GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by Philip Kerr

Image result for photo of greece during wwii

(Nazis in front of the Parthenon during WWII)

In Philip Kerr’s thirteenth installment of his successful Bernie Gunther series we find the former Nazi/German detective living in Munich under the assumed name Christof Ganz working as a “mortuary attendant,” which Gunther viewed as an acceptable form of penance based on what he had done during the war.  Gunther’s soul had been poisoned between 1933 and 1945 and since that time he has done his best to maintain a sense of humanity by assuming different names and occupations.  GREEKS BEARING GIFTS is centered in Germany and Greece and has all the characteristics of other Gunther books including the protagonist’s sharp wit, sense of history, sarcasm, and a degree of empathy that one might not expect based on his background.  In the current rendition Kerr seems to go a bit further dealing with Gunther’s past to the point that at times it becomes a philosophical discourse on Nazism and what Germans can do to assuage their conscience.  Sadly, the author passed away on March 23rd, but the series will continue as number fourteen will be published posthumously sometime next year.

Kerr immediately involves Gunther in a convoluted plot encompassing a corrupt and somewhat sadistic “Criminal Secretary” in the Munich Police Department.  The man recognizes Gunther from his Kripo detective days in the early 1930s and coerces him to join him in a sting to steal a large political donation.  Gunther is able to disentangle himself from the situation and warns the “stings” victim, a lawyer named Max Merten about what was about to occur.  Merten is grateful and arranges a new job for Gunther at a large insurance company, Munich RE as a claims adjuster, a position that could maximize his detective skills as both types of positions involve determining whether people are lying.  Once Gunther begins his new job the plot begins to unfold.

Image result for photo of alois brunner

(Alois Brunner)

Munich RE, is the largest insurance company in Germany that in the past had insured concentration camps for the Nazis.  Headed by its Chairman, Herr Alois Alzheimer, and his assistant Herr Philipp Dietrich, both former SS members, two gentlemen whose only concerns are company profits.  They both take a shine to Gunther as he immediately solves a case whereby saving the company 23,000 reischmarks.  Having proven himself, Gunther is dispatched to Greece to deal with an insurance case involving a fire on the research boat, the Doris.

Throughout the novel, Kerr makes constant references to Nazi figures and crimes against humanity.  Employing Gunther’s sardonic wit, the author fills in a great deal of background pertaining to our protagonists Nazi past.  Kerr as usual presents numerous historical characters and events that are true to form.  His discussion of Konrad Adenauer’s background is completely accurate, as is his discussion of the port city of Salonika.  Kerr points out that the city held the largest Jewish population than any other area in Europe aside from Poland.  In 1939, Greece held  60,000 Jews, at the end of the war only 2,000 returned, one of which was Jaco Kapantzi a rich Salonikan Jew killed by the SD.

Image result for photo of Max Merten

(Max Merten)

Kerr effectively weaves a number of characters and plot lines in developing his story.  Gunther finds himself in the midst of a number of homicides once he arrives in Greece.  The first is the deaths of Munich RE policy holder, Siegfried Witzel, and Dr. Samuel Frizis, a Jewish lawyer.  Gunther’s presence at the murder scene creates an awkward situation as he is caught by Lt. Stauros Leventis, a Greek detective who is very sensitive about “former Nazis.”  The two agree to work with each other to try and figure out whether the killings and the boat fire are revenge killings by Jews for property stolen during the war or something more devious like the presence of Alois Brunner an escaped Austrian Schutzstaffel officer who worked as Adolf Eichmann’s assistant. Brunner is held responsible for sending over 100,000 European Jews to ghettos and internment camps in Eastern Europe and it seems Gunther may have run into him at his hotel.  Further, Leventis believes he murdered Jaco Kapantzi during the war.  With a “community of fate” the two detectives, one Greek, one German are forced to reach an accommodation and work with each other.

Kerr introduces an interesting group of characters, some true historical figures, some fictional; especially Alzheimer and Dietrich; Achilles Garpolis, a Munich RE employee in Greece who assists Gunther; Witzel who turned out to be a rather sour German; Elli Panatoniou, a government ministry lawyer, communist, and an enigma to Gunther; the lady from H’Mossad, known as the “bandit queen,” or Rahel Eshkenazi, a  Auschwitz survivor; and Lt. Leventis whose sense of morality is quite striking and believes that Gunther should help atone for German sins from WWII by working with him.  Gunther’s dilemma is that he is trying to stay away from his Nazi past because he was living under a false identity.

