Category: <span>World War II</span>

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

 

Biographies World War II

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

World War II

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

World War II

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

World War II

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

World War II

baurA few days ago I was browsing recommendations on Amazon and came across this book whose title caught my attention. I have not read anything on Nazi Germany in quite some time so I decided to take a closer look.  I was unaware of Hans Baur (1897-1995) and his relationship with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).  As the Fuhrer’s pilot, I knew Baur would have very intimate knowledge of Hitler’s life behind the scenes and the book does not disappoint.  However, it should be noted that it is really Baur’s story with Hitler filling many of the pages for obvious reasons.  The story is interesting but I could not help feel that Baur left many things out.  Readers may also feel the same way for reasons that will be discussed below.

Baur begins with his early life but quickly moves forward to his career as a pilot.  It is apparent from the start that he was a very gifted aviator with an extraordinary career.  His recollections about the early days of aviation are fascinating and will remind the reader that flying today is exponentially safer than it once was.   He does not go into too much technical detail but just enough so that anyone can follow along.  He even discusses some monumental moments in aviation including the founding of the German airline Lufthansa.  From a historical standpoint, it is a good summary of the development of air travel in Europe. But by no means is it the only source of information and Baur never implies as much.  He was a devoted pilot and you can feel his love of aviation in his words.  With hundreds of thousand of air miles, the future for him was bright but his entire life changed when he was summoned to appear before Adolf Hitler.

It will be no surprise that at this point in the book, the story picks up pace sharply.  Hitler is no ordinary passenger, but instead the Fuhrer who ruled Germany and began a world war.  Curiously, the image of Hitler given by Baur is in stark contrast to the man who plotted to take over Europe and gave the go ahead for the Final Solution. The Hitler we see here comes across as an affable uncle type character who dotes on his close acquaintances and their children.  In Baur’s defense, his time with Hitler was mainly spent in the air and in private conversation.  And according to his words, Hitler did not discuss future plans for the war with him, typically resulting in Baur finding out major news at the very last minute from someone else working for the Fuhrer.

Because the book is about the Third Reich, there is the elephant in the room regarding the treatment of the Jews.  Baur barely discusses it and only brings it up once in the book.  Without Baur here to answer for himself, it is nearly impossible to say what he believed about Jewish people.   At no point in the book does he display any antisemitism but it is possible that even if he did have those feelings, he would not have stated such in his memoirs.  I was honestly mystified about this and felt that if he was against the Final Solution, he would have made a statement clarifying his position.  But that is simply my opinion.  0Most likely, he had very good reasons to avoid discussing the Final Solution.   This may not satisfy some readers but I caution that the book is still good regardless.

His inside position in Hitler’s circle gave him unrestricted access nearly everywhere and he interacted with all of the major figures of the Reich.  Hermann Goering (1893-1946) and Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) are frequent flyers with Baur, whose criticisms of Goering are quite amusing.  But what is more incredible is that he was present at nearly every major moment in the history of the Reich.  And although he had no military power or responsibilities in planning aerial missions against the Allies, he was a keen observer of the reality facing Germany as it started to become clear that the war would be lost.  Baur is frank in his assessments of those around him and the German war effort.  He confirms what historians have written for years and what many Germans began to realize as the Allies started to make gains and bomb in broad daylight.

In April, 1945, the Allies began to close in on Berlin.  Hitler knew the end was near and had buried himself inside his bunker.  Baur stayed with him until the very end, resisting Hitler’s efforts to send him off.  He provides a detailed account of the final days with Hitler and what happened inside the bunker.  The information he provides can be crossed-referenced and readers will find that it matches with the descriptions given by other authors. However, I believe that the entire dialogue between Baur and Hitler is not provided anywhere else.  As I read this part of the book, I found myself in disbelief at some of the scenes that play out even as the Red Army is only hundreds of yards away.   They are surreal and caused me to wonder if those involved believed they were in a film and waiting for the director to yell cut.

