HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

The dates December 5 through the 7th, 1941 mark the parameters of the most consequential week of the 20th century or perhaps any other time in history.  It was during that week that the Soviet Union began a major counter offensive against the Nazis who were threatening Moscow, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States.  It was a perilous time for the British who had endured Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe’s blitz over London and other cities, fears of Japanese attacks against British held territories in Asia, and Churchill’s fear that the only thing that could save his island empire – the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany would not occur as Washington would now focus on Japan after Pearl Harbor.  The event that saved the British was the Nazi dictator’s declaration of war against the United States, an act that should be difficult to understand since Germany was already fighting a devastating two front war.

Historians have questioned for decades why Hitler would take on the United States when Germany faced so many obstacles.  The German alliance with Japan was defensive predicated on an attack on Japan which the events of December 7th made obsolete.  In analyzing Hitler’s decision making historians fall into two camps.  The first, Hitler was a nihilist who was driven by an egoistic personality in making numerous irrational decisions.  The second school of thought has ferreted out a semblance of strategic calculations in his decision making.  In his latest book, British historian Brendan Simms and his co-author Charlie Laderman entitled, HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR support the latter analysis which is consistent with Simms’s 2019 biography of Hitler when he argued that Hitler was well aware of American power and war with the United States was inevitable therefore his decision was pre-emptive.

Whichever argument one accepts it is clear that Simms and Laderman have made a compelling case in analyzing Hitler’s thought process the first part of December 1941 which led him to declare war on America.  Along with this analysis, the authors dig deeply into the state of the war as of early December, the realpolitik practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the key role played by the Japanese government.

lend-lease-routes

The authors have written a detailed description of the uncertainty that existed between December 5-12, 1941.  It seems as if the reader is present as decisions are made by the main participants hour by hour.  The blow by blow account is incisive and the results of Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United states would launch a global war.  The authors make a compelling case that before the onset of war the Japanese government did not trust Hitler as they feared the Nazi dictator would seize Vichy French colonies in Southeast Asia.  Simms and Laderman provide an accurate appraisal of the background history leading to December 7th.  They raise interesting points, many of which have been written about by previous historians. 

Lend Lease plays a significant role in the thinking of all the participants leading up to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The authors are clear and correct when they argue that the American aid policy infuriated Hitler.  For the Fuhrer it reinforced the connection in his mind that capitalism, Jews, and American policy were all part of a conspiracy against Germany.  From Hitler’s perspective American actions were driving Germany towards war against the United States.  For example, in March 1941 the American navy began to protect British convoys across the Atlantic.  In addition, the U.S. would expand its defensive zone all the way to Greenland and reinforce its Atlantic Fleet.  Lend Lease also played a key role in Hitler’s thinking even after December 7th.  The authors spend a great deal of time discussing how Churchill and Roosevelt believed that the Nazis pressured the Japanese to attack developing the hope that the Japanese attack would force an American declaration of war against Tokyo and forcing Washington to reduce its aid to England and the Soviet Union because of its own needs in the Pacific.  Hitler was under no illusion concerning US military production, but he would come to believe that the Nazis should strike before the American military-industrial complex could reach maximum production.

As Hitler contemplated declaring war against the United States, Churchill and the British government desperate for continued Lend Lease worried that the aid would be reduced because of US needs in East Asia.  Churchill was especially concerned because of the ongoing fighting in North Africa and the threat to the Suez Canal.  In fact, the authors point out that aid was stopped for a brief period as disagreement arose between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lend Lease administrator Edward Stettinius. 

From the Japanese perspective they were unsure if they could rely on a German declaration of war.  The authors mine the commentary of Japanese leaders particularly Foreign Minister Shigenari Togo who did not trust that Germany would join the war against the United States.

Roosevelt was concerned about America Firsters and isolationists in Congress.  Both groups were willing to fight the Japanese but were against involvement in Europe as they refused to fight for what they perceived to be British colonial interests.  FDR walked a fine line and refused to meet with Churchill after December 7th as to not exacerbate domestic opposition.  Hitler’s declaration made it easier for Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and overcome isolationist opposition.

The Repulse and Prince of Wales Battleships: How They Sunk

(The sinking of the British battleships Repulse and The Prince of Wales December 10, 1941)

The coming Holocaust against European Jewry played a role in Hitler’s strategy.  The Nazi dictator saw the Jews of Europe as hostages to keep FDR from taking further action against Germany.  It did not stop the murderous horror taking place in eastern Europe but as long as the US did not enter the war the fate of western European Jewry would be postponed.  However, the authors argue effectively argue that once Hitler declared war against the United States, in his mind they were no longer a bargaining chip in dealing with Washington.  He was now free to conduct his Final Solution against western and central European Jews.

Churchill & Roosevelt. /Nprime Minister Winston Churchill And President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photographed During A Press Conference In
(Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The authors astutely point out the role of racism in the war.  John W. Dower’s amazing study, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR is the best study of the issue arguing that war in the Pacific was a racial war.  For Simms and Laderman the decision making process on the part of Anglo-American military planners was greatly influenced by their low opinion of Japanese military capability.  Leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could not fathom the idea that the Japanese had the ability to launch intricate attacks such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Southeast Asia at the same time.  This type of thinking also resulted in disaster for the Royal Navy as Japanese bombers destroyed Force Z that included the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales.

Simms and Laderman do an excellent job delving into the calculations of the major participants in the coming war.  The significant issues apart from Hitler’s decision as to whether he should declare war on the United States included whether Stalin should declare war on Japan? How would England and the Soviet Union make up for the shortfall of Lend Lease aid in the immediate future?  How would FDR overcome domestic opposition to US participation in the European War and so on?

(Japanese envoys in Washington, DC December 1941)

The authors also do an admirable job integrating the opinions of people across the globe concerning the implications for Japanese actions in the Pacific.  People as diverse as the former mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (and future German leader after WWII) to everyday citizens on the streets of Berlin, London, Leningrad, intellectuals in Poland tosoldiers on the eastern front.  For all the key was what would Hitler do – would he declare war on the United States and unleash a global war as Mussolini had warned or would he allow Japan to take on the American colossus themselves.

Overall, Simms and Laderman have written a thought provoking book that breaks down the December 5-12th 1941 period for three-fourths of their narrative that includes an important introduction that sets the scene for Hitler’s decisions and the implications that the decisions would have for the future of the war which would not end until August 1945.

UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II by Marc Gallicchio

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, seated, signs the Japanese surrender document on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

(Japanese surrender on USS Missouri after WWII)

The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April1945 vaulted the inexperienced Harry S. Truman into the Oval Office.  As Vice-President Truman was kept in the dark by Roosevelt on many issues including the Manhattan Project which would later result in dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.  However, before the Enola Gay released its first bomb, American policy to end the war in the Pacific rested upon the phrase “unconditional surrender” a term uttered by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference attended by Winston Churchill in January 1943.  The policy was employed to avoid any possibility that the defeated powers of Germany and Japan would later question whether they were defeated militarily as occurred following World War I.

