Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler, and Arno Breker on Trocadéro in front of the Eiffel Tower. A crouching cameraman films Hitler for the cinema newsreel. Paris, 23 June 1940.

On June 14, 1940, the German army marched into Paris beginning an occupation that would last for four years.  The arrival of the Germans was the culmination of a six week invasion that saw French forces melt away in defeat and the French government agreeing to an armistice on June 22, 1940.  The French government would move to Vichy in the south where they set up a collaborative regime under World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain.  The new government would defer to the Nazis who set up their occupation regime in the north, beginning a period of limited freedom for Parisians, greatly reduced food supplies, and an overall sense of fear as to what would come next.

With the occupation serving as a backdrop British author Chris Lloyd who held a lifelong interest in World War II, including resistance and collaboration in occupied France has embarked on a series of novels centering on French Investigator Eddie Giral.  The first in the series is THE UNWANTED DEAD set in Paris which earned the HWA Gold Crown Award. Giral would spend the war trying to navigate the occupation, seeking a road between resistance and collaboration, all the time transforming himself into becoming who he needs to be to survive.

Lloyd begins the novel with the arrival of the German army in Paris on June 14.  Immediately the German High Command orders all French citizens to be disarmed and to remain in their houses for the next few days.  Giral, has other concerns as a sealed railway car is discovered with four dead bodies probably killed with chlorine or some other gas.  Giral decides it is his obligation as a “French cop” to investigate the deaths and determine who was responsible.  The four dead bodies turn out to be Polish refugees, one of which is from the Polish village of Bydgoszcz.  The situation becomes even more complicated when Fryderyk Gorecki, another Polish refugee from the same village jumps from the roof of his home with his young son Jan committing suicide as the Nazis enter Paris.

Jewish men wearing the mandatory yellow badge in the Jewish quarter of Paris.

(Jewish quarter of Paris, 1941)

For Giral the smell of the gas returns him to the trenches of World War I and introduces a character reminiscent of the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, oozing with attitude and a conflicted morality that powers a complex, polished plot.  At the same time Lloyd develops the Giral character he successfully frames the French experience under the Nazis.  The Germans who have just conquered most of Europe in a few weeks mostly are haughty, arrogant, and have little respect for the French.  Lloyd accurately conveys the internal politics of the Nazi occupation including the competition between the German army, the Gestapo, and SS for controlling Paris.  The duplicity and infighting among the Germans is on full display in Lloyd’s rendition of the early Nazi occupation and it appears quite accurate.

The Parisian ambiance is clear as Lloyd takes the reader into the underside of Paris and the conflicting feeling of the French many of whom are right wingers like Detective Auban who works with Giral that believe the French government was weak and led them astray fostering a deep respect for German efficiency and in some cases racial beliefs leading to French collaborations to the detriment of the French resistance.

The desperation of the French people is evident through suicides, attempts to escape the city, locking themselves in their homes, and abandoning their previous lives by fleeing the Germans.  As the Germans arrive 2/3 of Parisians flee the city, leaving only the poor, the old, and the police.  As Giral puts it, “Paris was still there, but it was no longer Paris.

Lloyd has created an interesting character in Giral, a man with tremendous personal baggage dating back to WWI.  Giral survived the war but did not survive the metal anguish of life in the trenches.  Unbeknownst to him he develops post-traumatic stress disorder which will destroy his family as he leaves his wife, Sylvie, and their five year old son Jan-Luc to survive on their own.  Giral is also guilt ridden because his parents blame him for his older brother’s death as he joined the French army in 1916 following in his brothers’ footsteps and was killed at Verdun.  Lloyd integrates the year 1925, at times alternating chapters dealing with 1940 to dig into Giral’s personal issues which seem to percolate throughout the novel.  For Giral, once a respected policeman, his methods and own baggage at times reduce him to a weak figure who in 1925 seeks refuge in an American jazz club and cocaine.  Giral manifests his personal issues with a nasty habit of “putting his foot in his mouth” especially when it comes to his son who he is trying to protect from the Germans at the same time he is trying to make amends for deserting his family.

Places where you can still find evidence of World War II in Paris: Hotel Lutetia

(Nazi Command Post at French Hotel, June, 1940)

Lloyd’s grasp of history is strongly exemplified by Giral’s conversations with former Black Harlem Hell fighters who fought for the United States in World War I.  Giral is shocked that these men do not want to live in their home country, but he understands when they describe the racial situation in the United States and how they were better off in France. Another interesting example is Lloyd’s description of the French surrender to the Germans at Compiegne using the same railway car used by the allies in 1918.  This time with Hitler present.

Lloyd’s plot lines are well conceived.  What does the gassing of the refugees and the suicide of a man and his son have to do with each other.  When American reporters become involved Giral’s eyes are opened to a larger issue – how to get across to the world the atrocities the Nazis have committed in Poland and other areas in order to convince the United States to join the war and for the Soviet Union to break its pact with the Hitlerite regime.  More and more Giral becomes obsessed with learning the truth and balancing that truth with the larger goal of defeating the Nazis.  In so doing an interesting series of characters become important.  Major Hochstetter, an Abwehr Nazi officer who is the liaison to the French police who plays a duplicitous role throughout.  Lucja and Janek, members of the Polish resistance whose main goal is to tell the truth to the world.  Katherine Ronson, a freelance American journalist looking for a Pulitzer Prize.  Hauptmann Karl Weber, an officer in the 87th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht, and a series of others.

How these diverse personalities and storylines come together make the novel an excellent read.  For Giral how many sacrifices must he make as he navigates the Nazi obstacle course in his quest for the truth, while at the same time holding onto his moral compass and seeing the larger issues that may be more important than his own murder investigation.  For Giral it is a constant question as to who he can trust.  Journalists, colleagues, certain Germans, union workers, but in the end he must rely on his own instincts.  The next book in the series is PARIS REQUIEM and I look forward to continuing to follow Eddie Giral’s career and life story.

Galesburg Register-Mail

STASI CHILD by David Young

Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front
Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front

(STASI Headquarters, East Berlin)

To maintain power for over 40 years while their people starved and plotted to escape, the East German Communist Party had to get very good at controlling people and undermining anti-state activists. But outright street violence and assassinations weren’t good for the Party image, so the Ministry for State Security got creative. Better known as the Stasi (the German acronym), these secret police were the “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party). Their sole function was to keep the Communist Party in power. They did not care how.  At a certain point they had 91,000 employees, 5,600,000 East German citizens were under suspicion for anti-party activity (about 1 and 3 people), all out of a total population of 17,000,000.  The  level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror—you really never knew if you could trust anyone—though most had no idea of the scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.  With this in the background author, David Young, an English novelist created a crime thriller series featuring a fictional Volkspolezi detective, Karin Müller, set in 1970s East Germany. Young’s debut novel STASI CHILD won the “CWA Endeavor Historical Dagger” award for the best historical crime novel of the year.  The novel is the first of six iterations of his Karin Muller series which immediately captivates the reader who will find it difficult to put down.

The novel begins with Oberleutnant Karin Muller and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, find themselves in bed with each other after a night of drinking.  Both are married, Muller is aghast and Tilsner has an arrogant smirk on his face.  This is just background as they are immediately summoned to a murder scene at the Berlin Wall.  When they arrive they are met by STASI Oberstleutnant Klaus Jager who informs them he is in charge, even though it comes under the jurisdiction of the Kriminalpolizei or KRIPO.  This arrangement will prove interesting throughout the novel.  The crime scene is made up of a murdered young girl whose face could have been destroyed by wild animals and Jager informs Muller she is in charge of the investigation to determine the identity of the body, the cause of death, and the killer.  The problem that arises is that Jager has informed her that his preliminary investigation concludes that the girl was shot fleeing the western side of the Berlin Wall trying to enter East Germany.  Her task is to provide evidence to support Jager’s conclusions.

The situation is further exacerbated after Jonas Schmidt, the KRIPO scientist, and Professor Feuerstein, the KRIPO pathologist examine the murder scene and conduct an autopsy and their findings do not support Jager’s scenario.  Muller is immediately caught up in a situation where she is losing control.  When She and Tilsner were trying to identify the victim, they came across a teenage girl named Silke Eisenberg who had run away successfully to West Berlin.

