SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE: A WAR STORY by Diane Ackerman

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

Recently I went see the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and I was taken by the story and the quality of the production.  The film was based on a book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which was published in 2007.  Ackerman’s narrative history tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, who married in 1931, and shortly thereafter became the heads of the Warsaw Zoo located in the Praga district of the city.  The Zabinski’s were Christians who were horrified by the rise of Nazism in Germany, particularly the racial theories they expounded as they related to animals and humans.  The book replicated by the film tells the story of how the Zabinskis responded to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their final seizure of the entire country when they invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  What makes the book somewhat different from the standard historical narrative is that Ackerman, a prolific nature writer by trade is able to apply her expertise in her field to a story that is horrific as well as heroic.

Jan Zabinski was a member of the Polish Underground (Home Army) and throughout the book he tries to maintain the remnants of the zoo, while Antonia sought to help her animals as best she could, while shielding their son Rys from the carnage that surrounded them.  The Zabinski’s role in rescuing over 300 individuals, Polish resistance activists and Jews during the course of the Nazi occupation is the core of the book as Ackerman explores how this was accomplished and their commitment to saving “humans” as well as animals.  The author’s narrative describes how the couple lived before the war in a world where their lives revolved around the internal clocks of their animals as well as humans.  Their daily routines were never quite the same because of the needs of the animals which made each day a novelty with welcome moments especially when the animals seemed to visit and live inside their dacha.  It appears that Jan and Antonia lived in synchrony with the animals and did their best to view the world and align their senses with how their “animal guests” as they were called, might view and experience their world.  As Jan points out, “its’ by living beside animals that you learn their behavior and psychology.”

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(Antonia and Jan Zabinski)

The story is described through the daily rhythms and scents of the zoo’s resident animals.  The cacophony of sounds reflected animal life and the environment and care they were afforded by Jan and Antonia.  As war approached the matriarchal Antonia worried what would be the fate of her “animal republic,” since the zoo was located in Poland’s most populous city.  Her fears were justified as once the war began the German military slowly pinched off Warsaw from the rest of Poland, and the Nazis indiscriminately, whether through sport or just vengefulness, killed the animals.  Another character that looms large in the narrative is Lutz Heck, Director of the Berlin Zoo and a man obsessed with animal bloodlines whose research was designed to restore certain “pure blooded and extinct species.”  He was a powerful and ardent Nazi who supposedly arrived to borrow some of Jan and Antonia’s best animals and send them to Berlin, to be returned to them after the war.  Hermann Goring was Heck’s patron who also aspired to recasting Germany’s natural world, “cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it.”

In order to try and save as many animals and people as possible Jan and Antonia came up with a proposal to feed Nazi troops by creating a “pig farm” at the zoo.  Heck approved and this provided Jan access to the Warsaw ghetto to obtain scraps to feed the pigs and fatten them up for slaughter. According to the Jewish Institute in Warsaw, Jan’s access to the ghetto allowed him to “bring out notes, bacon, and butter, and carry messages to friends.” It was an ingenious and dangerous plan, but it allowed Jan to use the zoo as a vehicle for the Polish Underground whose foothold in the Praga District helped protect 6,000 soldiers, the largest pool of saboteurs in the city.  Antonia was in a difficult position because Heck had designs on her apart from animals and she tried her best to play him to her advantage in order to protect her animals and her “human guests.”

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Ackerman’s narrative is historically accurate and insightful.  Her discussion of natural history is enlightening, particularly as she describes the Zabinski’s zoo management as animals were not just housed in cages, but in “habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts, and woods.”  Once the zoo is destroyed by German bombing Ackerman examines Jan and Antonia’s survival strategies, in addition to saving the lives of as many people as possible.  Her story reflects the empathy and care the Zabinski’s had for their animals and the people that were hidden in closets, rooms, and even animal cages during the Nazi occupation.  Throughout this process, Antonia tried her best to maintain a “normal festive” atmosphere so her “guests” could feel at home despite the ever present threat that at any time the Nazis would bang on their door.  Signals and other strategies were implemented to make people as safe as possible.

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(Cecylia Teodorowicz, the Zabinski housekeeper in the kitchen with an otter)

Jan’s plan was a simple one, hide Jews and ammunition in plain sight in the middle of the zoo.  He created a halfway house for Jews in hiding and in transit, “nomads, not settlers, they stopped briefly to rest and refuel in route to unnamed destinations.”  Like animals, these guests would blend into their surroundings.  Antonia was unaware of some of Jan’s Underground activities until after the war.  She did not know that he hid C13F, a water soluble explosive in a barrel, she was in the dark when it came to Jan as a leader of an Underground cell that specialized in sabotaging German trains by jamming explosives into wheel bearings, she did not know that he infected some pigs with worms, butchered them and slipped them into German soldier’s sandwiches.  These are the types of things along with details of how Jan smuggled people out of the ghetto to safety, and the overall danger he faced that Ackerman brings out in her narrative that is of the utmost importance.

Ackerman has the ability to blend her knowledge of the natural world with the historical tide.  Daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Himmler’s determination to destroy the ghetto to provide a birthday present for Hitler, the Polish Army’s rebellion against the Nazis as Stalin waited in the wings for its destruction, and numerous other events receive full consideration.  Integrating her “guests” into these events provides an even greater meaning to their intensity and importance.

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(The Warsaw Ghetto)

Antonia maintained a diary throughout the war that Ackerman heavily relies upon and integrates into her narrative.  It is an excellent source as Antonia did her best to prevent more Holocaust victims, but also shows that the animal world was not to be romanticized as she felt it was very violent, and that one had to tread carefully when caring for animals.  As far as citations are concerned it appears much of the book is based on a few sources and it would have assisted the reader if detailed footnotes could have been provided, not just a sentence or two.  In addition, I would have liked further information about the postwar experience of the Zabinskis both of whom did extraordinary work during World War II.

As far as a comparison to the film is concerned, the story is segmented and the parts that are produced seem fairly accurate.  In the movie Jan comes across as a softer figure, in the book he has an extreme edge at times in dealing with Antonia.  Lutz Heck’s role in the film is somewhat crucial to the story, but less so in the book.  Events are accurate, but the book relies more on Antonia’s natural world of animals than is presented in the film.  Overall, the book is worth the read, and the film should be viewed.

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(The Warsaw Zoo used in WWII to hide Jews, Polish resistance fighters, and others)

BLITZED: DRUGS IN THE THIRD REICH by Norman Ohler translated by Shaun Whiteside

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(Adolf Hitler in March, 1945)

With thousands upon thousands of books written about Nazi Germany and its “Fuhrer,” Adolf Hitler, one wonders if there is a relevant area of research that has not been mined thoroughly.  The appearance of Norman Ohler’s BLITZED: DRUGS IN THE THIRD REICH provides an affirmative answer.  A regime that prided itself on its anti-drug mantra was led by a man usually pumped full of drugs by his personal physician Dr. Theodor Morell.  The premise of Ohler’s work, first published in Germany in 2015, is that the Nazis provided the world with a chemical legacy that remains a major problem today – opioid – methamphetamine addiction.  The Nazis allowed the use of Volksdroge, “the people’s drug” unencumbered until the passage of the Reich Opium Law in 1941.  Today, the substance is known as “crystal meth,” and is consumed by over 100 million people worldwide, though in most places it is illegal or strictly regulated.