The application of “unconditional surrender” to the Pacific Theater is the subject of Villanova Professor Marc Gallicchio’s latest monograph, UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II.  A major focus in Gallicchio’s narrative is the role of Truman and a cadre of individuals that includes Henry L. Stimson, Joseph C. Grew, James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Herbert Hoover, and numerous others in debating the policy of “unconditional surrender,” with an eye on the role of the Soviet Union, China, and Japan in the post war world.  Though Truman was a novice in foreign policy he held a number of strong views concerning uprooting Japan’s military and its ideology and replacing the imperial monarchy with a pro-western democracy.

File:TRUMAN 58-766-06.jpg
(President Harry S. Truman)

After the war, the United States would help with the reconstruction of Japan and impose a new constitution on the defeated country.  As Japan flourished she would become a staunch ally that stood firmly against the rise of communism in China and a supporter of Washington’s overall all policy for Asia.  The end result was that the United States avoided creating a revanchist regime in Tokyo.

A second major emphasis in Gallicchio’s presentation is how policy decisions evolved and the application of his own insightful analysis throughout. He reconstructs events and delves into the arguments of the major personalities that led to the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri staged in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.

Gallicchio begins by explaining the origins and rationale for “unconditional surrender” as a means to reassure the Soviet Union that there would be no separate peace.  Russia would come to an agreement that once Germany was defeated they would shift troops to the Pacific and help end the war against Japan, but as in all cases in dealing with Joseph Stalin, Moscow had its own agenda for northeast China once the Japanese withdrew. 

Joseph Grew wwwnndbcompeople023000054858grew083201jpg
(Former US Ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew)

Gallicchio exhibits an excellent command of the secondary and primary materials dealing with his topic and offers a concise application of the documentary evidence in developing his conclusions.  In addition, he considers the analysis offered by previous historians who have engaged the late World War II and early Cold War period.  For example, he reviews the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements in his treatment of the “Stalin Issue,” and how the World War II alliance of convenience unraveled despite Washington’s need for Soviet troops to help defeat the Japanese military.  Truman was very concerned that the US should try and defeat Japan as quickly as possible to avoid creating a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Moscow.  Aside from the cost of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands this was a major rationale for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs to end the war as quickly as possible.

The author’s analysis includes a deep dive inside the Japanese military hierarchy, cabinet, and bureaucracy and summarizes the views of the different factions that emerged as it was confronted by America’s policies toward surrender and the future role of the Emperor.  Gallicchio spends a substantial amount of time discussing the peace faction that surrounded Emperor Hirohito as it tried to fend off the militarists who believed that if the war could be drawn out further, with Germany defeated domestic pressure in the United States would result in Washington’s acquiescence to a lesser policy than offered by complete surrender, military occupation, and retention of the Emperorship.  Further, the military believed that the Soviet Union could become a useful tool in pressuring the United States to alter its position, in addition to what they perceived as a weakening of the allied alliance.

refer to caption

(Portrait of Herbert Hoover)

A major strength of Gallicchio’s work is his exploration of the American home front as the war was ending.  Truman was under a great deal of pressure to end the war since Germany was defeated.  Public opinion polls pointed to the desire to bring the troops home and reconversion to a domestic economy and not allowing the Pentagon to dictate economic policy.

Gallicchio emphasizes the role of American code breaking as the United States collected a great deal of information through MAGIC decrypts of Japanese diplomatic messages and analysis of Japanese troop dispositions, which were processed through a military intelligence program code-named ULTRA.  These two sources tried to keep Washington one step ahead of Japan throughout most of the war.

Hirohito
(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Gallicchio is correct when he argues that the Potsdam Conference played a significant role as it became increasingly clear that there was little Washington could do to keep the Russians from seizing large parts of Manchuria, even if Japan was defeated before Soviet troops entered China.  However, it is during the conference that Truman learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb providing him with a major tool in dealing with Stalin and ending the war as rapidly as possible.  Truman was ill disposed to making any special guarantees to the Emperor who he believed was as much of a war criminal as Hitler and Mussolini.  But Truman also realized that he would need Hirohito to facilitate the surrender of Imperial troops.  In the end Truman would accept the Emperor as a glorified figurehead, hopefully avoiding a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in the future. 

Henry Stimson : News Photo
(Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson)

The end of the war did not end the debate over the “unconditional surrender“ policy.  Gallicchio dissects the revisionism put forth by those who blamed the policy of “unconditional surrender” for causing the problems in the immediate post war era that led to communist domination of Asia.  Gallicchio does an excellent job in his last complete chapter in presenting the arguments pro and con whether the Emperor was a peace candidate.  He also extrapolates that if the Truman administration had been willing to alter the policy and state that Washington had no intention to outlaw the monarchy the dropping of the atomic bomb would not have been necessary, the Soviet Union would not have entered China, and by 1949 Maoist forces would not have seized power in Beijing.  This revisionism is incorrect and reflects the inability of certain individuals including Herbert Hoover and Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff among others to accept the reality of the military-political situation within the Japanese establishment where the military dominated the government and in the case of Hirohito he did nothing to alter the conduct of Japanese forces throughout the Pacific.  Gallicchio continues his presentation by reviewing the historiography of his subject well into the mid-1990s and the cultural politics that ensued.

Gallicchio offers a tightly focused narrative that lays out the pros and cons of America’s policy of “unconditional surrender” in the Pacific at the end of World War II.  It is concisely written and stays on target with little or no meandering to other issues.  The book is a fresh look at the drama that unfolded at the end of the war and an important synthesis of what has been written before and encapsulates the important debates that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and America’s occupation of Japan that ensued.

(Japanese surrender, USS Missouri, September 1945)

THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST. JAMES, 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald

Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

Anyone familiar with the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy is aware of the flaws in his character and life story.  These elements of his biography have been fully explored in studies like David Nasaw’s THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, Richard J. Whalen’s THE FOUNDING FATHER: THE STORY OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA.  Kennedy’s life story is punctuated with “serial philandering,” a relationship with organized crime, his years as a Wall Street operator highlighted by repeated insider trading, lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary, an appeaser’s isolationist view of the world that led to his opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, a cozy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and a world view that saw fascism as a means of overcoming a depressed economy and a means of combating communism.  All of these aspects of his life’s work have been dissected in the three previous works mentioned.

One area, his role as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a position where Nasaw describes Kennedy as the worst American diplomat serving US interests in England to have ever served across the Atlantic becomes the central theme of Susan Ronald’s latest book, THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST.JAMES, 1938-1940.  In her monograph, Ronald explores the charges against Kennedy that he was an anti-Semite, a Hitlerite appeaser, an isolationist, and an admirer of what the Nazis achieved in Germany and reaches the same damning conclusions as previous historians.

