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

Rudolf Höß crop.jpg

(Rudolf Hoss)

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

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

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

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

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

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

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

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

(The Nuremberg Trials)

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

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

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

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ by Erik Larson

Standing out of the flames and smoke of surrounding blazing buildings, St Paul's Cathedral during the great fire raid in London.

(The bombing of London during the WWII “Blitz”)

Living at a time when leadership seems to be severely lacking with a president who enacts his personal agenda seemingly on a daily basis when people are dying is eye opening and ultimately a tragedy.  In times like this it is important to examine historical leadership that is grounded in fact and strength of personality.  Leadership during times of crisis is of the utmost importance be it a pandemic, wartime, economic or weather-related catastrophes.  The public needs to rely on someone to step up and provide honest and factual information with direction to mitigate people’s anxiety and provide hope for the future.  Examining the aerial atrocities committed by the Germans during World War II over London, Coventry and other English cities in late 1940 and early 1941 is a case in point.  Winston Churchill the newly appointed Prime Minister would rise to the occasion through his wisdom, wit, and force of personality and provide the British people a degree of solace.  Erik Larson’s latest book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ successfully captures Churchill’s role and the courage of the British people in that moment and builds upon his series of historical narratives that ranges from hurricanes, murder in Edwardian London, a serial killer in Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the sinking of the Lusitania, to the rise of the Nazis.

In his current work Larson explores “the year in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know…and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like.”  Larson has produced a workmanlike synthesis of events, policies, and personalities of the time period though he does not add a great deal that is new for historians.  What Larson does accomplish is a synthesis of information and sources focusing on many individuals that seem to fall through the cracks in other historical monographs.

Wikimedia Commons

(Sir Winston Churchill)
Larson’s grasp of the most salient historical points is evident for all to see.  Churchill’s obsession with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thoughts serves as a background to most of Churchill’s actions.  Churchill is fully aware that England cannot defeat the Nazis without American equipment and financing and finally their entrance into the war.  Larson describes the political and personal machinations of FDR and Churchill in traditional fashion as he labors through the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease as the United States slowly become more and more of a belligerent.  Larson’s description of the visit of Harry Hopkins, perhaps FDR’s closest ally and friend to England for four weeks in January, 1941 is a case in point as Churchill rolled out the red carpet to flatter and convince Hopkins to support American aid to England and encourage the eventual entrance of the United States into the war.
Everyday English citizens are presented through their daily lives and travails as they confronted by the German “Blitz.”  In addition, Larson takes figures like “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s reluctant private secretary and drills down exploring aspects of their lives in detail.  In Colville’s case the unrequited love he pursues in the name of Gay Margesson, a student at Oxford, supplemented by his important role by Churchill’s side.  Others explored include Pamela Churchill who had the unfortunate task of being married to Churchill’s son Randolph, an alcoholic, gambler, and philanderer.  Mary Churchill, the prime Minister’s eighteen-year-old daughter provides an interesting perspective of an upper-class youth through her diary entries.  More importantly Larson pursues the role of Max Aiken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper magnate who performs miraculous work increasing British airplane production at the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production as well as serving as Churchill’s closest friend and alter ego.  Frederick “Prof” Lindemann , an Oxford Physicist assesses the world with “scientific objectivity” who Churchill brought into government to deal with German technology and efforts to counter the damage it caused.  The marriage of Sir Harold Nicholson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Information and his marriage to the writer Vita Sackville-West receives a great deal of attention.  Churchill’s bodyguard Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson provides numerous nuggets of information.  Mass-Observation diarist Olivia Cockett chronicles many of the horrors resulting from the German onslaught.   There are of course portraits of the military types like Major-General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, the Military Chief of Staff and political figures such as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, who is then shuffled off to Washington as ambassador to remove a political threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership.  Characters abound and Larson has the knack of providing just the right amount of detail to make them interesting in of themselves for the reader.

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Beaverbrook -- Nov. 28, 1938

If Churchill was obsessed with FDR, Adolf Hitler was obsessed with Churchill.  In Larson’s accurate rendition of the Hitler-Churchill enmity, the Fuhrer did not want to go to war with England at first.  He wanted to negotiate a deal that would be somewhat satisfactory to Churchill to end England’s adversarial role toward Germany so he could concentrate on lebensraum, living space is the east against Russia.  When Churchill refused to comply, Hitler unleashed the German Luftwaffe led by Hermann Goring against England to knock them out of the war.  At times a cartoonish, despicable, and insidious figure, Goring did all he could to raze English cities like Coventry to create the terror that would force the English people to remove Churchill and replace him with a more pliable figure.  Hitler and Goring could never quite comprehend why Churchill refused to give up based on the physical and psychological damage they inflicted on the English people.  Larson provides a fascinating aside to Goring’s terror bombing of civilians in his ravenous pursuit of cultural artifacts anywhere he could steal them.  With Churchill’s obstinacy remaining constant, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer hatches a plan to achieve peace with England. Larson does his best to break down the myths of Hess’ attempted flight to Scotland to try and negotiate England’s exit from the war delving into the latest material available.

Larson is successful in explaining Churchill’s historical significance as he describes his speeches and physical appearance throughout London and other areas refusing to kowtow to Nazi bullying and bombing.  He demonstrated “a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.…he gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong,”  as his voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve.  Churchill was an expert at mass psychology, and he knew just how to hearten his downtrodden people and lead them to ultimate victory, even as so many people lived in shelters that were crumbling or pursuing an existence in the London Underground.

Goering Lounging In Chair

(Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe)

Larson is successful in reaching his stated goal of “hunting for stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous.”  Larson writes with verve and the character formation of a novelist.  He seems to leave no rock unturned in seeking out the intimate lives of his characters so they can provide a feel for what England is experiencing between May 1940 and 1941.  He find’s vignettes that are a treasure.  For example, Churchill constantly critiques the writing of his Cabinet and military figures correcting grammar and demanding brevity.  Deeply personal aspects garner Larson’s attention exemplified by his comments on Churchill and Clementine’s life in the bedroom, which was separate and as far as intimate relations, it took place only upon an invitation from Clementine!

As with any historical monograph there are always suggestions for improvement.  According to Gerard DeGroot in his February 28, 2020 review in the Washington Post in Larson’s case it may be fair to argue that Churchill is given too much credit for saving England when English factories and workers produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that consistently outperformed their German counterparts.  Further British workers, male and female were much better mobilized than in Germany.  In addition, the idea that England acted alone is an overstatement when the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish contributed greatly as did members of the vast empire including Canadians, Australians, Indians and South Africans who all did their part.  One also cannot forget the 145 Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, in addition to the 88 Czech, and 30 pilots  from Belgium.  One must also not forget that other parts of the United Kingdom were also bombed – cities like Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast were also severely damaged.   Churchill needs to share the limelight a bit more than Larson offers.

Though Larson has not written the definitive account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister he has written an evocative description of what life was like for the English people during the period.  One cannot go wrong hunkering down with Larson’s narrative particularly at a time of extreme crisis and discomfort.  I was scheduled to hear Larson at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of March, however due to the pandemic it was cancelled.  I fervently hope it can be rescheduled.

In the aftermath of a bombing raid, a bus lies in a crater in Balham, South London.
(London during the WWII “Blitz”)

OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II by Max Hastings

Operation Chastise by Robert Taylor (Lancaster)

During World War II a debate raged among allied strategists as to how much civilians should be targeted to defeat the Nazis.  As the Germans wreaked havoc on civilian populations throughout Europe and the United Kingdom the defeat of Hitler’s henchmen was deemed a necessity no matter the cost.  Max Hastings, a British journalist and historian, the author of numerous volumes ranging from World War I, the Battle of Britain, World War II, Winston Churchill and Vietnam tackles the issue of civilian casualties in his latest effort, OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II.

By May 1943 the British had accomplished little against the Nazis when compared to the effort and suffering of the Soviet Union which was finally making its push from Stalingrad westward.  Further, Winston Churchill was under a great deal of pressure to produce victories to stir the English people.  The allied grand strategy to this point was cautious to allow their slow industrial buildup to take hold before making a stronger presence on the battlefield.  To this point their most significant action concerned the use of heavy bombers.  The British decided in October 1940 that instead of pursuing largely vain efforts to locate power plants, factories, and military installations the Royal Air Force (RAF) would bomb German cities which would continue until 1945 and the end of the war.  The C-in-C Bomber Command Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris believed that air attacks on Germany could render a land invasion of Europe as unnecessary.  Winston Churchill did not care for Harris, but he believed in his sense of purpose and his ability to create positive publicity, i.e., the thousand bomber raids” over Cologne in May-June 1940.  There were a number of skeptics concerning Harris’ approach to winning the war, but Harris’ publicity machine and ability to put out positive bombing figures made him an important component in RAF leadership.  By “by war’s end, Bomber Command was capable of reigning upon Hitler’s people in a single twenty-four-hour period as many bombs as the Luftwaffe dropped during the course of its entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain.”

