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

Rudolf Höß crop.jpg

(Rudolf Hoss)

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

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

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

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

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

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

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

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

(The Nuremberg Trials)

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

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

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

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

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

Lorenzo de Medici.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The de’ Medici brothers Guliano and Lorenzo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo de Medici.jpg

 

THE SILENT DEATH by Volker Kutscher

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Berlin, 1930)

RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER by Stephen Fried

Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

Meet Benjamin Rush, father of the temperance movement, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Rush

When we think of the Founding Fathers and heroes of the American Revolution the names that are mentioned include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, among others.  Rarely if ever does the name Benjamin Rush enter the conversation.  However, in Stephen Fried’s new biography RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER, the author presents a truly Renaissance individual who impacted the era in which he lived on multiple levels including science, politics, sociology, psychology, and other aspects of intellectual life.  The question must be asked why such a brilliant scientist and political thinker who influenced many of his contemporaries in countless ways has not been the subject of greater historical research.

Fried has filled that gap with an absorbing portrait and attempts to answer the question by arguing that Rush may have known too much about his fellow revolutionaries and physicians who made him privy to many of their deepest thoughts.  After his death in 1813, Adams and Jefferson, along with his family members suppressed his writings resulting in the diminution of his legacy.  According to Fried he would become the “footnote founder, a second-tier founder.”

Stephen Fried at the statue of Benjamin Rush at Dickinson College (Photo: Carl Socolow)

 

No matter where Rush falls in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers after reading Fried’s work it is clear he was an exceptional historical figure who impacted many aspects of American society and politics during his lifetime.  From his education as a physician, his polemical writings, his role during the revolution, the people he developed relationships with, his impact after the revolution in dealing with mental illness, and raising the level of the health of Americans Rush’s life is worthy of exploration.  Fried begins with his medical education stressing the methods available in the 1760s.  The study of anatomy and the compounding of medicines created a baseline in which to compare what existed and the improvements that would develop as Rush’s career evolved.  His mentors, Doctors John Morgan and Willian Shippen are important in that they provided Rush with knowledge of techniques and diagnostics which laid the ground work for what George Washington would complain, “those damn physicians” who later could not get along because of their egos causing a great deal of trouble during the revolution and after.  From the outset Rush’s approach to medicine, i.e., dissection, obstetrics, and midwifery at the time were controversial and provoked a great deal of opposition.  As Fried lays out the development of Rush’s belief system it was clear he was his own man and was not shy about putting his opinions in letters and pamphlets and rarely backed away from his approach to medicine or politics.

The strength of Fried’s approach rests on integrating Rush’s writings/opinions from his diaries, journals, letters, and common place books into the narrative.  Fried uses this material providing intimate details of Rush’s most important relationships during a lifetime in which he developed  with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and a host of medical contemporaries.  Rush was a prolific writer and soon employed “the pamphlet” as his major tool in letting the public know his opinions, many of which rubbed people the wrong way.  One of his first pamphlets reflects his dilettantish nature published in the early 1770s, “Sermons to Gentlemen on Temperance and Exercise,” in addition to publishing his views as a Philadelphian concerning the English tax on tea which would lead directly to the Boston Tea Party, and his influence and editing of Thomas Paine’s COMMON SENSE.  Rush would dabble in all types of subjects, but his underlying coda was to improve society, but from his own perspective.  Eventually he would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Admission ticket, Benjamin Rush's lectures on chemistry, 1769

Fried’s narrative recounts the course of the American Revolution in a clear and concise manner.  There is nothing that is presented that previous historians have not mined.  What sets Fried’s work apart is the role played by Rush in attending the medical needs of the colonists even crossing the Delaware with Washington.  Rush witnessed the horrors of 18th century warfare firsthand and he used what he experienced as a basis for a platform to improve medical care through diagnosis, technique, medicines, and the creation of military hospitals.  Rush tended to rub people the wrong way with his writing and commentary, a flaw that got him into trouble with many people including his commentary about Washington’s leadership.

Rush had no compunction about criticizing his mentors particularly Dr. William Shippen leadership as Chief Physician and Inspector-General during the revolution.  Historians have pointed out the lack of food, clothing, and pay that colonial soldiers had to cope with.  Fried takes it further by exploring the weaknesses of medical care for soldiers.  Rush would finally resign from Washington’s army in 1778, but many of his ideas about hospital care were implemented.  Later Rush would testify at Shippen’s court-martial against Washington’s advice, but he would be acquitted by one vote.

Fried does not overlook Rush’s private life.  He would not marry until the age of thirty because of the advice of his mother.  He would marry Julia Stockton who was sixteen, but they had a long life together and were deeply in love.  The marriage would produce thirteen pregnancies, but unfortunately only six children would live to adulthood.  He was a good father and provider, but as with most men during the period he was away from home at least half the time until the 1781-1786 period were, he devoted himself to his family and medical practice.

