BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL by John Lawton

During gas invasion test during WWII, all civilians and wardens wear gas masks (respirators). Location: London, United Kingdom Date taken: 1941 Photographer: Hans Wild Life Images London History, British History, Modern History, Women's History, Vintage London, Old London, Vintage Photos, Old Photos, The Blitz
(London, 1941, during the “Blitz”)

John Lawton’s BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL (published in England as RIPTIDE) is the fourth installment of his Inspector Frederick Troy series and opens with a British retaliatory strike against Berlin as payback for the continued German blitz that was pounding London a year after Dunkirk.  At this point, Brigadefuhrer Wolfgang Stahl, a British spy realizes it is time for him to leave Germany as quickly as possible.

Stahl had joined the Nazi Party in 1929 and by 1934 he had wormed his way into the confidence of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS police official and the architect of the Holocaust.  Stahl was in part able to get into his good graces because of his shared love of Mozart.  They would play together and discuss music for hours on end.  Once the bombing ended Stahl returned to his apartment house and found a body that was a similar to himself with its face blown off.  Stahl took the dead man’s identity and began to make his way out of Germany.  The problem for Stahl was that the suspicious Heydrich had the corpses hand shown to him and he realized that Stahl was not dead.  At this point Lawton has lured the reader into the story line and in true Lawton form provides historical fiction dealing with spy craft at its best.

(WALTER RICHARD) RUDOLF HESS German Nazi leader; flew to  Britain without Hitler's  knowledge in 1941 to attempt Stock Photo

(Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy)

Lawton will develop a number of plot lines.  The dominant story revolves around the search for Wolfgang Stahl who carries with him plans for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Obviously, the Nazis want him dead because he knew too much, and the British want him to learn what he knows.  A number of important characters emerge in the chase.  The most important are Lt. Colonel Alistair Ruthuen-Greene of the British Consulate, someone who had Churchill’s ear.  He convinces Captain Calvin M. Cormack III, an American stationed in Zurich who had been Stahl’s handler to accompany him to London to identify him.  Cormack was assigned to work with Walter Stilton, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard to locate Stahl.  When they arrive in London, another thread that Lawton develops emerges, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess had flown from Berlin to Scotland and all wonder why he has done so.

Lawton has created a taught spy novel integrating fiction with historical fact.  Examples include the Bismarck  sinking the HMS Hood, disagreements between American intelligence and British MI5 over sharing German code information as well as the British hope that the United States would soon enter the war.  Further, the debate over whether to warn the Soviets that a German invasion was imminent is presented – but in reality, as early as April 1941 Stalin ignored British warnings as he did later the day before the actual invasion.

File:Winston Churchill 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh.jpg

(Prime Minster Winston Churchill)

Lawton does an excellent job showing the reader the horrors of the blitz.  Descriptions of bombed out streets with only one building remaining abound as people shelter in the underground, and the Home Guard searches for bodies and civilians clear damage.  Lawton zeroes in on the English vernacular focusing on accents verbiage, and dialects.  It is easy for English characters to communicate with each other, but for men like Capt. Cormack he has difficulty understanding the British at times.

Real figures and events are inserted into the plot reflecting Lawton’s command of the historical information.  He accurately describes the British rationing system along with the death and destruction that Goering’s bombers reigned on England.  Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, H.G. Wells, and Robert Churchill, a distant cousin of the Prime Minister make appearances.

Many have argued that the war created an aura of commonality for the British people as all classes faced the Nazi terror.  Lawton examines this theme pointing out repeatedly it is more veneer than fact.  The core of the story revolves around Stilton and Cormack then joined by Sergeant Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard who refuse to share their own intelligence in the hunt for Stahl.  Once Stilton passes from the scene the Troy-Cormack relationship becomes very tricky when Cormack falls in love with Kitty Stilton, a police officer and daughter of Walter Stilton who also possesses a ravenous sexual appetite and is Troy’s former lover.  Further linking the two men is that both men have strong willed fathers, Cormack’s is a decorated general turned politician, and Troy’s a renown intellectual and diplomat who emigrated from Russia in 1910, as both men operate in the shadows of their fathers. Despite these issues the two men come together and foster a working relationship that is a key to solving the crimes at hand.

The novel slowly evolves into a tightly spun murder mystery with a number of victims.  It is an espionage thriller, but also a well thought out detective story.  The next book in the Troy series is FLESH WOUNDS where Kitty Stilton plays an interesting role and I have added it to the pile of books on my night table.

