ACT OF OBLIVION by Robert Harris

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)

If one is looking for a volume that encompasses history with a touch of fiction to round out the storyline then Robert Harris is an author to be considered.  Of the many novels that Harris has written including a trilogy about the struggle for power in ancient Rome; FATHERLAND which raises the possibility of a deal between Adolf Hitler and President Joseph P. Kennedy in 1964; ARCHANGEL, which focuses on the northern Russian port that hides Joseph Stalin’s secrets; AN OFFICER AND A SPY, centers around the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France; V2, spotlights the Nazi missile program during World War II; MUNICH which delves into the September, 1939 conference which took place at the height of Anglo-French appeasement before World War II; and my favorite, CONCLAVE concentrating on the Vatican machinations in electing a new Pope. 

Harris’ fifteenth and latest novel is his first foray set predominantly in America, ACT OF OBLIVION which begins in 1660 England where Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe flee England accused of being part of the plot that resulted in the execution of Charles I that marked the culmination of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II to the English throne.  As in all of his novels, Harris has the unique ability to blend historical figures with his own creations, developing absorbing plots that are counter factual at times, but also toes the historical line.  If you enjoy John Le Carrie, Alan Furst, Martin Cruz Smith, David Liss, Ken Follet or Len Deighton, Harris’ work will prove most satisfying as he possesses an uncanny knowledge of the historical period he chooses to develop for his stories based on sound research and character development. 

In his current effort Harris begins by introducing the reader to the general outline of the English Civil War in the 17th century that resulted in the beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649, bringing to power Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.  The trial of Charles I and his ultimate death brought about a written death warrant, the Act of Oblivion that was signed by 59 men, including members of Parliament, Cromwell’s New Modern Army, and important politicians of the period.  Two of the signees were Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe.  As the novel evolves 57 of the 59 were either captured and executed, died of natural causes, or committed suicide.  Whalley and Goffe are the two that remained alive after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.  Enter Richard Naylor, one of the few made up characters in the story whose role throughout the novel is to hunt down any remaining regicides.

King Charles I, by Unknown artist - NPG 4516

King Charles I

The backdrop to the novel is religion and politics.  All the characters seem deeply religious, particularly Whalley and Goffe and those who would hide them from Naylor and the Privy Council.  Religion permeates the dialogue, politics, and emotions of the day as prayer, meeting houses, and conflict between Catholics and Puritans appear regularly as the story unfolds.  Whalley and Goffe escape England and leave their families in 1660 as they are about to be arrested.  This begins an odyssey that takes them across the Atlantic to Boston and into the Connecticut Valley hiding in Guilford, Hartford, and New Haven, Connecticut, and later Hadley, Massachusetts. 

Along the way Harris does a superb job developing characters such as John Davenport who led the New Haven colony and saw it as “God’s millennial kingdom;” Captain Thomas Breedon, a royalist, rich merchant; Sir George Downing, a chaplain in Cromwell’s army who turned out to be an English spy; John Ditwell, a member of parliament and judge at Charles I’s trial; Dan Gookin, lived near Harvard College and escorted Whalley and Goffe to America, and the Reverend John Russell, the leading political and religious figure in Hadley, Massachusetts.  There are many more characters, the most important being Naylor who takes on a role similar to Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as his intrepid nature and personal tragedy leads him to follow Whalley and Goffe from England to the New England colonies, Dutch New Amsterdam, Holland, at first by himself and a few others, later to return with four men o’war.

Harris’ character portrayals allow the reader to feel they know these individuals and their thoughts.  Harris spares no detail in telling his story and he is able to fill in the historical gaps by employing Colonel Whalley as he writes his memoir that includes his family, but most importantly fighting for Cromwell in the English Civil War and the reign that followed.  Harris’ portrait seems based on the biography of Cromwell written by historian Antonia Fraser and is balanced and accurate.  As Harris develops these characters he displays the lack of scruples revealed by many self-appointed Puritan ministers, those who fought for Cromwell and switched to support the restoration of Charles II, Royalist and Roundhead spies and a host of others.

Over time as Naylor fails to bring the two remaining regicides to England, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Edward Hyde orders him to end his search and become his private secretary as the English people have moved on from capturing Whalley and Goffe.  From that point on Harris focuses on Whalley and Goffe’s lives and actions as they still must remain in hiding.

Harris has excellent command of historical events and movements.  He is able to weave the British seizure of New Amsterdam and the resulting Anglo-Dutch naval war, the return to plague to England in 1665, the Great London Fire of 1666, and King Philip’s War of 1774 into his story that enhances the legitimacy of Harris’ work.  Other aspects that opened this reader’s eyes was the detailed description of how the regicides were executed.  English barbarism is on full display as bodies were dismembered and some body parts were returned to families as a warning.  The battles of the English Civil War are carefully described highlighting Cromwell’s strategy and the roles of Whalley and Goffe.  Also important, is how Harris paints the difficulties faced by colonists who left England for America.  Harris follows them into the western interior and analyzes why they settled where they did, how they dealt with Native-Americans, their survival of brutal winters, and their ability to grow food and ultimately build settlements.

The Execution of Charles I of England

(The Execution of Charles I of England / Artist unknown, Wikimedia // Public Domain)

Harris has written a fast paced wonderfully detailed story of a modern manhunt that weaves between Restoration era London and pre-revolutionary New England.  Harris brings the past to life through the writing and dialogue of his characters and personal details such as scratchy wigs, rough leather boots, and the sparseness in which people lived.  To his credit Harris does not allow himself to become entrapped by Christian doctrine in his storytelling and concentrates on the simplicity of faith and the anti-monarchical feelings of characters who will find a natural home among the dissenters and Puritans in New England.  ACT OF OBLIVION is a wonderful novel about a divided nation whose people suffer from physical and emotional wounds caused by war.  As Alex Preston writes in his The Guardian review of August 30, 2022, Harris has authored an important novel in that it shows the power of forgiveness and the intolerable burden of long-held grudges.

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)


File:Pacific Area - The Imperial Powers 1939 - Map.svg

The contributions of American athletes to the war effort during World War II has been well documented.  The experiences of Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Tom Landry, Ed Lummus and hundreds of others have been recognized for their impact in defeating Germany and Japan.  Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Buzz Bissinger’s latest book, THE MOSQUITO BOWL: A GAME OF LIFE AND DEATH IN WORLD WAR II chronicles events leading up to a game between the 4th and 29th Marine Regiments on Guadalcanal in late 1944 and the fate of many who fought at Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa.  The soldiers were made up of former All-Americans from Brown, Notre Dame and Wisconsin universities twenty of which were drafted by the National Football League.  Of the sixty-five men who played in the game, fifteen would die a few months later at Okinawa.

Bissinger, the author of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, a story of high school football in Texas brings to life the men and their military training as they prepared for the Marine assault on Okinawa.  During their preparations trash talking between the two Marine Regiments reached a fever pitch which led to what has been referred to as “the Mosquito Bowl.”  Bissinger’s narrative explores the lives of these men with insight, empathy, and a clear picture of what they were experiencing and would soon be up against.  It is a well told story of college athletes and their loss of innocence.  It begins on the playing fields of America’s colleges through their final time f to remain boys to the darkest days that would follow on Okinawa.

The book is a dichotomy in the story it tells.  First and foremost, Bissinger zeroes in on the lives of a number of individuals who developed as exceptional athletes and morphed into American Marines.  Bissinger focuses on the lives of John Marshall McLaughey, Captain of the Brown football team, played one year with the New York Giants and enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor.  Another major football star, this time as an All-American at the University of Wisconsin, David Schreiner enlisted as an officer candidate with the Marines.  Tony Butkovich, from a family of eleven, one of which was a fighter pilot, was an All-American at the University of Illinois, later at Purdue University and was drafted number one by the Cleveland Rams.  Butkovich would not make the grade as a Marine officer and became a corporal in the infantry. Bob Bauman was Butkovich’s teammate at Wisconsin and his brother Frank played at Illinois, both brothers joined the Marines.  Bob McGowan, from western Pennsylvania was a Sergeant and Squad leader who was severely wounded on Okinawa and whose story provides the reader with the feel of the terror and bloodshed of battle.  Lastly, George Murphy, Captain of the Notre Dame football team would join the others as Marines, in his case as an officer candidate. 

David Schreiner played for the Wisconsin Badgers before joining the Marines.

(David Schreiner)

The book jacket describing Bissinger’s narrative is a bit misleading.  It appears the book will concentrate on football, but its treatment goes much deeper in its exploration of a number of important topics in American history during the first half of the 20th century.  Bissinger follows the military training that the athletes experienced, but its focus is diverse.  The depression plays a prominent role in the upbringing of the Bauman brothers in a small town just south of Chicago.  The issue of immigration stands out because of its impact on the diversity of American society, but also the backlash that was created after World War I when families like the Butkovichs came to the United States from Croatia at the turn of the century.  By 1924, Congress passed the Johnson Act designed to block immigration from southern and eastern Europe.  The legislation reflected politics combined with the pseudo-science of eugenics which became very popular in the post-World War I period that argued certain groups were inferior to “white Americans.”  Daniel Okrent’s THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA is an exceptional study of American racism during that period.


Racism is a dominant theme apart from war and athletics as Bissinger explores how blacks were treated in the military.  Lynchings and murders were common in the American south and the experiences of blacks in the military revolved around demeaning jobs mostly in supply, laundries, bakeries, sanitation, ammo dumps leading to the conclusion that the United States fought for freedom in occupied Europe and the Pacific, but there would be no freedom for the 13 million Blacks living in the United States of America.  At the outset of the war there were no blacks in the Marines.