Barnes Wallis

(Barnes Wallis)

It is at this point that Hastings introduces his main topic the bombing of German dams as a means of destroying Hitler’s Ruhr Valley industrial complex. The Ruhr and its industries accounted for 25% of Germany’s entire consumption, much of it derived from the Mohne reservoir.  Flooding the low-lying Ruhr Valley would render railways, bridges, pumping stations, and chemical plants inoperative.  The key figures that Hastings explores in depth are Barnes Wallis, an engineer who become the hero of Operation Chastise, the mission to destroy the Mohne Dam as well as others, as he was able to design and develop the immense bomb that could “bounce” along the water to breach the Mohne Dam.  Next, Guy Gibson who led the 617 Squadron of the RAF Bomber Command that would bomb the dams of north western Germany employing a revolutionary new weapon that required plans to fly at an extremely low level after conducting over 170 successful bombing missions over Germany.  Ralph Cochrane, Harris’ subordinate was in charge of the mission who was one of the RAF’s ablest senior officers who has been described as a “ruthless martinet.”  Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, the head of the RAF believed in assaulting urban areas and was a prime mover behind Operation Chastise.  Arthur Collins, a scientific officer in Harmondsworth’s “Concrete Section” who proved to Wallis that “a relatively small charge might achieve a wholly disproportionate result if it was detonated sub-aqueously and close to the target, using a timer or a hydrostatic pistol: it could thus harness the power of the water mass to channel the force of the blast.”  Lastly, Sir Arthur Harris, the commander, who when pulled over by the military police at one time and was admonished that he could have killed someone, he responded “I kill thousands of people every night.”

Guy Penrose Gibson, VC.jpg

(Guy Gibson)

Hastings does a marvelous job explaining the scientific experimentation, the training of the pilots, the shifting of resources, the strategic planning of the operation, and the different personalities with their own agendas in detail.  By doing so  Hastings highlights his own expertise and command of the material, but also the ability to explain complex information and make it easily understood for the reader.

Hastings introduces numerous pilots, bomb aimers, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners that made up the core of the mission.  These men formed groups of seven for each Lancaster bomber that was sent into Germany the night of May 16, 1943.  Hastings narrative provides intimate portraits of the men and how they interacted and were organized.  The squadron reflected all social classes, but despite a degree of class consciousness they were able to form into workmanlike groups of young men most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties with a sprinkle of men in their thirties.  Among these individuals included are Richard Trevor-Roper, the Squadron Gunnery Leader and bomb aimer who at 27 was the oldest among the squadron; F/.SGT Len Sumpter, a bomb aimer was a shoe makers son who left school at 14; wireless operator Jack Guterman, a very literary young man faced with the decision to follow his pilot Bill Ottley from another command joined the 617th;  F/LT Joseph McCarthy, the only American pilot involved with Operation Chastise who grew up in the Bronx, NY; F/LT John “Hoppy” Hopgood, Gibson’s closest friend; F/LT David Shannon, an Australian pilot; and aircraft navigator Jock Rumbes a pilot washout who became an excellent navigator.  These and many others new by the nature of the mission flying at night at an altitude of under 100 feet over water that their chances of survival were limited and the result is that 52 of the 133 men involved in Operation Chastise would not return.  As Hastings points out, “the margin for error, both for successful attacks and survival was virtually zero.”

Mohne dam before and after 617 squadron's famous Dambuster raid

(Mohne Dam May 16-17, 1943)

 

Hastings provides a blow by blow account of Operation Chastise from its takeoff on May 16, 1943 describing the difficulty of lifting off the ground with such a heavy payload, flying under 500 feet in the air to avoid German radar and flak, the mindset and experiences of the 133 men during the long flight, the final successful delivery of Wallis’ “bouncing bombs,” and the severe losses in planes, five of which crashed before reaching the target area in addition to three more at the site out of nineteen in total that took off on May 16, and the 52 men that perished.  As Hastings correctly concludes, Operation Chastise was a huge extravagance and essentially a gamble, a piece of military theater, rather than serious strategy.  In the end the Mohne and Eder dams were breached causing flood waters that would kill  between 1400-1500 people, half of which were non-German forced laborers.  In addition, the Nazis suffered an undetermined amount of economic and production losses.

Operation Chastise was largely hidden from the public until 1955 when the film, “Dam Busters” was released.  Hastings follows upon the works of other historians like James Holland to describe the events and personalities surrounding the mission whose idea dated back to 1937 and presents it to an audience after conducting voluminous research and interviews over his long career as a war correspondent, journalist and historian.  With the inclusion of maps, charts, and photos Hastings effort has produces a wonderful addition to monographs that focus upon the lesser known operations conducted during World War II, but were extremely important as in this case it reflected the turning of the tide, a small and symbolic step towards the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

OPERATION CHASTISE

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air Force No. 617 Squ

 

NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS by Craig L. Symonds

image__header__normandy-visit-the-omaha-beach-american-cemetery-memorial-in-colleville-sur-mer__croix-r-ale-goff-calvadostourismejpg

(American Cemetery at Normandy)

Last year there were a number of new books that appeared commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landing in June 1944.  These books include COUNTDOWN TO D DAY: THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE by Peter Margaratis, NORMANDY ’44: D DAY AND THE EPIC 77 DAY BATTLE FOR FRANCE by James Holland, SAND AND STEEL: D DAY AND THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE by Peter Caddick-Adams, THE FIRST WAVE:THE D DAY WARRIORS WHO LED THE WAY TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II by Alex Kershaw, and SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY by Giles Milton.  Another important book appeared in 2014, Craig L. Symonds, NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS.

Symonds the author of THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, and LINCOLN AND HIS ADMIRALS does a remarkable job describing the preparation and implementation of allied plans for a cross channel invasion that culminated on June 6, 1944 in NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS.  The book is broken down into two parts. First, Symonds explores the coming together of the British-American special relationship that begins following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the integration of allied planning for the invasion with the personalities of Dwight Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, Sir Alan Brooke, General Bernard Montgomery and a host of others.  The second half of the narrative delves into the placement of allied shipping and personnel in England and their preparation for the invasion, and the actual landings themselves culminating in the allied attempt to drive the Germans out of Cherbourg.  The book is heavily researched including interviews with survivors, archival material, and the leading secondary works.

Symonds takes the reader through all the major conferences and planning sessions that took place between 1941 (nine months before Pearl Harbor) and 1944 and breaks down the major issues from unity of command, the disagreement over which should take precedence a cross channel invasion or landing in the Mediterranean theater, the number of troops and shipping needed, what types of landing craft should be employed, and the actual timing of any invasion.  According to Symonds the key to D Day was Operation TORCH, the allied invasion of North Africa.  All the major issues that would emerge for a cross channel invasion were already present in preparing TORCH which would become a dress rehearsal for D Day – creating a multi-national force under one allied commander.  In the end TORCH was a success but it highlighted that a great deal of work needed to be done to prepare for Operation OVERLORD.

What makes Symonds narrative so compelling are the numerous insights he offers.  Especially interesting is his analysis of the cultural differences between British and American society that led to the low opinion that the British had of American soldiers, the American approach to war, and the attitude they felt Americans engendered. The British believed that they had been fighting for a number of years while the Americans may have produced their weaponry, shipping, and other necessities they did not have the combat experience and know how of British planners and soldiers.  On the other hand, Americans viewed the British as rather haughty, slow in preparation, and in part beholden to the United States.  Symonds explanation of the pros and cons of the Anglo-American relationship is very valuable and reflects how they were dependent upon each other.

File:General George C. Marshall, official military photo, 1946.JPEG

(General George C. Marshall)

What separates Symonds account from others is his focus on the different types of landing craft that were needed for OVERLORD, how each fit a particular need, the necessary ingenuity particularly on the part of the British, and the production process and schedules that were developed.  Symonds breaks down each type of landing craft and points out the differences of each, the training components, their positive aspects and design flaws, and overall, how important they were to the success of D Day.

Symonds explores the experiences of the soldiers who were dependent upon the landing craft as they departed the 171 launching sites dispersed around England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, their experiences in the channel, and what it was like to land on the Normandy beaches.  Symonds delves into production issues that forced a one-month postponement of OVERLORD in addition to the weather issues that would force a postponement of one day to launch the operation and forced Eisenhower to smoke even more cigarettes than normal!

Symonds is correct when he points out that despite the massive allied firepower the overall impact, particularly on Omaha Beach turned out to be less than hoped for.  “….the bombs fell too long, the rockets fell to short, and the naval gunfire was too brief.  Ashore, the Germans crouched down in their bomb proof shelters, many with concrete walls five feet thick, and they covered their ears, but none of the Allied ordnance penetrated their bunkers and pill boxes.”

Symonds is dead on in arguing that OVERLORD contained so many working parts with a timetable that made each element dependent on so many others.  As a result, early errors created a series of difficulties that threatened to ruin the invasion especially on Omaha Beach.  However, in the end what saved the day “was the ability of the men both afloat and ashore to adapt and adjust.”  Further, what saved the day for those dealing with the heavy German guns were the destroyers in the channel that maneuvered expertly and were able to rein hellfire on the well ensconced German pill boxes.  It was clear that even though Omaha Beach fell into allied hands the assault had not gone according to plan and Symonds describes the reasons for the failure.  It would take over 10,000 casualties, 3,000 of which occurred on Omaha Beach, a sum greater than the losses on all four of the other invasion beaches combined.

