Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War – R.M. Douglas

humaneMore than seventy years have passed since the end of World War II, yet it still fascinates historians and students.  The number of books written about Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the Third SS Reich are perhaps the most written about any conflict and leader in history.  The former Austrian vagabond rose to power in Germany and plunged the entire world into the deadliest conflict in the history of mankind.  The emergence and use of the atomic bomb by American forces ushered in the nuclear age and set the stage for the Cold-War which lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. In my list of recommendations, I saw this title regarding the expulsion of Germans following the war.  At first, I was not sure which expulsion was being referred to but quickly realized that it was pertaining to the Germans that were living in Nazi occupied territories outside of Germany.  During the war, many of them enjoyed security and a stable life but in the wake of Germany’s defeat, nationalist governments came to power in former occupied territories, and they turned their wrath towards the German people that had been living within their borders.  A staggering number of Germans were forced from their homes and sent back to Germany with no clear or concise plan for reintegrating them into a Germany struggling to recover and rebuild.  And this is one part of the war that is often not discussed but a topic that should be known. 

The title of the book removes all doubt that the story is a “happy” one.  In fact, I believe that it is not for the faint at heart.  Although the book is not rife with gratuitous violence, the actions taken towards German nationals living abroad are both shocking and repulsive.  However, it could be argued that they are no more repulsive than what was done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  In the book, this is implied in actions and statements taken by foreign leaders eager to rid their countries of anything connected to Nazi Germany.  Regrettably, the operation to relocate German nationals was plagued by disorganization and confusion, leading to mass confusion the deaths of those being removed.  The author points out that: 

“Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present.” 

We may never know the true number of those who perished during the expulsion program but the numbers we do know of are nothing short of mind-boggling.  Further, it removes any illusion of a “glorious” end to the war where things were made right again. In fact, the book shows that even with Germany and Japan defeated, chaos and confusion continued to be a problem for quite some time as the Allied forces struggled with former camp prisoners, German military prisoners and the German people who were left destitute as their nation crumbled around them.  Hitler had committed suicide and his act left the people without a leader and at the full mercy of Germany’s many enemies.  Berlin became the battleground between the east and west and remained so until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.  Today, Germany is one of the most successful nations in the world and far removed from its post-World War II state.  But the question remains, how and why did the expulsion happen and develop in the way that it did? Further, were there no protections against such a thing?  Some readers will immediately think of the Hague Conventions, but the author anticipates this and explains that: 

“The Hague Conventions were by no means perfect. They bound only those countries that were signatories. They contained few protections for civilians—a crucial omission that in the future would hamstring the work of humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross. They were silent in circumstances in which a government maltreated its own citizens, rather than the inhabitants of foreign lands its armies were occupying. They applied only to conflicts in which a state of formal war existed, rather than in “undeclared wars” or in peacetime. They provided no means of individual redress, nor any mechanism for enforcement.”

Frankly, the Germans being expelled were on their own at times and could expect little to no help from those their country had been recently fighting against.  Readers may find themselves torn as the fate of German nationals is discussed.  And it may lead some to ask the age-old question of whether two wrongs make a right.   We do know that many Germans did not support Hitler, but millions of others did and opposing forces during the war were not eager to distinguish between the two.  During the expulsion, the feelings held by victors was even more direct according to the author: 

“After the Nazis’ defeat, the new regimes of central and eastern Europe were in no humor to try to distinguish between culpable and innocent Germans. This uncompromising attitude extended to German children, for whom in practice few exceptions were made.” 

Of all the things the book shows, one of the most striking is that war truly is hell, and the concept of victory can change depending on the situation that arises.  Some readers who decided to read this book may feel that the Germans brought it upon themselves. Others may be filled with sympathy for expulsion that took place.  Regardless of which side of the argument we fall on, I think we can all agree that the relocation of Germans after the war, is on the conflicts rarely discussed matters that does not put anyone in a positive light.  Fault lies at the feet of many and even during the operation, governments in high positions of power, rarely discussed matters and continued to shuffle the people around like pawns on a chess board. 

Admittedly, I cannot say that I was completely shocked at what I learned in the book.   Germany’s defeat was a concern for many Germans as it became clear that a quick victory would not take place. The entry of the United States into the war and the decision to invade the Soviet Union, showed that Germany had bitten off more than it could chew.  And it also showed that Hitler had gone completely mad.  As I read through the book and learned just how dreadful the expulsion were, I came to see that this was the hand that Hitler had dealt this people.  They would soon learn that national socialism was not all that they thought it would be. 

World War II permanently altered world’s political landscape and the horrors of the war remain with us to this day.  The Holocaust will always be a case study with regards to the dangers of racial ideology supported by government policy. And the dropping of the atomic bombs still sends chills down the spine of many, in particular, those still alive who lived through it.  For the millions of German nationals living outside of the fatherland’s borders, the war upended their lives, and they were forced to leave their long-term homes and return to a nation in ruins. They too can be added to the long list of victims of a senseless war that could have very well been mankind’s destruction.  This is the story of the plight and what really happened to them after the war ended.  Highly recommended. 

ASIN : B008740OQQ

Letters and Dispatches 1924-1944: The Man Who Saved Over 100,000 Jews, Centennial Edition – Wallenberg, Raoul

WellenbergI am always on the lookout for stories that I have not yet heard and names of people I am not yet familiar with.  When I saw the cover of this book, I tried to jog my memory with regards to the name of the author.  I finally realized that I did not know of Raoul Wallenberg (1912 -1947?) but I knew instantly that I had to read this book.  Admittedly, I am always interested in the personal correspondence of figures from the distant past to see how information was shared in the years before E-mails, SMS and social media.  The cover of the book directly describes what is contained within which is a collection of the letters between Raoul, his grandfather Gustaf Wallenberg (1863-1937) and Raoul’s mother Maj von Dardel (1891-1979) whose replies to her son are not included. The bulk of the letters are between grandfather and grandson and what is truly remarkable about them, is the amount of knowledge that is shared between the two.  Raoul embarks on a long journey and I found myself glued to the book. But aside from that, there are other things in the book that make it an enjoyable read.  