Fried describes Rush’s political role in detail particularly after the American Revolution.  He had been a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and later would be a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention which would ratify the Constitution in 1787. Rush also became involved in the issue of slavery.  He would become an abolitionist; despite the fact he did own one slave who he would free in 1793 and he argued profusely concerning the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  Another of his pet peeves was the lack of a comprehensive educational system in Pennsylvania and after the new nation was ratified.  He worked assiduously to include women, blacks and immigrants in his program and helped create what would become Dickinson College and Franklin and Marshall later on in addition to improving medical curricula at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Benjamin Franklin
(Benjamin Franklin)

But what Rush is most noted for was his attempts at improving care for his patients.  He would serve in numerous capacities during his medical career and once gain rubbed many the wrong way.  His work with the mentally ill is key as he found their treatment abhorrent and studied numerous cases to determine a better way of treatment.  He published a number of pamphlets outlining his ideas that included how best to raise the level of mental health care and arguing that mental illness was a disease to be treated and that patient care was important and they should not be locked away in basements chained to the wall.  He would be involved in creating the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and helped create the first American Medical society and would soon oversee the care of the mentally ill.  Perhaps Fried’s most incisive chapter deals with Rush’s handling of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia which killed with “biblical proportions.”  Employing Rush’s letters to his wife Julia the reader is exposed to the depth of the tragedy that unfolded.  Rush favored a more extreme treatment of victims which provoked a great deal of controversy with his colleagues.  It is interesting how a politically partisan approach to treatment took place.  Doctors who had Federalist leanings tended to oppose Rush’s methods, while Democratic-Republicans tended to support Rush (sound familiar!).  Fried delves into the effect of the disease on Rush’s family, friends, and cohorts and the reader is provided insights into the approach taken toward an epidemic in the early 1790s.

John Adams, circa 1790.
(President John Adams)

Fried spends a great deal of time examining Rush’s later years which were dominated by his correspondence with John Adams who he was able to convince to reconcile with Thomas Jefferson.  Further his writing remained prolific particularly in relation to his work with the mentally ill working to improve their treatment and living conditions and continuing his lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.  Rush was always looking to improve the quality of life of his patients and with the deterioration of his son John’s mental health he redoubled his efforts in the areas of alcoholism and mental stability.

Fried has written a comprehensive and fascinating biography raising the historical profile of Benjamin Rush for a twenty first century audience.  Rush was a flawed character whose comments and writings often got him in trouble, but as Fried points out repeatedly his motives were usually pure, and his goal was to raise the level of many aspects of society.  Fried has created the most comprehensive work to date on Rush, but also has uncovered a treasure trove of documentary sources that can be mined by future historians.

 

THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON by Meg Waite Clayton

Night view of Vienna, 1937

Night view of Vienna, 1937 Stock Photo

One might ask do we need another novel that deals with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  However, with Meg Waite Clayton’s newest book, THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON I believe we have a novel that explores a topic that has not been mined by writers that extensively.  The story is set in the 1930s involving the Kindertransport rescue of ten thousand children from Hitler’s grasp in occupied Europe and the true story of Geetruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a childless Dutch woman known as Tante Truus.  The story’s backdrop is Vienna as Austria is about to be victimized by an Anschluss (union) with Germany.  At the time Jews did very well in the Austrian capitol but once it was taken over by the Nazis after an earlier coup attempt in the early 1930s the plight of the Jews begins to sharpen.  Soon Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) will take place in November 1938 and the handwriting is literally on the wall for Vienna’s Jewish community.

As 1937 approaches  Tante Truus has already spent several years risking her life crisscrossing the border to spirit Jewish children out of Germany.  She is a fearless woman with an agile mind who is able to employ her charm with Nazi border guards in order to maneuver her charges out of a number of dangerous situations.  She is dismayed as country after country refuse to accept desperate children seeking asylum from Nazi Germany.  Despite the increasing danger of her missions she is driven to save as many lives as she can before it is too late.

Mrs Wijsmuller brought voice from Date: May 30, 1962 Location: Amsterdam, Noord-Holland Keywords: ballots Personal name: Mrs Wijsmuller! nassaukade Stock Photo

(Tante Truus)

Enter fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the Jewish heir to a great chocolate making fortune.  Stephan sees himself as a budding playwright and pays no attention to the political events swirling around him.  He becomes smitten with Zofie-Helene, a brilliant math prodigy whose mother, Kathe Perger edits a progressive newspaper which is overly critical of the Nazi regime.  The two adolescents enjoy each other’s company, but their carefree life is upended as Hitler’s troops begin to threaten the annexation of Austria.

Clayton is a superb writer who has constructed a mesmerizing story of danger, sacrifice, bravery, and a commitment to confront evil.  Her plot seems to run on two tracks.  First, the wealthy Neuman family focusing on the mother stricken with cancer, her husband Herman, and their two sons Stephan, seventeen, and Walter, five.  They will be removed from their palatial home at the outset, split up into a Vienna ghetto and Dachau.  This track includes the Perger family with Zolfie-Helene as the center piece.  The second track zeros in on Tante Truus who is working with the Netherlands Children’s Refugee Committee and its English allies led by Norman and Helen Bentwich to remove as many children from Nazi hands in Austria.

These tracks focus on a number of historical events that will drive the story; the Evian Conference called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was invoked by the United States as a coverup for their lack of a refugee policy and fears of letting too many Jews into the United States.  Further the Anschluss between Austria and Germany and the disaster it presented Viennese Jews, and lastly, Kristallnacht which led to murder of Jews, seizure of their homes, business, and property, imprisonment, and banishment from Austrian society. The book is permeated with details of Austrian-Dutch political debates at the time through Kathe’s newspaper articles that are integrated into the novel and one witnesses the slow deterioration of Austria’s Jews in the process.

One of the many overriding dilemmas facing Jews at this time was who could they trust.  Stephen’s uncle by marriage to his aunt Lisle, Michael who is not Jewish divorces his wife, supposedly to save her, and at the same time takes over the chocolate business in order to keep it out of Nazi hands.  He promises to take care of Mutti, Stephan’s terminally ill mother, as well as his brother.  But even before the German invasion, he had become extremely alienated from his wife and her decadent “art collection” who then flees Vienna for Shanghai as her husband moves closer to Nazi principles.  Stephan is placed in the difficult position of not knowing if he can trust the lives of his family with him.

