I love history.
Because I love history, I like to see history books that take on difficult topics, expand understanding, challenge perceptions.
When someone picks up a history book, my respect for that person grows. However, I also feel a duty to help the history consumer who may look at a well-put-together book and take it all at face value.
And when the author of a history book botches up a number of details, that’s a problem.
This brings us to Hitler’s Foreign Executioners: Europe’s Dirty Secret, by Christopher Hale.
Hale, a documentary producer and journalist, sets forth to explain that the Holocaust was not merely a German production, but that soldiers and civilians from many European countries took active, willing, and destructive parts in it. He was motivated to do so by a ceremony honoring Latvian SS veterans as patriots, when in reality the Latvian SS were guilty of Holocaust atrocities and don’t deserve to be honored by anyone. I believe he is responding to the rising tide of far-right sentiment in Europe that keeps finding reasons why Jews are somehow bad, and why therefore, the Holocaust really wasn’t quite so bad.
He had a good idea there, because some people evidently need a reminder of just how widespread and awful the atrocities of WWII Europe were. I don’t; I know. I was interested in new evidence, research, and analysis to add to my store of understanding.
And he has screwed it up. It annoys me.
The problem is that he makes many factual errors. I don’t like factual errors. These are factual errors no academic historian worth even a bachelor’s degree would make, much less a professor of history.
He has ‘heavy’ Ju-52 ‘bombers’ pounding Yugoslavia, when in fact the Tante Ju was a transport. It was capable of bombardment, but the Luftwaffe had far better bombers (none truly heavy, by the way) and far too few Ju-52s. I’m pretty sure that the Ju-88s, Ju-87s, Do-17s and He-111s, all main Luftwaffe bombers, did the bulk of it. Hale doesn’t even know which bombers were which.
He has Nazi Germany ‘seizing’ the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. This is false. Romania joined the Axis in late 1940, and Hitler had no need to seize anything. Romanian oil in large part fueled the Nazi war effort, supplied without qualms. Hale evidently doesn’t realize that Romania joined the Axis of its own free will, which overlooks a fact that would help his case.
He describes the June 1941 Iași (Romania) pogrom as the first large-scale pogrom of the war. This is ridiculous. To think it not ridiculous, one must decide that Kristallnacht (1938) was somehow not a pogrom. There had already been quite a few pogroms, which is not to minimize Iași, simply to point out that Hale’s wording is recklessly imprecise.
He believes that the Yugoslav Army, crushed by the Germans and Italians in April 1941, fielded only five divisions. That’s ridiculous. It had over thirty divisions, and while much of it was low in training or morale, to suggest that it was half the size of the Dutch Army Hitler overran (ten divisions) in May 1940 is silliness. Hale does not seem to know anything about the orders of battle for the conflict.
And that’s all by page 87 of a 400-page book.
Ah, one might rejoin, but aren’t those all just minor details that do not detract from his primary point? Yes and no, in that his primary point happens to be well supported by evidence whether or not he supplies it correctly. Here’s the problem with a journalist who doesn’t know or understand the minor details. While I give Hale credit for providing lengthy footnotes and sources, I do not want to have to check them all. When he has the accepted details right, I feel less compulsion to verify everything he says. When he gets them wrong, and puts out a sloppy book, I begin to wonder how far I can trust his account and use of the sources. This undermines his credibility in a very unfortunate way. If he thinks the Ju-52 is a bomber, and that the Royal Yugoslav Army had only five divisions, I with good reason question his basic knowledge of the facts. And if I must question that, then I can’t believe him without digging up all his sources and verifying them.
I don’t buy a book expecting to have to do that. However, in my case at least, I know enough about the war and the Holocaust that if I wanted to dedicate a few months to the job, I could check them all and make my own determinations. Or, far better, I could read one that doesn’t make me think the author didn’t really care about getting the history right.
This is terrible. We needed this book. The overwhelming body of evidence–and believe me, I am aware that Rosh Hashanah will begin in my time zone shortly after I post this, and yes, that bothers me–documents what Hale is saying. The attempted eradication of European Jewry, which ‘succeeded’ to an appalling degree and which we call the Holocaust, is supported by oceans of evidence. More to the point of this book, most European nationalities had some sordid hand in the Holocaust. Some participated with gusto that embarrassed and concerned even the SS, which is saying rather a lot. People should know that. People should know that this monstrosity is part of the history of the nations whose people participated in it, whether that bothers those nations or not (and if it doesn’t, that bothers me). And when anti-Semitic groups start trying to paint mass murderers as decent human beings, we need books to bonk them on the head with. Thick ones. good ones.
Hale could have written one of these, but he failed, because he either did not know the fundamental facts, or did not consider them very important. I cannot see another logical reason; I do not think he set out to be wrong. I think he just doesn’t know and doesn’t think it’s important. His training is to create an impression, which is what documentaries do: present in a short time the selected information that will tell the viewer how to think.
