just thirteen days before he was to be cycled out of the war theater as his thirteen month tour was drawing to a close.  Mr. Timberg has written a long delayed memoir dealing with his experiences in Vietnam, his recovery, and his career which was a major component in trying to recapture some sort of normality.

(Timberg writing a letter home from Vietnam)

The book, BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR is written on multiple levels.  It is an emotionally captivating story by an individual who wages a courageous battle to regain some semblance of what he lost on that fateful day when delivering a payroll to another unit his vehicle hit a land mine.  The book is also a personal journey that takes him through numerous hospitals and thirty five operations with the support of two wonderful women, his first wife, Janie, who Timberg credits for his level of recovery and the family and career he is most proud of.  He readily admits that he was responsible for the end of their marriage and how poorly he treated her.  The other woman, his second wife, Kelly, allowed him to continue his recovery and develop a successful journalism career.  Unfortunately for Timberg, they too could not keep their marriage together.  The last major thread is how Timberg repeatedly lashes out against those individuals that did not go to Vietnam and as he states found, “legal and illegal ways” to avoid doing their duties as Americans.  Despite repeated denials that he is past those negative feelings and no matter how much he pushes his bitterness below the surface employing the correct verbiage of an excellent writer, his ill feelings towards a good part of his generation repeatedly bubbles to the surface.

(Timberg being evacuated from Da Nang area after his vehicle hit a land mine, January 18, 1967)

This memoir is very timely in light of the type of injuries that American soldiers have sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last twelve years.  It brings a message of hope for the future based on Timberg’s remarkable recovery and the success he has enjoyed as a reporter and a writer.  Our wounded veterans face a long road to recovery and Timberg’s story could be a wonderful model that they can try to emulate.  The first two-thirds of the book for me were the most interesting.  Timberg lays his life out for all to see.  His emotions which seemed to rise and fall with each sunrise and sunset are heart rendering.  His descriptions of his treatment with multiple skin grafts and surgeries are a testament to his perseverance.  His tenacity and ability to overcome most of the obstacles that were placed in front of him are truly amazing.  We learn a great deal about the Naval Academy and the United States Marine Corps and what they stand for.  Timberg takes the reader through many stages of recovery by interspersing his relationships with those who are most responsible for his making him whole, his first wife, Janie, and Dr. Lynn Ketchum, the surgeon who like a sculptor put Timberg’s facial features back together as best he could.  Despite his recovery, throughout this period his loss of identity constantly tugged at him, even as he earned the satisfaction of a successful career, but the loss of identity seemed to always be under the surface.  Once Timberg reaches the end of his period of recovery, he must leave “the cocoon of the hospital to home cycle” of constantly undergoing surgery and recovery.  For Timberg it was very difficult, but finally with Janie’s assistance he is able to overcome his fears and earn a Master’s Degree in Journalism at Stanford University and begin his career as a reporter in Annapolis.  That career would lead to a Nieman Fellowship, positions at the Baltimore Evening Standard, and the Baltimore Sun.  Timberg became a leading White House correspondent, and the author of three very important books.

The one area of the book I have difficulty accepting is the sections that deal with the germination of the ideas for the book THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, and how the book was finally conceived and reached fruition.  It was fascinating how Timberg pulled together such disparate personalities as John McCain, James Webb, John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, and Oliver North to create narrative dynamic that made sense.  What sparked this dynamic was the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked President Reagan’s second term in office.  Timberg was able to parlay the scandal and the personalities just mentioned into a coherent and interesting monograph.  I remember when the book was published and after reading it I wondered if Timberg had an agenda that called for damning those who were able to avoid serving in Vietnam, and blaming the prosecution of the Iran-Contra scandal on the media and members of Congress who figured out ways to remain out of the military during the war.

