THE ESCAPE ARTIST: THE MAN WHO BROKE OUT OF AUSCHWITZ TO WARN THE WORLD by Jonathan Freedland

Rudolf Vrba
(Rudi Vrba)

Two words dominate Jonathan Freedland’s new book, THE ESCAPE ARTIST: THE MAN WHO BROKE OUT OF AUSCHWITZ TO WARN THE WORLD; trust and escape.  These terms would dominate the life of Walter Rosenberg, a Slovakian Jew who along with three others would escape from Auschwitz in 1944.  Only seventeen in February 1942, Rosenberg was rounded up by the Nazis which would begin a horrible journey that would culminate in being deported with his family to Poland.  Passing through Novaky, a Slovak transit camp, he would wind up in Majdanek and then on to Auschwitz by June 1942 where he would remain until April 1944 when he and his compatriot, Fred Wetzler would become the first Jews to escape “the crowning achievement of Nazi extermination.”

From that point on Walter Rosenberg, who would change his name to Rudi Vrba would dedicate his existence to gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities in order to warn Jews of what they could expect once they were deported to Auschwitz.  It was his hope that once warned, Jews would put up as much resistance as possible apart from marching docilly to their deaths.

Freedland’s gripping book sets out to bring Vrba to prominence as a name to be mentioned in the same category as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Oskar Schindler, and Anne Frank.  In telling his story Freedland focuses on Vrba’s prodigious memory as he mentally catalogued what he witnessed each day in the camp.  At the outset he may not have realized it but thanks to a series of arbitrary events and lucky breaks Vrba had acquired an unusually comprehensive expertise in the workings of Auschwitz.  Freedland writes that “he had lived or worked in the main camp, at Birkenau and at Bu8na; Auschwitz I, II, III.  He had worked in the gravel pits, the DAW factory, and in Kanada.  He had been an intimate witness of the selection process that preceded the organized murder of thousands….He knew the precise layout of the camp and believed he had a good idea as to how many had entered Auschwitz by train, and how many left via chimney.  And he had committed it all to memory.”

auschwitz-photos-fence
(Birkeneau)

Freeland describes Vrba’s experiences with a keen eye and his ability to process what he experienced as preparation for his escape to warn his fellow Jews.  Freeland relies on the work of two prominent Holocaust historians, David Cesarini and Nikolaus Wachsmann in his retelling of the Final Solution and integrating those events into Vrba’s story.  Freeland’s chapter entitled, “Kanada,” provides insights into Vrba’s methodology as he was assigned to an area where he would separate and quantify the possessions of prisoners upon their arrival at the camp.  Later, he would be assigned to greet and assist in separating arrivals as they exited the cattle cars.  Freeland’s detail is remarkable as even toothpaste tubes were used to hide diamonds.  These experiences helped him master the numbers  that Nazi extermination produced.

Freeland’s overriding theme rests on Vrba’s obsessive drive to escape.  No matter where he found himself or what condition he was in he was always thinking and plotting.  Once Freeland turns to April 1944 and Vrba’s tortuous journey out of the camp we see a young man wise beyond his years realize his dream of warning Jews that deportation to Auschwitz meant death.  He had watched the SS decide who was to live and die with a flick of the finger, now after witnessing so much he decided he could sound the warning that obviated the process.

Freeland describes how observant Vrba was and focuses on the idea that no one could be trusted, even the few he felt comfortable with.  He partnered with Fred Wetzler, another Slovakian Jew and two others in planning and carrying out their departure and what emerges is an amazing story that provides many insights into the resistance to the Holocaust and how difficult it became to educate Jews as to what their fate would become.

Interestingly, Vrba took a course in “escapology” from Dimitri Volkov, a Russian POW who had escaped from Sachsenhausen, another Nazi concentration camp.  The key was to carry no money or food and live off the land.  Further, a watch was needed, as was a knife which could be used for suicide because capture meant torture and death.  Salt and matches were also needed and most importantly, trust no one.

 auschwitz-photos-wagon

As Vrba’s journey evolved he develops a deep resentment towards the Jewish Councils that had cooperated with the Nazis and facilitated their methodology in deporting Jews to the death camps.  Freeland notes that Vrba would carry these feelings for the rest of his life particularly involving the actions of Rezso Kasztner, the controversial head of the Budapest Jewish Council who blocked the dissemination of Vrba and Wetzler’s report of what transpired in Auschwitz.

