Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

Anyone familiar with the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy is aware of the flaws in his character and life story.  These elements of his biography have been fully explored in studies like David Nasaw’s THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, Richard J. Whalen’s THE FOUNDING FATHER: THE STORY OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA.  Kennedy’s life story is punctuated with “serial philandering,” a relationship with organized crime, his years as a Wall Street operator highlighted by repeated insider trading, lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary, an appeaser’s isolationist view of the world that led to his opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, a cozy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and a world view that saw fascism as a means of overcoming a depressed economy and a means of combating communism.  All of these aspects of his life’s work have been dissected in the three previous works mentioned.

One area, his role as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a position where Nasaw describes Kennedy as the worst American diplomat serving US interests in England to have ever served across the Atlantic becomes the central theme of Susan Ronald’s latest book, THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST.JAMES, 1938-1940.  In her monograph, Ronald explores the charges against Kennedy that he was an anti-Semite, a Hitlerite appeaser, an isolationist, and an admirer of what the Nazis achieved in Germany and reaches the same damning conclusions as previous historians.

The Kennedy family mystique has been carefully crafted for decades by family members and their acolytes.  However, Kennedy’s true belief that fascism was the inevitable wave of the future, leading him to consistently misrepresent American foreign policy as he intentionally ignored instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he substituted his own beliefs and opinions in place of those instructions.

john f kennedy father jfk

(In this 1938 file photo, John F. Kennedy, right, poses aboard an ocean liner with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, center, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, and brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left.) 

Ronald was born in the United States and later emigrated to Great Britain is the author of a number of historical works.  She has mined the riches of the British and American archives and has become very knowledgeable concerning the wealth of secondary materials that have been written on her subject.  Ronald has prepared a readable work for the general public and a bit less so for the professional historian since she does not really uncover anything that is new and repeats arguments and thesis put forth by others.  But to her credit the narrative offers a fresh synthesis concerning Kennedy’s work as ambassador as she mirrors a great deal of the work that has come before her new publication. Her views are supported by others that Kennedy lacked the “temperament, training, and willpower” to serve in his diplomatic post.

Ronald’s narrative concerns a man who by March 1940 had reached the pinnacle of his  career in public service and by October of that year he would return to the United States to seek revenge against Franklin Roosevelt who he believed treated him poorly as Ambassador, ignored his views on the coming war, and not supporting him in a manner that he felt his position warranted.  On numerous occasions Kennedy lectured the president and he would alienate the White Staff, members of the State Department, especially the Secretary of State, and the British diplomatic establishment and government.

Kennedy’s revenge centered around his support for the Republican nominee for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie, in part driven by his desire to run for president himself as a Democrat.  After Roosevelt’s election to a third term in November 1940 Kennedy dedicated himself to keeping the United States out of the war offering opinions that argued the US could not survive economically if she joined the conflict.

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Joseph P. Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt)

Kennedy was originally appointed Ambassador to Great Britain on February 18, 1938, as a reward for supporting Roosevelt’s candidacies for president in 1936 and earlier he was repaid for his support in 1932 as the head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, a poor substitute for the office of Secretary of the Treasury which he coveted.  Kennedy had no experience as a diplomat and did not have a foreign policy background.  His driving ambition was to acquire wealth.  From his youth he believed he was discriminated against because of his Irish-Catholic roots creating a chip on his shoulder to achieve societal acceptance.  Once married his focus was to create a springboard for one of his sons to become president.  Based on Kennedy’s abrupt, opinionated, and “undiplomatic” personality he did not possess the skills to head such an important foreign posting.  Roosevelt was aware of Kennedy’s issues, and he wanted him out of the country where he believed he would cause less political trouble had he been chosen for a domestic position.

For Kennedy, the ambassadorship to a major Protestant country could help him improve his Bonafede which could assist him in running for president in 1940 as an Irish-Catholic. Kennedy was up against an administration whose members would have no use for him and resented his constant outspoken criticisms.  What was in Kennedy’s favor was the need to negotiate a Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the British.  New York Times reporter and Kennedy confidant, Arthur Krock pushed Roosevelt to appoint him by leaking an appointment before the decision was even made.