(DeOrmond “Tuss” McLaughry, football coach 1926-1940. With his son John McLaughry, coach 1959, shown with Colgate)

The military leadership used college football stars as a recruiting tool and stressed the similar values and talents that college football and the military held in common.  Exemptions for college athletes from the draft led to anger by the families of those fighting in Europe and the Pacific while many the same age enjoyed the life of a star athlete. Bissinger does an exceptional job delving into the West Point football program as they experienced their best seasons in 1944 and 1945 due to the accomplishments of exempted players “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, who were better known as “Mr. inside, and Mr. Outside.”  Their exploits would lead the Army to national championships.

Bissinger has total command of the history of the war and college athletics.  The author lists more than 100 pages of endnotes, assembled from military records, correspondence, interviews of survivors and other reportorial feats — shows up everywhere, in the numbers, in battle accounts, in the homey mundanity of letters, and a clear incisive writing style, sprinkled with humor and sarcasm which are keys to the book’s success.  As to the conduct of the war, Bissinger pulls no punches as he recounts the errors in judgement by military higher ups as it planned and carried out the amphibious landing at Tarawa which turned into a bloody disaster with 2000 casualties in the first 76 hours of the invasion.  The key to victory over Japan would be “island hopping” therefore amphibious warfare was of the utmost importance, but military strategists did not make use of all of its assets, i.e.; LVT boats as opposed to Higgins boats that could not navigate through the coral that surrounded many Pacific islands.  Bissinger’s discussions of Tarawa and the outright stupidity of General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. who commanded US forces at Okinawa can only anger the reader as it resulted in the useless deaths of so many young men.

Another important weapon Bissinger explores is that of the “flame thrower.”  On Okinawa and other islands, the Japanese benefited from their use of caves with interlocking tunnels,  a difficult problem to overcome.  The caves were challenging to penetrate by bombing so the use of napalm from flame throwers became imperative.  Despite the application of this weapon which saved many American lives, the Japanese inflicted innumerable casualties on the Americans as they fought from hill to hill.  Japanese troop strength on Okinawa was much higher than US intelligence pointed out, roughly 100,000, not the 66,000 that was estimated.  Bissinger lays out the fears and hopes of the men as they prepared and carried out their mission with horrendous results.  In the end over 250,000 people died in 82 days at Okinawa.  Of that number 50,000 were American, 20,000 Marines, 8222 from the 6th Division.  In the last quarter of the book Bissinger does justice to their memory as he lays out the battle for Okinawa, the Japanese who fought to the death, and the obstacles that the Marines had to overcome.  He lays out the story of all the men who fought at Okinawa and played in the Mosquito Bowl along with countless others.

The core of the book revolves around The Mosquito Bowl, which was a spirited, semi-organized football game on Guadalcanal.   The game, played on Christmas Eve 1944 with at least 1,500 Marines watching, is both a pretext and an organizing principle for the book, but its significance fades as Bissinger explores the fates of several participants.  Combat and other dirty aspects of warfare are ever present.  The fighting on Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa and stories of those who never returned home point to the insanity of war, which regrettably still dominates our news cycle today as we witness Russian terrorism and atrocities in Ukraine.  The title of the book is a misnomer as there is little discussion of the game itself – more to the point the book is not about a football game but the tragedy of young men fighting and dying in wars far from home.

Smoke billows from a burning ship.


June 3, 1961:  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy sit in the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria, at the start of their historic talks. [AP/Wide World Photo]

(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy)

Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine last February has not produced the results that he expected.  As the battlefield situation has degenerated for Russian army due to the commitment of the Ukrainian people and its armed forces, along with western assistance the Kremlin has resorted to bombastic statements from the Russian autocrat concerning the use of nuclear weapons.  At this time there is no evidence by American intelligence that Moscow is preparing for that eventuality, however, we have learned the last few days that Russian commanders have discussed the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.  The conflict seems to produce new enhanced rhetoric on a daily basis, and the world finds itself facing a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 amidst the Cold War.

A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote

(A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote “Missile Sites” on the map and marked them with an X when he was first briefed by the CIA on the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 16, 1962.)

Since the possibility of nuclear war seems unfathomable the fears of many have put western intelligence agencies on high alert.  To understand how we might solve the current impasse it might be useful to turn to Max Hastings latest book, ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, but one must remember Vladimir Putin is no Nikita Khrushchev.  The author of thirty books, most of which focus on topics related to World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, Hastings is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable historians to tackle the confrontation that ended peacefully in 1962.

Hastings recounts the history of the crisis from the viewpoints of national leaders, Soviet officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British peacemakers.  Hastings, success as an author has always rested upon eyewitness interviews, archival work, tape recordings, and insightful analysis – his current work is no exception.  The positions, comments, and actions of President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro among many other important personalities are on full display.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaks before reporters during a televised speech to the nation about the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions, during the Cuban missile crisis, on October 24, 1962 in Washington, DC.

(President Kennedy addresses the American people on October 24, 1962)

Hastings offers a very thoughtful approach to the study of history while applying his immense analytical skills.  A major theme that Hastings carries throughout the narrative is that the American response to Soviet actions was based more on political considerations rather than threats to American national security.  America was not more vulnerable with missiles in Cuba because “both sides submarine-launched ballistic missiles were becoming ubiquitous realities in the oceans of the world.”  JFK is a controversial actor in the crisis according to historians.  Did he act to reassure his reelection in 1964 and burnish his anti-communist credentials  or was he the bulwark against an American military led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with members such as General Curtis LeMay.  Hastings’ conclusion is clear, JFK was a towering and inspirational figure during the crisis contributing some of its most memorable rhetoric.

The author introduces his topic by immediately delving into the Bay of Pigs fiasco which earned JFK the enmity of the Pentagon by calling off any air strikes to support the invaders.  History has shown that the decision was correct and did not allow a possible crisis to spiral out of control.  The problem that emerged is that Khrushchev could not understand the president’s lack of action.  For the Soviet Premier, the president’s indecision and indecisiveness during the invasion confirmed that JFK was weak and rife for bullying as events a year later would reflect.

Hastings correctly argues that the Kennedy brothers became Castro haters due to the Bay of Pigs, an emotion they did not feel previously.  They felt humiliated  and became obsessed with Cuba as they sought revenge – hence Operation Mongoose to get rid of Castro which Robert Kennedy was put in charge of.  As the narrative unfolds a true portrait of Castro emerges.  He was considered a beloved politician in Cuba at the time but a poor administrator.  He had overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and at the outset was a hero for his countrymen.  However, the crisis highlighted a delusional individual who at times believed his own heightened rhetoric and whose actions scared Khrushchev.

A spy photo of a medium range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed October of 1962.

(A spy photo of a medium-range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed in October of 1962.)

Once the background historical events are pursued Hastings settles in presenting an almost daily account of the crisis.  The American response is presented through the actions of the Kennedy brothers, a series of advisors, the most important of which was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, described as the “wizard of odds;” Chief of Staff, McGeorge Bundy; CIA head, John McCone; former ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson; Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs; other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a host of others.  The only foreign leader who demands a great deal of coverage in the narrative is British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who comes across as an appeaser who believed in diplomacy, an approach much different from his Suez Crisis days, and held the view that England and Europe had lived for years under the threat of Russian nuclear attack and could not accept that  missiles in Cuba was a menace for the United States.  At times it appeared that JFK humored his British counterpart, but his respect for the man evaporated quickly.

In the Soviet Union, the crisis was caused, driven, and finally resolved because of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev, a man who survived Stalin’s purges and worked his way up the Kremlin bureaucracy.  Khrushchev was an opportunist who launched the crisis without considering what would happen if his plan faltered.  In foreign policy, it is quite clear that if you start something without a clear exit strategy it probably will result in disaster.  The Soviet leader’s major errors were confusing two objectives: the defense of Cuba, and his plan to project Soviet power and threaten the United States by extending the Kremlin’s reach into the American backyard.  Further, Khrushchev believed that the missiles could be hidden from American U2 flights and once the American election was over he would spring his surprise on Washington.  When things began to unravel, Khrushchev resorted to bullying and threats dealing with nuclear war or at least a move on West Berlin.  Khrushchev engaged in unbridled adventurism, and willingly took a risk that had little or no chance of success.

Hastings’ account is balanced as he also examines the role of important Soviet officials including Defense Minister, Rodion Malinovsky who prepared the strategy to place missiles in Cuba; Anastas Mikoyan, the First Deputy of the Soviet Council of Ministers; Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin; Alexandr Alekseev, the KGB station chief in Havana who had a close relationship with Castro; Andrei Gromyko, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a number of others.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.

(President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.)

What sets Hastings’ account apart from other historians is his integration of the views of everyday individuals in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.  Cuban peasants, Russian workers, and American college students are all quoted as to their reactions and emotional state during the crisis.  The result is a perspective that is missing from other accounts and educates the reader as to the mindset of ordinary citizens who would pay the ultimate price if the crisis had gone sideways.

The diplomatic and military dance presented places the reader inside the ExCom Committee in Washington, the Presidium in Russia, and the seat of the Cuban government in Havana, and interactions with NATO allies.  We witness the strain on all participants, less so perhaps for Castro who seemed to seek martyrdom, and the delicate negotiations that led to a settlement.  All the tools were used to reach a settlement.  Backchannel talks, bringing in “the Wise Men” such as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, individual conversations between ordinary citizens who had influence on their governments, the role of U Thant and the United Nations, the bombastic approach advocated by the US military, and the strategic analysis of each communication are all included.  Within this context, Hastings effectively delves into a number of controversial areas including the Kennedy brothers’ distrust of the Pentagon and at times fearing they would disobey his orders, and JFK’s role in combating Pentagon pressure to launch air strikes followed by an invasion to remove the missiles and overthrow Castro.

According to Hastings JFK’s major error was expecting Khrushchev to think and act like himself.  “He assumed that the Kremlin would be deterred from shipping offensive nuclear weapons by the strength of his own public and private warnings….and its own consciousness of the USSR’s nuclear weakness.”  The debate at the heart of the crisis was JFK’s need to convince the Russian leader that his actions in fact risked nuclear war, something Khrushchev was against.  He wanted to test American resolve, not cause a nuclear conflagration.

Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy's naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.

(Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy’s naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.)

Hastings corrects a number of myths associated with the crisis.  One of the most famous was the idea that on October 24, 1962, as Soviet ships approached the quarantine line the White House held its breath as to whether they could stay the course.  In reality no merchant ship carrying weapons or troops approached anywhere near the invisible line.  Soviet ships had reversed course the previous day, only one of which was closer than 500 miles.  This was due in large part because of the weakness American naval communications.  Another area that historians have overlooked was events in the Atlantic Ocean – particularly concerning were four Soviet submarines, one carrying a nuclear warhead.  Hastings explores this aspect of the crisis, and the reader can only cringe as to what Washington did not know and the slow communication process that existed throughout the crisis.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.

(U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.)

JFK had ample opportunity to resort to military action, but staid his hand despite pressure from members of the Joint Chiefs and others.  The president was the driver of debate and became more of an “analyst-in-chief.”  He pressed his colleagues to probe the implications of any actions the United States would take and offer reasonable solutions to end the crisis.  For JFK it seemed as if he was in a chess match with Khrushchev countering each of his moves and trying to offer him a way out of the crisis he precipitated.

JS Tennant in his review of ABYSS in The Guardian, October 16, 2022 points out that “In January this year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister threatened to deploy “military assets” to Cuba if the US continued to support Ukrainian sovereignty. As has become all too apparent in the past weeks, tactical nuclear missiles are still a threat, along with chemical weapons and supersonic missiles. It’s as if Russia’s desperate scramble to maintain influence will stop at nothing and, as Hastings points out, ‘the scope for a catastrophic miscalculation is as great now as it was in 1914 Europe or in the 1962 Caribbean.’ Abyss provides chastening lessons on how easily things can spiral out of control but also how catastrophe can be averted.”

The book has arrived at a propitious moment in history as once again there is a nuclear threat from the Kremlin.  One can only hope that our current crop of leaders will strive to avoid the worst with the same fervor of JFK and Khrushchev in October 1962.

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pose outside American Embassy in Vienna on June 3, 1961.

(June 3, 1961, Vienna Summit)


Emperor Franz Joseph I, 1898 (b/w photo)

(Autro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)

At the turn of the 20th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire resembled a major power.  It had gone under major industrial changes in the previous decades, had a large standing army, and had reached a political compromise in 1867 that fostered the creation of the Dual Monarchy.  However, beneath the surface there were key issues that would contribute to its decline.  First, the empire consisted of eleven major ethno-language groups scattered across the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovak, Slovene, Croatians, Serbs, Italians and Romanians, some loyal, but most with their own agendas particularly those of Slavic descent.  The military, though large, was partially a caste system with Austrian officers and soldiers from a diverse population.  The empire was split between an industrialized west and a rural east that produced a great deal of conflict. 

Leading this “house of cards” was Franz Joseph who came to the Austrian throne in 1848 and was a weak leader who deferred to others in decision-making.  After 1905 the empire was tied to Germany which nine years later would lead them into World War I and its final demise.  For some the history of the empire may seem boring, but through the use of historical fiction one can get an accurate portrait of Austro-Hungarian society, political upheavals, and an overall lack of unity.  Perhaps the best novel written that conveys the true nature of the empire was authored by Joseph Roth who has often been overlooked as a writer by Anglo-Saxon critics.  I came across the book, THE RADETZKY MARCH while visiting a Viennese bookstore a few years ago and learned it was considered a classic by many literary scholars with a story that follows the Slovenian Trotta dynasty through three generations emblematic of the fate of the empire itself.  The novel is about identity and belonging encompassing as Roth writes “those days before the Great War.”

(Author, Joseph Roth)

The genius of Roth’s work is his ability to capture the “bars, houses, railways, and dusty roads of Austria-Hungary through highly distinct individuals.”  Roth himself was a strong believer in the empire and made his living as a novelist and newspaper writer.  He produced sixteen novels, his best being THE RADETZKY MARCH.  When reading the book one major question struck me; how can the mundane existence of an officer in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire be part of one of the greatest European novels of the 20th century?  After reading Roth’s work I know why.

The title itself is interesting.  The concept of the Radetzky March stems from Johann Strauss’ 1848 composition that celebrated the victory of Field Marshal Radetzky at the Battle of Custoza.  Along with the Blue Danube waltz, the piece became an unofficial Austrian national anthem.  In the novel it symbolizes the glory days of the decaying multinational empire.

The novel begins in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, the last engagement of the second War of Italian Independence.  During the fighting the founder of the Trotta family, an infantry Lieutenant emerges as a hero for saving the life of the young Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph.  As a result of this display of bravery the wounded officer was elevated to the Order of Maria Theresa, and ennobled.  From that point on he was known as Captain Joseph Trotta of Sipolje, a Slovenian village.  Despite this honor Trotta found it difficult to adapt to his new station in life as he was now cut off from a lengthy line of his peasant ancestry.  From Roth’s description he became a competent officer, a good and loyal husband, and rejected all forms of ambition and pretense.  These attributes would dominate the Trotta dynasty in the future.

Roth applies humor, sarcasm, and insightful details into the psyche of each character.  A case in point is Joseph Trotta’s anger over his role in saving the Emperor as being inaccurate in its portrayal in children’s books.  He felt he was not the hero he was made out to be, and when he complained to the War Ministry, including the Emperor he was told to accept his portrayal whether accurate or not.  He would resign from the army, miss the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and accept a generous sum of money and a barony from the Emperor and return to working the soil, his chosen path in life.  He would go as far as discouraging his son Franz from a military career and study for a law degree instead.

Franz would go on to become a District Commissioner and his relationship with his son, Carl Joseph, would form a window into the decline of the Empire itself.  Carl Joseph’s relationship with his father is a convoluted one.  At first it appears to be founded on traditional Victorian values relating to father and son.  At times little communication or contact, but deep respect for each other persists.  As it evolves Carl Joseph becomes more autonomous and his father moves on from his duties as a parent, especially when his son contemplates leaving the army.  However, by the novels’ end they came to rely on each other for emotional support.

The Graben in the 1860s

(Vienna circa 1860-1866)

The conservative empire is exemplified by the relationship between Franz and Carl Joseph.  Strict observance, conformity, and lack of emotion would dominate their interactions throughout the novel until Carl Joseph’s crisis of conscience toward the end of the story.  In discussing this relationship Roth develops the most mundane details which in reality are signals that point to Austro-Hungarian society ranging from extra-marital affairs, the lack of letters between father and son, the portrait of Joseph Trotta that  dominates the District Commissioner’s home, to the ingredients of soup served each week at Sunday dinner. 

Roth develops a theme that subtly compares the differences in the different Trotta generations as it evolved from a conservative approach to society with all its proprieties and its ills to one of individualism and nationalism which would contribute to the weakening of the empire.  When Franz Joseph was a young Emperor and the District Commissioner’s father saved the monarch, a certain correctness was accepted by all.  In the most painful episode in the book highlighting accepted behavior, two young men are bound by the military code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark as honor is everything in that hierarchal, monarchical world, resulting in the death of the two men.  Another stunning example of the importance of tradition occurs as officers learn of a rumor that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Bosnia.  The news encroaches upon a gathering of officers and aristocrats who elect to continue their celebration rather than consider the implications of the news.  This provoked a split among the Austrian and Hungarian officers highlighted by comments by Lieutenant Charles Joseph that they should be ashamed of their actions in such circumstances.    As time progressed and the Great War was on the horizon, the younger generation exemplified by Carl Joseph sought greater freedoms and autonomy that the older generation had difficulty coming to grips with.   Carl Joseph, against his own wishes, is part of that world, but not a good fit for it.  The conformers who believe in the system and its perpetuation require stifling human feeling and the result is the rejection of any social change which Roth presents as the brush workers problem who want revolution if conditions of employment are not improved.  In fact, by the end of the novel Carl Joseph rejected tradition by engaging in affairs with the wives of compatriots, found himself in debt from gambling at a casino at his frontier post, and resigning from the army.

(Vienna, circa, 1900)

No matter the scene or situation Roth presents characters that always seem to relate to the Trotta dynasty and how they rose from their peasant background to a barony.  The characters that Roth develops are interesting and their fundamental place in the novel is how they affect Franz and Carl Joseph.  These individuals include, Dr. Max Demant, a Jew who hated the military who was a close friend of Carl Joseph who was unaware of the affair his wife had with the youngest Trotta.  Count Wojoiech Chojnicki, a Trotta family friend who believed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had already fallen apart.  Frau Valerie von Taussig, a former beauty who ages gracefully and was romantically involved with the younger Carl Joseph.  “Old Jacque,” Franz’s manservant who served for decades as a slave and confidant.  Dr. Skovonnek, Franz’ everyday chess partner. Professor Moser, a poor artist who painted the portrait of Joseph Trotta and the Emperor who were Franz’s closest friends.

Roth’s description of the aging Franz Joseph is marvelous.  It delves deeply into the Emperor’s mindset, particularly in old age as he insists on participating and observing army maneuvers at the Russian border where Carl Joseph is posted.  Roth’s wording is precise as we witness an old man trying to evaluate his life’s work.  Commentary related to church services are indicative of Roth’s thought process and its application to the Emperor; “He had the feelings of having to pull himself together in God’s presence, as before some superior, and he was already so old!  He could have made it a little easier for me!  Thought the Emperor.  But God is even older than I am, and his ways are just as mysterious to me as maybe to all the men in my army.”

Roth loved the empire and its stagnating military.  The condition of the military is brought out by Carl Joseph’s posting to the Russian border and that and the overall plight of the empire becomes a tragedy in Roth’s mind because he believes that something could have been done to avoid the cataclysm that was approaching and in the end would result in the dissolution of the empire at Versailles.