Once the escape proved successful Vrba’s mission was to prepare a report that would support newspaper and eyewitness accounts of what transpired in the death camps.  This discussion is one of the most important aspects of the book as the report is retyped, translated, and printed and eventually reaches the desks of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and a series of high Vatican officials.  Freeland analyzes this process as to why little or nothing was done, concluding that politics, anti-Semitism, and years of denigrating Jews by church officials was responsible.

Freeland’s rendering of Vrba’s life continues after the war as he lived in Israel, London, and eventually settled in Vancouver.  He became a successful research scientist, married twice, and had two daughters.  Despite professional success following the war he was haunted by bouts of paranoia, anger, lack of trust, and an inability to gain true acceptancefor what he tried to achieve during the war.  As the years passed on he never wavered in his belief that the Jews knew nothing of Auschwitz, despite evidence to the contrary.  Despite this in the end his report was pivotal in saving 200,000 Budapest Jews from extermination as President Roosevelt warned the Hungarian government in late 1944 as to the consequences if more jews were slaughtered.  But this only occurred after a frustrated Vrba and Wetzler decides to print and disseminate their report by themselves when others would not cooperate.

According to Blake Morrison in his The Guardian review of 8 June 2022, “Vrba had three core beliefs about Auschwitz: that the outside world didn’t know about the “final solution”; that once they did know, the allies would intervene; and that once Jews knew, they would refuse to board those fateful trains. Without in the least diminishing Vrba, Freedland disproves all three. Word of the Nazis’ “cold-blooded extermination” had got out at least 18 months before his escape. Allied policy was inhibited by inertia and antisemitism (“In my opinion a disproportionate amount of time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews”, wrote someone in the Foreign Office in London). And whereas younger Jews believed Vrba, the majority were with philosopher Raymond Aron, who said: “I knew but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

Freedland has written a remarkable account combining the history of the Holocaust with the life experiences of a young man, who will emerge emotionally damaged from the war suffering from PTSD.  Despite Vrba’s flaws as a person his commitment to warn Hungary’s Jews stands as a tremendous accomplishment despite the negative opinions of a number of Holocaust historians toward his work.  The book is well written, an absorbing read, and an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.

No photo description available.
(Rudi Vrba)

THE POPE AT WAR: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XII, MUSSOLINI, AND HITLER by David I. Kertzer

Pope Pius XII
(Pope Pius XII)

For many, one of the most polarizing figures of the Second World War was Pope Pius XII.  Up until 2019 the Vatican archives did not allow access to most of the documents related to Pius XII’s actions before and during the war.  Under the current leadership of Pope Francis, the archive has been made available to historians and has brought about a reassessment of Pius XII’s relationship with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in addition to his attitude toward the Holocaust. 

Until the opening of the archive, historians were of two minds; either Pius XII was too close to Mussolini and Hitler and did not confront them publicly concerning their murderous atrocities and said and did little in relation to the genocide of European Jewry or he did as much as he could in balancing the protection of the Catholic clergy in Germany and working behind the scenes to assist Europe’s Jews.  It is understood that Pius XII was in a very difficult position and Pulitzer Prize winning historian, David I. Kertzer, the author of THE POPE AND MUSSOLINI: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XI AND THE RISE OF FASCISM IN EUROPE has availed himself of the opportunity to consult newly released documentation and has written what should be considered the definitive source  in dealing with Pius XII in his latest work, THE POPE AT WAR: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XII, MUSSOLINI, AND HITLER.  Kertzer’s book documents the private decision-making that led Pope Pius XII to stay essentially silent about Hitler’s genocide and argues that the Pope’s impact on the war is underestimated – and not in a positive fashion.  As David M. Shribman writes in the Boston Globe, for Pius XII “silence was easier, safer, more prudent.  Silence was deadly.”*

Kertzer’s presentation is excellent as it is grounded in his previous research and his recent access to the newly opened Vatican archive.  The book is clearly written and tells a story that many have heard before, however it is cogently argued, and he has unearthed new material which may change or reinforce deeply held opinions by many when it comes to Pius XII.  Kertzer makes the case that Pius XII’s obsessive fear of Communism, his belief  that the Germans would win the war, and his goal of protecting church interests motivated him to avoid angering Mussolini and Hitler.  The Pope was also concerned as the book highlights, that opposing Hitler would alienate millions of German Catholics.