Clayton carefully describes Tante Tuss’ separate missions to Germany from Amsterdam to rescue children, then her focus shifts to leading children from Hamburg to freedom.  Her rescue mission is raised to a different level when the British government under pressure from Lionel de Rothschild and Viscount Samuels agree at first to allow 600 Jewish children between the ages of four and seventeen for temporary resettlement in England.  The measure was to be funded privately and all the government had to do was issue visas.  The angst which precedes each mission is further heightened when Germany’s sadistic head of the program in Vienna, Adolph Eichmann threatened to withdraw the offer if the smallest detail was not met.  Eichmann believed the fastest way to make Germany judenrein (rid of Jews) was to give them a choice of death, living in poverty, expulsion, or emigration to lesser countries.  Clayton describes in detail Tante Tuss interactions with Eichmann and the pressure that was placed on her and her own family in trying to save the children.

Clayton relies on a great deal of primary and secondary research which is the backbone of her novel.  Historical events and figures receive an accurate portrayal along with character development to present a truly absorbing work of fiction.  The structure of the novel is based on the author’s style of no chapter numbers, just headings that provide date and location or topic.  Many chapters are five pages or less, and others are as short as a paragraph.  The result is an engrossing read about a topic that highlights the inhumanity of Nazi immigration practices and the mostly lacking response by the world community, particularly the United States.

Stock photo of Austria Vienna Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

View Preview

Austria Vienna Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna, Nov 18, 1937

PELOSI by Molly Ball

With some enthusiastic assistance from her grandchildren, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California smiles as she casts her vote for herself to be speaker of the House on the first day of the 116th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The term chutzpah can be interpreted in only one way – a great deal of nerve or other words I cannot use!  In the present case it is the perfect description of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi particularly following the completion of Donald Trump’s State of the Union message last January when she ripped up the speech as it was riddled with lies in front of an audience of millions of Americans.  Opponents of Pelosi castigated her actions, but they forget it was preceded by Trump’s refusal to engage in the traditional handshake with the Speaker before the speech.  Why did Pelosi react in such a manner?  The answer to this question is imbedded   in who she is as a person and a professional and forms the core of Molly Ball’s new book, PELOSI.

Ball’s crisp writing style makes PELOSI an easy biography to read as in part Pelosi missed the woman’s movement of the early 1960s as she married and raised five children.  She would be considered the “almost picture perfect” mother as she trained her brood with Catholic family values as each child was given certain tasks and responsibilities within the family.  Once her children were of school age, we see the beginning of a career that begins with fund raising from her home.  Ball points out that the seminal moment in Pelosi’s career came when San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto placed her on the city’s Library Commission which exposed her to the give and take of local politics.

 

Ball carefully traces Pelosi’s rise from a housewife to a congressional victory in 1986 highlighting two skills that remain her strengths to this day, fund raising and organizational acumen.  Ball describes Pelosi as “ballsy, confrontational, even bitchy.”  Further Ball states that once Pelosi was freed from family responsibilities at age forty-seven, she pursued her congressional work with “a maniacal level of energy.”  Ball provides a window into the Congressional process upon Pelosi’s arrival, especially the denigration of women and her role in altering traditional male views of women who served in Congress.  The white male power structure dominated Congress epitomized by conservative Democratic  Pennsylvania Representative John “Jack” Murtha.  On the surface it would appear that the “San Francisco liberal” and the hard-nosed Vietnam veteran would have little in common.  But as Ball effectively develops their relationship it is clear that without Murtha’s mentorship and support Pelosi’s career may have taken a different path.

Pelosi was a tenacious legislator and supporter of human rights as was evident in her view of China after Tiananmen Square.  She was always skeptical about trusting President Clinton and when she tried to tie China’s human rights policies to most favored nation trading status, she thought she had Clinton’s support.  When Clinton sold her out, she screamed “corporate sellout,” and never trusted Clinton again.

Ball is dead on in zeroing in on Newt Gingrich and his responsibility in creating the toxicity that exists in politics today.  Gingrich’s goal was to block any legislative successes for Clinton and interjected words like, “sick, pathetic, liars, anti-flag, traitors, radicals, corrupt to describe Democrats.  When Republicans decided to demonize Pelosi, her response was “I’m shaking in my boots, that is so pathetic, tell them, C’Mon.”  She proved to the Republican leadership that unlike Richard Gephardt, the congressman Pelosi replaced as House Democratic Leader that she was no pushover and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert found her inflexibility and hyperattention to detail galling.  Pelosi’s approach throughout her career no matter what position she held in the House was to out work and know more about legislation, her caucus, and any other aspect of her work than any of her colleagues – making her indispensable for any legislative success, Democratic or Republican.  She would take advantage of GOP policy failures be it Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its failures, the Katrina debacle, or Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security.

061215_pelosi_obama_ap.jpg

Ball encapsulates Pelosi by quoting her, “I get up, eat nails for breakfast, put on a suit of armor and go into battle.”  Ball states that the suit of armor she created, an extreme and steely toughness that dismissed any hint of vulnerability, would keep her safe.”  She would reign in Bush after the 2006 election after six years of being run over by the GOP and by 2008 when she became Speaker one would have thought working with a new administration would produce a collegial relationship, but it did not.

