AMONG THE LIVING by Jonathan Rabb

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(Savannah, GA)

Jonathan Rabb’s new novel, AMONG THE LIVING begins as a feel good story.  Holocaust survivor and former Prague journalist, Yitzchak Goldah arrives in Savannah in July, 1947 sponsored by his cousins Abe and Pearl Jesler.  The Jesler’s are very sensitive to Ike, the nickname Pearl creates, and his situation.  They invite him into their home and take care of all of his needs.  Ike has lost his entire family to the Nazi genocide and his mindset grows confused as he tries to adapt to new surroundings at the same time dealing with flashbacks from the camps.  It appears to be the making of a wonderful story, until different layers of the novel unravel.  Abe Jesler owns a shoe store in the Savannah business district and he invites Ike to learn the trade and work for him.  Along with Ike, Abe has a number of “negro” workers that include Calvin and Raymond.  As the story progresses, Abe who grew up in one of Savannah’s poorer sections needs to make a significant amount of money to satisfy his overly neurotic and loving spouse, Pearl.  Unbeknownst to Ike, Abe is involved with smuggling shoes from Italy through a southern organized syndicate, and over time he is drawn deeper and deeper into the mob’s machinations that call for increasing monetary payments and cooperation.  When Abe falls behind in his obligations a message is sent resulting in the brutal beating of Raymond.

The smuggling component is just one storyline.  Ike will met a World War II widow, Eva De La Parra, and against her mother’s wishes they begin a relationship.  Both Ike, the survivor, and Eva, the mother of a five year old boy, whose husband was killed in Germany in 1945 suffer from a deep emotional void and seem meant for each other.  As their relationship progresses a number of fissures emerge in Savannah society.  Then we learn that a person from Ike’s past seems to return from the dead.  Malke Posner, who survived Theresienstadt, the Nazi “model” concentration camp, turns up at the Jesler’s doorstep claiming to be Ike’s fiancée.

What dominates Rabb’s fine novel is social class inequality and prejudice.  At a time when “Jim Crow” dominates the Deep South we find a Jewish community where social circles seem to form around the type of Judaism that religious adherents aspire to.  First, are the somewhat religious conservatives that the Jeslers exemplify.  The second are Eva’s parents, the Weiss’s whose father is the editor of the town newspaper who are seen as “Temple Jews,” or as they are called, reformed.  This “ideological” conflict forms part of the background for a story that takes place at a time when Jews are finally leaving the displaced persons camps in Europe following their liberation from Hitler’s death camps, and in the Middle East Palestine is about to explode into a war between Jews and Arabs.  To highlight this, Rabb creates a scene during the Jewish New Year where both groups of Jews confront each other at the beach as they are about to engage in a Jewish cleansing tradition. Another fissure centers on race relations in the south.  The Jeslers, as do most wealthy members of the Savannah community employ Negro maids, in this case Mary Royal.  Her actions act out the subservient stereotypical maid as does the common language spoken by Raymond and Calvin.  In addition, Raymond confronts Abe Jesler concerning his rightful place in a business that he has worked in for over twenty years.

Rabb develops his plot through these dynamics and integrates well developed characters and a story whose highs and lows provoke many compelling questions.  This is Rabb’s sixth novel, and perhaps his best.

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(Savannah, GA)

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IKE’S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST by Michael Doran

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

Today we witness a Middle East in crisis.  In Iraq, ISIS remains a power though the current operation to reconquer Mosul could be the beginning of the end of the supposed caliphate.  Syria is a humanitarian disaster as Russia and Iran continue to prop up Bashir Assad and keep him in power.  As the Syrian Civil War continues, war in Yemen involving Saudi Arabia, an American strategic ally evolves further.  The seeming winner in this juxtaposition of events is Iran which has taken advantage of the American invasion of Iraq, and how the region has since unraveled.  Once ISIS is removed from Iraq it will be interesting to see how Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni factions “might” try to reconstitute their country.  It seems an afterthought to this untenable situation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict featuring Hamas, an intransigent Israeli government, and Hezbollah in the north has somewhat faded into the background.  As we contemplate the morass that is the current Middle East it is interesting to return to the by gone days of the region in the 1950s when Arab nationalism/Pan Arabism was in vogue as opposed to the religious ideological road blocks of today.  In IKE”S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, senior director of the National Security Council under George W. Bush, Michael Doran has revisited an American strategy to deal with the myriad of problems then in the region, that laid the foundation for America’s role in the area that we continue to grapple with today.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