 

Symonds integrates the personal stories of the men who fought and died on D Day into the narrative.  Whether describing the men who climbed Pointe du Hoc to knock out heavy German artillery; the men who climbed the bluffs to the shock of the German gunners; Ensigns who found themselves in command of landing craft; or those who splashed in the water or crawled onto the beaches under withering German fire Symonds tells their stories in a clear fashion so one can get a feel for what these brave individuals experienced.

The book reads like a work of fiction in parts particularly as the author discusses the planning stage.  It morphs into more of a non-fictional work as he gets into the nitty gritty of the types of ships that were employed.  If there is a criticism to be made it is that Symonds approach seems a bit American-centered.   However, in the end this is an efficient work that is well written and should maintain reader interest.  I look forward to reading Symonds latest work WORLD WAR II AT SEA: A GLOBAL HISTORY soon.

File:CambridgeAmericanCemetery.jpg

(American Cemetery at Normandy)

AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II by Henry Hemming

por 7789 r33

(Charles Lindbergh)

At a time when many Americans fear the impact of foreign interference in our elections, be it what the Russians did in 2016, or what may be in store for 2020 there is an excellent historical example of such a campaign on foreign soil that tried to sway Americans and help make entrance into World War II against Nazi Germany palatable.  The example I am alluding to is the subject of Henry Hemming’s new book, AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II.

By June 11, 1940 a week after the British evacuation from Dunkirk allied shipping losses in the Atlantic had reached over 1,135,263 tons.  At the same time the German army outnumbered the British army 4.3 to 1.6 million.  In another month the Germans would launch the Luftwaffe against London in a “blitz” that would last almost a year.  The Churchill government faced long odds in overcoming the Nazi onslaught and the only hope to offset a disaster would be American entrance into the war, but in May 1940 only 7% of Americans favored doing so.  The British proceeded to send 700 crates of gold bullion along with a spy named William Stephenson to the United States. Interestingly, the author’s grandfather, Harold Hemming, a major in the Royal Artillery was a friend of the newly minted British spy, and along with his wife Alice would carry out a number of missions which included visiting American military bases and presenting a series of demonstrations revealing the intricacies of flash-spotting, a technique designed to locate German artillery, and lecturing soldiers what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

Sir William Stephenson [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141575]

(Sir William Stephenson)

Hemming does an excellent job recounting the business career that led Stephenson to be recruited by MI6 and chosen as Chief of Station with his main office in New York.  His task was to foster a climate that would allow Washington to declare war on Nazi Germany.  Hemming writes with an easy flair that allows the reader to become engrossed in how the British went about trying to surreptitiously convince the American people to favor entering the European war and pressuring their government to do so.  Stephenson’s task was not an easy one due to isolationist sentiment created by the Nye Commission which delved into the profits of munitions companies and other corporations from W.W.I., Neutrality legislation that hamstrung President Roosevelt, and a growing belief flamed by Charles Lindbergh that the British could not defeat Germany so it would be a waste for the US to enter the war.*

The British were not the only ones who were trying to manipulate American opinion.  Hans Thomsen, the German Charge d’affair in Washington was developing his own propaganda machine to keep the US out of the war, in addition to convincing a Montana Congressman and Senator to read pro-German material into the Congressional Record and using their congressional franking privilege to disseminate these views by mail to their constituents.  He was also able to bribe 50 Republican congressman, including New York’s influential legislator Hamilton Fish who attended the Republican National Convention to oppose entrance into the war.  “At the time the most extensive foreign intervention – direct intervention – ever in an American election campaign.”  Until Trump!

William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Buffalo-born founder of the agency that preceded the CIA, won't have his name on Western New York's new veterans cemetery. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Strategic Services Society)

(General William J. Donovan)

Hemmings examines Lindbergh’s role in speaking out in favor of Nazi Germany very carefully tracing his views from the time of his son’s kidnapping and death.  Lindbergh would testify before Congress numerous times against legislation like the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease both designed to assist the British navy whose merchant shipping was being shredded by Nazi submarines and the fact they were slowly going bankrupt.  The German embassy would mail Lindbergh’s speeches all across America to gain US domestic support.  Lindbergh would become the leading “isolationist” spokesperson in the country and a central figure in the “America First Committee” movement.

After describing what Stephenson was up against, including his own government who did not want to interfere in American politics as the 1940 election approached, the man in charge of British propaganda operations and returning refugees back to Europe as agents was ordered to hold back and not institute any radical plans.  Stephenson did have an ally, the British ambassador to the US, Lord Lothian who worked assiduously and ignored Foreign Office instructions to try and lobby Washington.  When Lothian died suddenly, Stephenson was left with Lord Halifax, a former Foreign Secretary and appeaser who Churchill sent to America to get him out of his cabinet.  Hemmings has unearthed a number of interesting commentaries presented throughout the book, for example, referring to Halifax as a “foxhunting aristocrat” who would not be well received in administration circles.

The Bow Tie Crowd.
Ian Fleming, 1958.

(Ian Fleming)

Once FDR is reelected in 1940 and he was able to get Lend-Lease passed it was clear that the president wanted to get the US into the war against Hitler’s forces.  He went so far as to have the US Navy patrol the North Atlantic hoping to create a casus belli to enter the war.  It was at this time that Stephenson, who had been put in charge of all MI6 activities in the western hemisphere, head the Special Operations Executive (SOE) nicknamed the “Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare,” run MI5, British Passport Control and any propaganda dealing with the war effort, to take off the gloves and disregard his own Foreign Office.

An aspect that Hemming develops in full is the relationship of General William J. Donovan and Stephenson.  Donovan was a close friend of FDR and had the president’s ear.  Stephenson felt his relationship with the FBI did not deal with Nazi penetration enough and he sought to help develop a partner in the United States for MI6 in dealing with joint intelligence.  Stephenson worked to convince Donovan, who at first was skeptical, to pitch the idea to FDR.  Soon Donovan became Stephenson’s conduit to FDR leaving out J. Edgar Hoover.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the role played by Wendell Willkie who ran for president against FDR in 1940.  Willkie spent most of the campaign as an “interventionist,” but under pressure from Republican isolationists he switched his position.  However, once he was defeated, he once again switched positions and became one of the administrations most important spokespersons favoring intervention.  Some have questioned why he changed positions.  Hemming points out that that FDR might have threatened to expose his long affair with Irita van Doren, but no matter the motivation he became what Secretary of State Cordell Hull characterized as a strategic weapon used by the administration to help the British.

Adolf Hitler : News Photo

(General Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Thomsen, and Adolf Hitler)

Adolph Berle, a long-time ally of FDR and in charge of US intelligence operations did not want to intervene to help the British and conducted a series of investigations into Stephenson’s growing spy network and he wanted to shut it down.  This provoked Stephenson into launching an all-out attack on American isolationists.  Hemming delineates Stephenson’s new strategy aside from spreading pro-British propaganda.  Agents were dispatched to infiltrate America First organizations as well as those in favor of intervention to create support for the British.  The best of his agents was Joseph Hirschberg who escaped Belgium before the Nazis arrived.  An orthodox Jew who lost most of his family in the death camps he was involved with assassinations and worked to subsidize “Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights.”  This was not the only organization Stephenson funded along with creating violent showdowns between protesters on both sides to drown out coverage of Lindbergh’s speeches in daily newspapers.  Another tactic employed was called “sibs,” meaning rumors from the Latin sibillare, to whisper.  The approach was simple, make up events, mostly anti-Nazi and have them investigated by newsmen and plant them in the media, for example, photos of Nazi atrocities, stories about the capture of German pilots behind enemy lines, convince shipping companies executives concerning German saboteurs, etc.  This became quite effective as agents would tell people things in “strictest confidence, that’s the best way to start a rumor.”  Another effective tactic was the creation, in conjunction with Donovan of a forgery unit under the auspices of a Hollywood screen writer, Eric Mashwitz outside Toronto designed to produce as many faked documents and news as possible.

A key for Stephenson and the Roosevelt administration was to directly link Berlin with spying on the United States.  Henry Hoke, a direct mail specialist stumbled on Thomsen’s franking scheme.  For Stephenson this was a direct link between the Nazis and isolationists.  Another hopeful episode was conjuring up a scheme that linked Berlin to a coup in Columbia involving forgeries and other strategies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Hemmings discussion of Stephenson’s role in trying to create a mirror MI6 in the United States.  A number of interesting characters emerge, including Ian Fleming.  Stephenson did not give up on Donovan as the head of an American spy organization until he finally agreed to become the new Coordinator of Intelligence (COI).  The result is that the British had a tremendous impact on the creation of the OSS during the war, which would morph into the CIA in 1947.  Another fascinating component to the narrative is how Hemming lays out step by step how Stephenson developed his own organization that created the right atmosphere for Washington to enter the war in Europe; facilitated American aid to Great Britain; helped beat back and unearth the isolationists; and developing a conduit to FDR.