The Kennedy family mystique has been carefully crafted for decades by family members and their acolytes.  However, Kennedy’s true belief that fascism was the inevitable wave of the future, leading him to consistently misrepresent American foreign policy as he intentionally ignored instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he substituted his own beliefs and opinions in place of those instructions.

john f kennedy father jfk

(In this 1938 file photo, John F. Kennedy, right, poses aboard an ocean liner with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, center, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, and brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left.) 

Ronald was born in the United States and later emigrated to Great Britain is the author of a number of historical works.  She has mined the riches of the British and American archives and has become very knowledgeable concerning the wealth of secondary materials that have been written on her subject.  Ronald has prepared a readable work for the general public and a bit less so for the professional historian since she does not really uncover anything that is new and repeats arguments and thesis put forth by others.  But to her credit the narrative offers a fresh synthesis concerning Kennedy’s work as ambassador as she mirrors a great deal of the work that has come before her new publication. Her views are supported by others that Kennedy lacked the “temperament, training, and willpower” to serve in his diplomatic post.

Ronald’s narrative concerns a man who by March 1940 had reached the pinnacle of his  career in public service and by October of that year he would return to the United States to seek revenge against Franklin Roosevelt who he believed treated him poorly as Ambassador, ignored his views on the coming war, and not supporting him in a manner that he felt his position warranted.  On numerous occasions Kennedy lectured the president and he would alienate the White Staff, members of the State Department, especially the Secretary of State, and the British diplomatic establishment and government.

Kennedy’s revenge centered around his support for the Republican nominee for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie, in part driven by his desire to run for president himself as a Democrat.  After Roosevelt’s election to a third term in November 1940 Kennedy dedicated himself to keeping the United States out of the war offering opinions that argued the US could not survive economically if she joined the conflict.

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Joseph P. Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt)

Kennedy was originally appointed Ambassador to Great Britain on February 18, 1938, as a reward for supporting Roosevelt’s candidacies for president in 1936 and earlier he was repaid for his support in 1932 as the head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, a poor substitute for the office of Secretary of the Treasury which he coveted.  Kennedy had no experience as a diplomat and did not have a foreign policy background.  His driving ambition was to acquire wealth.  From his youth he believed he was discriminated against because of his Irish-Catholic roots creating a chip on his shoulder to achieve societal acceptance.  Once married his focus was to create a springboard for one of his sons to become president.  Based on Kennedy’s abrupt, opinionated, and “undiplomatic” personality he did not possess the skills to head such an important foreign posting.  Roosevelt was aware of Kennedy’s issues, and he wanted him out of the country where he believed he would cause less political trouble had he been chosen for a domestic position.

For Kennedy, the ambassadorship to a major Protestant country could help him improve his Bonafede which could assist him in running for president in 1940 as an Irish-Catholic. Kennedy was up against an administration whose members would have no use for him and resented his constant outspoken criticisms.  What was in Kennedy’s favor was the need to negotiate a Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the British.  New York Times reporter and Kennedy confidant, Arthur Krock pushed Roosevelt to appoint him by leaking an appointment before the decision was even made.

Once in England, Kennedy collaborated closely with British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and supported his pro-fascist views and appeasement policies as he would do nothing to aggravate German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by preparing England for a war.  Ronald does a respectable job laying out the views of the English royal family and members of the government who came to despise Kennedy. A case in point was King George VI detestation of Kennedy who feared if he returned to the United States he would rile up isolations to the detriment of England.  Further, during the German aerial “Blitz” over London Kennedy acquired the nickname, “Jittery Joe” as he sequestered himself in a country estate and refused to inspect the damage that befell London. Overall, the British people viewed him as a coward.

She does equally well in describing Roosevelt’s true feelings toward Kennedy and tracing the highs and lows of their relationship.  Kennedy’s “uninhibited manipulation of the press, his speaking out against the president, and passing his own opinions for State Department policy” had ruled him out for Roosevelt’s support, particularly after Kennedy “dressed down” the president in a White House meeting on June 23, 1938.  In the end Roosevelt told Eleanor that “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live.”

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in November, 1940)

Kennedy’s errors were myriad.  He never informed Roosevelt, Hull, or the State Department that English Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had broken with Chamberlain over the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in addition to Hitler.  Further, while in New York he informed German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on June 10, 1938, that he would try and mitigate American press reports that criticized Germany and would work to keep the US out of any European war.  Lastly, Kennedy’s anti-Semitic comments are legendary, particularly statements to Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London.

Roosevelt and Hull would keep Kennedy out of the loop as much as possible because the last thing they wanted was for him to return home creating havoc as the administration worked to deal with an isolationist Congress and overturn Neutrality legislation.  Interestingly, the British would have been glad to send him packing as they grew tired of his bombastic statements, defeatism, particularly before and after Dunkirk, including criticisms that they referred to as “Kennedyianas.”

Overall, Ronald’s book is a mixed bag.  At times she delves into her topic as a true historian evaluating historical events, important characters and their motivations, and explaining British and American politics as the Germans moved closer to war.  Obviously, the key figure is Joseph P. Kennedy whose machinations were designed to further his own political career and those of his sons, and the needs of his family.  All the major figures of the period are on full display as are lesser ones.

It is the latter group that detracts from the narrative.  There are a two chapters that deal with British society as well as references to the “London social season,”  the types of china and cutlery used at dinner, the menus provided, the types of jewelry worn, estate/house decorations among many aspects of minutiae which after awhile become tedious and difficult to digest which detracts from her historical analysis.  Ronald’s approach in this area serves no purpose for the overall thesis she presents and most of it could be excluded resulting in a more compact work of history.  Ronald should pay less attention to the frivolities of British society and Kennedy family excursions and focus more on the critical issues that Kennedy’s tenure in England involved.

(Joseph and Rose Kennedy married in 1914 and had nine children together. Pictured above on a vacation to France in 1939 is (from left to right back row) Kathleen, Joe Jr, Rosemary, Rose , Edward (Ted), (left to right middle row) John (Jack), Eunice, Joseph Sr, Patricia, (left to right front row) Robert and Jean)

ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER by Rebecca Donner

(Mildred Harnack

How does one evaluate courage and commitment?  In the case of Mildred and Arvid Harnack the answer lies in their role as part of the resistance to the Nazis before and during World War II.  Mildred, an American lecturer at the University of Berlin who was working on her PhD in American Literature and her husband Arvid employed at the Ministry of Economics is German and they form a resistance group after Hitler assumed power called “the Circle.”  It is through the work of this organization and sister organizations that they hoped to overthrow the Nazi regime before it can live up to its rhetoric.  Their remarkable story is told by Mildred’s great-great-niece, Rebecca Donner in her book ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER.  The book’s title suggests that the narrative will focus mostly on Mildred, but in reality its presentation is much broader zeroing in on the actions of Arvid and a number of others in “the Circle.”