Timberg’s judgment is deeply flawed in attacking, what seems to be everyone who did not fight in Vietnam for pursuing the Iran-Contra scandal.  I understand that he suffered unbelievable horrors as a result of his military service and significant emotional issues remain.  However, his inner drive to become the person he was before he was seriously wounded has clouded his judgment to the point where he deeply hurt, Janie, his first wife, the woman who was mostly responsible for making himself whole as he recovered.  His comments dealing with the need to find another woman to have sex with aside from his wife to see if he could find another person who was attracted to him is deeply troublesome.  It was thoughts like this and leaving her alone with three children for a great deal of time reflects poorly on Timberg no matter how courageous he was.  As Timberg researches and writes THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, his obsession with those who did not fight in Vietnam comes to the fore completely.  Though there are repeated denials in the book his understandable prejudice against “draft dodgers,” etc. is readily apparent, i.e., his convoluted logic of going after people who believe that Iran-Contra was a major crime and resulted in violation of the constitutional and legislative prerogatives of Congress, aside from the cover-up and outright lying the of the Reagan administration with a vengeance.  By explaining away the scandal by raising the question; “was Iran-Contra the bill for Vietnam finally coming due?” for me, is a bit much and cannot explain away the illegal acts that North, Poindexter, and McFarlane committed no matter how hard Timberg tries.  For the author it seems like everyone who did not go to Vietnam used money and connections to avoid serving.  Further, those who did not serve, “much of the rest of that generation came up with novel ways to leave the fighting and dying to others.”(213)  Timberg quotes from Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Srauss’ excellent analysis of the draft, CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE to buttress his arguments, however if he revisits objectively the Pentagon statistics that the authors quote he will find that not all who did not serve in Vietnam committed acts that Timberg finds reprehensible  There are millions who were involved in defense related jobs, duty in the United State Army Reserves and the National Guard, had legitimate medical deferments, or were conscientious objectors.  I agree a significant numbers did avoid service and Baskir and Strauss put the number of draft offenders at about 570,000, accused draft offenders at 209, 517, with about 3250 actually imprisoned.  We must also keep in mind that of the 26,800,000 men of the Vietnam generation, 6,465,000 served but never went to Southeast Asia, and of the 15,980,000 who never served in the military 15,410,000 were deferred, exempted or disqualified -all cannot be painted with the broad brush of being draft dodgers as Timberg seems to strongly intimate.*

Overall, Timberg is correct, Vietnam is still a raw nerve for a generation that witnessed men rallying to the flag, and men who felt the war was wrong.  As history has borne out the American people were lied to by the Johnson administration and the government in general.  I respect Mr. Timberg’s service, the wonderful career he used as a vehicle to become whole again, and I find that he is an exceptional author, who at times goes a bit overboard in his attempt to rationalize why people avoided service in the war.  The book is a superb read, deeply emotional and for my generation dredges up a great deal and provokes deep thought concerning how the experience of the Vietnam War still affects American foreign policy and the conduct of combat to this day.

*See Lawrence M. Baskir & William A. Strauss CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 5 for an excellent chart that is reflected in the figures presented.


(Derek Boogaard’s hockey card as a member of the Minnesota Wild, 2005-2006)

The first time I looked at the dust jacket of John Branch’s new biography of former hockey player Derek Boogaard, entitled, BOY ON ICE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DEREK BOOGAARD I was struck by what a large figure Boogaard presented.  Here was an individual who stood almost seven feet tall on skates and weighed around 275 pounds, however after reading Branch’s fine narrative of his life I was struck by how gentle and unassuming a person he was, and in many ways his behavior and thoughts were that of a boy, at times simple, and at times complex.

Derek Boogaard grew up in a small prairie town in northern Saskatchewan where hockey was something that boys engaged in as almost a religion.  If you had any talent or perhaps the size it became a way of life.  Boogaard fit right into this formula.  He was always the largest boy for his age and though he was not the swiftest skater or the most proficient stick handler, he had what many coaches say cannot be taught, size.  From his earliest days in organized hockey his role became clear, defend his smaller teammates, and make opponents feel uncomfortable whenever he was on the ice.  John Branch does an exceptional job following Boogaard’s development as a person and a hockey player from a very young age and traces his career from its lowest level when kids follow the puck like swarming bees, through his teenage years as a Bantam, through junior hockey, various levels of minor league hockey, until he finally reached the pinnacle, the National Hockey League.  In each instance, thanks to the cooperation of the Boogaard family, close friends, professional hockey careerists, and finally notes that Derek left about his childhood, Branch is able to explain what his subject went through and was thinking at each level of his career.

