BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE by Alex von Tunzelmann

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

Last week was the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Suez Crisis as well as the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  Both events had a tremendous impact on the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  The Eisenhower administration was confronted by overlapping crises that brought the United States in opposition to its allies England and France at a time when it seemed to President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John F. Dulles that allied actions in Suez had provided cover for Soviet tanks to roll in to Budapest.  The interfacing of these two crises is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new book, BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE.  Von Tunzelmann has a unique approach to her narrative and analysis as she chooses certain dates leading up to the crisis, from October 22 to November 6, 1956 and within each date she explains events and delves into the background history of the issues that are raised.  In so doing she effectively examines how decisions were reached by the major actors, and the impact of how those decisions influenced the contemporary world order. The only drawback to this approach is that a sense of chronology is sometimes lost, and with so much taking place across the Middle East and Eastern Europe it can be confusing for the general reader.

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(British Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister during Suez, Sir Anthony Eden)

Von Tunzelmann begins by providing the history that led up to British control of the Suez Canal.  She goes on to examine the major players in the conflict; Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister who despised Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and basically “wanted him dead” as he blamed him for all of England’s ills, domestic and foreign. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had grown tired of British colonialism and its impact on American foreign policy, and provided the guidelines that Secretary of State Dulles implemented.  Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian President who rose to power in 1954 and was bent on achieving the removal of the British from the Suez Canal Base, and spreading his Pan Arabist ideology throughout the region.  It is fascinating as the author delves into the role of the CIA in Egypt and the relationship between Kermit Roosevelt, the author of the 1953 Iranian coup, and Miles Copeland with Nasser taking the reader into an area than is usually forbidden.  Other profiles are provided including Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, French President Guy Mollet, Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary, and the troika that controlled the Kremlin.

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(French President Guy Mollet)

Each country had its own agenda.  In England neo-imperialist forces believed that “if they could no longer dominate colonies openly, they must try to foster a secret British Empire club….a powerful hidden empire of money and control,” this was apart from the “Commonwealth.” (23)  This was the overall strategy that revolved around access and transportation of oil.  An example of Von Tunzelmann’s approach is her March 1, 1956 section where she concentrates on Jordan’s King Hussein’s firing of John Glubb Pasha, a British serving officer who headed the Arab Legion.  For Eden, Nasser was the cause and his actions were a roadblock to achieve a Middle Eastern defense pact (Baghdad Pact), and Jordanian membership.  Eradicating Nasser became Eden’s life’s mission.  In her discussion of March, 1956 the author raises the role of American policy, but she only mentions in passing American attempts to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt, i.e.; Project Alpha and the Anderson Mission.  She presents a number of reasons why the US withdrew its offer to fund the Aswan Dam project on July 19, 1956, forgoing that Washington had already decided as early as March 28, 1956 that Nasser was an impediment to peace and the US launched Operation Omega designed to take Nasser down a peg or two, and once the presidential election was over more drastic action could be taken.  For the French, Mollet blamed Nasser for all Paris’ difficulties in Algeria.  When FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, a World War II hero in France left for Cairo it confirmed that Nasser was providing Ben Bella weapons and a safe exile.  To the author’s credit throughout the narrative she whittles down all of the information in expert fashion and she sums up the interests of all concerned as the crisis approaches.

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Von Tunzelmann provides many interesting details as she delves into individual motivations.  For Ben-Gurion, the Straits of Tiran were the key.  Many have speculated why Israel would ally with England under the Sevres Agreement, a country that had been a thorn in the side of Jews for decades.  The key was an oil pipeline that was to be built from the southern Israeli port of Eilat to Ashkelon in the north (Trans Israel pipeline or Tipline) that would bring Iranian oil to Europe.  In 1957, Israel brokered a deal with Iran, and the Suez Canal, by then under Egyptian control, would be bypassed.  This deal would also make the Jewish state a strategic ally of Europe.