Young is a superb practitioner of the Cold War thriller.  He does an excellent job creating the ambiance and jargon of the time period as the East German government (DDR) is having difficulty keeping its citizens from trying to escape to West Berlin, despite the building of the Wall in 1961.  Young has created a multi-faceted plot that leaves the reader wondering how it all fits together.  There is the murder investigation that Karin Muller is hoping to solve.  There is the role of STASI and the concept that no one wants the perpetrators to be found.  We must also deal with Karin’s husband Gottfried who is arrested by the STASI. Lastly, the role of the reform school at Profo-Ost and the plight of Irma Behrendt and her friend Beate Ewert who tries to commit suicide.

Young creates a number of interesting characters.  Jonas Schmidt, the fumbling forensic scientist and Krimminaltechniker.  Klaus Jager, a man with an agenda that is difficult to figure out.  Karin’s husband, Gottfried, a teacher, an idealist, whose situation deteriorates from the outset of the novel as he watches western news programs and frequents a church where the pastor is under surveillance.  Matthias Gellman, a confused star crossed teenager who make a number of poor decisions.  Lastly, Franz Neumann, a sinister character who runs Profo-Ost.  There are the usual bleak characters that run the reform school and a host of others.

Karin faces dilemmas throughout the novel.  She admires her country’s efforts to raise up the position of women in society as she is the highest ranking woman in the People’s Police.  But, on the other hand the male dominated leadership in the police community creates doubts in her belief in the system.  Further, her view of East German society is questioned as she and her partner travel to the west where for the first time she sees the luxuries and everyday thriving of a capitalist culture.  Deep down she is shocked by the number of missing girls in East Berlin, a number that dwarfs those missing in the west which is in large part why she is determined to find the murderer of the girl by the Berlin Wall.  Karin also feels guilty over her marriage and she wonders if there is anything she can do to help her husband.

Fans of the late Philip Kerr and his Bernie Guenther character and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko should enjoy Young’s foray into the cold war thriller.  The dialogue is crisp and the juxtaposition of east and west is well conceived.  All in all a success, and I look forward to the next book in the series, STASI WOLF.

A door with a sign reading
A door with a sign reading


Pres. Woodrow Wilson at his desk, Washington, D.C.

(President Woodrow Wilson)

The four years that followed America’s entrance into World War I was a grim period in American history that seems painfully relevant today.  It was a time of racism, white nationalism, anti-foreign, anti-immigrant feelings, and of course plague.. On top of that American society suffered from a misogynistic view of women, and an appalling level of political partisanship.  By 1920 the culmination of World War I and the Versailles Treaty were almost in place.  The treaty itself was punitive and over the next decade it would be used by opponents of the Weimar Republic in Germany as a cudgel to destroy any hope in achieving democracy and greatly facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party and  Adolf Hitler.  Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, we find Russia beginning to reject the promise of democracy following the collapse of the Cold War leading to the reemergence of Pan Slavism and the rise of Vladimir Putin.  The similarities may be divergent, but it is clear that the economic misery in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s is more than a coincidence in bringing authoritarianism to power in both countries.

The second decade in the 20th and 21st centuries tend to mirror each other.  The fighting in the trenches on the western front during World War I matches the trench warfare that has existed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and seems to be growing worse each day.  The Russian Revolution helped produce the authoritarianism of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, in much the same way that the end of communism brought to power, first Boris Yeltsin, and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin.  The end of World War I brought about the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and recently Donald Trump tried to unravel NATO and while Putin is trying to destroy NATO by invading Ukraine, the former president’s acolytes have continued to try and undermine the Biden administration’s effort to assist the Kyiv government.


(Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer)

In 1917, Lenin bragged that the Soviet Union would lead an ecumenical revolution in the name of Karl Marx.  Today, Putin wants to recreate the former Soviet Empire and “Russify” its “near abroad” regions.  During the 1920s Russia was an economic pariah, today economic sanctions imposed by the west are seen as one of the main weapons imposed in order to block Putin’s expansionism.

The difference today is that a number of countries which suffered under western colonialism; India, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia find themselves benefitting from Russian cheap energy and trade as they pursue their own reasons for their supposed neutrality in dealing with the war in Ukraine.  There were many errors made in the diplomatic realm in 1919 that we see resurfacing today – one can call it the revenge of former western victims of imperialism.

Wood, Leonard

(General Leonard Wood)

Across the Atlantic we also witness the similarities between the two time periods.  Domestically the United states has found itself in the midst of violent anarchist movements on the right.  Groups like the Proud Boys and their ilk and the MAGA crowd engage in political violence in much the same way as leftist anarchists did in the post-World War One era.  Politically, the lack of bipartisanship today is a daily occurrence where “owning the libs” by the MAGA crowd is more important than passing legislation for the benefit of the American people.  In 1919, the leader of the Republican opposition was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who despised Wilson and resented democratic control of the presidency and congress over the previous eight years.  He led the opposition to the ratification of the League of Nations in the Senate and was successful in part because of Wilson’s own political errors and a belief that he was infallible.  In the same way NATO was threatened by extinction under the presidency of Donald Trump, another president whose belief in their own judgement was beyond reproach, and the likes of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy who seems like he will do anything to satisfy the right wing fringe of the Republican caucus and stop American aid to Ukraine.  A further similarity between the two periods is that of dealing with disease or pandemics.  In 1918-1919 it was influenza which the government downplayed resulting in over 675,000 death which Wilson paid little attention too, and of course COVID-19 the last few years resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths, conspiracy theories, and a president who saw the disease as a plot to hinder his reelection as opposed to properly protecting the American people.  Lastly, immigration issues have dominated both periods.  The 1920s witnessed an increasing war against labor, communism, and immigration in general as it seemed the “Bolsheviki” were mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, not the good “white stock” of Northern and Western Europe.  The period is known as the first Red Scare, but today we have similar issues.  The lack of bipartisanship prevents immigration reform and politicians are quick to point to the southern border as a national security threat.  Trump’s commentary on immigrants is well known as well as those dealing with “shit hole” nations. 

The mindsets of Wilson and Trump are also similar, and that mindset led to numerous errors for the American people.  Wilson proved to be a sanctimonious character who believed his way was always correct and if you didn’t support him you were no longer an accepted part of his administration.  Trump has a similar mindset, but there is a difference.  Wilson held strong beliefs in his Fourteen Points which he hoped would bring an end to all wars.  Trump, believes in nothing apart from his use of the presidency for his and his families self-aggrandizement, and perhaps keeping him out of prison and an orangejump suit.

Emma Goldman seated.jpg

(Emma Goldman)

The lack of bipartisanship in Congress was clear concerning the League of Nations, the increasing belief in eugenics and anti-migrant and racist tropes led to violence against minorities be it the Tulsa  or Omaha massacres or other events throughout the south.  This resulted in the 1924 Johnson Act that created quotas to bar certain groups from the United States.  Though women finally got the vote after the war, impediments for them and blacks remained to keep them from exercising their rights of citizenship.

Fast forward to today we have disagreements over aid to Ukraine and the US role in NATO.  Further, we have election deniers who still have not given up overturning the 2020 election no matter what the courts have ruled.  The crisis at the southern border, the bombing of synagogues, the shootings of young black men and schools, and of course the events of 1/6.  These occurrences can be laid at the doorstep of MAGA conspiracy theorists, FOX news and Donald Trump and reflect how little the US has grown as a united nation over the last 100 years.  Philosopher George Santayana was correct in 1905 when he stated, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I guess the lesson no longer applies as a large segment of our population has cut history and government courses from educational curriculum on many levels as is highlighted currently by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ attempts to rewrite his states curriculum stressing only the “good parts dealing with whites,” and leaving out anything negative like slavery and genocide of Native-Americans out.

The first two decades of the 20th and 21st centuries are uncanny in their similarities and it makes it important to consult Adam Hochschild’s latest book, AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: THE GREAT WAR, A VIOLENT PEACE AND DEMOCRACIES FORGOTTEN CRISIS to understand the evolution of events surrounding World War I and its culmination, its impact on societal movements throughout the world including the United States, and how many of these issues remain with us today reflecting on the idea that we have not come as far as we think in the last century.