Kertzer does an excellent job tracing Pius XII’s relationship with Mussolini; the evolution of Italy’s military failures which negatively impacted Hitler’s plans, i.e.; Italy’s failed invasion of Greece; and Hitler’s growing dissatisfaction with Mussolini.  Kertzer relies heavily on the comments and diaries associated with foreign ambassadors to the Vatican, particularly those of England and France and their negative commentary related to the Papacy.  The descriptions of these ambassadors focused on Pius XII’s lack of action, periodic support for the war effort in Italy, and obsession with German power.  Further, Kertzer focuses on Pius XI’s opposition to Mussolini’s adoption of racial laws targeting Italian Jews.  Despite this opposition, Pius XII would not comment on the increase in Italy’s oppression of Jews and racial laws in general.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler watch a Nazi parade staged for the Italian dictators's visit to Germany.

(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)

Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI had been somewhat of a thorn in the side of fascist dictators.  He saw Mussolini as a “buffoon,” and believed that Hitler was a danger to all of Europe.  Both dictators feared he was preparing an encyclical denouncing Nazi racism and anti-Semitism and feared that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli who would succeed him as Pontiff would try and talk him out of it, as well as any other anti-fascist comments.  When he died a few days before he could release his encyclical, Mussolini and Hitler experienced a great deal of relief.

Kertzer correctly points out that Mussolini never felt comfortable around priests and complained bitterly about Pius XI barbs.  He was worried as he was aware that Hitler viewed him as a role model and did not want the Pope’s commentary to ruin their relationship.  Once Pius XI died and was replaced by Cardinal Pacelli criticism was reduced and if any were made it was done in private.  Hitler’s main complaint concerned articles in the Vatican’s daily newspaper, Osservatore Romano that focused on Nazi anti-Catholic policies from arresting and beating Catholic priests to closing Catholic schools in Germany.  Pius XII immediately made overtures to Hitler to relax the pressure on German Catholicism and refused to comment publicly on Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, in addition to remaining quiet as Hitler’s pressure on Catholic Poland over Danzig escalated.

Mussolini resented Pius XII’s diplomacy as his ego would not allow anyone to detract from his role as the dominant figure in Italian politics.  Kertzer’s comments concerning Mussolini, his son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, and countless other figures is insightful and at times entertaining, but it does not detract from the danger and derangement of these individuals.

In a very important chapter, Kertzer provides details of secret meetings between the Papacy and Germany before and after the war began.  The conduit for Germany was Prince Philip von Hessen whose goal was to bring about an accommodation with the Papacy and keep the Pope out of politics.  Hitler resented the clergy’s meddling in German domestic politics and wanted the Pope to refrain from comments on Nazi racial policy.  Pius XII’s, his main goal was to protect the German clergy and Catholicism in general, but he expressed the belief that an honorable religious peace was achievable, and in all instances talks should be held in secret.

Mussolini Speaking in Public
(Benito Mussolini)

Once the war began Pius XII refused to break his silence concerning Nazi aggression arguing he would not endanger the church’s situation in Germany.  This argument was repeated throughout the war, but he promised he would pray for the Polish people or whatever nationality was endangered by a Nazi onslaught.  Morality, rights, honor, justice were always met with methods, practicality, tradition, and statistics on the part of the Vatican.  When priests were sent to concentration camps Pius XII did nothing, no statements, no audiences with the Pope in Rome etc.  The only diplomacy Pius II seemed to engage in was to try and talk Mussolini out of following in Hitler’s footsteps as it was clear, even to Il Duce, that Italy was totally unprepared for war.

