(Crowds of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, 1942)
The role of women during the Holocaust be it their experiences in the death camps, participants in the resistance, and the effect of Nazi atrocities on the families of victims has not received the attention it should. Five years ago, Sarah Helms’ Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women was published and provided numerous insights into what women experienced in the camps, but their role in the resistance has not received the serious treatment that needed to be afforded until now with the publication of Judy Batalion’s THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS. In her remarkable book Batalion has created a narrative that follows the exploits of a number of women who fought back against the Nazi genocide. Batalion focuses on Renia Kuklieka, who was a courier for the Zionist youth organization; “Freedom,” Zivia Lubetkin, a “Freedom” leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; Frumka Plotnicka, a “Freedom” comrade who led the fighting organization in Bedzin, Poland; and Vladka Meed, who rescued countless people from the Warsaw Ghetto and other acts of bravery and genius. There are numerous other courageous women that Batalion brings to the reader’s attention and they all exhibit an unimaginable degree of courage, tenacity, and empathy as they confronted their situation on a daily basis.
Batalion tells her story through the eyes of numerous women through their personal experiences, first trying to maintain a degree of normalcy once the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. They would continue their work with Zionist Youth organizations working to gain passage to Palestine, trying and manipulate the Judenrat, and training their members for what appeared to be a dismal and dangerous future. Batalion examines the lives and personalities of these women and explores their character as they evolved into strategists, leaders, and carrying out dangerous missions. Their bravery was unquestioned, and their work was rewarding in that they chose to return to Poland rather than emigrate to Palestine in order to contribute as much as possible to derail the Nazi machine.
(Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944)
The origin of the book stems from Batalion’s research into the life of Hannah Senesh, one of the few female resisters in World War II not lost to history. While examining material in London’s British Library she came across a book written in Yiddish, FREUEN IN DI GHETTOS (WOMEN IIN THE GHETTOS) published in New York in 1946. Up until that time Batalion and numerous others were unaware how many women were involved in the resistance effort, nor to what degree. The stories recounted in the book speaks of women who engaged in violence, smuggling, gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, and engaging in combat. This exposure to the heroism of these women led Batalion to pursue her narrative that resulted in LIGHT OF DAYS.
The core of female exploits originated from “female ghetto fighters”: underground operatives who emerged from Jewish youth group movements and worked in the ghettos. These young women were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists. The role that stands out is the contribution women made as “couriers,” disguised as non-Jews who traveled between locked ghettos and towns all across Poland smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they obtained themselves. In addition, women fled into the forests and enlisted in partisan units, carrying out sabotage and intelligence missions.
Batalion has the uncanny ability to tell the personal stories of her protagonists uncovering their emotions, strengths, and private thoughts. She presents the horrors of ghetto and camp life that the Nazis perpetrated very clearly. She traces European anti-Semitism dating to the 19th century that culminated in Nazi atrocities. German malice and sadism are on full display as they carried out Hitler’s Final Solution which made Renia and her compatriots sick and haunted from what they witnessed. For Jews anything they did or said at any moment could result in execution of themselves and their families. Jews faced a dilemma even if they escaped the ghetto as their families would be eliminated in retaliation. The options women faced were limited; stay and try to protect the community, run, fight, or flight.
Batalion accurately and poignantly describes life in the Warsaw, Bedzin, and Vilna Ghettos. She examines people’s fears and coping strategies that were developed in order to survive from soup kitchens, autobiographical writings and meetings to share experiences, including medical care and cultural activities. Batalion presents a vivid portrait of the role women played in the preparation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She delves into the acquisition of weapons, explosives, and other necessities including the training that women had undergone. The end result was a disaster from a military point of view, but it provided Jews with self-respect as they achieved revenge against the Germans as they killed over 300 Nazi soldiers suffering over 13,000 deaths of their own. Renia and others escaped to continue their goal of revenge against the Germans.
The resistance organizations that women were a part of were not uniform in their beliefs and strategies. Batalion explains their differences from the left wing Zionist groups to the more religious Akiva organization. The key for these groups was that they were led by individuals mostly in their late teens and late twenties who were committed to seeking vengeance against the Nazis. Batalion’s presentation allows the reader to get to know Renia who by 1944 was only 19 years old and her compatriots on a personal level in addition to their exploits on the battlefield.
Perhaps Batalion’s most powerful chapter, “The Courier Girls” offers a description that humanizes the women in a world of atrocities and genocide. Her details of their preparation and missions are eye opening and for them life affirming. Another important chapter, “Freedom in the Forests – Partisans” is well thought out as life in the forest was extremely difficult but the partisans accomplished a great deal. They set up a village of underground huts which included printing and weapons capabilities, medical attention, a communication network, the accumulation of clothing and food, in addition to the work of the couriers.
At times reading Batalion’s account is literary torture as she describes the use of sex as a means of exchange for survival, torture, rape and other perversions fostered by the Nazis. This material is difficult to digest unless you realize the perpetrators were a version of animals. How Renia and others did not lose their minds is beyond my comprehension.
Batalion’s narrative is somewhat bifurcated as she relates the actions of couriers, events in the ghettos, partisans in the forest, and preparation by all groups in seeking revolt and revenge against the Nazis. On the other hand, her story is one of endurance and survival as she probes the daily travails women faced under the most ominous conditions including imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of death. A case in point is Renia’s capture resulting in constant torture and deportation to Auschwitz. Her story is one of amazement as she would survive the camp by escaping, traveling across Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey and eventually arriving in Haifa, Palestine on March 3, 1944.
Batalion’s epilogue is important as she delves into why women were left out of the “history of resistance” for so long. She focuses on the politics of the newly created state of Israel, how their role was viewed by American historians, the image of women needed to fit the policy and personal goals of the survivors, and why so many women “self-silenced.” It is clear that an incalculable number of women suffered from survival guilt, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war, and Battalion’s recounting of their role is important to set the historical record straight, but also to clarify the emotions the survivors felt and how the next generation views what they accomplished. I agree with Sonia Purnell’s comments in her April 6, 2021 New York Times book review that a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.
What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life? If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to. In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author. Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with. Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.
Adams excelled in a number of areas. His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography. Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.” Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler. It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.
Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America. More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.
The book itself is divided into two parts. The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover. In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition. During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored. Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.” All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age.
According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond. As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”
(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)
Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime. He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions. An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular. Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters. In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward. The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did. Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong. This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.
Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War. As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war. For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult. The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy. Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery. Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery. Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc. The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.
Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences. Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition. When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics. Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation. He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm. While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour. While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.
(Charles Francis Adams)
During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary. Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support. After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class. Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs. Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic. Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.
Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America. Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.” In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race. He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them. Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags. He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”
Adams was content to be a political outsider. He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out. He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom. His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people. Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.
Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual. He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse. He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration. His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market. In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic. Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each. Novels like ESTHER and DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover. His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics. Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society. Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia. Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society. Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.
Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents. Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century. Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from. But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”
Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism. However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.