Roth has authored a novel of the life of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian empire that must have been boring.  But it is the virtue of Roth’s style that boredom becomes interesting as a spiritual state.  It is this state that has a nostalgic charm of its own and the novel itself explains much about Europe’s past which would succumb to the battlefields of World War I.

File:Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph in Ljubljana.JPG

(Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)


Sesame Street Russia (1996)

As a grandfather of five all under the age of four I have become refamiliarized with Sesame Street.  Grover, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, and the gang dominated my household when my children were growing up and now I find myself reengaged as my grandchildren have become transfixed.  When I came across the book, MUPPETS IN MOSCOW: THE UNEXPECTED CRAZY TRUE STORY OF MAKING SESAME STREET IN RUSSIA by documentary filmmaker and Harvard Fellow, Natasha Lance Rogoff my interest was piqued.  Based on her own life story, Rogoff, the producer of the Sesame Street adaptation for Russia and Mexico is the perfect author to tackle such a subject.  Based on her firsthand experiences, those of her colleagues, one of whom kept a daily journal of the process, interviews, documents and photographs, the memoir is deeply researched and well written.

In 1993 the Sesame Street Workshop hired Rogoff as the lead producer to adapt America’s most iconic television program for a Russian audience.  Rogoff points out that for the United States who at the time was involved in assisting the former Soviet Union in its transition to a more representative process it was a means of making the Muppets ideal ambassadors to model democratic values and the benefits of a free market economy to a new generation of Russians.  What surprised Rogoff the most was the resistance this would trigger in the post-communist state.  The process was difficult and dangerous as Russia suffered threats of violence and assassinations seemingly on a daily basis in the early 1990s on Moscow television.  Cultural battles ensued from scriptwriting to music, to the creation of the Slavic Muppets themselves.

BUSINKA GRAMMATIKOV Businka, a Muppet of a Russian version of the popular American children's television program, speaks at a news conference in Moscow . Soon Sesame Street characters will help to teach a new generation of Russian children to live in a free, democratic society. The show moves from a New York brownstone to a courtyard in Moscow and is the home of three new brightly-colored Muppets and a Russian family. In the background is Russian series director Vladimir Grammatikov
(Volodya Grammatikov and Businka)

Rogoff tells a remarkable story laying out the challenges in creating and producing Vilitsa Sezam.  The clash of views centered on individualism, capitalism, race, education, and equality reflecting the ongoing cultural discord between East and West that is present each day.  Rogoff held strong Moscow television connections having lived in the Soviet Union off and on for almost a decade.  She realized it would be an arduous project in a country embroiled in chaos and factional power struggles.  In the 1990s Russia was a country that was in political limbo, teetering between its communist past and an uncertain future under the corrupt government of Boris Yeltsin.

As Rogoff describes her creative journey she provides insights into the obstacles that a country emerging from its repressive authoritarian past presented for anyone who was perceived to be trying to alter the accepted way of doing things.  The first major issue Rogoff faced was how to finance and produce a television program in a country with no reliable banking system, no established rule of law, and unstable currency.  Funding did come from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), but a Russian partner was needed.  Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky proved to be unreliable as did Russian television executives who were usually untrustworthy.  The second major issue for Rogoff and her colleagues was the threat of violence and assassination exemplified by a 1995 coup attempt that saw the seizure of Workshop offices.  Lastly, the difficulty of finding and hiring competent Russian professionals for the project who could work together and come to a consensus on a myriad of issues.

Natasha Lance Rogoff Author of Muppets In Moscow
(author, Natasha Lance Rogoff)

Along the way Rogoff encounters and works with a fascinating group of people.  On the positive side were Vladislav Listyev, one of the most respected Russian television personalities until he is murdered.  Midhat Shilov, the Director of Cultural Programming at Ostankino television.  Robin Hessman, a brilliant twenty-two year old graduate from the VGIK Institute of Cinematography who would save the day on more than one occasion.  Katya Komalkova, a classically trained musical composer who becomes the Director of Music. Dr. Anna Genina, Sesame Street senior vice-president of Global Education.  Maria Rybasova, a creative set designer.  Lastly, Volodya Grammatikov, Chief Ulitsa Sezam Director whose sense of humor is priceless.  Other personalities were not as cooperative.  Irina Borisova, the owner of Video Art, one of Russia’s top media firms made numerous promises dealing with funding and office space who did not deliver.  Kolya Komov, a celebrated Russian puppet designer, insisted on using older Russian puppet ideas that did not fit the project.  Lida Shurova, a television writer who refused to consider using American ideas and a host of others including Russian teachers and officials who were captive to older ideas emanating from the Soviet period and who feared any change that went against Russian cultural tradition.

The issue of cultural tradition fostered many roadblocks from designing new Muppets that did not conform to American ideals.  After back and forth consensus was reached on characters such as Zeliboba, a large floppy figure who lived in a tree house exhibiting traits such as “compassion, sweetness, and a spiritual approach to life.”  Businka, a female puppet, would be uncontrollable, impulsive, but loveable.  Kubik, a puppet with outsized ambition and obstinance like a child.  The problem was that Russian members of the team believed that Soviet children were typically reared to be silent, still, and obedient-the opposite of individualistic risk-takers and energetic pint-sized challengers of authority which the workshop hoped to convey.  Gender issues and colors of puppets were finally overcome after months of debate overcoming decades of Soviet educational aims and including Russia’s diverse ethnic groupings that encompassed eleven time zones.  The nature of Russian society made targeting an audience difficult – were sets to be rural, urban, socialist realism, Stalinist architecture, apartment complexes, historical sites, or some combination of all elements.  Amazingly, Rogoff led her team in such a manner that most obstacles were overcome by assistance from the Children’s Workshop in New York, and Rogoff’s newly minted husband, Ken.

A key component and one of the most interesting aspects of the book involves puppet development, puppeteer training, and all the technical work that went into the project.  It is fascinating as the Russian puppeteers are chosen and engage in the rigorous training that they must endure.  On screen Muppets appear to move effortlessly, but Rogoff’s description provides the developing skill set that is needed to complete a successful performance.  This aspect of the book is the most entertaining as one can see the satisfaction and camaraderie that develops among American and Russian puppeteers.

The difficulties Rogoff faced are exemplified by the concept of “sadness,” as Russian advisors insisted that for the program to be authentic it had to reflect this emotion which dominated Russian life and culture for centuries.   Rogoff’s tale is one of perseverance and creativity that illuminates how even the most disparate cultures and perspectives can find common ground even while you marry for the first time and give birth to a child in the midst of all the danger.  Regretfully, all the  creativity, and sacrifice trying to take into account as many aspects of Russia’s past was destroyed by the Putin regime as the program which ran from 1996 to 2010 was cancelled.

Sesame Street Russia (1996)


(Colditz Prison today)

If one is interested in spy craft and traitors during World War II and the Cold War there are few authors that have produced more satisfying works than Ben Macintyre.  Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times (U.K.) and has written monographs whose narratives include the history of the British SAS; deceptions that encompass plans to misinform the Nazis in the lead up to the invasions of Sicily and D-Day; well-known spies such as Kim Philby, Oleg Gordievsky, the woman known as Agent Sonya, Eddie Chapman; and his latest the escapees from the Nazi fortress, Colditz.  Whether describing and analyzing the actions of double agents loyal to the United States, Britain, or Russia or other topics Macintyre’s approach to conveying espionage history is clear, concise, entertaining, and remarkably well written.  All books are based on sound research and his readers will welcome his latest effort PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE: AN EPIC STORY OF SURVIVAL AND ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ, THE NAZIS FORTRESS PRISON.

As in all of his books. PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE tackles subject matter with gusto and goes beyond the conventional story that may have been told before.  In his latest effort he breathes new life into one of the greatest war stories ever told as over a period of four years allied prisoners tried to escape the impregnable Nazi fortress.  Macintyre traces the evolution of World War II from within the prison to the point of liberation when inmates feared their rescue would not come quickly enough to save them.  As described by the author, the prisoners were an amalgam of self-identified “communists, scientists, homosexuals, women, aesthetes and philistines, aristocrats, spies, workers, poets, and traitors” who created their own replica of pre-war society and culture within the prison as a means of survival.

Caught in the act, this Allied prisoner can be seen poking climbing out of a sewer after guards at Colditz Camp in Leipzig, Germany had caught him trying to escape. Only the most high risk Second World War prisoners were sent to Colditz - a converted castle built on rocky terrain in eastern Germany
(Escaping through the sewers)

There are two components that dominate Macintyre’s monograph; the replica of the British social class structure that dominated prison life, and the integration of an eclectic and diverse group of prisoners whether British, Dutch, French, Polish, or American.   There are other themes that the author introduces that include the Nazi leadership that ran Colditz, the ebbs and flows of the war which prisoners were able to keep up with by building a surreptitious radio, the planning of escapes and what happened to the escapees, the plight of Prominente – a group of influential and famous prisoners whom the Nazis sought to maximize a return, and how Berlin reacted to what was occurring in the prison.

Running through the heart of Colditz ran a wide and almost unbridgeable social class divide.  This was a camp for captured officers, but it also consisted of a fluctuating population of orderlies, and prisoners of other ranks who performed menial tasks for the Germans, but also served as personal servants for officers.  Only officers were allowed to take part in escape attempts and orderlies were not expected to assist them.  No orderly tried to escape because if caught the consequences could be devastating.  If an officer was caught he was returned to the prison usually unharmed.  There was a working class of soldiers and orderlies, and an upper class of officers, reflecting the class structure of the time. 

The officers had a British “boarding school mentality.”  They tried to recreate the traditions of Eton and other private schools coopting behaviors such as bullying, enslaving individuals on the lower rung of society, “goon-baiting” of Germans, and diverse types of entertainment.  Those who did not attend a boarding school were rarely included.