The most important parts of the narrative deal with the October 23-24, 1956 dates.  It is during those few days that Von Tunzelmann provides intimate details of the negotiations between Israel, France and England at Servres.  All the important players from Eden, whose health is explored in relation to his decision-making; Ben-Gurion, who exemplifies  what she calls “muscular Judaism,” who wanted a preventive war before the Egyptians could absorb Soviet weapons; Guy Mollet, who agrees with Israel and promises aid in building a nuclear reactor for the Jewish state, and others.  Within each chapter Von Tunzelmann switches to the machinations involving events in Hungary and how precarious the situation has become.  As machinations were taking place Von Tunzelmann describes events that are evolving in Hungary.   With demonstrations against Soviet encroachment in Poland and the visit of the Soviet leadership to Warsaw to make sure that the Poles remained in the Russian orbit, the aura of revolution was in the air and it spread to neighboring Hungary.  With mass demonstrations led by Hungarian students, workers, and intellectuals, Moscow dispatched the head of the KGB, Ivan Seroy.  Von Tunzelmann examines the thinking of Soviet leadership, the role of Imre Nagy, hardly a revolutionary, but a reformist acceptable to the people, as the situation reaches a breaking point.  Finally, on October 24, 1956 Soviet troops and tanks roll into Budapest sparking further demonstrations allowing an excuse for Russian forces to crush the demonstrators.  The end results vary from 60-80 killed and 100-150 seriously wounded.  The proximity of Soviet actions with the Israeli invasion of the 29th would make Eisenhower apoplectic, in part because the CIA had a coup set to go in effect in Syria on the same day as the Israel attack.Image result for photo of Ben-Gurion and Nasser

(President Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

One of the most conjectured part of this period is whether the United States was aware of the Sevres conspiracy and what was the role of the CIA.  Von Tunzelmann approach to these questions is fair and plausible.  After reviewing the available documentation she reaches the conclusion that Allen W. Dulles, the Head of the CIA, who destroyed his documentation knew about the plot in advance and kept the president in the dark because if Eisenhower had known he might have pressured England and France to call it off.  The CIA had so much invested in Nasser, with the relationship fostered by Miles Copeland and Kermit Roosevelt that they wanted to protect him, in fact according to the author the CIA warned Nasser that the British wanted to kill him.  According to Israeli historian and later politician, Michael Bar-Zohar the CIA was fully aware of what was going on and Allen Dulles informed his brother of the conspiracy.  For the CIA “plausible deniability” was the key.  Whatever the case it is clear that crucial information was withheld from Eisenhower.  However, the president was fully aware of the Anglo-American plot to overthrow Syrian leader Shukri al-Kuwatty, who was developing closer ties with the Soviet Union.  Explaining CIA and MI6 machinations is one of the strongest aspects of Von Tunzelmann’s work.  Reading about the British obsession to kill Nasser, reminded me how Washington pursued Fidel Castro few years later.

At the same time she discusses Suez, Von Tunzelmann shifts to Hungary and analyzes Moscow’s hesitancy to invade.  Her portrayal of Imre Nagy’s difficulty in controlling the uprising is solid as the demonstrations spirals out of control inside and outside of Budapest.  However, once Imre Nagy decides to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and claims neutrality for his country it is a forgone conclusion in the Kremlin that despite some hesitation they must invade.  The Suez situation provided Moscow with excellent cover at the United Nations.  As the French and British dithered in delivering their forces to Egypt, Moscow became emboldened.  Von Tunzelmann does an excellent job following communications between Dulles and Eisenhower on the American side, Mollet and Pineau for the French, Eden and the Foreign Office, and within Imre Nagy’s circle in Budapest, as it is clear in the eyes of Washington that the allies really have made a mess of things.  The author’s insights and command of the material are remarkable and her new book stands with Keith Kyles’ SUEZ as the most important work on the topic.  What enhances her effort is her ability to compare events in Suez and Hungary during the first week of November shifting back and forth reflecting how each crisis was dealt with, and how the final outcome in part depended on the evolution of each crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with Israeli Foreign Secretary Golda Meir)

One of the major aspects of the Suez Crises that many books do not deal with which BLOOD AND SAND discusses is that once war was unleashed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could only be exacerbated.  Israeli actions in Gaza stayed with those who were displaced and suffered and it would contribute to the hatred that remains today.  Once the crisis played itself out and Eisenhower forced the British and French to withdraw from Egyptian territory in early November, using oil and currency pressure; threatening the Israelis, who finally withdrew in March, 1957, it seemed that American standing in the Arab world would improve.  However, the United States gave away the opportunity to furthering relations in the Arab world with the introduction of the Eisenhower Doctrine which was geared against the communist threat.  Von Tunzelmann makes the case that Eisenhower was the hero of Suez, but within a few years his doctrine led to dispatching US troops to Lebanon and the overthrow of the Iraqi government.  By 1958 the Arab world began to view the United States through the same colonialist lens that they evaluated England and France, tarnishing the image of Eisenhower as the hero of Suez.