Ohler’s thesis presents the Nazi dichotomy.  It publicized and demanded that all should possess a constitution pure of drugs that could affect the mind and body.  Hitler, was portrayed as a vegetarian teetotaler who would not allow any foreign bodies to enter his system.  On the other hand, the Furhrer would become dependent on a series of short-term stimulants from 1936 on that would progress to an intravenous diet of animal extracts, and after 1943 hard drugs like Eukodal, whose active ingredient is oxycodone.  These pseudo medications were administered by Dr. Theodor Morell, a specialist in skin conditions and sexually transmitted diseases who would pollute the Nazi leadership with his concoctions and use Hitler’s dependency on his treatment to try and construct a “hormonal” industry called the Ukrainian Pharma-Works” in areas seized by the Wehrmacht.

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(Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s private physician)

According to Ohler, the original rise of crystal meth took place in Nazi Germany.  The German chemical industry received a major boost in the 1930s under the direction of Dr. Fritz Hauscheld, the head of pharmacology at the Temmler Chemical Works who job was to discover a “performance enhancing drug” for the Third Reich.  The discovery of morphine made a different scale of war possible as men too injured to fight could now return to the battlefield. Temmler’s research would patent the drug Pervitin (“speed”), Germany’s first methamphetamine that produced feelings of euphoria, energy, self-confidence, and strength.  Temmler’s successful marketing campaign would result in the drug as a panacea for a number of issues from fatigue to a low sex drive.  The drug became a fixture in German society in the late 1930s.

The drug was a perfect match for the spirit of the age.  By 1936 Hitler had successfully overcome many of the limitations placed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty.  Unemployment was a thing of the past and by 1938 Germany had seized the Rhineland, achieved Anschluss with Austria, and stolen the Sudetenland from the Czechs at Munich.  For Hitler his burgeoning popularity was like a drug addict who could not give up his expansionist drug and by mid-1939 had moved on to Danzig.  The German people had to maintain this pace of change.  Fresh demands were made on the labor force and the military – the slogan “Germany Awake” needed methamphetamines for the country to “stay awake.”  According to Ohler, “spurred on by a disastrous cocktail of propaganda and pharmaceutical substances people became more and more dependent….Pervitin allowed the individual to function in the dictatorship.  National Socialism in pill form.” (39)

Ohler raises a number of questions; did civilian use of Pervitin carry over to the military?  Did German soldiers need the drug to fight effectively?  Did the addictive drug influence the course of World War II?  The answer in all cases seems to be yes.  Relying on a significant amount of research, particularly Dr. Morell’s patient notes Ohler traces the development, production, and dissemination of Pervitin as World War II approached.  He describes how it was employed in achieving the Blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries in April and May, 1940.  The speed of the German military was key, and commanders would not tolerate rest or fatigue. Pervitin, is at a minimum partly responsible for the German success.  Dr. Otto F. Ranke, the Director of the Research Institute of Defense Physiology was completely on board with making these pills available to commanders and their soldiers.  With no real guidelines as to how Pervitin was to be used they were distributed in the millions to German soldiers.

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(Hitler with Dr. and Mrs. Theodor Morell)

Ohler weaves the course of the war effectively as he traces drug use as it related to Germany’s progress on the battlefield, and how, after 1942, mounting German problems affected Hitler.  Ohler weaves the Holocaust and the Nazi ideology of blaming Jews for the lack of purity of the German population that he had described in Mein Kampf, major battles and military decisions, and Hitler’s interaction with people throughout the narrative.  Further he describes the chemical changes in the nervous system of German soldiers through the ingestion of the drug as they went into battle.  What was clear is that the energy and euphoria could last only so long before fatigue set in and German advances were hindered by the need to rest their soldiers.  The same can be said of Hitler, as Morell developed a vitamin concoction called Vitamultin which he injected the Fuhrer with daily, resulting in similar after effects that German soldiers suffered from.  Morell was able to convince the General Staff of its benefits and a number of them would soon become his patients, as did many other Nazi officials.

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Hitler’s medical decline began in the autumn of 1941 as the war began to turn against the Reich.  Germany had invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and it was supposed to take three months to complete the action.  “As soon as he encountered genuine Russian resistance that couldn’t be removed with a sweep of the hand, ‘the greatest commander of all time’ retreated further and further into his world of make believe.  The microcosm of the Wolf’s Lair (Hitler’s eastern command center) was nothing more than a hubble made of concrete and steel.” (111)  For the first time in the war Germans suffered great losses in a very short period of time – even the doping that had been deployed for Operation Barbarossa was ineffective as once the Pervitin wore off, troops had to rest.  Hitler fell ill for the first time in years in August, 1941 and when Morell’s concoctions of vitamins and glucose failed to work he raised the ante by injecting steroids and other opiates.  He did prevent another illness, but in the future Morell resorted to prophylactic injections of new hormonal substances.  “From autumn 1941 onward, more and more concentrated animal substances began to circulate in his bloodstream” in order to reinforce his body’s defenses.  The result was that “Hitler’s natural immune system was soon replaced by an artificial protective shield.” (114)  From then on Hitler’s military directives parted company from reality as he would not accept rational arguments from his generals.

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As the war continued to go against Hitler’s “alternative reality” he became more and more dependent on opioid drugs.  Hitler was dependent on Dr. Morell, who was dubbed the “Reich Injection Minister” by Hermann Goring.  “The medication kept the supreme commander stable in his delusion….Any doubts were swept away by his chemically induced confidence.  The world could sink into rubble and ashes around him, and his actions cost millions of people their lives – but the Fuhrer felt more than justified when his artificial euphoria set in.” (163)

Ohler describes the period after 1943, as Hitler’s heavy opiate phase.   As the war turned increasingly bad for Germany, the Merck and Company facility in Darmstadt was destroyed in December, 1944, so Merck could no longer produce Eukodal.  Hitler’s health would deteriorate and to survive he took strong narcotics which erected a pharmacological barricade around himself.  The delusional system that Hitler created for himself, would not allow him to remain clear of drugs.  “Under no circumstance did Hitler want to come down from his megalomaniac Fuhrer trip, in spite of the disastrous military situation.” (174)  By the spring of 1945, Morell no longer had any potent substances to administer as he had done in the past.  As time evolved the Fuhrer most certainly went through a period of withdrawal.  Some historians believe he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but in retrospect it is hard to determine a definitive diagnosis.