Fundamental facts are important, whether Hale thinks so or not. Command of the fundamentals is the basis on which to build an argument. Without it, one undermines one’s own basis. The poor proofreading I can pardon. A series of flagrant mistakes, I will not.
Thus, the assistance to the history consumer that I promised: before you buy it, take a look at the author’s main line of work. Most of the truly lousy history books I have read were not written by professors of history. Most were written by journalists. Hale is a documentary producer, and based on many of the documentaries I’ve watched, that suggests he’s in the entertainment business. Fine and good–but when he starts to write history that the layman will tend to believe, he is loansharking in my temple, and I will lash his journalistic ass out of it.
Even if I agree with the conclusion he reached.
If you ever read William Golding’s famous novelized Survivor variant, and yearned to be the lord or lady of the common housefly, now is the time and here is your place.
For some reason, every September, all the fly eggs in Boise hatch, and they are on everything. There is almost nothing you can do to keep them out of the house. They harass animals without mercy. Are you going to a fast food restaurant where the door necessarily gets opened hundreds of times a day, and there’s a drive-through window? Just bring your own fly swatter.
We went through this last year. As luck would have it, it began just as I arrived. I wanted anti-aircraft cannon. I kept a fly swatter right by my recliner. I spent hours hunting down the little bastards.
Since I have a fundamental hatred of flies, this is not a fun time for me. This year I bought an electric flyswatter; looks like a mini tennis racket. I soon realized why not everyone owns one of these: it’s hard and heavy, thus you cannot swing it anywhere that you might break something (window, TV, lamp, mirror). If you are good enough to swing it through the air and nail them, you will kill them, which you could have done anyway with a badminton racket covered in screening or cheesecloth, or even a small towel doubled up. I dislike them enough that I am finding excuses to use the electric one on them.
If we were staying, and I would be anticipating another autumn of this fly-ridden situation, I would be gearing up and experimenting with the fine art of fly slaying. As it is, I’m just hoping that September in Portland will be less disgusting.
In the meantime, I wish I had a small army of frogs.
I did something dumb related to property maintenance. This is nothing new.
This is not as dumb as some of the things I have done, most of which have related to irrigation. Simply put, I made too much weed killer. I have a 4-gallon backpack spray tank, and earlier this summer, I made a full batch. The thing is a bastard; difficult to get into, nozzle tends to clog just as you get all rigged up, feels cold on your back so you can’t help wondering if it’s leaking toxic chemicals down your spine.
What was I thinking? I didn’t need four gallons of weed killer even then. Now it was almost September, and I didn’t need three gallons now. But what do you do?
You can’t just dump it out in the street. Good lord.
You can’t throw it into the dumpster. That’s unconscionable.
You can, I suppose, figure out where is the waste dump around here–information you otherwise would never have needed to mess with–and then probably learn that there are a whole bunch of requirements and you’ll have to come back. Well-deserved for bad planning? Sure. Are you going to do that, if you have a better option? Not so much.
So you plan to use it. Problem: on what? There is enough in this tank to kill your whole yard about eight times over. Might be enough to kill a tree. Every weed on the perimeter, you will slay. Okay, that used up an eighth of it. What’s next?
I donated it to the neighborhood.
Of course, my spray tank pump was on the fritz, and I had to spend a fussy half hour fixing it first. After, of course, getting rigged up in the thing. But I won that round, and went to work.
After assuring that every pertinent weed on my property had been well and truly hosed down, I went on weed patrol. I checked with my neighbors: any weeds you want killed? Here I had hope, because I have neighbors who rent, who would lose a lawn maintenance contest with a platoon of gophers, and who were sure to have a back yard full of enormous weeds. “Wow! Thank you!” No problem, kids. But I still had half a tank. Argh.
Then I remembered all the times I had gone for walks along my street, and all the times I had thought to myself: this is what you get in return for minimal property taxes. All these weeds have been bursting out of the sidewalks and pavement all summer. The city is obviously not going to do a damn thing about them; this is Idaho. I suppose the homeowners are probably supposed to, but it’s clear that they will not, and equally clear the city will not make them. Of course, it is just as clear that if I do it myself, I might slightly improve the look of my immediate neighborhood at selling time, and absolutely no one will care so long as I don’t hit a yard.
Out went Weed Patrolman. If it looked weedish, and wasn’t on private property, it got a hosing. If anyone noticed me, they probably either thought I was OCD or nuts, but no police showed up. And at least this way, the stuff got used for its intended purpose.
If I had any guts, I’d send the City of Boise an invoice for labor and materials.
With my luck, they’d send a SWAT team out in an armored car. Because, you know, the government was basically just giving them away.
