A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

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ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS by Karen Bartlett

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Karen Bartlett’s new Holocaust work, ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS possesses a powerful narrative as it examines the German manufacturing firm J. A. Topf and Sons and its role during World War II.  The problem for the firm is that a few of its manufacturing products centered on ovens, crematoria, and the parts necessary to build them.  These products made up only 1.85% of Topf and Sons actual products, but these items were linked to Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration/extermination camps.

The monograph begins with Hartmut Topf, the great grandson of the firm’s founder trying to come to grips with his family’s past.  After the war, Hartmut wanted nothing to do with the family business as his true loves were theater, puppetry, and journalism.  When he was a boy during the war his best friend Hans Laessing, was Jewish and he would disappear into the Nazi abyss.  With questions about his family and his friend, Hartmut set out to learn the truth leading him to learn things he could not believe.  Bartlett’s approach rests on interviews with former workers, American and Russian investigators, and Topf family members.  She also relies on the works of historian Annegret Schule, the author of two books that encompass her topic.  The first, BETWEEN PERSECUTION AND PARTICIPATION: BIOGRAPHY OF A BOOKEEPER AT J.A. TOPF AND SOHNE; the second, INDUSTRIE UND HOLOCAUST.

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(Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf)

What is clear is that “company directors Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf, along with their managers, engineers, oven fitters, and ventilation experts, were not ignorant paper pushers or frightened collaborators – instead they willingly engaged with the Nazis, reaping the benefits, taking advantage they could, and pushing their designs for mass murder and body disposal further and further until they could truly be described as the engineers of the Holocaust.”   By the end of the war men like Kurt Prufer, an engineer who pushed his designs and came up with plans that were so outlandish that even the SS had to turn them down.

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Bartlett provides a history of the firm, but the core of the book rests on the growth of Topf and Sons as a manufacturer of numerous products that would enhance the Nazi war effort.  There are numerous character portraits reflected the internecine conflict within the Topf family over control and which products should be made available to the Nazis.  Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang would take over the company in July, 1933, coinciding with Hitler’s rise to power and they immediately went down the road that would result in a loss of any moral decency or humanity they might have possessed.

In addition to building the ovens the firm employed thousands of slave laborers during the war.  Roughly 40% of their labor force was made up of POWs which contributed to their deal with the devil.  Perhaps the most important person in this process was Kurt Prufer who would distinguish himself as “the true pioneer of annihilation.”  His own experiences during W.W.I. allowed him to develop a low level of concern for human life.  He would take his engineering talents to become an expert on cremation sales and fixtures.  Beginning with manufacturing crematoria for civil use in Erfurt and other towns it was feasible to change nomenclature and develop new incinerators and ventilation to fit the needs of the Final Solution.  They would go so far as changing the name from crematoria in their catalogue to “incineration chamber.” The key innovation was the development in October, 1939 was the three single muffin ovens that would be used to build permanent crematoria at Buchenwald under the sadistic SS Gruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl as opposed to temporary ovens that were mobile.  As the war progressed after 1942 and the Russians moved west, these ovens could not accommodate the number of bodies the Nazis wanted to cremate leading to mechanical breakdowns and rancid smells surrounding the countryside where the camps were located.

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(Museum and Memorial for those who perished because of the work of J.A. Hopf and Sons)

The author provides a brief history of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but her most important contribution is going through the documentation that the Russians and Americans uncovered as they liberated the camps and seized the Topf and Sons facilities.  Bartlett takes the reader through interrogations of workers and others, most importantly Prufer and three other important engineers.  There excuse was that they delivered the same products to the Nazis as they had to municipalities in the form of civil crematoria, and if they hadn’t sold the products, the SS had other firms that would provide them.  Ludwig Topf would commit suicide at the end of the war, but his brother Ernst Wolfgang continued to make his case and eventually was able to avoid any punishment for his actions.

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(Kurt Prufer)

The only suggestions I have for the author is that there seems to be too much replication of war crimes documentation in the text.  Perhaps they could have been placed as an appendix at the end of the book.  Secondly, there seems to be an overreliance on certain sources.  Otherwise, Bartlett has done Harmut justice in that she has produced the entire story of his family, a family that he admittedly feels ashamed of.  To his credit, Harmut has spent a great deal of his time and resources on restitution and remembrance that have culminated in the Topf and Sons Memorial in Erfurt for those who have perished.   Hopefully by educating visitors and publicizing its work the Memorial Museum will make another genocidal tragedy less likely to occur in the future.