A part from Hitler the drug crutch influenced German naval policy.  Admiral Hellmuth Heye argued for one man torpedoes and two man submarines to inflict damage on allied shipping.  To accomplish this task drugged men were required as these were kamikaze missions.  Ohler describes the drug mixtures created that would have been fine for an addict like Hitler, but could not be tolerated by the average soldier.  Medical experiments to prepare Germans to carry out their weapons pipe dreams were carried out in Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz concentrations camps resulting in the death of numerous victims.  Ohler describes in detail Hitler’s deterioration once drugs were not available and he would succumb to a nasty withdrawal like most drug addicts.

A number of important historians support what Ohler’s research has unveiled.  The late Hans Mommsen, one of the leading German historians of the Nazi era, Ian Kershaw, the foremost Hitler biographer, and Anthony Beevor, the well-known military historian all recognize that Ohler, a German journalist, novelist, and filmmaker has written “a serious piece of scholarship,” and one that is very well researched.” (“The Very Drugged Nazis,” by Anthony Beevor, New York Review of Books, March 9, 2017)

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(Hitler in early 1945)

 

THE PLOTS AGAINST HITLER by Danny Orbach

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(July 20, 1944, bomb damage from a plot to kill Adolf Hitler)

One of the most consistent questions asked by historians about watershed historical events is “what if?”  Counterfactual history may be an interesting intellectual exercise, but speculating when an “Adolf Hitler” could have been stopped, thus avoiding the carnage of World War II does not alter events.  However, reviewing and analyzing actual attempts to kill or overthrow the German Fuhrer is not counter factual but a valid attempt to see how close conspirators actually came to removing Hitler.

There are many other questions that are associated with attempts to remove individuals who are deemed to be dangerous to society.  At what point do people turn against their government?  What motivates people to resist?  Is it ideological, moral, or some other reason that drives individuals to say enough is enough and resort to violence to unseat an existing regime?  These questions are very important when applied to the opponents of Adolf Hitler.  Why did certain people oppose Nazism?  Why did they wait so long to try and depose Hitler?  Did some plotters of the resistance to Hitler actually participate and support genocide against the Jews and other inhumane actions?  Did they try and rid the world of Hitler when they realized that the war was lost?  Finally, did they find Nazism morally repugnant so they decided to strike?  These questions and a discussion of those who tried to remove Hitler are examined fully in Danny Orbach’s new book THE PLOTS AGAINST HITLER.  Orbach examines the full breath of available documents in a number of languages and argues that the answers to these questions are complex and conclusions cannot be considered black or white.

By late 1934 Hitler and his henchmen having taken advantage of the Reichstag fire were the sole masters of Germany.  After crushing the Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, and centrist parties, the most important source of legal opposition to the Nazis ceased to exist.  The Nazi Gleichschaltung (bringing into line) would swallow local governments, trade unions, and any possible opposition as they cemented their hold over Germany.  Even military leaders who looked down on the former corporal supported a regime whose rhetoric promised to fulfill their goals of rearmament and a more aggressive foreign policy.  A number of military leaders did question the idea of Hitler in power, but they, like the politicians felt they could control him.  Any dissenters were silenced or forced to retire, and Hitler sealed the deal with the military by destroying the SA, his private army during the “Night of the Long Knives” (also known as the Roehm putsch) when the SA leadership was massacred.  With the accession of the SS and the Gestapo, all opposition ceased.

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(Lt. Col. Hans Oster)

Orbach traces the origins of the most famous attempt to remove Hitler on July 20, 1944 to the purge of the military leadership in late 1937 and early 1938.  It began with the removal of Field Marshall Werner von Blumberg, the Nazi Minister of War, and General Werner von Fritsch, the commander of the army.  Both were brought down through the machinations of Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering as one was married to a former prostitute, the other was framed as a homosexual.  The vacuum was filled by lackeys like General Wilhelm Keitel who were deemed loyal to Hitler,  but an outgrowth of these events was the development of a network that opposed Nazism and wanted to change the government led by Lt. Colonel Hans Oster, an anti-Nazi and a rising star in the Abwehr; Hans Bernd Gisevius, a Gestapo agent who became Oster’s eyes and ears inside the Nazi Security Service; and Dr. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, the former land mayor of Leipzig who resigned his office when a statue of Felix Mendelssohn was removed from the town square.  These men and others eventually found the violence against the Jews repugnant, were distraught over the persecution of the church, and felt that Hitler’s dangerous foreign policy would lead to war and the destruction of Germany.

Orbach outlines clearly the characteristics of a strong network or clique to foment a coup.  He points to the recruitment of members based on previous friendship and acquaintances.  Further, they must be relatively autonomous and protected from suspicion by the security services, i.e., the officer corps was autonomous from civilian authorities.  Lastly, they are dependent upon networks of kinship, marriage, social ties, joint schooling and military service.  This would lead to the evolution from being a social network to a conspiratorial one.

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(Colonel Ludwig Beck)

The network would expand to include Ulrich von Hassel, the former ambassador to Italy, Ewald von Kliest, an aristocrat and major land owner, Colonel Ludwig Beck, the Chief of the General Staff, General Erwin von Witzleben, the commander of greater Berlin, and on the periphery Colonel Wilhelm Carnaris, the head of German intelligence.  This network is described in one of Orbach’s most interesting chapters as he describes how they organized and planned a coup de tat for September 28, 1938.  For Orbach this was one of the best chances for success because following the Anschluss with Austria, Hitler ordered Operation Green, the invasion of Czechoslovakia to obtain the mineral rich Sudetenland, an area of over three million Germans.  If this could be achieved then the Czech state would effectively be destroyed.  A number of leading military and civilian figures opposed the operation believing that Germany was not ready for war and would be defeated.  The coup was set, but the conspirators did not count on the fecklessness of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the intercession of Benito Mussolini that brought about the Munich Conference and the ceding of the Sudetenland to Germany peacefully.  Once the fear of war with Britain and France was off the table, the conspirators were finished.  However, Hitler would continue his aggressive actions that eventually resulted in the events of early September, 1939 with the invasion of Poland and the official beginning of World War II.

The Oster, Goerdeler, and Beck network was too small to stage a successful coup especially with higher echelons of the Nazi regime intoxicated with events up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  The expansion of the German resistance movement was a direct reaction to Operation Barbarossa, and with it the only option seemed to be the assassination of Hitler.  The movement expanded and its tentacles reached further into the army, foreign office with improved connections between cells.  Many like Hermann Kaiser, a former history teacher, and reserve officer; and Lt. Col. Henning von Tresckow, a senior operations officer in the Army Group Center on the eastern front reacted to the carnage and slaughter in the east perpetrated by SS Einsatzgruppen.  In 1941 and 1942 there was little that could be done to stop it, but with the fall of Stalingrad the resistance was emboldened and a number of assassination attempts against Hitler were planned but failed due to a change in the Fuhrer’s schedule, bad luck or other unforeseen problems.

