THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

(1936 University of Washington rowers who won gold at the Berlin Olympics)

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown is nothing short of a labor of love.  In describing the journey of the University of Washington rowing team from their blue collar origins, facing numerous financial obstacles, and confronting well funded opponents as they sought to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, the author has presented a riveting narrative that will touch the reader on many levels.  In addition to the personal stories that are described, Brown writes of the poetry that is a necessity for a rowing team to be successful.  The story is told through the eyes of many of the participants in their quest for rowing perfection, but a number of characters stand out.  The coaches;  Al Ulbrickson, a quiet taskmaster who keeps his emotions inside, his freshman coach, Tom Bolles, who develops many of the rowers; to Joe Rantz, who must overcome poverty and abandonment by his family, to George Pocock, the British craftsman who lovingly constructed the shells that the rowers would use on their way to Berlin and after.   The story begins in the Seattle area in the midst of the Great Depression and its impact on the region in general and the young men whose futures depend on making the University of Washington’s rowing team.

The story focuses on the life of Joe Rantz whose mother died of throat cancer when he was a nine and was sent to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt.  Later, his father remarries and when Joe returns to his family he does not get along with his knew step mother.  Eventually Joe’s father must make a choice between his son and his second wife and the family they were building.  After the family home burns down Joe is exiled to live in a school house away from the family for a period of time, when finally Joe’s father informs him that the family was moving away and that he had to remain and fend for himself at the age of fifteen.  For the next few years Joe employs the survival skills his father has taught him, and skills he developed on his own like poaching salmon and stealing alcohol for resale to overcome the obstacles he faces.  Finally, he is taken in by his married older brother and is able to graduate from high school and gain admittance to the University of Washington.  After being recruited by the freshman rowing coach, Joe realizes the ticket to his future was to make the rowing team.  Joe had little money and few clothes and lived in a room at the YMCA.  He took a number of menial jobs and fit them in around his studies and the torturous grind that was college rowing.  Brown follows the trials that Joe must overcome as he draws the reader into the narrative to the point that you do not want to put the book down.

I have read a number of books of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  David Clay Large’s, THE NAZI GAMES: THE OLYMPICS OF 1936, and BERLIN GAMES: HOW THE NAZIS STOLE THE OLYMPIC DREAM by Guy Walters stand out, but Brown’s effort surpasses anything I have read for its detail, understanding the human emotion of sport, and how world events, particularly the rise of Nazi Germany impinged on the athletic stage.  Brown does a wonderful job of integrating the history of the time period into his narrative.  The reader is exposed to the devastation caused by the depression in the mid 1930s.  The unemployment and resulting poverty and their effect on families as fathers are forced to leave their children in order to seek a job elsewhere.  The Dust Bowl that blankets the Midwest at first and then destroys top soil throughout the United States resulting in the destruction of a major part of American agricultural production is reviewed in detail.  Overseas, the rise of Adolf Hitler to power is explained and the resulting violence against Gypsies, Jews, and Catholics is presented.  On a more personal level, Brown discusses the hatred between Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, and Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s chosen film maker as they fight over how the message of the Nazi ideal should be presented to the world.  The reader witnesses the laying of the foundation of what will grow into the Holocaust after the Olympic Games are completed.  The reader is made aware of the political infighting in the United States as President Roosevelt tries to deal with the problem of Nazi expansion.  In exploring these avenues, Brown places the Olympic Games in their proper historical context, and the importance of a Jesse Owens and the many athletes who sought to show Nazi racial theory for what it really was.

Apart from the personal stories of the nine men who will emerge from the rowing competitions from 1933 to 1936 in regattas such those on the Pacific coast, Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey what truly surprised me was the training that the rowers were exposed to.  I confess my knowledge of rowing is nil, but after reading Brown’s narrative I at least have some understanding of what the athletes went through.  The author’s description of “pain” cuts to the core of what these men accomplished.  For Brown the common denominator for the rower is that pain is “part and parcel” of the learning experience.  “It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.” (40) Brown’s discussion of the mechanics of rowing is important for the novice reader to understand what it means to have a successful “boat.”  In the case of the University of Washington’s first boat, “every one of them had come from humble origins or had been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up.  Each in his own way had learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life…..The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—humility was the common gateway through which they were able to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.” (241)

(US rowers win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games)

The unbelievable demands of training, the fear of not having enough money for tuition each semester, feeling of anxiety, were among the many things that each rower had to overcome.  They knew the odds were stacked against them as their chief western competitor; the University of California had better facilities and financial support as did the eastern Ivy League schools.  Brown raises the important issue of social class in explaining the opponents the rowers had to contend with.  The ivy rowers mostly came from prep schools, had parents who were bankers and lawyers, and did not have to worry about their futures.  On the other hand, as Brown eloquently describes Joe Rantz and his team mates were blue collar in origin, and poverty was their life’s norm.  Brown’s rendition of the important characters in his narrative is sensitive and honest and as the story progresses the reader is rooting for “U Wash,” and as the author explains strategy, motivation, and the details of each race you feel as if you are sitting in the shell with the rowers, or you are inside the head of Bobby Moch, the coxswain, planning his next move as the rowing process has a very important cerebral component.