To sum up Brown has offered a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind. As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”
In his presidential memoir A PROMISED LAND Barack Obama does not reveal much about his thinking when it came to events in Syria other than that “our options were painfully limited…and Assad could count on Russia to veto any efforts we might make to impose international sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.” This was the conundrum the US faced as it approached how to deal with the slaughter that was Syria since the Arab spring in 2011; a president who was seemingly obsessed with the fear Washington could be drawn into another war in the Middle East, and who if any of the rebel groups the US could rely on and not face blowback if Assad were overthrown. Eventually President Obama announced his “red line” warning that if Assad continued to employ nerve agents in the Syrian civil war it would be a game changer for the US. The warning that was issued on August 20, 2012 did not deter Assad and the American response was marginal at best. With twenty-twenty hindsight this was one of the worst decisions the Obama administration made in relation to the carnage that was Syria and its results have been catastrophic. In Obama’s defense had the US bombed Syria and taken out most of Assad’s chemical weapons would it have altered the war – we will never know. The decision-making surrounding American “red line” policy its impact, and the attempt to destroy Assad’s chemical “stash” throughout 2014 is the subject of an informative new book RED LINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD by Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick which takes a microscope to American decision-making and the diplomatic and military policies pursued to try and obviate the horrors that the Assad regime was perpetrating.
Warrick’s effort is more than a narrative history of events sprinkled with keen analysis of the players and policies involved, but more a true to life thriller with a cast of characters that includes world leaders, physicians, weapons hunters, spies, and a number of heroes and villains. Warrick’s account begins with the introduction of a CIA spy whose nomenclature was Ayman, “the chemist,” a Syrian scientist who informed his handlers that Damascus had constructed an efficient manufacturing center with a network of laboratories that had produced 1300-1500 tons of binary sarin, VX, and mustard gas. Warrick lays out the issue of nerve agents produced by Syria and its implication for US policy makers. The author’s approach is methodical as he examines all areas that impacted the Syrian weapons cache and what the US should and could do to mitigate the problem. Once Assad employed nerve agents dropping three canisters on the city of Sarageb held by rebels who fought for overthrowing the Syrian regime on April 29, 2013, President Obama response had done little to deter Damascus.
By 2012 Syria had become the most dangerous place on earth and after the April 2013 attack the US and the UN began to work on providing evidence for Assad’s WMD crimes. Warrick introduces a series of important characters into the narrative who are pivotal to his story. UN Team Leader Ake Sellstrom, who had experience hunting WMD in Iraq in the 1990s was sent to Syria and found evidence that military grade sarin gas had been used. The list includes Andrew C. Weber, the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs who feared that should Assad be overthrown his 1300 nerve agents could fall into the hands of the al Nusra Front and its ally al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would soon morph into the Islamic State). Timothy Blades, an ingenious individual who headed the US Civilian Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team developed a process referred to as “hydrolysis” and the machinery to carry out the task of breaking down and making Assad’s nerve agents inert should the US come into possession of them. Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, also known as “Chemical Hazem,” as he prepared areas of Syria for possible chemical attacks and worked to save victims of those attacks. Samantha Powers, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who worked tirelessly to hold Assad responsible for the atrocities he ordered but she was up against Russian and Chinese vetoes, but her work cannot be ignored as she was able to create the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons headquartered in the Hague. By 2017 JIM’s work continued as it investigated another Syrian nerve strike against the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Lastly, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. McGurk was the last American official to witness the Syrian conflict in its entirety,” from the earliest pro-democracy uprisings through the rise of ISIS; from the regime’s first experimental use of sarin to the dramatic; if incomplete, mission to destroy Syria’s stockpile; from the hopeful declaration that ‘Assad must go’ to the despairing reality of an entrenched Syrian dictatorship propped up by Russian and Iranian protector’s intent on reshaping the region in their own image.” (303) There are many other important players in the narrative, many of which must be given credit for the eventual destruction of much of Assad’s nerve WMD, and those who were a hinderance and supported Assad outright.
Warrick description of a UN investigation led by Sellstrom and Scott Cairns his Canadian Deputy reflected Syrian obstructionism. However, while in Damascus their group witnessed the results of a chemical attack that killed at least 1400 in the Ghouta suburbs. Warrick’s connections and knowledge allowed him to describe in detail the components of the WMD, its impact on the civilian population, Syrian governments obfuscation, and what the world was prepared to do about what was occurring in Syria. Everyone points to the Obama administration for its almost “feckless” response to Assad’s actions. Warrick correctly points out that the Obama administration in part placed itself in a bind in its response. Obama, keen to avoid a major military commitment in the Middle East decided that he needed Congressional approval for any military response. After the events in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 there was little or no support in Congress. Further, Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Obama that the US should not act and wait until the UN investigation had run its course. In England, Prime Minister David Cameron could not convince Parliament to support military action, and lastly many feared what could happen to the UN team still in Syria. Facing congressional humiliation Obama was saved in part by the Russians who agreed to force Assad to turn over his nerve agents to UN authorities.
(UN chemical weapons experts will use a battery of analytical techniques)
Warrick clearly explains how the deal came about and its implications for the future. The Russians would go along with practically everything assuming that Blades’ “Margarita Machine” was a fantasy that could only fail thereby embarrassing the US. Warrick’s account of how the “Blades’ Machine” was built, tested, and deployed is well conceived and easy to understand. He follows the politics behind the strategy, the actual obstacles overcome particularly those set by the Syrians, and its ultimate deployment. This section of the book is perhaps the most important for the reader as Warrick builds the tension as if writing a novel that in the end would produce a mission at sea where the machines were bolted to the decks of the ship Cape Ray, deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to receive the nerve agents from the Syrian port of Latakia, run the nerve agents through Blades’ process, and then deliver the waste to cooperating countries. Warrick employs a reporter’s eye to describe the political difficulties, delays, and roadblocks on the ground as the UN Mission tried to secure the nerve agents and even after the mission was a success one wonders how it was achieved. For Blades and others, it came down to ingenuity, sheer guts, and a great deal of luck.
The entire process became a race to keep the nerve agents out of Islamist hands. This became an even greater problem when on July 14, 2014, the day the ship sailed into the Mediterranean, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from Mosul the creation of the Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Raqqa its capital in Central Syria deep into Iraq. ISIS would miss out on Assad’s nerve agents, but began a developing a process of their own, particularly when Assad set the example by dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas which is less toxic than sarin on his subjects.
Graeme Wood is dead on when he writes in the February 19, 2021 edition of the Washington Post: “Overwhelmingly, Warrick’s emphasis is where it should be, on Assad, for whom chemical weapons were a highly developed and strategic program of terror. “Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries,” Warrick writes, “but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches” — this was “a different order of savagery.” Lacking any legitimate military purpose, Assad’s chemical weapons existed to terrorize civilian populations by killing as indiscriminately as possible. Eliminating his arsenal was therefore a top international priority.”
It is clear today that the Syrian Civil War continues to torture millions of Syrians in Syria and in refugee camps in the Middle East and Turkey. While the US concentrated on ISIS for the next two years its policies would allow Russia and Hezbollah, Syria’s Iranian ally to route many of the rebels and keep Assad in power. According to Warrick Assad would engage in over 300 chemical attacks over the next four years. It does not take a serious imagination to believe that Assad, who turned over tons of nerve agents to the UN kept a secret stash somewhere. Once the Trump administration came aboard and abruptly ended aid to the rebels and abandoned our Kurdish allies to be destroyed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanit it was obvious that Putin had won and Iran’s goal of a “land bridge” across the Levant was in reach – Assad had won.
Warrick is to be commended for his research, clear and thoughtful writing, and describing for all to see what the truth is concerning Assad’s nerve gas war on his own people. Perhaps someday he and his enablers will be held accountable by the world community – but I doubt it.