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich

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The public’s fascination with Adolf Hitler remains strong even sixty years after his suicide in the Fuhrer bunker in April, 1945.  To date over 120,000 books have been written about Hitler and Volker Ullrich’s new biography, HITLER: ASCENT 1889-1939 is a welcome addition to this ever increasing bibliography.  Up until now Ian Kershaw’s two volume work was the recognized standard in this genre replacing earlier volumes by Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest as the most comprehensive works on Hitler.  Kershaw argued that Hitler was motivated by two obsessions as he pushed Germany toward war; the removal of the Jews, and German expansion to the east.  Overall, Ullrich agrees with Kershaw’s thesis, but what makes his book so important is his ability to synthesize the vast material that has already exists, his access to a great deal of new primary materials, and it has been almost twenty years since Kershaw’s work was published.  Ullrich should be commended for his voluminous research supported by his extensive endnotes.  These endnotes contain a treasure-trove of information for scholars of the Nazi regime, their leaders, and their rise to power.

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(A burned out synagogue during Krystallnacht, November, 1938)

Many wonder what the keys were to Hitler’s success.  Ullrich correctly depicts a man who was able to conceal his real intentions from friends and foes alike as one of the keys to his success.  He had the ability to instantly analyze political situations and exploit them, including his political opposition.  His success rests on his improvisational style of leadership where he created numerous internal conflicts from which he emerged as the indispensable man.  Ullrich breaks the myth that Hitler lacked personal relationships arguing that he was able to separate his political and private spheres which impacted his pursuit of power greatly.  Another key that Ullrich stresses in understanding Hitler is examining the reciprocal nature of his relationship with the German people that contributed to his enormous popularity.  It was not a forgone conclusion that Hitler would come to power, but domestic opposition leaders underestimated his abilities, as would foreign leaders after he consolidated power in 1934.  Ullrich’s aim “is to deconstruct the myth of Hitler, the ‘fascination with monstrosity’ that has greatly influenced historical literature and public discussion of the Fuhrer after 1945.  In a sense, Hitler will he ‘normalised’—although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’  If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”

Ullrich’s study is extremely comprehensive.  He does not spend a great deal of time concerning Hitler’s childhood and upbringing, just enough to explore a few myths associated with Hitler’s childhood which he debunks, i.e.; he did not grow up in poverty as his father Alois had a good pension; he did not blame the Jews for the death of his mother from cancer; and he did not blame the Jews for his inability to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts  The biography becomes detailed as the Ullrich explores the effect  Fin-de-Siècle Austria on Hitler and the author does an excellent job reviewing the historiography pertaining to Hitler’s intellectual development.  Hitler is presented as an autodidact who was self-educated which explains how he acquired his anti-Semitic prejudices and German nationalist ideas.  But it is Hitler’s experience in World War I that shaped the man, without which he would have remained “a nobody” with pretensions of being an artist.

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(Adolf Hitler with his second in command, Hermann Goering)

Ullrich’s work successfully shifts the focus of his study on to Hitler the person as is evidenced by an excellent chapter, “Hitler the Human Being.”  It is here that Ullrich delves into Hitler’s behavior and personality and tries to lift the mask that makes it difficult to penetrate Hitler’s shifting persona.  Hitler’s personality is a compilation of dichotomies.* He was a dictator who kept people at a distance, but sought company to avoid being alone with himself.  He could be caring and empathetic at times, but at the same time he could commit or order brutal acts.  Ullrich is correct in pointing out that Hitler was an actor and chameleon who was able to manipulate others who did not see through him as he overcame his personal insecurities and was able to shift many of them on to the German people in order to seize power.

Other important chapters include “Month of Destiny: January 1933,” where Ullrich details Hitler’s path to the Chancellorship by taking the reader through the numerous elections, the strategies pursued by Hitler and his cohorts, the approach taken by the opposition, and the political infighting on all sides of the political spectrum.  January 30, 1933 became the turning point in the history of the twentieth century, but at the time Ullrich correctly points out leaders and the German public were not totally aware of its significance because most power brokers believed that the Franz von Papen-Paul von Hindenburg-Alfred Hugenberg alliance would be able to control Hitler.  As is repeatedly pointed out in the narrative it was just another example of people underestimating the new German Chancellor.  When examining if there were opportunities to stop Hitler’s ascent, Ullrich recapitulates the ideas of Karl Dietrich Bracher’s THE GERMAN DICTATORSHIP published in 1972.  Further, no one should have been surprised by Hitler’s actions after he rose to power, because his speeches, other public utterances, and his book MEIN KAMPF carefully delineated what he proposed to do.