In perhaps her best chapters Ball explores the Pelosi-Obama dynamic which was not very smooth in large part because Obama always sought consensus and believed he could always peel off a segment of GOP support, whereas Pelosi had learned not to trust the GOP leadership and its right wing caucus and all she cared about was winning and delivering on what she believed to be the policies that a majority of Americans wanted.  She tried to educate Obama whose “intellectual arrogance” and the attitude of many in his administration won out.  The Obama people came to believe that Pelosi at times was more of a hinderance than an asset.  Republicans would demonize both, but more so Pelosi over the Affordable Health Care Act, Climate legislations, stimulus, or a grand bargain than the president.  From Obama’s perspective she gave him cover.

Ball does an excellent job taking the reader inside negotiations to solve America’s problems.  Her reporting concerning Pelosi’s attempts to achieve a withdrawal date from Iraq, or the TARP bill to deal with the 2008 economic meltdown are two cases in point.  In both instances Pelosi exhibited her tenacity, control over her caucus (which the GOP could never master), and legislative dexterity to achieve her goals. Ball provides a perceptive analysis how Republicans were able to play Obama, who did not follow Pelosi’s warnings in legislative battles, particularly health care and taxes.  As Ball points out, you only get one chance to make a first impression and Obama blew it with his stimulus package, a pattern that would continue throughout his administration particularly after the 2010 congressional shellacking which the GOP learned to block everything they could and give Obama no legislative victories. Despite losing 63 seats, Pelosi rededicated herself and became more tenacious than ever.

Political cheer

(Nancy Pelosi and her family)

Overall, Pelosi is a practitioner of retail politics learned at the feet of her father who was Mayor of Baltimore and later a Congressman.  She is superb at arm twisting, raising money, and knowing when and how to cut a deal even if it means angering members of her caucus.  But despite rubbing certain members the wrong way even females over aspects of abortion she has earned the respect from most of her opponents.

Donald Trump is the perfect adversary for Pelosi.  He is a narcissist, thoughtless, uninterested in issues or its details with no sense of tactics or strategy.  He may have been a reality TV star, but Pelosi presents a different type of reality the “avatar of a feminist political future.”  Ball quotes Amy Klobuchar’s famous observation:  “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”  Ball’s presentation of the Pelosi-Trump relationship is clear and pulls no punches as she discusses their hostility toward each other even though some of it has been papered over as Pelosi held back her caucus during the Mueller investigation until the Ukraine matter led her to finally support impeachment.

As we confront the Coronavirus and seem stalled at any further stimulus money for the states., hospitals, and PPE, it would be interesting to see what would happen if traditional retail politics could be employed instead of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to engage in anything meaningful other than securing lifetime conservative judges.  Ball’s work is based on her excellent reporting and interviews and despite a bit of hagiography the book is an interesting personality and political study that is a fascinating read.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear about Donald Trump's speech.

 House speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear about Donald Trump’s speech.

EVERY DROP OF BLOOD: THE MOMENTOUS SECOND INAUGURATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Edward Achorn

A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination.  (AP Photo/File)

(Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address)

Recently I read Ted Widmer’s new book LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.  In Widmer’s narrative he explores a number of Abraham Lincoln’s most important speeches given during his odyssey across America to his first inauguration in 1861.  When I came across Edward Achorn’s equally new book EVERY DROP OF BLOOD: THE MOMENTOUS SECOND INAUGURATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN I expected the author to focus more on Lincoln’s iconic speech in March 1865.  Much to my disappointment the book focuses on events, personalities, and the politics surrounding Lincoln’s effort in addition to a narrative that focuses in minute detail on the prevailing attitudes that existed in Washington for the twenty four hour period leading to the speech and the state of the city during that time as opposed to Lincoln’s development of the speech.  I was also somewhat disappointed in that much of what Achorn has to say has been reviewed by countless historians offering little that is new apart from spending about fourteen pages on the speech itself.

From the outset Achorn sets the scene for the inauguration introducing a number of important historical characters and their past and future roles in American history.  Achorn’s description of the new Vice President Andrew Johnson portends the future political warfare that would almost lead to his removal from office after Lincoln’s assassination.  Another important personage we are introduced to is Samuel P. Chase, the then Secretary of the Treasury whose political ambitions were fueled by his daughter Kate Sprague who was married to a senator from Rhode Island.  Chase had never gotten over the fact that Lincoln achieved the presidency and he did not, an office he coveted.  Lincoln deftly handles Chase’s machinations and nominates him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to remove him as a political threat.  Achorn dives into the many conspiracies and rumors designed to unsettle Lincoln and his advisors and its impact on the city from the start.

Whitman at about fifty

(Walt Whitman)

It seems Achorn leaves no aspect of this short period in our history unturned.  He describes the atmosphere in the streets, the mud that people had to deal with, and even a discourse on the proliferation of prostitution in the city describing “Hooker’s Division” as the ladies of the night and soldiers who served in General Joseph Hooker’s army.  The discussion of the role of Frederick Douglass is important as it reflects his disappointment in Lincoln who he refers to as the “white man’s president.  John Wilkes Booth political views and attitude toward race are explored as is a plot to kidnap Lincoln.

Achorn possesses a fluid writing style and the ability to focus on the character traits of the figures he speaks about and is able to create a word picture in the reader’s mind of those under discussion.  His description of the poet Walt Whitman who became a special New York Times correspondent for the inauguration is wonderful, as he is seen as a “the big hairy, rambunctious buffalo of a man” as a case in point as is Alexander Gardner, a photographer who eventually took over Matthew Brady’s Washington office who “looked solid, boxy, unblinking as his machine.”  Gardner had created a sensation with his pictures from the Antietam battlefield and took the last photo of Lincoln with his enigmatic smile for posterity.  Lastly, the description of Lincoln , so reported by a British journalist as a man with “long bony arms and legs, which somehow, seem to always be in the way” and “nose and ears which have been taken by mistake from a head of twice the size,” is entertaining but also inciteful to how these figures were perceived by contemporaries.