(Bomb damage in London during the “Blitz”)

THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION by Richard Haass

UN Headquarter - United Nations - New York, NY

(The United Nations building in NYC)

As the American presidential election seems to creep closer and closer it is difficult to accept the idea that a substantial part of the electorate remains ignorant when it comes to knowledge of American foreign policy, or is apathetic when it comes to the issues at hand, or believe that Donald Trump has led the United States effectively in the realm of world affairs.   It is in this environment that Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and author of a number of important books, including, WAR OF NECESSITY, WAR OF CHOICE: A MEMOIR OF TWO IRAQ WARS, and A WORLD IN DISSARAY: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY AND THE CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER has written a primer for those interested in how international relations has unfolded over the last century, and what are the issues that United States faces today.  The new book, THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION may be Haass’ most important monograph as he is trying to educate those people who have not had the opportunity to be exposed to his subject matter in the past, and make them more literate followers of international relations in the future.

Haass states that his goal in writing his latest work is to provide the basics of what “you need to know about the world, to make yourself globally literate.”  At a time when the teaching of and the knowledge of history and international relations is on the decline, Haass’ book is designed to fill a void.  He focuses on “the ideas, issues, and institutions for a basic understanding of the world” which is especially important when the Trump administration has effectively tried to disassemble the foundation of US overseas interests brick by brick without paying attention to the needs of our allies, be they Kurds, NATO, the European Union, and most importantly the American people with trade deals that are so ineffective that $29 billion in taxpayer funds had to be given to farmers because of our tariff policy with China.  Perhaps if people where more knowledgeable the reality of what our policy should be would replace the fantasy that currently exists.

 

 

Xi Jinping with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 28 September 2010

Haass has produced a primer on diplomatic and economic history worthy of a graduate seminar in the form of a monograph.  Haass’ sources, interviews, and research are impeccable from his mastery of secondary materials like Henry Kissinger’s A WORLD RESTORED: METTERNICH, CASTLEREAGH, AND THE PROBLEMS OF PEACE, 1812-1822 and Jonathan Spence’s THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA.  Haass has created an educational tool that is a roadmap for those who would like to further their knowledge on a myriad of subjects.  Further, the author offers a concluding chapter entitled, “Where Do You Go for More” which augments his endnotes that should be of great assistance to the reader.

(Vladimir Putin)
Haass’ writing is clear and evocative beginning with chapters that review the diplomatic history of a number of world regions which encompasses about half of the narrative.  He returns to The Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 as his starting point.  Haass then divides history into four periods.  First, the roughly three hundred years from the early seventeenth century to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  Second, 1914 to the end of World War II in 1945.  Third, the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1989.  Lastly, the post Cold War period to the present.  In each section he reassesses the history, major players, and issues that confronted the world community at the time drawing conclusions that are well thought out and well grounded in fact, the opinion of others, and documentary materials available.

A case in point is Haass’ analysis of China focusing on her motivations based on its interaction with the west which was rather negative beginning with the Opium War in 1842 to the Communist victory in 1949.  In large part, China’s past history explains her need for autocracy and an aggressive foreign policy.  Haass delves into the US-Chinese relationship and how Beijing unlike Russia embraced integration with the world economy stressing trade and investment in the context of a state-controlled economy that provides China with advantages in domestic manufacturing and exports.  A great deal of the book engages China in numerous areas whether discussing globalization, nuclear proliferation, trade, currency and monetary policy, development, and climate change.  A great deal of the material encompasses arguments whether the 21st century will belong to Asia, with China replacing the United States as the dominant power on the globe.  Haass does not support this concept and argues a more nuanced position that depending on the immediate political needs of both countries will determine the direction they choose.  The key for Haass is that the United States must first get its own house in order.

Haass carefully explains the fissures in US-Russian relations as being centered on Vladimir Putin’s belief that his country has been humiliated since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Haass’ argument is correct and straight forward as Putin rejected the liberal world that sought to bring democratic changes to Russia and integrate her economy into more of a world entity.  Putin’s disdain and need to recreate a strong expansionist military power has led to the undermining of elections in the US and Europe.  Putin’s “feelings” have been exacerbated by NATO actions in the Balkans in the 1990s and its expansion to include the membership of former Soviet satellites like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The end result is that Moscow pursued an aggressive policy in Georgia, the Crimea, and eastern Ukraine resulting in western sanctions which have done little to offset Putin’s mind set.