(Arvid and Mildred Harnack)

Donner’s book is a work of narrative history, but it comes across as a spy thriller, in addition to being the life story of a number of remarkable people.  At the outset, Donner focuses on Mildred who she describes as an “enigma who inspired a range of contradictory conclusions about who she was and why she did what she did.”  By 1932, Mildred had moved to Germany to teach at the University of Berlin which would be her foundation to gather like minded people to resist the Nazi seizure of power as she recognized early on the danger that Adolf Hitler presented.  Donner integrates Mildred’s early years and her relationship with her husband Arvid into the web of spies that emerges.  Mildred would soon be fired as a lecturer because her classes were deemed to be unacceptable to Nazi ideology particularly based on the American literary figures she presented in class.  Arvid held a compassion for Germany’s poor and his goal was to address the problems of poverty and develop solutions.  He would travel to the Soviet Union to learn about their economic approach and while there he would develop contacts that in the end would turn him into a Soviet spy against Germany.

Donner’s narrative encompasses most aspects of Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship; the Nazi seizure power turning Germany into a dictatorship, Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy, and finally World War II.  Donner offers little that is new as she recounts the most notable events be it the Enabling Act, the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht, the seizures of the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and finally war.  In doing so Donner integrates the resistance work of Mildred and Arvid and their compatriots until their  arrest by the Gestapo in August 1942.

Donner writes in a manner that the words seem to flow off the page as she tells her story.  She incorporates the latest research along with excerpts from important documents that include speeches, wording of leaflets, family letters, recruitment of assets, and the interrogations of prisoners by the Gestapo.  As Donner chronicles her story she does an excellent job at providing the texture of German society before and during the war as the Nazis implemented their draconian program.  Book burnings, racial laws, reducing women to being brood mares for the Nazi regime, violence and persecution of Jews that leads to the Holocaust, and Hitler and Goebbels’ ravings are all present. 

LIBERATION DU CAMP DE CONCENTRATION DE RAVENSBRUCK 1945
(Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Women)

Donner’s research was enhanced by a number of sources.  Though Mildred destroyed her journal and was careful that no one see it, Donner’s conversations with her grandmother Jane who spent time with Mildred as a young woman in Germany is important.  Letters from Mildred would be found in a relative’s attic, and Donner was able to obtain observations by Mildred’s friends in letters and diaries, as well as trial records and memoirs by Mildred’s collaborators allowing Donner to tell a story that was mostly unknown.

Donner describes the recruitment and work of “Circle” members who engage in a myriad of activities to resist the Nazis that include posters across Germany, leaflet preparation and distribution, radio transmission of information obtained, newspapers, penetration of Hermann Goring’s staff and the Army High Command, providing evidence for atrocities, and finally spying for the United States and the Soviet Union.  As the war progressed it was clear that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, but as Harold Nicholson once noted, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” leading Arvid who viewed himself as an anti-fascist to assume the role of a Russian spy passing along secrets that Hitler was about to attack Russia in the spring of 1941 which Stalin would ignore, and providing intelligence that once Stalingrad was taken the Nazis would march on the Caucasus to have access to Rumanian oil.

(Donald Heath Sr. and Jr.)

There are a number of interesting character portraits in the book apart from the main characters.  Martha Dodd, the daughter of William Dodd the American Ambassador to Germany story is fascinating as she engages in numerous affairs, spies on her own father, falls in love with a Russian spy who will be shot during one of Stalin’s periodic purges, among many escapades.  Another interesting and more meaningful character is Donald Heath, eventually the First Secretary in the American embassy in Berlin and his son Donald, Jr.  Donald, Sr. is Secretary of the Treasury Robert Morgenthau’s personal source for information concerning Hitler’s preparation for war. The Heaths and Harnacks become close friends and share intelligence to the point both families use the eleven year old Donald, Jr. as a courier to deliver important intelligence.  Donner makes the excellent point that American intelligence before the war and early on was deeply flawed containing numerous gaps to base important decisions.

By 1942 the Gestapo arrests the key members of “the Circle,” that include Mildred and Arvid, Liberto and Harro Schultze-Boysen, and  Greta and Adam Kuckhoff.  Of these individuals Hitler will harbor an extreme hatred for Mildred and though all are tortured she is the victim of the most extreme form of punishment.  Donner will spend a great deal of time describing their fate once they are arrested and most exhibit a remarkable amount of courage knowing full well they will be executed.

In appearance Mildred Harnack does not appear to be a spy.  She is an American educator teaching in Berlin.  She is a shy bookish individual and doesn’t seem to possess the tools to be a focal point of German resistance and as one Nazi official stated, her story would make a wonderful novel.  However, her work and those of those who were a part of “the Circle” is testimony to what impels people to act for what they believe and in the end are willing to pay for those beliefs and actions with their lives.

Mildred Harnack

(Mildred Harnack)

INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel

Wehrmacht convoy in Minsk, 1941 Stock Photo

(German occupation of Minsk during World War II)

Over the years many books and memoirs have been written describing the imponderable experiences of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.  The story line that I have found most unbelievable involves those individuals who escaped the Nazi imposed ghettoization of villages, towns, and cities into forests that adjoined their homes.  The latest narrative, INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel is a poignant description of eight hundred people who escaped the Belorussian village of Zhetel in August 1942 into the Lipiczany forest who by August 1944 was reduced to about two hundred.  The resistance/survival genre of the Holocaust was popularized in the 1980s with the publication of the book DEFIANCE and a film of the same name which told the true story of the Bielski brothers who defied the Nazis, built a village in the forest, and saved about 1200 Jews.  These stories reflect the tenacity and will to live by so many as is shown in Frankel’s description of the plight of the Rabinowitz family as they survived in a primeval forest near their home.

Frankel immediately captures the attention of her readers as describes a 1953 wedding in Brooklyn, New York attended by Philip Lazowski, a Yeshiva student who attended classes at Brooklyn College.  We soon learn that during the war that Philip left his home in Bilitz as the Nazis were massacring Jews and was protected by a woman and her two young daughters as the Nazis had moved on to the village of Zhetel.  While attending the wedding Philip recognized a woman named Miriam Rabinowitz, the same person who had saved his life.  This story and numerous others are recounted by Frankel as she delves into the many horrors that the Holocaust wrought to so many people.  Frankel’s monograph is a story of how people react to certain death and the triumph of the human spirit.

In telling her stories Frankel blends the course of the war and the Holocaust in a concise manner and its impact on the Rabinowitz family, Morris, Miriam, and their two young daughters Rochel and Tania, in addition to other relatives and people that they came in contact with.  Morris had been a businessperson who had acquired an intimate knowledge of forestry which would assist him and his family in their quest for survival.  Miriam had owned a medical shop that sold alternative remedies for injuries and disease, again her knowledge would later come in very handy.