One could argue that Pope Pius XII evolved in his approach toward fascism and the war.  At first, at least up to 1943 he waffled between neutrality and making general statements structured “as not to be offensive by either side.”  At first the Papacy believed the Germans would win the war and once it was concluded Pius XII was convinced that in a few years the anti-Catholic policies would dissipate and fade away. As the war progressed and when it was clear that the Russians had broken out of Stalingrad and made their way westward, and that the United States and England would invade Italy, Pius XII’s attitude shifted.  Pius XII priority was to prevent allied bombing of Rome and Vatican City (particularly as England was bombing Turin, Milan, and Genoa) which led to messages to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who responded with a demand that Mussolini be replaced, and Italy should drop out of the war.  Pius XII’s other priority was to warn allied leaders (apart from Stalin) that Communism was as large a threat to Europe as Nazism, and he worked to manufacture a peace agreement with the US and England and organize in response to the Soviet threat to all European Catholics.

Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, (1903 – 11 January 1944), Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy
(Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano)

As to the Holocaust, Pius XII received increasing numbers of reports of Nazi atrocities and extermination camps.  This information came from reliable sources and churchmen like Father Scavini, an Italian military chaplain that the Pope had great faith in.  However, Pius XII refused to publish details contained in these reports to stay on the good side of Hitler and Mussolini.  The only area that the Pope did complain about to the German and Italian governments was the application of racial laws to those he considered Catholics – baptized Jews and the children of mixed marriages.  Pius XII accepted advice that there was no confirmation of Nazi atrocities and was told not to even use the word, “Jew.”  In relation to the Vatican’s attitude toward the roundup of Italian Jews right under their noses provoked little response as Kertzer quotes Lutz Klinkhammer, the foremost historian of Germany’s military occupation of Italy, “it is more than clear that all their efforts were aimed above all at saving the baptized or the ‘half-born’ from mixed marriages,” the Jews who did not fit this category would wind up dying at Auschwitz.

Pius XII’s actions are clear even when he was approached to try and mitigate the actions of Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, the head of the Slovakian government who was about to send 20,000 Jews to Polish concentration camps.  When a move was made to try and send 1000 Jewish children to Palestine, Pius XII did little to facilitate this plan as he was anti-Zionist and he argued that he held little sway with the Nazis and their minions and any Papal criticism risked provoking a backlash against the church in German occupied Europe.  No matter the circumstances Kertzer’s conclusions that Pius XII’s messaging was always weak and vague to protect the church’s interests.

Pius XII’s silence and overall inaction emerges as the dominant theme of Kertzer’s work.  It is clear that any other conclusion is a result of Church propaganda, obfuscation, and analysis that conveniently avoids the facts.  Kertzer’s work is to be commended as it should put to bed once and for all the truth concerning Pius XII’s role during World War II.

*David M. Shribman, “A Deadly Silence: Assessing the Moral Failings of Pope Pius XII during World War II,” Boston Globe,” May 26, 2022.

Pope Pius XII (Courtesy of PerlePress Productions)

THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT: THE WAR IN WESTERN EUROPE, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson

The Dumb Reason Why Eisenhower Gave A B-17 To General Montgomery | World War Wings Videos
(Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery)

In the third volume of his “liberation trilogy,” THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT: THE WAR IN WESTERN EUROPE, 1944-1945 Rick Atkinson has written a comprehensive history of the last year of the war in the west highlighted by incisive analysis, personality portraits, and clashes beyond the battlefield pitting remarkable characters against each other as they dominated allied and axis planning implementing wartime strategy.  Atkinson begins his narrative with a scene at the St. Paul School in west London on May 15, 1944, where allied strategists gathered to finalize plans for the cross channel invasion of France.  In this last volume of his trilogy Atkinson continues opus from Operation Overlord, through the liberation of France, the last Nazi attempt to thwart allied plans at the Battle of the Bulge, to finally entering Berlin and ending the war in Europe.  In so doing Atkinson employs the same successful approach used in the first two volumes; THE ARMY AT DAWN: THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA, 1942-1943 and THE DAY OF BATTLE: THE WAR IN SICILY AND ITALY, 1943-1944, impeccable research and total command of the material pertaining to such a broad topic.