Once in England, Kennedy collaborated closely with British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and supported his pro-fascist views and appeasement policies as he would do nothing to aggravate German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by preparing England for a war.  Ronald does a respectable job laying out the views of the English royal family and members of the government who came to despise Kennedy. A case in point was King George VI detestation of Kennedy who feared if he returned to the United States he would rile up isolations to the detriment of England.  Further, during the German aerial “Blitz” over London Kennedy acquired the nickname, “Jittery Joe” as he sequestered himself in a country estate and refused to inspect the damage that befell London. Overall, the British people viewed him as a coward.

She does equally well in describing Roosevelt’s true feelings toward Kennedy and tracing the highs and lows of their relationship.  Kennedy’s “uninhibited manipulation of the press, his speaking out against the president, and passing his own opinions for State Department policy” had ruled him out for Roosevelt’s support, particularly after Kennedy “dressed down” the president in a White House meeting on June 23, 1938.  In the end Roosevelt told Eleanor that “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live.”

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in November, 1940)

Kennedy’s errors were myriad.  He never informed Roosevelt, Hull, or the State Department that English Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had broken with Chamberlain over the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in addition to Hitler.  Further, while in New York he informed German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on June 10, 1938, that he would try and mitigate American press reports that criticized Germany and would work to keep the US out of any European war.  Lastly, Kennedy’s anti-Semitic comments are legendary, particularly statements to Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London.

Roosevelt and Hull would keep Kennedy out of the loop as much as possible because the last thing they wanted was for him to return home creating havoc as the administration worked to deal with an isolationist Congress and overturn Neutrality legislation.  Interestingly, the British would have been glad to send him packing as they grew tired of his bombastic statements, defeatism, particularly before and after Dunkirk, including criticisms that they referred to as “Kennedyianas.”

Overall, Ronald’s book is a mixed bag.  At times she delves into her topic as a true historian evaluating historical events, important characters and their motivations, and explaining British and American politics as the Germans moved closer to war.  Obviously, the key figure is Joseph P. Kennedy whose machinations were designed to further his own political career and those of his sons, and the needs of his family.  All the major figures of the period are on full display as are lesser ones.

It is the latter group that detracts from the narrative.  There are a two chapters that deal with British society as well as references to the “London social season,”  the types of china and cutlery used at dinner, the menus provided, the types of jewelry worn, estate/house decorations among many aspects of minutiae which after awhile become tedious and difficult to digest which detracts from her historical analysis.  Ronald’s approach in this area serves no purpose for the overall thesis she presents and most of it could be excluded resulting in a more compact work of history.  Ronald should pay less attention to the frivolities of British society and Kennedy family excursions and focus more on the critical issues that Kennedy’s tenure in England involved.

(Joseph and Rose Kennedy married in 1914 and had nine children together. Pictured above on a vacation to France in 1939 is (from left to right back row) Kathleen, Joe Jr, Rosemary, Rose , Edward (Ted), (left to right middle row) John (Jack), Eunice, Joseph Sr, Patricia, (left to right front row) Robert and Jean)

BILLY SUMMERS by Stephen King

Stephen King
(Stephen King)

Let me begin by admitting I am not a Stephen King fan.  This is not a criticism, but I am not into horror stories or other genres Mr. King has employed in his novels.  The one notable exception thus far is 11/22/63, a story line that deals with the “what ifs” as they pertain to the Kennedy assassination.  As a retired historian it captured my interest from the outset.  The same can be said for King’s latest novel, BILLY SUMMERS which also grabbed me from the first page, perhaps because of the references to the French novelist, Emile Zola, and Archie comic books, both favorites of mine.