Eugene V. Debs

(Presidential candidate and Socialist Eugene V. Debs)

As the case in many of his books like KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, TO END ALL WARS, SPAIN IN OUR

HEARTS, and BURY THE CHAINS Hochschild exhibits a mastery of the historical material and sources including astute analysis that is important for the reader to digest.  He possesses an easy writing style that makes it easier to absorb material that can be very disconcerting.  In his current work Hochschild has created a narrative that is more of a socio-political history than a recounting of World War I and the treaty that followed.  The book is separated into two distinct parts.  First the reader is presented with an America that is in the grip of a patriotic fervor that had never been seen before.  Anti-German feeling fostered by submarine warfare raised levels of hostility that remained throughout the war.  The result was the loss of civil rights for a large component of American society particularly labor and anyone who questioned the Wilson administration.  President Woodrow Wilson was seen as a progressive, but the policies implemented under his watch caused tremendous repression and violations of constitutional protections of free speech.  The repression resulted in vigilantism, violence, and an unequal implementation of justice.  Legislation and later Supreme Court decisions codified these the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, or the actions of the Postmaster General and other propaganda organs.  Big Business saw this as an opportunity to go after labor unions like the IWW and the Socialist Party.  Racists saw this as an opportunity to repress blacks in the south as well as the north as many southern blacks migrated north to escape adverse treatment and hopes for employment.  In addition, the government deputized private groups to assist in this repression and violence.  A number of personalities dominate this section including President Wilson, radicals like Emma Goldman, Postmaster general Albert Burleson, and many others.

In the second half of the book, Hochschild’s analysis zeroes in on the continuing repression after the war and the rise of the Red Scare.  The constant round up of immigrants for deportation, legislation to block immigration, violence against blacks, even those who fought in World war I, the continued imprisonment of people jailed for opposing the war, a domestic war against the new enemy communism which seemed to be spreading in Europe were dominant themes.   Throughout President Wilson did not oppose these extreme measures as his focus was on gaining passage of his precious League of Nations which ultimately failed.  After suffering a debilitating stroke trying to sell his League, Wilson was effectively a non-executive for the last eight months of his presidency as his wife Edith seemed to have been a co-president.  Two of the dominant personalities of the period were Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, and General Leonard Wood.  Both sought their respective party nominations for president in 1920 and ran on a platform of anti-immigration and deportation.  In Palmer’s case his actions relate to an anarchist bombing of his home in 1919 which changed a progressive into a right wing fanatic employing the likes of the young J. Edgar Hoover.

Portrait of white woman in dark clothing

(Kate Richard O’Hare)

A number of important movements and personalities are explored, many of which lead to current comparisons.  The first, Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the war on dissent resulting in violence and jailings.  Wilson was a southerner who held strong racist ideas despite his progressive reputation and showed little interest in protecting civil rights after the American entrance into the war.  Wilson’s problem throughout was that he believed that bargaining was beneath him and his autocratic tendencies eventually would dominate his approach to politics.  Apart from Wilson, the author focuses on personalities who normally do not receive the coverage of a President, Secretary of State or other high officials.  The reader is exposed to William J. “Big Bill” Flynn, the former Chief of the Secret Service and New York City Police Detectives who would head up the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the FBI, a man who would hire the young J. Edgar Hoover who would copy the Library of Congresses card catalogue system to track what he deemed to be enemies of the people.  Women who spoke out against the war and were jailed receive a great deal of coverage.  Emma Goldman, Dr. Marie Equi, and Kate Richard O’Hare are front and center.  The role of Postmaster General and his weeding out all opposition to the war effort through the mails; the jailing of Eugene Debs; Grace Hammer, a Sherman Detective Agency employee imbedded within the IWW as “an underground cheerleader” for the war to root out dissidents; Leo Wendell, a Justice Department spy, Lt. Colonel Ralph Van Deman, the domestic military intelligence chief, Louis F. Post, the only member of the Labor Department who fought against deportations, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who had no difficulty with objectivity dealing with dissidents, Congressman Albert Johnson who led the fight for immigration quotas that blocked immigrants from anywhere apart from northern and western Europeans (sounds like Trump!) are just a few whose impact on American history and their actions should serve as a lesson for all to study.

The infamous Palmer Raids, mass arrests by the Justice department on the Union of Russian Workers and other organizations receive extensive coverage.  In particular was the radical Division within the Justice Department fostered by J. Edgar Hoover who was put in charge of these raids and implemented the surveillance, arrests, police raids, internment camps, legal chicanery, all strategies employed for decades to come.  Hoover saw the resulting deportations as a “feather in his cap.”  Wilson is just as culpable as he remarked in 1919, “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this republic.”

Hochschild also stresses how the Wilson administration drew upon America’s experience in the Philippines, employing torture techniques like water boarding and counter insurgency in the United States to ferret out dissidents.  General Leonard Wood was the master of implementing these techniques.

 Albert Sidney Burleson

(US Postmaster Albert Burleson)

In summary I turn to Thomas Meany’s review in the October 9, 2022, that appeared in the New York Times; “Hochschild’s sharp portraits and vignettes make for poignant reading, but at times skirt fuller historical understanding. We hear about newspapers and magazines being shut down, but little about what was being argued in them. Powerful thinkers about the political moment, such as Randolph Bourne, are absent from “American Midnight,” while John Dos Passos features more as a backup bard than a literary chronicler with historical insight. Hochschild attributes much of the failure of American socialists to expand their ranks to the racism and xenophobia that bedeviled the white working class. But there were also significant problems of organization in the American labor movement, which struggled to unite unskilled immigrant workers with workers in established unions. Trotsky had expected America to make as great a contribution to world socialism as it had to capitalism; he was appalled by the lack of party discipline, later damning Debs with faint praise, as a “romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader.” The Catholic Church inoculated large segments of immigrant workers from radicalization, while canny capitalists like Henry Ford devised ways to divide workers into a caste system with different gradations of privilege. For all of the success of the strike waves of 1919, almost none of them left any permanent new union organization in place, nor did socialists make much headway in electoral politics.

In the closing portions of this tale, Hochschild shows that, by contrast, a generation of American liberals learned what not to do from Wilson. As his international crusade sputtered into catastrophe, with Wilson signing off on the Versailles Treaty, which laid the kindling for World War II, younger members of his staff were already preparing to become different kinds of liberals. Felix Frankfurter, who, as a young judge advocate general, gallantly tried to counteract some of Wilson’s domestic terror, and Frankfurter’s friend Walter Lippmann, who worked on Wilson’s foreign policy team, were determined to cast off the administration’s excesses. Both envisioned a state that would protect civil rights instead of violating them, and oversee a more efficient and fair economy. In the early 1930s, even as they drifted apart, Lippmann and Frankfurter would help impart a crucial lesson to the Roosevelt administration: If it wanted to snuff out American socialism, it was better to absorb some of its ideals than to banish them.”


(President Woodrow Wilson)

MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Joseph O’Connor

(St. Peter’s Square, circa 1944)

The role of the Papacy and the Catholic church in general has been placed under an unrelenting  historical microscope since the 1930s.  Historians such as John Cornwell, David I. Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, and others have analyzed the role of Pope Pius II and Vatican officials to be in many cases wanting when it came to their actions, or lack of thereof when it came to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, in addition to the absence of a strong  response to the Holocaust.*  Pius who has been labeled “Hitler’s Pope” by many historians when discussing his refusal to speak out against the Nazi genocide whether fairly or unfairly, but his “moral silence” throughout the war stands out.  This is not to say that most or even a majority of church officials felt comfortable with Vatican policy as there were numerous acts of bravery by Catholic officials, priests,  and their followers to hide allied POWs and Jews and smuggle them out of Europe to safety.

One of these individuals was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest who together with likeminded compatriots risked their lives to save as many Jews and POWs as possible right under the noses of the Nazi executioners.  In MY FATHER’S HOUSE, author, Joseph O’Connor has written a marvelous work of historical fiction detailing events from the Fall of 1943 when Germany took control of Rome and Gestapo boss, Obersturmbannfuhrer Paul Hauptmann ruled the city with maniacal efficiency.  O’Conner’s work is the first volume in a trilogy delineating “the Rome Escape Line.”

(Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty)

O’Flaherty was an Irish Catholic priest and senior official of the Roman Curia and was responsible for saving 6500 allied soldiers and Jews.  He had the ability to evade traps set by the Gestapo and Nazi SD earning the nickname, “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”  O’Connor’s portrayal is one of suspense and intrigue creating a gripping World War II drama featuring the unlikeliest of heroes.** 

What separates O’Connor’s approach to historical fiction is his ability to turn facts into believable fiction.  As Sara Moss points out in her review published in The Guardian; “O’Connor is clear that his characters are “not to be relied upon by biographers or researchers” and that sequences “presenting themselves as authentic documents are works of fiction”. The writer’s challenge is to balance the messy improbability of what actually happened with the structural requirements of the novel.  O’Connor achieves this balance partly through characterization and voices strong enough that we eagerly follow them through uncertainty, mundane and disappointment as well as high-stakes jeopardy. The novel is built out of the present-tense close third-person narrative of the priest, Hugh O’Flaherty, the technique historical fiction owes to Hilary Mantel, interspersed with fictional interviews conducted for a radio program in 1963 with the seven people running the escape line under Hugh’s direction. All have distinctive and often very funny voices: they are Irish, English, Italian, aristocrats and shopkeepers.”***

The novel begins on the night of December 19, 1943, when Delia Kiernan, the wife of an Irish diplomat is driving a black Daimler embassy car through the streets of Rome with a groaning passenger in the back seat.  She will soon be joined by a black clad man in the front seat.  Once they reach a hospital for the injured man, Father O’Flaherty brow beats a Nazi guard in gaining treatment for Major Sam Derry, an escaped British prisoner of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

O’Conner does a wonderful job employing dialogue and character monologues to convey to the reader the Irish mindset in Rome during the latter stages of the war.  His descriptions of O’Flaherty are priceless.  The Monsignor sets up a choir as a front for his clandestine operations.  It helps that Kiernan was a professional singer before the war. The choir itself takes on many characters each with their own quirks.  There is Kiernan, Sir Darcy Osborne, the flamboyant British Ambassador to the Vatican, John May an indispensable fixer, Contessa Giovanni Landini, Marianna DeVries, a freelance journalist based in Rome, and others.  All contribute to O’Flaherty’s goals but are used by the author as a tool of providing background for each character and past and future events through interviews of each in chapter form taken in 1963.


(Herbert Kappler, Chief of Security Police and Security Services for the SS and all police units deployed in Rome during the occupation)

In this vein O’Connor employs clever strategies to lay the background foundation for his story line, particularly his use of O’Flaherty’s “Last Will and Testament” should he ever be seized by the Gestapo as a means of conveying the history of Irish subjugation by the British, and in turn Irish hatred and distrust of England and her armies.  The document provides insights into who the Monsignor really was, a thoughtful and courageous individual whose voice is used to describe the nature of Nazi rule and the horrors they engaged in.   

Another approach that is quite effective is integrating interviews of important characters years later alluded to earlier.  A few stand out.  Those include interviews with Enzo Angelucci, an important member of the choir.  Contessa Giovanna Landini, a widower having emotional difficulties meets O’Flaherty by chance and describes how this new friendship provided purpose to her life and the ability to move on.  The British Ambassador hiding in the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne’s Christmas eve 1943 report to The War Office, Whitehall, London and his assistant and fixer, John May from London’s East End who provides the flavor of the underground that exists in Rome.  The importance of the later interviews is that they provide varying views of the Monsignor; his character, foibles, belief system, and other aspects of his personality that made him so special.

O’Connor uses Paul Hauptmann, the Nazi Commander of Rome as a foil against O’Flaherty.  Entering the Monsignor’s confessional, he accuses him of “false virtue,” arguing his actions have made the situation worse for prisoners.  As the novel progresses it seems clear that O’Flaherty is on thin ice with Hauptmann who blames him for running an escape line for POWs out of Rome and that at any moment the priest will be caught and executed.  Hauptmann is modeled on his historical counterpart, Herbert Kappler,  Chief of the Security Police and Security Service for all SS and Order Police units deployed in Rome.

Eugenio Pacelli’s coronation as Pope Pius XII on March 12, 1939.

(Pope Pius II)

O’Conner’s dialogue reflects O’Flaherty’s tenacious nature whether in debate, securing funds, new locations for prisoners and what he perceives as his life’s mission once he visits a POW camp.  O’Flaherty is not afraid to stand up to the lowliest Nazi, to Hauptmann, or even arguments with Pius XII who opposes his actions.  Perhaps the best description of the Monsignor was “Hughdini,” coined by John May alluding to the amazing things that the padre has accomplished in saving so many and standing up to the Nazi beasts.  The key event that everyone in the choir is building up to is the Rendimento (in English performance), in this case the movement of POWs from one hiding place to a safer one Christmas eve, 1943 as Hauptmann and his thugs are closing in.

O’Connor’s priest steals many scenes by exhibiting the courage of his convictions and under fire.  The result is a gripping novel with the unlikeliest of heroes.  O’Flaherty’s “choir” is a ragtag group dedicated to spiriting those threatened by the Nazis to safety.  Their code revolves around “the Library,” of which they are known.  Individual escapees are books, and their hiding places, shelves.  The cat and mouse game O’Connor creates with Hauptmann is well developed, and his frantic mission through the streets of Rome is vividly managed.  It is hard not to be drawn into the story, but more so the courage and commitment of the Monsignor whose life work is to save others.

*For a further discussion of this topic see Tim Parks, “The Pope and the Holocaust,”  New York Review of Books, October 20, 2022; and a rejoinder by Michael Hesemann, “The Silence of Pius XII: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2022.

**See the film, “The Scarlet and the Black” starring Gregory Peck and Christian Plummer for an interesting portrayal of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s work during this period.  In addition you might consult Stephen Walker’s Hide & Seek: The Irish Priest In The Vatican Who Defied The Nazi Command.

 *** Sarah Moss, “My Father’s House” by Joseph O’Connor review – the priest who defied Nazis,” The Guardian, February 2, 2023.

A DEATH IN VIENNA by Frank Tallis

Vienna Austria Skyline - Wrapped Canvas Photograph

(Early 20th century Viennese skyline)

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s trilogy, THE ALIENIST, THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS, and SURRENDER NEW YORK which focus on murder investigations of Dr. Laszlo Kreitzer, an early practitioner of psychoanalysis as a tool is solving violent crime you will enjoy the works of Frank Tallis.  Tallis, a clinical psychologist and author of over fifteen fiction and non-fiction titles has written A DEATH IN VIENNA, the first of his seven Max Lieberman novels.  Lieberman is a scientist who supports many of the innovative ideas put forth by Dr. Sigmund Freud and applies them when conducting investigations with his colleague, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt.

The novel begins with Detective Rheinhardt called to the scene of the death of a beautiful Viennese medium Charlotte Lowenstein.  Her body is found in a room that can only be locked from the inside, she is shot through the heart, but no gun is located.  Since the victim was a medium the possibility of something supernatural occurring is considered, but after Lieberman, the detective’s good friend is called that reasoning is rejected especially when one of Lowenstein’s clients is also found dead in a locked room beaten to death. 

File:Sigmund Freud LIFE.jpg

(Sigmund Freud)

As the novel evolves the reader is exposed to the ambiance of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century.  The characters, scenery, dialogue, and cultural representations all speak to Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.  There are a number of intrigues that take place at the same time.  Dr. Lieberman assists Detective Rheinhardt with cases but also must devote his time to his patients.  One in particular highlights the ideas of Dr. Freud. 

Miss Amelia Lydgate is a governess working for the Schelling family when she develops hysterical paralysis and a cough with no organic reasoning for these maladies in addition to a secondary personality.  Lieberman rejects the approach of a colleague, Dr. Wolfgang Gruner who applies electrotherapy in the hope of  achieving a cure.  Their interactions highlight the divergence of opinion regarding psychoanalysis in Vienna at the time and Tallis does an excellent job recreating the debate of Freud’s theories by reproducing realistic dialogue providing the reader with a sense of where the study of psychology existed at the time.

Other scenarios emerge as the investigation into Frau Lowenstein’s death proceeds.  The medium had a large circle of followers who were with her right before her demise.  There was a languid count, a luscious heiress, a businessman, a solid bank manager and his wife, a conman, and a seamstress.  Any of these people may have been responsible for the death, but there is little evidence linking any of them to the crime. The murder appears to be one of stagecraft accomplished through smoke and mirrors – for Lieberman it appears to be a crime of illusion.

Tallis does a wonderful job recreating activities among his characters that reflect the historical period.  A visit to museums and concerts highlighting the works of Gustav Mahler and Gustav Klimt.  The reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism in Vienna led by the likes of Karl Lueger.  The accusation and conviction of a Jew for ritual murder who supposedly used the blood of the victim for making matzoh.  Further the reader is witness to a Friday night sabbath dinner at the Lieberman’s with the entire family highlighting Jewish tradition, the use of Yiddish, and overall captures the Jewish experience at the time.

(Gustav Mahler. Taken in the loggia of the Court Opera House by Moriz Nahr – 1907)

Tallis integrates the murder of Karl Uberhorst, a former lover of Lowenstein (among many!) and someone who may have held many of the dead medium’s secrets.  There is a plethora of interesting characters apart from Lowenstein’s circle including Commissioner Brugel who is dissatisfied with the speed of solving the case.  Inspector Victor von Bulow, an arrogant know it all who is called to assist in the investigation.  Madame Yvette de Rougemont, a supposed medium who is really an actress, and Cosima von Rath, the fiancée of Hans Bruckmueller, a member of Lowenstein’s circle.