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FILM AND GENOCIDE: READINGS

FILM AND GENOCIDE:

Armenian Genocide:

Akcam, Tanker  A SHAMEFUL ACT: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE QUESTION
OF TURKISH RESPONSIBILITY.

Balakian, Gregoris  ARMENIAN GOLOTHA: A MEMOIR OF THE ARENIAN GENOCIDE,

1915-1918

Balakian, Peter  THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND AMERICA’S
RESPONSE.

Bloxham, Donald  THE GREAT GAME OF GENOCIDE

de Bellaigue, Christopher  REBEL LAND: UNRAVELING THE RIDDLE OF HISTORY IN A
TURKISH TOWN.

Kiernan, Ben  BLOOD AND SOIL: A WORLD HISTORY OF GENOCIDE AND EXTERMINATION
FROM SPARTA TO DARFUR.

Lowy, Guenther  THE ARMENIAN MASSACRE IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE:  A DISPUTED
GENOCIDE.

Molson, Robert F.  REVOLUTION AND GENOCIDE: ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ARMENIAN
GEOCIDE AND THE HOLOAUST.

Power, Samantha  A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE.

The Holocaust:

Anderson, Alan, Ed. THE DIARY OF DAWID SIERAKOWIAK: FIVE NOTEBOOKS FROM THE
LODZ GHETTO.

…………………………….  LODZ GHETTO: INSIDE A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE.

Burleigh, Michael THE THIRD REICH: A NEW HISTORY.

Cesarean, David  FINAL SOLUTION: THE FATE OF THE JEWS 1933-1949.

Crowe, David M. OSKAR SCHINDLER

Dawidowicz, Lucy  THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS: 1933-1945.

Dobroszycki, Lucian  THE CHRONICLE OF THE LOD GHETTO 1941-1944.

Evans, Richard  THE THIRD REICH AT WAR

Friedlander, Saul  NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS 1939-1945, THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION.

Hackett, David A.  THE BUCHENWALD REPORT.

Hilberg, Raul, Ed. THE DIARY OF ADAM CERNIAKOW: PRELUDE TO DOOM.

Ihrig, Stefan  ATATURK IN THE NAZI IAGINATION.

Kath, Abraham Ed. THE WARSAW DIARY OF CHAIM A. KAPLAN.

Kielar, Westlaw  ANUS MUNDI 1500 DAYS IN AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU.

Lanzmann, Claude  SHOAH: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST.

Mark, Ben  UPRISING IN THE WARSAW GHETTO.

Rotem, Simha  MEMOIRS OF A WARSAW GHETTO FIGHTER.

Sloan, Jacob Ed.  NOTES FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO: THE JOURNAL OF EMANUEL
RINGELBLUM.

Tory, Avraham  SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY.

Wachsmann, Nicokolaus  KL: A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRTION CAMPS.

Wentz, Eric D.  A CENTURY OF GENOCIDE: UTOPIAS OF RACE AND NATION.

The Killing Fields:

Brinkley, Joel  CAMBODIA’S CURSE: THE HISTORY OF A TROUBLED LAND.

Karnow, Stanley  VIETNAM: A HISTORY.

Kiernan, Ben  THE POL POT REGIME: RACE, POWER AND GENOCIDE IN CAMBODIA UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE, 1975-1979

Logevall, Fredrik  EMBERS OF WAR: THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE MAKINGS OF
AMERICA’S VIETNAM.

Ngor, Haing  SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS.

Pran, Dith  CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS.

Schanberg, Sydney H. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF DITH PRAN.

Shawcross, William  SIDESHOW: KISSINGER, NIXON, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF
CAMBODIA.

Short, Philip  POL POT: ANATOMY OF A NIGHTMARE.

Ung, Loung  FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: A DAUGHTER OF CAMBODIA REMEMBERS.

Rwanda:

Dallaire, Romeo  SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE FAILURE OF HUMANITY IN RWANDA.

Editor, Gail THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE.

Gourevitch, Philip  WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA.

Hatzfeld, Joseph  MACHETE SEASON: THE KILLERS IN RWANDA SPEAK.

Kinzer, Stephen  A THOUSAND HILLS: RWANDA’S REBIRTH AND THE MAN WHO DREAMED IT.

Prunier, Gerard  AFRICA’S WORLD WAR: THE CONGO, THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE AND THE MAKING OF A CONTINENTAL CATASTROPHE.

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

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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)