(Derek Boogaard engaging in his role on the ice as a member of the Minnesota Wild)

Boogaard’s official role as a hockey player was that of an “enforcer,” a role that consisted of intimidating opponents on the ice and if need be to fight the person who filled the same role for the opposing team.  Branch does a marvelous job of tracing the history of violence in hockey and the evolution of the “enforcer.”  He discusses the impact of that role on the sport, the reactions of players and coaches, and the rationalizations offered by team general managers, owners, and National Hockey League officials when it was becoming increasingly obvious that the constant violence, that at times dominated the sport, was resulting in the deterioration of the medical health of a number of hockey players in retirement, and who were still on the ice.

Branch does a superb job analyzing the sub culture that surrounds the “enforcer” in hockey.  For most of the men who adopt the role it is their only “meal ticket” to play the sport professionally.  Though some possess some hockey sense and/or skills, most do not, and are labeled as “goons.”  These men do not enjoy fighting and in many ways approach their role as nothing more than a job.  In Derek’s case off the ice he was a very sweet person who tried to care for everyone, was very giving of himself, and his generosity with his time and money new no bounds.  However, when Derek was challenged on the ice, it seemed as if a light switch was turned on and he would try and pummel his opponent(s) into submission.  Once the fight was over he would skate to the penalty box without engaging in the histrionics that other enforcers engaged in as they fed off the crowd in the arena.  For years, enforcers liked what they earned from fighting, respect and a career that paid them well.  However, they were not aware of the hidden costs.  For Derek, with strength and power, with the ability to win fights and gain recognition, he basically did not enjoy beating others up.  “He enjoyed it when he needed it, but some of it weighed on him.”  The pressure was enormous, one lost fight, a broken bone or injury and the team could send him back to the minors, a lucrative career, over.  It was difficult never knowing what a game would bring as “shift by shift, enforcers had to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice.”(154)  If you didn’t want to do it, there were many others who would gladly take your roster spot.  “Even as Derek arrived, the line of NHL enforcers was littered with broken lives.  Alcohol and pain killers especially became the antidotes to the pain and pressure.” (155)


(Derek and his dad, Len who was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police)

Branch catalogued many of Derek’s fights as if he were a ring announcer covering a fight broadcast from Las Vegas.  The toll of his hockey career led to numerous injuries, broken noses, ripped tissue that never healed on his knuckles, torn shoulder muscles and constant back pain. For Derek and many others they thought their only recourse to maintain their jobs was pain killers.  Branch delineates the prodigious amount of pain killers that Derek ingested over his four year hockey career.  Vicodin, oxycodone, Percocet, oxycontin, et al was the elixir that dulled the pain.  Team doctors would prescribe medications, many never kept records of what was provided, and if doctors would not cooperate, Derek, who had the funds found illegal ways to acquire his drugs.  Two attempts at rehabilitation failed and what was increasingly clear was that the constant pounding that Derek’s brain experienced led to countless concussions that he was unaware of.  He exhibited textbook characteristics of post concussion syndrome-mood swings, depression, loneliness, disorientation, and memory loss.  It was clear when he over dosed accidently mixing alcohol and pain killers that had he not died at the age of twenty-nine, that his ensuing years would have witnessed the onset of dementia at a very young age.  Derek’s brain was donated to science and the findings are very scary in terms of individuals who have suffered constant blows to the head.  Since these blows are cumulative, each concussion, or whiplash movement will create the nausea, headaches, and other symptoms repeatedly.  In Derek’s case it is especially sad because according to those close to him, he did not have a mean bone in his body.

(Derek Boogaard during happier times)

Branch has done a service by presenting a wonderful biography, placing it in the context of a national epidemic dealing with brain injuries.  Research is an ongoing avocation, but Branch’s book should raise the eyebrows of parents and anyone involved in contact sports, no matter the level, that we must do more to protect the athletes who are involved.  If that means raising the curtain that sports officials at all levels have refused to raise, to change some of the rules, especially around fighting and unnecessary violence so be it-I am certain it will not detract from the skill and beauty of the sports involved, but it will save lives and improve the quality of life for athletes after they retire.  This book is not your typical sports biography, as a father of a son who played prep school hockey and college lacrosse I wonder how many times he had “his bell rung.”  Branch’s book is a wake up call, hopefully the right people will be listening.