Perhaps the greatest error made by isolationists was a speech given by Lindbergh on September 11, 1941.  Lindbergh followed a speech given by FDR the same day involving the USS Greer which had engaged a Nazi submarine in the North Atlantic signaling the onset of a shooting war between Washington and Berlin.  Lindbergh’s address in Des Moines, IA  where he blamed the real “war agitators” as being the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration.  He continued with a number of anti-Semitic remarks focusing on the price  Jews would pay should a civil war break out in the United States over entrance into the war, as well as a number of anti-Semitic tropes.  This led to a backlash against Lindbergh that his movement never recovered from.  Hemmings conclusion that Lindbergh was correct that there was someone or something behind the scenes was agitating for war, but it was Stephenson, not the Jews.

Title: A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible True Story of the Master Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Author: William Stevenson

Hemmings picture of FDR’s actions is quite interesting.  Like Lincoln during the Civil War, the president can be accused of committing impeachable offenses.  In Hemmings view that conclusion fits FDR’s actions in securing Lend-Lease, the Destroyer-Base Deal, the American intelligence relationship with the British, instructing Donovan to setup public opinion polls to ascertain what the public thought of certain policies before they were instituted, and trying to foment incidents with the Germans that would make her declare war against the United States.  If these were not impeachable, at a minimum FDR was pushing the envelope.

Hemming has written a crisp and easily read description of how the British successfully influenced American policy leading up to WWII.  Stephenson’s work was the key as was his working relationship with Donovan and indirectly with FDR.  In addition, by December, 1941 polls reflected what Churchill and Roosevelt had hoped for, the American people were ready for war. If you are interested in the onerous debate and how public opinion was transformed by a foreign power this book is very timely.

*See Philip Roth’s novel THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA whose counterfactual story centers on the defeat of FDR in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh.

Charles Lindbergh And Spirit Of St Louis

(Charles Lindbergh)

THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS by Svetlana Lokhova

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(Soviet leader Joseph Stalin)

In her first book, THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS Svetlana Lokhova argues that in the early 1930s Joseph Stalin came to the realization that if the Soviet Union was to survive drastic measures needed to be taken to improve the state of Soviet technology visa vie the west.  The Russian dictator stated that “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.  We must catch up in ten years.  Either we do it, or they will crush us.”  Stalin feared that large numbers of enemy aircraft could easily release poisonous gases over Soviet territory resulting in the death of millions.  The Soviet dictator’s solution was multifaceted; starve millions of peasants to death through collectivization to acquire hard currency to assist in Russia’s industrialization, show trials/purges/murder of those who opposed him, and the institution of a spy system that could steal secrets from the west, the United States in particular.  Lokhova chooses to focus on the last component of Stalin’s strategy by dispatching two intelligence officers, one an aviation specialist, the other a chemical specialist to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to acquire aeronautics, chemical research and other relevant information and bring it back to the Soviet Union.

In her book, Lokhova makes the case that the success of this mission allowed the NKVD (later morphed into the KGB) to develop a dependable source of western technology, particularly in aviation that would allow it to defend the Soviet Union from its enemies and eventually defeat Nazi Germany.  This operation would form the basis of later espionage against the United States that would allow Moscow to reach an equilibrium with Washington as both sides would develop a process that some refer to as “mutual assured destruction” or MAD.  As this process unfolds Lokhova points out that the United States became the source of a great deal of nuclear technology that fueled both sides of the nuclear arms race.

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(Author, Svetlana Lokhova)

According to Lokhova the Soviets’ long science and technology (S & T) mission remained a secret for over eighty years as both sides in the arms race decided to maintain their secrets.  Relying on previously undiscovered Soviet-era documents among many sources Lokhova tells her story through its first spy, Stanislav Shumovsky, the network of agents he created, the contacts in American aviation industry, in addition to other spies and important figures in the Soviet aviation community.

The author offers a brief biography of each of the characters she develops focusing most of her attention on Shumovsky whose family had been uprooted during World War I from their Polish home and moved to Kharkov located in southern Ukraine.  He completed five years of secondary education and was a gifted linguist that eventually included English.  He was an excellent math and science student and after witnessing the plight of Russian workers and peasant joined the Red Army at the age of sixteen.  Lokhova describes the Russian Revolution and the bloody Civil War that followed and its impact on Shumovsky creating the perfect candidate to enter the intelligence field.  His mission was to attend MIT and digest a technical education that would assist him in developing a network of sources and spies that would provide the data that he sought.  His success was beyond anything his handlers could imagine.  He would build a network of contacts and agents in factories and research institutions across the United States  According to Lokhova he would mastermind the systematic acquisition of every aviation secret American industry had to offer.  He worked with top aircraft designers and test pilots and the information he provided to men like Andrey Tupolev, an expert in reverse engineering, the Soviets were able to copy and create their own version of American planes, weapons, and other technological achievements including later, the atomic bomb.

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(Stanislav Shumovsky)

Lokhova does a nice job explaining how and why the United States became the target of Russian industrial espionage. American corporations had mastered, at first, under the tutelage of Henry Ford the model of mass production, and the country itself was urbanized with a high standard of living.  Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Soviet Intelligence Chief and Chairman of the Supreme Economic Council believed that the United States was the world’s leading technological innovator and a role model that should be targeted.  As it became clear that the Soviet Union could not industrialize with heavy industry without foreign expertise, and later the looming threat of Nazi Germany and Japan, Moscow had to obtain technology by stealing it.  Dzerzhinsky would die in 1926, but the die was cast for Stalin to manipulate the United States for Soviet technological needs.

The most interesting aspect of this process Lokhova points out is that most Americans have no clue the important role the United States played in Russian industrialization.  The author is extremely thorough in explaining the development of foreign operations by the NKVD and the role of Artur Artuzov.  In 1931, 75 Russian students arrived in the United States to attend elite universities; their vocations were varied including specially trained spies.  The largest percentage of students would attend MIT with Shumovsky.  Stalin’s goal was to emulate and surpass the United States, but to achieve this he needed educated engineers who would become Soviet societal leaders.  To achieve his goal the American education model would be copied.

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(Stalin congratulating his favorite pilot, Valery Chkalov)

Shumovsky’s story reads like an early episode from the television series, “The Americans.”  Easily fitting into American society, he oversaw the education and acculturation of his cohorts to life away from Russia.  They would blend into American society targeting young, idealistic, and naïve Americans at universities and corporations.  At MIT, Shumovsky was able to develop the industrial contacts in performing his mission – a camaraderie of scientists that allowed him to build his network. He would spot classmates like Norman Leslie Haight, a radio engineer whose specialty was bomb sights who would remain a Soviet source for decades.

Lokhova concentrates her story on Shumovsky, but she also introduces a number of intriguing characters like Ivan “Diesel” Trashutin, who attended MIT and studied diesel engineering who contributed more to the Soviet victory in WWII than any MIT alumnus, with designs for T-34 and T-72 tanks.  His task was facilitated when Stalin dismantled Soviet factories and moved them east of the Urals after the Nazis attacked in June 1941, resulting in tanks that would power the Soviet Army to victory in Berlin.  Other important individuals include Mikhail Cherniavsky, a chemical engineer and intelligence officer, who was a Trotskyite linked to trying to assassinate Stalin.  Ray Epstein Bennett, a Jewish socialist recruited to spy for the Soviet Directorate served in Shanghai, Afghanistan, and would become the tutor for MIT students – a Pygmalion Project.  Gaik Ovakimian, who the FBI labeled the “Wily Armenian,” acquired plans for the Atomic Bomb and the B-29 Super Fortress.  Lastly, Semyon Semyonov, another MIT student who Shumovsky mentored discovered which scientists were working on the Manhattan Project and managed to establish firm contacts with physicists close to Oppenheimer, among a number of others.

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(Soviet spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg)

The author does an exceptional job explaining the process of Soviet recruitment and the infrastructure of how it was implemented.  By the mid-1930s with the rise and threat of Nazi Germany recruitment was ramped up leading to the recruitment of Brooklyn College chemistry professor William Malisoff who brought Julius and Ethel Rosenberg into the fold.  Once Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union new avenues for intelligence gathering were created with what appears to be American cooperation as information was seized “in plain sight,” and relayed back to Moscow.   American naivete was apparent as the US embassy in the Soviet capitol had little or no security for decades and Stalin’s minions exploited the situation.

For Shumovsky, traditional spy operations were not enough to accomplish his mission.  The Soviet spy had an innate sense of how to create publicity and use it as a vehicle to improve American-Soviet relations which would lead to greater access to American corporations and their technology, i.e., Curtiss-Wright Aircraft, the largest company of its kind in the United States.  This would prove to be an effective strategy by ingratiating himself with aviation executives and engineers to obtain plans, research, and actual models.  A good example of how this played out was the flight of the Soviet ANT 25 over the North Pole with three pilots landing on the US Pacific Coast.  The three pilots would become heroes much like astronauts in the 1960s and 70s and were given access to practically any process or research they were interested in.

Lokhova’s approach is captivating as she draws out her story with the reader wondering how in detail the Russians accomplished their heists.  She answers this question and at times the narrative reads like a spy novel.  If there is a criticism of her work, it is at times her opinions do not necessarily match the historical record.  For example, she argues that the Great Purges of 1937 instituted by Stalin were caused by the Fascist victory in Spain.  According to Robert Conquest, a British historian and others the major reason was Stalin needed to blame individuals for the horrific results of collectivization that resulted in the starvation of millions and the need to protect himself from any opposition to his leadership.