Frankel explores the distinction between Nazi and Soviet approaches in dealing with Jews particularly after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, and the invasions by both countries dividing Poland in half.  Everyone is aware of the Nazi approach to the “Final Solution” of the Jewish people, but the Russians in many instances let their anti-Semitism block any cooperation with Jewish partisans who wanted to fight the Germans.  Once the Rabinowitz’s escaped into the forest the author describes the hardships they faced and how they went about surviving.  They would link up with Chaim Feldman’s family who were able to smuggle a wagon load of supplies into the forest and the two families were able to dig shelters and smuggle food into the forest through their friendships with Christian families forged before the war.

Rebecca Frankel, author of the book “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph and Love."
(Rebecca Frankel, author)

The book points to a myriad of rules and mores that were broken.  The forest would produce its own socio-economic structure that created friendships but also a degree of hostility as the woods created a society of have and have nots.  Frankel describes in intimate details how human relationships became tools of survival for women.  It was clear to many that the only way a woman might survive was if they had a relationship with a man for protection.  If these relationships happened to produce a pregnancy, abortion and allowing babies to die became the norm as any sound, i.e.; a crying baby could give away a position and result in another Nazi Selektion that would massacre the Jews.  Frankel delves into the fears, the highs and lows of living in the forest with death facing them each moment, the preparations to fight, and the interactions with others with the result that the reader should develop a high degree of empathy for victims of the Nazi genocide.

Many historical events and characters appear.  The Bielski brothers resided in the same forest as the Rabinowitz’s.  SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Oskar Direwanger who had the reputation as “the most evil man in the SS” leads the the killing squads that resulted in the death of over 10,000 in the first months of 1943 appears.  Herz Kaminsky, a man who lost his wife and child took in seventy people and protected them and acquired the nickname of “the father of all children.”  Numerous other personal stories are told each rendering the reader to ponder how they may have fared in this situation.

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University.

(Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University) (Courtesy Lazowski Family)

By the start of 1944, the 150,000 Russian partisans had taken control of the forests and the Soviet army began its march toward Berlin.  The Jews who lived in the forest had to navigate being caught between the surging Russian forces and the retreating Germans.  By September of 1944, the Rabinowitz’s and others were told by the Christian farmers that the Germans were gone, and they soon walked for weeks to return to the village of Zhetel which they found was occupied by the Soviet army and their homes and possessions gone.

The 1953 wedding is evidence of the randomness of survival and reconnection that followed European Jewry after the war.  Frankel’s extensive research based on interviews of survivors and their descendants tells a story of struggle and resilience and it will captivate the reader and in many instances bring forth thoughts of how people treat each other in desperate situations and what they will do to overcome and save themselves and their families.  This is a gripping story with a satisfying ending, which I recommend to all.

Belarus

FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II by Daniel James Brown

During World War II the United States government violated its founding principles by incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese-Americans in “internment camps,” a euphemism for “concentration camps.”  Families were separated, homes and businesses lost, and possessions  sold for little value as people were sent to live in barracks in Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arkansas, and Utah.  Of those sent to the camps, two-thirds were American citizens.  Despite this treatment Japanese-Americans reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the same manner as their fellow countrymen with thousands either enlisting or being drafted into the US military.  The treatment of these American citizens domestically and the courage and defiance shown by Japanese-American soldiers in Europe is the subject of Daniel James Brown’s latest book FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II.  Brown the author of the award winning THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS has produced another amazing narrative history that focuses on the personal lives of the characters portrayed and provides the reader with intricate details of what they experienced, the emotions involved, and in the case of Brown’s current effort the quest to bring honor to their families and successfully represent their country on the battlefield.

Brown’s work is based on voluminous research that included interviews with many survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the camps and fought for their country in the European theater.  Brown’s effort has two major components.  First, he focuses on the reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its implications for Japanese-Americans.  The racism and fear on the part of the US government resulted in the round up of over 120,000 American citizens where they wound remain until President Roosevelt, after gaining his fourth term in the White House ended their incarceration in December 1944.  The second component of the book zeroes in on Japanese-American citizens, born on American soil who were known as Nisei who enlisted in the US Army.  These individuals made up two distinct groups that Brown describes; the Kontonks, Japanese-Americans who lived on the mainland, and Buddaheads, who lived in Hawaii.  The two groups were very different culturally despite

Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.

(Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.Japanese Americans were ordered to leave the “Exclusion Area” on the West Coast of the United States and to move to remote internment) 

their common ancestry and did not get along well until they began to train together and deployed overseas.  

Brown introduces countless individuals in his presentation, but his main focus is on four men; Rudy Tokiwa and Fred Shiosaki who were members of the Third Battalion K Company, part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were from the mainland.  Katsugo “Kats” Miho, a Hawaiian was part of the 522nd Artillery group, and George Hirabayashi, a mainlander who refused to fight because of the racial discrimination against Japanese-Americans becoming a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker.  From the outset Brown describes the increasing racism and virulent rhetoric that the families of the Nisei had to deal with when they were rounded up, forced to give away and/or sell their possessions, and life in the internment camps.  Brown’s presentation is very sensitive particularly reflected in the excerpted letters between family members and their sons fighting abroad, including a series of letters between chaplains Hiro Higuchi and Masao Yamada and their wives.

Photograph of Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.Fred Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 1942, Korematsu refused to comply with the internment order and was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled against him, citing the “military necessity” of Japanese internment).

Brown carefully reviews the history of anti-Asianism in America dating back to the mid-19th century.  He traces Congressional legislation from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Theodore Roosevelt’s Gentleman’s Agreement, and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that set quotas for different ethnicities and their ability to immigrate to the United States.  Brown describes the conditions in the internment camps that the Tokiwa, Shiosaki, and Miho families were sent to, particularly Poston in Arkansas and Heart’s Mountain in Wyoming.  Brown explores their emotional state and how they and thousands of other internes were able to endure their situation and in most cases make the best of it as camps produced schools, theater, farming, among many examples of their flexibility in the face of virulent racism.

The author’s treatment of the Hirabayashi case is important as it reflects the racism in the American legal system and its refusal to conform to constitutional protections of its citizens.  Many soldiers were allowed to visit their families in the camps.  Their anger and frustration concerning what they witnessed did not take away their quest to honor their families and become the best soldiers they could be.

The 422nd and 522nd fought in North Africa, Italy, and Germany and were enveloped by the Battle of the Bulge and they developed a reputation of being among the best troops that the United States produced, evidenced by General Mark Clark’s constant requests for Japanese-American soldiers for his companies.  The bravery of these men is well documented as Brown’s excellent command of details of what the Nisei faced on the battlefield is portrayed, i.e.; German bombardment  on the outskirts of Italian cities and towns, their rescue of over 200 Texas soldiers pinned down by German artillery at the cost of hundreds of their own casualties in the Vosges, their constant volunteering for dangerous missions, and their sense of community as they fought as what historian Stephen Ambrose describes in dealing with the Battle of the Bulge, as “a band of brothers.”  They gained the respect of the Germans, and they came to fear “the little iron men,” as the Nisei fought through the forests of the Vosges, Anzio, and numerous towns and villages throughout Italy and Germany.