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(Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbles)

In the realm of what he did do it is carefully reconstructed in the chapters, “Totalitarian Revolution,” and “Eviscerating Versailles.”  After achieving power on January 30, 1933 over the next year we witness the Nazi consolidation of power through the creation of the first concentration camp at Dachau; the passage of the Enabling Act, or “The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich,” which was used to create a dictatorship in the hands of the Chancellor as Hitler could now formulate laws without the approval of the Reichstag; and lastly, The Night of the Long Knives which destroyed the SA and the last vestige of political opposition.   As far as Hitler’s foreign policy was concerned the enemy was the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy and the key to its destruction was the step by step dismantling of the Treaty of Versailles.  Ullrich takes us through this process and the tactic Hitler employed throughout the period was to simultaneously appear as conciliatory and presenting his adversaries with a fait accompli, i.e., German military rearmament and the occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936.   The response of the west was one of appeasement and Hitler recreated a strategy that worked so effectively domestically – implementing policy that fostered foreign diplomats to underestimate him.   Overall, there is little that is new in this part of the narrative, but Ullrich’s clear analysis and Jefferson Chase’s excellent translation make events and policies easy to understand, particularly the historical implications that would result in World War II.

After reading Ullrich’s narrative I am not certain he has met his goal of “humanizing” Hitler because no matter how the material is presented he remains the historical monster that his actions and belief system support.  To Ullrich’s credit he has written a carefully constructed biography that should be seen as the most comprehensive biography of Hitler to date, and I look forward to the second volume that will carry us through the end of World War II.

*To explore Hitler from a psychological perspective you might consult:

Binion, Rudolph. HITLER AMONG THE GERMANS

Langer, Walter. THE MIND OF ADOLF HITLER

Waite, Robert. HITLER THE PSYCHOPATHIC GOD

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THE COLLAPSE: THE ACCIDENTAL OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL by Mary Elise Sarotte

(The day after the Berlin Wall was opened the German people celebrate on the section of the Wall that abuts the Brandenburg Gate, November 10, 1989)

In German history it seems that November 9th commemorates many important twentieth century dates.  In 1918, following the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the Hohenzollern throne.  In 1923, Adolf Hitler launched his failed Beer Hall Putsch in trying to seize power in Munich.  In 1938, the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) against the Jews of Germany.  Finally, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down which is the topic of Mary Elise Sarotte’s informative and interesting new monograph, THE COLLAPSE: THE ACCIDENTAL OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL.  Sarotte’s thesis is evident in the title of her book.  She argues in a clear and evocative manner that the opening of the Berlin Wall was not planned and it came as a dramatic surprise when “a series of accidents, some of them mistakes so minor that they might otherwise have been trivialities, threw off sparks into the supercharged atmosphere of the autumn of 1989 and ignited a dramatic sequence of events that culminated in the unintended opening of the Berlin Wall.”  The purpose of the book according to its author was to examine not only the sparks, but the friction in East Germany that produced them in the first place; the rise of a revolutionary but nonviolent civil resistance movement; and the collapse of the ruling regime.”(xx)  Sarotte argues further that the wall did not come down on November 9th because of the actions of the superpowers, and the figures that brought down the wall were not internationally known.  The book is an important contribution to the literature on the subject because on the night of November 9, 1989, a peaceful civil resistance movement overcame a dictatorial regime.  “It is all too seldom that such a peaceful process happens at all, let alone leaves a magnificent collection of evidence and witnesses scattered broadly behind itself for all to see.”(xxv)

Sarotte has written a carefully constructed narrative as she tries to ascertain why the Berlin Wall came down when it did.  The book is cogently written, well thought out, and impeccably researched.  The reader is drawn into the reasons behind events leading up to November 9 and almost half the narrative is spent explaining what led up to the opening of the wall that evening.  The first half of the book describes the gradual growth of opposition in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR) regime under Erich Honecker and his replacement, Egon Krenz.  Sarotte lays out her argument carefully as the civil opposition movement gains the confidence and support it needed in order to confront the regime.  The reader is witness to the growing opposition that relied on churches in Leipzig and East Berlin to host prayer meetings that throughout the summer of 1989 continuously grew in attendance that in the weeks leading up to November 9 saw crowds of upwards of 500,000 people leave the churches and take to the streets.  These demonstrations were a key as dissidents adopted a peaceful approach in matching government repression and violence.  Sarotte effectively explores the leadership on both sides, analyzing their strategies and actions to determine why events evolved as they did.