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(Admiral Wilhelm Carnaris)

One of the most surprising aspects of the book was Orbach’s discussion of the role of Admiral Wilhelm Carnaris, a conservative nationalist who could not accept the brutality of the Nazi regime.  Carnaris disgusted by what he saw in Warsaw worked to save over 400 people including Rabbi Joseph Schneersohn, the Lubacitche Rabbi.  Carnaris worked further to smuggle Jews out of Germany using the excuse he was planting spies abroad.

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(Count Claus von Stauffenberg, attempted to kill Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944)

By 1943 leadership of the resistance fell, almost, by default to Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a romanticist and elitist whose career would bring him to Hitler’s General Staff.  Orbach presents an in depth chapter dealing with von Stauffenberg’s evolution in finally becoming the leader of the movement and deciding that only he had the courage and position to kill Hitler.  Orbach carefully explains the organization of the conspirators, how they planned, communicated, recruited, and compartmentalized their networks from each other.  Orbach’s analysis included the personality clashes within the movement and the shadow government that was created designed to govern Germany after the Nazis were removed.  All their plans failed as Hitler survived the July 20, 1944 bomb blast and Orbach explains that none of the conspirators had any training in the art of the coup de tat which in part explains why it was not successful.  Orbach drills down in reviewing mistakes that were made and the fate of the perpetrators once the plot was uncovered.

Orbach’s conclusions are well supported by his ambitious scholarship and research.  I believe the most important question explored in the narrative is what led people to oppose Hitler.  Was is a combination of their hostility toward murder, genocide, fear that Germany could not win a world war, opportunism, or the dechristianization of Germany?  Orbach further argues that it “perhaps comes down to the elements composing motive, the aggregate of psychological processes and factors pushing one across the Rubicon into the shadowy world of revolutionary conspiracy.  It may well be difficult to define the elusive mix that constitutes such an imperative.  The best I can do is to suggest three necessary components: its foundation, substance, and impetus.”  The foundation seems to be empathy, the substance is a system of values, and the impetus was exceptional courage.

Orbach’s narrative, at times, reads like a murder mystery, as well as a historical monograph. Orbach should also be given credit for presenting then debunking numerous myths associated with events which makes the book a useful contribution to the increasing number of studies dealing with the German resistance.  Because of Orbach’s approach and smooth writing those who are interested in the topic should not be disappointed.

Orbach compares the recent attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey with those against Hitler in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, November 28, 2016.  http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east news/turkey/.premium-1.755427

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(July 20, 1944, bomb damage from a plot to kill Adolf Hitler)

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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MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

Mischling
Most of us are aware of the horrific policies implemented by the Nazis during the Holocaust, but one area that seems further and further beyond the pale in terms of their barbarity and horror is in the realm of medical experiments.  The name that comes to the fore when thinking of such perverse behavior is that of Dr. Josef Mengele who conducted experiments on about 1500 pairs of twins in his laboratories at Auschwitz, of which maybe 200 survived the war.  Mengele was obsessed with the behavior and genetic makeup of twins which forms the infrastructure of Affinity Konar’s new novel, MISCHLING.  Mischling in German means “mixed blood” or “half breed,” and was the legal term employed by the Nazis to denote people with Jewish or Aryan ancestry.  There were different categories as delineated by the 1935 Nuremberg Blood Laws that the Nazis developed to determine whether a person was a Jew or of mixed blood.  This determination affected Jews on many levels and for far too many led to their ultimate extinction.

Konor develops her story through the eyes of Pearl and Stasha Zagorski, twin girls who at the age of twelve are seized and transported to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944.  Konor alternates her narration between the twins and begins with Stasha as she describes a white coated man walking over to the girls and their mother and grandfather as classical music plays in the background.  The man known as “Uncle” throughout the novel is Dr. Josef Mengele and after examining the girls separates them from their mother and grandfather and sends them to the Zoo, the name for the facility for Mengele to conduct his research.

Konor’s novel draws heavily on CHILDREN OF FLAMES by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, and THE NAZI DOCTORS by psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton.  Despite her reliance on these works Konor is able to create two personalities that are hauntingly real as it is expressed by the continual dialogue between Pearl and Stasha, and their narration upon their separation from each other.  At the outset it appears that the twins are special and have a certain status, but once the experiments begin they are tossed aside just like any other Holocaust victim.  They may live longer, but if one of the twins happens to die, the other will follow almost immediately.  It was uncanny how Pearl and Stasha shared each other’s pain.  Pearl could be undergoing a certain experiment on one part of her body, and unbeknownst to Stasha she would feel pain in the same part of her anatomy.  Pearl would curse herself because her veins stood out and it made it easier for Mengele to inject what germs, viruses or poison he desired.  As awareness of what was occurring to them became evident the twins developed a new maturity and in Pearl’s case she went from being the more outgoing of the sisters before their incarceration, to becoming more methodical, and focused on her memories to survive each day; while Stasha grew feistier and more cunning in trying to cope with the evil that surrounded her.

The girls had been inseparable in their previous life, now found that as they grew apart they were no longer as devoted to each other.  It is heart breaking to visualize Pearl, who believed she was dying from the medical experiments that were conducted, tried to push Stasha away so she would not be so dependent; so when Pearl would eventually die, Stasha could move on.  The pain and anguish is palatable on each page as each of the twins feels less than whole, as each believes in their own way that their better half has been stolen from them, and they are surviving in a vacuum.  The experiments that were conducted were bizarre and the concoction of a demented mind; sewing twins together so they could not see each other, placing one twin in a cage and allowing the other to survive in the laboratory, and on and on.  Konar’s research allows her to reconstruct an alternate reality that was Mengele’s world and can only bring tears to the reader.

The second half of the book is not as focused as the first half and at times comes across as a bit disjointed.  The story revolves around the approach and the final arrival of Russian troops to liberate Auschwitz.  From there we follow the twins on their journey with a number of projections into the future.  Konar drills down into actual events and how the Russians treated the newly freed victims and follows Pearl and Stasha’s different paths.  We witness the Nazi attempt to destroy all evidence of what they had perpetrated.  The emotions and feelings of the newly released seem straight out of Robert Jay Lifton’s work as they suffer from “without self,” “survival guilt,” and other diagnostic terms.  The Soviets make a propaganda film of what they find in the camps and Pearl wonders what is actually taking place.  Stasha and Feliks, another survivor are committed to seeking revenge and travel toward Warsaw in the hope of killing Dr. Mengele.  We also experience the story of Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to assist Mengele’s work and how she seeks redemption and tries to deal with her guilt.

Overall, MISCHLING is a difficult read.  It is the type of novel that must be taken in small doses.  Though it reveals nothing new in terms of what we know of Mengele’s tortuous work, imagining what has occurred through the eyes of twin sisters and their perceptions separates Konor’s effort from much of the material that has appeared before.  If you choose to tackle Konor’s novel be prepared for the world you about to enter.