A replica of internment camp barracks stands at Manzanar National Historic Site on Dec. 9, 2015, near Independence, Calif. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Manzanar Internment Camp)

Once Roosevelt ordered the freeing of the interned Japanese-Americans these people wondered where they could go.  Their homes and businesses were gone, and FDR’s order did not extinguish the rampant racism that remained despite the reputation the Nisei had garnered from the American media, at the same time their sons were fighting and dying for the American flag.  It is interesting that today we are witnessing a spike in anti-Asian racism in the United States because of Covid-19, reflecting the idea that we as a people we have a long way to go in coping with our racist past and present.

In the case of Hirabayashi, he was arrested and imprisoned after a sham trial.  His lawyers fought the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in Hirabayashi v. United States.   As David Kindy writes in Smithsonian Magazine, “In 1987, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reopened and reviewed the case, vacating Hirabayashi’s conviction with a writ of coram nobis, which allows a court to overturn a ruling made in error.

Rudy Tokiwa bringing in captured German soldiers in Italy.
Rudy Tokiwa bringing in captured German soldiers in Italy. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

All four men are gone now—Shiosaki was the last survivor, dying last month at age 96—but they all lived to witness the U.S. government making amends. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 addressed the “fundamental injustice” of what happened during the war and provided compensation for losses sustained by incarcerated Japanese Americans.

‘The sacrifices of our parents and the sacrifices of the men in the 442nd were our way of earning that freedom,” Shisoki told Spokane’s KXLY 4 News in 2006. “The right to be called an American, not a hyphenated American and I guess that’s my message to everybody; that you don’t—this stuff doesn’t get given to you, you earn it. Every generation earns it in some way or another.’

At a difficult time in the country’s history, each of the four men followed the path that he believed was right. In the end, their faith in their country was rewarded with the acknowledgement that their rights had been violated.”***

***David Kindy, “Meet Four Japanese-American Men Who Fought Against Racism in World War II,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 12, 2021.

THE BOMER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Malcom Gladwell


Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, June 2, 1943)

For the last few years, the historiography of allied bombing during World War II has undergone much greater scrutiny.  The death and destruction of civilians and their property has been labeled as unethical and immoral as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course German bombing of allied cities experienced a level of violence that was unprecedented when compared to the pre-World War II era.  The role of technology in the process cannot be downplayed without which the carnage of war would not have reached the levels it did.  Malcom Gladwell, the spirited writer for The New Yorker normally explores the realm of social psychology, but in his latest work, THE BOMBER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR he turns his focus on to a group known as the “Bomber Mafia” that argued for a new type of bombing during wartime.   The group was made up of generals who went against the standard view of warfare put forth by the U.S. Army and Navy and broke away from the ideology of the Army Air Corps and set up the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  Gladwell’s focus is on four generals particularly the much maligned Air Force General Curtis LeMay who led and designed American air power that culminated in the firebombing destruction of German and Japanese cities.

Gladwell creates the juxtaposition of Air Force General Haywood Hansell who tried to win the war in the Pacific Theater through precision bombing of Japan.  According to Gladwell this strategy was unsuccessful and gave way to LeMay’s approach whose goal was to win the war against Japan as soon as possible by saturating Tokyo with napalm bombs which would result in the death of over 100,000 people in just a few hours and went on to firebomb other Japanese cities killing thousands of civilians that held no strategic value.  Gladwell concludes that LeMay’s approach followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and set the United States and Japan on the road to peace and prosperity much quicker than  had Washington pursued a more conventional approach to warfare into 1946 that would have killed millions of Japanese civilians and who knows how many American soldiers.

Firebombing Tokyo coffee or die
(The devastatiopon suffered by Tokyo March 9, 1945)

Gladwell’s work can be considered anti-revisionist or the new revisionism as without mentioning the likes of Gar Alperovitz’s ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, he purports that the United States pursued their strategy to end the war quickly and was not sending a message that would spark the Cold War.  Gladwell’s fascination with “bombing” during World War II stems from his childhood in London where his father recounted the horrors brought on by the German Luftwaffe over the English capitol and other cities.  As Gladwell mines his topic, he includes portraits of the most important characters involved.  Men like General Haywood Hansell; General Lauris Norstad who fired Hansell; General Curtis Le May; General Ira Eaker, the head of the 8th Air Force bombers stationed in England;  Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Churchill who helped alter the British Prime Minister’s view of strategic bombing; RAF Marshall Arthur Harris, who doggedly opposed the new American approach to bombing; Louis Fieser, a Harvard chemistry professor, who is credited with developing a Dupont chemical along with E.B. Hershberg and created an incendiary gel known as napalm; and perhaps the most important person in the process, Carl L. Norden, the inventor of the “bombsight” that allowed true precision bombing are all explored among a number of others.  Gladwell is correct when he argues that the firing of Hansell in Guam on January 6, 1945 set the United States on a strategic road that still reverberates today.

Gladwell states his goal in writing the book was to present what led up to the firing of Hansell, what changes were made, and how the shift in US strategy had implications for the war itself and the future conduct of warfare.  For Gladwell, “THE BOMBER MAFIA is a case study in how dreams go awry.”  A strategy designed to save lives during wartime in the end did not result in the goals set out by this group of Air Force Generals.   Instead, a Dutch genius and his home made computer who developed the 55 pound bombsight; a “band of brothers” in Alabama; a British psychopath; and pyromaniacal chemists in basement labs at Harvard were responsible for the creation of a weapon that still affects us on a daily basis.

Gladwell begins by explaining how difficult it is to successfully hit a target on the ground from thousands of feet in the air.  The key to solving this conundrum was the work of Carl Norden who began working on his bombsight in the 1920s.  After its development it would take six months to be trained on the Norden bombsight and if it were a success these powerful men thought we would no longer need to leave young men dead on the battlefield or lay waste to entire cities.  War would be made “precise and quick and almost bloodless.  Almost.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital)

The Bomber Mafia’s mantra was “high altitude.  Daylight.  Precision bombing.”  These men had a radical mind set much different than the army and navy and passionately believed that they were pursuing a revolutionary goal.  Gladwell explores this group with deft, but not overwhelming detail and to lighten the reader a bit he provides priceless descriptions of a number of characters.  The nicknames he provides labeling Arthur Harris as “Butcher Harris,” Carl Norden as “old man dynamite,” a devoted Christian who believed he was saving lives, Haywood Hansell was called possum, and Curtis LeMay was described as “brutal” by Robert McNamara as all provide insights to the type of people that Gladwell describes.