According to Doran when President Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed the presidency, he and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided to offer the president as “an honest broker” in the Middle East to try and settle intra-Arab, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The term “honest broker” is an interesting one unless you think of it as a realpolitik based on power politics designed to drive the British from the region and replace it with American influence and control.  In 1952, Egypt had undergone a revolution and replaced King Farouk’s government with one based on a “Free Officers Movement” dominated by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, an Egyptian nationalist and believer in uniting the Arab world under Egyptian leadership.  The British position in the region was tenuous, despite the presence of 100,000 troops at their Suez Canal base.  Their Hashemite allies in Jordan and Iraq feared what was termed as “Nasserism,” the Arab-Israeli conflict was punctuated with “Fedayeen” attacks against Israel, and retaliation by the Jewish state all served to make the region a powder keg.  For incoming President Eisenhower he was concerned with dealing with a region that was ripe for communist expansion in the guise of anti-colonialism.  Dulles learned firsthand about these tensions when he visited the region in May, 1953 and upon his return he and the president decided on a strategy to remove the British from their Suez base by brokering a treaty that was accomplished by October, 1954, and trying to settle issues between Egypt and Israel that were getting out of hand.  For the British it was a series of frustrations with the Eisenhower administration that dominated.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to pass leadership of the Conservative party to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden despite a stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side as he would not give in to Egyptian demands and sacrifice the last remaining bulwark of the British Empire.  For the United States their ties to British and French imperialism and the closeness of American-Israeli relations were seen as preventing any progress in the Middle East toward peace.  This resulted in a policy which set as its goal supporting Nasser in the belief he would cooperate with the United States once a treaty with Israel was arrived at, the end result of which for the Eisenhower administration would be his leadership and gaining the support of the Arab states for a Middle East Defense Organization designed to block Soviet penetration of the region.  The United States would woo Nasser with economic aid and promises of military largesse for over four years, a policy that would fail as the Egyptian president was able to dupe his American counterparts.

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(British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

With the above as background, Doran begins to unravel events that resulted in the 1956 Suez War that he describes as Eisenhower’s gamble, a gamble which ended in failure.  Doran takes us through the intricacies of Anglo-Egyptian negotiations over the Suez Canal base and the American role in pressuring London to give in to most of Nasser’s demands.  He follows that up with a rather long discussion of the “Northern Tier,” an American policy of developing an alternative to a Middle East Defense Organization.  The “tier” involved Pakistan and Turkey and theoretically other nations would be added.  Doran argues that Nasser’s opposition to the pact and his hatred of Iraqi leader Nuri al-Said, his goal of receiving Soviet arms, and deceiving the United States were all tied together reflecting how Nasser manipulated Washington.  Relying on one secondary source to bind all of this together Doran believes that he has gone where no other historian has gone.  This is part of his rather condescending approach to historians who have previously studied this topic.  On more than one occasion Doran starts out by stating, “most historians have failed to understand how significant….,” or “failed to realize,” in this case the importance of the Turco-Iraqi Pact, or in presenting the role of Eisenhower and Dulles in the Heads of Agreement negotiations dealing with the Suez Canal base, and the role of Jordan in Nasser’s plan to seize the leadership in the Arab world.  I would point out that instead of repeated self-serving comments, the author should reflect some objectivity for those who have written previously on the background to the Suez crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion)

Doran also has a habit of twisting facts to suit his arguments.  A case in point is a memo prepared by Dulles in 1958 looking back on issues that led to Suez.  In the memo that Doran uses to support his narrative the Secretary of State argues there was little the United States could do to move Israel from its entrenched positions because of the influence of Jews domestically and internationally.  If this was so, how come Eisenhower pressured Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with threats in March, 1957 to gain Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai?  Further he claims that the Soviet Union, “while consistently hinting to the Arab states that it will agree to dismember Israel, has never actually come out with a statement of support.”  If that is correct what do we make of Soviet threats concerning the use of nuclear weapons after Israel, France, and Britain implemented the Sevres conspiracy and attacked Egypt at the end of October, 1956?