Tallis has constructed a careful whodunit. He guides the reader throughout from the crime scenes, the debate of the application of psychoanalysis in solving crimes, the use of traditional and newer police methodology, and the interaction between characters very nicely.  The murder mystery is well written with particular emphasis on Viennese society and culture and the story has become a mini-series on Public Television entitled “Vienna Blood.”  The story is fast paced combining science and traditional approaches to criminology and I look forward to reading other novels involving the duo of Lieberman and Rheinhardt.

View of Vienna in the sunrise, Austria Austria, Central Europe, Central Vienna, Europe, Vienna - Austria Vienna - Austria Stock Photo

(Vienna, 1902)


Watch: People Cling to U.S. Air Force Plane Leaving Kabul
(August, 2021, Afghans trying to flee Afghanistan with US withdrawal)

Of all the decisions made by President Biden during his first two years in office the most frequently criticized by both Democrats and Republicans was his decision to withdraw  American troops from Afghanistan.  Biden has wanted to end the American role in Afghanistan since his time as Vice-President thus the decision was not surprising.  After two decades of war Biden had enough of the corruption, duplicity, and the lack of will to fight on the part of various Afghan governments to defeat the Taliban.  It was not so much Biden’s decision to withdraw, but how it came about and how it was implemented resulting in negative repercussions for American foreign policy that has drawn so much criticism.

One of the first books to emerge since the end of American participation in Afghanistan is Elliot Ackerman’s THE FIFTH ACT: AMERICA’S END IN AFGHANISTAN.  The book is broken down into five acts, the last resulting in the final escape of an Afghan family.  Ackerman’s work is a combination of a meditation on war as a concept, a personal memoir, and his frustration with four presidential administrations.  Ackerman has authored five novels following his career as a US Marine where he did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.  After ending his time as a Marine officer, he joined the CIA and returned to Afghanistan as a paramilitary officer.  His military career ended over a decade ago, but events in Kabul in August, 2021 as the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital he found himself drawn back into what certainly was the end of an American quagmire.


(About 640 Afghans and others fleeing Afghanistan crammed into a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane out of Kabul, August, 2021)

Ackerman’s narrative begins on a family vacation in Italy at the same time that thousands of Afghans who worked with American troops during the war as interpreters, spotters, and other capacities are trying to flee the country knowing full well that if they were captured by the Taliban their lives and the lives of their families would be in great danger.  Ackerman proceeds to structure the novel by alternating a description of his family vacation, returning to certain segments of his time in the war zone, trying to assist Afghanis trying to flee the Taliban by contacting numerous individuals he served with, and lastly, providing what appears to be his private meditation of Afghanistan and war in general.

The most interesting aspects of the book revolves around Ackerman’s thoughts concerning the definition of war, how one determines victory or defeat, the cost of recovering the bodies of American soldiers, the differences between targeted killing and assassination, and trying to determine if the American people and society should share a major part of the blame for how the war transpired and finally ended for the United States.

Ackerman’s willingness to assist in trying to save as many Afghans as possible is supported by his wife and he is able to compartmentalize his obligations to his family and what he believes is his obligation to save as many people as possible.  As the narrative evolves Ackerman’s commentary is perceptive and accurate.  His comparison of the negotiations that ended the war in Vietnam under President Nixon, and those by President Trump with the Taliban are dead on.  The negotiations led by Henry Kissinger that resulted in the 1973 Paris Accords cut out the South Vietnamese government and the final terms were presented as a fait accompli to President Nguyen Van Thieu.  Similarly, American negotiators treated Kabul in the same way.  The Doha Agreement signed on February 29, 2020 with the Taliban fatally delegitimized Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his central government.

The concept of a citizen army and that of a volunteer force is examined very carefully.  Ackerman correctly concludes that the American people, other than those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan had “little skin in the game.”  Both wars were financed through deficit spending and sparked varying degrees of disinterest in the course of the wars.  During Vietnam the draft and the increasing cost of the war greatly contributed to the anti-war movement.  In the case of the last twenty years there was no “war tax” or draft to galvanize the American people resulting in “a lack of interest” on their part or what some have referred to as “war fatigue.”

The author in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004.

(Elliot Ackerman, Fallujah, Iraq, 2004)

Ackerman’s account contains a number of warnings for the American people.  One of the most important is the role of the military in civil society.  Ackerman writes that currently the military remains one of the most trusted institutions in the United States and one of the few that the public sees as having “no overt political bias.”  However in the last few years that belief has been challenged by President Trump when he tried to use the military as a political vehicle to rally the support of what he perceived to be patriotic Americans.  His photo op using soldiers at Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020 is a classic example.  The George Floyd murder saw the use of National Guard troops to make a political point.  Repeated calls by Trump to use what he termed “his military” for his own personal benefit was extremely dangerous.  Up until now we have skirted this issue, but the increasing partisan nature of our domestic politics could some day result in a more dangerous version of January 6th.  By the election of 2020 more and more retired military have become talking heads and it seems that the politicalization of the military is approaching.  This is very dangerous especially when one party argues that an election was stolen and almost half the country believes that argument.  What I fear is when this politicalization seeps down into the ranks and soldiers are called on to deal with election protests the possible result of such a scenario is something I do not want to envision.

As the narrative evolves the author’s empathy and guilt dealing with the end of the war and the fears of the Afghan people of the Taliban is totally evident.  As he fielded phone calls, emails, and texts he is confounded as he tries to respond with strategies, employing his contacts, and doing whatever he can to help.  This is juxtaposed throughout the book with his own combat experiences during his service in the Marines.  The book is not a history of the final evacuation but it is more of a former soldier contemplating the meaning of the end for America’s fighting men and women.  He focuses on the “should’ve and could’ve” aspects of war pertaining to himself, the men and women he fought with, and the decision makers in Washington.  He concludes that we must question America’s judgement when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Overall, Ackerman’s work should provoke an extensive reevaluation of America’s approach to war – how we pay for it, what segment of society fights, and the impact of partisanship.  The book is well written and provides a clear picture of two decades of war, how these wars ended, when the United States should resort to the use of force, and what our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan mean for America’s future.  I highly recommend it to all – there are many lessons to be learned.


(August, 2021. Afghans trying to reach Kabul airport to escape the Taliban as US troops withdraw)


Abraham Lincoln

In many ways Jon Meacham is the conscience of America.  The Vanderbilt historian and author has a very optimistic view of the American people and his appearances on MSNBC and other programs is usually upbeat when it comes to the future of the United States.  This viewpoint is readily apparent in a number of his books, including THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS where he discusses turning points in American history and how we have overcome numerous issues including partisanship.  Meacham is a prolific author whose books include FRANKLIN AND WINSTON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF AN EPIC FRIENDSHIP, AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND THE MAKING OF THE NATION, AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE, and DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODDESSY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH.  All books are well written with a degree of empathy for his subjects which is the case with his latest effort, AND THERE WAS LIGHT: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND AMERICA’S STRUGGLE which tells the story of our 16th president from his birth on the Kentucky frontier to his leadership during the Civil War through his assassination.  For Meacham, Lincoln’s life illustrates the ways and means of politics in a democracy, the roots and durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to shape events.

Meacham’s Lincoln is a humane and empathetic individual who must overcome personal tragedy and his own demons.  The death of two children, a depressive personality, and a spouse who caused trouble repeatedly must be dealt with as he tries to maintain the union and reunify his country.  Lincoln did not shy away from complex decisions whether dealing with politics, military personnel, or wartime strategy.  He was a firm believer in Jeffersonian equality and the constitution.  He was not averse to making compromises to maintain the union and a democratic form of government.  The idea that the federal government could not end slavery in states where it existed but could prevent its expansion into new territories was deeply ingrained in him.  According to poet and editor James Russell Lowell who wrote in 1864, for Lincoln it was more convenient to say the least, to have a country left without a constitution, than a constitution without a country.”

1862. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand at Antietam.

(Lincoln at the battle of Antietam)

Meacham’s account of Lincoln’s treatment of slavery is heavily laden with theological arguments and experiences which Lincoln argued was his own enslavement by his overbearing father who forced him to labor and forgo education, to the exposure to reverends preaching against slavery during his boyhood.  Meacham develops anti and pro-slavery ideology throughout the narrative and concludes that Lincoln did not believe in racial equality, favored the colonization of slaves to areas outside the United States, but overall, he could not tolerate individuals being owned by another and having to labor for someone not of his choosing.