Following Hitler’s death, Baur escapes with several others before falling into Soviet Hands.  The last part of the book is about his time as a prisoner of war being held in Russia.  It was clearly a rough experience and he explains in detail all that happened.  His title and rank resulted in never ending questions and Soviet officers maintained disbelief that he had no knowledge the Reich’s war plans.  After ten hard years, he was released and returned to Germany in a homecoming.  I leave it up to readers to decide whether he was a hero or a war criminal guilty by association.  Yet it is also possible that he was simply Hitler’s pilot.

ASIN: B00FOGG0ZE

Biographies World War II

paperclipOn April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler fatally shot his wife Eva Braun and then turned the gun on himself as it became evidently clear that allied forces were closing on the führerbunker.  The fear of falling into Russian hands and a subsequent trial for war crimes proved to be too much for the top echelon of the Third Reich that remained in Berlin.  Many top-ranking officials  had previously fled and others had left Germany after realizing that all hope for a victory in the war had been lost.  As allied forces move in and occupied the country, the true horrors of the Nazi reign became clear and soldiers were faced with the grim discoveries of concentration camps, emaciated and dead prisoners.  The Final Solution had been revealed for the entire world to see.  In the aftermath of the war, several hundred Nazi party members were executed by allied forces. Others were acquitted or had their death sentences commuted to long-term imprisonment.  Another group consisting of scientists and doctors, found their way to America with the help of the United States Government in what became known as Operation Paperclip.  Their story is the focus of this incredible book by author Annie Jacobsen.

Government files regarding the secret operation had been marked classified and would have remained hidden if not for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which gave Americans a tool to learn the truth about many of the Government’s secrets. This tool was thoroughly employed by Jacobsen in discovering the truth of this story that was first disclosed by the New York Times.  Jacobsen explains herself that some of her FOIA requests are still pending and it is unknown if or when they will be answered.  Nevertheless, she has written the story that will shock anyone who decides to open the pages of this book.   Her focus is on selected former doctors and scientists of the Reich who had worked on the V-2 rocket program at Nordhausen and concentration camps in which medical and biological experiments had been conducted, with Auschwitz and Ravensbrück being high on the list.  I warn readers that this book is not for the faint at heart .  The atrocities that are revealed defy logic and reveal the very dark side of human nature.  And as the book progresses, the names of the former scientist and doctors will be seared into the reader’s memory as a reminder of the many secrets the Third Reich tried to hide as the military collapsed.   As horrible as the actions of the Reich were, the crux of the book is the courting and resettlement of former Nazis by the United States Government through a program that will cause consternation, shock and even anger in some readers.

The book begins as the German military collapses in defeat and allied forces are scouring Berlin and other parts of Germany on intelligence missions to discover the secrets of the Reich.  Britain and Russia are also conducting their own intelligence missions and a race against time develops as the three nations each seek to obtain as much information as they can from their defeated enemy.   As the author explains, the Cold War was looming in the distance and in the name of “national security”, government officials were more than willing to recruit former Nazis out of fears they would be recruited and resettled in the Soviet Union.  The V-2 rocket and nerve agents Tabun and Sarin, became hot items as superpowers prepared for the next world war which they believed would include the use of biological weapons.  The United States spared no expense and would not let Joseph Stalin have the upper hand.  The brilliant German minds behind innovations that exceeded allied capacity were to be recruited at all costs, even at the expense of morality.  Annie Jacobsen has captured the emotion and tense battles that raged as the State Department battled the military over a program that it found to be appalling.  The American public slowly became aware of this nefarious program and mounting opposition forced the Government to act in what could described as a war against itself.

The main focus is rightly on the secret intelligence operation but the author also includes a stead stream of facts about other members of the Reich and actions that were being taken behind the scenes throughout Germany as the tide of the war changed and defeat became a stark reality.  The entire cast of characters makes an appearance in the story. Some would escape Germany, fleeing to South America and others took their own lives rather than be tried, convicted and executed in a military trial.  Before the collapse of the Reich, officials went to great lengths to hide as much information as possible from the allied forces.  Today there is a strong possibility that secret tombs exist containing secrets of the Reich are still hidden across Germany.  Time will tell if all of them will be discovered or if they will continue to fade from public consciousness.