Kerr’s latest takes a number of twists and turns that will keep the reader fully engrossed.  Kerr proposes a number of possible plot lines as Gunther tries to determine the motives for the murders he has discovered.  From Jews seeking revenge from the Holocaust to the possibility that Greek and Egyptian antiquities were being sold to raise money for Egyptian President Gamal Nasser to purchase weapons to be used against Israel.  His entertaining approach to crime solving is on full display and this effort is one of his best.  As an avid reader of the Bernie Gunther series his death will deprive myself and his readers many hours of enjoyment.  There is one consolation, in that a fourteenth iteration is due out next year, and if it continues were the current story leaves off, it should be fascinating.

Image result for photo of greece during wwii

(Nazis in front of the Parthenon during WWII)

Advertisements

ROBIN by Dave Itzkoff

Image result for photo of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

For years I showed the Robin Williams’ film “Good Morning Vietnam” to my history classes.  The movie reflected Williams’ genius, empathy, and commentary pertaining to a conflict that tore America apart.  I introduced the film because I wanted students to get a feel for a different aspect of the war which the character of Adrian Cronauer apply portrayed. Williams’ is also known for many other ground breaking and important films that include, “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Fisher King,” and the cartoon voiceover of “Áladdin,” along with a number that did not achieve recognition, but reflected Williams’ many talents.  Williams was a multifaceted individual whose onstage comedic insanity expressed a certain poignancy when one got passed the mask that the comedian presented to his audiences.  When he died in 2014 a cultural void was created which may never again be filled.  Williams was an insecure individual who found solace from rejection in childhood and other personal issues by developing voices, characters, and other coping strategies as he meandered through his early years.  Williams lived an unsettled life that would end in tragedy.   When he could no longer cope with medical issues that resulted from Lewy body dementia disorder he took his own life. The full scope of his career, personal life, and demons are fully explored in Dave Itzkoff’s wonderful new biography, ROBIN.

Image result for from the film Dead Poet Society photos

(From the film “Dead Poet Society”)

Itzkoff points out the key to Williams’ comedic genius was in an attic in the family home in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.  The Williams’ family moved around a great deal as his father advanced his career as an auto executive.  Rob, his dad was a hard man to get close to until much later in his son’s life.  From his mother Williams’ learned that connections could be made with other people if one entertained them.  As a result Williams’ would spend hours developing his own world where toy soldiers dominated and he could develop scenarios, conversations, and different voices that would appear later in his career.  His childhood loneliness would fuel an amazing imagination, as he repeatedly moved and had to attend new schools and develop new acquaintances.

The narrative is peppered with Williams’ wit, sarcasm, and social commentary.  Whether Itzkoff is describing Williams’ participation in an improvisational acting class in college, his time at Julliard, quips and riffs with others on movie sets, or even remarks as his career declined and realized his body was abandoning him, we witness a man who moved at such a fast pace that the neurons in his brain were firing so fast that it was difficult to keep up with him.  The result was a new type of improvisational humor built on role models such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.  According to Itzkoff, Williams’ true gift was not his spontaneity, but the appearance of spontaneity.

Image result for photo of Robin Williams performing

(Williams, live at the Met)

There are a number of important components to the book, one of which were the reactions of other comedians to Williams’ work and the relationships that developed.  Williams’ friendship with Billy Crystal was perhaps the most meaningful to the point where they seemed as if they were brothers by another mother.  Larry Brezner, a talent agency executive describes him best as “like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all of his nerve endings completely exposed.”  Perhaps the most moving aspect of Itzkoff’s work is his chronological development of Williams’ family life from his relationship and marriage to Valerie Velardi, his second marriage to Marsha Garce, to his final wife Susan Schneider, as well as his children, particularly his son Zak, and daughter Zelda.  Williams’ was addicted to comedy and it was his aphrodisiac, but like all addictive personalities, drugs and alcohol are temptations that seem to capture people.  Williams was no exception and ultimately he went into rehab, which cost him his second marriage, and later in life he would lapse again.  The poignant way Itzkoff presents this aspect of Williams’ life is more important and incisive than the movement from one film to another that encapsulates the comedian’s career.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book deals with Christopher Reeves, Williams’ friend since their time at Julliard who would suffer a devastating accident resulting in paralysis.  Williams’ cared for his friend for years on a face to face level as well as financially when medical costs seemed to spiral out of control.  The softness of Williams’ personality and gift is seen in the number of USO tours and shows between 9/11 and 2010 as he traveled to Afghanistan numerous times to engage the troops, people who he believed he owed a heartfelt debt towards for their bravery and sacrifice.