Gustaf is the undoubtedly the domineering force in the family structure.   He is Raoul’s guiding light in the absence of Gustaf’s son and Raoul’s father Raoul Oscar Wallenberg (1888-1912) who died of cancer before his son’s birth.  Raoul finds himself blessed to have a very supportive family and his grandfather both encourages and finances his studies abroad.  America is the destination of choice for young Raoul.  Gustaf himself had visited America and explains to Raoul why he feels so strongly about studying in the United States: 

“It is because of what both my father and I found in America that makes me so eager for you to get your direction in life there. No one has ever understood as well as I have, because I saw it in my youth, how decisive his time there was for my father…. I use the expression direction in life and not “education” on purpose. ” 

The first stop for Raoul is Ann Arbor, Michigan where he enrolls in college to earn an advanced degree.  But, it is only the first stop and the young Swede would take advantage of being a young bachelor to travel across the United States meeting people from all walks of life while Gustaf continues to send words of encouragement and enlightenment. I do want to comment on Gustaf’s views on women which might cause consternation in some readers.  I think today we would call him misogynistic but in that era, he would most likely have not received any reprimand.  His comments to Raoul about romance are both interesting and quite blunt.  And while he truly wanted the best for his grandson, I believe that some readers may take some offense to the words he writes.  However, Gustaf is incredibly brilliant and refined in regards to world affairs.  The knowledge contained in his letters can be of value to both men and women. Further, Gustaf’s command of words gives his letters a more potent affect and I found myself amazed at his sentence structure and grammar which is nothing short of clear and concise. 

Raoul comes across as a competent writer himself and relays to his grandfather, plenty of anecdotes from his travels abroad.  The journey goes from America, Central America, Africa and back to Europe.  Along the way, the young student learns valuable lessons about life and as I read his letters I could see his level of maturity increase with each destination.  The insight with which Raoul writes provides food for thought regarding America and other countries seen through the eyes of the traveling student.  And throughout his travels, Raoul remains firmly in awe of Gustaf, whom he looks up to with unconditional admiration.  Their relationship reminded me of the bond between my myself and my great-grandfather William, who was similar in nature to Gustaf and equally as frank in his choice of words.  Putting aside his bluntness, we all loved and respected him deeply because we knew that he loved us in return and never hesitated to show it. 

After graduating, Raoul made his way back to Europe and through a series of events, was introduced to Kàlmàn Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who was the director of the Central European Trading Company, Inc, a business that specialized in exports. This encounter changed his life permanently and as a result of it, Wallenberg accepted a post with the War Refugee Board through the invitation of Iver Olsen, a representative with the board. His new destination was Hungary which had become the target of the Germany army and a hotbed of anti-Semitism. 

The implementation of the “Final Solution” by Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich, sent chills across Europe and removed any doubt that there existed a “safe haven” for Jews.  During his time in Budapest, Wallenberg committed himself to saving as many Jews as possible.  In the final part of the book, we are allowed to see his dispatches regarding efforts to deport Hungarian Jews and his willingness to confront both German officials and the Arrow Cross Party, led by despot Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946).  He was relentless in his efforts and through them, it is estimated that he saved the lives of at least 100,000 Jewish people.  When a friend asked about his determination to save everyone he remarked: ““I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”  The exact number of Jews that he saved may never be known but what is certain, is that Wallenberg did prevent thousands from being deported before he was detained by the Soviet Army.   And this is what we learn in the book about his final moments in Budapest: 

“[The Soviet Army’s siege of Budapest began on December 8, 1944, the day this letter was written. Soviet authorities took RW into their ‘protective custody” and sent him to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on January 17, 1945. He was never heard from again. The Soviets denied any knowledge of his whereabouts until 1957, when Andrei Gromyko, then foreign minister, announced that RW had died of a heart attack in 1947, in Lubyanka. There is ample but inconclusive evidence that this was not the case, and efforts to determine his fate continue.]” 

The truth regarding Wallenberg’s fate remains a mystery as explained in this article in the Israeli journal Haaretz.  The date of his death most likely remains a carefully guarded Russian secret.  Officially, it is believed that he disappeared into the Soviet gulag system in January, 1945 and was never heard from again.  His disappearance adds even more confusion to his story as he was a liberator and should have been seen as such by the invading Red Army.  The reasons for his detainment and subsequent imprisonment are not exactly clear.  And this adds a tragic ending to a remarkable story that should be part of any discussion about World War II and the Holocaust. 

“Across the United States and throughout the world there are Raoul Wallenberg committees and individuals who work tirelessly to educate the public about this compassionate and nonviolent hero, and to assist in solving the mystery of his fate. By introducing the man behind the cause, Letters and Dispatches will help us all remember.” – Rachel Oestreicher Haspel, President of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States

ASIN : B006OALKJK

 

My Family’s Survival: The true story of how the Shwartz family escaped the Nazis and survived the Holocaust – Aviva Gat

gat

The rise of anti-Semitism that is occurring across parts of Europe and here in the United States is both troubling and disheartening.  Throughout history, the Jewish people have been persecuted on the basis of their faith and during World War II, they were subjected to systematic extermination fueled by racist ideology and pseudo-science.  Adolf Hitler’s quest for power and dominance brought death and destruction across Europe and nearly brought Germany to its knees before Allied forces.   To this day, World War II is seen by many as the worst conflict mankind has ever fought.  As the German Army rolled across Europe taking control of cities, towns and razing small villages, Jews were forced to flee for their lives or risk being sent to ghettos and concentration camps through the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”.  Among the Jews that did flee was the Shwartz family which resided in Butla, Poland. This book is their story of their survival as they fled their home and traveled across Europe to escape the looming Nazi threat to everything deemed to be “Juden”.  

Aviva Gat is a descendant of the Shwartz family and through a series of interviews regarding the family history, she was able to compose this inspiration story of survival during a very dark time in world history.  By her own admission some of the story is fictionalize and I am inclined to believe that this in fact refers to some of the dialogue that may have taken place between the central characters. Regardless she does affirm that the experiences described in the book did in fact take place as the family moved from Poland, to Hungary and Romania where the book ends.  And while the story does provide the typical “happy ending”,  it does not end on a tragic note. 

The story begins in the small village of Butla which remains largely shielded from the events taking place inside of Germany.  They are aware of Hitler but have yet to see first hand the effects of the war.  But when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, their lives changed forever and Poland was never the same again. The first visitors to Butla are Russian soldiers who make make themselves at home. But they are gone as fast as they came leaving the people of Butla wondering what will come next.  They did not have to wait long as Ukranian soldiers arrive and commit an act of violence that brings home the reality of what is taking place.  It becomes clear to the Shwartz family that their time in Butla is limited.  The family is led by the patriarch who dies early in the story.  Their mother is already deceased and is mentioned only briefly.  The responsibility to care for the family falls on David, who leaves the town with wife Hinda, children Abi and Sarah, and younger sister Rachel.   The other brothers Shlomo, Meir, Itzik, Zelig and Chaim had previously left the town.  This small group embarked on a journey that is simply unbelievable and highlights just how dangerous it was to be Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II.  