The amount of research that was conducted in order to produce this book is staggering.  Yet, there is still much we do not know about Operation paperclip as the Government claims files were lost or destroyed.  Some are still classified with no release date on the horizon.  At some point in time, someone will find out the truth about what truly did happened in the wake of World War II as America embraced German talent.  By then, anyone who participated in World War II will be long gone, rendering any type of prosecution or accountability null.  But the public will finally know just how complicit American officials and the White House were in recruiting war criminals for the technological advancement of the United States.  Jacobsen has given us a detailed roadmap with which to start and this book will undoubtedly stand the test of times as one of the finest works on the Third Reich.  My only complaint about this book is that I wished it had never ended.  I found myself glued to the book from the beginning and was unable to put it down.  The is the true story of Operation Paperclip, one of World War II’s darkest secrets.

ASIN: B00BAXFBI

World War II

20190202_003914On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination.  Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally.  Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”.  But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict?  The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).

In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler  (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought.   Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain.  By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions.  Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.

At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich.  And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events.  But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see.  In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average.  But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history.  As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up.   Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings.  But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.

Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification.  In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book.   Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan.  However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath.  Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique.  Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank.   The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe.  Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously.  Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all.  The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.

On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before.  He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today.  Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion.  But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet.  Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister.  This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.

ISBN-10: 0517593106
ISBN-13: 978-0517593103

Biographies World War II

20180603_133752On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich invaded Poland and started the Second World War.  In violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had rearmed itself and under the determination of Hitler, set its eyes upon conquering all of Europe.  The looming threat of German domination had been lingering for quite some time before the outbreak of the war.  But sadly, many of the nations that would later be opposed to Germany did not think that Hitler would be brazen enough or have the resources to initiate a world conflict.  In hindsight, we know that way of thinking was short-sighted and later highly regrettable.  The actions of the British government in response to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, resulted in the condemnation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and established Germany as a legitimate threat to world peace. The episode has been recalled in history books and documentaries and continues to provoke discussion about how Hitler could have been stopped before his army invaded neighboring Poland.

In 1940, a student at Harvard University presented to his professor with his senior thesis entitled Why England Slept.  Twenty years later he became the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States of America, known affectionately as Jack.  To the world, he remains John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).  The thesis was eventually published into this short but well-researched and well-written book that probes the question of why England failed to respond to the growing Germany menace.   Henry R. Luce (1898-1967), the creator of Time-Life magazine provides a foreword to this edition, published in 1962.  Incredibly, the book sold for $.95 as printed on the cover.  I believe it was severely undersold.   The beauty in the book is that Kennedy does not simply lay blame for Hitler at England’s feet. Instead he examines the conditions and beliefs that lead to the slow realization that armament was necessary and that Hitler was a very real threat.  It should be remembered that Kennedy spent a great deal of time in London as the son of then Ambassador to Great Britain and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.   Fully aware of the nature of British culture and politics, Kennedy wisely incorporates this into the text which helps to explain many of the actions and inaction taken.

In fairness to Britain, it was not easy to foresee the coming of the German nightmare. Hitler invoked secretive maneuvers, arouse national sentiment and provided a source of hope to a nation in despair. And as Kennedy thoroughly points out, he had the advantage of running a dictatorship against a democracy, the latter of which is always slower to respond to the threats of war. Furthermore, distance and size gave Germany advantages against the prying eyes of foreign nations.  Today social media has made it far more difficult to conceal the mass production of good and machinery. But in the 1930s, secrecy was easier to effect and many countries used it to their benefit.  But even so, Britain did know that Hitler was up to something and was aware that Germany had slowly been rearming itself.  But the slowness to act depending on several factors that Kennedy lays out for all to see and understand.  Sympathy of Germany, pacifism in Britain, a restricted budget, naiveté and political ambition combined to severely delay the rearmament of Britain prior to beginning of the deadliest war in world history. And as Kennedy explores each issue, we may find ourselves filled with shock and disbelief towards England’s actions. However it is imperative to remember that we have the benefit of history our on side and look back and see the errors of their ways.  England did not have this advantage and even struggled internally with how to deal with growing danger.