Image result for photo of Robin Williams performing for the troops

(Williams performing for the troops in Afghanistan)

Williams’ insecurity was always present no matter the heights that his career reached.  Be it an Academy, Grammy, Emmy, or other awards he was always worried that his career was coming to an end.  When he died it was a loss for all, because no one could present his brand of humor and acting talent as he.  Itzkoff has captured Williams’ with his successes as well as his warts, and has written a wonderful portrait for all of us to enjoy.

Image result for photo of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

WAR ON PEACE: THE END OF DIPLOMACY AND THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE by Ronan Farrow

Image result for photo of the state department

The advent of the Trump presidency has wreaked havoc with the traditional American approach to foreign policy that has been in place roughly for the last seventy years.  Under the leadership of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the Foreign Service has been gutted as have the careers of life long diplomats leaving the United States with a lack of qualified personnel to conduct the daily work of the State Department, an essential component for an effective foreign policy.  This is in large part due to the paucity of regional experts, professional negotiators, and has resulted in the rising lack of trust in American foreign policy worldwide.  A case in point is the current American-North Korean nuclear talks and announced summit for June 12.  One day it is on, one day it has been cancelled, a process that should be based on months of preparation seems to be evolving around the whims and/or transactional nature of President Trump’s decision making.  Another example is the American withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, with no thoughtful policy to replace it.  The appearance of Ronan Farrow’s new book, WAR ON PEACE: THE END OF DIPLOMACY AND THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE comes at an important time in US diplomatic history as our reputation keeps declining worldwide due to the machinations of the Trump administration.  Farrow’s thesis is an important one as he argues that the decline in State Department influence and the diplomatic community in general did not begin with Trump, but has evolved over the last two decades and it is a bipartisan problem, not to be blamed on one party.

Image result for photo of trump and tillerson

(Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump)

Farrow’s thesis is very clear in that the reduction of the role of diplomats at the State Department was underway during the tenure of Secretary of State James Baker under President George H. W. Bush, continued under Bill Clinton as the need to achieve budget savings was paramount as we refocused on domestic economic issues.  During the 1990s the international affairs budget declined by 30% employing the end of the Cold War as a means of rationalizing the closing of consulates, embassies, and rolling important autonomous agencies into the State Department.  By the time of the Islamic State twenty years later many experts in that region and subject matter were gone.  After 9/11 the State Department was short staffed by 20%.  Those who remained were undertrained and under resourced at a time we were desperate for information and expertise which were nowhere to be found.

Farrow is correct in arguing that the Trump administration brought to a new extreme a trend that had gained momentum after 9/11.  With crisis around the world the US “cast civilian dialogue to the side, replacing the tools of diplomacy with direct, tactical deals between our military and foreign forces.”  In areas that diplomats formally where at the forefront in policy implementation, now they were not invited into the “room where it happened.”  “Around the world, uniformed officers increasingly handled negotiation, economic reconstruction, and infrastructure development for which we once had a devoted body of specialists.”  The United States has changed who they bring to the table, which also affects who the other side brings to negotiate.

Image result for photo of colin powell and condi rice

(Former Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condi Rice)

Restaffing under Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W. Bush’s presidency saw the repackaging of traditional State Department programs under the umbrella of “Overseas Contingency Operations” and counter terrorism.  Since 2001 the State Department has ceded a great deal of its authority to the Defense Department whose budget skyrocketed, while the budget at State declined.  As a result diplomats slipped into the periphery of the policy process especially in dealing with Iraq as Powell and his minions at State were squeezed to the sidelines by Vice President Dick Cheney who ran his own parallel National Security Council.  Interestingly, the process would continue under President Obama who liked to “micromanage” large swaths of American foreign policy.  Obama also favored military men as appointees, i.e.; Generals Jim Jones, David Petraeus, James Clapper, Douglas Lute to name a few.

Farrow’s book is an in depth discussion of how US foreign policy has been militarized over the last twenty years.  He discusses how this situation evolved, who the major players were and how they influenced policy.  Further, he explores how it has effected US foreign policy in the past, currently, and its outlook for the future, particularly when Washington leaves behind the capacity for diplomatic solutions as it confronts the complexities of settling the world’s problems.