Haass is on firm ground when he develops the economic miracle that transpired in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea as the reduced role of the military in these societies, except for China have contributed greatly to their economic success.  Their overall success which is evident today in how they have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic is laudatory, but there are a number of pending problems.  The China-Taiwan relationship is fraught with negativity.  Japanese-Chinese claims in areas of the South China Sea and claims to certain islands is a dangerous situation,  the current situation on the Korean peninsula is a problem that could get out of hand at any time.  Lastly, we have witnessed the situation in Hong Kong on the nightly news the last few weeks.

The Syrian situation is effectively portrayed to highlight the tenuousness of international agreements.  It is clear, except perhaps to John Bolton that the US invasion of Iraq has led to the erosion of American leadership in the Middle East.  American primacy effectively ended when President Obama did not enforce his “red-line” threat concerning Bashir al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and President Trump’s feckless response  to the use of these weapons in 2017.  The result has been the elevation of Iran as a military and political force in the region, as well as strengthening Russia’s position as it has supported its Syrian ally in ruthless fashion.  Haass’ conclusion regarding the region is dead on arguing that its future will be defined like its past, by “violence within and across borders, little freedom or democracy, and standards of living that lag behind much of the world.”

Map of Africa Political Picture

In most regions Haass’ remarks add depth and analysis to his presentation.  This is not necessarily the case in Africa where his remarks at times are rather cursory.  This approach is similar in dealing with Latin America, a region rife with drug cartels, unstable economies, and state weakness which is a challenge to the stability of most countries in the region.

One of the most useful aspects of the book despite its textbook type orientation is the breakdown of a number of concepts in international affairs and where each stand relative to their success.  The discussion of globalization or interconnected markets has many positive aspects that include greater flows of workers across borders, tourism, trade, and sharing of information that can help negate issues like terrorism and pandemics.  However, globalization also means that for certain issues like climate change borders do not matter.  Global warming is a fact and though some agreements have been reached the self-interest of burgeoning economies like China and India that rely on coal are a roadblock to meaningful change.  Interdependence can be mutually beneficial but also brings vulnerability, i.e., trade agreements can result in job loss in certain countries and increased unemployment, Covid 19 knows no borders, as was the case with the 2008 financial crisis.  Haass is very skeptical that mitigation of climate change will have a large enough impact, he also discusses the negative aspects of the internet, and the world-wide refugee problem adding to a growing belief that future international relations will carry a heavy load and if not solved the planet will be in for major problems that include global health.  Haass’ conclusions are somewhat clairvoyant as I write this review in the midst of a pandemic, which the author argues was inevitable.

Image of Map and Wallpapers: Asia Map

Haass shifts his approach in the final section of the book where he considers diplomatic tools like alliances, international law, and vehicles like the United Nations as governments try and cope with the problems facing the world.  In this section he focuses on the features of order and disorder or order v. anarchy to provide tools that are needed to understand both the state of play and the trends at the regional and global levels.   He breaks down issues as to their positivity and negativity as he does in other areas of the book, but here he makes a case for American leadership supported by military power as the best hope for stability and progress.  But even in making this argument, Haass presents certain caveats that must be considered.  For example, do nations have the right to interfere in a sovereign country to prevent genocide, can a country’s sovereignty be violated if they are providing resources and protection to terrorist groups, or does an ethnically like minded people deserve to have their own country based on self-determination.  Apart from these questions is the issue of enforcement.  Does international law exist since there is no uniform vehicle to force compliance, and what tools are available to convince nations to support decisions by international bodies or groupings.

All in all Haass has written a primer for his readers, but does this audience even understand the complexities of foreign policy and do they have the will to learn about it and then elect representatives who themselves have a grasp of issues to direct the United States on a well-reasoned path that can maintain effective global activism?  Only the future can answer that question, but for me I am not that optimistic in terms of the American electorates interest in the topic or its commitment to educating itself.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2007 file photo, the flags of member nations fly outside of the United Nations headquarters. In a move likely to upset Israel's government, the Palestinians are seeking to raise their flags at the U.N., just in time for Pope Francis' visit in September 2015. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR by Justin Go

 

(Mount Everest)

The events of the last few months have created a degree of escapism that I could never have foreseen.  What was required was a novel that would take hold of my mind and carry me off to another place and absorb my emotions and attention.  The void has been filled by Justin Go’s first novel, THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR, a story that is set during World War I and its aftermath and the period surrounding 2004.  It is an absorbing and provocative story that parallels two men who are chasing life’s cruelty and happiness.  Go does this by alternating chapters involving the two periods and focuses on a love affair that seems to have gone wrong for no apparent reason and a search for the roots of that love eighty years later as one of the author’s narrators tries to uncover what has gone wrong and how it will impact his future.  These men are not related but they each face similar feelings and choices.