The most important wartime characters be it Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt Dwight D. Eisenhower, Edwin Rommel, Charles De Gaulle, Adolf Hitler, Bernard Montgomery, Omar Bradley, George S. Patton and innumerable others are explored from the perspective of their successes and failures, personality flaws and strengths, and their impact on the conduct of the war.  In addition, and perhaps most important, Atkinson integrates how the military; from paratroopers, infantry, pilots, those engaged in intelligence, combat engineers, and civilians dealt with their wartime experiences and how it impacted them each day.

(Generals George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, and Bernard Montgomery)

Atkinson’s command of detail is evident from the outset in a wonderful prologue as he describes how 1.5 million Americans lived in huts, prefabricated buildings and tents throughout England as they prepared for the Normandy invasion.  It would cause the writer George Orwell to quip that “Britain was now occupied territory,” and road signs that read “to all GIs, please drive carefully, that child may be yours.”

Atkinson’s prose separates his narrative from many others who have authored books dealing with the last year of the war in western Europe.  He is able to convey his thoughts and descriptions in a clear and concise manner even when dealing with complex military movements and strategy debates.  Among his most poignant and important chapters detail the carnage that American GIs experienced on Omaha Beach, answering the questions surrounding how the Germans were caught off guard by the location of the invasion, and the Battle of the Bulge, the greatest American military intelligence failure of the war.  In each instance the reader is ensconced in a world occupied by mere mortals who have to make decisions that will affect the lives of millions and redraw the post war world’s political and physical geography.

Atkinson seems able to explain all aspects of the war. Particularly interesting was the “Bocage problem,” terrain that soldiers would have to master once they broke through after the invasion.  In one set of aerial photos of an eight-square-mile- swatch over 4000 hedged enclosures were visible.  With little preparation or equipment to deal with the foliage it created a major impediment for soldiers to fight through and advance.  The carnage of the war receives important treatment especially the fighting that resulted from Hitler’s last ditch offensive into the Ardennes Forest in December 1944.  Though SS Panzers and troops were beaten back by the end of January 1945 America suffered battle losses of 105,000, including 19,246 dead.  In addition to thousands more who had to cope with trench foot, frostbite, and other diseases.  In the end one of ten US combat losses in WWII came from the GIs who had fought in the Ardennes.

Parachutes open overhead as waves of paratroops land in Holland during operations by the 1st Allied Airborne Army. (Photo: National Archives)

(Parachutes open overhead as waves of paratroops land in Holland during operations by the 1st Allied Airborne Army.)

Atkinson’s mastery of facts and figures is to be commended, as is his ability to delve into the egos of the various military figures and the impact of personalities on the conduct of the war.  The individual who stands out is British General Bernard Montgomery who commanded allied land forces for the invasion.   Montgomery’s ego was such that he believed that he and only he was the smartest tactician and commander of all allied military figures.  Atkinson integrates the opinions of those who dealt with him, British as well as American particularly those of Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Bedell Smith whose characterization (by Eisenhower) of Montgomery as “a psychopath,” “egocentric,” and essentially a dishonest man” sums up how the American leadership felt about him.  The British felt in kind concerning Eisenhower and General George C. Marshall as Montgomery and Field Marshall Alan Francis Brooke believed that the SHAEF commander was incompetent, and Marshall knew nothing about strategy.  This aspect of the book is most important and makes one wonder how these individuals got along well enough to lead allied forces to victory.

File:General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of General Staff, 1942 TR149.jpg
(British General Sir Alan Brooke)

The book itself is a compendium of the most important aspects and events, some major, some not, of the war in the west amazing the reader with the author’s ability to juggle and integrate so many diverse happenings into one volume by weighing every small piece of evidence before inserting it precisely where it belongs.  The conclusion of Atkinson’s trilogy elevates him to join historians such as Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings, Peter Caddick-Adams, James Holland, Stephen Ambrose, and Cornelius Ryan as the most important chroniclers of the war in western Europe.

Bradley, Omar Nelson: with Eisenhower and  Montgomery

(General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, and General Omar Bradley in 1946.)

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)