When a new historical mystery earns the “First Crime Novel Award” by the Mystery Writers of America it will always spark my interest. This was the case with Nev March’s first novel, MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY. Set in India in 1892 during the height of British rule, the book centers around the death of two women who at first seemed to have committed suicide, but after careful examination the cause of death does not make sense. The chief protagonist who comes to that conclusion is Captain Jim Agnihorti, a recently retired soldier whose cultural background is half English and half Indian. Agnihorti is a fascinating character as he evolves from a soldier with twelve years of experience, Dragoons, and Bombay Regiments to either a journalist or a detective. He was injured in the line of duty in Karachi in 1890 and nominated for the Victoria Cross, but since he was not a full blooded Englishman, he earned the Indian Order of Merit.
At the outset Agnihorti is lying in a hospital bed in the Poona Military facility recovering from a wound suffered in a skirmish on the wild northern frontier. While resting he read a newspaper article from which he learned about a supposed double suicide where two women fell from a university clock tower in broad daylight. For Agnihorti the case did not add up especially when three men charged with the crime were acquitted. After his release from the hospital the retired soldier contacted the husband and brother of the two victims, Mr. Adi Framji. Looking to his future Agnihorti obtained a job as a journalist at the Bombay Chronicle. But when Framji hired him to investigate the death his career as a journalist ended, and his new avocation as a detective began.
March’s first novel is more than a murder mystery but a thoughtful beautifully written examination of the Indian caste system, the intense poverty that existed in the Raj, the virulent racism and condescension by the British, and the dangers of tribal and frontier fighting in India and Afghanistan. Since Agnihorti is of mixed blood, at times he is a victim of British self-righteousness and the Indian upper caste. March provides the reader with the texture of Bombay as it appeared at the end of the 19th century. The street urchins, the enslaving of young girls for sex, and the extreme wealth of the Franjis and other families are on full display.
Of course, in any novel there must be a love interest and March does not let the reader down. Agnihorti falls for Diana Framji, Adi’s sister but since he is of mixed blood, and does not fit into the Indian caste system his hope for a lasting relationship seems destined to fail. Burjor, Diana’s father warns Agnihorti that he would not be an acceptable husband even though the family thinks highly of him particularly since his investigation is designed to protect the family. In addition, Burjor is trying to arrange a marriage for Diana to a person of the proper caste. There is a great deal of drama within the family with the murders, but also it appears that they are hiding something and Agnihorti has to pull information out of them very carefully.
There is also a political component to the story as two characters emerge. Rani, the Queen of Ranjpoot and her nephew Nur Suleiman especially when Suleiman is caught burglarizing the Framji mansion by Agnihorti. It is also possible that Suleiman is Akbar, one of the men acquitted of the murders. If Agnihorti identifies Prince Suleiman who was next in line to become regent of Ranjpoot the British could use it to take over the princedom along with hundreds of estates. It appears that the murders are a pawn in a political power struggle between the British Raj and the Rani for control of Ranjpoot. When Agnihorti is attacked it is evidence he is a threat to Suleiman and his family interests.
March does not shy away from exploring the poverty that is endemic to 19th century India. An excellent example are the scenes depicted as Agnihorti disguised as a tribal fighter travels from Bombay to Lahore to investigate a possible link to Kasim who used to live and work for the Framji family and his investigation. Along the way Agnihorti buys a young girl, Chutzki out of slavery and as they travel together, they are joined by three young boys and a baby who are refugees from the tribal warfare. Agnihorti brings them to Simla where the Franjis are spending the summer. Soon the children are left behind as Agnihorti is pressured by a British commander to pursue a mission to Lahore while his investigation continues. It is an extremely dangerous undertaking but Agnihorti takes Raza, one of the boys with him who knows the frontier region along with a British escort, Subaltern Ranbir Singh.
March possesses an excellent command of the history of the British Raj in 19th century India. Her integration of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion against British rule is spot on as is her approach of weaving the uprising into the overall flow of the novel. As the story comes to a head the Framji family history during the rebellion becomes a bone of contention that becomes a major threat and helps explain March’s plot that she develops over hundreds of pages.**
March effectively builds tension as the novel unfolds particularly as Agnihorti departs the British base and tries to carry out his military mission and find evidence against the killer he seeks. Throughout the novel an overall concern is that Agnihorti suffers from PTSD with the attendant nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, fears because of what happened in Karachi in 1890. As he pursues his missions his guilt about the past continues to resurface and he must learn to overcome them to continue.
Agnihorti is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and throughout the novel there are constant references to Conan Doyle’s hero’s techniques. Agnihorti himself is a fascinating character. A bastard who did not know his father, a personal bridge between British and Indian culture, and a sense of honor and pride that carries him forward. March has done a magnificent job in introducing the Captain James Agnihorti character and it is clear that she is a superb storyteller and I look forward to her next literary effort.
** For further information regarding the Sepoy Rebellion see THE GREAT MUTINY INDIA 1857 by Christopher Hibbert and THE GREAT MUTINY by Richard Collier.
One of the most fascinating families in history are the Borjas/Borgias; a family that produced a series of controversial characters from Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia. The story that encompasses the Spanish family that would dominate the Italian Renaissance is said to involve barbarity, rape, misinformation, political and religious machinations, and possibly incest. The questions surrounding the family have baffled historians for centuries and it appears that much of their reputation can fall into the category of myths. Historian, G. J. Meyer has taken on the task of unraveling these myths in his family biography, THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY as he argues that the Borgia problem began in the early 16th century as Reformation propagandists depicted the papacy in less than positive terms and blamed the Borgias for every conceivable crime. Meyer’s approach is to ask, “long neglected questions” and a refusal to accept judgements that appear to have little basis in fact, and when evidence is missing not to accept the “ugliest hypothetical explanation of a puzzling event.” The author’s goal is clear, to try and “lift the Borgia story out of the realm of fable and turning it into history.”
The book is more than a family biography but more so a history of the Papacy focusing on the Holy See dating back to the 13th century and its development into a powerful pseudo monarchy and the opposition it wrought, i.e., the Babylonian Captivity, Avignon Papacy, Conciliar Movement, through the rise of Savonarola in the late 15th century. Meyers main protagonist is Rodrigo Borgia as he slowly rose through the Vatican bureaucracy serving four Popes and finally assuming the Holy office as Alexander VI, and later in the narrative Cesare Borgia. Meyer reviews the history of Renaissance Europe and the Papacy for the first quarter of the book pointing out the political dysfunction that existed in the Italian peninsula and its environs that existed before Alexander VI assumed the Papacy. The groundwork for the corruption and power politics of the region is carefully played out focusing on Popes Callixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV Innocent VIII along with the likes of the della Rovere, Orsini and Colonna families. The use of nepotism, poisoning and other tools make the period known for its culture one of grief and blood.
Meyer does a workmanlike job of intertwining mini-history chapters in the narrative to explain certain issues and individuals in greater depth for the reader. Chapters dealing with the evolution of the role of the College of Cardinals, the creation of the Papacy, the role of condottieri-mercenaries, Cesare Borgia, and the role of Portugal in the Age of Discovery are among the best. Meyer develops a number of important themes throughout the work including the power struggle that existed between the Papacy and the College of Cardinals over limiting Papal power with the Conciliar Movement that was not that far in the rear view mirror for individuals who wanted to create their own power base. Another important theme involves what historian Garret Mattingly refers to as “Renaissance Diplomacy” as the conduct of negotiations, warfare, and settlements is discussed in depth particularly marriage diplomacy, the ever shifting alliances that seemed to change almost on a daily basis in Italy, and the results that were fostered on the battlefield. Particularly important is the role Rodrigo Borgia played in the unification of the Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella, the French invasion of Italy led by a rather interesting character, Charles VIII in 1494, and how Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States, and Naples tried to repeatedly overturn any existing geo-strategic balance.