Farrows is a wonderful story teller who draws on his own government experience and his ability to gain access to major policy makers – a case in point was his ability to interview every living Secretary of State including Rex Tillerson.  At the core of Farrows narrative is the time he spent with Richard Holbrooke who brokered the Dayton Accords to end the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s, and was a special representative working on Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Obama.  Holbrooke was a driven man with an out sized ego but had a history of getting things done.  From his early career in Vietnam through his work at State with Hillary Clinton, who held the job he coveted.  Holbrooke saw many parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan.  First, we were defeated by a country adjacent to the conflict.  Secondly, we relied on a partner that was corrupt.  Lastly, we embraced a failed counterinsurgency policy at the behest of the military.  These are the types of views that at times made Holbrooke a pariah in government, but also a man with expertise and experience that was sorely needed.  His greatest problem that many historians have pointed out is that he was not very likeable.

Image result for john kerry and Iranian negotiations photo

(Nuclear talks with Iran)

During the Obama administration Holbrooke butted heads with most members of the National Security Council and the major figures at the Pentagon.  He worked assiduously to bring about negotiations with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.  No matter how hard he tried he ran into a brick wall within the Obama administration.  Secretary of State Clinton would finally come around, but the military refused to partake, and lastly his biggest problem was that President Obama saw him as a relic of the past and just did not like him.

An important aspect of the book is devoted to the deterioration of American-Pakistani relations, particularly after the capture and killing of Osama Bin-Laden and the episode involving CIA operative Raymond Davis.  The lack of trust between the two governments was baked in to policy, but events in 2011 took them to a new level.  Farrow’s monograph makes for an excellent companion volume to that of Steve Coll’s recent DIRECTORATE S which is an in depth study of our relationship with Pakistan concentrating on the ISI.  Like Coll, Farrow hits the nail right on the head in that Pakistan reflected the difficulties of leaning on a military junta, which had no strategic alignment with the United States, particularly because of India.

Once Trump took over the “fears of militarization” Holbrooke had worried over had come to pass on a scale he could never have imagined.  Trump concentrated more power in the Pentagon, granting nearly total authority in areas of policy once orchestrated across multiple agencies.  The military made troops deployment decisions, they had the power to conduct raids, and set troop levels.  Diplomats were excluded from decision making in Afghanistan as 10 of 25 NSC positions were held by current or retired military officials, i.e., White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; until recently National Security advisor H.R. McMaster among a number of other former or serving military in his cabinet.  However, one member of Trump’s military cadre is dead on, as Secretary of Defense Mattis has pointed out that “if you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Farrow zeroes in on US, Syria, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and policies toward Egypt and Columbia to support his thesis.  The US had a nasty policy of allying with warlords and dictators in these regions and negotiations were left to the military and the CIA.  Obama’s approach was simple; conduct proxy wars, he described our foreign military or militia allies as our partners who were doing the bidding of the United States.  Yemenis and Pakistanis could do our work, why send our own sons and daughters to do it was his mantra.  The Trump administration has continued this policy and closed the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and has left the position of Assistant Secretary for Southern and Central Asia vacant – makes it difficult to engage in diplomacy/negotiations.  As in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance and other warlord groups, the US approach in Somalia was similar.  First, we “contracted” the Ethiopian military in Eritrea to invade Somalia and allied with a number of warlords.  In both cases, military and intelligence solutions played out, but the US actively sabotaged opportunities for diplomacy and it resulted in a destabilizing effect “continents and cultures away.”  One wonders if American policy contributed to the growth of al-Shabaab in the region – for Farrow the answer is very clear.

Image result for photo of kim jong un

(North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un)

Farrow accurately lays out a vicious cycle; “American leadership no longer valued diplomats, which led to the kind of cuts that made diplomats less valuable.  Rinse, repeat.”  Farrow’s thesis is accurate, but at times perhaps overstated as in most administrations there are diplomatic successes (at this time we are waiting for North Korean negotiations – which all of a sudden has gone from a demand for total denuclearization to a getting to know you get together); Obama’s Iran Nuclear deal, Paris climate deal, opening relations with Cuba are all successes, despite Trump’s mission to destroy any accomplishments by the former president.  Farrow’s book is a warning that new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should take to heart, if not all future negotiations will rest with people who have not studied the cultures and societies of the countries they would be dealing with.  Dean Acheson wrote PRESENT AT CREATION detailing his diplomatic career and the important events following World War II, I wonder what a diplomat might entitle a memoir looking back decades from now as to what is occurring.

Image result for photo of the state department