The narrative carefully recounts Lincoln’s evolution concerning the slave issue relying on his religious and political development.  Lincoln was a man of compromise in all areas, but not concerning the maintenance of the union.  Meacham reviews the most important debates, events, and movements of the period and offers a dissection of Lincoln’s thought processes and how he finally reached the conclusion in 1862 that after trying everything to appease the south and keep the states as one to announce the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Lincoln only served one term in Congress, but it was an important education.  He learned a great deal about slavery coming into contact with southern members of the House of Representatives, opposing racist legislation, and the need of compromise, not conquest in order to make meaningful change.  Lincoln repeatedly turned to the “Founders” for inspiration and if one examines his speeches it is a combination of religious belief and political pragmatism.  As Lincoln stated in 1861, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 

This is an image of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Davis.

(Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee)

According to historian Richard Carwardine, “the fatalist and activist were thus infused in Lincoln.”  He was a dichotomy.  He articulated his moral commitment against slavery and his willingness to leave a white dominated society intact.  For him racial prejudice among whites was at such a level that the practical course was to acknowledge and accommodate it.

There are countless interesting aspects of Lincoln’s life that Meacham introduces.  One of the most surprising is his obsession concerning his own birth – was he illegitimate?  Did policy decisions emanate from his own inferiority about his own birth that summoned temporal and divine help, as he tried to put the national family back together when his own family origin was in doubt? 

Meacham does an excellent job reviewing events leading to the Civil War, the course of the war, and the ultimate victory of the north which cost Lincoln his life.  The author concludes that in most aspects of his narrative race is the central cause of the conflict as even if he would free the slaves northern racists were on par with those in the south – the only difference was they did not want to enslave them, but they could not accept that they were equal.

AND THERE WAS LIGHT is not a traditional biography of our 16th president.  It is more a conversation with an eminent historian who examines the intellectual development of his subject while at the same time placing him in the context of the world he lived in and the difficult choices that he made.  Meacham offers an account that is worldly and spiritual, and carefully tailored to suit our conflict-ridden times.  Meacham alludes to the present with examples from the past.  A case in point is Vice President John Breckinridge’s courageous decision to carry out the electoral college faithfully in February 1861 as Mike Pence did in 2021.  Further Lincoln promised to accept the results of the 1864 election, even if he lost, Donald Trump and Kari Lake are you listening?  Lastly, Lincoln’s support for absentee voting for soldiers, unlike Trump’s call to outlaw the process.  Lincoln faced a White supremacists national minority chafing against Jeffersonian ideals which Lincoln was committed to.  With January 6th and further threats of violence Meacham tries to use Lincoln as an example of leadership in somewhat similar times. 

The book is thoroughly researched and highly readable written by a craftsman of the English language.  The book as are his other works is relevant for today as Meacham writes, “ A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.  For while Lincoln cannot be wrenched from the context of his particular times, his story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events.”

refer to caption


FBI director J Edgar Hoover aims machine gun

(Long arm of the law: J Edgar Hoover in 1936)

J. Edgar Hoover is considered one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history.  His reign as FBI head is fraught with controversy and certain peculiarities associated with Hoover on a personal level.  Though Hoover believed the federal government could accomplish great things, his view of the American people was rather narrow, and he felt that minorities and supposed communists did not belong to the American fabric.   He held a strong racist streak and demanded total loyalty and conformity from those who served under him.  He was probably the most powerful government employee of his era serving eight presidents during his reign at the FBI, remaining in power, decade after decade, employing the tools of government to create a private empire unrivaled in American history.

Hoover used his office as a vehicle of intimidation for those he saw as enemies, either personal or governmental, and embodied conservative values ranging from anticommunism to white supremacy to a crusading interpretation of Christianity.  If he were in power today he would fit right in with the MAGA crowd that dominates the rightwing of the Republican party.  Since there has not been a major biographical reassessment of Hoover’s life and role in government in decades, Beverly Gage’s new work, G-MAN: J. EDGAR HOOVER AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY fills an important void.

Gage, a professor of American history at Yale University has written an almost encyclopedic  biography of Hoover exploring his personal, ideological, and political development.  The keys to his personality are examined very carefully along with his personal life.  Cage delves into the myths surrounding Hoover and develops sound conclusions based on fact and research not conjecture.  The book should become the go to source on Hoover due to Cage’s research, writing style, and analysis and she should be commended for her effort.

Author image by Kathleen Cei. G-Man cover by Penguin Random House.

Author, Beverly Cage

Cage’s approach focuses on how Hoover tried to twist events to fit his preconceived view of people and movements, particularly those that dealt with civil rights and what Hoover believed was the jurisdiction of the FBI.  Cage’s narrative explores Hoover’s attitudes and role in numerous situations involving the deprivation of civil rights for certain groups especially minorities.  Early in his career the focus is on Hoover’s role in the Palmer raids after World War I.  Here Hoover laid down certain principles regarding leftist politics in American society.  These principles were followed throughout his career and are prevalent in the Roosevelt administrations approach to organized crime in the 1930s, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and the second Red Scare that emerged after the war.  Though Hoover supposedly believed in following certain FBI protocols designed to follow law, it did not stop him from developing counterintelligence programs like SOLO and COINTELPRO that implemented misinformation, surveillance, wiretapping, and intimidation among his strategies.  This approach dominated the post-World War II period as the FBI was involved in the prosecution of the Hollywood Ten, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, and others who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.  If Hoover smelled a link of some sort with communism, particularly the CPUSA, the FBI head was like a bloodhound until he was able to put his targets away.

The case that stands out is Hoover’s pursuit of Martin Luther King, his strategy in dealing with southern violence against blacks in the 1950s, and his treatment of Freedom Riders and other civil rights actions in the 1960s.  Cage correctly points out that at times Hoover could appear to be working with King and his movement, but his hatred for the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was all consuming.  Hoover was obsessed with bringing King down and he employed COINTELPRO techniques to achieve his goals as he tried to prove that Dr. King was a communist with links to the Soviet Union and was a threat to American national security.

It is clear from Cage’s portrayal that Hoover was a racist and she does a commendable job tracing his views back to his upbringing in Washington, DC, then a segregated city, his attendance at George Washington University, and his participation in Kappa Alpha, a southern fraternity which highlighted segregationist and other racist views.  Kappa Alpha played an important role in how Hoover filled positions at the FBI, and the perfect agent for Hoover was part of the fraternity who attended George Washington University Law School and other similarities to the FBI Head’s own background.  This in large part explains how FBI personnel approached many civil rights issues.

Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover.

(Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover never openly acknowledged a sexual or romantic relationship)

Cage investigates Hoover’s relationship with each president he served.  A number of surprising things emerged.  Hoover had a very unique relationship with FDR.  Historians usually describe the New Deal leader as a progressive, however his approach to civil rights in many cases was in line with Hoover and they come across as allies in a number of situations according to Cage.  Hoover’s relationship with Harry Truman was poor and Cage quotes a number of derogatory comments by Hoover pertaining to the man from Missouri.  Hoover greatly enjoyed working with Dwight Eisenhower, in large part because his good friend and ideological soulmate Richard Nixon was Vice President.  Hoover’s relationship with the Kennedy’s was fraught with negativity due to the actions of Attorney General Robert Kennedy who he despised.  As far as John F. Kennedy is concerned, Hoover thought very little of him and was not beyond using intelligence he gathered against the president to remain as head of the FBI.  Lyndon Johnson and Hoover got along well, except for Civil Rights legislation, but they had been friends and neighbors going back to the 1930s.  Richard Nixon was a special case.  They were very close friends and Hoover shared intimate information with him.  By 1968 they became more than friends but political allies as Nixon was trying to resurrect his presidential ambitions and Hoover was fighting off calls for his retirement after the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations.  Once Nixon became President Hoover was ecstatic as his “red baiting” past lined up well with the new occupant of the White House. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cage’s narrative is her discussion of the image and policies Hoover projected.  His belief in “gentlemen” law enforcement types like lawyers and accountants as opposed to officers with guns.  His credo concerning agents with guns would change as time went on and crime and violence dominated American society in the 1930s and after World war II.  Hoover’s goal of a professional bureaucracy dealing with crime would be altered and Cage does a wonderful job integrating Hoover’s policies with that of the larger society.  Apart from the political implications that surrounded Hoover’s tenure in office, Cage delves into social and cultural aspects that affected FBI policies.  A prime example is how Hoover appointed his close friend Clyde Tolson to head up the public relations office at the FBI to promote certain policies and images.  For Hoover, Tolson’s job was to promote Hoover as the moral leader of the country, though when one digs deeply as Cage has done, hypocrisy was more Hoover’s calling card.  The Tolson-Hoover relationship is explored in detail, keeping away from any salacious stories and sticking to opinions that rely mostly on facts and not conjecture.