The author presents the pageantry and ostentation that was the 1936 Nazi Olympics in great detail.  He describes the hiding of any evidence of what Nazism was in reality; from removing the Gypsies, to taking down all evidence of anti-Semitism, and the vicious articles in the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, magically disappearing.  Brown describes the first six rowing competitions in which the Germans won five gold medals.  He reserves his best for the final race involving the nine on nine competition that all looked forward to.  It is interesting how the US boat was placed in the worst lane, when having won the preliminary race they should have had the best one.  Needless to say, the US rowers were at a disadvantage from the outset.  Brown’s overall description of the race is amazing as the reader can hear his voice as if he were rendering the race’s description vocally as a play by play on the radio that millions across America were listening to.  The US would win the race by six-tenths of a second over Italy and one second over Germany as Hitler stood up and immediately walked out.  After reading Brown’s rendition of the race I immediately found a You Tube film on my lap top and watched the emotion of the rowers at the race’s conclusion over and over.  THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a wonderful story, and what makes it better is that it is shows the triumph of the human spirit and though it is a “sports” book, it is one that can be enjoyed by all.


At the conclusion of her new book, OPERATION PAPERCLIP: THE SECRET INTELLIGENCE PROGRAM THAT NAZI SCIENTISTS BROUGHT TO AMERICA, Annie Jacobsen discusses her battles with American military and intelligence authorities in trying to obtain documents relating to the employ of Nazi scientists by the United States Army and other government agencies following World War II.  In her discussion a common theme reaches fruition in 2012 as the Department of Defense finally declassified a 1945 list of Nazi doctors who were sought for “mercy killings and medical murder cases.”  On that list were seven Nazi doctors who were employed by the U.S. government even though “U.S. Army intelligence knew all along that these doctors were implicated in murder yet chose to classify the list and hire the doctors.” (437)  These doctors were hired as part of Operation Paperclip a postwar program designed to use the technological and medical knowledge of Nazi scientists for the benefit of American policy as the Cold War was burgeoning.  This raises a number of moral questions, the most important of which is when does a government draw the line in working with individuals who are guilty of directly or indirectly causing the death of tens of thousands of concentration camp victims, slave laborers, or innocent civilians.  In the case of the United States following World War II that line was invisible no matter what evidence existed that the individuals that the government was interested in had either engaged directly or indirectly in genocide.  For American officials following the war it was easy to dismiss evidence because in their eyes American national security interests trumped any documents that might interfere with their goal of using Nazi technological and medical advances to further the American agenda against the Soviet Union.