Meyer’s writing style is conducive to unraveling all of the machinations just mentioned. He possesses a firm grasp of events and personalities and his narrative and analysis to not fall into the trap of repeating myths that have stood the test of time. One of the areas that Meyer explores are the supposed children of Alexander VI, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jorge. After delving deeply coming dynastic history, previous historical writings etc. Meyer concludes they were not Alexander’s children, but nephews and nieces. According to Meyer their father was Alexander’s own nephew Guillen Ramon Lanzol de Borja.
Meyer’s writing is effective as he focuses on the dynastic issues surrounding Naples which centers around Spanish, French, and other claims to the kingdom. Meyer spends a great deal of time describing Charles VIII invasion of Italy whose main goal was the Neapolitan throne and removing Alexander VI concludes that the French monarch’s great adventure changed nothing and everything as Naples remained in possession of the House of Aragon and under the protection of Spain. Florence remained a client of France. Alexander was not deposed, and a council of the church was not convened. Another strength of the narrative focuses on Friar Girolamo Savonarola who would eventually fail due to his narcissism and ego but until he did, he helped bring about the end of de Medici rule in Florence and was seen as a grave threat to Alexander VI.
Meyer’s depiction of the shifting European/Italian balance of power is of major importance to the narrative as the Italian City-States, Spain, France and the Ottoman Empire all have their own agendas that affect each other either dynastically or the need for “raw power.” The sections that deal with the Turkish threat to Italy and Europe in general are key. Popes and monarchs called for crusades against Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II who threatened Venice, Milan and other areas of Italy and are treated carefully and enrich the story Meyer is trying to tell.
Meyer’s recapitulation of the succession to the French throne following the death Charles VIII is an important example that highlights dynastic dysfunction during the period. It involves the assumption of the throne by Louis XII and the marriage diplomacy involving Louis XII who needed a divorce from Alexander so he could remarry and that of Cesare Borgia who had his eyes on a French princess and a group of properties who sought to exploit. In the end Louis XII got his wish, but Cesare had to settle for a lesser woman!
It takes Meyer until the last fifty pages of the book to focus on Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors surrounding her reputation following her marriage annulment to Giovanni Sforza. The rumors about her private proclivities be they sex, power, or corruption may or not be true according to Meyer which is emblematic of his approach to the many myths he tackles. First, he states in no uncertain terms that a certain myth is false, presents arguments and material to support his view, then seems to back track and accept that it is hard to tell if the myth is false or not. A useful example involves Alexander VI’s goal of marrying Lucrezia to the son of Duke Ercoled d’este of Ferrara.
Meyer ends his narrative by describing the final down fall of Cesare Borgia. After spending chapters recounting how he became a dominant figure in Italian power politics and gaining substantial wealth and influence he recounts that the death of Alexander VI, his benefactor in 1503 signals the beginning of his downfall. Once Alexander is gone it becomes a feeding frenzy by Cesare’s enemies to take back properties and states he has stolen and acquire his wealth. He will eventually become a fugitive from his many enemies and will finally die in battle which Meyer argues was somewhat of a suicide as he realizes that he would have to spend the reminder of his life as a prisoner, particularly as Cardinal della Rovere who hated the Borgias finally assumed the Papacy as Julius II.
There is so much in the narrative in terms of dynasties and personalities the book requires a careful read and it would assist the reader if they had some knowledge of the period. But taken as a whole is a useful effort, that is surprisingly readable, particularly for those who have watched the Showtime cable series, “The Borgias” which when compared to Meyer’s depiction does not hold a great deal of historical truth. Meyer’s claims to have written the hidden history of the Borgias, but in reality, one must ask; has he changed much of what has been written before?
Today we find ourselves living in an America where the Republican Party seems to stand for voter suppression (see Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia state legislature just to name a few) as they try and place as many obstacles in the path of African-Americans who would like to exercise their franchise. The strategy is clear – they fear they cannot win elections without making it difficult for minorities to vote and reminds this writer of the Jim Crow era and harkens back to the post-Civil War period, particularly after the election of 1876 as southern politicians began to reassert control of their region and try and undo the gains brought forth by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments for African-Americans. The post-Civil War southern leaders worked to undo the life’s work of Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens who fought against slavery and tried to uplift the lives of those freed from bondage. Stevens, an athame to the south is the subject of a new biography by Bruce Levine, THADDEUS STEVENS: CIVIL REVOLUTIONARY, FIGHTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE.
At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is confronted by white supremacy and voter suppression it is important to examine the life of Thaddeus Stevens whose ideals and hopes for racial harmony and justice have still not come to fruition almost 150 years later. Many historians and films have denigrated Stevens as a vindictive persecutor of the helpless and defeated south. It took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and a new generation of historians and film makers to reconsider Stevens’ role following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Levine stresses Stevens’ vision for an egalitarian radical revolution following the war – confiscating the estates of large southern landholders and divide them among former slaves. Further he would come to despise President Andrew Johnson who tried to assist the southern elite to recoup their political power and once again place former slaves under the thumb of the previous system where they were supplicants to a southern system that could not function without them.
(Left to right: Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens; an African-American soldier in the Union Army; abolitionist Frederick Douglass)
Levine focuses on Stevens’ role as a public figure, his fight against chattel slavery and racial discrimination, the key part he played influencing union actions during the Civil War, and his important role in the post-war struggle to produce racial democracy for the nation at large. Stevens was raised in Vermont in a strict Baptist home though he would later have little use for religion. Despite this he was knowledgeable when it came to scripture and he viewed secession and war as “predetermined” and inevitable. This went along with his dark view of human nature and can be seen in his commentary throughout his life and the relationships he engendered.
Stevens was a firm believer in industrial development as an engine of human progress and that the government must actively and deliberately stimulate the development of capitalism, especially its commercial and manufacturing sectors as a strong supporter of Henry Clay’s American System. Second, he believed that the government must take positive steps to ensure that all had an equal chance to partake in prosperity as part of system that rested on “free labor.”
Levine’s narrative is less a biography of Stevens’ complete life, but more of an intellectual journey that reflected the evolution of his ideas and positions taken in regard to slavery, tariffs, and other issues of the day. The narrative presents Stevens’ life in the context of the world in which he thrived. Apart from Stevens’ life, Levine’s analysis mirrors many historians who have written about the history of the period. Nothing is really new, events and movements do not change, nor the actions of certain important individuals. What is important is Levine’s portrayal of Stevens’ life as he integrates and relied on his subject’s own words and attitudes in speeches before the Pennsylvania state legislature, the House of Representatives, and the memories of those who he conversed with. His intellectual evolution regarding slavery is a key component of the book as in his younger years he may have been “soft” on abolitionism. However, following Texas’ application for statehood and the results of the Mexican War Stevens realized as did others who would become Radical Republicans that if the south could not expand slavery into new territories then the erosion of its soil would foster the end of what Kenneth Stamp called the “peculiar institution.” The key was to prevent any new territories acquired from Mexico from becoming slave states which would harden people’s positions regarding slavery.