Spot the dummy?Allied soldiers had a handmade dummy they would use during parade head counts to fool guards at Colditz. While the figure had no legs, prisoners could hold it up and hope it would, at a cursory glance, appear as one of their fellow inmates
(Creating copies of uniforms, including the use of dummies)

Macintyre describes the prison infrastructure that the prisoners studied assiduously to determine weak points and when they might escape.  For most prisoners escaping became their life’s work and interestingly the different nationalities kept a score card highlighting successful escapes.  The food was abysmal, but edible and it was offset by Red Cross packages of food, clothing, toiletries and other important items.  Many packages contained objects hidden in food and other articles that might assist an escape.  Prisoners cooperated in digging tunnels, one of which was known as Le Metro dug mostly by the French, performing logistics, obtaining and making tools, and often attempted an escape that involved substantial number of men.  On the other hand, there were prisoners who worked alone and wanted no part of being in a group.  The prisoners created numerous committees to regulate prisoner life and tried to produce a sense of normality.  One in particular was most important – if a prisoner wanted to try to escape he needed the approval of an Escape Committee headed by the highest ranking officers.

Macintyre’s attention to detail is a strength of the book.  He delves into strategies developed and objects needed, i.e.; the “arse keeper,” a cylinder to hide money, small tools and other objects in one’s anatomy was most creative.  The prisoners were geniuses in developing tactics to confuse their captors, and instruments that were used to make their escape attempts possible, a including a glider that was completely built, but never used..  The author also includes how prisoners tried to keep themselves sane by developing their own entertainment.  They set up theater performances, choirs, concerts, bands, jazz ensembles, plays etc.  Sanity was a major issue and for those who remained at Colditz for years PTSD was definitely an issue.

Captured soldiers were no strangers to using tunnels for their great escapes, but it was highly unlikely they would make it all the way out to freedom. During the Second World War 32 PoWs escaped from Colditz, of which only 15 made it across Europe to safety
(The French “Metro” Tunnel)

The characters Macintyre describes are a diverse and fascinating group.  The following stand out.  Alain Le Ray, a French Lieutenant in an elite mountain infantry force, and a self-contained individual who planned and tried to execute numerous escapes.  Captain Pat Reid, a gregarious member of the British Royal Service Corps who shared his plans and was involved in many escape attempts.  Joseph Ellison Platt, a self-righteous Methodist preacher tried, and usually failed to keep prisoners on the straight and narrow.  Airey Neave, wounded at Calais used planning escapes as a tool to ease his depression. He would finally escape and work for MI9 to assist other prisoners.  Birendranath Mazumdar, an Indian doctor and an officer who was treated poorly by his British “allies” reflecting the racist attitudes of British officers.  He turned down working for the Germans but was still a victim of his compatriots.  Giles Romilly, a nephew by marriage of Winston Churchill, was journalist and communist captured in Norway.  Christopher Layton Hutton designed and developed numerous escape kits and other inventions for prisoners.  Michael Sinclair escaped from Poland who was obsessed with escaping and reuniting with the Anglo-Polish Society, a secret resistance network – he would make seven escape attempts dying on the last one..   Julius Green, a Jewish dentist from Glasgow developed the most prolific code-letter system and treated Nazi patients who disclosed valuable information that he was able to forward to the right authorities.  Checko Chalovpka, a Czech pilot whose affair with Irmgard Wernicke, a dental assistant in town who a spy who fed information provoked awe.  Walter Purdy, a British supporter of Oswald Mosley turned against his fellow prisoners and made radio speeches condemning the allies – his fellow prisoners wanted to lynch him.  Wing Commander Douglas Bader, a double amputee fighter pilot who was held in high esteem by most prisoners. Lee Carson, a beautiful and fearless journalist who traveled with American troops, who was known as the “Rhine Maiden.”  There are also important Nazi figures highlighted by Lt. Reinhold Eggers, the Supreme Security Chief at Colditz who tried to be fair to the prisoners and was often overruled.  Eggers is extremely important in that he maintained a written history of the camp that Macintyre had access to.  Eggers appears almost as a background narrator of the story presenting his battle with prisoners and the thinking of the German occupiers.

The turning point for prisoners came after D-Day.  As long as the German Army was in charge of the camp treatment was palatable.  However, as the war turned after D-Day and the July 1944 Plot that failed to assassinate Hitler more and more the SS and the Gestapo under Heinrich Himmler took over the camp.  Escapees were warned, if you were captured you would be shot, not just returned to the barracks as before.

Prisoners, including some dressed in women's clothes and make up, can be seen here performing in a show. Guards at Colditz organised concerts and shows as a way of keeping prisoners occupied so they could not plan any escapes
(Prisoners created their own theater)

I agree with Andrea Pitzer’s September 29, 2022, Washington Post review as she writes, “Macintyre tells the story of the POW camp that had more escape attempts than any other during World War II. He parades a brigade of officers, some of whom have since been lionized or found postwar fame through film, television and multiple books. Ultimately, Macintyre offers a more complete and complex account than is typical in popular histories from the Nazi era. Read in that light, this is less a fairy tale than an honest account of heroic but fallible men in captivity, made more compelling through the acknowledgment of their flaws and failures.”

The strength of the book lies with Macintyre’s unique ability to weave a story involving so many different characters, not allowing individuals to get in the way of his material.  Macintyre writes as if he is aware that his story is not a literary one, but a recounting the stories of many important men and stitching together their experiences from the disparate historical record. 

(Colditz Prison during WW2)

THE MAGICIAN by Colm Toibin

Der deutsche Schriftsteller Thomas Mann
(Thomas Mann)

How does an author of historical fiction do justice to a subject who must be considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century?  In his latest work, Colm Toibin, the author of THE MASTER, BROOKLYN, NORA WEBSTER and nine others takes on the challenge and has produced a work of biographical fiction centered on the life of Thomas Mann, THE MAGICIAN.  The book is a deep dive into the German Noble Prize winner’s life, highlighting his work, sexual proclivities, and the dysfunctional nature of the family with his fascinating wife Katia and his independent and unruly children.  The book reads like an actual biography, but without the narrow biographical strictures of more traditional works like Ronald Hayman’s THOMAS MANN: A BIOGRAPHY, Donald Prater’s, THOMAS MANN: A LIFE and Nigel Hamilton’s THE BROTHERS MANN.

Toibin’s effort is engrossing as he is able to apply a literary brush to a life that is not fiction and appears as a true biography.  Toibin’s imagination is combined with empirical research that allows him to capture the essence of Thomas Mann, his family, and the characters he dealt with during his lifetime.  Mann himself was a complex individual who hid his artistic and literary ambitions from his father and his homosexual feelings from everyone, though he would still marry and raise six children.

Photograph: the Mann family
(The Mann family, Munich, 1932)

Mann, a 1901 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature had his family serve as a model in for his first novel, BUDDENBROOKS, Katia’s stay in a sanitorium is recounted in fiction for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, and DEATH IN VENICE brought out his hidden homosexual fantasies among his works.  By 1933 he realized remaining in his beloved Munich was untenable; he and his family began a journey that would take them across Europe to France, Sweden, England, the United States, and finally to Switzerland.  THE MAGICIAN is an insightful novel that focuses on Mann and his family as they made there way through the World Wars, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Cold War.

Toibin offers an intimate portrait of European society that is about to be destroyed by Hitlerite aggression. The norms and accepted principles that dominated northern Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century are on full display.  The Mann family life is recreated, and Toibin’s treatment of Thomas’ relationship with his older brother provides an important window into the dynamics of the family.  Throughout Toibin juxtaposes how the brothers react to each other citing their similarities, but more so their differences from their views of who should take over the family trading business, their attitude toward the rise of Adolph Hitler, and how they should navigate World War II and its aftermath.  A tender relationship is evident despite the harsh treatment they afford each other at times.

Image may contain Tree Plant Shelter Outdoors Nature Building Countryside Rural Yard Housing and Tree Trunk
(The Mann home in Pacific Palisades, CA)

The Mann family dynamic forms a core of the novel.  The six children that Katia and Thomas produced are made up of strong personalities with disparate beliefs.  Klaus and Erika, who some thought had an incestuous relationship were anti-war radicals who opposed the rise of Hitler and pursued ideals that at times were an embarrassment to their staid father.  Elisabeth, the youngest who was the favored child took care of their parents until she shocked them by marrying the anti-fascist writer of literature, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese who was a little younger than her father, Galo, strong willed remained in Europe until the last minute, Monika whose boat was torpedoed by the Germans in 1940 as she tried to reach her family in the United States suffering the loss of her husband as she survived, and Michael the sensitive musician. 

The driving wedge within the family emerges with the rise of Nazism in the 1920s.  Klaus and Erika were adamantly public about their opposition to Hitler, but their father, typical of many Jews of his generation, was in denial.  Thomas Mann believed that the Hitler phenomena was temporary and German culture would override his popularity.  As time went on he began to realize the danger that Hitler represented but feared speaking out as it would endanger his German reading public, the safety of his brother Heinrich, Katia’s parents, his publisher, even after he himself became a refugee from Nazi Germany.  Toibin conveys Thomas Mann’s tortured emotions as he knew at least in his subconscious that Germany was lost to him, though for years he could not admit it.  He could not accept that once his books were banned in Germany the only access his readers would have was through translations – something he could not accept.

  • Deutschland Literatur Geschichte Thomas Mann mit Familie am HiddenseeTHE (UNBELIEVABLE TALENT OF THE MANN FAMILYThe Manns: Dad was in chargeIn his new biography on the Mann family, Tilmann Lahme writes that Thomas Mann’s children never managed to free themselves from their father’s influence. The book begins in the 1920s, when all six of them have already been born. Pictured with him in 1924, from left to right: His wife Katia, with Monika, Michael, Elisabeth, Klaus and Erika Mann. Golo is missing in the photo.)