(Photo of Belle Boyd, the rabid secessionist and successful Civil War spy)

When I read a title that sounds like a John Le Carre novel, I am always intrigued. Karen Abbott’s new book, LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY: FOUR WOMEN UNDERCOVER IN THE CIVIL WAR has many elements of the espionage master’s work and she weaves a series of wonderful stories into a historical narrative that could pass for fiction.  The book Abbott has written explores the role of women during the Civil War, an area that has not been addressed sufficiently by historians.  Her work is less about the contribution of women in general who performed domestic tasks for confederate and union forces, but mostly about the lives of four women who played prominent roles during the war; Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd who supported secession, and Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds who remained loyal to the union.  All four women engaged in espionage during the war, and their lives reflect their own personal dangers in addition to the death and destruction that they witnessed during the “war between the states.”  In telling the stories of these heroines, Abbott integrates important aspects of the political and military history of the war into her narrative very effectively as each statement or document that appears is supported by by her research, though there are a number of places in the narrative when she appears to take some poetic license as she quotes from works of fiction as if they were accurate sources.

For the reader who sets out to read Abbott’s historical monograph they will find that, at times, it reads like an espionage thriller.  As they progress in the book they will meet many important historical characters, including; General Stonewall Jackson, General George McClellan, Detective Alan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Napoleon III among many others.  The book is organized chronologically with alternating chapters dealing with each of the subject women.  At times this approach can be confusing, and perhaps each woman could have been dealt with separately to create greater cohesion and then a chapter or two discussing how their lives may have interacted.  None the less the book is a quick and interesting read and focuses attention on four unsung heroes who can now be seen in a new light.

(Photo of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Union spy who changed her sex identity during the Civil War)

What separates Abbott’s account of the war is her in depth portrayal of her subjects and how they used their own inner resources to place themselves at risk in promoting the cause they believed in and were willing to die for.  The first, Belle Boyd, a charismatic character, who loved the limelight and had a force of personality that dominated most situations she found herself in.  Raised in Martinsburg, Va. she was a staunch secessionist who abhorred the union.  She engaged in numerous plots to acquire intelligence for the confederacy and employed her saucy, feminine whiles with men to gain whatever she needed.  Her life is fascinating and is worthy of her own biography.  Perhaps her lowest moment in the war, aside from the defeat the south suffered was the secession of western Virginia, including her own home county of Berkley, forming the state of West Virginia.  Second we meet Emma Edmondson, Canadian women who wanted to join the union army.  The strategy she adopted was to assume the identity of a man named Frank Thompson and when she survived her physical exam she joined Company F, 2nd Michigan infantry.  She began as a male nurse and soon became a mail currier and  spy for the union.  She kept her identity secret from everyone but two soldiers she served with that she fell in love with.  She survived a great deal of combat and was very effective.  Throughout the war she feared someone above her in rank would discover her true sex more than she feared death.  Her life is also an amazing story and she did write her own memoir entitled; MEMOIRS OF A SOLDIER, NURSE AND SPY! A WOMAN’S ADVENTURES IN THE UNION ARMY.  Third, is the life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow who lived in Washington, DC and was counted on by the Confederacy to obtain as much intelligence as possible.  She was friends with Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and headed a spy ring prone to “indiscretions” with men.  She worshiped Southern senator, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and mirrored his political views.  She had a number of lovers, the most important of which was Henry P. Wilson, an abolitionist Republican who was  the union Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee.  She has been credited with providing the intelligence that allowed the confederacy to defeat the union army at the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).  During the course of her career she was arrested a few times and served short prison sentences in Washington at the Capitol Prison.  After being exiled to the south she was sent by Jefferson Davis to England and France to try and gain recognition of the Confederacy by these nations.  On her return to the United States her blockade running ship was intercepted by the Union Navy. Lastly, and probably the most impactful of the four women on the course of the war was Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy society woman, and a strong unionist who lived in Richmond.  Her career as a spy was fraught with danger since most of her neighbors and politicians in the confederate capitol knew her wartime sympathies.  There were numerous attempts to try and catch her, by searching her mansion which became a union safe house, constant searches by detectives, and numerous attempts at entrapment.  Despite all of these obstacles she organized and ran the Richmond spy ring and its conduit to the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves and union soldiers to the north, and maintained a “secret room” upstairs in her mansion as a transshipment point for those fleeing the south.  General Grant, grateful for her work sent her a personal note: “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during  the war.”  Grant awarded her the position of Postmaster General of Richmond during his presidency to try and compensate her for all the  wealth that was poured into the northern cause during the war.