The story begins in an intriguing fashion as Tristan Campbell, recently graduated from college with a degree in history and thinking about graduate school receives a letter from James Prichard a London solicitor.  It seems that an estate that dates to 1924 has not been settled and he might be the heir.  Campbell flies to London to learn the details and what is expected of him.  It seems that Ashley Willingham who in 1913 at the age of seventeen inherited an enormous estate from his uncle George Ridley.  Willingham who was adrift until he met Imogen Soames-Andersson spending a week with her falling deeply in love years later tells Mr. Prichard to alter his will seven days before he joins the British expedition that will climb Mount Everest.  The link between Willingham and Campbell is that Imogen’s sister is Campbell’s great grandmother.  The problem for Campbell is that he only has two months’ time to establish the link between his grandmother Charlotte Grafton who is possibly the daughter of Willingham and Imogen with himself.  If he is able to do, he will inherit a large fortune.

Willingham is quite a character.  He and Imogen, who is charming and rebellious, the model of the post-Edwardian woman meet and fall in love a week before his departure.  Once he crosses into France he is reported to have been killed at the Battle of the Somme, but days later he turns up alive recuperating in a French hospital.  Imogen rushes to his side, something happens, and she disappears.  Willingham is also an excellent mountain climber and he is chosen to be part of the Third British Expeditionary group that will try and climb Mount Everest. The attempt is made in 1924, but Willingham perishes.  For Campbell proof that Charlotte was Willingham and Imogen’s child is rather sketchy and because of the limitations of the estate’s trust  he must present sound documentation to qualify for the inheritance.  Go takes Campbell on a dramatic chase to find evidence of his lineage encompassing travels to London, Paris Stockholm, the Swedish and French countryside, Berlin, and across Iceland.  In doing so Campbell meets Mireille in a Parisian bar and begins to fall in love.

At the outset Go has created so many characters from different time periods it can become a bit confusing.  Perhaps a fictional family tree might be warranted.  However, once you digest who is who and what role they play in the story you will become hooked and not want to put the book down as Go develops the love affair of the Bohemian Imogen and Ashley who is drawn to adventure.  Go sends Campbell on somewhat of a wild goose chase to procure the evidence he needs.  In exploring the relationship amongst his primary characters Go delves into the barbarity of war, Post Traumatic Stress disorder, and the human need for companionship, love, and excitement.  Numerous examples pervade the story including the depravity of unleashing British soldiers into a no man’s land and their deaths.  The letters between Ashley and Imogen describing their needs which should be enough for their relationship to endure, and  Campbell’s confusion about life and what he hopes to accomplish dominate the story line.

Image: Members of 1924 Mount Everest expedition

(British 1924 Mt. Everest Expedition)

 

Go lays out many choices for his characters, a number of which are filled with irony as Willingham survives the Battle of the Somme and the remainder of the war only to die climbing Mount Everest – one might wonder if he suffered from a death wish.  The attraction and pull of Everest in all of its awe is clear throughout Willingham’s dialogue and letters.  Will conquering Everest allow him to recapture Imogen’s love?  Go has the ability to maintain a state of tension even if the outcome is already known.  He also has the ability to bring two historical periods together and mesh them with their characters, but in doing so he has not really explored the morality of the choices they make.

If you seek an escapist novel that will make wonderful beach reading (if they open up) or just to fill time in a meaningful and entertaining manner, Go’s first novel is a winner.  Since the book was published two years ago, I am hopeful he is hard at work on his next one!

 

[Image: 1924 Expedition Photo]
(Base camp on Mount Everest)

HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ by Thomas Harding

Rudolf Höß crop.jpg

(Rudolf Hoss)

After World War II a small coterie of individuals morphed into Nazi hunters.  From Simon Wiesenthal to agents of the Israeli Mossad their mission was to capture and bring the Nazi perpetrators to justice.  This has produced numerous books about their exploits in the form of memoirs, narratives about the role of governments, and certain individuals.  Of these individuals many remain unknown and little has been written.  Thomas Harding introduces us to Hanns Alexander, a German refugee and British serving officer who should be considered part of the pantheon of Nazi Hunters in his book HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ.