As the book progresses, we are introduced to numerous characters who play crucial roles in the story.  What I found to be very interesting is the sense of unity that exists among the Jewish characters in the story and it also shows that without this hidden network, many of them would have perished. And while the journey was not easy,  there are moments in the book where the kindness of others shines brilliantly.  But sadly, as refugees from Poland, they were subject to discrimination both in Hungary and Romania. And some of the discrimination was at the hands of other Jews.  Those parts of the book were hard to read and the scene in which Abi finds a Synagogue might resonate with and infuriate readers who are Jewish. I personally stared in disbelief at what transpires between him and the Rabbis.   

Because the book is centered around the family and their journey across three countries there is very little mention of what is taking place in the actual war. The main characters in the story do relay some things they learned as they were fleeing for their lives. Hitler’s name does come up but only a few occasions and none of the other notorious figures in the Reich make an appearance. This book is strictly the Shwartz story.  However, towards the end of the book the war does become a bigger part of the story, in particular when Allied bombing raids come too close for comfort. The scene in which David is in the hospital shows how a moment’s notice and sheer luck sometimes meant the difference between life and death. The story is full of close calls, some of which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  Many guardian angels appear in the story at just the right moment, preventing certain death and a far more tragic outcome.  Some characters in the story are cruel and take advantage of the Jews’ plight.  However, the are far and few in between and unable to overcome the vast network of support that the Shwartzs and others have available to them.  It is a classic example of how unity overcomes adversity.  

The final act in the act occurs through the actions of Abi who grows up quickly during the war.  His decision to reach Palestina as they know it, changes the lives of all for good.  That part of the book is a story all in itself and the journey is one that many Jews were forced to take as they escaped the growing Nazi menace.  Back in Eastern Europe, David makes the decision that he and Hinda will also go to Palestina while Rachel’s like takes a slightly different path albeit with the same destination.  Victor emerges as a critical part of the story’s finale and helps to bring their struggle full circle. However in the epilogue, we learn some dark facts about the fates of the other members in the Shwartz family.  I will not go into it here but will say that we all know what happened to many Jews who did not flee Europe.  Their fates and that of the other Shwartz brothers provide the dark cloud that hangs over the story because of the subject matter. Further, the extermination of the Jews is a topic for another discussion at another time. But if you are in search of a good book about the costs that were paid to endure the nightmare that was World War II, this book is a good addition to anyone’s library.

ASIN : B07MZ2ZL56

 

The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men – Eric Lichtblau

nazisSeventy-five years have passed since Germany suffered defeat in World War II. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) escaped justice by shooting himself with a pistol after watching Evan Braun (1912-1945) succumb to the ingestion of a poison laced capsule. Allied forces had hoped to put Hitler on trial for the whole word to see but the Austrian menace had no desire to fall into their hands.  While the hunt was on for other high-ranking Nazi officials, a secret operation was underway to bring hundreds of Hitler’s former conspirators to the United States as Washington began to prepare for the Cold War against the Soviet Union.  The mission was given the name Operation Paperclip and during its existence, some of the most notorious figures of the Third Reich were given a free pass to America and welcomed with open arms. Author Annie Jacobsen thoroughly examined the secret plan in her best-selling book Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.  The book is eye-opening and shocking, however it is far from the full story.  In fact, there were are more former Nazis hiding in America during and after World War II, sometimes right in plain sight.  Eric Lichtblau revisits the stories of the Nazis next door. 

The tone of the book is set early as we go back in time to a meeting with former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and Nazi General Karl Wolff (1900-1984) in which Wolff offers his services in getting Germany to surrender. The working relationship established that night was only the beginning of a long and dark association between the United States Government and the Third Reich’s former henchmen. Today, the thought of such a think taking place is bound to cause repulsion. But as World War II came to a close, Washington was focused on Moscow and was willing to take any help it could get in fighting off the threat of communism. And this paranoia of a red scare, encouraged officials to make deals with devils who had once taken part in the deaths of thousands of prisoners in concentration camps across Europe as the Final Solution began to take shape and German soldiers embarked on a rampage across the continent.

Here, the focus is on a select few former Nazis of high importance. And while there were probably hundreds of former guards and Wehrmacht soldiers who entered the United States, it would have been impossible for the author to have included all of their stories here. However, the select group of figures that we do learn of, are a fitting representation of the true horrors that came about through Nazi terror. The list is short but the story of each brings the past to life when Jews and other ethnic groups were being systematically murdered in mass numbers. Of the more prominent names, there is Dr. Hubertus Strughold (1898-1986) who was appointed Chief Scientist at the Aerospace Medical Division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The former nightmare to imprisoned Jews was given passage to America where he lived out a comfortable life and evaded Nazi hunters determined to see him face justice. We also learn of Hermine Braunsteiner (1919-1999) who slipped out of Germany and eventually settled in my hometown of New York City in Maspeth, Queens. Their names and places of residence are largely forgotten today and had it not been for zealous federal investigators, their former lives may have never been revealed, allowing them to live the quiet and peaceful life they denied to thousands of others as they inflicted death and destruction of those they deemed undesirable.

The amount of research that it took to complete this book is undoubtedly staggering. It is an incredible story chock full of crucial information that remains relevant even today, seven decades after the war. Further, although much time has passed since Germany’s surrender, there may be some former Nazis still living on American soil, having blended into society with their Nazi past carefully hidden. However, those in power in the CIA and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were fully aware of the Nazis coming into America. But the coming war against Moscow outweighed any concerns about former Nazi death dealers. The brazen willingness to accept these dark figures is on display in the book and the statements made by even the most revered heroes in American history might cause the mouths of readers to drop in amazement. In particular, the words of former Gen. George S. Patton (1885-1945) sent a chill down my spine and made me question if the goal was to eradicate Hitler and his group of racists demons or simply to prove that America could win against Germany while turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.

I have no doubt that many readers will find themselves stewing over the incredulous deals made with the Nazis. These secrets initially remained carefully hidden from the public light but eventually word got out and when it did, red-faced officials in the government knew they had a problem. A young independent hunter of Nazis named Charles R. Allen, Jr. (1924-2004) kick-started the movement to cleanse America of Third Reich conspirators. And while he was not a law enforcement officer or prosecutor, his actions which are covered here in the book highlight the intense passion with which he and others would employ in tracking down the enforcers of death. As the shock over America’s recruitment of Nazis began to dissipate and the truth about these figures came to light, the movement to hunt them down grew far more intense. And as the story here moves forward, prosecutors and politicians join together in the search for the former Nazis. Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman enters the story and takes charge against the Nazi menace lurking under the surface. She is joined by crusaders from the Justice Department who make it their life’s mission to track the former murderers down. And the result is an account that is riveting for its highs and also for its lows as the Justice Deparment scores victories and suffers a humiliating defeat as in the case of John Demjanjuk (1920-2012). The story is contained within and it is sure to leave readers speechless.