In my line of work, there are some unwritten rules of good behavior.
- One must always do one’s best work within the parameters assigned.
- One must not review books in which one has had a hand.
- One must always remember that it’s the author’s book. It was the editor’s job to make the author look as good as possible, and s/he got paid to do so.
- One must not go to review comment sections in any way that could remotely upstage or embarrass the author.
- One must accept that invisibility is praise. It’s like officiating a sporting event: if your work is excellent, it goes unnoticed.
I don’t think I’ll be breaking the rules if I do a little endzone celebration here, because I did something I feel pretty good about.
As blog regulars know, the e-book Shadows by Terry Schott was published about a week ago. Terry’s genre is dystopian contemporary science fiction, and he has a significant following. He engaged my editing services on this newest book. Before I got to work, I took a look at the reviews of his previous works. They were mostly very positive, and the only nagging complaint was that a few reviewers remarked upon the ‘editing.’ We’ve been over the ways in which that can be a shortsighted review comment, but I did take note of them. Terry didn’t need me in order to get people to like his stories better. The best service I could offer him was to make the ‘editing’ remarks go away.
Sixteen reviews in, and it’s clear that his fans love the story.
Not a one, so far, mentions the editing. That means that not only did those reviewers have no issues with it that they cared to mention, none so far even noticed much of a change. And if there are potential purchasers on the fence, ones who would be put off by adverse commentary about editing, it may hearten them that the reviews make no such mention. They may attribute it to the author’s strides, or to some unknown factor.
I smile, invisibly, with fierce satisfaction.
This contemporary SF e-book has been published. I was copy editor.
Shawn Inmon, for whom I’ve done steady work over the past couple of years, was kind enough to refer Terry to me. Most of the referrals I receive involve unpublished authors, which was not Terry’s case. His current (and the subject) project was kicking off a new series, having concluded another after something like seven books.
When the author is previously published, that must inform editorial decisionmaking. Terry made clear that his previous editing experiences hadn’t been what he’d hoped for. It seemed illogical to propose to duplicate their undesired efforts. What I did was look up Terry’s body of work and find out what readers liked and didn’t like about it.
Most of his reviews were favorable. Those that were critical mostly blamed the ‘editing.’ When I read that, my ‘you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about’ hackles usually go up. There is no way to know if the editing is at fault, for close on a dozen reasons, and the comment in a review shows ignorance of the process. At the same time, take it however I might wish, I had to absorb the feedback in terms of its true meaning. ‘It needs an editor’ is reviewer-blurt for ‘I found errors and they shouldn’t be in a finished book.’
Damn right they shouldn’t. No argument. However, most people liked the books, which meant that Terry had something to lose. What if I talked him into making some significant changes to his approach, and the reviews came back tepid? Picture it: “I used to like these stories, but now, not so much. The writing has improved in terms of less errors, but the story isn’t as good, and that was what I cared about.” That, dear reader, is what goes under the hammer every time an established author engages a new literary witch doctor. It would be one thing if previous books had been met with a wave of launched javelins. These had not. I might be entirely capable of talking Terry out of pleasing his audience.
In my world, that is the rough equivalent of an arsonist firefighter.
No one hires me hoping to alienate his or her reader base.
So I proposed to Terry: how about I limit this to copy editing, so that we address the unhappy minority’s biggest complaint, without depriving your happy majority of what it loves? He liked the idea, and I got to work. The story is set in Ontario, although the Canadianness isn’t really emphasized. This was an orthography factor for my work, because Canadian English has subtle differences from US English. I am not sure Terry anticipated that I would know that, but after brief conference, we agreed to conform the ms to Canadian orthography.
The result is a modern game-related SF/thriller that comes into clarity much as does an image when one increases the resolution. At, say, 80 x 50, one would see a lot of squares. Bump it to 160 x 100, more detail; 320 x 200, still more, and so on until the plot and backdrop come into full focus. If that is your genre, you may very much enjoy the milieu Terry has created.
There’s more than one new project out there in the genre. I’ve known Mike Lee Davis, aka Studio Dongo, since he was Sloucho back at Epinions. A good guy who was one of the best writers at the site, he’s also writing contemporary/conspiracy SF these days. He is currently promoting Vanishing in a Puff of Logic, a gaming story, whose Amazon blurb reads:
Vanishing in a Puff of Logic is the story of one neurotic gamer’s attempt to win at Nethack while tripping on shrooms.
On a slightly deeper level, the story is about that same gamer’s desire to triumph as a female elven wizard who is, literally, naked.
And on an even deeper level . . .
Let’s face it. There is no even deeper level.
If you get the impression that Mike’s pretty down-to-earth, capable of surprises, and has a sense of humor about his work and himself, you’re correct. His book is free today and tomorrow, August 11 and August 12, and if you check him out, I think you’ll like what you see.