Levine takes the reader through all the major events that led to the Civil War, the war itself, and the post-war period. Levine leads the reader through the rise of the Whig Party, his early participation in the antislavery movement, his part in the founding of the Republican Party, with its opposition to slavery. He also tracks the machinations of wartime rivalries and the struggle to enact legislation after the war, in addition to the role he played in the impeachment process against Andrew Johnson. Since the book itself is not overly long I would have hoped the author would have delved more into these areas focusing on analysis of great events as he perceived them, particularly Stevens’ relationship with President James Buchanan. Once the war broke out Levine is correct that Stevens did not see the war as a short one, but a bloody one that would drag on for years. For Stevens success in war also included a frontal attack on slavery and a major alteration of southern society and economy. He was the first to favor the confiscation of slaves, demanded legal freedom for those confiscated, called for a wide emancipation for all slaves living in the rebellious states, and the abolition of slavery throughout the United States. This would mean a radical transformation of southern society, in effect, as Eric Foner states, a second American Revolution.
According to Levine Stevens success was based on his iron will, great courage both moral and physical, his refusal to bend to the opposition even in the face of physical threats, his mastery of the parliamentary system, his shrewdness, quick wit, and sharp tongue. Stevens was a believer in the ideas put forth in the Declaration of Independence and despite what the founders wrote into the Constitution regarding slavery he was adamant in his support of the document. He shaped the 14th amendment as his life ended which provided due process and equal protection under the law for all. It is a shame that the legislative victories he achieved would quickly fall by the wayside following his death.
Historian Fergus M. Bordewich argues that Levine has written a concise and powerful biography of a man the author truly admires as Stevens sought to create an America free of prejudice, which was based on merit in which blacks and whites together would be freed of oppression, inequality, and degradation. Stevens’ reputation has improved since the 1960s and reflects that even John F. Kennedy’s praise for Andrew Johnson and his description of Stevens as “the crippled fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican Movement” in his book co-authored with Theodore Sorenson, PROFILES IN COURAGE was totally wrong. Stevens pushed for Reconstruction as hard as he could and if others had not grown tired of it and reverted to previous attitudes perhaps, we would not suffer from the racial bifurcation that infects American society today.
With the untimely passing of Philip Kerr that ended his wonderful Bernie Gunther series I have been searching for a replacement that deals with police investigations within Nazi Germany apart from a total focus on the Holocaust. I have explored Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath mysteries whose focus is at the end of the Weimar era as the Nazis are about to come to power. The series is very satisfying as is Harald Gilbers novel, GERMANIA, the first to be translated from the German with two to follow. Gilbers’ protagonist is a Jewish investigator named Richard Oppenheimer who had been fired long before the case that the author introduces. The book was first published in Germany in 2013 and received the Friedrich Glausner Prize for best crime fiction debut.
The novel begins in bombed out Berlin in May 1944 where people gear up on a nightly basis for allied bombing. Oppenheimer and his wife Lisa, an Aryan are huddled together in the Jewish house where they live with other families in very crowded conditions. One evening the SS shows up at the house and they transport Oppenheimer to a murder scene. Since he has been let go as a detective years before Oppenheimer is at a loss as to why the SS is interested in his opinion. The employment of Oppenheimer is the brainchild of Hauptsturmfuhrer Volger of the SS who believes that Oppenheimer’s past experience with a serial killer would be valuable with his investigation. As Oppenheimer becomes involved in the case it seems that the murder of Inge Friedrichsen is only the first as two other women, Julie Dufour and Christina Gerdeler have also been victims within the last year.
The Lebensborn program was created by the SS in late 1935 in order to promote the growth of Germany’s healthy “Aryan” population. The term Lebensborn itself means “Fount of Life.” The program was designed to be the wellspring of future generations descended from those whom Nazi authorities deemed “racially valuable.” It originally focused on encouraging SS men to have large families and discouraging unmarried, pregnant “Aryan” women from seeking illegal abortions.
Gilbers does an excellent job creating the ambiance of Berlin in May 1944 as the Nazi capital has become an obstacle course ridden with rubble from allied bombing. Gilbers’ command of the history of the period is quite extensive as Albert Speer and Hitler’s grand architectural plans for the new city of Germania (to replace Berlin) are neatly integrated into the story. Gilbers development of the Hildegard von Strachwitz’s character (Hilde) brings forth Kristallnacht as she begins her close friendship with Oppenheimer as she rescued him from an SA mob during the evening’s destruction. Hilde, a rabid anti-Nazi and physician has done a great deal of work in psychiatry and become Oppenheimer’s alter ego as he tries to solve the murders.
Gilbers’ dive into Nazi history focuses on the distrust and deadly competition within the SS as Volger and Oppenheimer deal with their investigation that could involve the Nazi Lebensborn program. Nazi racial theory called for pure blooded Germans and with the cost of Hitler’s war effort millions of German males would be needed to fight for the Fuhrer, so the program was ratcheted up. It seems that Inge Friedrichsen had been a secretary at Klosterhide, one of the many Lebensborn sites the Nazis created, in addition her son Horst was part of the program.
It is clear to Volger that Oppenheimer is an excellent investigator, and he accepts the pressure from SS hire ups that he is working with a Jew. The interaction between characters is one of the strengths of the novel. The Volger-Oppenheimer dynamic is important as is the Hilde-Oppenheimer relationship. For Oppenheimer he is in a quandary. Should he assist in tracking down the killer or take advantage of an opportunity to get his wife and himself out of the country as Gilbers describes the plight of Jews in the east.
The story line unfolds very slowly, and the reader does not become aware of the murder of Dufour and Gerdeler until about a third of the book has passed. Gilbers picks up the pace about halfway through the novel as the Nazi shadow begins to dominate. To Gilbers’ credit he incorporates little known aspects of life under the Nazis as a few thousand German Jews were still living in Berlin because like Oppenheimer they were married to a Christian woman. In addition, he refers to Oppenheimer’s use of Pervitin, a stimulant to get through the day, as well as its pervasive use by German troops, particularly tankers on the eastern front.
Gilbers does a nice job allowing the reader to project into the recesses of the killer’s mind as he describes the methods the killer used to eliminate his victims, the staging of the murders, and disposing of their bodies. Certain aspects of the crime lead one to believe that the killer is a member of the SS which adds to the level of horror as Gilbers’ novel unfolds but its conclusion takes on a much different path.
For a debut novel GERMANIA is a success and it makes me want to read the next installment of Richard Oppenheimer’s adventures. Hopefully, the English translation will appear soon as he has left the reader wondering what the fate of Oppenhiemer and his wife Lisa is.
Recently I read Anne Applebaum’s book THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY which laid out where the United States stood in a world that seems to trend toward autocratic rule. To say the least her thesis which depicts how American democracy has gone so terribly wrong is scary and alarming. It appears that there is a “strongman playbook” that these autocratic wannabes follow which is the main focus of Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s new work, STRONGMEN: MUSSOLINI TO THE PRESENT published before the attack on the capitol on January 6, 2021. The books appearance is a further warning of what might occur as Donald Trump continues to stir the pot about his election loss and the dangers should he return to the White House in 2024. Ben-Ghiat has spent her career ruminating about how authoritarians manipulate the truth to gain power and her book is very troubling as she lays out the “strongmen’s playbook” highlighting strategies and techniques employed by the likes of Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Sebo, and Vladimir Putin, among others to seize power for as long as they desired.