Just when you think the story is done, the author has even more to provide. And in addition to the stories of Nazis in America, Lichtblau also sheds light on the close working relationship between American intelligence and former Nazis still living on Germany soil whom the U.S. felt could be useful in gathering intelligence on the growing Soviet threat. The Nazi hunters left no stone unturned including many in other countries, even as far away as Lithuania as Justice Department investigator searched for any evidence he could find on Aleksandras Lileikis (1907-2000) who was eventually deported to Lithuania in 1996. It was clear to all who were paying attention, that Nazis were not safe anywhere and the Justice Department’s Nazi division was determined to see their targets face justice. Incredibly, not all in Washington were on board and the Nazi hunters faced opposition sometimes in the most unexpected places. Former Assistant to the President for Communications Pat Buchanan, served in the administration of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and his actions that are highlighted in the story should leave any upstanding American hot under the collar. As I read the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading. It makes one wonder just how committed some were in seeing the Nazis pay for their past crimes. And Buchanan was not alone. The Nazis even garnered support in their neighborhoods from other immigrants displaced from Europe and others in high positions of power. The truth is dark, disturbing and ugly, and will surely leave readers with more questions than answers.

We may never know how many former Nazis found a new life in America. Some may still be alive and living right under our noses. They will more than likely pass on quietly with the truth of their former lives and occupations carefully guarded secrets. But the truth about how many of them came to America is discussed here in a book that everyone can find value in. It is a painful reminder of the lengths to which America was willing to go in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and global domination.

ASIN : B00HK3LRKW

He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary – Christa Schroeder

Christa Recently, I reviewed the memoir of Traudl Junge (1920-2002) who served as one of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) secretaries during World War II.  Her book, Hitler’s Last Secretary is highly regarded as an intimate account of what Hitler was like behind closed doors. Hers is not the only book written by those who knew Hitler personally but it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting. Another secretary, Christa Schroeder (1908-1984), compiled this memoir about her life under Hitler during the war.  And although the book does not reveal anything groundbreaking, it is interesting in its own right. 

In comparison to Junge’s account, Schroeder’s also focuses on Hitler but takes a slightly different path in discussions about his association with various women whether friends or more intimate such as the case with Eva Braun (1912-1945). Some may be tempted to write off what she says about Braun as irrelevant gossip but I think she included it because of how Braun eventually became part of Hitler’s story. Schroeder points out in the book that before the end of the war, most people had no idea who Braun was. Hitler never publicly acknowledge being acquainted with any woman and always said that he belonged to Germany. His destiny as he saw it, was to lead the nation on a path of domination over Europe and if possible, the rest of the world. However, even Hitler had a softer side and it is clearly evident here. One subject that does come up which is still not completely understood is the suicide of his niece Angela Maria “Geli” Raubal (1908-1931). Her death just might be the critical piece of the puzzle in understanding Hitler’s future interactions with the opposite sex.

We do learn from Schroeder, that Hitler had a quite unusual relationship with his family. Today we would call it estranged and the author elaborates on the matter as follows:

“Hitler had no sense of family. His sister Paula was quite a few years younger than he was. She was a quiet, shy child and he had no great opinion of her. It may have been for the difference in their ages that he shut her out of his life. Paula lived in Vienna until the end of the Second World War, and then in Berchtesgaden until her death.”

I took notice of the irony that the most powerful man in Nazi Germany who professed never ending love for the fatherland, barely associated with his own family members. The revelation sets the stage for a Wizard of Oz type scenario in which we see the man behind the curtain. And the picture that is formed is of a person who was often at odds with nearly everything in society except his dog Blondie, beloved apple pie desserts and world domination.

Traudl Junge’s memoir is far more extensive mainly for the reason that she decided to include her life before Hitler in the book. Schroeder takes a different approach and makes no mention of childhood or life in Germany prior to joining Hitler. Readers that might be expecting a discussion of the rise of the Nazi party and Germany life prior to 1933, will not find much of it here. However, she does keep the narrative streamlined and the focus remains of the man who was her chief. She points of notable descriptions of his physique and mannerisms, some of which have been discusses elsewhere. Hitler’s trembling left hand enters the story as well as the role of the physician Theodor Morell (1886-1948). High-ranking members of the Reich and physicians were leery of Morrell and even went as far to advise Hitler of his physician’s ineptitude. Schroeder points out that:

“Dr. Brandt and Dr. Hasselbach explained to Hitler that the trembling of his left hand and gradual loss of vision were the result of the poisons in the anti-flatulence pills and that it was irresponsible of Dr. Morell to have made them freely available to be eaten like sweets.”

The subject of Hitler’s reliance on drugs is well-documented and it is widely known that before his famous meeting with Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) on July 20, 1944, Hitler had received one of Morrell’s “cocktails”. It is reported that Hitler raved non-stop for several hours. The chief was a physical and nervous wreck but remained determined to see a German victory even in the face of a clear defeat. Schroeder makes note of his changing mood and the atmosphere as the tide of the war changed and the Allies made steady progress towards Berlin. And in what could be described as surreal, the band played on.

Schroeder was given orders by Hitler to leave the bunker on April 20, 1945, and did not see what transpired in the bunker as the situation became dire and those who could leave did. Hitler refused to leave and Schroeder recalls Hitler phoning the secretaries as they were packing to depart. In the twelve years she worked for him, this was the only time that she recalled him ever using the phone to contact his secretaries. It was clear at this point that Berlin was beyond hope. Schroeder did not make it out of Germany but was instead taken into custody by Allied forces in May, 1945. On May 22, 1945, she was interviewed by Erich Albrecht, an officer of the US Counter-Intelligence Corp and the transcript is provided at the end of the book. There are no smoking guns in her answers but what I did notice was missing from the entire book was a discussion about the infamous Final Solution.

Christa Schroeder makes no mention of the Final Solution. There are no references to any camps. Unlike Traudl Junge who does acknowledge that they should have known what happening to the Jews, Schroeder says nothing. I do find it incredibly hard to believe that as Hitler’s secretary, she was unaware of what was happening to the Jews across Germany. While her position at one of Hitler’s secretaries would have isolated her from many things, the Final Solution was not a state secret. There were those who knew and many of them indeed. We will never know exactly how much she knew as she took with her to the grave, all knowledge she had about her years working for Hitler. Had she made a statement on the Final Solution and showed remorse, I believe that this book would be of more value. Sure, the book reveals a lot about Hitler but it stays completely away from his darkest fantasy, the idea of racial purity and the removal of all non-Aryan people from German society. It seems as if Germany’s darkest deed during the war was not important enough to merit even a comment in the author’s words. Schroeder is long gone but I am inclined to believe that she knew far more than she was willing to admit to and preferred to keep things close to the chest.

The number of books written about Adolf Hitler are numerous with some having much higher value than others naturally. Christa Schroeder’s account joins that group and while there is much value in what she says, there are also many questions regarding what she did not say.