One of the major strengths of Gladwell’s narrative is how he integrates historical experts, World War II aviators, and comments by other participants providing the reader with greater insight than most into the thinking of the major characters.  These characters would be successful in their mission to end the war early but by 1943 they had hit a wall as disagreements with the British, missions that failed to live up to expectations, and inter-service rivalries played a role.  What is interesting is that LeMay was not part of the “Bomber Mafia” circle.  He was drawn to practical challenges and doctrine left him cold.

Maj. Gen. Hansell

(Major General Haywood Hansell)

Gladwell’s digressions are entertaining but also educational as he pontificates on weather technology, cloud formations and wind over Japan, along with descriptions of certain chemicals and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of those chemicals would lead to the development of napalm a discovery that probably did more to end the war than Norden’s bombsight.  Napalm was chosen by LeMay as the key component in devastating Japan and ending the war quickly.  Once he took over the 21st Bomber Command from Hansell in January 1945 he would soon realize the difficulties that Hansell faced and the obstacles in directing precision bombing against Japanese industrial capacity on the mainland.  LeMay changed American bombing strategy by adopting a low flying approach that was the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s methodology.  Gladwell’s chapter “It’s All Ashes” is an incisive look at how LeMay’s personality and modus operandi would lead to the events of the night of March 9, 1945.  Gladwell describes LeMay as suppressing his own nerves and fears as he focuses on the mission that ultimately dropped 1,665 tons of napalm on Tokyo over a three hour period burning everything for sixteen square miles and the death of over 100,000 people.  LeMay’s planes would continue to wreak havoc, death, and devastation on 67 Japanese cities killing at least 500,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the atomic explosions LeMay continued to bomb Japanese cities as he believed the nuclear attacks were superfluous as the hard work had already been done.  One can debate the necessity for this type of devastation, but Gladwell is correct in arguing that it was so effective that it must be given credit for shortening the war.

In summation it is clear Gladwell has written an informative and important new slant on World War II bombing and I agree with historian, Diana Preston’s conclusions in her April 23, 2021 review in the Washington Post, “Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.”  But in the end Gladwell is correct as high altitude precision bombing soon replaced firebombing – “Curtis LeMay won the battle.  Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(B29s flying over Tokyo, March 9, 1945)

THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS by Judy Batalion

(Crowds of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, 1942)

The role of women during the Holocaust be it their experiences in the death camps, participants in the resistance, and the effect of Nazi atrocities on the families of victims has not received the attention it should.  Five years ago, Sarah Helms’ Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women was published and provided numerous insights into what women experienced in the camps, but their role in the resistance has not received the serious treatment that needed to be afforded until now with the publication of Judy Batalion’s THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS.   In her remarkable book Batalion has created a narrative that follows the exploits of a number of women who fought back against the Nazi genocide.  Batalion focuses on Renia Kuklieka, who was a courier for the Zionist youth organization; “Freedom,” Zivia Lubetkin, a “Freedom” leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising;  Frumka Plotnicka, a “Freedom” comrade who led the fighting organization in Bedzin, Poland; and Vladka Meed, who rescued countless people from the Warsaw Ghetto and other acts of bravery and genius.    There are numerous other courageous women that Batalion brings to the reader’s attention and they all exhibit an unimaginable degree of courage, tenacity, and empathy as they confronted their situation on a daily basis.

Batalion tells her story through the eyes of numerous women through their personal experiences, first trying to maintain a degree of normalcy once the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.  They would continue their work with Zionist Youth organizations working to gain passage to Palestine, trying and manipulate the Judenrat, and training their members for what appeared to be a dismal and dangerous future.  Batalion examines the lives and personalities of these women and explores their character as they evolved into strategists, leaders, and carrying out dangerous missions.  Their bravery was unquestioned, and their work was rewarding in that they chose to return to Poland rather than emigrate to Palestine in order to contribute as much as possible to derail the Nazi machine.

Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944

(Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944)

The origin of the book stems from Batalion’s research into the life of Hannah Senesh, one of the few female resisters in World War II not lost to history.  While examining material in London’s British Library she came across a book written in Yiddish, FREUEN IN DI GHETTOS (WOMEN IIN THE GHETTOS) published in New York in 1946.  Up until that time Batalion and numerous others were unaware how many women were involved in the resistance effort, nor to what degree.  The stories recounted in the book speaks of women who engaged in violence, smuggling, gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, and engaging in combat.  This exposure to the heroism of these women led Batalion to pursue her narrative that resulted in LIGHT OF DAYS.

The core of female exploits originated from “female ghetto fighters”: underground operatives who emerged from Jewish youth group movements and worked in the ghettos.  These young women were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists.  The role that stands out is the contribution women made as “couriers,” disguised as non-Jews who traveled between locked ghettos and towns all across Poland smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they obtained themselves.  In addition, women fled into the forests and enlisted in partisan units, carrying out sabotage and intelligence missions.

Batalion has the uncanny ability to tell the personal stories of her protagonists uncovering their emotions, strengths, and private thoughts.  She presents the horrors of ghetto and camp life that the Nazis perpetrated very clearly.  She traces European anti-Semitism dating to the 19th century that culminated in Nazi atrocities.  German malice and sadism are on full display as they carried out Hitler’s Final Solution which made Renia and her compatriots sick and haunted from what they witnessed. For Jews anything they did or said at any moment could result in execution of themselves and their families.  Jews faced a dilemma even if they escaped the ghetto as their families would be eliminated in retaliation.  The options women faced were limited; stay and try to protect the community, run, fight, or flight.

Judy Batalion
(Judy Batalion)

Batalion accurately and poignantly describes life in the Warsaw, Bedzin, and Vilna Ghettos.  She examines people’s fears and coping strategies that were developed in order to survive from soup kitchens, autobiographical writings and meetings to share experiences, including medical care and cultural activities.  Batalion presents a vivid portrait of the role women played in the preparation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  She delves into the acquisition of weapons, explosives, and other necessities including the training that women had undergone.  The end result was a disaster from a military point of view, but it provided Jews with self-respect as they achieved revenge against the Germans as they killed over 300 Nazi soldiers suffering over 13,000 deaths of their own.  Renia and others escaped to continue their goal of revenge against the Germans.

The resistance organizations that women were a part of were not uniform in their beliefs and strategies.  Batalion explains their differences from the left wing Zionist groups to the more religious Akiva organization.  The key for these groups was that they were led by individuals mostly in their late teens and late twenties who were committed to seeking vengeance against  the Nazis.   Batalion’s presentation allows the reader to get to know Renia who by 1944 was only 19 years old and her compatriots on a personal level in addition to their exploits on the battlefield.

Perhaps Batalion’s most powerful chapter, “The Courier Girls” offers a description that humanizes the women in a world of atrocities and genocide.  Her details of their preparation and missions are eye opening and for them life affirming.  Another important chapter, “Freedom in the Forests – Partisans” is well thought out as life in the forest was extremely difficult but the partisans accomplished a great deal.  They set up a village of underground huts which included printing and weapons capabilities, medical attention, a communication network, the accumulation of clothing and food, in addition to the work of the couriers.