Frederick Douglass

Achorn provides a series of mini biographies embedded in the narrative.  Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Samuel P. Chase, Stephen Douglas, William Henry Seward, General William T. Sherman, and Mary Todd Lincoln are among a number of historical figures that are examined that provide insight into their politics and beliefs.  All are significant and pursue actions that are historically significant, though some more than others.

Perhaps Achorn’s best chapter revolves around Lincoln’s political style and his evolution as a wordsmith pointing out that his folksy way of communicating brought disdain from certain segments of society, newspaper reporters, and politicians.  Achorn is correct as he points out that over time Lincoln’s speeches developed a plain-speaking succinct style people, including those just listed and literary types grew to appreciate as the president’s words impacted the general public in such a positive fashion.

Abraham Lincoln, portrait photograph, Alexander Gardner, 1863 Stock Photo

(Photo by Alexander Gardner)

Apart from these portraits Achorn allows the reader to gain a feel for what Washington, DC was like in March 1865.  At times, the narrative reads like a travelogue that can be somewhat overwhelming as the author seems to describe each social event, the amount of mud in the streets, the lack of city infrastructure, and the availability of housing.  Diverse groups of people who are attending are described in detail, in addition to the racial implications of the city’s composition.

If you are looking for a good synopsis of events surrounding Lincoln’s second inauguration and an analysis of the last days of the Civil War, Achorn’s effort should prove satisfying despite the fact that Achorn seems to drag out his story of a twenty-four hour period over the entire book, often pursuing digressions and flashbacks.    Just be aware if you are looking for a book that is an intellectual analysis of the speech akin to Gary Wills’ LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG, you will be disappointed.

Transcript of President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865)

Fellow Countrymen

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern half part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination.  (AP Photo/File)

(Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address)

LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON by Ted Widmer

The French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville described America as enduring a “quadrennial crisis” every four years as it held its presidential elections.  The 1860 election was an exception because the artificial passions that were easily stoked reached unheard of levels.  de Tocqueville remarked that “a self-absorbed president, catering to the ‘worst caprices’ of his supporters, could easily distract their attention from plodding matters of governance, and whip their enthusiasm into a frenzy, especially if he divided his supporters and his critics into hostile camps.”  He spoke of “feverish obsessions” and warned “the potential for lasting damage was always lurking.” As the ominous warnings came to fruition in the Civil War in 1861, today we stand on another ominous precipice as the 2020 election approaches.  de Tocqueville’s view of America is as plausible today as it was in the 19th century as even a pandemic and how to deal with it has strong partisan overtones and we find that people are storming the offices of governors with AR-15 weapons.  With the current state of our politics in the background it is useful to examine the pre-inaugural period that witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s journey from Springfield, IL to Washington, D.C. after the election of 1860 wonderfully presented in Ted Widmer’s new book, LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.

Lincoln’s Whistle-Stop Trip to Washington

On the way to his inauguration, President-elect Lincoln met many of his supporters and narrowly avoided an assassination attempt

lincoln-tripline-631.jpg

One might ask why do we need another book about Abraham Lincoln, but to Widmer’s credit he has unearthed a great deal in his research and by focusing on Lincoln’s thirteen day odyssey he does so in a manner that other authors should envy as his narrative is like a flower that has  buds leading to numerous diversions for Widmer to relate to other aspects of American history.  In a recent CBS television interview Widmer as he does in his book argued that Lincoln’s election was the key to reaffirm the democratic process in America and its continuation as the core of our government.  Widmer argues further that the United States was the democratic model for the world and if it did not preserve its democratic principles the rest of the world would not have developed as it did, particularly in the 20th century and who knows how events would have transpired.  Widmer develops other important themes that in a general way are very pertinent.  The south had enjoyed an idyllic existence with a free labor system as the basis of its plantation economy or “cotton kingdom.”  It did not develop the industrial infrastructure as the north and would soon feel threatened not only by its fear of the emancipation of slaves, but by the growth of the west as evidenced by the new census, which if admitted to the union as free states would result in the loss of its control of Congress.  The north’s industrial development particularly the expansion of the railroads was the main threat.  The railroads provided the transportation network that was making the steamboat almost obsolete and provided the vehicle for the demographic explosion west of the Mississippi to the west coast.

Widmer makes a number of salient points that reflect southern anxiety.  For the first sixty-one years of the Republic slaveholders held the presidency.  For forty-one of those years a slaveholder was Speaker of the House.  For fifty-two years the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was a slaveholder.  Eighteen out of thirty-one members of the Supreme Court were southerners, despite the fact that 80% of cases that reached the court originated in the north.  Lastly, most military officers and Attorney-Generals hailed from the south – no wonder the economic, political, and social changes that were evolving in the 1850s produced so much anxiety below the Mason-Dixon line.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) Stock Photo

(Dorothea Dix)

Widmer writes with exceptional verve and excitement as he describes Lincoln’s journey to assume the presidency.  A journey that had been preceded by Lincoln’s strategy of silence during the campaign which now would be drastically altered.  Widmer has the ability to focus on his main task, how Lincoln avoided violence and a possible assassination as he passed through eight states.  But, at the same time he fills in the background history of a particular whistle stop and its relationship to Lincoln’s life and career.  A case in point is Lincoln’s arrival in Cincinnati, known as the “Queen City,” as well as “Porkopolis” because of its pork industry (which would give rise to Proctor and Gamble in the 1840s!) which Widmer argues was a key to Lincoln assuming the presidency and the North’s ultimate victory in the Civil War. Sitting across on the other side of the Ohio River sat Kentucky with its myriad of political interests making Cincinnati influential in formulating the attitudes of many Kentuckians.  Being a border state Lincoln feared that if Kentucky seceded, they would soon be followed by Maryland and Missouri which immediately would have threated the capitol and Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency.