ASIN : B00CBJXZA0

 

 

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany-Hans J. Massaquoi

20180602_234529January 30, 1933 – Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) becomes Chancellor of Germany and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party becomes the dominant political party in Germany.  As Hitler marched through the streets of Germany under the banner of the Third Reich, millions of Germans watched the history unfolding before them with both anticipation and apprehension.  Among them was a young Germany boy named  Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi (1926-2013), who was born to a Liberian father and German mother.  Over the next twelve years, he witnessed the transformation of German society in a bastion of racial ideology founded on Hitler’s unrelenting thirst for world conquest.  This is the story of his life growing up black in Nazi Germany.

The story begins in the wake of World War I in which the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany into a financially grueling situation.  On a cold day in January, 1926, Bertha Baetz (1903-1986) and Al-Hajj Massaquoi welcomed the birth of their son Hans.  For the Liberian Ambassador to Germany Momolu Massaquoi (1869-1938), his grandson Hans was a welcomed addition to the family but just three years later, life as they knew changed permanently as upheaval in Liberia forced the ambassador to return home.  He was followed by his son Al-Hajj but Bertha and Hans remained in Germany, unaware that an ambitious and fanatical Austrian menace was plotting the future of an entire country.  In seven years time, the reality of Adolf Hitler became horribly real.  Those who were able to leave Germany did and in some cases, left behind nearly everything they had. But others remained such as Hans and Bertha.  What they would see as the Nazi Party began its mission of racially purifying Germany is hauntingly captured here by Hans in this book that is sure to leave every reader with even more of an understanding of how ideology can develop into atrocities.

The title of the book gives the reader a clear idea of what to expect.  But there is far more to the story than what one might assume.  Growing up in Hamburg, love for his country and heritage is instilled in him from a young age by his Tante Möller who shows him the way to become an outstanding German citizen.  As a single mother, Bertha is tasked with raising a biracial child in a country where race is becoming the deciding factor for some between life and death.  Young Hans is unaware of the concept of race as a child until he begins to hear the term “neger”.  School proves to be the battleground and those tasked with his safety and education come from different sides of the fence such as the welcome Fräulein Beyle and Herr Schneider. They stand in stark contrast to the sadistic Herr Grimmelshäuser, Herr Wriede and Herr Dutke.  Readers should be aware that these may not be the actual names of the teachers as Massaquoi points out at the beginning that some names were changed but the events are correct.

Outside of the classroom, other important figures in his life enter the story as he passes from young boy, adolescent youth and into adulthood.  In each phase, he goes through a transformation as the world changes around him but he is always aware of his status as a “nichtarien”. His mother Bertha proves to be his guardian angel and after one demoralizing day at school which results in Hans wanting to reject his own physiology, mother and son have the following exchange:

“Whether you know it or not, your hair is beautiful,” she tried to assure me. “It’s easy for you to talk,” I told her, pointing to her lustrous, wavy dark brown hair. “You’ve got straight hair like everybody else.” “I would give it to you if I could. I so much wish I could, if that’s what would make you happy,” she said, “but I can’t. So you just have to learn to like the hair you’ve got. One day, when you are older, you’ll understand and agree with me when I say that your hair is beautiful.”

As the book progresses, we witness Hans’ inner turmoil as he struggles to fit in with his classmates while coming to terms of the growing influence of Nazi ideology that had reached the classroom as well.   And the restriction placed upon “non-Aryans” all but closed off Hans and other minorities from mainstream Germany society.  In spite of the adversity,  he continues to develop physically, mentally and emotionally.  Love and friendship are two pillars in the story and come in the form of several people that we meet such as Gerda, Gretchen Jahn, the Giordano family, Onkel Karl, Tante Grete, Trudchen and Inge.  And as a bonus towards the end of the book, Massaquoi provides un update on all to the fullest extent possible. It is said that people come into our lives for a reason and I believe that is fully on display here.

The war soon becomes the central topic in the book when Hitler accomplishes the infamous Anchluss with neighboring Austria.  The Nazi empire began its steamroll across Europe but the first Allied bombing raid on Hamburg caught the attention of German citizens who had believed up until then that the Luftwaffe was invincible.  Without re-telling the story of the war, it can be said that as the war dragged on, Germany sank further into dire straits. The author reveals what he saw in Hamburg before and during the deadly bombing raid known as Operation Gomorrah in 1943 which killed over 41,000 Hamburg citizens.  After leaving Hamburg with his mother and staying with relatives in Salza, Massaquoi has a glimpse of the camp at Kohnstein known today as Concentration Camp Dora-Mittelbau. And while he never enters the camp, what he describes is more than enough to inform us of what was taking place.

Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945 sealed Germany’s fate once and for all. But surprisingly, the news was met with a range of reactions as will be seen in the book.  Post-war Germany found itself in ruins and under Allied occupation.  The author soon learns that everything has a price and provides us with interesting anecdotes regarding his interactions with both American and British Troops. Smitty and Warner are two of the prominent figures with the latter becoming a lifelong friend.  But Hans is determined to get out of Germany and reestablishes contact with his father Al-Hajj in Monrovia. It is here that his life takes a very big turn that results in him eventually making his way to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Massaquoi’s experiences in Monrovia and Lagos are certainly a mixed bag.  But his friendship with his half-brother Morris and determination to become his own man set in chain the series of events that culminated with his arrival in Chicago, Illinois in 1950.  But the story is far from over and even Uncle Sam comes calling.  His life story is simply unbelievable but also a testament to the human spirit to continue even in the most adverse conditions.  And his reunion in America with the most important people in his life bring the book to a fitting close.  The horrors of the Third Reich are well-known and there are no shortages of voices from within Nazi Germany that have told the world of what they saw.  Adolf Hitler, a man consumed by the idea of racial purity and hatred towards those of the Jewish faith, ignited the spark that set off World War II and nearly caused the completely destruction of Germany.  But he could have never guess that there was a young biracial child who would grow up one day and write of a time in world history that he was destined to witness.

ISBN-10: 0060959614
ISBN-13: 978-0060959616

 

Hitler’s Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler -Traudl Junge with Melissa Muller

TraudlOn April 30, 1945, the Soviet Union Red Army, had reached within several blocks of the Reich Chancellory.  Realizing that their fates were sealed, Reich Chancellery Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and Eva Braun (1912-1945) took their own lives instead of risking capture by Allied forces.  Over the next two days, those who had chosen to remain with them in the underground bunker made their way to surface and attempted to flee Berlin.  Among them was one of Hitler’s personal secretaries, Gertraud “Traudl” Junge (1920-2002).  As a close assistant to the Führer, she found herself in a unique position to observe the daily routine of one of the most powerful men in world history.   This is her memoir of the time she spent with the man who lit the spark for the second world war.