In his latest book, King’s protagonist is an assassin who morphs into a writer.  The one scary aspect of the story is that Billy Summers is haunted by books, not anything related to the supernatural.  I especially enjoyed the references to numerous authors, many of which are my favorites, including Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Charles Dickens, and the previously mentioned Emile Zola.

Summers is lured out of retirement as an assassin for one last job for the mob.  Interestingly, the mob boss who hired him wants him to pose as a writer.  In his noir tale, King has created a dual plot.  First is Summers planning and conducting the assassination of a Joel Allen who is about to go to trial. However, since Allen knows too much he must be eliminated.   Once the assassination is completed he escapes from the scene which will prove to be quite interesting once Summers meets up with a gang rape victim, Alice Maxwell.  Second, during his down time, Summers writes his biography which carries him to the depths of his emotions from witnessing the murder of his sister, killing his stepfather for the murder, his training as a Marine sniper, and his experiences in Fallujah, Iraq. 

Title: Billy Summers (Spanish Edition), Author: Stephen King

King has created a character with a convoluted sense of justice.  Summers believes in honesty and that people should not take things that do not belong to them.  He firmly believes that people who commit egregious acts like the rape of Alice or not paying what they have agreed to, then trying to kill him, must pay, but in a different manner.  Further, King creates a dichotomy in Summers’ mind as he sees himself as having a dumb self-juxtaposed to the bright person he really is. 

Summers wonders if he can really write a fictionalized dumb self-version of his own life.  As he attempts to write he opens the door to the pain of his past.  In a sense Summers is authoring a novel within King’s overall story line.  It is fascinating how King approaches this literary strategy.  Summers is a victim of an Eriksonian identity crisis.  He is a gun for hire named Billy Summers. To the inhabitants of where he lives he is the wannabe writer, David Lockridge.  Lastly, living on Pearson Street, he is an overweight computer geek named Dalton Smith.  In addition to suffering from an identity crisis, Summers must confront his PTSD because of his experiences in Iraq. Alice Maxwell also suffers from PTSD because of her gang rape experience, and it is interesting how King develops their relationship which dominates the second half of the novel.

King continues to be the master of sarcasm with a dry sense of humor.  He integrates his own brand of current social commentary throughout the dialogue using Summers as a vehicle to remarks about our current state of politics and society, the coming pandemic,  life in the suburbs, a FOX type network conglomerate, and of course Donald Trump.

For a trained assassin Summers is a character who it is easy to like.  He exhibits a great deal of compassion and empathy, particularly toward Alice and other families he comes in contact with who will be shocked when they learn what he really is.  King purposefully has created a warm human being on the one hand, a stone cold killer on the other.

As King develops Summers’ character the novel exhibits numerous twists and turns making it difficult to put the book down until you finish its 514 pages.  Once Alice Maxwell is introduced the tenor of the story is changed and King mesmerizes the reader as he pushes on as his characters drive across America to the inevitable climax which we witness as the lonely figure makes what could be his last stand.

(Novelist Stephen King says writing is like leaving the ordinary world for a world of his own making: “It’s a wonderful, exhilarating experience.”)


(Special Operations Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher, a highly decorated Navy SEAL, is fighting murder charges tied to the death of an Islamic State operative in Iraq).

It is clear that after recent events that the American experience in Afghanistan did not end well.  With the Taliban victory the future of the Afghan people, especially women are under a darkening cloud.  In this environment the American military approach in the region has come under question and many of the soldiers who fought and the families of those who died or suffered life altering injuries must be wondering if their sacrifices were in vain.  In this environment any book that deals with the American approach to war is timely.  David Philipps’ new book, ALPHA: EDDIE GALLAGHER AND THE WAR FOR THE SOUL OF THE NAVY SEALS fits this category.  Though the book focuses on the conduct of American troops in Mosul, Iraq, many of the Navy SEALS involved in the narrative fought in Afghanistan and their approach to combat was carried over to Iraq.