 

THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL

(Sobibor Death Camp)

As Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College law professor describes in his new book, THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL, the former Ford Motor employee was “little more than a peon at the bottom of the Nazis exterminatory hierarchy.”  However, what makes him important is the legal odyssey he navigated from 1975 to his death in 2012.  Demjanjuk survived a number of major trials; denaturalization hearings in the United States, prosecution in Israel, and his final legal confrontation in Germany.  Throughout the process Demjanjuk lied, acted, obfuscated, as he tried to avoid conviction.  The end result was finally being found guilty of “crimes against humanity” in 2011, after having previous convictions overturned because of prosecution errors and the failure of memory on the part of Holocaust survivors.

Demjanjuk’s biography is quite amazing.  During the outset of the war Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army.  After being captured by the Germans he volunteered to be a guard at the Sobibor death camp.  Once the war ended, he was able to immigrate to the United States by lying on his application associated with the Truman administrations 1948 Displaced Persons Act.  He settled in Cleveland and became a machinist at a Ford Motor plant, and was able to hide his Holocaust related activities for years, until 1975 when American officials first learned of his possible wartime activities.

(Demjanjuk’s wartime pass placing him in Nazi occupied Poland; discovered in 2002 by the United States)

Douglas provides intricate detail and analysis of Demjanjuk’s legal journey.  He dissects the strategies pursued by defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges as they try to convict Demjanjuk of being Ivan Grozny, “Ivan the Terrible” for his sadistic acts at Treblinka.  Further, Douglas explores the gaps in the legal systems that tried to bring him to justice and how previous trials, Nuremberg, and Eichmann in particular impacted legal strategies.  The problem that emerges is that Demjanjuk was misidentified and was not Ivan Grozny, but a man who served at Sobibor and contributed to the death of thousands of Jews for which he was finally convicted.  Demjanjuk’s legal battles began in 1975 and continued until later in the decade when he would be identified as the former Treblinka guard, “Ivan the Terrible.”  Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship and extradited to Israel.  In 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to death by an Israeli court.  After numerous appeals and the emergence of new evidence, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government had the wrong Ivan.  He was returned to the United States and his citizenship was restored.

Demjanjuk may not have been at Treblinka, but earlier testimony seemed to place him at Sobibor, another Nazi death camp.  In 2001 he lost his US citizenship for a second time and in 2009 he was dispatched to Germany for trial.  On May 12, 2011 he was found guilty by a German court for assisting in the murder of 28,060 Jews.  Before his death sentence could be carried out he died, ending one of the last prosecutions of perpetrators of the Holocaust.  Douglas’ book is an important contribution to the legal issues that have surrounded the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.  Douglas raises many important subjects including; the justice of trying old men for superannuated crimes, the nature of individual responsibility in the orchestration of state-sponsored crimes, the nature and causes, and possible justifications of collaboration in the perpetuation of atrocities, and how three different legal systems went about creating legal alloys to master the challenges posed by the Nazi genocide.

(Demjanjuk stated he was too ill to sit up at his trial in Munich)

Douglas points out that Nazi crimes were so great that retributive justice based on didactic exercises organized around survivor testimony was not enough.  What was needed was to use trials as a means of historical education, present history through the eyes of survivor memory as what done at the Eichmann trial.  However, even this noble ideal was fraught with holes as was seen in the prosecution of Demjanjuk.  What was needed according to Douglas was to develop the role of historians to assist in the preparation and prosecution of Nazi crimes.  One of the major drawbacks in the prosecutorial process was the lack of historical context that only historians could provide.  This gap was overcome in Demjanjuk’s Munich case as historians came into play in every aspect of the case from drafting of the indictment to the core of the court’s judgement.  For the first time a new type of Holocaust trial emerged: the Holocaust as History.

These developments overcame many of the obstacles that were evident in earlier prosecutions. In the United States turf battles between the Justice Department and other agencies, difficulties handling atrocity cases with routine prosecutory tools, the lack of linguistic skills on the part of lawyers, and little or no training in historical research all hindered the development of sound cases against war criminals.  Douglas traces the evolution of new techniques and approaches to these types of cases beginning with the Nuremberg Trials, the Eichmann Trial, and the prosecution of the real Ivan Grozny, Fedor Fedorenko that culminated in the final conviction of Demjanjuk.

(At his trial in Munich, Demjanjuk claimed that file #1627 in the Russian archives would prove his innocence)

Douglas asks the important question as to the benefits to mankind that emerged from the Demjanjuk case.  “First, it yielded a modified theory of culpability, directly ‘connected to the exterminatory process.’  This disposed once and for all of the defense ‘I was no more than a cog in the machine…I was obeying orders.’  A machine cannot run without its small constituent parts.”  As a result it was now enough to prove that a defendant worked in a death factory to obtain a conviction because without the numbers of these types of defendants the Holocaust could not have reached the magnitude that it did.  Further, this allowed for the further prosecution of lower-level war criminals and permitted three separate judicial systems to learn from past errors and instill confidence in this type of judicial process.  (New York Times, February 26, 2016)

Douglas astute dissection of the Demjanjuk case and the application of his analysis to the overall problem of culpability for war crimes is a major contribution to this type of literature.  Though at times it is written in legalese, overall it should be easily understood by the layman resulting a satisfying reading experience.

(October 14, 1943, Sobibor Death Camp following a failed revolt)

DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN by Douglas Waller

(William Donovan, the man who headed the Office of Strategic Services  during World War II)

At a time when people are concerned with government spying on its citizens, it is useful to examine how two world wars and the Cold War led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Douglas Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, and the author of WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPYMASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE has revisited the origins of the CIA by examining the men that William Donovan trained as intelligence operatives who went on to head America’s foremost spy agency.  In his new book, DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR BILL DONOVAN, Waller follows the careers of Allen W. Dulles, William Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby, and their interactions with Donovan as their careers  culminated in Langley, Va.  When I first picked up the book I was concerned that Waller would rehash a great deal of the same material he covered in his biography of Donovan.  To my satisfaction this is not the case.  There is some repetition, but the book can stand on its own merits as Waller has written a wonderful adventure story that weaves together the experiences of the “disciples.”  Based on archival material, the most prominent secondary sources, and pertinent memoirs the book is an excellent read for spy buffs and the general public.

Waller begins the book with short biographical sketches of each individual and the similarities in their backgrounds.  Waller points out that there was a common thread that ran through Dulles, Casey, Helms, and Colby.  Each was smart, intellectual, and “voracious readers, thoughtful, and creatures of reason….these were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them.”  When one follows their careers Waller’s description appears extremely accurate.  Though their personalities differed; Dulles comes across with a much larger ego who rubbed many in power the wrong way; Casey, more of an introvert who worked behind the scenes and new how to navigate the bureaucratic morass of government; Helms and Colby, more adventurous and hands on, the result of which was they all would ascend the intelligence ladder at different rates to finally emerge as leaders in their own right.  All had important relationships with Donovan; some more testy, particularly Dulles who wanted Donovan’s job as head of the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but in the end they worked together and laid the foundation for America’s post war intelligence operations.