(President Reagan tells Soviet Premier Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” on June 12, 1987 in a speech in Berlin by the Brandenburg Gate)

The three most important elements leading up to November 9 appear to be the dissident and church leadership during prayer meetings; the strategy, or lack of thereof by officials of the GDR government in trying to defuse the opposition by issuing looser travel restrictions into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, FRG); and decisions made during the course of November 9 that led to the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall.  The most important characters in this process were a pair of dissident filmmakers and their contacts in West Berlin, church leaders in Leipzig and East Berlin, the intransigent attitudes of Honecker and Krenz, and the draft of a new travel law by Gerhard Lauter, head of the GDR Interior Ministry that led to the uncertainties that resulted in the opening of the wall.  We must be kept in mind is that none of this could have taken place without the actions, or inaction by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Russian economy was in dire condition and Gorbachev made the decision that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to keep 380,000 troops in the GDR.  What is fascinating as Sarotte points out is that throughout the period leading up to and including November 9, the Soviet Embassy remained ignorant of what Lauter and his colleagues had drawn up.  Moscow thought that a “hole variant,” allowing one exit gate with severe restrictions was the policy that they approved of.  But in reality, that policy was obsolete and was replaced by a much more liberal plan.

The most interesting and surprising aspect of the book is Sarotte’s presentation dealing with the GDR Politburo meeting when Krenz announces the new travel plan and there is no opposition to it.  Following the meeting, Gunter Schabowski, a member of the GDR Politburo holds a live broadcast news conference in which he announces that “private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justifications—reasons for trips connections to relatives—be applied for.  Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.”(117)  This included emigration and short trips and when pressed on when this would take effect, Schabowski replied, “right away.”  What is incredible about the press conference that ended around 7:00 pm on November 9th is that Schabowski never read the new travel law before he made his presentation.  This lack of communication is a dominant theme throughout the book and as evening took over on November 9, border guards and other officials were taken aback as they had no clarification as to what to do when thousands of people approached different parts of the wall.  GDR officials tried to contact their counterparts in Moscow, but the Soviet Union was just completing a holiday and no one in authority was available.

Sarotte concludes her book with the reactions in Moscow, London, Washington, and Bonn to events and she is very clear that western officials and intelligence officers were taken completely by surprise.  Sarotte brings her monograph to a close with an epilogue in which she examines the reunification of Germany as a year after the wall fell five new states that were carved out of the GDR were able to join West Germany on October 3, 1990.  Sarotte points out that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had moved quickly for fear of a Soviet change of heart based on hard line opposition to the reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Sarotte goes on to update the reader on the lives of the major participants in the drama she described, one of which was Vladimir Putin who was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden at the time, who returned to Russia full of regret of how the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe.  This would lead to his political career fueled by the desire to restore Russia to what he believed to be its rightful place in Europe.  The issues of justice also emerge as well as memorials to celebrate the events she describes.  One interesting aspect in closing is that there are more “wall memorials” in the United States than there are in Germany.  Sarotte’s monograph is an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in understanding why the Berlin Wall fell when it did and why it was so significant

THE TRIGGER: HUNTING THE ASSASSIN WHO BROUGHT THE WORLD TO WAR by Tim Butcher

(Images from the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo in 1995)

For the past few years numerous books have been published dealing with aspects of the First World War. The plethora of books is due to the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that touched off events that resulted in the “war to end all wars.”  Tim Butcher’s THE TRIGGER is part of slew of new publications, but it is not a traditional discussion of the causes of the war and who was most responsible for the debacle that followed.  Butcher’s book is hard to categorize.  It is part travelogue through the battlefields of the Yugoslavian Civil War that dominated the 1990s in the Balkans.  It is also a book that tries to explain how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip resulted in the death of millions of people between 1914 and 1918 might be related to the slaughter that took place in Bosnia between 1992-1996.  The subtitle of the book, “Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War,” hints at what the author was trying to achieve.  By presenting a pseudo biography of Princip and following his route from his village in Serbia to Sarajevo the author uncovers new information that previous biographers and historians of World War I failed to uncover.  The reader is placed in a position to understand the events that led to the assassination, and by walking Princip’s route we get an insight as to how the events of 1914 still affected the Balkan region through the 1990s when Butcher was a journalist in the region.  As the author follows in Princip’s footsteps he relives the tragic events of the 1990s he witnessed, and in writing THE TRIGGER, Butcher provides a rare glimpse into mind set of Princip as well as Serbian nationalists who conducted the genocide that was Srebrenica in 1995.  The first of two strands in the narrative are Butcher’s journey that culminates with the Bosnian Serb massacre at Srebrenica that finally brought in NATO forces leading to peace talks resulting in the Dayton Accords.  The second strand sees Butcher describe Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the hunt for co-conspirators, the trial that followed, and the death of Princip in 1918.