Philipps’ effort focuses on Navy SEALS of Alpha platoon and its Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, in addition to a deep dive into the culture and daily lifestyle of the troops involved.  Philipps’ work encompasses Gallagher’s last deployment as Chief of Alpha Platoon, SEAL team 7 whose 2017 classified mission was to assist Iraqi troops in clearing ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul.  In the first few weeks of the deployment Gallagher saw more combat than he had in his first seventeen years in the Navy.  After returning home he would be arrested and charged with murdering a wounded ISIS soldier, beginning a two year fight that culminated in a trial as to whether the accused was guilty or not.  According to Phillips a battle over what the SEAL teams stood for, and what they would become with consequences that would reverberate for years.

According to the prosecution, Gallagher had become unglued, he lied to get medals, put men in danger to build up his own combat resume, shot at women and children in civilian areas, and murdered a prisoner in cold blood.  According to Gallagher and his defense team the accusations stemmed from misguided and inexperienced members of Alpha who refused to go out on ops and created stories to cover up their own cowardness.  When his team called him out, Gallagher claimed they were cowards.

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego with his wife, Andrea Gallagher, on Thursday, in San Diego. (AP)

(Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego with his wife, Andrea Gallagher, on Thursday, in San Diego)

Phillips does an excellent job developing the culture that existed within the ranks of the Navy SEALS.  He traces groups of SEALS who are referred to as “Pirates,” men who fought in World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq whose attitude was clear – when dealing with unconventional war, be it terrorists, Viet Cong, the Taliban or ISIS the normal rules of war do not necessarily carry the day.  The overriding theme that Philipps explores was that these “Pirates” operated in an environment where they could commit violent acts, even murder with no accountability where testosterone dominated.  They believed that the new generation of SEALS was soft, and they had their own network that did not do justice to SEAL tradition.  Eddie Gallagher was a “Pirate” and throughout his career, no matter the offence, leadership looked the other way and allowed him to rise through the ranks to the position he found himself in Mosul.

Throughout the deployment Gallagher did not perform the expected duties of a Chief, i.e., plans for the day, imparting tactical information, and played squads off against each other by bad mouthing men behind their backs.  His goal seemed to be to take the role of a sniper, though the team had highly trained snipers and see how many he could kill, even firing randomly and using up ammunition.  Most snipers would fire off one or two rounds per day, and some days did not fire off any rounds, Gallagher seemed to average well over twenty per day.  Some of his strategies put team members in danger as he tried to build up his reputation as “a nasty ass killer.”  Eventually team members began to feel he was a detriment to their mission, and he needed to be removed, particularly when he stabbed a wounded prisoner in the neck, watched him die and then took a photo holding him up by his hair remarking what a killer he was.

Philipps’ narrative is very troubling.  He does yeoman’s work presenting the most important characters and explaining why their roles were so important to the drama that unfolded.  Chief Petty Officer Craig Miller, Gallagher’s second in command will organize the men that will lead to accusations against their Chief; Lieutenant Jake Portier, the officer in charge refused to control or mitigate Gallagher’s behavior and threats; Special Operators First Class, Dalton Tolbert, Josh Vriens, and Dylan Dille, all snipers; Special Operator Corey Scott, a medic who witnessed the stabbing of the POW; Lieutenant Commander Robert Breisch, the commanding officer, an old friend of Gallagher stonewalled any investigation; Navy Special Warfare Group One Commodore Captain Matthew Rosenbloom, in charge of all SEALs on the West Coast who was appalled by Gallagher’s behavior and pushed for prosecution; Timothy Parlatore, a mob trained lawyer who led Gallagher’s defense team, are among the many individuals that Philipps introduces who will play important roles in the narrative.

Map of Mosul city, northern Iraq, showing the geographical division of the city by the Tigris River and Nineveh Street into 4 quarters and the distribution of the 20 primary health care centres (red stars) included

(Map of Mosul city, northern Iraq)

The battle scenes reflect the absurdity and danger of urban guerilla warfare which are described in intimate detail.  However, the most fascinating aspect of the book is the role played by Andrea Gallagher, Eddie’s wife, FOX News, other rightwing outlets, conservative politicians, social media, and of course President Donald Trump who was part of an organized a media campaign to win over the public to Gallagher’s innocence.  In fact, as Philipps assiduously presents the trial it is clear that there are seven jurors, but there is an eighth one, President Trump who even before charges were formulated hinted strongly that he was about to pardon Gallagher.