(Photo of Rose Greenhow, a Confederate spy during the Civil War and her daughter and part time currier, “Little Rose”)

It is not my purpose to recapitulate Abbott’s narrative but they are a myriad of interesting and surprising revelation that she brings to the fore.  Since women were not allowed to serve in the union army and there really was no military legal precedent for what to charge them should they be caught, union military officials would kick them out of the army under the charge of prostitution.  There were about 300-400 women in the union army during the Civil War, and Abbott tells a number of stories dealing with their plight.  In addition, the author relates the activities of Detective Alan Pinkerton who was in charge of union espionage for part of the war.  The role of detectives emerges throughout the narrative and how they interacted with Boyd, Greenhow, and Van Lew.  We witness a blend of societal graciousness and hospitality on all sides, but at the same time Abbott is letting the reader know what each character thought.  The chapter that deals with Pinkerton’s arrest of Rose Greenhow is priceless.  Abbott describes in detail the house search and how Greenhow was able to finagle documents into the hands of her eight year old daughter, “Little Rose,” as the conduit to avoid detection by Pinkerton’s agents and getting the intelligence to sources outside her home.  Even under constant surveillance Greenhow continue to spy for the Confederacy employing her daughter as her currier.  Another important vignette that Abbott discusses is how Elizabeth Van Lew, a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife is able to convince her to take on one of her freed slaves as a servant in the Confederate White House.  As the war turns against the Confederacy, Davis, for a time, is at a loss as to how Union spies seem to know military plans soon after he had conferred with General Robert E. Lee,  or other southern generals.  The work of Van Lew’s servant, Mary Jane, was certainly an important contribution to the Union cause.

(Photo of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond socialite who spied for the Union during the Civil War.  A woman who was widely praised by General U.S. Grant)

Karen Abbott has certainly done a service to the memory of four women who were under cover during the Civil War.  It makes for an excellent read and I recommend it to Civil War buffs and those interested in an aspect of women’s history that few are familiar with.  As Elizabeth Van Lew alluded to after the war, women made major contributions to the northern victory but when it came for them to receive military pensions they had to beg men for what was due them, because they did not have the vote.


(Adolf Eichmann in the witness box during his trial in Jerusalem, April, 1961)

Bettina Strangneth new book, EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM: THE UNEXAMINED LIFE OF A MASS MURDERER offers a major reassessment of how we should interpret the life of the man whose work was integral to the extermination of six million Jews during World War II.  After his capture by the Israeli Mossad in 1960, Adolf Eichmann tried to convince people that he was a small cog in the Nazi bureaucracy and that he was not a mass murderer.  He tried to present himself as a man who was always in the background during his Nazi career and was not involved in any major decision making.  In 1963 following the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt published her work, EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM: A REPORT ON THE BANALITY OF EVIL where she argued that her subject was nothing more than a bureaucrat who performed his tasks as best as he could, like a good civil servant who wanted to further his career.  He went to work each day and tried to meet the goals that his job demanded.  If his work involved “evil,” that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was just carrying out what his superiors expected of him.  Arendt’s line of thinking was very controversial at the time and it went against the generally accepted idea that, in fact, Eichmann was guilty, and was not an ordinary man who was turned into a thoughtless murderer by a totalitarian regime.  Following his escape after the war Eichmann claims to have been “an empty shell,” an apolitical person who tried to enjoy a normal life with his family while before his capture by the Israelis and his trial in Jerusalem.   In the last few years documents have surfaced in several archives that contain “Eichmann’s own notes made in exile and [they] can be examined in conjunction with the taped and transcribed conversations known as the Sassen interviews.”  These materials (about 1300 pages) reflect that “not once during his escape and exile did Eichmann seek the shadows or try to act in secrecy.  He wanted to be visible in Argentina and he wanted to be viewed as he once had been:  as the symbol of a new age.” (xx)  Employing this perspective, and making excellent use of the Sassen interviews, also referred to as the Argentina papers, Bettina Strangneth has written a fascinating book that disproves Arendt’s line of thinking and shows without a doubt that Eichmann was a major cog in the Nazi extermination apparatus and the persona he presented in Israel during his trial was nothing more than an act to gain sympathy from his captors and as lenient a sentence as possible.