Even before Lincoln left Springfield to travel to Washington rumors and conspiracy theories abounded.  Lincoln received numerous threats on his life as he was seen by the south as the embodiment of evil and the ultimate threat to their way of life.  As Lincoln traveled toward Washington his friends and cohorts wondered how they could protect him.  Thanks to the early warnings of Dorothea Dix who had traveled through the south during the secessionist craze learning of a number of conspiracy theories concerning a possible southern seizure of Washington and the depth of hatred for Lincoln in Maryland.   She informed Samuel Felton, the President of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad of the possible coup who then contacted General Winfield Scott, and Alan Pinkerton who would deploy eight detectives, among of which was Kate Warne.  Warne brilliantly acted the part of a recently arrived Alabaman, which produced a large amount of gossip from southern women, she would also frequent southern saloons trawling for information.  This led to a treasure trove of information for Pinkerton’s spies and created an undercurrent of gloom as Lincoln’s odyssey made its way toward the nation’s capital amidst possible assassination plots to take place when Lincoln passed through Baltimore.

Widmer does a wonderful job linking Lincoln’s journey to future historical figures.  For example, the sixteen-year-old Thomas A. Edison, the sixteen-year-old  Benjamin Harrison,  William Howard Taft, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, all future presidents in addition to John D. Rockefeller all who witnessed Lincoln’s odyssey.

Photo of Allan Pinkerton

(Alan Pinkerton)

The journey was dominated by political calculations as at each whistle stop Lincoln would make a speech designed for the audience that came to see him by the thousands. Lincoln went further than any president had gone before in addressing the American people.  It appeared as if he was having direct conversations with voters and with newspaper and the telegraph, he was able to reach people across America and make a Lincoln presidency more real.  Despite Lincoln’s exhaustion he eventually came to relish the relationship he was establishing with his constituents.  Lincoln would experience many ups and down during his journey which at times was compounded by his bouts with depression highlighted by the fact he was almost certain that he left Springfield he would never return alive.

As Lincoln traveled from city, hamlet, and village he had to navigate the political minefields of each location.  None was more problematical than Albany and New York, NY which had been under democratic control for decades under the stewardship of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed.  Lincoln’s coat takes elected a Republican governor which would only exacerbate the problem as  Fernando Wood, the unstable mayor of New York City leaned toward the south and argued for an autonomous zone for his city.  Widmer also does a fine job comparing another political minefield as he follows the odyssey of Jefferson Davis, the newly elected president of the Confederacy.  Widmer follows Davis’ sojourn from his plantation in Mississippi to the new capitol in Montgomery, AL comparing his executive actions and powers with those lacking in Lincoln who had a  ways to go in getting his administration up and running as he tried to survive and reach Washington.

Widmer deftly measures Lincoln up against other historical figures throughout the narrative.  His favorite is George Washington who had his own partisan and foreign policy travails who Lincoln studied particularly his “Farwell Address” and how he dealt with enemies within his own administration.  It seems that Widmer is able to choose a historical personage from each city that Lincoln visited and compare the future president with that individual on a personal level and the historical context of each.

Kate Warne

(Kate Warne)

Lincoln gave numerous speeches throughout his travels which were roundly critiqued at the time.  Widmer does the same but singles out his addresses in Philadelphia as perhaps his most important.  When Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia, he immediately grasped its iconic importance in American history as is evidenced by his references to the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” supposition and the work of the founders in the city.  For Lincoln, the city and its shrines were sacred, a message he put forth during each speech.  Lincoln focused on a “sincere heart” and the holiness and sacred walls of Independence Hall.  It was if he were experiencing his own “Great Awakening.”  His speeches raised the level of his bond with the union he vowed to protect as he restored the radical promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence.    As Widmer continuously reminds us, throughout his visit to “the city of brotherly love” he received numerous messages of hatred concerning plots that were unfolding in Baltimore which clouded the president-elect’s visit.

Widmer ends his superb narrative after tracing his deception that frustrated the potential assassins surrounding Baltimore by reversing Lincoln’s odyssey, this time departing Washington for Springfield in late April and early May 1865.  Widmer has written an excellent account superseding most if not all books on the topic, but also, he has completed a narrative that should join other classics written about the fallen president.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here, and I think it’s great for the American people to see,” President Trump told the Fox News interviewers on Sunday.

(Trump at Lincoln Memorial, May 3, 2020)

THE WINTER SOLDIER by Daniel Mason

2 G55 F1 1915 8 Fatally Wounded in French Field Hospital History WWI France Fatally Wounded in a Field Hospital Stock Photo
(World War I Field Hospital)

Recently I read Daniel Mason’s THE PIANO TUNER and I enjoyed it immensely.  This led me to his next book, THE WINTER SOLDIER a novel dealing with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a young medical student Lucien Krzelewski joins the army with the outbreak of World War I and is sent to a small village in the Galician Carpathian mountains called Lemnowice, the site of an aid station at the Church of Our Lady of Lemnowice.  The story encompasses a range of human emotions, the brutality of war, and an individual’s need to fulfill a void in his life and make up for what he perceives to be an error that haunts him.  Mason employs a number of characters that range from aristocrats who have seen better days, young men destroyed by war, a nurse that Lucien cannot put behind him, and a number of historical figures.