The format chosen by the author is a series of alternating chapters telling the life stories of the two men, at times in detail, and at times in a more cursory manner.  Beginning with Rudolf Hoss, the future Kommandant of Auschwitz we learn about a dismal childhood and a bigoted and fanatical father, along with a distant mother.  Hoss would enlist in the army at the age of fourteen during World War I serving mostly in Iraq and Palestine.  After the war Hoss would join the Freikorps which were irregular German military volunteer units that existed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, which effectively fought as mercenary or private armies.   The Freikorps fought against communists in Latvia and also joined in the so-called Kapp Putsch. The Kapp Putsch was a right-wing coup that sought to end the Weimar Republic in March 1920. The revolt resulted in failure.  Hoss was also involved with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 which resulted in his imprisonment and being charged with murdering a “right wing” traitor.

By 1928, Hoss was released from prison and became enamored by Adolf Hitler. He married and hoped for an idyllic rural lifestyle.  Hoss would join the Atamanen League  under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in Bavaria.  Himmler took Hoss under his wing and by 1933 he joined the SS and became a supervisor at Dachau and developed what Dachau Kommandant, Theodor Eicke called an “attitude of hatred.”  By 1936 he was promoted to SS-LT and became part of the camp administration and began his bifurcated life of rural family life and the demands of concentration camp work.  By 1938 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen to be adjutant to the camp Kommandant, Hermann Baranowski.

Harding carefully recreates Hoss’ slow rise up the Nazi camp bureaucracy and at each step his responsibilities would increase.  By 1940 he was the Kommandant at Sachsenhausen and by April of that year he was tasked to oversee the construction of Auschwitz overcoming numerous obstacles to build the camp.  Due to a lack of food and sanitation Hoss adopted the drastic methods used at Dachau and Sachsenhausen including euthanizing thousands, mass shootings with burials in huge ditches, starvation, etc.  In the summer of 1941 Himmler informed Hoss about the Final Solution and between 1940 and 1944 he would witness the arrival of 1.3 million prisoners at Auschwitz.  Of these some 1.1 million that perished, 1 million were Jews.  Auschwitz had over 1 thousand guards and at any given time held 80,000 prisoners.  After a short assignment to straighten out Sachsenhausen he returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee “Aktion Hoss,” the extermination of Hungarian Jewry.  Within a year Hoss’ world fell apart and he realized he had to escape leaving his family in Flensburg took assuming the identity of a dead German sailor and hoped to disappear.

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

Hanns Alexander came from a not especially religious upper-class Jewish family in Berlin where his father, a physician built a successful medical practice.  Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by Berlin’s most successful and powerful people and his father was one of the city’s foremost physicians.  As long as the Weimar Republic survived the Alexander family did well.  Hanns and his twin brother Paul were precocious boys who even into adulthood loved to play pranks.  However, their world began to come undone with the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s assumption of the German Chancellorship in 1933.  Slowly the noose was tightened around the family as Dr. Alexander’s medical practice was gutted by Nazi racial laws and they witnessed the actions of bullies and thugs on Berlin’s street against Jews.  Dr. Alexander, like many assimilated Jews believed the violence was temporary and it would soon pass, and normality would resume.  Much to his chagrin this was not the case and the family left Berlin in a piece meal fashion for England.

On a visit to London to see his daughter and grandchild in 1936 Dr. Alexander learned he was on a Gestapo list and sought refuge in England.  Later in the year with the Olympics being publicized emigration laws were eased and the twins Hanns, and Paul, 19 years old left Germany, followed months later by their mother.  With the arrival of war in 1939 both boys decided to enlist but since they were German refugees, they were part of a large group that was suspected of possibly being spies.  It took Hanns months to prove he was not and in December 1939 he joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps created to make use of thousands of German refugees against Hitler.  Training was mostly non-military and his assignment consisted of manual labor in support of the army.  He would be sent to France and was part of the 300,000 British soldiers who were saved at Dunkirk.  Hanns realized the only way he would be treated with respect was to become an officer. And in January 1943 he was accepted as part of the Officer Cadet Training Unit and after real training landed at Normandy in June 1944.  His role was to translate for the interrogation of captured German officers.