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(Cambridge Five spy ring for the Soviet Union)

The advent of World War II brought about certain difficulties for Soviet intelligence.  The need for American planes in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor produced only leftovers for Moscow.  The upswing in the US economy because of the war left fewer targets to recruit.  Washington finally became security conscious.  The war resulted in in a dramatic increase in American patriotism.  Despite these difficulties, the Soviet Union was able to penetrate American and British security over the Manhattan Project employing the Cambridge Five in England, and the network and followers of Shumovsky to gather the necessary information, research, and plans for the atomic bomb.

According to Lokhova, Shumovsky’s success was his ability to adapt his methods to the changing circumstances and used America’s strengths and weaknesses and turn them to his advantage.  He was a talented student, a representative of a major aviation customer, and a skilled military advisor, skills which contributed to his success.  His successors would use his methods, and their contacts in the scientific community and factories brought the Soviet Union valuable intelligence on America’s developments in jets, rockets, and the atomic bomb.  It is fascinating that his accomplishments were pretty much conducted in “plain sight.”

Overall, Lokhova has written a fascinating account of Russian espionage and the role the United States played in the eventual success of the Soviet Union which would lead to the Cold War and the nuclear balance of power.  According to Frances Wilson in her Daily Telegraph review of June 24, 2018 entitled “The Spy who came into the lab – How the Soviets infiltrated MIT” it is interesting that certain elements in the Russian government tried to harass and discredit her to the point she was falsely accused  on “social media of being a Russian spy and of setting a ‘honey trap’ for Donald Trump’s former National Security advisor, General Michael Flynn.”  Despite the pressure she has been able to produce a groundbreaking account of Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 40s.  This is a remarkable book about amazing people and what is most astonishing is that our perception of the center of 20th century espionage has shifted “from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge Massachusetts.”

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(Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin)

HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY by Brendan Simms

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(Adolf Hitler)

At the outset of his new biography of Adolf Hitler, Brendan Simms points out that by 2000 over 120,000 books and articles have been written about the Nazi dictator.  The question then must be asked, why another?  Simms states in his introduction to HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY that conjecture concerning Hitler’s motivations that resulted in his rise to power, reorienting Germany toward Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and his ultimate defeat that have been examined since the 1950s by the likes of Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, and more recently by Volker Ulrich and Peter Longerich and others needs to be reexamined.  Simms seeks to build on the works of others, integrating many of their viewpoints as he puts forth his own revisionist interpretation of his subject in the tradition of A.J.P. Taylor.

Simms is a political scientist and professor of international relations and his newest book is his first attempt at biography and though it is a comprehensive look at Hitler from World War One onward it does lack coverage and interpretation of his life before that period.  What Simms is concerned with are three interrelated new claims.  First, Hitler was primarily obsessed throughout his career with Anglo-American and global capitalism, not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism.  Second, Hitler held a negative view of the German people arguing that even when purged of Jews and other “Untermenschen” he reflected a sense of inferiority in comparing the “volk” with “Anglo-Saxons.”  Thirdly, historians have focused too much on Hitler’s negative view of eugenics regarding the Jews and other undesirables and not enough on what he saw as positive eugenics, which was designed to elevate the German people to that of his British and American rivals.  According to Simms, historians “have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just against “world Jewry” but with the Anglo-Saxons.”  These claims or themes are hammered home by Simms on each and every page no matter the topic he is engaged in and it comes across as quite repetitive.  The book is extremely detailed and well thought out but could have been written in a more concise manner.

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To Simms’s credit he offers a great deal for the reader and other historians to consider and analyze and ultimately question.  One of Hitler’s core beliefs according to the author is that the reason the United States developed into superpower status was because of “living space.”  America had almost an entire continent to settle and when Native-Americans got in the way they were removed.  This large area provided an enormous supply of natural resources and areas to resettle millions of immigrants who arrived from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  For Hitler, it was German emigrants leaving the Fatherland who arrived in the United States who were greatly responsible for the American dream.  They brought skills that were needed ranging from farming, industrial labor, and their intellect.  By leaving Germany and emigrating across the Atlantic they left a void at home and an inferior population.  During World War One, Hitler became impressed with American soldiers in large part because they were made up of a significant number of Germans.  For Hitler, it became a civil war, German emigrants fighting against Germans who remained in the Fatherland which explains as the reason Germany lost the war.  This argument is carried forth throughout the 1920s and 30s leading to and including World War Two.

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(Results of Alloied fire bombing of Dresden)

Simms provides documentary evidence of Hitler’s beliefs through speeches, private conversations, and an analysis of MEIN KAMPF and THE SECOND BOOK which Hitler authored.  Simms provides numerous examples to support his claims as Hitler constantly worried about the power of the United States and during the late 1930s he wondered what approach Franklin D. Roosevelt would take as appeasers dominated English and French foreign policy.  In developing his strategy during World War Two, Simms argues that Hitler at the outset was not concerned with race and viewed the Jews as hostages to keep the United States out of the war and it was only after Washington signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that Hitler decided he needed a quick victory in the east and the implementation of the Final Solution.  Hitler feared that the Charter was similar to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I which he believed was a propaganda victory that resulted in the Germany agreeing to end the fighting.  Further, to argue that race had little impact up until 1941 in the plight of European Jewry is a bit specious at best.  All one has to do is look at Hitler’s speeches and writings to realize that race was the core of his attitude toward Jews.  The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hitler’s constant comparison of the treatment of Jews and black colonial soldiers, Kristallnacht, Einsatzgruppen in Russia,  and numerous other examples reflect the Hitler’s obsession with race.

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Simms’s argument that the entrance of the United States into the spelled the death knell for Jews as he no longer needed them as hostages is hard to accept.  All one has to do explore the evolution of Hitler’s views on Jews from the writing of MEIN KAMPF throughout the 1930s to the unwritten order to eradicate European Jewry surrounding the Wannsee Conference, and further events to see that argument that if the United States had not entered the war, Jews might have lived is fallacious at best.

As far as the British are concerned, Simms’s Hitler fawns over the empire, its colonial policy, and the sturdiness and bravery of its people.  Hitler repeatedly tried to make peace or ally with England throughout the 1930s, the years leading up to World War Two, and the war itself.  His strategy as is argued by many was to invade the Soviet Union as a means of pressuring London into making peace.  This is not really new, but it is interesting to explore Simms’s presentation as he has culled an enormous amount of primary and secondary materials which are part of an exceptional compendium of sources and footnotes in presenting his arguments.

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(Allied bombing of Romanian oil fields)

Simms does present all of the salient facts regarding Hitler’s life and the course of German history between World War I and II.  The author presents a detailed account of Nazi Party politics from the 1920s through the assumption of power in 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s impact on German federalism and Bavaria in particular, German culture, the removal of any threats to Hitler’s power, i.e., Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s fears of the restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy, the machinations of Nazi foreign policy using the excuse of self-determination, and many other issues.  The difference is his approach. He seems to enjoy exploring Hitler’s thought patterns and how he reached his conclusions.  A good example is how he believed England would switch sides after being defeated and support the Nazis as the Austrian Empire had done with Prussia in 1866 after the Battle of Sadowa.  Another example is how Hitler viewed the Slavs in relation to Germany, much in the same way that the United States viewed Native-Americans.  Slavs were to be moved out of the Ukraine to create Lebensraum for Hitler and provide Germany with the breadbasket of the Soviet Union as well as natural resources as the removal of Native-Americans had for Washington.

Historians seem overly concerned with watershed dates.  For Simms it is the May, 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia as anti-appeasement factions in the British Foreign Office and in MI6, aided by Czech and German social democrat exiles triggered a crisis in order to torpedo Neville Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation toward Germany and to mobilize resistance to Hitler.  It was claimed that Hitler had mobilized German forces and was planning an imminent attack.  This was not the case as an embarrassed Hitler retreated – the result would be the Munich Crisis and the ceding of the Sudetenland in September 1938 to assuage Hitler’s ego.  As a result of the crisis Hitler began to realize that a rapprochement with England was not likely and he would rush the Czechs completely by March 1939.  Hitler did make another attempt to seek a deal with London over a “rump” Poland after the Danzig crisis and the German invasion in September 1939, but they turned him down.  According to Simms, Hitler never forgave them, and the “blitz” or Battle of Britain was a direct result as was the invasion of Russian in June 1941 as a means of showing Churchill he was isolated and should make peace, not because they were Bolshevik as many have argued.  In fact, according to Simms, Hitler held a certain admiration for Stalin for the way he ruled and how his troops fought so fiercely against the Nazis.

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(Allied liberation of Auschwitz)

As to the idea that Nazism was socialism as Simms proports one must realize Hitler’s coopting of German “big business” for rearmament was designed as a drive to war, resulting in increased profits for Krupp and Thyssen and other industrialists rather than improving working conditions and wages for workers – this is not socialism.   According to Richard J. Evans in his review in The Guardian, on September 27, 2019, a great deal of what Simms argues is untenable, and though I agree with this assessment I would not go as far as his statement that Simms’s work should be ignored by serious students of the Nazi era as it is provocative and in parts interesting.  I would say though that what Simms argues should be taken with a grain of salt, but his work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Evans review article follows as it appeared in The Guardian, September 27, 2019.