Mason’s portrayal reflects the bureaucratic incompetence of the Austrian army, the remnants of the Victorian Age at the conclusion of the Habsburg monarchy, and the desperation that war creates for individuals who long for a degree of normalcy.  Mason writes with verve and the ability to employ humor as it pertained to Austrian society, in addition to expressing the humanity of Lucien who finds himself in an untenable situation.  Lucien has not graduated from medical school and has limited practical medical experience.  He finds himself thrust into a situation with soldiers arriving for treatment for limbs that need amputation, neurological issues that today we refer to PTSD, wounds to the abdomen and other parts of the body.  He has never conducted surgery and feels inferior to the nurses he must work with.  One in particular, Margarete from the Sisters of St. Catherine takes him under her wing to fill in the gaps in his education.

The Eastern Front, where troops from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Russia, and the Balkans fought, was larger than the Western Front.

The novel centers around Lucien’s attempts to overcome how overwhelmed he feels as he tries to treat his patients in a humane manner with limited supplies, freezing weather, and the shifting battle between the Hungarian Hussars and Russian Cossacks.  Mason reflects on the horrors of war as Lucien does his best, but many succumb after clinging to life.  One patient in particular, Sergeant Jozef Horvath encapsulates the situation that Lucien finds himself in.  Most of Lucien’s training had been in neurology and he believes he knows what is best for Horvath who has been diagnosed with nervenshock with symptoms that seem taken from psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton’s  landmark book on surviving trauma, DEATH IN LIFE.  Lucien does his best to deal with Horvath’s symptoms but he will lose the patient to a sadistic German officer who believes that people who suffer from combat fatigue/shell shock or whatever battlefield malady exists to be shirkers and deserters and he rips him out of Lucien’s care.  Lucien cannot get over this and blames himself for the loss of his patient.

The fate of Horvath and Lucien’s inability to let go produces nightmares and difficulty in coming to terms with what has occurred creating a major subtext of the novel.  The second subtext revolves around Lucien’s relationship with Sister Margarete who seem to fall in love with each other.  After an outing Lucien and Margarete become separated and he will spend a good part of the story searching for her as she is his first love and cannot accept that fact she is gone.  As the war winds down Lucien returns to Vienna where his mother decides he must marry which zeroes in on Lucien’s inadequacies and memories of his war experiences as he is placed in charge of a rehabilitation hospital in Vienna by his former medical school professor.

Stock photo of Vienna at the Beginning of World War I, 1914
(Vienna during World War I)

Mason has excellent command of historical and geographical detail as well as the clash of old Victorian Austria destroyed by the war and the new Austria that will be created at the Paris Peace Conference.  Once the war ends it is ironic that Lucien is deemed unworthy of being a doctor by the new Austrian government that argues that a physician at war is not well rounded enough and must return to medical school.

Mason who is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford is well placed to write a novel that deals with PTSD as he brings Lucien through his training, experiments on animals, and the dearth of facilities and care for patients.  It is a story of redemption as Lucien is pulled in many directions as he deals with his own feelings of inadequacy and loss at a time when Europe is undergoing a complete transformation as is Lucien and the patients he treats because of the cruelty of war and the incompetence of those who cause it.

A British Red Cross hospital in France during the conflict which claimed 6 000 men s lives per day

(World War I Field Hospital)

THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY by John Barry

As I sit at my desk and examine the latest Covid-19 statistics and fantasize about what might have occurred had the Trump administration carried out its constitutional duties to care for American citizens instead of fomenting a civil war against democratic governors and denying their role in the current pandemic I am appalled and overwhelmed.  At this moment there are 927,000 cases of people testing positive for the virus in the United States out of 2,790,000 worldwide.  The death rate is 52,400 in the U.S. out of 196,000 worldwide, and each day we add thousands to the total.  Words like mitigation, social distancing, ventilators, and numerous others have entered our everyday vocabulary.  The questions that pervade the news are when we will “open up” the country? what happens if we do it too fast? and what will happen if each state goes its own way?  Writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited for stating that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In our current circumstances it would be best for those in charge of leading us through the crisis to heed Santayana’s words.  All one has to do is turn the clock back one hundred years to learn certain lessons.  Those lessons are portrayed based on excellent historical research in John Barry’s 2004 book, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY.  A pandemic that “likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.”

wilson at desk.jpg
(President Woodrow Wilson)

Barry immediately caught my attention with his opening section that dealt with the state of the American medical infrastructure, readiness, and state of mind in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Barry’s discussion of American medical schools and their lack of standards, i.e., it was not necessary to have a college degree, once admitted no work on actual human bodies, and engaging in no laboratory science is eye opening in addition to being appalling.  In the late 19th century the United States lagged behind the rest of the world in the study of life sciences and medicine.  The inability of American medical schools to accept science as part of the curriculum is shocking.  American physicians would travel to Europe, Germany in particular to study laboratory science and the advances that existed in record numbers and returned to implement what they learned in American classrooms and setting up laboratories.  The key development was the launching of Johns Hopkins in 1876 and their medical school in 1893, along with their hiring of Daniel Gilman as the school’s president, and William Henry Welch who studied in Europe to head the medical school, a man who would become the most influential scientist in the world.