Strangneth states from the outset that her goal is to uncover what was the “Eichmann phenomenon,” how and why did it develop, what people thought of him and when, and how he reacted to what people thought and said about him.  Strangneth succeeds in unmasking Eichmann who throughout his career assumed different roles; as a subordinate, a superior officer, perpetrator, fugitive, exile, and finally a defendant.  The only one of his roles that has become well known is that of a defendant at his trial in Jerusalem.  His intention was obvious, to remain alive and justify his actions.  For Strangneth, we must return to the period before Eichmann’s arrival in Jerusalem to see the real Eichmann.  The author effectively accomplishes her mission by examining a myriad of primary and secondary sources in a number of languages, and she uses Eichmann’s own words that were taped and written as part of interviews conducted by Willem Sassen, a Dutch Nazi collaborator and member of the SS journalist corps during the war and was the organizer and host for the interviews and discussions with Eichmann in 1957.   Once the Argentina papers surfaced and Eichmann was brought to trial it created a number of problems for a West German state that sought a smooth transition to becoming a new nation free of its past.  In addition to officials in Bonn, other Nazi officials who escaped after W.W.II, former Nazis who were free and serving in the West German government, and the Vatican prelates all feared what Eichmann might say.

(Reinhardt Heydrich, Chief of Reich Main Security Office and Eichmann’s superior in 1942)

The first section of the book, “My Name Became a Symbol,” focuses on Eichmann’s argument in Jerusalem that he was not an important figure in the Nazi regime and had little to do with the Holocaust.  Strangneth methodically refutes Eichmann’s arguments by examining his career from 1934, when he joined the Nazi Party through his successful escape from Europe by boarding the Giovanni C in Genoa’s harbor in June, 1948.  The author delineates Eichmann’s attempt to accumulate power as he worked his way up through the Nazi hierarchy and his success in making his name known, and establishing relationships with key Nazi figures.  For example, Reinhard Heydrich,  chief of Reich Main Security Office that included the Gestapo and SD, and making himself an expert on the Jewish people and their religion.  The author traces Eichmann’s movements during the prewar period as he set up emigration offices in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, and the war itself as he employed his emigration, transportation, and organizational skills to implement the Final Solution.  Eichmann’s creation of excessive publicity around his own name is in sharp contrast to the “shadow” figure he presents in his jail cell in Israel.  The author ends the first section by determining the accuracy of the myths surrounding Eichmann’s escape from Europe and details how he arranged his travel and settlement in Buenos Aires.

(while in exile in Argentina, Eichmann managed a rabbit farm)

In 1953 he was able to bring his family to Buenos Aires and it was clear there was very little interest in pursuing Eichmann and bringing him to justice. At the time, Konrad Adenauer, the West German Chancellor announced to the Bundestag: “In my opinion, we should call a halt to trying to sniff out Nazis.”(146)  While in Buenos Aires Eichmann grew angry that many of his accomplices and colleagues used their relationship with him to obtain lighter sentences.  He wanted to defend his honor.  On his arrival in Argentina, Eichmann had been taken in by the Durer group, led by Willem Sasser and Eberhard Fritsch, who published right wing magazines.  As Eichmann’s anger at former cohorts increased he wanted to set down his ideas in a book with the assistance of Sassen and Fritsch.