<p>The <a href="/narrative/9934/en">defendants</a> listen as the prosecution begins introducing documents at the <a href="/narrative/9366/en">International Military Tribunal</a> trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. November 22, 1945.</p>

(The Nuremberg Trials)

It is at this point, about two-thirds into the narrative the book takes an especially important turn as Harding finally deals with Hanns’ work as a “Nazi hunter.”  If there is a major criticism of Harding’s work is that he spends too much time providing the comparative background of his major characters and not enough dealing with events following the defeat of the Nazis, in an addition to a number of historical issues and editing.  First, he relies too heavily on Hoss’ prison memoir composed in Poland as he awaited trial.  As historian David Cesarani points out in a The Independent, 4 October 2013 book review there are numerous examples of Hoss’ jumbled approach to historical detail, not to mention his deliberate attempt to shift blame.  Further his reliance on Gustav Gilbert and Leon Goldensohn’s psychological profile  seems to soft peddle Hoss’ ideological formation, training, and socialization of the SS.  Harding states that Dachau was the first concentration camp, not so, it was first built as a camp for political prisoners and a model for what later camps would become.  Harding also states that Auschwitz was located in “rural isolation,” in fact it was a busy town next to a major railroad junction.  Harding’s description of Zykon B gas (it was not an insecticide but used to exterminate lice on clothing) and its application in showers is another misstatement as it was not “poured out of false shower heads,” when it resulted in death from pellets dropped into a tube or onto the chamber floor through an opening.

The key for Hanns was translating for the interrogation of Josef Kramer, Hoss’ former adjutant.  His trial in September 1945, “The Belsen trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others” became a dry run for the Nuremberg Trials.  Following Kramer’s conviction Hanns received permission to hunt for uncaptured war criminals.  He was promoted to Captain and was now a fully-fledged British war crimes investigator, not just a German refugee who helped with translations.

According to John Le Carrie, Hanns’ hunt for Hoss reads like a spy novel.  True, as the last 50 pages plus traces Hanns’ pursuit of Hoss, even though the reader is completely aware of how the story will end, Rudolf Hoss hanging from the gallows in 1947.  Harding follows Hoss’ movements, contact with his family, his final capture, interrogation, as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials,  and trial in Poland in detail and forms the most important aspect of the narrative.  In addition, Hanns Alexander happens to be the authors great-uncle and he devoted six years of research to finally tell his story, an important one, but one that could have been organized better with improved editing.

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

MAGNIFICO: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND VIOLENT TIMES OF LORENZO DE’ MEDICI by Miles J. Unger

Lorenzo de Medici.jpg

For the last few nights, my wife and I have binged Netflix’s Medici series.*  It brought me back to Garrett Mattingly’s classic, RENAISSANCE DIPLOMACY which argued that the relationship and machinations between Italian city-states was a microcosm of the 20th century in terms of actions resulting in numerous wars and plots.  It piqued my interest in one of the most important figures of the Renaissance, Lorenzo de’ Medici the subject of Miles J. Unger’s superb biography,  MAGNIFICO: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND VIOLENT TIMES OF LORENZO DE’ MEDICI which argues that the Florentine leader was able to navigate the Italian city-states and Papal states surviving Papal, domestic Florentine, and other external plots by a Pope, a king, and a duke by employing his charm and diplomatic skill augmented by the occasional use of violence to preside over Florence, a city-state that supported and exhibited artistic brilliance in addition to the squalor of the city’s poor.

Unger describes a city of contrasts pitting artistic beauty and poverty.  The author is correct to apply this dichotomy to the life, character and policies implemented by Lorenzo.  In Unger’s sweeping account supported by assiduous research enhanced by numerous notes that add detail to the narrative we witness a figure who strides alongside the most important historical figures of the period throughout Europe.  According to Unger the success of the Medici family rested in large part on the way “each member of the family worked for a common goal, demonstrating a unity of purpose not always present among ruling dynasties, where jealousy and competition are more important than fraternal affection.”

Clarice the wife of Lorenzo de Medici Mona Lisa, Artwork, Queens, Europe, Characters, House, Lorenzo De' Medici, Art Work, Work Of Art
(Clarice, wife of Lorenzo de’ Medici)

Unger takes the reader to the court of Cosimo de ’Medici, the family patriarch who built the bank and trade that the family fortune and influence rested upon.  He follows with a description of his weak son, Piero, who trained Lorenzo for leadership almost from birth.  Lorenzo and his predecessors ruled a city-state that was not the most powerful on the Italian peninsula, but it abounded in artists and craftsmen coveted by foreign courts.  By exporting Florentine culture Lorenzo tried to achieve through “the dazzle of art what they could not hope to win through the strength of arms.  Throughout his reign his support of the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo abound.  In addition, the intellectual pursuits of men like Pico Della Mirandola.