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I do agree with Doran that Washington’s “blind pursuit of an illusionary Arab-Israeli peace” strengthened Nasser’s position in the Arab world, at the same time he was trying to undermine the western position in the region.  Nasser deceived the State Department, raising the hopes for peace through the secret Alpha Plan.  The Egyptian leaders stalling tactics and disingenuousness would continue until the Eisenhower administration would call Nasser’s bluff following the Anderson peace mission in early 1956, a mission that would lead to the Omega plan designed to pressure Nasser to be more accommodating.  Doran points out that the new plan was designed to deal with Nasser and achieve behavioral change, not regime change.  I would point out that the document also alluded to strong action particularly if a soft covert approach did not work as Dulles’ March 28, 1956 memo stated that “planning should be undertaken at once with a view to possibly more drastic action in the event that the above courses of action do not have the desired effect.”*   For Eisenhower, whose frustration with Nasser finally took effect there were suggestions that a strong move against the Egyptian president would have to wait until after the American presidential election in November.

Doran continues his narrative by taking the reader through the immediate causes of the Suez War, the machinations that occurred after the Israeli invasion, and the final withdrawal of Israeli, French, and British troops from Sinai.  The author then goes on to discuss the anti-colonial purity of the Eisenhower administration which was short lived with the announcement of the Eisenhower Doctrine in January, 1957, designed to protect Arab states from communist encroachment.  The reality was total failure of American policy with the overthrow of the Iraqi government and the dispatch of American marines to Lebanon.  In addition, the goal of turning the Saudi monarchy into a substitute for Nasser as an Arab leader that would bring about a coalescing of Arab states in support of U.S. policy in the region never transpired.  In the end I would agree with Doran that Ike’s gamble did more harm than good and by 1958 resulted in the president questioning his policies that led to the 1956 war and beyond.  These musings by Eisenhower and the counterfactual scenarios presented by the author are interesting, but it does not change the fact that the team of Eisenhower and Dulles did create a popular Arab leader who was able to create strong Pan Arabist sentiment in the Middle East and left the United States with two weak allies in Jordan and Lebanon.  Further, they created a “doctrine” for the Middle East that was viewed in the Arab world as the same type of colonialism that had been previously practiced by England and France.  Doran completes his narrative by admonishing American policy makers that we should be careful not to make the same errors today that we made in the height of the Cold War.

*Steven Z. Freiberger. DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), p. 149.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MAC ARTHUR AND TRUMAN AT THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR by H.W. Brands

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, October 15, 1950)

On June 25, 1950 North Korea unleashed an attack against its southern neighbor that set off a war that resulted in 36,914 American casualties.  Many Americans are aware of the role of General Douglas MacArthur in the conflict, in particular his brilliant, but risky landing at Inchon that beat back the North Korean attack, and later in the war pursuing a strategy that led to Chinese intervention.  MacArthur’s actions were very controversial and once the Chinese crossed the Yalu River with over 100,000 troops and the military situation deteriorated, America’s allies grew concerned when MacArthur suggested the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese.  President Harry S. Truman did his best to reign in his commander to no avail and most historians believe that MacArthur overstepped his authority and allowed his strong belief system guide his actions.  Others like the British historian Robert Harvey and the American historian Arthur Herman believe the situation was much more nuanced.  The topic has again been explored in H.W. Brands new book, THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MACARTHUR AND TRUMAN AT THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR.  Brands position is very clear that Truman’s firing of MacArthur was a “bold stroke” that may have headed off a much wider war with the Chinese.

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(US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson)

Brands juxtaposes two personalities with totally different backgrounds and agendas.  Truman, reelected president in his own right in 1948 stood up to Stalin after World War II implementing the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and stood fast over Berlin as he pursued the policy of containment of the Soviet Union.  With the North Korean attack he was able to blunt their progress until the Chinese crossed the Yalu River in force, but he was faced with a commander who wanted to employ nuclear weapons to send a message to the communist world.  On the other hand, MacArthur, the “all knowing general” who held politicians in contempt, especially a “novice” president like Truman.  MacArthur saw himself as having saved the Pacific in World War II, rebuilt postwar Japan, and now believed he had the communists right where he wanted them, but a feckless president stood in his way.  Brands does his best to explain the issues between the two men in the context of the Cold War in which they lived.  Brands has written a general history of their relationship and its ultimate outcome, but does not really add anything new that has not been uncovered by previous works on the topic.