Anne Jacobsen has written a detailed and deeply researched study that raises numerous moral and philosophical questions as she explores the origin, implementation, and eventual downfall of Operation Paperclip.  She leaves no stone unturned as she ferrets out the stories and experiences relating to Wernher von Braun, the director of the German Army’s V2 rocket program and headed the Mittelbau-Dora Planning Office that oversaw experiments that resulted in the death of 30,000 out of 60,000 slave laborers he “hired” from the SS.  Other subjects include, Dr. Walter Schreiber, the Surgeon General of the Third Reich who carried out medical experiments on concentration camp victims for gas and bacterial warfare; Georg Rickhey, the General manager of the Mittlewerk slave labor facility; Otto Ambros, chemist and co discoverer of sarin gas and manager of IG Farben’s slave labor factory at Auschwitz; Dr. Kurt Blome, Deputy Surgeon General of the Reich; Major General Walter Dornberger who was in charge of V-weapons development and the technical officer in the Nordhausen slave labor tunnels; and Dr. Hubertus Strughold the wartime director for aviation research for the Reich.  These are just a few of the individuals that Jacobsen’s narrative exposes.  All are war criminals, and all participated in Operation Paperclip and developed important programs that the US military came to rely on during the Cold War, for example, Kurt Debus, an ardent Nazi and V-weapons flight test director who later became the first director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Jacobsen follows Operation Paperclip from its inception in 1945 as American authorities had to decide what to do with Hitler’s former scientists and engineers.  Proponents of Operation Paperclip decided to use Nazi scientists to assist in the war against Japan.  However, once the Japanese threat ended in August, 1945 and relations with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate the race to acquire as many scientists and technological experts before the Soviet Union could capture them gained momentum.  Jacobsen does an excellent job describing certain Nazi scientists and why their particular specialty was so important to the United States.  US policy for hiring German scientists was supposed to be based on the condition that “provided they were not known or alleged war criminals,” however this caveat was easily overlooked.  I found the mini-biographies that Jacobsen provides to be fascinating.  The author discusses many individuals that people with knowledge of World War II will easily recognize, i.e.; Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, and Heinrich Himmler, but the character studies of those not easily recognizable are the most fascinating.  Dr. Leopold Alexander, a Boston psychiatrist and German Jew left Germany in 1933 for a fellowship in China and never returned to his homeland.  He ended up working in a mental hospital outside Boston in 1934 and returned to Germany after the war to try and determine which of his former colleagues and students were guilty.  Alexander was shocked by the deviance of Nazi science and noted they did not practice science, but a “really depraved pseudoscientific criminality.”  Dr. Alexander also investigated crimes committed in the name of neuropsychiatry and neuropathology and in this capacity he came face to face with the odious Nazi belief of “untermenschen” that was the core of Hitler’s ideological framework and those individuals who implemented the murder thousands under the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring carried out by Dr. Karl Kleist, a former neurology professor of Alexander.  We also meet Americans such as John J. McCloy who was in charge of setting up war crimes programs, but also coordinated policy regarding the transfer of Nazi scientists to the United States which he supported at the end of the war and later when he became High Commissioner for the American occupation zone replacing General Lucius Clay in 1949.  Not all Americans that Jacobsen integrates into the narrative were guilty of facilitating Operation Paperclip.  There were people like John Dolibois, a G2 Army intelligence officer who was sent to Dachau after its liberation to interrogate Nazi suspects and to investigate whether any important Nazis were hiding among the general prison population.  Dolibois was shocked by the reaction of the men he interrogated as they could not believe they were being prosecuted and they used the excuse that they “were only following orders.”  To their credit many State Department functionaries argued repeatedly to keep Nazi scientists who were proven criminals out of the United States, but the military establishment was difficult to defeat.

Jacobsen’s discussion of IG Farben and their development of sarin and tabun gases are eye opening especially when the same scientists are the ones who helped develop it for the United States.  Farben’s research reflects the depravity of the Nazi scientists, the same men whose expertise the US would use, rather than having these men face the prosecution and punishment they deserved.  It was not just chemists the US was interested in.  When the Washington Post uncovered “freezing experiments” conducted at Dachau were by men would be tortured, then frozen for a period of time, then Nazi doctors would try and revive them.   The fact that the Nazi biologists involved were already working for the US was kept from the public.  Throughout Operation Paperclip officials had to work just as hard recruiting scientists as they did keeping information away from Congress and the American public.  This led to covert programs to smuggle scientists into the United States or the American zone in what became West Germany on many occasions.

Perhaps the most interesting and disturbing chapter was entitled, “Science at Any Price,” which explained how the military was able to maneuver the State Department out of the business of approving visa for the Nazi scientists that they opposed admitting to the United States.  From that point on the Joint Intelligence Objective Agency (JIOA) that had been created by the War Department was in charge of Operation Paperclip and the policy became; any scientist the Russians were interested in would be of interest to the US.  By October, 1946 there were 233 German scientists in US military custody.  At the same time the New York Times made the public aware of Operation Paperclip, the army had to go on a charm offensive by bringing out the most “wholesome looking German scientists they had working for them.” (250)

Jacobsen artfully describes army cover-up tactics when one of their “new” employees had their Nazi past catch up to them, i.e., Georg Rickhey who oversaw production and the hanging of prisoners at Nordhausen, a rocket factory housed in a salt mine.  When Rickhey was arrested he was acquitted in the Dora-Nordhausen trial as the judges were military and the future of the American missile program took precedence.  Jacobsen weaves her narrative nicely with the use of trial transcripts and documents to support her thesis and reflects American angst that the Soviet Union was ahead in the “chemical warfare race.”  In fact Karl Krauck, IG Farben’s head chemist and Goering’s main advisor on chemicals was being recruited by the US at the same time he was on trial.  America’s rational was simple, “when working with ardent Nazis American handlers appear to have developed the ability to look the other way.  Others…..looked straight at the man and saw only the scientist, not the Nazi.” (300)