What make Butcher’s work so fascinating are the important insights he brings to the table.  The author was a foreign correspondent who covered the war from 1994 onward and sees his role in part to remind people how the events of World War I are still responsible for much of today’s world conflict.  Butcher points out that most histories of the war cover the same ground, and he decided by returning to Bosnia he could follow Princip’s path, “trekking where he trekked, from village to village…..explore the Balkan towns and cities where he studied, worked and travelled, and….piece together as far as possible the setting and detail of the assassination, his influences and motivations.” (20)  To a large degree Butcher is able to meet his own criteria in creating an interesting narrative that should keep the reader fully absorbed from first page to last.

Butcher’s journey led him through the forbidden mountainous areas that were home to bears, wolves, and a significant number of unexploded mines from the Yugoslav Civil War.  Butcher was familiar with the areas he traveled because of his journalistic work in the 1990s and he marched onward with the assistance of his guide Arne Hecimovic, a man who spent his teenage years translating for reporters during the civil war.  The journey began in the small Serbian village of Obljaj where Princip was born and preceded across Serbia into Bosnia, a return to Belgrade and a later march to Sarajevo.  As Butcher describes the journey he integrates the relevant history that affected the region.  The author goes back into Ottoman history and describes their rule in the Balkans, as the Ottoman Empire becomes “the sick man of Europe” in the 19th century, Butcher continues by addressing the significance of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin that created Serbia and which many historians argue put Europe on the road to war.  Butcher describes the decade that preceded World War I highlighting the dynastic issues relating to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 by the Habsburgs, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 all in the context of the development of Princip’s sense of growing nationalism.  We see how nationalism became a disease in the 20th century and the damage it caused.  Once Yugoslavia is created after the Treaty of Versailles it is obvious the only way to keep the new nation together is with an iron fist.  We witness the fracturing of Yugoslavia as it is ripped apart by the Nazis who play divide and conquer splitting the catholic Croat population from the eastern orthodox Serbs, and Muslims who are remnants of Ottoman rule.  Following the war Jozip Broz Tito and his communist partisans who had liberated his country from the Nazis assumes power and applies a high degree of force to keep his nation together until his death in 1980.  From that point on it seems inevitable that the ethnic rivalries and hatreds that were subsumed for years overwhelms any sense of Yugoslav unity and in 1991 the road to civil war and the violence that tore apart the Balkans is under way.

What I found most interesting about the book was Butcher’s discussion of Princip’s belief system.  Historians have painted him as a Serbian nationalist who operated under the nationalist group, the Black Hand.  After significant research Butcher comes to the conclusion that Princip was a “not predominately committed to Serb nationalism.  His greater goal was freeing all Slavs, not just ethnic Slavs like himself,” his belief system centered around the greater Yugoslav ideal of defeating Austro-Hungarian colonialism, not just from Bosnia, but also “from areas to the north where other south Slavs – Croats and the Slovenes – were under the same occupation.” (247-8) Princip belonged to Mlada Bosna, a group that was not typical of nationalist movements in the Balkans in that they were “more romantic, inclusive” and believed in a political model that was far different from the “individual nationalist models of Serbs or the Croats.” (250)  Princip saw the poverty and that the basic feudal system remained under the Habsburg Empire and he wanted to free the southern Slavs from their control.

As Butcher’s travels take him through the route employed by Princip he revisits the civil war he covered.  He constantly comes across unmarked graves, underground bunkers, earthworks, and the destruction that was endemic to the fighting.  Butcher explains the shifting alliances that existed in the 1990s; Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Croats allied with Bosnian Muslims.  Then the Croats and Moslems allow their historical hatred to reemerge and the Serbs watch the former allies tear each other apart.  Some of the earliest examples of ethnic cleansing take place between the Croats and Muslims in 1993.  Interestingly, by the spring of 1994, after pressure from the international community they renew their alliance and concentrate their venom against the Serbs.