Brands smooth narrative style, refined through the many books he has written is present throughout.  Brands is a master story teller who is able to present his narrative and analysis in a concise fashion that the general reader should enjoy, which at times will also satisfy an academic audience.  A case in point is how MacArthur gained the support of the Japanese people as he totally reoriented their society away from the militaristic emperor worship to a nation based on liberal democracy.  In the constitution he prepared he did away with all pre-war institutions, except the emperor, that had dominated Japan and resulted in World War II.  Further evidence of this approach can be seen as Brands reviews Truman’s career that spans his election to the Senate in 1940, his assumption of the presidency in 1945, and Cold War events to the onset of the Korean War.  Brands effectively relies on Truman’s correspondence with his daughter Margaret who served as a remarkable conduit into his thoughts and concerns.

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(General Matthew Ridgeway who took over command in Korea after MacArthur was relieved)

A major strength of the book are the character studies that are presented.  Discussions of people like Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a rather arrogant individual; General Omar T. Bradley, whose insights into Truman and MacArthur’s personalities are fascinating; General Matthew Ridgeway, a hero at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II whose leadership helped turn around the military balance in Korea; and Marguerite Higgins, a wartime correspondent add to the narrative.  Other strengths of the book include Brands’ description of the plight and final breakout of US Marines at the Chosin Reservoir and their two week trek battling the elements which were more dangerous than the Chinese communists to reach Hamhung.  Brands coverage of Truman and MacArthur rationalizations when confronted by Congress and the press is eye opening in trying to gain insights into their dysfunctional relationship after the Chinese communists crossed the Yalu into North Korea.  MacArthur’s statements at this time concerning administration restraints in dealing with bombing Chinese airfields in Manchuria and other issues is very similar to his rhetoric leaked to the American press after Matthew Ridgeway’s forces saved MacArthur’s reputation in April, 1951.  Brands coverage of Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally reaching the conclusion to relieve MacArthur of his command points to the final realization that MacArthur’s insubordination and egocentrism could no longer be tolerated.  Especially enlightening was the inclusion of a great deal of the testimony of MacArthur and Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall before Congress following MacArthur’s dismissal. However, the report of the hearings would have been enhanced if excerpts of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s testimony had also been included.   This along with the geopolitical analysis of the region and domestic politics in the United States that included the role of Chiang Kai-Shek, Republicans in Congress, and the coming 1952 presidential election are all important pieces in understanding the war and its domestic implications.

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(President elect Dwight Eisenhower visits South Korea after his election)

Despite the strengths of the book there are a number of areas that could be improved.  The bibliography is rather sparse and the endnotes could be enhanced.  In the area of analysis, Brands chooses to deal with a number of major issues in a rather superficial manner.  His exploration of Soviet motives behind the North Korean attack is weak.  His excuse that the Russians were protesting the seating of Formosa over mainland China in the UN Security Council as the reason for their absence to block an American/UN force to stop the North Korean advance does not go far enough.  Is it possible that Moscow tried to draw the United States into the conflict in the hope it would cause difficulties with the Chinese at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was emerging is a main motivation?  Brands covers all the major topics that come under the umbrella of his overall subject, but he needs to dig down further, or just state up front that he is preparing a general history of the topic, then the reader will not expect more.  For example, the Wake Island meeting between Truman and MacArthur covers the basics.   Further, he does not drill down far enough when discussing events that led up to the Chinese overrunning UN forces in November, 1950.  To his credit he does list the signs of possible Chinese actions that MacArthur missed, but he needs to explore the reaction of America’s allies further, as well as the interaction between MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Overall, Brands has written a very readable account of the Truman-MacArthur relationship in the context of the Cold War.  I would agree with Francis P. Sempa’s view published in the New York Journal of Books* that Brands does not present a very clear legacy of the Korean War in terms of future American foreign policy.  Truman wanted to have a “police action” or “limited war,” in Korea, MacArthur sought total victory, something the United States has achieved only once since World War II in the first Gulf War in 1990-91, but failed to accomplish in Vietnam, and currently in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are a number of lessons that could have been discussed that relate to future American foreign policy, an important area, which Brands chooses to ignore.