Mann’s same-gender attraction is treated honestly and with care.  There are many scenes that reflect Thomas’ desire, particularly when confronted with attractive young men.  The presentation is conveyed with taste even as Thomas fantasizes because of these encounters, though most were not carried to fruition.  Katia’s approach to their marriage and the needs of her husband are interesting and without her openness and sensitivity the marriage would never have lasted.  Mann wished to play the role of the bourgeois head of family in the context of his homoerotic fantasies which his wife accepted as long as her husband did not put their domestic life in jeopardy. 

Thomas Mann’s fears of the Nazis learning about his same-gender attraction is highlighted by his obsession with his diaries.  Though, his son Galo was able to send most of his books and papers to Sweden his diaries which included his fantasies and other thoughts about boys and young man were almost lost to the Nazis who would have liked nothing better to publish them and ruin him, particularly when he finally denounced the regime.  As Jay Parini writes in his September 19, 2021, New York Times book review the diaries reflected his dreams about mostly handsome young men. “His homoeroticism had many mansions, and he roamed their corridors in his dreams with impunity.”   Further, “Toibin delves into the layers of the great German novelist’s unconscious, inviting us to understand his fraught, monumental, complicated and productive life. It’s a work of huge imaginative sympathy.”

Toibin is at his best when describing some of the interesting characters that Mann dealt with during his lifetime.  The author resorts to an entertaining mocking style as he discusses Heinrich Mann’s wife Nelly who many labeled as a “floozy,” and Alma Mahler, the obstreperous wife of the late composer Gustav Mahler.  These are examples among many including other family members and associates of Thomas who become victims of Toibin’s sardonic pen.

Toibin expertly conveys the desperation of emigres trying to leave Europe for America to escape the rising tide of Nazism.  The gravity of the danger is fully explored, along with the bureaucratic roadblocks that people were forced to overcome.  Toibin focuses on his own family members which is a microcosm of the problem for hundreds of thousands feeing Hitler’s genocide.  Toibin’s analysis fits in with the current airing of Ken Burn’s latest documentary, an excellent piece of work entitled, US AND THE HOLOCAUST.

Thomas Mann and his wife Katia
(Katia and Thomas Mann)

Toibin deftly navigates the origins of some of Mann’s most important novels.  BUDDENBROOKS  is a commentary of Jewish assimilation in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century which draws on the family trading business and Thomas and Heinrich’s desire to have no part of it once their father dies.  DEATH IN VENICE is formulated based on a visit to Venice in 1911 where Mann encountered a beautiful Polish boy who becomes Tadzio in the novel. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN is centers on a Swiss sanitorium where he takes the inconsequential actions of an x-Ray technician transfigured into art.

The novel conveys how politicians tried to manipulate and control Mann for their own devices as they implored him not to speak out against Nazi Germany before the United States could enter the war because of isolationist sentiment.  Later, he refused to go along with American diplomats who wanted him to refuse an invitation to speak at the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s birth in East Germany.  When he refused to cooperate, he ruined his reputation in the United States, and this would foster his move from Los Angeles to Switzerland for his final years.

Overall, Lucy Hughes-Hallett is correct in her The Guardian review of September 17, 2021, as she states “The Magician is first and foremost a portrait of the artist as a family man; there is comparatively little in it about Mann’s development as a writer or about his status in the literary world. Rather, it places him at the centre of a panoramic vision of the early 20th-century German cultural scene….This is an enormously ambitious book, one in which the intimate and the momentous are exquisitely balanced. It is the story of a man who spent almost all of his adult life behind a desk or going for sedate little post-prandial walks with his wife. From this sedentary existence Tóibín has fashioned an epic.” 

Image result for thomas mann novelist

MR PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin through the ages!)

As of today, Ukrainian forces have launched a successful counter-offensive against Russia in the northeastern part of the country and have liberated the key city of Izyum and have had success throughout the Kharkiv region.  For the first time there may be rumblings in Moscow concerning how the war is evolving – the question is how Vladimir Putin will respond.  An excellent source to consult is Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s thorough study MR. PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN.  The book was originally published in 2013 and updated shortly after the Russian seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014.  The authors dispel certain misconceptions about Putin and offer an analysis of where Putin’s ideas originate, how he perceives the outside world, and how far he is willing to go.  Though the book is seven years old its conclusions are very prescient and offers a psychological, political, diplomatic, and economic approach to try and understand Putin and in many cases their observations have been quite accurate.

Hill and Gaddy have written a perceptive account of what Putin really wants for Russia and how it could possibly be undone.  As David Hearst writes in The Guardian, May 2013;  “The many sources of the system he has created are amply and brilliantly clarified in this book. Mr Putin, Operative in the Kremlin (note the mister, not comrade) is a readable and informed portrait painted by two students of Russian history who had, at various times in their careers, a front-row view. Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution academic, spent 2006-9 as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. The economist Clifford Gaddy once advised the Russian finance ministry on regional tax and has investigated how Putin’s financial dealings relate to his KGB past.” 

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin, age 8)

From the outset the authors argue there is very little information regarding Putin that is “definitive, confirmable, or reliable.”  However, there are observations that seem appropriate.  First, Putin has shaped his overall fate.  Second, there is little documentary evidence to support the idea of Putin’s extensive wealth.  Even if Putin did enrich himself, the authors argue they do not believe that “a quest for personal wealth is primarily what drives him.”  Third, Putin likes to employ misinformation and contradictory information to create an image that is unknowable and unpredictable, and therefore dangerous – keep people guessing and fear what he might do.  Fourth, Putin likes to stage a number of outfits and scenarios to portray himself as the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality.  Each outfit and scenario are designed to pay a degree of respect for certain goals and validates their place in Russian society and history.  The authors present numerous examples to support these observations.

r/ANormalDayInRussia - Putin with his daughters and wife, early 90's
(Putin with his wife and daughters in the early 1990s)

The key to the analysis presented rests on the authors breaking down Putin’s six identities which explain his actions from his rise to power, reinvigorating the Russian economy in the 2000-2012 period, controlling the oligarchs, returning to the presidency in 2013, to an aggressive foreign policy in dealing with Georgia, Ukraine and the west in general designed to restore Russia’s rightful place in the world balance of power.  These identities are; Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer.  After explaining the context of each in a succinct and thoughtful manner the authors have provided important perceptions and insights into what Putin thinks and why he does what he does. 

The 1990s, a period of chaos, corruption, and economic decline form the basis of the Statist, History Man, and Survivalist identities, and Putin’s personal narrative.  The next three identities the Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer are more personal.  The authors center on Putin growing up in a working class neighborhood of Leningrad, a city which survived the Nazi siege, starvation, and 750,000 deaths, a situation which greatly impacted Putin’s psychological and emotional development.  Further, the authors point to Putin’s years in the KGB at home and abroad, particularly his 1985-1989 years in Dresden where he missed Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and  perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Importantly, the authors develop Putin’s post-Soviet St. Petersburg activities as a participant in local government and in a series of below-the-radar positions in the Kremlin in the late 1990s allowing him to develop  a unique combination of skills and experiences that propelled him to the presidency in 1999-2000.  But, overall, Putin’s persona was as an Outsider as he was outside of Russia or ensconced in St. Petersburg away from policy makers in Moscow.

Putin old and young

An excellent example of how the authors analysis works is to point to Putin’s world view through his speeches.  The first, March 18, 2014, and the speech he made yesterday on September 21, 2022.  Remarkably, both speeches support the conclusion that Putin’s perception of the outside world has not changed in eight years and probably from previous decades.  The March 2014 speech came on the heels of the Russian annexation of Crimea a belief that he was restoring  Russia’s position as a great power and world civilization.  This was part of the Statist role for Putin in addition to that of the History Man internationally as he staked out a place for the Russian people in the great sweep of global history and has rewritten the narrative of Russia’s interactions with the outside world.  He has acted as a Survivalist who sets out to ensure that Russia can protect itself against all external threats, by preparing and deploying “every reserve or resource-even history itself-in the state’s defense.  The author’s insights are on the mark as they argue, “the operative in the Kremlin has projected himself abroad by drawing on his firsthand experiences and insights as an Outsider and the Free Marketeer, and by applying the professional tools of the Case Officer.”

(Judo training)

Putin’s rationale for his invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea, and the current invasion of Ukraine are all similar.  The European Union is a stalking horse for the West, the expansion of NATO, and western opposition to Russian actions are all designed to destroy Russia from within and without.  Putin believes that containing Russia has been a western priority since the 1700s and continues in the case of Ukraine.  Putin’s speech yesterday is a rerun arguing that Russia only pursues defensive actions to counteract western support for Ukraine.  Threats of nuclear war, calling up 300,000 reservists to complete his “special operation” emanate from the same place in Putin’s psyche.

Putin’s disenchantment with the United states developed from 1999.  The importance of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 deeply impacted Putin.  He saw it as a threat to Slavs and highlighted Russian weakness and distrust of the west.  Putin claims that he tried to improve relations with the United States by helping after 9/11 and the war against al-Qaeda.  But he was put off by the Bush administration who invaded Iraq, pulled out of nuclear arms treaties, allowed for Baltic states becoming NATO members, all reflecting America’s lack of respect for Russia.  Putin’s true feelings emerge publicly in his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference where he lambasted the United States where he stressed how NATO actions were an American provocation that reduced the level of trust Russia had toward the west.  Even when the Obama administration sought a reset with Russia, Congress passed the Sergei Magnitsky Act which imposed sanctions against Russian officials who were complicit in the death of the crusading lawyer, further Putin was angered by US actions in Libya and Syria.

The authors correctly argue that the invasion of Georgia was a dress rehearsal for events that would take place in Ukraine in December 2013.  With Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Moscow in February 2014 after refusing to move closer to the European Union and joining Putin’s Eurasian Union protestors took to the streets in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence) Square – the Russian autocrat would have visions of Dresden in December 1989.  Putin’s assessment of developments was seen through the lens of his experiences in Dresden in 1989 when East Germany fell without a fight as did the Soviet Union upending Moscow’s position in Europe destroying the entire Soviet bloc.  In Putin’s mind if Ukrainian protests were allowed to continue then Kyiv would push toward the European Union and eventually NATO membership circumventing his economic plans for the east. 