J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon

(FBI director J Edgar Hoover with Richard Nixon in 1968).

Cage stresses Hoover’s popularity among politicians and the American people that lasted for decades.  As she summarizes the course of Hoover’s career she correctly argues that “If the period from 1924-1945 had been one of institution building – and of constructing Hoover’s national reputation – the period from 1945-1959 was when he learned to wield power as an independent political force, no longer subordinate to other man’s agendas.”  Despite his role in the Red Scare, McCarthyism, the rise of Castro, and his actions in dealing with southern white racism his popularity seemed to increase.

One of the more interesting chapters entitled “Atomic Drama” explores the period when the Soviet Union successfully tested the atomic bomb, the Chinese Communists were victorious, North Korea attacked the south, and Russian spies infiltrated Britain’s MI6.  Cage offers portraits of Elizabeth Bentley, Kim Philby and others and digs into the poor relationship between Hoover and British intelligence which had a very low opinion of the FBI head.  This chapter also includes a step by step analysis of how the Soviets infiltrated the Manhattan Project and how the Harry Gold network was uncovered which led to the trials mentioned earlier.

1953 was a watershed year for Hoover’s career with the arrival of Eisenhower in the White House and the weakening of Joseph McCarthy on the American political scene.  From this point on it appears that American presidents were wary of the intelligence Hoover had accumulated over the decades, i.e.; JFK’s sexual liaisons, anyone who might have even the most minute link to communism and on and on.

The breadth of Cage’s research is on full display throughout the narrative.  She did not stop with traditional areas of historical research and includes the application of other social sciences.  A case in point was her discussion of Hoover’s possible homosexuality in the midst of the “Lavender Scare” (that coincided with the post-World War II Red Scare) and integrates the ideas of psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s work in trying to understand a number of Hoover’s motives and inner guilt to the point that Hoover pushed for and gained legislation keeping suspected homosexuals from being employed by the federal government.

Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar G. Hoover       (AP)

(Martin Luther King….J. Edgar Hoover)

What is interesting is that Hoover’s career began red baiting the left after World War I, going after supposed anarchists, members of the Communist party and others.   The result was the Palmer raids and intolerance toward immigrants.  Hoover’s work came full circle in the late 1960s and early 1970s  as he went after the evolving “New Left,” and instituted elements of COINTELPRO against Martin Luther King and groups like the SDS, SCLC, and the Black Panthers.  Clearly Hoover’s career had evolved 360 degrees.

Cage is very succinct in her analysis and her attention to detail is amazing.  She concludes that Hoover finally had difficulties in the 1960s as “he departed more and more from his vision of the FBI as a professional, apolitical institution and a bastion of upright, objective government men.  The contradictions that he had negotiated for so long – between liberalism and conservatism, between his faith in apolitical governance and his commitment to an ideological cause – finally collapsed in on themselves.  So did the American consensus that had once sustained him….He began the 1960s widely celebrated as the nation’s greatest living public servant.  He ended it as one of the country’s most polarizing and controversial men.”  No matter what your opinion of Hoover might be after reading Cage’s excellent work, it is clear that his impact in most areas of American society for over five decades cannot be denied.   Jennifer Szalai conclusion put forth in her ­New York Times review of November 19, 2022, is dead on in that “this is a humanizing biography, but I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic one — as Gage shows, Hoover accrued too much power and racked up too many abuses for him to be worthy of that. What she provides instead is an acknowledgment of the complexities that made Hoover who he was, while also charting the turbulent currents that eventually swept him aside. Today, the once mightiest of G-men “has few admirers and almost nobody willing to claim his legacy,” she writes, “even within the F.B.I.”

(FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, May 20, 1963. The 1971 burglary of one of the bureau’s offices revealed the agency’s domestic surveillance program).


Godless: University College London, 19th century.

(Oxford University, circa, 19th century)

Novels that first appear as esoteric can be deceiving.  Such is the case with R.F. Kuang’s new novel, BABEL: AN ACANE HISTORY.  Kuang is a Marshall Scholar with an MPhil from Cambridge and an MSc in Chinese Studies at Oxford, in addition to being a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale and  is the perfect individual to construct an engaging novel that encompasses the sacred of Oxford’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation known as Babel, and a treatise on the inequities of British society in the 1830s and the evils of colonialism as practiced by London and its empire.  Though there is an element of fantasy and science fiction, not my favorite genres, in the novel there is enough sound historical information and character development to obviate any preconceived notions I may have had.

Set in Oxford and its environs, Kuang creates a series of characters who have been recruited by Oxford scholars in order to manipulate the use of foreign languages as a diplomatic tool to enhance Britain’s control of its empire and maximize its accumulation of wealth.  Oxford scholars recruit native speakers with excellent language skills, bring them to Oxford to hone their linguistic talent in the service of Her Majesty’s government.

The most important character is Robin Lovell, a randomly chosen name by a young Chinese boy who is recruited by Babel professor Richard Lovell to leave his home in Canton and study at Oxford and further explore Mandarin, his Chinese dialect.  Robin will be enlisted by what turns out to be his half-brother, Griffin by way of Professor Lovell who after three years at Oxford leaves and joins the secret Hermes society, an organization presented as a sort of “Robin Hood” type that steals silver bars, manuscripts, and other valuables from the university and redistributes them world-wide as a means of degrading British imperialism.  At first, Robin is unsure of his choice as he has become part of a cohort of other young scholars, Ramiz Rafi Mirza from Calcutta; Victoria Desgraves, a Kreyol woman of Haitian descent; and Letitia Price, a white woman from Brighton, England.  They have developed a wonderful relationship since they are mostly the epitome of non-Caucasian British society.

Canton Harbour, China, 19th century

(Canton, China harbour, 19th century)

As Kuang develops her novel racism is a dominant theme that seems to permeate each section of the book as British racism dictates the manipulation of these scholars to further the empire.  Kuang has written a derisive critique of British imperialism and colonialism in general as she examines marginalized indigenous people and the inequality that colonialism fosters be it encompassing race or gender.

Kuang delves into a number of aspects of Oxford topography and society.  For the reader, one gets the feel of what it is like to study at Oxford and navigate its many constituents and structure.  Kuang’s love and respect for Oxford’s institutions and scholarship comes through seemingly on every page.  She describes the labyrinth that is Oxford, and her overall admiration and deference in addition to certain negativity that exists.

Silver bars emerged as the key component of the empire and the basis for all aspects of society from the linings of canals, gutters, clock towers, hansom cabs, military needs, in addition to other aspects of British infrastructure.  According to Griffin the empire could not exist without silver, and the accumulation of silver could not be successful without the role of the translators ensconced at Babel.

Kuang displays a deep love for language and literature and has created an amazing novel highlighted by her command of the history of British imperialism.  If one is interested in the causes and the implications of the Opium War (1839-1842) when Britain went to war against China to protect its opium trade developed through India whose goal was to safeguard its accumulation of silver.  In discussing events surrounding the coming war, the role of parliament, the “silver” industrial revolution,” and certain characters Kuang highlights her facility with British history and her ability to integrate historical events into the flow of the novel.  A case in point are negotiations with Commissioner Lin ZeXu, appointed by the Emperor to end the debilitating opium trade and the dialogue reflects true historical documentation,* in addition to discussions of movements such as the Chartists, and certain politicians like Lord Palmerston.

Portrait of Chinese scholar and official Lin Zexu.

(Commissioner Lin Zexu)

There are a number of themes that surface in the novel.  First the accumulation of silver controls world trade and therefore world power.  In a possible doffing of the cap to 2023 her silver argument can easily be substituted with today’s trade in “computer chips” to control world power.  Another theme centers around the cohort that Robin becomes part of.  The group is made up of four individuals from diverse cultures who develop a warm and caring relationship with each other providing intense emotional support when they faced dangerous situations.  The four were not traditional Babel types of students and were chosen because of their language skills reflecting the racism and misogyny of Oxford’s program.  There are disagreements, but in the end their friendship could not overcome the society each was raised in.