The Berlin Crisis that began on June 24, 1948 gave Operation Paperclip further momentum as the newly created CIA joined forces with the JIOA and led to the employ of Major General Reinhard Gehlen, the former head of  Nazi intelligence operations against the Soviet Union.  The US made a deal with the devil and put Gehlen’s organization at the forefront of the Cold War and made the Major General head of the entire American anti-communist intelligence operation.  Jacobsen also zeroes in on the cases of Otto Ambros, Dr. Walter Schreiber, and Dr. Kurt Blome exploring their Nazi past, their involvement in war crimes, and how they came to work for the United States.  Jacobsen follows that discussion with that of John J. McCloy’s commutation of Ambros’ and others sentences when he became High Commissioner, in part because of pressure from West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the outbreak of the Korean War.  A new shift in US policy evolved as it was now more important to be anti-communist as opposed to anti-Nazi.

The saga of Dr. Walter Schreiber as described by Jacobsen is emblematic of the American governments experience with former Nazi scientists after the war.  Schreiber was involved with medical experiments at Ravensbruck among his other crimes, but yet he was never prosecuted at Nuremberg.  In fact he became a Russian witness against his former colleagues at the trial.  His journey to the United States and his final eviction in 1952 is a twisted voyage that brings to the surface the role of the Air Force, CIA and other agencies that did everything they could bureaucratically to allow him to remain in the United States so that we could employ his knowledge of Nazi and Soviet chemical experiments.  In 1952 when his presence in Texas reached the Boston press and went national, the fear of scandal that could reach the highest levels of the Truman administration finally saw the government force him to emigrate to Argentina with his family.  What is evident is that being an anti-communist trumped being a Nazi war criminal.   If you could assist in the Cold War battle any past crimes could be glossed over and explained away in the name of national security.

Jacobsen completes her study by discussing the case of Arthur Rudolph, a man who oversaw slave labor at the Dora-Nordhausen complex where he was involved in working prisoners to death and a number of public hangings.  Rudolph had worked for the US military and NASA for thirty-eight years when he was finally expelled, but even as his role in the Third Reich became known in 1983 there were elements in NASA who claimed the Justice Department was engaged in a witch hunt.   Jacobsen’s magnificent study concludes by asking “What does last?  The desire to seek the truth? Or, in the words of Jean Michel, the ability to take a stand against the monstrous distortion of history when it gives birth to false, foul and suspect myths?”  This for me is the epitaph of Operation Paperclip, one of the most disturbing policies that the United States government has ever pursued.


Wilhelm Canaris’ role as the head of the Abwehr, German military espionage, before and during World War II has been openly debated since his execution by the Nazis in 1945. Some historians argue that he supported the Nazi regime when it was convenient and others who argue he was always in opposition to Adolf Hitler and saw himself as trying to save western civilization from the twin evils of Nazism and Communism. Richard Bassett posits in HITLER’S SPY CHIEF: THE WILHELM CANARIS BETRAYAL that Canaris had a tremendous impact on the course of the war by building an efficient intelligence system that refused to engage in the evil practices of the Gestapo and SS; further he should be credited for altering the course of the war through his support of General Franco against Hitler’s goal of seizing Gibraltar, thereby saving the Mediterranean Sea for the British navy; and lastly, his deliberate over-estimation of British forces available in his intelligence estimates after Dunkirk being the vital factor in delaying and cancelling the Nazi invasion of England and ultimately causing the defeat of Germany. There is an element of truth in all of these assertions, however they rest on somewhat dated sources and should be grounded in further research. The author presents many theories in the form of conjecture, and to his credit he tries to present both points of view, but then does not reach totally viable conclusions, i.e.; Canaris’ role in possibly achieving an Anglo-German demarche in 1943. After reading the book I am not certain how pro-Nazi Canaris really was and to what level did his anti-Semitism reach. Despite these drawbacks there are aspects of the book that are praiseworthy.