Traudl Junge was one of several people close to Hitler who wrote about their time with him at different points in his life.  Two memoirs that stand out in particular are The Young Hitler I Knew by August Kubizek (1888-1956) and I Was Hitler’s Pilot by Hans Baur (1897-1993).  Both are very good books and show Hitler’s life in different time periods.  Neither discuss the Final Solution in detail and I do not believe that Kubizek was a member of the Nazi Party.  However he was a close friend of the teenage Adolf Hitler and in his book, recalls many memories of their time together during their teen years.  Junge’s account is just as appealing and confirms much of what has been written about the cast of characters that formed the leadership of the Third Reich.

The information she reveals here is not anything groundbreaking nor are there any “smoking guns”.   In fact, there is very little discussion of the war or the Final Solution.  In regards to the war, Junge was assigned to stay close to Hitler and rarely left his side.  Her knowledge and exposure to the war comes largely from dictation that she is asked to type, military figures who arrive to converse with Hitler and the fate of her husband Hans Herman Junge (1914-1944).  The atrocities against Germany’s Jews also receives very little discussion.  But there is a scene in which the wife of a high-ranking official brings up the deportation of Jews.  The matter is not discussed further and Junge does not see her come around again.  As to how much she knew about the extermination camps will always be a mystery.  She did reveal some things here but any other information she may have kept close to the chest went with her to the grave when she died on February 10, 2002.  In 1973, she sat for an interview which was later included in a documentary called World at War, which aired on British television.  It is one of several interviews she gave about her time as Hitler’s secretary.  The program is available on YouTube and can be found here.  And to my surprise she speaks in fluenty English while recalling the memories she had with vivid clarity.  Of course, more than thirty years had passed since war ended and her once brown hair had by then, turned completely white.  But what she says in the interview closely matches what is written in the book.

What is really good about this story is that Junge observes many things about everyone who comes in and out of Hitler’s circle.  What becomes clear throughout the book is that Hitler is without a doubt the pupeteer and those under his command, who are entranced by his aura, go above and beyond to gain his admiration and sabotage competitors.  Rivalries, infidelity, gluttony and even drunkeness are all on the table as Junge gives her descriptions of the many faces she meets in just a few very short years.  And at times, the events that take place make it seem as if Hitler and his suboordinates lived in an alternate reality.

Hitler is by far the star of the show and Junge’s account of his daily activites provides an intimate look at the Führer. And in an almost Wizard of Oz like setting, we go behind the curtains and observe the contradiction between Hitler the leader and Hitler the person who cunningly presents himself as a benevolent father like figure, only concerned with Germany and its people.  Junge easily admits that his charm and personality blinded her to the evil lurking under the surface.  And that side of him is what kept Junge and others arround him largely unaware of major events that were spelling doom for Germany.  Admittedly, the picture she shows of Hitler does give the impression of a harmless older gentleman who many of us would love to have around. However, the cracks in the facade began to appear and she sums the point up perfectly in this quote:

Hitler lived, worked, played with his dog, ranted and raged at his generals, ate meals with his secretaries, and drove Europe towards its fate – and we hardly noticed. Germany was echoing with the wail of sirens and the roar of enemy aircraft engines. Fierce battles were being fought in the East.

This climate of insulation kept Hitler partially blind to his own egomania and the reality on the front lines.  News reports painting a grim picture for Germany’s success do come in and Junge vividly recalls those moments where Hitler literally flew into rages.  And at one point, even as the Russians are steadily advancing on Berlin, he still remains committed to defeating the Red Army.  Perhaps it was delusion or refusal to accept that the destiny he planned for Germany would never come to fruition.  By the time Hitler has decided to take his own life, it is clear to all involved that Germany is doomed. The reality of living in a post-war Germany as a Reich conspirator and the fear of Soviet capture, induced others to follow Hitler’s path including the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), his wife Magda Goebbels (1901-1945) and their six children. Today it might seem extreme that they chose death but Junge recalls a comment by Madga that explains the thoughts of those in the bunker:

“Frau Goebbels talked to me about it. There were no differences of class or rank any more, we were all bound together by fate. Frau Goebbels was in greater torment than any of us. She was facing six deaths, while the rest of us had only to face one. ‘I would rather have my children die than live in disgrace, jeered at. Our children have no place in Germany as it will be after the war.” 

Yet even as Hitler was planning his own demise, there were still others were carrying out their duties even if the Führer would not.  The efforts to achieve a negotiated surrender by Heinrich Himmler(1900-1945) and the attempt to seize control of the Reich by Hermann Goering (1893-1946) are both discussed, providing us with a look into the fragmented and substance riddled mind of the Führer, partly due to years of the injections by the Reich “Spritzenmeister”, Dr. Theodor Morrell (1886-1948).  The doctor makes an appearance as well and it is clear that Junge held the same opinion as many others about Hitler’s favorite doctor.

At less than three hundred pages, the book is slightly on the shorter side. But I do feel that Junge and Muller produced a very good memoir that will remain a welcomed addition to my library.  Some readers might expect more from her but what she did leave for us adds another level of authenticity to history’s record of Adolf Hitler’s last days.

ASIN: B005V2EEG8

The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History – Katrin Himmler

himmlersLearning one’s family history can be an enlightening and liberating experience. However, it can also reveal many truths that some wish to remain hidden.  So what happens when you discover that your grandfather, the younger brother of a key architect in the “Final Solution” was not as innocent as you have been led to believe?  Well, that is what happened to Katrin Himmler, whose grandfather Ernst Himmler (1905-1945), was the younger brother of  Schutzstaffel Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945).  Himmler’s father had asked her to search the Federal Archives in Berlin for information on his father Ernst and what she discovered was a trove of information not just on her grandfather, but on her uncles Heinrich and Gebhard Himmler (1898-1982). What started out as simple research request, evolved into the family history contained within the pages of this eye-opening account of the Himmler story.

The book is not simply a collection of facts but rather a frank and beautifully written dicussion of the Himmler lineage, German politics and two world wars, both of which crippled Germany immensly.  The second war proved to be even more destructive for Germany than the first.  The Bavarian history in the Himmler family line is revisited and provides insight into daily life in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century.  The Himmlers are neither wealthy or in poverty but rather live in a comfortable middle class existence until a world war changes their entire lives.  The surrender of Germany in 1918, also referred to as the “stab in the back”, crippled the Germany economy, causing the Himmler family’s fortunes to take a stifling blow.   For Gebhard, who served in the war, it was a turning point in his life and younger brothers Heinrich and Gebhard would emulate their older sibling in military service.  And by the time Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) seized power in Germany, all three had become dedicated members of the Nazi Party.