Last November the American people overcame the misinformation, lies, and conspiracy theories put forth by Donald Trump and his followers to seemingly reject someone who consistently tried to employ the “playbook” but the failure of the Republicans to support truth allowed Trump to escape an impeachment conviction. The result is that the American people must confront and cope with a somewhat resurgent Trump who threatens to run again for president in 2024 and if it comes to pass reach down into his toolbox of the authoritarian playbook to regain the White House. This proposition may make the Republican base happy, but it presents an ongoing existential threat to the overwhelming majority of the American people.
In her important narrative Ben-Ghiat recounts the acts of bravery, solidarity and dignity that resulted in the removal of strongmen over the last century and she makes it clear by delving into numerous historical examples what signs to look for as these men try and seize power and what strategies are needed to stop them. For Ben-Ghiat the key to understanding today’s authoritarianism and its allies, we must pursue a historical perspective.
Benito Mussolini emerges as the “godfather” of authoritarianism as his approach puts forth a role model for other strongmen wannabes to emulate. From Mussolini to Putin the personalist reign is their mantra concentrating power in one individual whose own financial and political interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy. Loyalty to him and his allies rather than expertise is the main qualification for serving in government, as is participation in his corruption schemes. They rule by employing patronage and fear to maintain loyalty and support. The book divides the strongmen era into three parts; 1919-1945, the fascist era; 1950-1990, the age of military coups; and 1990-present as the new authoritarian age and the author present clear examples and analysis as she examines individual strongmen, their compatibility and similarities with each other.
What is striking from the outset is the role of virility and how it is combined with other tactics. The autocrat’s display of “machismo and his kinship with other male leaders are not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy.” It translates into targeting women, LGBTQ+ populations, immigrants, people of color, and the press. Mussolini prepared the script used by today’s authoritarians that casts the leader as a victim of domestic enemies and an international system that has cheated his country. Mussolini partnered with conservatives in his rise to power and he created a template for Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, Augusto Pinochet, and Vladimir Putin to name just a few. The key for these men according to the author is that the rhetoric of crisis and emergency they rely on, and the comfort of knowing who to blame for the nation’s troubles and how only they know how to fix them, i.e.; Trump’s commentary during the 2016 campaign, in reference to Washington’s problems is that “only I know how to fix it.”
It is interesting how elites cling to authoritarians. Afraid of losing their class, gender, or racial privileges they support insurgents as they strive for power. Once ensconced in office elites strike an “authoritarian bargain” that allows them to pursue their agenda. A useful example is how Senator Mitch McConnel and his Senate minions have gone along with Trump to achieve judicial appointments, tax cuts for the wealthy, and voter suppression in order to maintain white political control. When Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 the Republican Party was already an extremist organization and it could use the reality TV star to achieve its goals. Trump and his minions, the likes of Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone, all right wing extremists and white supremacists have been supporting strongmen all around the globe for years so the events of the last four years should not have come as a surprise.
If one looks for a Trumpian role model apart from Mussolini it is easy to apply the tactics and image creation of Silvio Berlusconi, an Italian media tycoon and politician who served as Prime Minister of Italy in four governments from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011. Berlusconi came to power by election after the Cold War ended through voter suppression and rigging elections. He would shape public opinion through the television stations he owned. He stressed Italy’s need to return to “national greatness,” his ability to fix Italy’s problems, particularly those caused by the left, and flaunt the image of virility as he worked to keep out foreigners and immigrants. He even had parliament pass laws to protect him from prosecution. Immigrants were his favorite target as he practiced his xenophobic rule stressing the fear of white replacement and the low Italian birthrate, all echoing Mussolini, and a template for Donald Trump. It is no accident that Berlusconi developed a strong relationship with Vladimir Putin and Ben-Ghiat’s observations about the two men and the “bromance” appear to be dead on.
The theme of national greatness permeates the rhetoric of strongmen. Francisco Franco recalled the glories of the Spanish Empire; Mussolini longed for Italia Irredenta and the Roman Empire; for Putin it is Imperial Russia and the Soviet Empire; and for Racip Tayyip Erdogan it is the Ottoman Empire and ethnically cleansing the Kurds in Syria. These rulers’ obsessions have turned into policy i.e., Gaddafi cleansed Libya of Italians, Hitler cleansed Germany of Jews, Putin pursues Eurasian domination and reshaping Russian culture partnering with the Russian Orthodox Church. Trump wanted to build his border wall to keep out immigrants with detention camps, family separation, and politically has the support of white evangelicals. Further the Trump administration worked to undo decades of advances for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. He was obsessed with nostalgia for a white America dominated by males, along with his crusade to nullify Barack Obama’s legacy. He redefined civil rights, traditionally linking the struggle of African Americans for legal equality, as the protection of Christian “freedom of religion and expression.” Even his Attorney-General, William Barr stated we are waging “unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” who of course are black and brown people.
While Ben-Ghiat discusses different strongmen and compares them with Trump she tends to lump many of them together without creating a conceptual framework to work with. I agree with Francis Fukuyama’s review in the New York Times, November 17, 2020, “Authoritarians From Mussolini to Trump” when he writes, [she] gives us “very little insight into Donald Trump beyond what is already widely known. What we get instead is an endless series of historical anecdotes about a heterogeneous collection of bad leaders ranging from democratically elected nationalists like Modi to genocidal fanatics like Hitler. What sense does it make to put Silvio Berlusconi in the same category as Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein? Berlusconi may have been sleazy, manipulative and corrupt, but he didn’t murder political opponents or support terrorism abroad, and he stepped down after losing an election. Ben-Ghiat notes that many strongmen came to power in the 1960s and ’70s through military coups, but that today they are much more likely to be elected. Wouldn’t it be nice to know why coups have largely vanished?
Fukuyama further argues accurately that Trump really does deserve more careful comparison with other leaders. There are indeed certain parallels between him and contemporary populists like Hungary’s Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insofar as they all rely on a similar rural social base for their support. On the other hand, there are unexplained differences: Orban, Duterte and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, for example, used the Covid pandemic to vastly expand executive authority, while Trump did the opposite, abdicating responsibility and shifting authority to the governors. Most strongmen are ruthlessly efficient and Machiavellian; Trump demonstrated incredible incompetence in failing to build his border wall, repeal Obamacare or expand his voter base. And, of course, he failed to win re-election to a second term. Revelations in The New York Times of Trump’s tax returns suggest he ran for president not out of a mad desire for power, but simply to avoid bankruptcy in his failed hotel business. And yet, despite myriad revelations, he exerted a magnetic pull on his core followers. Why? Perhaps it might be more useful to understand the ways that Trump is sui generis, and how he could set a pattern for strongmen of the future, rather than reprising familiar precedents from the past.”
This is not, however, merely another addition to the annals of Trumpology. Beginning with the rise of Mussolini and concluding with the present era, Ben-Ghiat attempts to portray the ways democracies die in the arms of authoritarians, and the common traits that enable these downfalls. This is, no doubt, an admirable goal, and the author finds many points of authentic insight into the characters of strongmen and their followers along the way. Her prose manages the difficult maneuver of being both rigorously sourced and quite readable, with luminous, hard-won conclusions studding the text. In describing the torturers and flunkies who surround strongmen, she writes, “The special psychological climate that strongmen create among their people — the thrill of transgression mixed with the comfort of submitting to his power — endows life with energy, purpose, and drama.” It’s an observation that distills so much of the public life of the United States over the past half-decade — and resounds throughout an increasingly antidemocratic world.”