At times Philipps’ work reads like a Hollywood movie manuscript, particularly when one of the witnesses, Corey Scott, one of the prosecutions main witnesses changes his story on the stand to assist Gallagher in large part because he was granted immunity from prosecution.  In a scene that compares with Jack Nicholson in the film, “A Few Good Men” the prosecution is floored and is convinced they blew the case.  The men who returned from Mosul all agreed that they had to end Gallagher’s career to protect the Navy from what he might do in the future now believed it may have all been for naught.  Philipps describes the NCIS investigation, Gallagher’s threats to kill those who charged him, and the evidence that clearly showed what a danger and murderer he was are all on display. Finally, the Navy bureaucracy and politics played a key role in trying to derail any prosecution.

Philipps has authored a remarkable book based on voluminous research and a keen eye for detail and analysis.  The story line is not very flattering to the Navy SEAL community which since 9/11 witnessed a society “man crush” on SEAL team operators.  Hopefully the book will open the eyes of the public and pressure authorities to take seriously the actions of men like Eddie Gallagher and instill the discipline that the SEALS are trained to operate under, in addition to holding military leaders accountable for the actions of their troops.  At a time when presidents eschew conventional warfare and turn to SEALS and other unconventional operatives with any luck their training, attitude, and approach to warfare will rest a bit more on the side of morality.

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, seen during his 2017 deployment.

(Eddie Gallagher)


(Mildred Harnack

How does one evaluate courage and commitment?  In the case of Mildred and Arvid Harnack the answer lies in their role as part of the resistance to the Nazis before and during World War II.  Mildred, an American lecturer at the University of Berlin who was working on her PhD in American Literature and her husband Arvid employed at the Ministry of Economics is German and they form a resistance group after Hitler assumed power called “the Circle.”  It is through the work of this organization and sister organizations that they hoped to overthrow the Nazi regime before it can live up to its rhetoric.  Their remarkable story is told by Mildred’s great-great-niece, Rebecca Donner in her book ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER.  The book’s title suggests that the narrative will focus mostly on Mildred, but in reality its presentation is much broader zeroing in on the actions of Arvid and a number of others in “the Circle.”

(Arvid and Mildred Harnack)

Donner’s book is a work of narrative history, but it comes across as a spy thriller, in addition to being the life story of a number of remarkable people.  At the outset, Donner focuses on Mildred who she describes as an “enigma who inspired a range of contradictory conclusions about who she was and why she did what she did.”  By 1932, Mildred had moved to Germany to teach at the University of Berlin which would be her foundation to gather like minded people to resist the Nazi seizure of power as she recognized early on the danger that Adolf Hitler presented.  Donner integrates Mildred’s early years and her relationship with her husband Arvid into the web of spies that emerges.  Mildred would soon be fired as a lecturer because her classes were deemed to be unacceptable to Nazi ideology particularly based on the American literary figures she presented in class.  Arvid held a compassion for Germany’s poor and his goal was to address the problems of poverty and develop solutions.  He would travel to the Soviet Union to learn about their economic approach and while there he would develop contacts that in the end would turn him into a Soviet spy against Germany.

Donner’s narrative encompasses most aspects of Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship; the Nazi seizure power turning Germany into a dictatorship, Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy, and finally World War II.  Donner offers little that is new as she recounts the most notable events be it the Enabling Act, the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht, the seizures of the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and finally war.  In doing so Donner integrates the resistance work of Mildred and Arvid and their compatriots until their  arrest by the Gestapo in August 1942.