If I had to quickly describe the book, I would say that it’s a biography of all three brothers. Katrin does a masterful job of recreating their intertwined lives and brings the past to life.  The brothers take slightly different paths while finding purpose, love and the accomplishment of their dreams. Heinrich would emerge as the most notorious of the three, using his powerful position within the Reich to influence the lives of those closest to him in various ways.  As World War II heated up, the Himmler brothers rose in  importance within the Reich but only one would surive the conflict.  And although each served in different capacities within the Reich, their allegiance to each other never wavers even in spite of trivial sibling rivalries.  Their differences are writted of here with Heinrich seeming to do most of the writng and griping.

The rise of National Socialism in Germany is well-document.  Heinrich became fanatical in his adoration for Hitler.  His brothers however, do not come across as fanatical in the book. In fact, there are hardly any “radical” statements from Ernst at all.  And while he certainly did join the Nazi party, there is no record of atrocities on his part as he was a communcations specialist and focused on radio transmissions.  But as part of the Reich, he certainly would have fallen into allied hands.  His demise at the end of the war is still a mystery as exlained by his granddaughter.  It is undoubtedly one of the many unexplained events of the second world war.

While the Nazi party and World War II are some of the interesting parts of the book, the personal lives of each are also explored to show readers the personal struggles and successes of each.  Marriage, children and even infidelity all have their part.  Class differences and opposing views on religion also factor in the story as each Himmler brother finds the woman they eventually marry.  For one brother however, one wife was not enough.  And the resolution to the predicament enlightened me on a topic which I was not aware of previously.  Those who are interested in further reading might want to look up the term Sippengemeinschaft which translate into “Clan Community” in English. As to how many of these communities existed in Nazi Germany during the war, is anyone’s guess.

I should note that Hitler himself only appears a few times in the story, mainly as a passing reference.  Further, the book does not focus on how and why Germany lost the war.  Readers in search of a full and thorough discussion will find that in William L. Shirer’s best selling classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. However, each brother did play a critical role in Reich functions to varying degrees with Heinrich standing out for obvious reasons.  The collapse of Germany became clear months before Berlin fell but up to the end, the brothers were quite busy in and around Berlin. In fact, the author examines correspondence between Ernst and Heinrich that makes one wonder if they really believed that Germany would come away unscathed.  To describe the letter as surreal would be an understatement and even our author is perplexed as the conversation contained within the letter.

When it became apparent that all hope was lost, each brother made their attempt to flee Berlin.  Their final moments in war are detailed here by their descendant Katrin Himmler.  Gebhard’s plight after being captured by Allied forces is also included as well as his life post-war.  The children of the former officials are also discussed but I should point out that as I write this post, Gudrun Himmler is deceased, having died on May 24, 2018Children of other Nazi leaders are still alive, well in advanced years.  Some of their stories can be found in the very interestinMy Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders-An Intimate History of Damage and Denial, in which several explain the effect the war has had on their lives.  On a side note, Gudrun Himmler never renounced her father and remained committed to his image and beliefs throughout her life.

At the end of the book, a photo collection is included to match faces with the names in the story. And as I viewed the photos, I could not help to think of how an idyllic Germany family of its time would later be polarized and decimated by extreme ideology and world conflict. But such is the power of propaganda. This is the Himmler Brothers’ story as told by descendant Katrin Himmler.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B0085TRXT4

Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany – Stephen Ambrose

20200224_014143On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, France and commenced an ground war against Nazi Germany.  The European Theatre was marked by brutal fighting that saw high numbers of casualties on all sides of the conflict.  In the end, Nazi Germany fell to allied forces and accepted an unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, commonly known as VE Day.  The Japanese military continued to fight and remained defiant until two atomic bombs forced it too into surrending to Allied forces.  VJ Day marked the end to World War II and the world breathed a sign of relief.  For the United States Army, the European Theatre was a hard fought campaign that no one ever wanted to see again.  Author Stephen Ambrose has composed a breathtaking account of the Army’s mission from the beaches at Normandy until the Allies seized Berlin in May, 1945.

It should be noted that this book is focused on the army in particular and not the other branches of the armed forces such as the Marines and Air Force.  While the author does discuss air warfare during the conflict, the focus never wavers from the army.  This is the grunt’s view of the war, in all of its horror and glory.   Some readers may find the subject matter tough to read.  The author pulls no punches and the descriptions of events that take place sometimes contain graphic details that bring home the horrors of war. But to accurately capture the gritty reality of the army’s mission, it is necessary.

As to be expected, the book follows the war’s timeline so that we can see the progression of the army’s efforts, their failurs and ultimate success.  The Allied command are driven by the former General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and General George Patton (1888-1945).  Even General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam during the Vietnam War makes an appearance. But make no mistake this is Eisenhower and Patton’s show, with each serving as the focus of a significant portion of the book, in particular when the European Theatre reaches middle to late 1944.  The story is exciting and the pace is quick, with a significant number of names and places that will require extensive note taking.

Ambrose does an incredible job of covering not just the battles but all aspects of life as an infrantry soldier commonly known as a grunt.  Life in infantry is tough, thankless and also deadly.  Enemy soldiers, shells, mines and even freak accidents are the constant array of threats faced by the grunts.  Europe is revealed as vast landscape of different terrains, some favorable for combat and others such as the Hurtgen Forest, seeming to come out of a horror film.  And as Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) let his paranoia consume him, both sides settled in for a long and brutal fight.  But the Allies remained determined and during the Europeant Theatre, it soon becomes clear that Germany would lose the war.  The author discusses the German war effort, providing critical facts as to how and why it was no match for Allied forces in a protacted struggle.

On the American side, there are areas of confusion and even critical failure.  Further, the plague known as trench foot proved to be as damaging as casualties that occurred in battle.  Ambrose explores the trench foot issue, explaining just how much of an impact it hand on the infantry and troop supply.  It is critical to understanding just how dangerous life on the front lines was during the war.

The United States Army had committed itself to eliminating Adolf Hitler and restoring peace to the world. However, at home, the United State still had yet to face its own problem of Jim Crow and open discrimination against its minority citizens.  Ambrose does not shy away from the topic and sheds light on the racism that was nearly system wide in the military during the war. However, he also shows how black G.I.s served and proved themselves to be as good as others soldiers on the battlefield.  The time he devotes to the topic does justice to the black soldiers who served in World War II including my great-grandfather Floyd Davision (1913-1988).  I can only imagine what he saw, heard and experienced as a black soldier in a time when segregation was still the law of the land.