One of the more interesting observations that Kuang makes revolves around Lovell’s hatred for the Chinese people and China itself, and his admiration of Chinese culture leading to the accumulation of Chinese artifacts.  As Victoire points out, “there are people after all and then there are things.”

This is an exceptional novel that has its academic components (notes on many languages and footnotes are in large supply) but it evolves into an important story of friendship caught up in the Industrial Revolution and England trying to enhance its power world-wide by dominating international trade.  Kuang’s affinity for language produces a well written style that absorbs the reader and though there is this fantasy/sci fi element to the novel I enjoyed it greatly.

*For those interested in this historical topic I highly recommend Stephen R. Platt’s IMPERIAL TWILIGHT: THE OPIUM WAR AND THE END OF CHINA’S LAST GOLDEN AGE and an earlier publication by Hsin-pao Chang, COMMISSIONER LIN AND THE OPIUM WAR.

University College and Queen’s College, Oxford, 18th-century engraving © Bridgeman Images

(Oxford University, circa. 19th century)


Samuel Adams

(Samuel Adams)

What criteria should be used to determine if a person can be labeled a “founding father?”  We all know that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and a host of others qualify, however each has their own foibles and when examined they may detract from their reputations.  Do other members of the American Revolutionary generation qualify?  If so, whom?  In Stacy Schiff’s latest work, THE REVOLUTIONARY SAMUEL ADAMS the author makes the case for the cousin of John Adams to join this elite company.  Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner is also the author of THE WITCHES OF SALEM, 1692, A GREAT IMPROVISATION: FRANKLIN, FRANCE, AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICA, and biographies of Cleopatra, Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and Saint-Exupery.  Schiff  explores the birth of the American Revolution in Boston and the artful and elusive instigator and master of misinformation whose contributions made it all happen – Samuel Adams.

Adam Gopnik in his review of Schiff’s work in The New Yorker, October 31, 2022, characterizes Adams’ role in the revolution as almost invisible, “but his fingerprints are everywhere.  He shaped every significant episode in the New England run up to war.  Yet how he did it, or with what confederates, or even with what purpose – did he believe in American independence from the start, or was it forced on him by the wave of events, as it was on others? – is muddied by an absence of diaries or letters or even many firsthand accounts.”  It is a credit to Schiff that lacking documentary evidence she constructs her book “from a pleasant tapestry of incident and inference.  She has a fine eye for the significant detail and knows how to compose that lovely thing the comic-comprehensive catalogue.”

After reading Schiff’s narrative it is clear that Samuel Adams should be labeled the “instigator-in-chief” of the American Revolution.  Adams was an opportunist, a purveyor of half-truths, but in the end truly idealistic.  Schiff explores Adams’ role in the American political theater of the day as he “employed unreliable rumormongering, slanted news writing, misleading symbolism, even viral meme-sharing” – all of which was evident from the outset of his revolutionary role.  He inaugurated the American tradition of show-business politics but was also a realist realizing that his goals could not be achieved without colonial unity.


(British Governor Thomas Hutchinson)

Schiff’s focus centers on a few major events and significant personalities.  The author does an exceptional job in these areas as she dissects the Land Bank Committee, the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the growth of the Committees of Correspondence, and what transpired at Lexington and Concord.  As far as individuals, she sets Adams against Governor Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage who also served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Other influential figures include Dr. James Warren, John Dickinson, Thomas Paine, James Otis, John Adams, Thomas Cushing, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin.

Schiff’s approach is chronological as she follows Adams’ actions from 1751 through the onset of revolution.  It is not a traditional biography as Schiff zeroes in on Adams’ “words” and his ability to rile the British and bring about an inclusive colonial network that pushed against Britain’s attempt to control the colonies and use them as a “monetary source” in order to pay for its large debt dating to the French and Indian War. 

Adams’ radicalization stems from the 1751 Land Bank Committee whose currency policies and trade imbalance increased the debts of many Boston residents including Samuel Adams.  Adams would develop the Boston Gazette in order to disseminate his views as a result, and ironically he was appointed a tax collector in 1758.  In her discussion Schiff provides an excellent description of pre-revolutionary Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in general.

Up until 1764 Adams personal situation consisted of debt, loss of family, the collapse of his malt business, fighting with creditors, etc.  But 1764 would become a watershed year in his career as an agitator for less British control of the colonies because of the imposition of the Sugar Act as London sought increased revenues from colonies undergoing tremendous economic growth.  That summer Schiff points out that Adams marriage to Elizabeth Wells was as significant as British actions as her ambitions and strengths mirrored those of her husband.

Schiff’s insightful commentary is on full display with the issuance of the Stamp Act in 1765 as Adams argued that London’s actions actually benefitted the colonies as it awoke in them their desire for the rights and privileges of Englishmen and helped unite the colonies.  Further, it would spawn the creation of the Sons of Liberty.

Throughout, Schiff develops the back and forth between Adams and Hutchinson.  The British governor believed that Adams was the devil and was responsible for everything that went wrong during his reign from the destruction of his house to the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor.  The author provides the letters, articles, and speeches of each highlighting her extensive research.  Schiff also does admirable job delving into personalities, viewpoints, and actions of members of the Massachusetts Legislature and their overall relationship with the crown. Governor Francis Bernard, who preceded Hutchinson in office, Otis, Adams, Cushing, Hancock, and the role of others are all stressed.

John Singleton Copley Art Print featuring the painting General Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley

(British General and Governor Thomas Gage)

Schiff concentrates on Boston and all the major events that took place in the city, but also how these events affected Philadelphia and New York including their response.  Adams’ most important creation may have been the Committees of Correspondence which can be considered an 18th century “twitter” which allowed the colonies to communicate with each other and be kept up to date with the latest news and movements or as one reviewer described as “a patriot espionage network.”  Adam’s action helped unify the colonies, with major help from London whose imposition of the Townshend Acts which imposed new taxes on paper, paint, nails, and tea in 1767, the Quartering Act which stated colonists had to house British troops, British troops firing on Boston citizens in 1770, the Port Act, and blockading Boston after the Tea Party in 1773 made Adam’s task that much easier.

Periodically, Schiff shifts her focus to Adam’s writing style and strategy.  Words came easily to Adams, who could “turn a small grievance into an unpardonable insult before others had arrived at the end of a sentence.”  It was the golden age of the printed word with six newspapers in Boston alone.  One of Adam’s most effective tools was the use of “pseudonyms” be it Vindex, Candius, A Chatterer, A Son of Liberty, over thirty in all which was quite successful and allowed Adams to seem as if he were everywhere.  Other tools in the toolbox included lies, facts, imagery, comments by royalists, and of course his creativity, i.e.; exploiting vocabulary by applying words such as inalienable and unconstitutional.

Schiff’s research provides a roadmap into Adam’s thoughts.  She dissects his arguments and admires his ability to create havoc and develop support for his cause throughout the colonies against London.  In each instance she explains the actions and opinions of major events as they develop and how the important personalities coped with them.  One of Schiff’s strengths is her ability to discuss the role of each player in any situation.  A case in point is whether the Boston Tea Party would have occurred without his leadership.

John Hancock

(John Hancock)

It is clear from Schiff’s narrative that Samuel Adams was the prime mover in prodding the colonists from loyalty to rebelliousness against England in less than a decade.  The text deals very little with Adam’s pre-revolutionary career and post-revolutionary life zeroing in on a 15 year period from 1764 on.  As historian Amy Greenburg writes in her October 22, 2022, New York Times Review, arguing that lessening Adam’s role in the revolution was a mistake and “Stacy Schiff redresses this oversight by celebrating the man who “wired a continent for rebellion.” There is a lot to admire about this rabble-rouser. He was utterly incorruptible; colonial authorities tried to buy him off with public office (“the time-honored method”), but Adams could be neither bribed nor intimidated. He cared nothing for personal gain, and, in his own words, gloried “in being what the world calls a poor man.” He was deeply idealistic, had great personal equanimity and was a gifted orator. He promoted public education for women long before it was fashionable. He was a tender father to his two children and, although his financial mismanagement forced his wife into manual labor while he was at the Second Continental Congress, he was also a loving husband. Readers are reminded more than once that Adams abhorred slavery, and when offered the gift of an enslaved woman, he insisted that she be freed before joining his household. Schiff paints a vivid portrait of a demagogue who was also a decorous man of ideals, acknowledging Adams’s innovative, extralegal activities as well as his personal virtues.” After digesting Schiff’s arguments, It is clear that Samuel Adams deserves to be labeled as part of that august group of “founders.”

Samuel Adams (1722-1803)

(Samuel Adams)