Hitler by Brendan Simms and Hitler by Peter Longerich review – problematic portraits

Was Hitler obsessed with destroying capitalism? Did he drive policy ‘even down to the smallest detail’? Two new biographies fall into different traps

Richard J Evans

 

“Hitler was a socialist,” has become a mantra for the “alt-right” in the US as it seeks to discredit Democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left expounded this claim at length in 2017, comparing points of the Nazi party’s 1920 programme with policies put forward by modern Democrats. So, anyone who claims to be a socialist is really a Nazi who wants to set the country on the road to totalitarianism, war and genocide. Obamacare is only the start; enslavement and death will be the end. It’s a claim that has spread through the Republican party and has been echoed by Donald Trump Jr.

Now it has found its way across the Atlantic in the form of Brendan Simms’s new book, the central argument of which is that “Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism, rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism”. Everything in his life can be traced back to this obsession. “Hitler wanted to establish what he considered racial unity in Germany by overcoming the capitalist order and working for the construction of a new classless society.” Throughout his career, “Hitler’s rhetoric” was “far more anti-capitalist than anti-communist”. Simms asserts “the centrality of the British Empire and the United States in the gestation of Mein Kampf”, just as he claims of Hitler’s long unpublished Second Book that “the main focus of the text was the overwhelming power of Anglo-America, and especially of the United States”.

Hitler has been the subject of a string of major biographies, from those by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest to, most recently, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich. But they have all, Simms writes, got him wrong: “The extent to which he was fighting a war against ‘international high finance’ and ‘plutocracy’ from start to finish has not been understood at all.” Now he has come along to set us all right.

There are good reasons, however, why the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship has rejected any idea that Hitler was a socialist. Simms emphasises the violence of Nazi stormtroopers in the early 1930s against German conservatives rather than socialists and communists, but in fact the latter made up the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 or so opponents of Nazism who were thrown into concentration camps during Hitler’s first year in power. As for Mein Kampf, it was the threat of communism and socialism that dominated the political part of the text, in which Hitler expounded his belief that “the Bolshevisation of Germany … means the complete annihilation of the entire Christian-western culture”. In similar fashion the main focus of the Second Book was not the US, which is mentioned only on a handful of pages, but the need for “living-space” in eastern Europe and German claims to Italian South Tyrol.

The central planks in the socialist platform have always been the belief that capitalism oppresses the mass of the people and needs to be overthrown, or at least moderated and regulated in their interest. Simms claims that “what Hitler did very effectively” was “to nationalise German industrialists by making them instruments of his political will”. But this was not economic or financial control exercised in the interests of the people, nor did Hitler nationalise industry or the banks in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, he set a political course for rearmament as part of his drive to war that pushed industrialists such as Thyssen and Krupp to devote ever more resources to arms production in the interests of increasing their profits. The result was heightened exploitation of the workers, as the overheating of war production forced them even before 1939 to work longer hours without extra pay. This was not socialism, whatever else it was.

Simms’s reduction of virtually all the major events in the history of the Third Reich to a product of anti-Americanism even extends to episodes such as the nationwide pogrom of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men put into concentration camps. Apparently this was caused by “Roosevelt’s hostility to Hitler and his defence of the Jews”. The invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was launched in order “to strike at Britain, and to deter the United States … Barbarossa was to be a campaign of conquest and annihilation, for reasons more to do with Anglo-America than the Soviet Union itself”. Even the Holocaust, we should not be surprised to learn, was “primarily driven … by his fear of Britain and the United States”.

All this is nonsense, and indeed, Simms is forced to contradict himself by the sheer weight of the evidence against his thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union was, he concedes, “part of a much broader ideological war against Bolshevism”: “a struggle between two world views”, as Hitler put it. He admits that Hitler “was not completely opposed to all forms of capitalism”, only “unproductive” ones: in other words Jewish-owned capital, as with, for example, department store chains – he forced Jewish owners out but did not close them down. Interviewed by the Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer in 1931, Hitler said: “My job is to prevent the millions of German unemployed from coming under communist influence.” He did not even mention America in outlining his foreign policy aims to the journalist.

Time and again, Simms uses rhetorical sleight of hand to underscore his claim that the US was the main focus of Hitler’s foreign policy by referring to “Anglo-America” when he is in fact just talking about Britain. He quotes a proclamation from Hitler saying on New Year’s Day 1944 that the war was being fought against the “Bolshevik-plutocratic world conspirators and their Jewish wire-pullers”; a few lines later this has become in Simms’s words a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism”, and all mention of the Bolsheviks has disappeared. Yet Hitler was quite clear about the issue: “Everything I do is directed against Russia,” he said.

Simms claims that Hitler was engaged in “a war of annihilation against Anglo-Saxons, the Jews and their Bolshevik puppets”. But there was no war of annihilation against “Anglo-Saxons”; indeed, it was striking that when in 1944-45 the camps were emptied as the Red Army advanced, British, American and French prisoners were relatively well treated, while the evacuation of Slavs and the few remaining Jews turned into death marches in which tens of thousands were murdered.

The military conduct of the war in Simms’s view was also directed against the US: even “the drive on Stalingrad, like the entire war, was primarily driven by the contest against Anglo-America”. But contrary to Simms’s denial of the fact, Stalingrad held a special significance for Hitler because of its name. Pursuing his claim to the centrality of “Anglo-America” in the Nazi war effort, Simms declares that the capitulation of axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 “was a much greater disaster than Stalingrad, with well in excess of 130,000 Wehrmacht personnel taken prisoner, many more than had entered captivity” at Stalingrad. But these are phoney statistics. In fact, about the same number of German and allied troops were captured on both occasions (around 235,000). The real difference was in the numbers killed – some 50,000 or so in Tunisia, anything up to 750,000, more than 10 times as many, at Stalingrad. It was north Africa that was the sideshow, not Stalingrad, the effects of which on the strategy and morale of the Germans were shattering.

Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism was based on the paranoid belief that Jews were racially pre-programmed to engage in subversion and conspiracy, whether from the communist and socialist left or from capitalist “profiteering”. In the end, Simms hasn’t written a biography in any meaningful sense of the word, he’s written a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes. As such, his book can be safely ignored by serious students of the Nazi era.

For a real biography by a genuine specialist on Nazi Germany, we have to turn to Peter Longerich’s book, ably translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. He makes it clear that Hitler was politicised by the “Jewish-Bolshevik” revolution in Munich in 1918-19, and from early on in his career courted business in search of funds; his 1932 speech to industrialists in Düsseldorf, which Simms dismisses as unimportant, was a turning point in this respect. As for socialism, Hitler simply defined it as “love for one’s nation” and used anticapitalist rhetoric cynically in an effort to win over the working classes to his cause. Longerich dismisses the idea, currently fashionable among German historians, that Hitler created a classless “People’s Community” after he came to power, rightly stressing that social divisions and inequalities continued unabated during the Third Reich. It was communism that he was obsessed with destroying, not the US, which is mentioned only once in the book before we get to page 700.

Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence.

Even according to Longerich’s own narrative, Goebbels, with a very few exceptions, was the driving force in cultural policy, Hjalmar Schacht in economics (at least until 1937), Heinrich Himmler in coercion and repression, Robert Ley in the creation of the “Strength Through Joy” scheme for workers’ leisure, and so on. Given Hitler’s chaotic working habits as described by Longerich, one should not expect otherwise. And on occasions such as the formulation of the Nuremberg race laws, Hitler is described in this book as reacting to events rather than shaping them. You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone. He claims, for example, that Hitler’s willpower kept the Germans going to the bitter end of the war, but a mass of recent research shows there were many other reasons, from fear of the Gestapo and terror of the Red Army to strong allegiance to German national identity. In the end, therefore, neither of these books comes close to supplanting the standard modern biographies by Kershaw and Ullrich.

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APPEASEMENT: CHAMBERLAIN, HITLER, CHURCHILL, AND THE ROAD TO WAR by Tim Bouverie

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(Neville Chamberlain after returning from the Munich Conference)

In 1961 the controversial British historian, A.J.P. Taylor published THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR arguing that the war was caused by the appeasement policies pursued by England and France toward Nazi Germany.  He further purported that Adolf Hitler was more of a traditional European statesman who easily could have been stopped in March 1936 at the Rhineland bridges had England and France had the will to do so.  This book created a firestorm in academic circles and over the years numerous historians have challenged Taylor’s conclusions. Among the first was J.W. Wheeler-Bennett’s MUNICH: PROLOGUE TO TRAGEDY followed later by Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: THE PRICE OF PEACE, Lynne Olson’s TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO HELPED SAVE ENGLAND,  David Faber’s MUNICH THE 1938 APPEASEMENT CRISIS, and last year a fictional account was written by Robert Harris.  These books among many others lay out the counter argument to Taylor that even though Anglo-Franco appeasement was responsible for the war, Hitler would have stopped at nothing to achieve at a minimum domination of Europe.