Forged papers of Zivia Lubetkin. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)
(Zivia Lubetkin)

At times reading Batalion’s account is literary torture as she describes the use of sex as a means of exchange for survival, torture, rape and other perversions fostered by the Nazis.  This material is difficult to digest unless you realize the perpetrators were a version of animals.  How Renia and others did not lose their minds is beyond my comprehension.

Batalion’s narrative is somewhat bifurcated as she relates the actions of couriers, events in the ghettos, partisans in the forest, and preparation by all groups in seeking revolt and revenge against the Nazis.  On the other hand, her story is one of endurance and survival as she probes the daily travails women faced under the most ominous conditions including imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of death.  A case in point is Renia’s capture resulting in constant torture and deportation to Auschwitz.  Her story is one of amazement as she would survive the camp by escaping, traveling across Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey and eventually arriving in Haifa, Palestine on March 3, 1944.

Batalion’s epilogue is important as she delves into why women were left out of the “history of resistance” for so long.  She focuses on the politics of the newly created state of Israel, how their role was viewed by American historians, the image of women needed to fit the policy and personal goals of the survivors, and why so many women “self-silenced.”  It is clear that an incalculable number of women suffered from survival guilt, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war, and Battalion’s recounting of their role is important to set the historical record straight, but also to clarify the emotions the survivors felt and how the next generation views what they accomplished.  I agree with Sonia Purnell’s comments in her April 6, 2021 New York Times book review that a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.

(Warsaw Ghetto, 1942)

FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD by Lesley M.M. Blume

Hiroshima
The A-bomb Dome, which survived the 1945 atomic bombing on Hiroshima. 
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

On August 6, 2020, the world commemorated the dropping of a “10,000 pound uranium bomb” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  The weapon referred to as the atomic bomb unleashed the nuclear age and brought about the threat to human civilization.  According to journalist John Hersey the use of the bomb has kept the world safe from its use again because of the memories of the devastation unleashed on Hiroshima.

At the outset, the American government was open about the use of the weapon as President Harry Truman stated it was by far the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.  As time went on Washington began to clamp down on information circulating as to the effects of the bomb on the city’s landscape and its people.  Between 100-280,000 people may have died by the end of 1945, but the actual figure and its effects on future generations will never be known.  The government tried to convince its people that the atomic bomb was a conventional superbomb and ignored its radioactive aftermath.  The US military limited journalist access to the area to control its message, but reporter John Hersey was able to make his way to the site leading to his 30,000 word essay printed in the New Yorker magazine which ultimately became a book that millions of people have read since its publication in 1946.  The story of how Hersey gained access to Hiroshima and the impact of his writing is the back story of Lesley M.M. Blume’s provocative new book, FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD.

Leslie Groves.jpg(General Leslie M. Groves)

If the reader wonders why there was so little outrage over the use of the bomb one must keep in mind the need for revenge because of Pearl Harbor.  In addition, a war that produced the Holocaust, the Japanese rape of China, the eastern front, all contributed to the carnage on such an unprecedented scale that the public began to suffer from what Blume terms “atrocity exhaustion.”  According to Blume, Hersey’s goal was to drive home the gruesome reality of what occurred in Hiroshima and “create a work that would help restore a shared sense of humanity,” a difficult task considering the demonization and hatred that existed among the combatants and the societies that supported them.  The fallout from Hersey’s article was an embarrassment for the US government, but once the cover-up was blown, the reality of nuclear war would now be permanent.

Blume’s work is an important contribution to the literature that exists on the dropping of the bomb.  Hersey’s view of the bomb changed after the second one was dropped on Nagasaki.  The first he could rationalize, not the second which he saw as barbaric.  Almost immediately the US government began to limit information and journalistic access as reporters were forced into what Wilfred Burchett of the Daily Express described as a “press ghetto.”

Blume focuses a great deal on the role of the New Yorker magazine under the stewardship of its founder and editor, Harold Ross and the magazine’s deputy editor William Shawn and how they supported Hersey’s desire to go to Hiroshima and report on the human element of the bombing’s aftermath.  Providing important biographical information of each, Blume does an excellent job recounting their motivations, skill set, and ultimate triumph in eluding military censorship to bring the story to the public.

John Hersey at his desk, pen in hand, in the office at TIME. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

(John Hersey)

Blume’s research is impeccable as she quotes General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, particularly his commentary that dying from radiation poisoning was not a bad way to die.  Comparing Hersey and Groves’ views is a useful tool that Blume employs throughout the book. Hersey’s approach to his reporting is based on a book by Thornton Wilder, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY which detailed the lives of five people killed in Peru when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon broke.  After reading the book, Hersey admired how Wilder tracked the lead-up to the accident and how these people were led to that tragic moment.  Hersey’s research focused on how to connect with actual human faces; those belonging to a struggling widow and her three children, a young clerk, two doctors, a priest, and a pastor.  Hersey was lucky enough to establish relationships with Father Superior Hugo Lassalle, Father Wilhelm Kleinnsorge, and Reverend Kiyoshi Taminto upon his arrival in Hiroshima who introduced him to the 25-50 survivors he interviewed during his two weeks in the city.

Blume delves into the psychological component of the survivors in detail as they were confronted with the “atomic disease” that the bomb unleashed.  Hersey employed Japanese studies in addition to his own research as he avoided MacArthur’s attempts at repressing information.  An excellent source to consult on this aspect of the tragedy is Robert Jay Lifton’s classic, DEATH IN LIFE:SURVIVORS OF HIROSHIMA which describes Lifton’s work in Japan after the bombing.

The narrative brings the reader inside the New Yorker editorial room as Shawn and Ross edited the article and developed a strategy as to how it should be released.  Blume’s portrayal of Henry Luce of Time is priceless as the owner of the magazine could not tolerate Hersey, who at one time was his prodigal son and the New Yorker’s success.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Perhaps one of her best chapters, entitled “Aftermath” is eye opening as it portrays the military’s reaction to publication in the August 31, 1946 edition of the New Yorker and the lengths they went to counter act its influence as its cover-up was now in the open.  Former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson penned a rebuttal, and President Truman went out of his way to justify the weapon’s use as the United States now had a “Hiroshima” image problem.  The US went from a global savior to a genocidal superpower in the eyes of many.  Despite the government’s counter arguments, Hersey had connected atomic war with actual human faces.  Once the magazine was released it sold out worldwide as did the book that was also published, fostering forever doubt as to whether the bomb should have been dropped.

Blume’s narrative is presented with an even prose that allows the reader to digest Hersey’s daring efforts and ultimate success in producing one of the most important books of the 20th century.  It is a story that has remained in the background for decades, and to Blume’s credit it has now been brought to the public’s attention.  FALLOUT provides powerful insights into the length’s governments will go to create a story that covers up real events and the means employed by a reporter to unearth the truth.

Hiroshima
(The A-Bomb Dome)

THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))