*http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/general-vs-president

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, October 15, 1950)

MURDER AT THE 42ND STREET LIBRARY by Con Lehane

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A murder that takes place at the 42nd Street Public Library in Manhattan is an unusual venue for a mystery concept.  However, this is exactly what Con Lehane has created in his new and very effective novel, MURDER AT THE 42ND STREET LIBRARY.  One afternoon, Dr. James Donnelly enters the office of Harry Larkin, the Director of Special Collections at the library and is shot dead.  Larkin, a medieval historian and former Jesuit priest becomes very defensive about the murder he has witnessed when questioned by his friend Raymond Ambler, the curator in the collection of crime fiction, and a Tai Chi aficionado.  Ambler, who dabbles in solving real crimes is friends with Mike Cosgrove, the NYPD detective who is in charge of the new investigation.  It seems that the elderly author, Nelson Yates, who suffers from dementia, has donated his papers to the library and a number of characters cross paths over the new collection.  There is Donnelley’s ex-wife, Kay; biographer, Maximilian Wagner; Wagner’s wife, Laura Lee McGlynn; Adele Morgan, a colleague of Amblers at the library; Benny Barone, a library researcher; Yates’ young wife Mary, the elderly Yates, and Dominic Salerno, a mob type.  All of these people are key to the web Lehane creates as he spins his tale, particularly when feelings are ruffled when Yates decided to give his collection to the library as opposed to other bidders.

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Yates is very concerned about his collection because there are letters he has written to his estranged daughter Emily who left home at fifteen.  Yates fears that if Wagner, who is writing a new biography of him gets hold of the letters it will destroy any hope of a reconciliation with his daughter, as well as his literary reputation.  The library staff has not followed library protocol and has allowed Wagner access to Yates’ papers before they were catalogued.  The papers, the intermingling of a number of characters, and their personal secrets form the basis of an extremely well-conceived and entertaining plot, particularly when Yates is murdered outside the library.

It is extremely interesting as Lehane lays out the different characters and how their pasts intersect.  It seems that at one time Yates was a visiting professor at Hudson Highlands University in Rockledge, at the same time Max Wagner was an assistant professor of English, as was James Donnelley.  Further, Kay Donnelly was an English graduate student along with Laura Lee McGlynn who was married to an English professor whose death is linked to Yates’ daughter Emily.  Just this brief snapshot in time raises some interesting questions about the two murders that have taken place and what these past relationships expose.  By this juncture Lehane’s plot should captivate the reader and lead to a very satisfying murder mystery experience.

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Lehane writes in a very smooth prose and has not created the overly sarcastic main characters that other mystery writers rely on.  Ray Ambler is a sensitive and somewhat intellectual type, and Mike Cosgrove is career NYPD who is trying to get his private life in order.  As the novel progresses Lehane has the ability to drop a number of bombshells in a very subtle manner that the reader would never expect, and this approach adds to the story.  My only criticism of the novel is that the final ending is somewhat farfetched but it does lend itself to another installment of Ambler and Cosgrove’s approach to crime, which I look forward to.

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HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich

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The public’s fascination with Adolf Hitler remains strong even sixty years after his suicide in the Fuhrer bunker in April, 1945.  To date over 120,000 books have been written about Hitler and Volker Ullrich’s new biography, HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 is a welcome addition to this ever increasing bibliography.  Up until now Ian Kershaw’s two volume work was the recognized standard in this genre replacing earlier volumes by Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest as the most comprehensive works on Hitler.  Kershaw argued that Hitler was motivated by two obsessions as he pushed Germany toward war; the removal of the Jews, and German expansion to the east.  Overall, Ullrich agrees with Kershaw’s thesis, but what makes his book so important is his ability to synthesize the vast material that has already exists, his access to a great deal of new primary materials, and it has been almost twenty years since Kershaw’s work was published.  Ullrich should be commended for his voluminous research supported by his extensive endnotes.  These endnotes contain a treasure-trove of information for scholars of the Nazi regime, their leaders, and their rise to power.

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(A burned out synagogue during Krystallnacht, November, 1938)

Many wonder what the keys were to Hitler’s success.  Ullrich correctly depicts a man who was able to conceal his real intentions from friends and foes alike as one of the keys to his success.  He had the ability to instantly analyze political situations and exploit them, including his political opposition.  His success rests on his improvisational style of leadership where he created numerous internal conflicts from which he emerged as the indispensable man.  Ullrich breaks the myth that Hitler lacked personal relationships arguing that he was able to separate his political and private spheres which impacted his pursuit of power greatly.  Another key that Ullrich stresses in understanding Hitler is examining the reciprocal nature of his relationship with the German people that contributed to his enormous popularity.  It was not a forgone conclusion that Hitler would come to power, but domestic opposition leaders underestimated his abilities, as would foreign leaders after he consolidated power in 1934.  Ullrich’s aim “is to deconstruct the myth of Hitler, the ‘fascination with monstrosity’ that has greatly influenced historical literature and public discussion of the Fuhrer after 1945.  In a sense, Hitler will he ‘normalised’—although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’  If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”