Talia Lavin writing in the Washington Post, December 24, 2020, “Corruption, Violence and Toxic Masculinity: What strongmen like Trump have in Common” is less critical than Fukuyama as she states that Ben-Ghiat “makes a convincing argument for including Trump in these less-than-august ranks, most of all when laying out the specifics of his corruption. For the reader inured by the drip-drip-drip of stories of brazen corruption over the course of years, it is bracing to see a half-decade’s worth of reporting so carefully distilled and to recall that it is in fact aberrant to see a son-in-law enriching himself at taxpayer expense, or to watch the Trump Organization’s coffers fill, golf outing by golf outing, with the aid of the Secret Service. As Ben-Ghiat shows, such self-enrichment is more in line with a Gaddafi or a Mussolini than a transparent or accountable democratic leader. Trump’s violence, too, is laid out chillingly: “In the tradition of the fascists, Trump uses his rallies to train his followers to see violence in a positive light,” she writes of his frequent exhortations to violence and demonization of immigrants at these spectacles.
Ben-Ghiat offers a series of chapters outlining how strongmen attain and retain power. Chapters on the use of various forms of violence, including intimidation and assassination; propaganda; corruption; virility emphasizing sexual enslavement, lies and misinformation; torture, and raping their countries natural resources and wealth are disconcerting and at times horrifying. Ben-Ghiat creates a portrait of depravity that has gained the support of millions worldwide in part because of fear or accepting a belief system that abhors fact and relies on misinformation and outright lies offered by authoritarians. These techniques are used across the board whether we are speaking of demented individuals or sociopaths who have altered the course of history. As an American it is very troubling to realize how the former president fit the pattern set by the Pinochet’s, Putin’s, and numerous others as he rose to power through denigration and rejecting truth.
In the end Ben-Ghiat’s book is a worthy contributor to the works of Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder, Steven Levitsky, Daniel Zimblat, and Jason Stanley who warned us about Trump’s propensity toward authoritarianism and we can only hope that out of office he will not continue to foment the trends and beliefs in American politics that have burgeoned over the last decade, though that hope is not necessarily a realistic assumption.
For those of you who are familiar with C. J. Sansom’s novels that center around Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII, Iain Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, and perhaps the novels of Hillary Mantel that focuses on Henry VIII’s vicar, Thomas Cromwell you might do well to consider S.J. Parris’ (the pseudonym of British journalist Stephanie Merritt) novels whose main character Giordano Bruno is a true historical figure set during the reign of Elizabeth I. Parris’ exploration of Bruno’s beliefs, life’s work, and talents emerge in the first of seven novels entitled HERESY a story that has the inauspicious beginning of Bruno sitting in the privy at San Domenico Maggiore in Naples reading Erasmus’ COMMENTARIES. When he is caught with this reading material, he is forced to throw it into the cesspool. One must remember that in 1576 anyone in Catholic Naples who criticizes Catholicism is committing blasphemy and a crime that a Father Inquisitor might deem worthy of death.
The author employs Bruno’s life journey as an excellent vehicle to portray the religious schism that has overtaken Europe since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, and for Parris’ purpose its later impact on the reign of Elizabeth I who has rested her throne on the Act of Supremacy issued in 1558. Bruno provides a superb foil against Catholic teachings as his life’s journey consisted of joining a monastery as a teenager and taking his vows at San Domenico Maggiore which he would come to reject after thirteen years. He would wander Italy teaching and staying one step ahead of the father Inquisitor who had branded him a heretic. He would escape to Geneva, where he was also branded as a heretic this time by the Calvinist power structure, Paris, and finally to England. While in Paris, King Henri III would become his patron and would then travel on to London where he will be recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham to penetrate the Papist hotbed at the universities at Oxford.
Parris’ dominate theme that permeates the novel is the schism between Catholics and Protestants as Bruno had traveled to England to write books which he believed would rock Europe to its foundations and search for a book that proved the universe was infinite going much further than Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, a book written by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus. Bruno believed that a universe without end existed, as did a universal soul which we are all part of. Bruno subscribed to the view that “the divinity is in all of us and in the substance of the universe with the right knowledge, we can draw down all the powers of the cosmos. When one understands this, we can become equal to God.”
Parris’ plot unfolds as Bruno is accompanied to Oxford by Sir Philip Sidney, an aristocratic soldier-poet who he had met in Padua, and palatine Albert Laski, a conceited Polish poet. Bruno’s purpose is to engage the Rector John Underhill of Lincoln College in a disputation. Before the debate can take place, Bruno comes across the body of Roger Mercer one of the fellows who dined regularly at Underhill’s table. It appears that the rest of the college is at pains to cover up the murder and Bruno’s charge is completely changed, and it appears that someone has created a grisly scenario in the name of Catholicism or is it Protestantism. Bruno’s investigation allows Parris to accurately convey life in the English countryside during the period sprinkling in seedy taverns, mysterious bookshops, in addition to Oxford’s world renown libraries.
Parris has employed a number of characters to carry out her story line. Each character associated with Oxford and its colleges seem to reflect English arrogance and an anti-Oxford bias throughout the novel. The most important individuals include Rector Underhill’s daughter, Sophia an interesting individual who craves learning and resents the role of woman in English society. Bruno’s main foil within the college is the Bursar Walter Slythurst with other individuals like James Coverdale who will now accede to the office of Deputy Rector with the passing of Mercer, William Bernard, a fellow who had been the librarian in 1569 when the library had been purged of heretical materials, Master Richard Godwyn, a mild mannered librarian and fellow, Gabriel Norris, a student who used his long bow to kill Mercer’s assailant, Rowland Jenks, a bookseller who chopped off his own ears, Mr. Cobbett, an alcoholic porter involved in security, and Thomas Allen a student whose father, the former sub-Rector and teacher had been unceremoniously removed from the college resulting in his son’s loss of his scholarship.
Parris has written an atmospheric thriller dropping Bruno into the paranoid world of Oxford Papists which he must navigate to survive intellectually as he tries to solve the murder of Mercer, and unravel Oxford’s tangled loyalties, some of which border on treason. As the novel unfolds a number of other Oxford fellows are murdered as Bruno becomes part detective as well as a humanistic philosopher who seems ahead of his time as he tries to offer further enlightenment to Europe.
On the whole the novel is well conceived, and once the reader acclimates themselves to Parris’ dialogue, they will become engrossed and will be exposed to a fascinating historical mystery. The next installment of Parris’ Bruno series PROPHECY examines an astrological phenomenon that portends the death of Elizabeth as her throne is constantly threatened by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
(Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600)
When one thinks of James Earle Carter III (Jimmy) many would argue that he achieved extraordinarily little as President and some describe his administration as a total failure. On the positive side as Douglas Brinkley argues in his THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY: JIMMY CARTER’S JOURNEY BEYOND THE WHITE HOUSE Carter’s post-presidency has been the most effective and impactful of any former president in American history. The diminution of the Carter presidency is somewhat unfair as luck was never on Carter’s side and his somewhat prickly self-righteous personality rubbed people the wrong way. But to be fair one cannot take away the numerous accomplishments that the Carter administration was responsible for.