Donner writes in a manner that the words seem to flow off the page as she tells her story.  She incorporates the latest research along with excerpts from important documents that include speeches, wording of leaflets, family letters, recruitment of assets, and the interrogations of prisoners by the Gestapo.  As Donner chronicles her story she does an excellent job at providing the texture of German society before and during the war as the Nazis implemented their draconian program.  Book burnings, racial laws, reducing women to being brood mares for the Nazi regime, violence and persecution of Jews that leads to the Holocaust, and Hitler and Goebbels’ ravings are all present. 

(Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Women)

Donner’s research was enhanced by a number of sources.  Though Mildred destroyed her journal and was careful that no one see it, Donner’s conversations with her grandmother Jane who spent time with Mildred as a young woman in Germany is important.  Letters from Mildred would be found in a relative’s attic, and Donner was able to obtain observations by Mildred’s friends in letters and diaries, as well as trial records and memoirs by Mildred’s collaborators allowing Donner to tell a story that was mostly unknown.

Donner describes the recruitment and work of “Circle” members who engage in a myriad of activities to resist the Nazis that include posters across Germany, leaflet preparation and distribution, radio transmission of information obtained, newspapers, penetration of Hermann Goring’s staff and the Army High Command, providing evidence for atrocities, and finally spying for the United States and the Soviet Union.  As the war progressed it was clear that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, but as Harold Nicholson once noted, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” leading Arvid who viewed himself as an anti-fascist to assume the role of a Russian spy passing along secrets that Hitler was about to attack Russia in the spring of 1941 which Stalin would ignore, and providing intelligence that once Stalingrad was taken the Nazis would march on the Caucasus to have access to Rumanian oil.

(Donald Heath Sr. and Jr.)

There are a number of interesting character portraits in the book apart from the main characters.  Martha Dodd, the daughter of William Dodd the American Ambassador to Germany story is fascinating as she engages in numerous affairs, spies on her own father, falls in love with a Russian spy who will be shot during one of Stalin’s periodic purges, among many escapades.  Another interesting and more meaningful character is Donald Heath, eventually the First Secretary in the American embassy in Berlin and his son Donald, Jr.  Donald, Sr. is Secretary of the Treasury Robert Morgenthau’s personal source for information concerning Hitler’s preparation for war. The Heaths and Harnacks become close friends and share intelligence to the point both families use the eleven year old Donald, Jr. as a courier to deliver important intelligence.  Donner makes the excellent point that American intelligence before the war and early on was deeply flawed containing numerous gaps to base important decisions.

By 1942 the Gestapo arrests the key members of “the Circle,” that include Mildred and Arvid, Liberto and Harro Schultze-Boysen, and  Greta and Adam Kuckhoff.  Of these individuals Hitler will harbor an extreme hatred for Mildred and though all are tortured she is the victim of the most extreme form of punishment.  Donner will spend a great deal of time describing their fate once they are arrested and most exhibit a remarkable amount of courage knowing full well they will be executed.

In appearance Mildred Harnack does not appear to be a spy.  She is an American educator teaching in Berlin.  She is a shy bookish individual and doesn’t seem to possess the tools to be a focal point of German resistance and as one Nazi official stated, her story would make a wonderful novel.  However, her work and those of those who were a part of “the Circle” is testimony to what impels people to act for what they believe and in the end are willing to pay for those beliefs and actions with their lives.

Mildred Harnack

(Mildred Harnack)

THE HISTORIANS by Cecilia Ekback

(Kiruna mine from which the novel is based upon)

Swedish born author Cecilia Ekback has written a very complex and believable novel that focuses on the possibilities of a Scandinavian Reich that could have emerged during the Second World War.  At a time in the publishing world when there is no shortage of World War II based historical fiction, Ekback’s new book THE HISTORIANS stands out for its character and plot development and the creation of a scenario that is quite credible.