Bassett does an excellent job exploring the ideological and policy fissures that developed between Carnais and the Head of the SD, Reinhard Heydrich. Their relationship takes up a significant portion of the book ranging from Heydrich’s attempt to foment military purges in the Soviet Union in 1937 that resulted in Carnaris questioning the goals and tactics employed by the Nazis. Bassett follows their competition for control of the German military intelligence community that pitted the Abwehr against the SD closely as Carnaris saw himself as the antithesis of “the Butcher of Prague” who would be assassinated by Czech and Slovak agents working for the British in 1942. The author’s discussion of Canaris’ relationship with Winston Churchill is important and the conclusion seems to be had the British Prime Minister followed Carnaris’ lead perhaps the war could have been prevented in 1938 or at least ended in 1943. These suggestions are supported somewhat, but are not totally convincing. Another area of interest is Canaris’ interactions with “C,” Sir Stewart Menzies, the Head of British Intelligence during the war. Bassett alludes to a close relationship that impacted strategy, but does put forth enough supporting evidence to make his assumptions totally viable. Overall the book is an interesting read, but the author should rely on more up to date secondary sources and greater primary materials in support of his theories to gain further credibility.


Until 1942, the year of his assassination Reinhard Heydrich was the chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service and the Gestapo. He played a significant role in the planning of the “Final Solution” and was responsible for many of the atrocities implemented by the Nazi hierarchy until his death. In this new biography, HITLER’S HANGMAN: THE LIFE OF HEYDRICH by Robert Gerwath, the Director of the Center for War Studies at the University College Dublin,the reader is presented with the most complete study of this perpetrator of evil that has been written to date. Heydrich was the “complete” ideological Nazi. One who grew up in a privileged middle class family and the narrative and analysis follows his career progression to the point of becoming one of Hitler’s most trusted policy makers. Gerwath presents the inner workings of the Gestapo and other Nazi police organs. The reader witnesses the complexities of the Nazi secret police, the personal conflicts and power struggles and the resulting affects on its victims. It is a study that explores the personal and public character of its subject and leaves no doubt that the Holocaust was greatly facilitated by the former overlord of Bohemia and Moravia. His assassination (the topic of a fascinating new novel, HHH by Laurent Binet) by a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service in 1942 did the world a service by ending the cruelty of the “butcher of Prague.” The book is designed for the general reader as well as an academic audience and is very well written and well worth the time if one is interested in this type of subject matter.

HITLERLAND by Andrew Nagorksi

Hitlerland, by Andrew Nagorski is a useful survey of the attitudes expressed by Americans who witnessed the rise of the Nazis to power from the 1920s onward and their reactions to Nazi policies in the 1930s. The author integrates a number of important Americans, ie; US Ambassador Wiiliam Dodd, the journalist William L. Shirer, George Kennan, Dorothy Thompson etc in ascertaining what Americans thought concerning the events that they witnessed. If you want to get a flavor of what it was like for Americans in Germany as World War II approached and reactions to the rising anti-semitism under the Nazi regime this book should be of interest.

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Recently I read Robert Gerwath’s HITLER’S HANGMAN: THE LIFE OF HEYDRICH. It was an amazing biography of a person described as “Himmler’s Brain.” Reinhard Heydrich was the Chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service and the Gestapo, also the ruthless overlord of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia during World War II. In addition he was the leading organizer of the “Final Solution” until May 27, 1942 as well as the “host” for the Wannsee Conference that many believe set up the infrastructure for the Holocaust, quite a resume! Heydrich was one of the most important figures in the Nazi hierarchy and quite possibly would have worked his way up to be Hitler’s successor had he not been assassinated by a Czech and a Slovak as part of a British secret service plot in May, 1942. Since Heydrich was such an important historical figure I was fascinated by Laurent Binet’s remarkable book, HHhH translated from French into English by Sam Taylor and published last year. Binet’s work is a combination of historical fiction and historical narrative, a process he describes as an “infranovel.”

This book is an unusual combination of impeccable historical research and prose. The author seems to meditate over his material as he presents it in the form of a conversation with himself. His application of subtle sarcasm exists throughout and his descriptions of his characters are hauntingly accurate. The first half of the book presents the background in the form of a bio-fiction of Heydrich’s life and then the author moves on to discuss his main concern the assassination of the “Butcher of Prague.” The reader is provided an interesting portrayal of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis the British trained assassins, who are parachuted into the Prague area in May, 1942. The reader is taken for a chilling ride with these partisans as they carry out their mission, the Nazi reprisals resulting in the massacre of the Czech town of Lidice, their own deaths and the eventual extermination of all individuals who are linked to the plot by the Germans. Binet is irreverent in his descriptions, be it social situations or ideological debates to the point that some of the scenes seem farcical. The author’s blend of historical accuracy and fictional musings draw the reader in with his commentary, i.e.; in dealing with Anglo-French sellout of Czechoslovakia in September, 1938 he states, “at this level of political stupidity, betrayal becomes almost a work of art.” The book is truly an accurate portrayal of history presented in the form of a novel. As a historian I wish he could have provided footnotes and a bibliography!