To begin, the Camp David Accords was the most successful peace treaty since the end of World War II, the Panama Canal Treaties prevented war in Central America, normalized relations with China which revitalized trade between the two countries, expanded the CDC role into global health, instituted new pollution controls, increased consumer protection, implemented civil service reform for the first time in a hundred years, increased the number of women and blacks on the federal bench, doubled the size of our national parks, deregulated trucking, airlines, and utilities, placed intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe – reflecting his toughness, oversaw a Pentagon that developed the B2 bomber and other high tech weapons that the Soviets could not match, provided aid to anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, and a human rights policy that contributed to the winning of the Cold War. This would seem to have been a strong record to run for reelection, but 1979 saw a number of events beyond Carter’s control that gave the United States a black eye – the seizure of American hostages in Iran and a failed rescue attempt, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an increase in the price of oil due to actions by OPEC sending an American economy already tottering over the edge with inflation until a tailspin. The interesting thing is that had Carter been reelected he would have continued to foster a sound energy policy and would have acted on the coming environmental crisis and perhaps the world we live in would at least have been cleaner and perhaps the dramatic climate changes we all observe might have been lessened.
The question is what we should make of this man and have we misjudged him and his presidency. In Jonathan Alter’s new book, HIS VERY BEST: JIMMY CARTER, A LIFE, the first full length biography of Carter the author attempts to answer those questions and analyze his role in American and because of his post-presidency world history. Alter presents a president who is an enigma. On the one hand he comes across as a pious Christian and a moral individual, however certain personality traits seem the polar opposite. Extremely stubborn and self-righteous at times he rubbed people the wrong way as he could not suffer fools gladly and he often appeared hypocritical, particularly in dealing with members of Congress. Alter, the author of three New York Times best sellers and a former senior editor at Newsweek has produced a well-documented analytical approach to Carter’s life and part of his thesis revolves around the idea that much of what Carter accomplished as President paved the way for future successes in foreign policy, the environment, and politics which were not necessarily clear at the time they were instituted.
Alter correctly points out that part of Carter’s problems politically was that he was a “real” outsider and had difficulty acclimating himself to the way things were done in Washington. It is exceedingly difficult to pigeonhole Carter as a progressive or a conservative as it depended on the issue where he might fall on a political continuum. However, if there is an overarching label, we can apply to Carter it would center around some sort of moral ideology. Alter provides the reader with intimate details of Carters early years growing up in Americus and Plains Georgia, a boyhood that corresponded with the Depression.
Alter provides numerous insights into the person Carter would become. His lifetime mantra developed in high school as he learned that “we must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles,” a moral code that could produce success but also failures throughout his life.
Alter points to two key relationships for Carter. He delves into Carter’s marriage to Rosalynn and what emerges is how supportive they were of each other and created a true partnership. Carter would never have been as successful as he was without her be it his pre-presidential, presidential, or post-presidential years. She was involved in all decisions in their marriage and his career and he would not have experienced his personal successes without her input. The second important relationship was with Admiral Hyman Rickover who became a father figure for Carter and demanded that he always do his best and live his life as if he had something to prove.
Alter’s narrative is all encompassing, and a number of aspects stand out. First, is the dichotomy that Carter presents dealing with race. He grew up in a racist region of Georgia where segregationists ruled, Brown v. Board of Education was never enforced, and African-Americans knew their place. Early on it seemed that Carter was oblivious to what was transpiring though his Christian upbringing showed him something was terribly wrong. Though Carter would come across later as a true friend of the black community he was not above using the “race card” when it would benefit him politically in campaigns for Congress and the Governorship of Georgia. The employment of “coded words” was present and he could speak at Black churches and preach equality at the same time he was supporting George Wallace. Later in life Carter would admit the error of his ways and spend a good part of his adult life trying to make up for what he did or not do early in his career. Alter does an excellent job breaking down Carter’s moral beliefs and imperfections which are highlighted by his racial attitudes and approach to politics.
The second part of the narrative that is important is how Alter dives into a number of important topics, be it the Camp David Accords, environmental policy, the Panama Canal Treaty, normalization of relations with China, human rights as a major component of foreign policy, or the appointment of Paul Volker to head the Federal Reserve and how it impacted people in the future, mostly in a positive way. In each instance Alter explains how each topic created a future that would benefit people well into the 21st century be it no major wars involving Israel and the Arab states, an energy policy that pushed for higher emissions standards, cleaner air, trade with China, and other examples. Alter to his credit points out the negative aspects of some these policies, i.e.; how China has taken advantage of its economic relationship with the US as thousands of Chinese were educated in American universities and engaging in serious industrial espionage, and how Carter’s courting of evangelicals in 1976 brought them into the political process and allowed them to evolve into the negative political force they are today.
Alter’s in depth coverage of Carter’s campaign for the presidency and his term in office is a key part of the narrative. Carter would benefit from the post-Watergate period as an outsider. His long shot campaign saw the application of Carter’s relentless approach to winning as he did in all aspects of his life. Carter, along with his “Georgia Mafia” would arrive in Washington trying to do too much too soon alienating important members of Congress and other important political leaders. His inflexibility, refusal to conform to Washington norms, and moral tone alienated many and it is amazing he accomplished what he did with an inexperienced administration who did not know how or have the desire to be involved in the political give and take needed to be successful. Despite these shortcomings the first two years of Carter’s presidency can be considered quite successful as Alter points out, but the final two years were a disaster, mostly because of bad luck and many questionable decisions by Carter who micro-managed a great deal of time during his presidency and as a result did not have enough time during the day to reach more measured conclusions.
The list of events seems endless. The situation in Iran that forced the Shah to be overthrown brought questions concerning how the Carter administration approached the problem. It was clear a lack of intelligence contributed to the Shah’s resignation, but also Carter was so busy with the Camp David negotiations he was somewhat caught blindsided by events in Iran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reflected a weak presidency and a resurgence of Cold War rhetoric. The nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island and what came to be known as “the malaise speech” lowered Carter’s approval rating to Nixonian levels. If this was not enough by 1979 the US economy which suffered from high inflation and interest rates, long gas lines due to OPEC policies and Carter’s attitude that the American people relied too much on conspicuous consumption did not help. In a number of instances Carter was out of his depth in dealing with these problems, particularly in confronting the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise and the hostage situation and Alter correctly argues reflected a president “who lacked a diplomatic and clandestine imagination.”
It is clear from Alter’s narrative that Carter lacked the disposition to be an effective president, but this doggedness and self-confidence would be a major reason why he experienced such a successful post-presidency. Carter’s belief in “soft power” in foreign policy found a willing world once out of office. Human rights came to dominate his presidency with support for Russian dissidents, pressuring dictators in Latin and South America, and in Africa. This continued after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan and Alter delves into his support of the Palestinians who he felt were squeezed out of the Camp David process, supervising elections worldwide, working to gain the release of American seized abroad, support for victims of Aids and other diseases that ravaged poor countries and finding cures, Habitat for Humanity, and on and on. Carter’s later years reflected his total commitment to making a difference, his willingness to experiment with diverse projects, invest his time and emotions in numerous projects and causes, and risk his reputation in the name of helping others. In his nineties Carter would admit that his “involuntary retirement were the best years of his life.”
Alter’s chief argument is that Carter “was a surprisingly consequential president.” Alter’s account is ably sourced and fluidly written and is one of the best presidential biographies that have been published in the last decade. Alter convincingly demonstrates that Carter should be admired for sticking to his guns in many areas that in the end, even decades later, would prove beneficial to the American people as opposed to politicians who negotiate away their beliefs in their constant need to be reelected.
(Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speaking in New York on July 12, 1976)