Vladimir Putin pictures over the years.

Putin believed Western and European leaders encouraged protestors and the opposition and once again the United States and its EU allies had overthrown a regime without firing a shot.  Since Putin strongly believed that “Ukrainians and Russians were not just fraternal peoples: there were one single, united people” events were devastating to Moscow’s goals.  Putin reached into his Case Officer’s bag of tricks to punish Ukraine – cutting off $10 billion worth of trade, turning off the energy spigot, demanding Kyiv pay off its debts to Russia, the usual misinformation surrounding Ukraine’s role in World War II, and played on the fears of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.   Based on events and Putin’s raison d’etre it is not surprising that Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and subsequently invaded all of Ukraine eight years later.

The concise analysis and extensive research based on academic and government experience and delving into Putin’s speeches and writings serve the authors well in developing their narrative.  It is clear from their analysis that Putin believes his personal destiny is that of the Russian state and its past – for him it provides legitimacy.  This is Putin the Statist as he rejects autocracy and claims Russia is a “sovereign democracy.”  In addition, Putin wraps himself in the Orthodox church, and the collective people of Russia – nationalism.  Putin hates social upheaval and identifies himself as a Survivalist as he and his parents survived World War II in Leningrad.  The Survivalist moniker is very apt when one examines Putin’s life.  First, his childhood and the politics in St. Petersburg.  Second, his career as Deputy Mayor when he bungled the food crisis in St. Petersburg.  Third, the chronic food shortages throughout the 1990s.  Fourth, dealing with the economic crisis of 2008-2010. 

There are many more examples, but in all cases he emerged intact politically with a strengthened ego.  He learned new strategies particularly how to manipulate Russian natural resources to achieve his goals, something he continues to do today by cutting off energy supplies to Western Europe as a means of changing the course of the war in Ukraine.  Putin’s Survivalist actions comport with historian, Masha Gessen’s analysis in that he is proud of his “thuggish” reputation, and it is central to his public persona dating back to his childhood “courtyard culture,” and “outsider” status, i.e.., treatment of Chechnya in 1999,  today’s Ukraine, blackmailing oligarchs to submit to his will etc.

  • New Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath on the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Moscow's Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2000. Former president Boris Yeltsin looks on during the inauguration ceremony after having resigned on December 31, 1999.(
  • New Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath on the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Moscow’s Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2000. Former president Boris Yeltsin looks on during the inauguration ceremony after having resigned on December 31, 1999.AFP/AFP/Getty Images) (Below, Anatoli Sobchak and Putin)
  • Vladimir Putin, then St. Petersburg deputy mayor, standing with former mayor Anatoly Sobchak in 1994. Putin helped orchestrate Sobchak's escape to Paris when he was under criminal investigation in 1997.

If there is an area that the authors could have made clearer is when they get bogged down in the minutia of Putin’s approach to the Russian economy and industrial production.  Putin’s mantra is “strategic planning,” a concept he plagiarized from the works of David Cleland and William King’s book, STRATEGIC PLANNING AND POLICY which he lifted to write his supposed “dissertation.”  Either way the author’s final analysis is spot on – the strategic model Putin has put in place cannot work.  Putin runs Russia like a corporation, Russia, Inc., but it is a country.  Putin sees himself as a CEO, but he can never be fired.  The system he has created is built on mistrust and all decisions run through Putin as he does not accept anything but total loyalty.  People are bought off, but not in the traditional way.  First they are compromised, and loyalty is created through blackmail – Putin as Case officer! 

Corruption is the glue that keeps Putin’s informal system afloat.  With no strategic reserve of qualified people, Putin just moves people around to keep them guessing and under his control.  This hyper personalized system is a failure, and the Russian people are paying the price.  Russia has come full circle.  With his misinformation onslaught in 2013-14 (the rhetoric is similar to today) Putin managed to move Russia psychologically back to the 1980s and the Cold War with perceptions, threat, and fears of an American attack.  By engaging in this type of former KGB head and Soviet president Yuri Andropov thinking, Putin has moved Russia closer to the world view of the 1980s more than outside observers realized.  Putin’s Russia is a very different country from the 1990s and the west in general.

The book should be read by anyone seeking to understand Putin’s modus operandi, what he hopes to achieve, and the threat he presents to those who favor the rule of some type of “international accommodation,” (notice I did not say law!)  Interestingly, the section where the authors allude to future Putin actions and rationales as of today seem quite accurate.

July caused global shortages

Vladimir Putin at the plenary session of the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok


Mikhail Gorbachev
(Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev)

If you are looking for a reasonably compact review of Russian history encompassing the last three decades of the twentieth century, Princeton University historian and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Stephen Kotkin’s book ARMAGEDDON AVERTED, THE SOVIET COLLAPSE 1970-2000 should be considered.  Published in 2008 it foresaw some of the problems we are experiencing today with Russia and looking back fourteen years later Kotkin would not be shocked by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  Kotkin has written two volumes of his biographical trilogy of Joseph Stalin; STALIN: PARADOXES OF POWER, 1878-1928 and STALIN: WAITING FOR HITLER, 1929-1941, one of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  Kotkin is an exceptional historian blessed with a pleasing writing style and the ability to synthesize vast amounts of historical information and documentation that the general reader along with professional colleagues can admire and enjoy.  With the war raging in Ukraine, Kotkin provides insights into Putin’s thought process and the impact of the 1970-2000 period on the Russian autocrat that explains a great deal of his actions.

ussr map 1961

A key theme in Kotkin’s monograph is his stated purpose in authoring the book; try and explain why the Soviet elite destroyed its own system with an absence of an all-consuming conflagration.  Pursuing historical hindsight Kotkin points to the importance of the 1973 Arab oil embargo as a watershed event that helped nudge the Soviet system toward economic failure.  According to Kotkin the 1973-4 embargo led to the economic collapse of Soviet industry in the late 1970s.  For Moscow, the discovery of oil in western Siberia in the 1960s coincided in the 1973 rise in oil prices brought about by the embargo which saved the Soviet economy from disaster.  From 1973-1985 oil was responsible for 80% of Soviet hard currency, much of which went for weapons procurement to equalize its relationship to the United States.  Further, Russia needed the excess wealth to pay for the war in Afghanistan; assist Eastern European satellites by offsetting energy costs; and importing the necessary technology, pay elites among other expenses.  It appeared that Russia was in a period of prosperity, but Kotkin is correct in that it postponed the inevitable collapse of the Soviet system as its industrial infrastructure continued to deteriorate.

ussr map 1939

Kotkin’s concise and analytical narrative raises many interesting points among them that the Soviet Union tried to clone satellite regimes after World War II.  The problem was that Moscow presented itself as a role model at a time of the post-war capitalist boom in the west.  The discrepancies between the two systems were clear and Eastern Europe became a thorn in the side of the Soviets as 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1980 invasions and pressure can attest to.  Eastern Europe went from a supposed Soviet strength to a vulnerability as more and more western consumer goods and loans were used to mollify populations.  Further aggravating Moscow was the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese economic expansion and the cost in playing a leading role in the Third World.

It is obvious that Soviet infrastructure was on the decline throughout the 1970s and it could not compete with western capitalism, but what pushed the Soviet system over the edge was the generational leadership shift of the 1980s as the gerontocracy of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko passed on to be replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev and his ill-fated perestroika.  The rot within the Soviet leadership is undeniable and the new Soviet leader sought to save the system from itself as Kotkin argues, “what proved to be the [Communist] Party’s final mobilization, perestroika, was driven not by cold calculation about achieving an orderly retrenchment, but by the pursuit of a romantic dream,” which Gorbachev referred to as “humane socialism.”

Kotkin raises an important question.  Why did Gorbachev’s reform agenda fail so miserably?   The author points to a number of reasons that make a great deal of sense.  First, Gorbachev’s economic agenda went halfway toward achieving a market transformation, something that was doomed from the start.  Second, oil prices declined drastically in 1986 which devastated hard currency earnings curtailing the import of consumer goods and reducing the standard of living for Soviet citizens.  Third, by pursuing a halfway approach toward a market economy it fell even further behind the west.  Fourth, the disaster at Chernobyl showed the west that Gorbachev was no different than his predecessors, being ensconced in secrecy.  Fifth, with Glasnost the public was now aware of secrets buried for decades; murder, the gulag, elite corruption etc.  Sixth, 25% of the population was under 25 years of age and were not interested in reforming socialism – Glasnost afforded unprecedented access to “commercial culture and values of capitalism.”  Seventh, party officials had no idea how to address a public reconfigured as voters or how to deal with shortages of goods, pollution, deteriorating assembly lines etc.  Somehow the Communist Party was supposed to be both the instrument and the object of perestroika.  Eighth, later Gorbachev admitted he failed to create a program for the transformation of a unitary state into a federal state and crippled the centralized party machine.  Lastly, Russia’s 15 Union republics had clearly defined state borders and their own state institutions and they began to act as independent states which they eventually became.

Yeltsin Speaking at Press Conference
(Russian President Boris Yeltsin)

To Gorbachev’s credit he kept the Soviet military out of the loop when it came to events in Eastern Europe and let events evolve.  Since the Soviet Union could no longer compete with the west he let the satellite states move on as they and most republics declared their independence.

Kotkin provides an in-depth analysis of the August 1991 putsch and the role of conservative elements, the military, and of course Boris Yeltsin.  What he describes has been repeated by many scholars, but what stands out is his analogy of the putsch, its leadership, and its result to George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM.  His presentation is priceless!  The result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not bring on the onset of American type affluence combined with European style social welfare but a chaotic system by which inflation wiped out the pensions and savings of the Russian people and the squalid appropriation of state functions, property, and wealth by Soviet era elites.   In addition to Yeltsin’s cronies and KGB types particularly from Vladimir Putin’s St. Petersburg colleagues and organized crime raping the wealth both monetary and physical from the Russian people.