The number of facts provided in the book are staggering, yet it does not feel overwhelming any point in the book.  The narrative flows freely and the author writes in a style that is gripping and brings the past to life as we move across Europe with sights set on Berlin.  In what can only be described as bizarre, Hitler had decided to conduct military planning himself, rendering his generals almost useless.  It was pure insanity and Ambrose examines the mistakes made by Hitler that sealed Germany’s fate several times before the war was officially over.  Readers will find themselves scratching their heads at Hitler’s actions.  However, Eisenhower and other commanders were waiting for him to slip up and when he did, the gloves came off and the Army went to work.  It had a job to do and would not stop until Berlin fell into Allied hands.  With the Red Army closing in from the east and America from the west, Hitler knew his fate was sealed and took his own life thus evading justice at Nuremberg.  The nation he left behind was in ruins and Ambrose provides photos of the devastation.  It is said that picture sometimes speaks a thousand words.  They certainly do here in this book.

The battle to defeat Nazism was long and bloody but also a display of American and Soviet military might.  In the story at hand, the U.S. Army rose to the occasion and took many bumps along the way.  From start to finish the story is written beautifully there should be no doubt that the American campaign in World War II changed the war and the course of history.  As each year passes, more veterans join the ranks of the deceased, taking with them countless memories of the war.  Their names will be forever linked to it but for some veterans, Ambrose has given them a moment of fame in a book that provides a thorough examination of experienced military planning and execution.  When its country needed them, the citizen soldiers of the U.S. Army rose to the occasion and showed the German menace the power of democracy and freedom.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 068848015
ISBN-13: 978-0684848013

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II – Gregory A. Freeman

20200215_203354A colleague gave me this book as a gift during the holiday season, mainly due to his knowledge of my fondness for history.  I quickly made a mental note to give it a read in the near future.  When I saw the title, I was slightly puzzled at the term “The Forgotten 500”.  I have read books on World War II but none mentioned any 500 forgotten soldiers.  Upon closer inspection, I soon began to realize why I had not heard the story.  At the time the mission  occurred, it was carefully hidden by the State Department and Office of Strategic Services who did not wish to jeopardize the lives of any remaining U.S. soldiers still trapped behind enemy lines. Further, in the years that followed, the the story faded into the annals of military history regarding the second world war. Even my father, who is an ardent World War II buff, has never mentioned this story.  Our next discussion will certainly be interesting.

So who exactly were the forgotten 500?  Well, the story takes place in Yugoslavia, where American, British and French airmen have been provided refuge by the local men and women who are fiercely anti-Nazi after Adolf Hitler ordered the Germany Wehrmacht to occupy their country.  The airmen had been sent out on bombing missions to eliminate the German fuel supply lines in Ploesti, Romania.  Berlin knew the value of the supply lines and carefully mounted anti-aircraft batteries around the supply stations in anticipation of Allied attacks.  American crews were typically successful in attacking the lines but suffered heavy damage to aircraft and high number of casualties.  Those who abandoned ship upon orders of the pilot, typically landed in the Yugoslavian countryside and were quickly taken in by peasants and farmers.  This is the story of their survival behind enemy lines 0and the incredible mission to rescue them from German occupied territory.

Today, many of the soldiers who served in World War II are deceased and they took with them to their graves, many untold stories of heroism and heartbreak during the war.  Their names are only remembered by those who knew them closely and for the forgotten 500, the same story would apply if not for this book.  The role of Yugoslavia in World War II is underrepresented in the larger narrative of the conflict.  By 1992, it had broken apart in the wake of a bitter civil war that saw the loss of over two-hundred thousand lives.  Tensions between Serbians, Croatians and other ethnic groups had reached a tipping point in 1989 and could no longer be contained.  in 1995, peace was formally restored but to this day, tensions continue to simmer underneath the surface.  Several decades prior, Yugoslavia was seen a prized possession by both Germany and the Soviet Union and the invasion by German forces served as an impediment to its full independence.   As a result, the people came to the aid of downed airmen and protected them fiercely in spite of the looming German military.

The author introduces us in the beginning of the book to the airmen who have been assigned the task of attacking Ploesti.  Each mission is doomed from the start, forcing all on board to grab their parachutes and jump to whatever fate lies ahead.  Miraculously, they are each found by the locals, embraced and given shelter.   However, as more Allied planes fall victim to German weaponry, it soon becomes evident that the large number of airmen will have to find a way out of the country and back to Italy, where American bases have been established.  The only problem is that the area is surrounded by German troops who will surely notice a major extraction mission.  Washington knows it must do something but is pressed for ideas. The Office of Strategic Services enters the picture and the story changes gears completely.

The author does a fantastic job of providing enough back story to set the stage for the eventual rescue mission.  To understand the situation in Yugoslavia, he provides a thorough discussion of the struggle for power between Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and Washington over the the small Baltic nation.  Inside the country, German forces are opposed by the Communist Josip Tito (1892-1980) and pro-western Draza Mihailovich (1893-1946).  Tito and Mihailovich are engaged in their own power struggle but determined to defeat the Nazi menace.  However, there were other events and agendas taking place outside of Yugoslavia that dictated the course of the war and came to haunt Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who later called Yugoslavia his biggest mistake of the war.  The three-way dance that ensued and the deception that occurred are covered here and will undoubtedly surprise many.  I found myself shaking my head at the series of mis-steps by Allied forces that seemed to be unaware of Stalin’s true and barely hidden agenda.

Those familiar with World War II history will know about the role of the Office of Strategic Services, under the direction of its first director, the legendary William Donovan (1883-1959).  The agency boasted such recruits as future Central Intelligence Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and celebrity chef Julia Child (1912-2004).  Today it might seem surprising that even civilians were recruited by intelligence agencies but during World War II, all bets were off.  The OSS dad a job to do and as we see in the book, they were determined not to fail.  Donovan’s ability to get President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) to agree to the mission is one of the best anecdotes in the book and shows how urgent it became to rescue the stranded airmen.

The approval of Donovan’s request set into a motion a series of events that brought together several different departments and two governments in an effort to pull of a rescue mission that no one had ever attempted before.  The logistics are all covered in the book showing the high amount of risk that came with it.  The margin for error was virtually non-existent but the people involved rose to the call of duty and this part of the book is uplifting and also high on suspense. One mistake could result in falling into German hands and an international diplomatic nightmare.  But surprisingly not everyone was on the same page and the smaller battle between Washington and London is beyond surreal.  It is a story you do have to read to believe.

Following the mission, the airmen return to civilian life but are dismayed to see how the international game of chess continues to be played.  Tito’s rise and Mihailovich’s demise are some of the darker moments in the book. The airmen voice their disapproval with the official narrative and Freeman retraces their steps showing their never-ending commitment to honoring the legacy of their Yugoslavian hosts.  At the end of the book, he provides an update on the airmen, some of whom were alive at the time the book was published in 2008.  Now that twelve years have passed, I do not believe that they are still living but their memory is preserved eternally in this story that is simply unbelievable.  For all of you World War II buffs, this book is a must have. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0451224957
ISBN-13: 978-0451224958