(Allen W. Dulles, headed American intelligence operations against Germany during WWII and as CIA Director under Eisenhower launched numerous covert operations)

Waller traces the career of each of the disciples and what stands out is their roles during World War II.  Donovan was charged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create an espionage operation during the war by choosing him as the Coordinator of Information, a position that would morph into the head of the OSS.  Waller examines the rise of Allen Dulles first, tracing his career from World War I, his experiences as a diplomat at Versailles, and his relationship with his brother, John Foster, and their law firm Sullivan and Cromwell.  Dulles emerges as a self-confident individual who sought total control of all operations. Posted to Berne, Switzerland during the war, Dulles developed important sources though he was at times over the top with his predictions.  On a number of occasions he resented Donovan, but in the end went along with his boss.  William Casey’s education as a spy began as a lawyer in the 1930s where he became an expert on the tax code dealing with War Department contracts.  This attracted Donovan interest and he would recruit Casey for the OSS in 1943.  Casey, an organizational expert was sent to London where he worked under David Bruce, and implemented a management style that would lead him to oversee intelligence assets and commando operations in France and Germany.  Richard Helms joined the navy after Pearl Harbor and worked on strategies to deal with German submarine warfare.  By 1943 he was forced into OSS Psyops and by the end of the war he was sent to London to organize operations in Germany for the post war period.  William Colby, the most liberal of the four and a supporter of FDR, studied in France in the late 1930s, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, and developed a hatred for communism.  He would become a commando during the war and showed tremendous physical courage behind enemy lines in France and Norway.

(Richard Helms after a career in intelligence dating back to WWII became CIA Director in the 1960s and was eventually fired by President Nixon)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Waller introduces individuals who interacted with the OSS, and in particular the “disciples” during the war.  FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover despised Donovan seeing him as a threat and unleashed his own agents to spy on the OSS.  We meet Julia Child, later known as “the cooking guru” for woman in the 1950s.  Along the way Arthur Goldberg emerges as a link to European labor movements, who would later serve on the Supreme Court.  British spymasters come and go throughout the book, particularly William Stephenson who at one time had an office next to Dulles in Rockefeller Center.  Fritz Kolbe, the OSS’ most important agent who allowed Dulles to penetrate the German Foreign Office in Berlin and whose work saved the lives of many allied soldiers takes a prominent role.  These and many other individuals and their own stories lend a great deal to Waller’s narrative.

(William Colby was a trained commando during World War II and parachuted into France and Norway who later became CIA Director under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford)

Waller does a nice job showing how the careers of the “disciples” intersected with Donovan during the war.  For example, Donovan’s visitations to commando training, witnessing Colby’s preparation for parachuting into France.  Dulles and Casey intersected as both were smuggling agents into France to link up with and supply the French resistance.  Casey was in charge of monitoring commando drops like Colby’s into France.  Casey also funneled Dulles’ intelligence reports to Washington, and in a number of cases felt that they were highly exaggerated. Helms finally left for London in early 1945 and was supposed to organize Dulles’ mission for Germany, but because of Hitler’s last ditch effort in France in the Ardennes, he never carried out the assignment and wound up with Casey overseeing agents in Germany.  In fact Casey and Helms shared an apartment in London at the time!   Colby and Casey would meet at General George S. Patton’s headquarters in September, 1944 as Casey became Donovan’s eyes in Europe and eventually would replace David Bruce as head of London operations, an appointment that Dulles greatly resented.  Donovan felt that Dulles was a poor administrator and lacked the leadership skills that Casey possessed.

Waller spends a great deal of time on the actions of American commandos behind German lines.  He describes Colby’s training in detail and takes the reader along with these men as they parachute into France and Germany, exhibiting courage and discipline as they try to reinforce the French resistance, and later gather intelligence in Germany to try and bring the conflict to a faster conclusion.  Waller also spends a great deal of time discussing the infighting among the “disciples” and their private lives.  By doing so the reader gains insights into each of these men and it helps explains how their post-World War II careers would evolve into directorships of the CIA.

The final section of Waller’s narrative focuses on American intelligence policies and actions during the Cold War as the OSS evolves into the CIA and focuses its attention on the communist threat.  Once President Truman forces Donovan into retirement Dulles takes over the newly created CIA and his reputation for mismanagement will result in what Blanch Wiesen Cook, in her book DECCLASSIFIED EISENHOWER, refers to as the “coup presidency.”  Dulles would launch covert operations in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and the disastrous U-2 Incident, all resulting in his eventual downfall.  Dulles was succeeded by Helms, who unlike his predecessor believed in tight organizational control.  His mantra was “that there should be no surprises on his watch” and he was very popular within the agency.  Helms would be fired by Richard Nixon in part because he refused to cooperate with break-ins and cover ups associated with Watergate.  Colby’s tenure as director is most remembered for his testimony before the Church Committee in 1974 as leaked CIA documents called for congressional action.  Colby was the most politically liberal of all the “disciples” and this played a role in his cooperation with Congress which he was vilified for by Helms and Casey.  But, as Waller correctly points out his testimony probably saved the CIA from a wholesale reorganization that would have ruined its effectiveness.  The last of the “disciples,” William Casey took over the agency under Ronald Reagan and he tried to create the atmosphere that existed under his hero, William Donovan, who like his mentor “kept the door open to all ideas for operations, even the wacky ones.”  Casey wanted to recreate the can do culture of the OSS from WWII for the 1980s, focusing on the communist menace instead of the Nazis.  This would result in repeated machinations in dealing with Afghanistan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal in particular.

(William Casey was a successful “spy master” during World War II who became CIA Director under Ronald Reagan)

Waller has written a fascinating account of the men who followed Donovan as leaders in American intelligence, and current implications for some of the policies they pursued.   Today we are faced with the ramifications of Edward Snowden’s leaks and issues over NSA and other surveillance.  It would be interesting to speculate how these gentlemen would respond to these issues.

(Major General William J. Donovan who led America’s intelligence operations during World War II)

 

The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther Series #10)

THE LADY FROM ZAGREB is the tenth book in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.  Gunther a former homicide detective before the rise of Nazism, an ideology that he finds abhorrent, is a character in absorbing historical thrillers that are set in Germany in the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War.  Gunther is a very self-effacing and likeable individual who is one-quarter Jewish and has a propensity to offer humorous wisecracks that cut to the core of a German history between 1933 and 1945, a time frame that has destroyed the lives of millions of people.  In Kerr’s current effort we find Gunther in the French Riviera circa, 1956 reminiscing about World War II, and his relationship with a beautiful German actress, Dalia Dresner.  The novel binds together a number of plot lines.  We find Dr. Joseph Goebbles, the head of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and National Enlightenment with his own policy and sexual agenda; a series of murders, one happening to have been a client of Gunther; the intrigue of wartime Switzerland with spies ranging from the head of the Office of Strategic Services, Allen W. Dulles to SS Brigadefuhrer Walter Schellenberg who would become the head of Nazi foreign intelligence; a Hitlerite plan to invade Switzerland, and a plot to prevent such an invasion in the name of bringing about negotiations to end the war; the barbarity and cruelty of the Balkans that fifty years later would explode in Yugoslavia; and of course the machinations of Detective Gunther with his constant cynicism and sarcasm.