The 1990s was a disaster and Kotkin fills in the gaps as to what occurred. He carefully explores the machinations of officials, bankers, factory management, political elites, and others who accumulated enormous wealth during the decade.  These groups developed numerous schemes from privatizations, auctions, loans for shares, bankruptcy procedures for cut rate hostile takeovers of profitable assets, money laundering, capital flight to offshore accounts leaving nothing for investment as they absconded with the wealth of their country.  The bottom line for Kotkin was “How was the incoherent Russian state going to solve the country’s problems when the state was the main problem?”

The main criticisms of Kotkin’s work comes from historian Orlando Figes who writes in the January 20, 2002 ,New York Times Book Review; “This relates to a broader criticism of Kotkin’s work. ”Averting Armageddon” plays down the importance of two vital factors in the Soviet collapse. One is the role of ideology — or more specifically the way in which it lost all meaning to the apparatchiks who deserted Gorbachev in 1989-91. Gorbachev was the last of the believers in the Communist ideal — but his party comrades, for the most part, had long ceased to believe. Their ideology had become little more than an empty slogan, a means of entry to the special shops reserved for the Soviet elite. This fact is essential if we are to understand why so few Communists were prepared to fight for the Soviet regime. The August putsch of 1991 was doomed from the start by the inertia of the middle and the upper ranks of the party. The plotters’ leader, poor old Gennadi I. Yanayev, was aware of this when, his hands in an alcoholic tremble, he read out to the world’s press a declaration of emergency.

Moscow  coup: Russian President Boris Yeltsin reads a statement during the coup, Moscow
(Boris Yeltsin during the 8/1991 failed putsch in Russia)

The other factor is human agency — or more specifically Gorbachev. He may have started out as a Communist reformer, but there must have been a moment (for he tells us there was one) when he realized the need to dismantle the regime without a violent backlash from the hard-liners. His political maneuverings were intended to avoid a civil war or a crackdown against Eastern Europe that might have led to a disastrous loss of life. He was a sort of political Columbus — setting out with high ideals to find one thing and achieving something better by discarding them. He is a hero of our times.”*

Despite these criticisms Kotkin has written a concise, readable and informative book striking a pleasing balance between tedious detail and sweeping generalizations.  He offers a practical, accessible, and informative account of the Soviet Union’s collapse and insights into the impact of Russian history and allows for greater understanding of ongoing events in the Ukraine.

*Orlando Figes. “Who Lost the Soviet Union?” New York Times, January 20, 2002.  Figes latest book THE STORY OF RUSSIA was published a few weeks ago.

(Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev)


Sigmund Freud (1856 –1939), medical doctor, neuropathologist and founder of psychoanalysis.  
(Sigmund Freud)

There are numerous biographies of Sigmund Freud, the best ones I have read include Peter Gay’s FREUD: A LIFE FOR OUR TIMES, Joel Whitebrook’s FREUD: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY, and an earlier work, Ronald W. Clark’s FREUD: THE MAN AND THE CAUSE.  The latest monograph SAVING FREUD: THE RESCUERS WHO BROUGHT HIM TO FREEDOM by Andrew Nagorski is not a complete biography but one that focuses on how Freud and fifteen of his followers managed to escape Austria in 1938 as Hitler and his Nazis achieved their Anschluss with Austria triggering a wave of anti-Semitic violence.  While Nagorski provides biographical details of Freud’s life, his main thrust is the years leading up to World War II.  Nagorski tells an engrossing tale of how there was little margin for error for Freud as he escaped Nazi persecution.

Nagorski a former Newsweek correspondent has written a number of excellent works dealing with 1930s and World II, including HITLERLAND: AMERICAN EYEWITNESSES TO THE NAZI RISE TO POWER, THE NAZI HUNTERS, 1941: THE YEAR GERMANY LOST THE WAR, and THE GREATEST BATTLE: STALIN, HITLER AND THE DESPARATE STRUGGLE FOR MOSCOW THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF WORLD WAR II.  In all instances Nagorski’s works reflect superb command of his material based on extensive research of secondary and primary materials, including significant interviews with his subject’s contemporaries and descendants.  His latest effort is no exception.

(Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna)

When the Nazis took over Austria Freud was eighty two years old having spent most of his life in Vienna.  The founder of psychoanalysis found himself in the middle of an unfolding nightmare.  Many have asked why Freud and his family did not leave Vienna earlier as the Nazi handwriting was on the wall and early on it was relatively easy to do so.  After his apartment and publishing house were attacked, his daughter Anna’s arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo, Freud still hoped to ride out the storm expecting “that a normal rhythm would be restored, and honest men permitted to go on their ways without fear.”  Struggling with cancer, Freud was in denial knowing that he had little time left and did not want to go through the upheaval of relocating.  It would take an ad hoc rescue squad to arrange his escape from Vienna that included sixteen people, made up of family members and his doctor and family.

If it were not a true story Freud’s escape to live out his last fifteen months in London would make a superb spy novel.  After presenting useful biographical chapters where Nagorski focused on the development of Freudian theories, he concentrated on his relationships with contemporaries like Carl Jung and Ernest Jones.  This was important to Freud because as he  developed a psychiatric following he worried they were dominated by Jews.  Freud was very concerned that his life’s work was becoming a target for anti-Semites who screamed it was a “Jew science.”  Freud would cultivate promising non-Jewish psychoanalysts as Nagorski points out his relationships with Carl Jung and Ernest Jones were partly fostered because they were  Christians.  Of the two, Jones would become a lifelong friend and colleague and would play a prominent role in Freud’s escape from Austria in 1938.

Ernest Jones Photo
(Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones)

Nagorski delves deeply into the Freud-Jung relationship which at one point saw Freud anoint his friend the heir to his leadership in the psychoanalytic community.  As time progressed Freud’s opinion of Jung declined believing he had become a man of “mystical tendencies” that prevented a clear scientific approach to his work.  Further he believed Jung had developed a “confused mind,” and may have had anti-Semitic tendencies.  By 1914 their break was complete.

Nagorski provides an important window into what Vienna experienced before, during and after World War I in addition to the 1920s leading to the eventual Anschluss with Germany in 1938.  He delves into the intellectual and cultural life of the city and the important personalities involved.  An additional  key to Nagorski’s narrative is how the lives and beliefs of Freud’s “rescue squad” evolved.  The most important seems to be Ernest Jones, the Englishman who became Freud’s closest friend, biographer, and a psychoanalyst in his own right.  Others include William C. Bullit, an American journalist and ambassador to Russia and France who developed an important relationship with Freud.  Both men despised President Woodrow Wilson seeing him as an egotistical personality whose actions at the Versailles Conference they opposed.  In addition, they co-wrote a psychohistory of the former president which was not published until 1967 long after Freud’s death.  Marie Bonaparte, a former patient of Freud’s plays a significant role as Napoleon’s great grandniece who had many important contacts and funds to help finance Freud’s escape and like many of his patients went on to be a psychotherapist in her own right.  Dr. Max Schur, Freud’s doctor during the last decade of his life and a man who kept him on an even keel.  Anton Sauerwald, a Nazi trustee in charge of dealing with the Freud family after the Anschluss was a rather mysterious character.  Lastly, and most importantly Freud’s daughter Anna, who became his lifelong caretaker and developed her own career in psychiatry focusing on the mental health of children.  All pursued interesting lives and the mini biographies presented enhance Nagorski’s narrative.

Marie Bonaparte, © IMAGNO/Sigm.Freud Priv.Stiftung
(Marie Bonaparte)

Most people are unaware of Freud’s disdain for the United States.  He visited America in 1909 and was taken aback by American materialism and lack of intellect.  As noted previously he opposed the policies of Woodrow Wilson, and he would not consider the United States as a place to emigrate after the Anschluss.  Nagorski points out that Freud was a German nationalist whose predictions pertaining to World War I were off base.  He believed it would be devastating to both sides, but for him it became more bloody and destructive than anyone could have imagined.  Freud came to realize the consequences of the war and was rather prophetic in his comments based on events in the 1930s.

William C. Bullitt
(William C. Bullit)

Rachel Newcomb in her September 2, 2022 , Washington Post review of Nagorski’s work addresses why it took Freud so long to agree to leave Austria arguing, “Freud continued to believe that Austria would maintain its independence from Germany, right up until March 1938, when Hitler made his final push into Vienna, cheered on by a mob of rabid supporters. Gangs ransacked Jewish businesses, including the psychoanalytic publishing house managed by Freud’s son Martin, while brownshirts paid a visit to the Freud household and had to be bribed the equivalent of $840 to leave them alone. Yet Freud continued to refuse his colleagues’ entreaties to leave. Suffering from cancer of the jaw, acquired from a habit of smoking 20 cigars a day, he was already in his 80s and knew he did not have much time left. When asked later why he had delayed his departure so long, his daughter Anna Freud blamed his illness as well as his inability to “imagine any ‘new life’ elsewhere. What he knew was that there were only a few grains of sand left in the clock — and that would be that.” But once Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, Freud realized that to ensure her future, he would have to leave Austria.” 

(Dr. Max Schur)

Newcomb is correct in her analysis and nicely sums up the overall impact of the book writing, “readers looking for an in-depth exploration of the tenets of psychoanalysis will not find that here, but SAVING FREUD contains just enough about the central themes of Freud’s professional life to give a sense of his impact on the discipline he is largely credited with inventing. Unlike other, more critical biographies, the Freud that emerges from these pages is warm, avuncular and excessively fond of Anna, who he knew would carry on his legacy. The narrative pace and Nagorski’s fluid writing give this book the character of an adventure story. It is an engrossing but sobering read that reminds us how many others without the resources of the Freud family had no similar options to make an exodus.”

Sigmund Freud
(Sigmund Freud)