More than seventy years have passed since the end of World War II. Hitler was eventually defeated and Britain was spared from annexation by the Third Reich.  But this account of England’s actions prior to the war will remain a guide for us to use as we face new threats to world peace.   And it is hoped that world leaders will remind us of why England slept.

ASIN: B000JKO9Y4

World War II

pianistRecently, I watched the 2002 film ‘The Pianist’ starring Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911-2000), the pianist for Polish Radio who miraculously survived in Warsaw, Poland during the Nazi occupation.  The film was recommended to me by someone very  close to me in Buenos Aires and to say the film left me speechless would be an understatement.  After viewing the film, I decided to locate the book that inspired it and found Spzilman’s book on Amazon.  The book left me just as speechless as the film and even more in awe of Szpilman, as I know in order to have written the book, it would have required an extraordinary amount of courage on his part.  The film follows closely to the book with very minor liberties taken by the filmmakers.  Their finished product, is one of the best film adaptations that I’ve seen.

Spzilman’s book is slightly different in that it’s one told from life inside Poland and not Germany. The book begins on August 31, 1939, the day before the Germany Army launched the planned invasion of its Polish neighbor. The invasion had been planned well in advanced and a covert operation, named “canned goods” was used to describe the false flag mission that gave provocation for the Nazi assault.  The Nazi threat had been looming over Poland for some time but as we see in the book, the savagery that resulted post-invasion was never envisioned by the people of Poland. Spzilman, a musician, and his family remain in Warsaw as the Germany army approaches, refusing to leave the only place they’ve called home. Their lives would never be the same after the war and for Spzilman, he would never again see any of his family members.

The Nazis began to construct the Warsaw ghetto as they continuously redesigned territorial borders expanding the reach of the Third Reich.  As Szpilman relates, the ghetto was in a way worse than a jail cell for in a jail cell there’s a concrete definition of the nature of the relationship that exists.  With the ghetto, no such definitions existed giving the Jews the false sense of well-being which lead many of them to believe that they would return home after serving in the labor camps during the war.  The Germans’ macabre and perverse motto  of arbeit macht frei, posted at the entrance of camps, reveals the level of vindictiveness displayed by unwavering believers of Aryan-supremacy and Jewish inferiority.  Painful as it may be, Szpilman recounts the daily humiliation endured by Jews and the careless acts of murder committed by the Nazi regime.  The crimes committed and disregard for human life are beyond shocking but reveal the truly revolting nature of the Third Reich’s plan for the removal of Jews from Europe that culminated with the deadly “Final Solution”.

By chance, Szpilman is separated from his family and is forced to survive on the streets of Warsaw, literally hiding in plain sight.  Air raids, evacuation of residents and mounting German losses in the field, resulted in the neglect of many parts of Warsaw which would serve as a refuge for Szpilman during his quest to stay alive.  Death, hunger, disease and mental instability are all threats to him on a daily basis but fate was on his side and he survives through sheer determination and help in some of the most unlikeliest of places.

Following the war he returned to Polish Radio but never forgot the events of those years. His story is among many of the horrors of the Holocaust which serve to remind us of the dangers of blind patriotism and fanatical beliefs.  And as we continue to move forward in life and find ourselves at a crossroads in which decency and criminality cross paths, we can turn to the story of ‘The Pianist’ to remind us of the importance of helping others which in turn, allows us to learn about ourselves and the human race.

ISBN-10: 0312263767
ISBN-13: 978-0312263768

World War II