Kerr is a talented writer who weaves important historical characters and events throughout his story.  The narrative involves numerous historical figures that include Dr. Goebbles; Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the Nazi genocide of the Jews; SS Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office; SS Brigadefuhrer Schellenberg; SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust and Chief of the Reich Main Security Office before his assassination; SS Gruppenfuhrer Arthur Nebbe, Gunther’s boss and a mass murderer in Bialystok during the war; Allen W. Dulles; Anten Pavelic, Croatian leader of the murderous Ustase; Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi ally; and many other important figures.  Historical events are also not neglected as the Russian genocide of Polish officers at the Katyn Forest; the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich; the allied bombings of Dresden and Hamburg; the slaughter in the Balkans; and Nazi war plans are all integrated into the novel.

(Joseph Goebbles Nazi Propaganda Minister)

Gunther’s personality, wit, cynicism and charm remain the same in Kerr’s latest effort.  His pointed historical commentary are as irreverent as always.  Finding himself in Croatia and a witness to the slaughter between Croats, Serbs and Muslims as he searches for Dalia Dresner’s father, who supposedly is living in a monastery, brings about the question as to “how does a Franciscan monk get to be an Ustase Colonel?” The answer offered is “by being an efficient killer of Serbs.” In describing Goebbles, Gunther said that while he was wearing a white summer suit, he looked “exactly like a male nurse in an insane asylum, which was perhaps not so very far from the truth.”    In addition, upon meeting the Grand Mufti’s guards, Gunther wondered why Hitler hated Jews and not Arabs.  “After all, some Jews are just Muslims with better tailors.”  In thinking about his own experiences on the eastern front and now facing the realities of the Holocaust, Gunther explores the competition inside the Nazi bureaucracy between the SS and SD, the Gestapo and the SD, Goebbles and Goering, Kalternbrunner and Himmler, the SS and the Nazi Party, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht, and the role of German businesses.  In particular, Gunther is confronted by the use of slave labor by Siemens and Daimler-Benz during the war and he hopes that in the future historians will research what they have done and inform the public.  Recently in the case of Siemens his request was answered by Sarah Helm’s new book RAVENSBRUK, and in the case of Daimler-Benz, Neil Gregor and Bernard Bellon have exposed their crimes, though neither corporation has ever admitted their guilt or paid the appropriate compensation to their victims.  Further, as he is confronted by death seemingly at every turn, Gunther ponders whether German crimes are the worst in history.  Referencing the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the British in India, Belgians in the Congo, Spain in the New World, and Russia under Stalin in the 1930s, the detective surmises that Germany is in good company when it comes to historical atrocities.

(Swiss-German border)

Gunther is an excellent detective that seems to find trouble no matter the situation.  At the outset Gunther, who has been transferred to the Third Reich War Crimes Department (Kerr really has a sense of the absurd), is forced to make a speech at a police convention.  From that point on the story begins to evolve.  Gunther begins to investigate the murder of a former client at the same time as Goebbles assigns him to find Dalia’s father.  On this mission Gunther becomes entangled with the Swiss police and other spies.  In addition, Gunther learns that there is an effort to try and bring about negotiations to end the war and that certain SS officials are buying barracks from the Swiss to use in concentration camps.  All of these situations come together, while at the same time Gunther tries to follow his conscience and accomplish his goals while working within the Nazi system.  As Kerr has written he does not like heroes who behave heroically, and in Bernie Gunther he has created just such a protagonist. The dialogue between the characters is very entertaining and Kerr manages to repeatedly raise the issue of morality in the context of Gunther’s actions, a very difficult task.

Without going into any further detail of the story, Kerr has once again created a successful mystery that will keep the reader fascinated and entertained as they are taken to another time and place.  If you enjoyed the previous offerings in the Bernie Gunther novels, THE LADY FROM ZAGREB will not disappoint.  As far as Bernie Gunther’s future is concerned in a recent interview Kerr said he was already planning for the eleventh book in the series.

RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN by Sarah Helm

(The barracks at Ravensbruck)

It has been seventy years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. One would think that there would be very little to learn about what occurred during the Nazi genocide of European Jews and persecution of other minorities and groups during the war, but that is not the case. In Sarah Helm’s new work, RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN, the author reconstructs the history of the camp whose documentation was mostly hidden from the west during the Cold War. Once the “iron curtain” was lifted in 1989 more and more documents and other materials have been released from East German and Soviet archives. This allowed the author to provide the inmates of long ago a voice from “the special camp” created by Heinrich Himmler for women, a place ethnologist and survivor Germaine Tillion describes as “a place of slow extermination.” The camp, located fifty miles north of Berlin opened in May, 1939 and was liberated by the Russians six years later. The camp was not designated exclusively for Jews who made up about 10% of its inmates, but Jewish prisoners represented roughly 20% of those who perished. According to Helm’s, at its peak the site housed 45,000 prisoners and by the end of the war roughly 130,000 women passed through its gates to “be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed, and gassed.” Because of the paucity of records the final death toll is estimated at between 30,000 and 90,000, but we will never be sure. Wholesale destruction of records has kept the story somewhat obscure, but due to Helm’s relentless and assiduous research we have the most accurate and complete history of what took place there.

Ravensbruck, as most concentration camps was not built at the start as an extermination center, it evolved. It began as a place to house women arrested for various crimes, including statements that were deemed as offensive to Adolf Hitler, working for the resistance of foreign countries, espionage, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the outset prisoners were categorized as political, asocial, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the camp was broken down into blocks to separate these groups. Himmler’s plan was to make the camp self-sufficient and have the prisoners police themselves as much as possible. The Nazi SS chose individuals to be Kapos to supervise slave labor and carry out administrative tasks to minimize the cost of running the camps and freeing up SS personnel. The Kapos were appointed as barracks heads and many were worse than the SS guards themselves. The narrative parallels the course of World War II and as it does we can see how the mission of the camp changes from a prison, to a sterilization and medical experiment facility, a training ground for female guards and personnel to administer other camps that came on line like Auschwitz, a source for slave labor in munitions factories that created sub camps for German corporations like Siemens, Heinkel, and Daimler-Benz, and finally an extermination camp.