Ullrich’s study is extremely comprehensive.  He does not spend a great deal of time concerning Hitler’s childhood and upbringing, just enough to explore a few myths associated with Hitler’s childhood which he debunks, i.e.; he did not grow up in poverty as his father Alois had a good pension; he did not blame the Jews for the death of his mother from cancer; and he did not blame the Jews for his inability to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts  The biography becomes detailed as the Ullrich explores the effect  Fin-de-Siècle Austria on Hitler and the author does an excellent job reviewing the historiography pertaining to Hitler’s intellectual development.  Hitler is presented as an autodidact who was self-educated which explains how he acquired his anti-Semitic prejudices and German nationalist ideas.  But it is Hitler’s experience in World War I that shaped the man, without which he would have remained “a nobody” with pretensions of being an artist.

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(Adolf Hitler with his second in command, Hermann Goering)

Ullrich’s work successfully shifts the focus of his study on to Hitler the person as is evidenced by an excellent chapter, “Hitler the Human Being.”  It is here that Ullrich delves into Hitler’s behavior and personality and tries to lift the mask that makes it difficult to penetrate Hitler’s shifting persona.  Hitler’s personality is a compilation of dichotomies.* He was a dictator who kept people at a distance, but sought company to avoid being alone with himself.  He could be caring and empathetic at times, but at the same time he could commit or order brutal acts.  Ullrich is correct in pointing out that Hitler was an actor and chameleon who was able to manipulate others who did not see through him as he overcame his personal insecurities and was able to shift many of them on to the German people in order to seize power.

Other important chapters include “Month of Destiny: January 1933,” where Ullrich details Hitler’s path to the Chancellorship by taking the reader through the numerous elections, the strategies pursued by Hitler and his cohorts, the approach taken by the opposition, and the political infighting on all sides of the political spectrum.  January 30, 1933 became the turning point in the history of the twentieth century, but at the time Ullrich correctly points out leaders and the German public were not totally aware of its significance because most power brokers believed that the Franz von Papen-Paul von Hindenburg-Alfred Hugenberg alliance would be able to control Hitler.  As is repeatedly pointed out in the narrative it was just another example of people underestimating the new German Chancellor.  When examining if there were opportunities to stop Hitler’s ascent, Ullrich recapitulates the ideas of Karl Dietrich Bracher’s THE GERMAN DICTATORSHIP published in 1972.  Further, no one should have been surprised by Hitler’s actions after he rose to power, because his speeches, other public utterances, and his book MEIN KAMPF carefully delineated what he proposed to do.

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(Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbles)

In the realm of what he did do it is carefully reconstructed in the chapters, “Totalitarian Revolution,” and “Eviscerating Versailles.”  After achieving power on January 30, 1933 over the next year we witness the Nazi consolidation of power through the creation of the first concentration camp at Dachau; the passage of the Enabling Act, or “The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich,” which was used to create a dictatorship in the hands of the Chancellor as Hitler could now formulate laws without the approval of the Reichstag; and lastly, The Night of the Long Knives which destroyed the SA and the last vestige of political opposition.   As far as Hitler’s foreign policy was concerned the enemy was the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy and the key to its destruction was the step by step dismantling of the Treaty of Versailles.  Ullrich takes us through this process and the tactic Hitler employed throughout the period was to simultaneously appear as conciliatory and presenting his adversaries with a fait accompli, i.e., German military rearmament and the occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936.   The response of the west was one of appeasement and Hitler recreated a strategy that worked so effectively domestically – implementing policy that fostered foreign diplomats to underestimate him.   Overall, there is little that is new in this part of the narrative, but Ullrich’s clear analysis and Jefferson Chase’s excellent translation make events and policies easy to understand, particularly the historical implications that would result in World War II.

After reading Ullrich’s narrative I am not certain he has met his goal of “humanizing” Hitler because no matter how the material is presented he remains the historical monster that his actions and belief system support.  To Ullrich’s credit he has written a carefully constructed biography that should be seen as the most comprehensive biography of Hitler to date, and I look forward to the second volume that will carry us through the end of World War II.