Throughout his journey Butcher interviewed people and their families from all sides of the conflict, in Obljaj, the Milne’s family provided the Serb viewpoint; in Glamoc, the Zdravko family story recounts the experiences of the Croats; and two Imans, Kemal Tokmic and Muzafer Latic present the Muslim view as they fish with Butcher in the mountains near Bugojono.  In all the reader is exposed to the grievances and history of each side. One of Butcher’s goals is to relate how the events of 1914 affected the 1990s civil war and beyond.  The description of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing in Banja Luka is informative and maddening as western politicians stood by one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian War.  The ethnic cleansing, death camps, genocide that were perpetuated against the Bosnian Muslims throughout the fighting “inadvertently provided Islamic militants with a rallying cry used to justify later acts of terrorism.” (143) The nationalism that was responsible for June 28, 1914 reemerged with a vengeance during World War II, and exploded in the 1990s when the “hard fist” of Tito’s reign was gone.  As an aside I wonder how many remnants of Islamic fighters remain who may still be involved in Iraq and Syria as of this writing. The last quarter of the book is devoted to a detailed description of Princip and his co-conspirators planning and carrying out the assassination of the Archduke.  What is interesting is Butcher’s reconstruction of some of Princip’s pre-trial interrogation, trial transcripts, and psychiatric evaluation to determine his modus Vivendi.  It comes down to his hatred of the Habsburg monarchy, his detestation of the poverty he and his fellow Slavs were forced to live in, and his own self-perception of weakness.

(Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie moments before they are killed, June 28, 1914)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Butcher’s recreation of the commemorative march, called the “Mars Mira or Peace March.”  After the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo was near an end in 1995, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were forced to make an escape from the city to avoid extermination by the Serbs.  In addition to the genocide at Srebrenica, Serbs also overran Sarajevo and targeted Muslim males for extinction.  The only means of escape was a 50 mile march from the city through a path protected by forest.  Butcher interviewed Dzile Omerovic, a Bosnian Muslim survivor of the march who said, “It was like being trapped in hell, I know no other word for it.”  Omerovic suffers from PTSD, as he continued to repeat how he should have done more to save others.  While Butcher took part in the “Mars Mira” in 2012, he came across numerous mass graves and workers who continue to try to match the unearthed corpses, body parts, and bones to make to identify victims in order for families to finally come to closure.  For Butcher in 2012 he realized he was “dancing on graves.” (223)  Thinking back to 1996 Butcher presents a passage that reminded me of the Cambodian “killing fields” of the 1970s as he found himself stepping out of his jeep  a year after the fall of Srebrenica to find himself in a field where “all around lay skulls, vertebrae, femurs, rotting scrapes of clothes, footwear and a few personal possessions.  So thick lay the bones on the ground that when I returned to the jeep, I remember the back wheels lurching over a ribcage, but from nowhere a man appeared carrying a shotgun and told me to leave.  I still feel guilty for panicking that day, for fleeing the crime scene, relying on the presumption that it would one day be found by war-crimes investigators and the human remains properly identified.” (230)

(Bosnian Muslims victims of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav Civil War)

The book is an informative read and a testament to the author’s commitment to seek out historical truths.  It is loaded with personal vignettes that are striking in their authenticity and emotion.  If you are interested in placing World War I in proper perspective as it relates to the last 100 years, THE TRIGGER should be of much interest.

For a list of recent books on World War I consult the list below that should be reviewed at www.docs-books.com in the future.

THE LOST HISTORY OF 1914: RECONSIDERING THE YEAR THE GREAT WAR BEGAN by Jack Beatty

GEORGE, NICHOLAS, AND WILHELM: THREE ROYAL COUSINS AND THE ROAD TO WORLD WAR I by Miranda Carter

THE SLEEPWALKERS: HOW EUROPE WENT TO WAR IN 1914 by Christopher Clark

THE BEAUTY AND THE SORROW: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Peter England

CATASTROPE 1914: EUROPE GOES TO WAR by Max Hastings

THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE: THE ROAD TO 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

JULY 1914: COUNTDOWN TO WAR by Sean McMeekin

DANCE OF THE FURIES: EUROPE AND THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR I by Michael S. Nieberg

A MAD CATASTROPHE: THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR ONE AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE HABSBURG EMPIRE by Geoffrey Wawro

One of the best books on Princip and the outbreak of war is the classic,  ROAD TO SARAJEVO by Vladimir Dedijer published in 1966.

VASA: A SWEDISH WARSHIP by Fred Hocker

Two months ago my wife I found ourselves in Stockholm, Sweden. During our time in the city we visited one of the most extraordinary museums we have ever experienced, the Vasa Museum. Housed inside this enormous structure was a Swedish ship, the Vasa that was built under the reign of Gustavas Adolphus in the 1620s. The ship had a very short lifespan, despite the fact that it was commissioned by the Swedish monarch to fill the role as the jewel of the Swedish navy during the Thirty Year’s War. For the king the ship “would be a new milestone in his and the country’s journey from the European backwoods to the forefront of the international stage. (47)

Expectations were high on August 10, 1628 when the Vasa was launched. However after sailing about one nautical mile it heeled too far to the port side and sank as water filled the gunports below. I was fascinated by the history of the ship and how it was built and was amazed that after 300 years underwater it could be salvaged and become the focus of such a wonder museum. As a committed “bookaholic” I went to the museum shop and found what I was looking for, a history of the entire project, both past and present in Fred Hocker’s VASA: A SWEDISH WARSHIP.