Unger’s commitment to detail and the ambiance of Florence and the Papal court is an important component of the narrative.  Whether he is describing the celebration of the beginning of Lorenzo’s reign, marriage negotiations, the dynastic rivalries that resulted in the Pazzi conspiracy, the hatred between dynastic families, wars with Pope Sixtus IV, and the rise of Savonarola among many topics Unger has the ability to explain the complex and maintain the hold of the reader.  Unger delves into the byzantine nature of Italian alliances and politics carefully.  He correctly points out how Lorenzo could foster an alliance between Milan under the Sforza’s, Naples, and Florence to offset the disingenuous behavior of the Pope in order to secure Florentine banking and trade interests.  Important personalities abound be it external enemies like Pope Sixtus IV, his nephew Girolamo Riorio, and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, and others including Girolamo Savonarola and Niccolò Machiavelli.

Giuliano de' Medici (left) and Lorenzo de' Medici. Portraits by Botticelli and an unknown artist

(The de’ Medici brothers Guliano and Lorenzo)

Sixtus’ family came from poverty and he saw the papacy as a vehicle to create wealth and prestige for the Riarios and della Rovere, as it seems that the Medici were always an impediment to his goals.  The Pazzi family also produced a number of important individuals that Lorenzo had to manipulate to survive.  The hatred of Jacabo de’ Pazzi and his nephew Francesco de’ Pazzi is well known for their involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in the death of Lorenzo’s younger brother and confidante Giuliano and Unger unwraps the plot and its participants and the end result of destroying the Pazzi family and its wealth.

Unger possesses a strong command of the shifting alliances that led Lorenzo to thwart Sixtus IV’s plans.  A key chapter deals with Girolamo Riario’s attempt to manipulate the King of Naples to destroy the de ‘Medici which saw Lorenzo outsmarting him in saving Florence.  This supports Unger’s major theme that Lorenzo was confronted by one crisis after another.  Apart from external crisis he had to cope with internal opposition within the Florentine ruling council, the Signoria which the de’ Medici tended to dominate.  Revolts, conspiracies, and other actions seem to be a daily occurrence that Lorenzo had to overcome.  Despite all that Lorenzo had to confront he effectively weaved a web that he employed to balance his own sense of duty and pleasure.  For Lorenzo, his personal need for intellectual enlightenment, reflected by men at court, art and literature, and his duty to Florence were in conflict throughout the narrative.  The way Lorenzo navigated these pressures reflects his talent and his genius.

Unger does not neglect Lorenzo’s personal life.  The important role played by his mother Lucrezia, his wife Clarice, his children, cousins, and advisors is on full display.  The use of family members for diplomatic gain is a tool examined carefully.   Lorenzo was a patron of the arts and a creative figure in his own right.  He was able to help foster a flowering of art, architecture, literature, and intellectual life that is considered unparalleled in history.

POPE SIXTUS IV: Pope Sixtus IV is known for both the great steps taken under his rule to rebuild Rome and his great corruption. Pope Sixtus IV instituted nepotism as a way of life in Rome, and ran the Papacy as a family operation. Italian Renaissance, Renaissance Art, Miguel Angel, Sistine Chapel, Religious Images, Historical Art, Old Master, Kirchen, Lorenzo De' Medici
(Pope Sixtus IV)

The book is not an exercise in hagiography as Unger examines Medici finances and corruption in detail producing the money manipulation that Lorenzo engaged in to support his obsession with art and architecture, pay off his internal and external enemies, and construct alliances among his many triumphs.  To his credit Lorenzo did siphon off funds to assist the poor, but one cannot overestimate his manipulation of Florentine wealth as very questionable.  It is important to keep in mind the age in which Lorenzo lived before judging him too harshly.  It was a period of tyranny dominated by despots in which one could argue that he stood above all including men like Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VII.

The key to Unger’s success is research that includes government records, historical accounts, diaries, and Lorenzo’s own memoirs, letters, and poems.  The end result is scholarship, analysis, and an amazing eye for detail which will be difficult for Lorenzo’s next biographer to surpass.  One must be cognizant of the fact that it took only two years following Lorenzo’s death for the system he developed too unravel as his son Piero, ill-trained, and ill-tempered, was unable to stop its disintegration.  It was not surprising because only one man, his father had the depth of personality and skills to maintain it.

*Let us just say that the Netflix series stretches the bounds of historical accuracy!