*To explore Hitler from a psychological perspective you might consult:

Binion, Rudolph. HITLER AMONG THE GERMANS

Langer, Walter. THE MIND OF ADOLF HITLER

Waite, Robert. HITLER THE PSYCHOPATHIC GOD

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MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

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Most of us are aware of the horrific policies implemented by the Nazis during the Holocaust, but one area that seems further and further beyond the pale in terms of their barbarity and horror is in the realm of medical experiments.  The name that comes to the fore when thinking of such perverse behavior is that of Dr. Josef Mengele who conducted experiments on about 1500 pairs of twins in his laboratories at Auschwitz, of which maybe 200 survived the war.  Mengele was obsessed with the behavior and genetic makeup of twins which forms the infrastructure of Affinity Konar’s new novel, MISCHLING.  Mischling in German means “mixed blood” or “half breed,” and was the legal term employed by the Nazis to denote people with Jewish or Aryan ancestry.  There were different categories as delineated by the 1935 Nuremberg Blood Laws that the Nazis developed to determine whether a person was a Jew or of mixed blood.  This determination affected Jews on many levels and for far too many led to their ultimate extinction.

Konor develops her story through the eyes of Pearl and Stasha Zagorski, twin girls who at the age of twelve are seized and transported to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944.  Konor alternates her narration between the twins and begins with Stasha as she describes a white coated man walking over to the girls and their mother and grandfather as classical music plays in the background.  The man known as “Uncle” throughout the novel is Dr. Josef Mengele and after examining the girls separates them from their mother and grandfather and sends them to the Zoo, the name for the facility for Mengele to conduct his research.

Konor’s novel draws heavily on CHILDREN OF FLAMES by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, and THE NAZI DOCTORS by psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton.  Despite her reliance on these works Konor is able to create two personalities that are hauntingly real as it is expressed by the continual dialogue between Pearl and Stasha, and their narration upon their separation from each other.  At the outset it appears that the twins are special and have a certain status, but once the experiments begin they are tossed aside just like any other Holocaust victim.  They may live longer, but if one of the twins happens to die, the other will follow almost immediately.  It was uncanny how Pearl and Stasha shared each other’s pain.  Pearl could be undergoing a certain experiment on one part of her body, and unbeknownst to Stasha she would feel pain in the same part of her anatomy.  Pearl would curse herself because her veins stood out and it made it easier for Mengele to inject what germs, viruses or poison he desired.  As awareness of what was occurring to them became evident the twins developed a new maturity and in Pearl’s case she went from being the more outgoing of the sisters before their incarceration, to becoming more methodical, and focused on her memories to survive each day; while Stasha grew feistier and more cunning in trying to cope with the evil that surrounded her.

The girls had been inseparable in their previous life, now found that as they grew apart they were no longer as devoted to each other.  It is heart breaking to visualize Pearl, who believed she was dying from the medical experiments that were conducted, tried to push Stasha away so she would not be so dependent; so when Pearl would eventually die, Stasha could move on.  The pain and anguish is palatable on each page as each of the twins feels less than whole, as each believes in their own way that their better half has been stolen from them, and they are surviving in a vacuum.  The experiments that were conducted were bizarre and the concoction of a demented mind; sewing twins together so they could not see each other, placing one twin in a cage and allowing the other to survive in the laboratory, and on and on.  Konar’s research allows her to reconstruct an alternate reality that was Mengele’s world and can only bring tears to the reader.

The second half of the book is not as focused as the first half and at times comes across as a bit disjointed.  The story revolves around the approach and the final arrival of Russian troops to liberate Auschwitz.  From there we follow the twins on their journey with a number of projections into the future.  Konar drills down into actual events and how the Russians treated the newly freed victims and follows Pearl and Stasha’s different paths.  We witness the Nazi attempt to destroy all evidence of what they had perpetrated.  The emotions and feelings of the newly released seem straight out of Robert Jay Lifton’s work as they suffer from “without self,” “survival guilt,” and other diagnostic terms.  The Soviets make a propaganda film of what they find in the camps and Pearl wonders what is actually taking place.  Stasha and Feliks, another survivor are committed to seeking revenge and travel toward Warsaw in the hope of killing Dr. Mengele.  We also experience the story of Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to assist Mengele’s work and how she seeks redemption and tries to deal with her guilt.

Overall, MISCHLING is a difficult read.  It is the type of novel that must be taken in small doses.  Though it reveals nothing new in terms of what we know of Mengele’s tortuous work, imagining what has occurred through the eyes of twin sisters and their perceptions separates Konor’s effort from much of the material that has appeared before.  If you choose to tackle Konor’s novel be prepared for the world you about to enter.