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(Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain)

The latest entry into this debate is Tim Bouverie’s APPEASEMENT: CHAMBERLAIN, HITLER, CHURCHILL, AND THE ROAD TO WAR.  Bouverie, a former British journalist offers a fresh approach in analyzing London’s foreign policy throughout the 1930s leading to the Second World War.  The author excoriates British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his apologists who argue that he had little choice because of England’s lack of military preparation and fear of inflicting further damage to an already depressed economy.  Bouverie concludes that Chamberlain had decided even before he became Prime Minister that an accommodation with Hitler needed to be made in order to prevent revisiting the carnage of World War I.  With England’s position growing untenable in the Pacific due Japanese expansionism a rapprochement with Germany was a necessity.  Chamberlain would proceed to try to make deals with Benito Mussolini to pressure the Fuhrer, but in reality as his own writings and correspondence reflect he was bent on giving in to Hitler as shown in his reaction to the Anschluss with Austria, the drum beat by Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia for autonomy, the dismemberment of the only democracy in central Europe at the Munich Conference and thereafter, and finally over Danzig.  It was clear that the policies of Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who Bouverie calls the “evangelicals of appeasement” would give away almost anything to achieve an Anglo-German Pact.

Bouverie does an excellent job developing the pacifist movement in England and the attitude of British elites toward Germany.  To the author’s credit he not only focuses on the major players in English politics during the period but others like Baron Lord Rothermere, his brother Lord Northcliffe, and Geoffrey Dawson who greatly impacted British public opinion through their newspaper empires.  In addition, Sir Robert Cecil, an ardent advocate of the League of Nations and the Peace Ballot in favor of collective security, Ernest Jenner, a banker, the historian Arnold Toynbee, former Labor leader George Lansbury, all whom received audiences with Hitler among others that the author discusses.  These individuals were able to mold public opinion and create further pressure on Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who was replaced by  Chamberlain.

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(Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference)

Bouverie’s narrative is grounded in social and political history and makes exhaustive use personal papers, documentary collections, and the press.  He explains that England’s response to Hitler derives from a number of critical works such as John Maynard Keynes’ THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE written in 1919 which pointed out the deficiencies in the Versailles Treaty.  Many in power in England saw the rise of Hitler as a manifestation of legitimate German grievances concerning the treaty, thus ameliorating Hitler’s “Diktat of Versailles” became a rallying cry for appeasers.  Those individuals include the British Ambassador to Germany, Neville Henderson; Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and Sir Horace Wilson, the government’s Chief Industrial Advisor and Chamberlain’s alter ego.   Bouverie presents an incisive narrative concerning the raucous debate in British politics centering around rearmament, especially since Hitler was rearming Germany right under the nose of France and England undoing that clause of the treaty.  England would face reality and in 1934 agreed to a naval treaty with Germany allowing the Nazis a navy 35% of that of Great Britain (though at the time the treaty was signed Germany had already passed that threshold).

The author takes the reader through each major crisis that predated World War II.  Beginning with attempts at an Anglo-German Treaty recognizing Germany’s eastern borders and League membership; the German occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936; the Anschluss with Austria in March, 1938; machinations against Czechoslovakia leading to the Munich Conference in September, 1938; the seizure of all of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the final crisis in Danzig that resulted in the invasion of Poland and the “Phony War” that followed.  In each instance Bouverie provides insights into the thought patterns of English politicians and why they did little or nothing to stop Hitler.  The author also explores the opposition to the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments, in particular Winston Churchill who found the warnings he had offered about Hitler since 1933 coming home to roost.  But it is clear that the “evangelical appeasers” faced no serious opposition or obstacles in Parliament.

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One of Bouverie’s best chapters deals with “Hitler’s Wonderland” reflecting British attitudes toward Germany in light of the Nuremburg Party rallies and the 1936 Olympics that took place in Berlin.  British elites like King Edward VIII, Charles Vane Tempest-Stewart, and the 7th Marquis of Londonderry all visited Germany a number of times and became the United Kingdom’s leading Hitler apologists.

Bouverie provides fascinating portraits of the periods leading characters.  His most important was his analysis of Chamberlain describing his intellectual self-assurance, a trait that would not allow him to consider the opinions and findings of others.  His arrogance would alienate Laborite’s as well as people in his own party.  This would prove a disaster as he tried to form governmental coalitions in 1939 and 1940.  In his defense Bouverie points out that Chamberlain had been a social reformer, but events did not allow him to pursue that interest.  As the former Chancellor of the Exchequer he realized England could not afford an arms race, so he tried to engage his countries enemies.  Chamberlain realized he could not rely on the United States, in large part because of his low opinion of Washington, believed that “careful diplomacy” would in the end be successful.  Bouverie is careful to point out that Chamberlain did not invent appeasement as British governments had been practicing it since the early 1920s, but it is Chamberlain who seems to have earned the mantle of the “great appeaser” because of Munich and beyond due to his innate stubbornness in dealing with those who disagreed with him.

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(Winston Churchill and Edward Wood, Lord Halifax)

Bouverie’s narrative allows the reader to eavesdrop on many interesting conversations and events.  Particularly fascinating was a lunch thrown by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the German Embassy on March 11, 1938 with British politicians in attendance at the same time that Hitler demanded the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg or suffer an invasion.  Also interesting is the verbal give and take between Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, a pro-German appeaser and his predecessor Anthony Eden who resigned over English recognition of Mussolini’s seizure of Abyssinia.  The give and take in the English cabinet after the Anschluss fearing Hitler’s next move is important as the evidence that Bouverie presents makes it clear that no one in Chamberlain’s government wanted to risk war over Czechoslovakia a country they believed had little to do with British national security. Lastly, Bouverie’s discussion of conversations between Henderson and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop as negotiations proceeded in August 1939 is priceless.

When war finally came, Bouverie notes that following the conquest of Poland, England and France declared war on Germany, but this was a rare case when war was declared but it was not fought until Hitler’s blitzkrieg entered France and the low countries in May 1940.   Finally, Tory anti-appeasement rebels will begin an all-out effort to get rid of Chamberlain in and Bouverie’s coverage of probably the most important parliamentary debate in English history is exemplary as it finally brought Winston Churchill to power.

Bouverie’s effort is very timely as Lynne Olson points out in her New York Times article, “Failure to Lead” (July 21, 2019).  Olson commends Bouverie for providing historical evidence as what will occur when a politician who has no knowledge of foreign policy, like Chamberlain imagines himself to be an expert and bypasses other branches of government to further his aims.  In addition, when one focuses only on negotiations with dictators and leaves their allies in the lurch……sound familiar?

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THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST by Rafael Medoff

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One of the questions that has been foremost in the minds of Holocaust historians and the Jewish community since World War II centers around the actions and policies of  President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Nazi agenda became clear resulting in millions of Jews perishing in the death camps.  In his latest book, THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies augments traditional documentation of the Holocaust with recently discovered materials that fosters a reassessment of Roosevelt’s actions.  Building on Wyman’s work, particularly his PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941, THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HLOCAUST, 1941-1945 , and his documentary, THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST, Medoff paints a very unflattering portrait of Roosevelt’s handling of the Jewish question during World War II along with his duplicitous treatment of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Jewish leadership during the war.

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(Historian, David S. Wyman)

This chapter in American immigration history is hard to ignore and Medoff’s work does a better job chronicling and analyzing US policy than previous historians in terms of Roosevelt’s private attitude toward Jews that motivated him to close America’s doors and shut down Jewish access to Ellis Island in the face of Nazi extermination.  The reader will be exposed to Roosevelt’s convictions as early as 1931 and it is obvious that Jewish leadership should have tempered expectations once the New York governor assumed the presidency.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt meeting with American Rabbis in March, 1943)

Medoff’s focus centers around Roosevelt’s relationship with the Jewish community in particular their titular leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, in addition to how the president’s State Department implemented an immigration policy that he totally supported.  What is clear is that Roosevelt played Wise like a fiddle.  The president described by numerous biographers and scholars as a “master manipulator” knew just what string to play upon in dealing with Wise in order to keep his true feelings about Roosevelt’s non-existent refugee policy out of the public eye.  The president would use dinner engagements, personal notes, oval office visits and other gestures to keep criticism to a minimum.  Medoff effectively argues that Roosevelt’s practice of “glad-handing” and making policy-related promises he had no intention of keeping was especially effective with Wise and Jewish leaders who were profoundly reluctant to press Roosevelt to follow through on his unfulfilled pledges. The dilemma for Jewish leadership was should they criticize a president whose domestic agenda they totally embraced.

Jews themselves realized their precarious position in American society.  High levels of anti-Semitism, accusations they were trying to drag the United States into war in Europe, and hardships from economic depression exacerbated Jewish concerns.  The publicity afforded Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist views and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin who had over 3.5 million radio listeners unnerved the Jewish community.

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(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long)

The examples of Roosevelt’s vague promises, lack of interest, political calculations, and outright apathy presented by Medoff are many.  Each is based on sound research, mostly appearing in other monographs, but there is a new element of seriousness and commitment in the author’s arguments.  This is not to say that Wise and his cohorts should not share some of the blame for the lack of an American response.  Wise’s “tendency to embrace the likeminded and exclude those whom he felt politically and religiously uncomfortable ultimately weakened his hand as a national Jewish leader.”  However, no matter Wise’s faults it was Roosevelt who must accept the blame for America’s lack of empathy and his own political calculations when confronted by the Nazi horrors.