(Work team at Ravensbruck)

As Helms weaves the war narrative she explores the daily lives of those imprisoned at Ravensbruck. She provides a detailed description of the day to day struggle that inmates had to endure. By including the life story of many individuals, whether communists, resistance fighters, prostitutes, physicians, nurses, or average people the reader gains insights into how individuals were treated and the coping mechanisms they developed as they confronted slave labor, deportations, beatings, medical experiments, and torture that resulted in so many deaths. One of the most interesting chapters describes the plight of women seized in Lublin, a Polish city which was overrun by the Germans during the summer of 1941. Helms follows the lives of these women as they traveled by train to Germany, and at each stop more prisoners are seized. Women named Wanda, Krysia, Grazyna, Pola and Maria are followed as they finally arrive at Ravensbruck were they first encounter the Chief female guard, described as “the Giantess and her hounds.” One of their most poignant observations was that the people they saw “don’t seem to have faces,” and years later all they could remember was the “din of the constant screaming of the giantess.” (165) As they adapted to their surroundings they became part of the camp social hierarchy and they developed ingenious ways to create normalcy in order to survive. Another group that Helms describes in detail were Red Army doctors and nurses that were captured. Under the leadership of one of the nurses, Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, whose survival strategy was to stress that her group were POWS, not typical inmates, and had rights under the Geneva Convention. She constantly reinforced the concept to the woman that loyalty to each other was paramount, and that they should not “break the [their] circle” in their dealings with the SS and Kapos. This was successful to a point, and when they were forced to engage in slave labor at a sub-camp for Siemens she instructed her people to sabotage the munitions they were forced to work on. This approach allowed a number of these women to survive, and to this day they praise the leadership of Yevgenia Klemm.

Sadist: Dorothea Binz, who became chief of Ravensbruck, enjoyed handing out beatings and torturing the inmates

Throughout the book we meet the likes of Dr. Walter Sonntag, a brutal individual who was charged by Himmler to conduct sterilization experiments and research on inmates to determine how to wipe out the sub-humans who were deemed a threat to the Aryan race as purported by Hitler and his henchman. Dr. Friedrich Mennecke a Nazi psychiatrist was brought in to determine how to choose candidates for euthanasia as these people were not worthy of life in the Nazi world view. Himmler was obsessed with “useless mouths” who did not carry their own weight and they were to be given “special treatment” as designed by Nazi doctors like Herta Oberheuser, an expert in “lethal injections.” Other doctors conducted experiments on “rabbits,” specially chosen women, to determine the best way to counter bacteria by injecting it into the bodies of inmates or removing body parts to see how people would respond. The narrative does not focus totally on Nazi medical practices and hygiene, but it is important that Helms presents this material to offset any belief that Ravensbruck was just for the incarceration of its women.

Helms describes in detail how the camp administrative hierarchy carried out Himmler’s orders and its impact on the daily lives of the inmates. The inmates are the key to the narrative as Helms was able to track down numerous survivors of the camps and interview them. Many in their late eighties and nineties remember amazing details of their experiences that enhances our understanding of what they went through. Helm’s “combed through the transcripts of postwar trials of camp officials and guards and found archival material that were opened after the fall of Communism…… During the past 15 years a few other books about Ravensbruck have been published, but none as focused on as many prisoner groups as Helm’s.” (New York Times, April 7, 2015, ‘’RAVENSBRUCK” by Walter Reich) Helms’ is to be commended for her tenacity in uncovering documents that previous historians have been unaware existed. In so doing she includes excerpts of letters inmates were able to smuggle out and even mail home. In addition there are transcripts from underground radio broadcasts that provided evidence for the inmates that there messages were reaching beyond the barbed wire and watch towers that controlled their lives.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book were the chapters dealing with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Berlin and Geneva (ICRC). Headed by art historian, Jacob Burkhardt, they were fully aware of what went on in the concentration, labor, and extermination camps. Many letters and other documents were provided to them by resistance groups and governments, but they always had excuses not to take action. They refused to give out Red Cross parcels, make broadcasts, help with visas and transportation for individuals to escape, work behind the scenes, and try and influence certain Nazis that were wavering as the war went against Germany. The lack of action of the ICRC was appalling and their ever present excuse that the camps were “not subject to the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929,” and they had to maintain their neutrality to be effective was not acceptable. In addition the perpetrator of the atrocities at Ravensbruck, Karl Gebhardt, “was a close associate of Ernst Grawitz, president of the German Red Cross, the most powerful medical figure in the Third Reich.” (333) When inquiries were made to the ICRC in Geneva they “gave the same stock answer: the Committee had no access to the camps and couldn’t intervene.” (436) We all recognize that the Red Cross was in a compromising position, but any effort on their part would have been appreciated by the inmates. Finally in April, 1945 with Sweden taking the lead in rescue measures, Burkhardt, concerned with his legacy arranged a prisoner swap of 299 French women held at Ravensbruck for 450 Germans held in France.

Evil: Ravensbruck concentration camp guards Helene Massar, Marga Löwenberg and one other out rowing on the Schwedtsee lake

(Ravensbruck concentration camp guards Helene Massar, Marga Löwenberg and one other out rowing on the Schwedtsee lake)

As the war turned against the Nazis more and more prisoners were seized and sent to Ravensbruck. By fall, 1944 as the Russians advanced across Poland, Hitler was forced to shut down Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other camps moving camp inmates westward. Further, with the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto more and more people arrived from the east at Ravensbruck. With the allied landing at Normandy, the fall of Paris saw prisoners sent eastward furthering the health and logistical nightmare at Ravensbruck. To make matters even worse Hitler’s decree to empty Hungary of its Jews and exterminate them furthered the spread of typhus throughout the camp. If squalor and disease was not bad enough, late 1944 saw the arrival of Rudolph Hoss, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, Otto Moll, Auschwitz’s “gassing expert,” Carl Clauberg, the mastermind of Himmler’s sterilization program, and other unemployed Nazi murderers at Ravensbruck. Helms states further that “it is no coincidence that just before these men arrived, Himmler issued a new directive requiring an immediate, massive increase in the rate of killing and construction of a gas chamber to carry it out.” Himmler’s order read: “In your camp, with retrospective effect for six months, 2000 people monthly have to die…” (469) Himmler’s reasons for issuing the order are clear, Ravensbruck was out of control with typhus and other diseases spreading and an influx of women from Auschwitz and other areas increasing. For the first time, Ravensbruck would have its own extermination facility, “becoming the scene of the last major extermination by gas carried out in the Nazi camps before the end of the war.”(654) By winter, 1945 it was decided that the camp was to be liquidated and all evidence of its existence to be destroyed. Since the building of crematorium and its components could not keep up with the demands of eradicating all inmates thousands of prisoners were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Dachau and Flossenburg to be gassed, while others were force marched to their deaths as Hitler ordered that no prisoners were to be left alive when the Russians arrived. The evidence exists that killings at Ravensbruck would continue until late, April, 1945.

Women's concentration camp victims, rescued.
(Liberated prisoners at Ravensbruck)

Helm’s has prepared the definitive biography of Ravensbruck and has done a remarkable job in compiling the stories of the women who perished and those who survived. There are a few things the author could have addressed more, i.e.; providing better documentation for the quotations that she cites, improved referencing of her sources and interviews, and trying to create a tighter narrative so the story of the camp is easier to follow. To read Helm’s book is to find oneself in a place that cannot be imagined or understood, but thanks to the author the evidence of its existence is there for all to witness. What is most important is that Helm’s narrative has allowed the victims of the Nazi horrors a means to communicate from the grave.