Lorenzo de Medici.jpg

 

THE SILENT DEATH by Volker Kutscher

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view,

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view, Friedrichstraße, Berlin, Germany. Stock Photo

The late Philip Kerr had his Bernie Guenther series.  Ben Pastor has Martin Bora.  Now we have Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath character as an addition to the German civilian police/military police genre that depicts Berlin in the 1930s, crimes during World War II as well as the Cold War.  Kutscher has followed up his BABYLON BERLIN with the second in his Rath series entitled THE SILENT DEATH where he continues the exploits and personal journey of a flawed Berlin detective who has  a very unorthodox approach to police work, much to the chagrin of the higher ups in the Berlin Police Department.  As with the work of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher takes the reader inside the thought process and life experiences of his protagonist in a meaningful way injecting outside influences on criminal investigation be it the role of the Gestapo, the SS, or as in THE SILENT DEATH Berlin in the 1930s with the Weimar Republic teetering on the edge, as the rise of the Nazi Party proceeds quite rapidly with all it engenders.

Berlin Inspector Rath has a checkered past.  He had been on the police force in Cologne, but an incident forced his relocation to Berlin as his father a police director in Cologne arranged his transfer.  He employs a “lone ranger” approach to police work and has little respect for those above him in the police hierarchy.  He is an engaging character who must survive in an atmosphere that seems to change every day.  Kutscher does a superb job conveying to the reader what Rath is up against as the noise from Nazi murders, crimes, and demonstrations form the background of daily life in Berlin in an addition to his own intemperate ways, i.e., “punching out” Deputy Inspector Frank Brenner for making fun of his last girlfriend, Charlotte Ritter who he was deeply in love with.

Police headquarters in Berlin, 1933 Stock Photo
(Berlin Police Headquarters 1930)

Kutscher has created an interesting plot line focusing in on the German movie industry as it seems to be moving away from “silent films” to “talkies.”  The problem is that there are producers and directors who do not see the new “talkies” approach as progress and may be involved in trying to sabotage the new type of film.  Enter Betty Winter, a silent film actress who is about to make her first talkies film when suddenly she is felled by a lighting system during the filming of her latest movie.  She is crushed and dies from the flames  – was it sabotage or was it an accident?

Rath is called in to investigate but soon runs out of favor with his superior, Detective Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a stereotypical Prussian type who will remove him from the investigation of Winter’s death.  Rath refuses to allow Bohm to impede his investigation and continues his work.  It seems that sabotage may have gone awry as Heinrich Bellman, a producer who worked with Winter is up against Manfred Oppenberg another producer who is in competition over the new genre.  As this progresses, Oppenberg’s star Vivian Franck disappears and it is up to Rath to find her.  This competition forms the first thread that Kutscher develops.

The second thread involves Konrad Adenauer, the Mayor of Cologne.  Rath’s father Engelbert travels to Berlin to introduce his son to Adenauer who seeks his help.  It seems that Adenauer is being blackmailed over certain investments and financial transactions centered in Berlin involving the transfer of a Ford Motor plant to Cologne.  In addition to taking on this task for his father, Rath must deal with his removal from the Winter case and being tasked to deal with the Horst Wessel case.  Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel, commonly known as Horst Wessel, was a Berlin leader of the Nazi Party’s stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung. After his murder in 1930, he was made into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels.  Wessel is an interesting character who has the dubious distinction to having the official anthem of the Nazi Party dedicated to him.  Wessel in reality is murdered by Ali Hohler, the former pimp of the whore Wessel is involved with.  But for Goebbles, a master of “fake news” and propaganda it was a situation that he would take full advantage of.

As in the Wessel case, Kutscher has an excellent command of German history, a case in point is the death of Gustav Ernst Stresemann the German statesman who served as Chancellor in 1923 and Foreign Minister 1923–1929, during the Weimar Republic. He was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 and his death brought about the end for any hope for the success of the Weimar Republic.

The last thread that permeates the novel is Rath’s attempts to navigate the intricacies of surviving the Berlin police bureaucracy and leadership embodied in Wilhelm Bohm.  There are many fascinating characters that Kutscher develops including movie stars, producers, politicians, and gangsters.  The book itself is a gripping read from the perspective of criminal investigation, but also the tangled private life that Rath leads.  His love life is shambles as he is in love with Charlotte who dumped him six months before Winters death, Kathi, the woman he lived with who he turned away, and his own past.

As in the tradition of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher’s work is well worth exploring if you enjoy period crime novels subsumed with good historical fiction.  In the present instance the reader must sort out the deaths of a number of actresses and determine if a serial killer is involved.  Newspapers have already made up their minds which in part gets Rath into further trouble with his superiors.  At times, the plot seems to meander, but in the end, Kutscher produces a rousing closure.  Having completed  THE SILENT DEATH,  I look forward to reading the next installment in the series, GOLDSTEIN.

(Berlin, 1930)