Examples of Roosevelt’s actions are many.  His support of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long who was in charge of the visa section of the State Department whose policy was to create as many obstructions as possible to thwart any attempt to lift barriers to Jewish immigration is clear in the documents.  Long’s strategy was clear, “put every obstacle in the way and require additional evidence to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the grinding of the visas.”  In case after case the two men were on the same page to prevent any opportunity to allow numbers of Jews to enter the United States.  The possible use of the Virgin Islands as a haven for small numbers of Jews was rejected.  The ship, “The St. Louis” with 907 passengers was denied admission to the United States and turned back to Europe.  The Evian Conference in 1937 and the later Bermuda Conference of 1943 were farces to make it appear that something might be done when in fact nothing was offered.

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When evidence of the extermination of Jews was being disseminated to London and Washington, Roosevelt administration policy was to delay and delay in not confronting Germany for its atrocities until the United States entered World War II.  Even after Kristallnacht in 1938 any American comments left out any criticism of Germany as well as references to Hitler, Goebbels, and others by name.    When Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland cabled allied leaders in August 1942 providing evidence of the depth of Nazi atrocities, which was followed by a second telegram from Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch rescue activists in Europe, in addition to reports from the Jewish Agency in Palestine the following month saw the State Department try and keep the information from Wise to prevent what the Roosevelt administration was learning from reaching the public.  In fact, it took eighty-one days for Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Wells to get back to Wise that confirmed his greatest fears.  This was part of a pattern pursued by the Roosevelt administration who took advantage of Wise’s fear that if he pushed too hard it would create an anti-Semitic backlash that Jews were trying to push their own wartime agenda.  More and more Wise feared he was seen as Roosevelt’s “court Jew,” and Medoff points out that the Rabbi had a habit of embellishing Roosevelt’s responses of support in saving the Jews and the tragedy that befell them.

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(Secretary of the Treasury Hans Morgenthau, Jr.)

Medoff leaves no stone unturned in delineating Roosevelt’s deceitfulness.  He describes numerous examples of Roosevelt’s opposition to the rescue of Jews; not enforcing immigration quotas; talking out of both sides of his mouth depending on his audience; refusing to reign in the State Department; refusing to support the admission of Jewish children, but had no difficulty allowing the admission of British children who were endangered by Nazi bombing; refusing to consider bombing Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while at the same time assisting the Polish Underground through the air;  creating obstacles for the creation of the War Refugee Board and then underfunding it, are among many actions taken or not taken by President Roosevelt.  Medoff also explores what may have been Roosevelt’s motivations as he points to his family’s societal views which were decidedly anti-Semitic.  The author points to numerous statements by Roosevelt bemoaning the mixture of Jewish and Asiatic blood with American blood.  He wanted these groups to be spread out across America to reduce their impact on American society. He saw America as a “Protestant country” with the Jews and people of other backgrounds present only based “on sufferance.”  With these types of beliefs, it is not surprising that he was disposed to oppose the admission of too many Jews during the war.

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(Peter Bergson)

Wise does not emerge unscathed by Medoff’s analysis.  The author points to Wise’s own ego issues brooking little or no opposition by Jews to his leadership in the Jewish community.  Examples include Hillel Silver or groups outside the Jewish community like Peter Bergson and his group that was much more effective in pressuring Roosevelt to support the War Rescue Board.  Wise spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with his opponents’ criticism, time that could have been spent fighting to rescue Jewish refugees and pressuring the president.  Medoff is quite correct in pointing out that Wise was a flawed leader with his own powerful ego much like Roosevelt and perhaps that is in large part why he was able to swallow his own principles and do the President’s bidding in controlling negative Jewish commentary and actions against his “friend in the White House.”

Some might argue that Medoff’s monograph is too polemical in spots, but to his credit he provides supporting documentation for his viewpoints, integrates a great deal of the comments made by Wise and Roosevelt, and he tries to integrate differing viewpoints.  All in all, Medoff has written a serious analysis and though he has reached what some might consider a scathing indictment of Roosevelt, in many instances his commentary is dead on.

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(Rabbi Steven S. Wise)

 

RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE by Rebecca Erbelding

Image result for photo of fdr and henry morgenthau jr holocaust(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of the American government in general. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and according to historian, Richard Breitman he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Historians stress the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

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(John Pehle, Head of the War Refugee Board)

The signature effort of the United States in dealing with the Holocaust and trying to mitigate Nazi deportations and saving Jews was the War Refugee Board which was created on January 16, 1944 which according to Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s eye opening recent book,  RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE finally created an official government policy to rescue Jews.  Erbelding covers a great deal of material that has been mined previously by David Wyman, Richard Breitman, Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur and many others.  What separates her effort is her focus on American refugee policy from 1944 onward.  She mines over 19,000 documents dealing with the War Rescue Board as she displays the bureaucratic infighting, the ideological shifts, the out and out racism and anti-Semitism that existed in the State Department under the aegis of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions like Breckenridge Long.  A number of heroes emerge from Erbelding’s narrative, the most important of which is John Pehle, the Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Roswell MacLelland who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

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(John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, refused to consider bombing Nazi concentration camps)

The underlying theme of the monograph that has been portrayed by others was the bureaucratic war between the State and Treasury Departments over American immigration policy beginning in the 1930s.  By the summer of 1942 news of the ongoing massacre of European Jewry was known in Washington.  However, helping Jews escape Europe was never a priority for the American government nor its people.  Bigger problems loomed; the Great Depression, war in Europe, war in Asia, all stole the focus of most Americans.  Erbelding provides a nice synthesis dealing with the immigration battles throughout the 1920s and 30s that limited immigration under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.  She provides the link between anti-immigration sentiment that emerged during World War I, due in part as Daniel Okrent argues in his new book, THE GUARDED STATE to the role of eugenics, economic fears, and national security among other concerns.  By 1941 public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclivity to measure which way the political winds were blowing, anti-immigration sentiment in Congress, and out and out anti-Semitism in the State Department had already taken hold.

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(Secretary of State Cordell Hull)

By August 1942, Pehle concluded that it should be the role of the American government to try and save the Jews of Europe, and it was his responsibility as Director of Foreign Funds Control to do his best to achieve this momentous goal.  He was able to gain the cooperation of Morgenthau to liberalize the Treasury Department’s foreign funds policies to implement his strategy.  Erbelding spends a great deal of time narrating and analyzing how Pehle and his allies went about their task.  Pehle’s strategy focused on transferring funds to relief organizations that the State Department had blocked for two years; Gerhardt Riegner’s plan to save Jewish children, funding for the International Red Cross, assistance to the World Jewish Congress, assist underground movements, among many more.  Further, he created the protection of “paper,” issuing as many visas and passports with as much neutral power support as possible.  He instituted a licensing policy to satisfy the Nazis and their allies to consider releasing their captives.  He played a game of “charades” as a strategic approach to negotiations employing bluffs, lies or anything that might bring about the rescue of Hungarian Jews.  In addition, he was responsible for the creation of an Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate New York, planting articles in newspaper and other publicity about the plight of refugees, and even went so far as trying to get the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to launder money through its Swedish headquarters.

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(Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Refugee Affairs, Breckenridge Long)

Pehle and his allies’ work did not stop with these strategies.  He worked assiduously to purchase and/or lease shipping for Jews, locating safe havens, and considered the most outrageous possibilities to save lives.  Erbelding delves into the Brand Mission which involved a Nazi attempt to ransom the Jews of Hungary.  Brand was a member of the Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest who was seen as a spy by the British who actually imprisoned him during negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.   The offer of Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy to release Jews under his auspices, as well as the work of Raoul Wallenberg, Ira Hirschman and others was under Pehle’s purview.  As Erbelding correctly points out, the time and effort in most cases proved fruitless, but the War Rescue Board members at least tried.

Erbelding points to the British as a major roadblock because of its refusal to accept refugees in Palestine.  But London had company in creating obstacles or just plain refusal like Turkey, Spain, Portugal and others in trying to gain passage for Jews to safe havens.  They could all point to Roosevelt’s policies which after constant pressure from Jewish leaders and the State Department finally produced a declaration on March 24, 1944 warning Holocaust perpetrators and their axis allies of the punishment that awaited them once the war ended.  Pehle would employ that warning throughout Europe, but in most cases to no avail.

(Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, War Refugee Board Head, John Pehle)

Erbelding goes along with numerous others in arguing no matter how many Jews the War Rescue Board might have saved had it been created two years earlier the end of the war was the only solution to the Nazi terror.  Despite its late creation the Board did save lives, how many is open to conjecture.  But the work of people like Daly Mayer, Iver Olsen, Peter Bergson, Florence Hodel and many others cannot be discounted as the United States for the first and only time in its history worked to save lives and endeavor to employ humanitarian approach to a worldwide refugee problem.    If there is a lesson to garnered from Erbelding’s work it is that even in the midst of war, governments can achieve humanitarian successes. Perhaps the current administration should shelve its political agenda and consider what the War Refugee Board accomplished at the end of World War II and create a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis it now confronts at its southern border.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)