On 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 inactions 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.
On September 13, 1946, Amon Goeth, the former commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, is executed for his actions during World War II after a trial and conviction by the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland. Goeth was brought to life on the silver screen in Steven Spielberg’s classic film ‘Schindler’s List’ in which he is played by actor Ralph Fiennes. The film is moving and one of the most haunting to have even been produced about the Holocaust. Survivors of the Holocaust vividly recalled memories of the remorseless killing committed by Goeth and those under his command. Several decades later, his life is revisited, not by a random author, but by his granddaughter Jennifer Teege, a child of a German mother and Nigerian father who discovers her family’s past and struggles with her own identity in this biography that is bound to leave the reader speechless.
Jennifer’s story and those of other descendants of Third Reich leaders, most notably Gudrun Himmler and Niklas Frank, shed light on an often overlooked part of the second World War. Following the Allied victory and occupation of Germany, the families of Nazi officials were often in turmoil. Hunted by the Allies, many Nazis fled to other countries, some committed suicide, others were executed and under the CIA’s Operation Paperclip program, some were even relocated to the United States. Their descendants were left to confront the individual’s past actions and the policies of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler. And it is this past which haunts not only Jennifer, but her mother Monika, Goeth’s daughter who was only 10 months old when he was executed.
The book begins in Hamburg, and we are with Jennifer in the library as she discovers a book about Amon Goeth. Recognizing the last name, she begins to ask herself questions and puts together the puzzle that is her past. And as she learns about her grandfather, the man who struck terror in the hearts of thousands of Jews, she is faced with the grim reality that yes, her grandfather would have shot her during his reign of terror. In her youth, the remaining link to her grandfather was her grandmother Irene, who until her own death from suicide in 1983, remained loyal to Goeth. Having lived with Goeth at the camp, she conceived Monika while Goeth was still legally married to another German woman. The inner battle she fights regarding her feelings toward her late grandmother whom she loved dearly, is heartbreaking and reminiscent of the struggle of many others whose parents and grandparents committed horrific crimes under the banner of the Third Reich.
Teege’s story is an amazing one, filled with many trials and tribulations. We follow her as she struggles with depression, how to tell her Israeli friends about her past, establish relationships with both of her biological parents, love, a family of her own and ultimately, her acceptance of her family name. To the generation of today, World War II is something that’s mentioned in textbooks. But a large number of people around the world who are still alive, memories remain fresh from a time in history when the security of the world as we know it, was in danger of being completely destroyed. For people such as Monika Goeth and Jennifer Teege, the war always remains in the present in the form of Amon Goeth, whose deeds and name will continue to live in infamy. And as we learn Jennifer’s story, we are forced to ask ourselves what would we do if we were in her place? It’s an answer I’m sure many of us would struggle to find.