Set in Sweden during World War II the book reintroduces that country’s controversial role during the conflict.  Claiming neutrality, the Stockholm government accommodated the Nazi regime by allowing the passage of over two million German soldiers through Sweden.  Further, Swedish iron ore shipped to the Berlin regime was critical for Nazi wartime production of steel, and lastly Swedish railroads allowed the transport of the German 163rd infantry division with its equipment to pass from Norway to Finland.  It was only after 1944 with the German war effort heading for defeat did Sweden share military intelligence and allow the allies to use Swedish airbases.  Hardly the actions of a country that could be relied upon during war.

The book opens in 1943 with the Nazi regime pressuring Sweden to increase its supply of iron ore.  Laura Dahlgren, part of the Swedish trade delegation negotiating iron ore access with the Germans discovers the body of Britta Hallberg, a former classmate at Uppsala University and a member of a close knit group of five friends, tortured and murdered.  It seems that Britta had become a “sparrow” or Swedish spy whose job was to get close to German diplomats, but was also finalizing her university thesis entitled, “Nordic Relations Through the Ages: Denmark, Norway and Sweden on a New Path”  which was delivered to Jens Regnell, Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs after her death.  The question was why the thesis was delivered to Regnell, and did her research have anything to do with her murder.

The Royal Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As Ekback develops her dramatic plot another death takes place that of Daniel Jonsson, an archivist at the Swedish Foreign Ministry.  First it seemed a suicide, but as evidence accumulated it was clear it was murder.  When a bomb goes off in Dahlgren’s apartment it is clear that anyone who investigates Swedish racial policy is a threat and are in danger.

The core of the plot revolves around a meeting that took place in 1914.  Referred to as the “The Three Kings Meeting” it was made up of monarchs and foreign ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  They discussed the possibility of the creation of a Scandinavian Reich under one strong leader based on the supremacy of the Nordic race.  A committee was created to study the feasibility of the concept.  By 1939 a second meeting was held and the program was formally shut down, but in reality the ideas related to a new Reich remained to be implemented by powerful forces within the Swedish bureaucracy and body politick to not only carry out the unification of the governments involved but also to ethnically cleanse and eliminate the Sami, an indigenous people who lived in the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula as well as parts of Norway, Finland, and Russia.  It is estimated they numbered between 50,000 and 100,000.

As Dahlgren and Regnell investigated they learned that it was possible that certain elements were conducting human experiments on the Sami, with many people disappearing from the Blackasen Mountain area where iron ore was mined.

An image posted by the author.
(the author)

An interesting component to Ekback’s novel is how she integrates Nordic myths and symbols into the plot.  The vehicle she chooses is the unlikely friendships among Dahlgren, Britta Hallberg, Erik who was a hothead and a fool in many ways, Matti, who seemed sober, totally focused on his job for Finland, and Karl-Erik, who seemed to be the brightest during their debates while at the university.  During these discussions Sweden’s racial policy emerges, and after Britta is murdered they grapple with how best to discover what happened to her and why.  When the remaining four try to find the underlying cause of what is going on, unimaginable things occur.

As Ekback develops her novel a number of important questions emerge.  First, were members of the State Institute for Racial Biology conducting experiments on the back side of the Blackasen mountain?  Second, was there an actual plot to create a Scandinavian Reich and purify the “lesser” Nordic types?  Third, why were authorities who investigated Britta’s murder being stymied?  Fourth, who were the people who were trying to create the new Reich?  Lastly, do these elements still exist in Swedish society?

Ekback’s approach in creating her story was to start slowly introducing a myriad of characters that at times is difficult for the reader to digest.  As she moves along her storyline develops momentum as the reader begins to wonder if this type of scenario was actually feasible.  Every author of historical fiction faces the dilemma as to how far from “historical truth” they can deviate from and not lose their readers.  Ekback takes the reader right up to the line between truth and fiction and fashions a searing novel that may be speculative in nature but in the end is quite satisfying and sheds light on Sweden, whose machinations during World War II are part of the historical record as certain individuals dallied with “Nazi leanings.”  Ekback has authored a blistering novel, once you get past the early development of the plot, it will be difficult to put down.

(Kiruna mine, which the novel is based on)