Mr. Hocker begins his narrative by providing insights into the imperial rivalries of the 17th century that culminated in the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648). I was surprised to learn that at that time Sweden controlled Lithuania and Finland and their main rival, Denmark controlled Norway, Skane (the site of Henning Mankell’s mystery series!), and Gotland. The author provides a detailed discussion as to how the Vasa was built including copies of the contracts, ledger entries, and a breakdown of all materials purchased to create such an imposing structure. What was amazing to me was that “trees had to be selected carefully, so the natural curves would suit the eventual shape of the timber as close as possible.” (42) Oak trees were chosen by the “Forest Master” for the ship’s hull, and pine for the decks. Over 1000 trees were needed to build the ship, but thousands more were used for fuel to create the necessary bolts, nails, and anchors.

The Vasa was Gustavas Adolphus’ plan to develop a navy strong enough to make the Baltic a “Swedish lake.” The Vasa was a multi-cultural project as is exemplified by the ethnic heritage of those who built her, i.e., Swedes, Danes, Dutch, German and English. The ships name, carvings, and color reflect the glory of the king and its subjects represented throughout the ship leads one to Ancient Rome and highlights the Renaissance influence in Northern Europe. Meticulous detail is evident on each carving and sculpture putting forth its own message and all were painted with colorful pigments. Hocker does a wonderful job explaining the types of sails the ship employed and other technical aspects of how the ship would be powered, steered and set on its proper course.
The author ‘s description of all aspects of life on board allows the reader to imagine that they were present for the first voyage. Whether a discussion of the crew’s clothing, living quarters, the food they ingested, health issues and a myriad of other details one gets the feeling that the clock has been turned back to 1628 and you are on deck as the Vasa is plowing the water of the Baltic Sea.

The tragic sinking of the Vasa in August, 1628 resulted in 30 deaths including women and children. The major reason for the calamity was that the decks were overbuilt and its reinforcing timbers created a poor weight distribution. The hull itself was too heavily built above the waterline and the underwater portion of the ship was to small for the amount of hull above the waterline. In simple terms, the gun decks were farther above the waterline than necessary. An immediate inquest was summoned and it concluded that the admiralty actually knew in advance that the ships design was flawed. The result was that the ship was too narrow at the bottom and it should have been built wider and deeper. No one was personally blamed, but the Captain and others “lacked the courage to tell the king that his glorious ship, named for his family was an accident waiting to happen.” (141) The significance of the Vasa was that it had a major impact on future naval construction as Hocker points out that “her loss was tragic but necessary element in building up the knowledge needed for the development of the ship of the line, the pinnacle of naval technology for nearly two centuries.” (155)

Hocker describes numerous attempts to raise the the ship over the next half century, but all ended in failure though they did recover 61 out of the 64 cannons, most of which were sold as salvage to the Danes who then would use them against Sweden in the Scanian War of the 1770s! The Vasa would remain under water until it was rediscovered by a diver, Per Edvin Falting on September 4, 1956. During the next five years preparations were made to salvage the Vasa and bring her to the surface. Employing the latest technology the Swedish navy and many private companies worked to float the ship on pontoons to recover her. On April 4, 1961 the Vasa broke the surface and ten days later she was completely afloat. The author provides the engineering details with diagrams to supplement the text so even the “nautical novice” would understand the complexity of the task. Experienced Archaeologists were brought in to excavate the Vasa and over 30,000 artifacts ranging from human skeltons, tools, guns, and other equipment were studied. These artifacts have given us a very accurate picture of what life was like during 17th century Sweden. Once the Vasa was floated the decision was made to preserve her and build a museum to house the ship. Hocker describes the process of preserving the Vasa, caring for the artifacts, and the technological process of moving the ship into its new home and building a museum around it that includes numerous exhibits. The museum opened in 1990 and over one million people visit annually to witness a 60 meter structure, 7 stories high enclosed in a weather controlled environment that has taken a moment of history and frozen it in time. (198) The book is fascinating for its narrative, but also for its diagrams which makes the complexity of what is being described understandable for the maritime laymen. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in maritime history, engineering, technology, or just a wonderful adventure story. Lastly, if you are ever is Stockholm you must put the Vasa Museum on your list of places to visit.