Hopkins would begin the transformation of American medicine as they employed Welch’s reputation to hire the best physicians and researchers in the world and developed a laboratory research component.  In a sense Dr. Welch was the Dr. Fauchi of his era!  The other important development that Barry delves into is the role of the Rockefeller Foundation whose donations led to the creation of the Rockefeller Institute in 1901.  The Institute would be headed by Simon Flexner, a protégé of Welch. Flexner had a large vision; “in his own work, he had what Welch lacked: the ability to ask a large question and frame it in ways that made answering it achievable.”  The Institute developed a small affiliated hospital to investigate disease, where patients would pay no fees but only those suffering from diseases that could be studied were admitted.  Flexner saw the hospital as a testing ground for ideas generated by laboratory scientists.  Further, Flexner used Hopkins as a model medical school and was also able to attract philanthropic funds to deserving institutions.  Those institutions were weeded out as medical schools were ranked based on how well they prepared their students to practice.  As a result, those schools that did not measure up dropped their medical schools and others either reformed their approach or faded away. The next important reform on Welch’s agenda was the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, which was scheduled to open October 1, 1918, toward the end of World War I.

William H. Welch
William Henry Welch 2.jpg

Barry correctly develops the role of World War I in fostering the worldwide influenza pandemic.  Evidence seems to suggest that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas.  By January/February 1918 Dr. Loring Milner who had treated influenza throughout his checkered career noticed a much more virulent type that was killing people and it completely overwhelmed him.  New cases declined in the spring but would reemerge later in the year.  With the American entrance into World War I in April 1917 one of the training centers was Camp Funston, part of the Fort Riley Reservation, located about 250 miles from Haskell County.  On March 4, 1918, a soldier was diagnosed with influenza at Camp Funston, three weeks later there were 1100 cases – the problem is that there was a great deal of traffic flow between Haskell County and Camp Funston.  These soldiers would carry the flu virus with them as they were assigned to units that then traveled to Europe.

Barry points to a great deal of disturbing statistical information for the reader to digest.  He examines the history of warfare and concludes that more soldiers died from disease than wounds suffered in combat.  In the Spanish-American War more men died of disease in a 6:1 ratio than on the battlefield.  The US lost more personnel to disease 63,114 than to combat 53,402, largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.  If one includes the overall US losses to influenza it is roughly 675,000.  In terms of combat losses, the American military was in no condition to deal with an epidemic with 776 doctors in the military out of an overall total of 140,000 for the entire country.  Lastly, influenza-related deaths reflected that one in 67 American soldiers in the army died of influenza and its complications, nearly all in a ten-week period beginning in mid-September 1918.  It was a disease that targeted those in the prime of their lives as opposed to the old and weak.

The ramp up to prepare for WWI created a situation that made the possibility for an epidemic in the US extremely plausible.  In an important chapter, “Tinderbox,” Barry focuses on the number of physicians who were needed overseas leaving the US short of physicians to care for civilians, and those that remained stateside were mostly over 45 and trained in the older methods that were not very effective.  Further, by the fall of 1918 research laboratories could only function on a reduced scale.  Research was cut back and focused on the war, on poison gas or defending against it, on preventing infection of wounds, on ways to prevent diseases that incapacitated troops like typhus.  Laboratory animals were unavailable, and the war sucked into itself technicians and young researchers.  As a result, the US was at a disadvantage in fighting the flu epidemic from the get-go.

Barry dissects the impact of politics on the spread of the flu and combating it in detail.  The role of machine politics in New York and Philadelphia are cases in point.  In Tammany Hall, the New York Health Department was purged replacing qualified people with patronage weakening the response to the virus.  In Philadelphia State Senator Edwin Vane’s political machine and the response of Public Health Director William Krusen were a disaster.  The Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 is a case in point.  Health officials advised against it, but Krusen who did little in preparation to mitigate the disease allowed it to take place with disastrous results.  The Liberty Loan parade is emblematic of the role of President Woodrow Wilson.  His administration was obsessed with morale and did everything they could to keep news of the epidemic from the public.  Between J. Edgar Hoover’s new internal security agency in the Justice Department, and George Creel’s Committee on Information prosecutions increased markedly as anyone seen as a security threat was arrested, i.e., Eugene Debs who ran for president in 1912 and Congressman Victor Berger were incarcerated.  Newspapers did not report accurate information and a good percentage of the public was left in the dark.

(Oswald Avery)

The horrific details of the epidemic appear in a number of chapters from its impact on the treatment and deaths of soldiers in various army encampments, i.e., Camp Devens in Massachusetts and the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  The impact on civilians is described as is the attempts by scientists to combat the disease.  The work of William H. Park, Chief of the Laboratory Division of the New York City Health Department and his deputy Anna Williams in what was considered the best laboratory in the country is explored in detail as was the work of Paul Lewis who earlier proved that polio was a viral disease and centered his research at his lab in Philadelphia, and Oswalt Avery from the Rockefeller Institute.  The overriding issue for all of these scientists is that of time and the need for speed which meant they had to forgo the usual protocols and approach to research which of course caused many problems.

Barry does not neglect the scientific details of research.  He describes in detail how viruses were determined, explores previous research dealing with pneumonia, typhus, malaria etc. as a means of introducing the reader to what scientists were up against and their approach.  Barry assumes the reader knows nothing as he treats the reader to mini lectures in microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology.  There are a few chapters that engage in this material and for a “biology novice” like myself it became  much to detailed particularly the various types of bacteria, other aspects of lab research, and as a result the book comes across as very text bookish.

Barry’s work is important and should be consulted by public health officials and members of the Trump administration to learn lessons that seem to have bypassed them today.  Though the flu epidemic was a hundred years ago certain aspects provide important lessons – it comes in waves and Covid-19 will return in some degree in the fall and possibly well past.  Ignoring the past is akin to signing a death warrant for many.  Barry has done a service for the American people and though the book was written in 2004 it provides many important guidelines and is  a very effective piece of historical research.