(Willem Sassen, a member of the Durer group who interviewed Eichmann for the Sassen/Argentina Papers)

1955 became a watershed year for Eichmann.  His personal circumstances changed as his wife Vera gave birth to their fourth son and he turned fifty years old.  In addition, the Peron government that had assisted Nazi exiles since the end of the war was overthrown in a coup resulting in an unstable political situation that placed Nazi escapees in the dark as to their futures.  Other events became public during the course of the year that concerned those who sought a resurgence of National Socialism when Austria signed the Independence Treaty; military occupation of West Germany ended and it was allowed to join NATO and form its own military, and represent its own interests abroad.  With Nazi exiles failing to influence West German elections, and with Moscow releasing German POWs, any hopes of a Nazi resurgence appeared dim at best.  Along with these events during 1955 the first major historical works and documentaries began appearing that described in intricate detail the role of “the Grand Inquisitor without magic, Adolf Eichmann.” (176)  The wealth of information and documentation that included Nazi letterhead, signatures, and other evidence could not be dismissed as Jewish propaganda.  It began to dawn on many of the doubters in the German community in Argentina, that Nazi denials about the Holocaust were lies.  This community led by Sasser, Fritsch and others needed someone with knowledge of what really happened to refute the books, articles and other media.  For them, Eichmann was the answer, and this project gave birth to the Sassen interviews.

(Eichmann reading in an Israeli prison)

Stangneth effectively argues that when Eichmann was in Argentina he did not live a solitary life and he talked about his career incessantly.  Sassen began to record Eichmann sometime around April, 1957 as Eichmann wanted to correct the historical record that was being presented in the burgeoning Holocaust literature.  Eichmann’s writing in Argentina was prodigious and the Sassen transcripts would reach 1000 pages, plus another 100 pages that Eichmann had written before the interviews began.  Strangneth spends a great deal of time analyzing Eichmann’s writing and convoluted logic, as he saw himself as a victim of malicious defamation, and misrepresentation.  For Eichmann, he was the irrefutable witness as all the other leading Nazis were dead.  The Durer group obtained all the leading books and articles pertaining to the Final Solution and examined each book with a fine tooth comb.  This process allowed Eichmann to see what the rest of the world believed and he would use that knowledge to prepare his arguments to refute it.  This approach was very helpful when he was imprisoned in Israel as he had practiced the major arguments against his position for years.  Strangneth points out that he “presents us with his irrefutable truth in an accusatory tone, with the self-assurance of a demagogue.” (215)

The author provides descriptions of the tapes that recorded Eichmann’s views and she speculates about dates and who was in attendance.  The author provides numerous verbatim comments by Eichmann; i.e., “The only good enemy of the Reich was a dead one….when I received an order, I always carried out this order with the executioner, and I am proud of that to this day.  If I had not done this, they would not have gone to the butcher.” (267)  Stangneth’s thoroughness is exceptional and through her analysis of the Sassen transcripts she provides insights into Eichmann’s thought process that culminates with his closing remarks where he confesses as to what was his real role in the Final Solution.  This is a far cry from the Eichmann in Jerusalem who presented himself as the “cautious bureaucrat.”

The Sassen papers developed a life of their own and Strangneth recounts in detail the road the papers take once Sassen learns of Eichmann’s abduction.  They seem to travel from Buenos Aires to Eichmann’s half brother Robert in Austria, then to be stolen from his office.  Sassen sells part of the material to ­Life and Stern magazines who publish excerpts from the material.  The most complete transcript fell into the hands of Polityka, a Polish magazine, but when published it did not create much interest.  The Israeli prosecution team in Jerusalem acquired a great deal of information, but most of it was ruled as inadmissible in court because their copies were of such poor quality, and the tapes that could have been used to show how disingenuous Eichmann’s testimony was, were not in their possession.

Strangneth brings her monograph to a close by examining the accuracy of books that were published after the trial that purported to use the Sassen documents and admonishes some for not living up to high academic standards, something that she has done throughout her work.  EICHMANN BEFORE JERUSALEM, can be somewhat dry in spots but overall it is an amazing study of a subject that needed clarification and it brings to the fore primary documents that will assist future historians.  One can only hope that documents that have not been released pertaining to the Sassen papers, as well as documents held by the German government will soon be made available for historical research so we can obtain an even more accurate picture of what the Nazis perpetrated throughout Europe during W.W.II.