Tag Archives: world war ii

Hitler’s Foreign Executioners, by Christopher Hale

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.


SS: Roll of Infamy by Christopher Ailsby

I’ve had this encylopedic/coffee table book for a while. The subject alternately interests and repels me.

Some people may need some background. In Nazi Germany, the Schutzstaffel–the dreaded SS, emblemized by the twin S-runes that looked like lightning bolts–was nothing less than a state within the state. The Waffen-SS, or armed SS, was the military formation. Its units ranged from ferociously brave and competent to mutinous and cowardly, and from decently fierce to culpability in some of the most loathsome atrocities of the modern era. Quite a few were hanged or shot after the war, the vast majority of whom had it coming. What is less known about them can be summarized neatly:

  1. The SS was much more than an armed force. It was an industrial conglomerate, which one might also call a greed machine. It generated many billions of fiat money Reichsmarks that would become worthless upon the defeat of Nazi Germany, whose war lasted about as long as it takes most people to get a BA and MA. And yes, a great percentage of that wealth was gotten from means such as slave labor, robbing the murdered, blackmail, ransom and so on.
  2. For all its Teutonocentrism, it found excuses to include a lot of non-Germans and even non-Aryans. There was a British Free Corps, the only SS unit with a cuffband in English. It had a Turkestani unit. There were whole divisions of Bosnians, Croatians, Galicians, Latvians, Estonians, Frenchmen, Russians and more. Performance varied from valiant to awful, from honorable to the very worst of the German military (and in World War II, that worst was the type of thing decent people have a hard time imagining). You had the 9th SS Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen,” for example, a capable formation not implicated in any atrocities. At the other end, units as despicable as what became the 36th SS-Waffen-Grenadier Division “Dirlewanger,” the SS penal unit commanded by an alcoholic child rapist and guilty in numerous appalling deeds.
  3. The SS were not the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), although the SS-SD intelligence service was surely as terrifying as the Gestapo. This confusion is common.

Ailsby treats noteworthy SS personalities in encyclopedic format, which makes lookups easy. In many cases he has located worthwhile minutiae, such as most entries’ Party and SS numbers (it was hardly rare for an SS soldier to be a member of the Nazi party), and for winners of very selective decorations, the number of the award. What I don’t grasp is the number of entries for highly decorated individuals implicated in no vile deeds. The author can’t cheat with his title. An SS corporal who died earning the Knight’s Cross, for example, was indeed part of a force that has earned infamy for may good reasons, but that’s not enough reason to list him in a book whose title suggests that it’s full of cutthroats. Odilo Globocnik, Alfred Naujocks and Joachim Peiper belong here, among quite a few others. A few highly decorated enlisted men with no record of atrocities really do not.

I also find some of his research sloppy, seemingly hasty. There are a few SS personalities I have researched as extensively as my resources would allow, and I used them somewhat as benchmarks. Terms are misspelled; details are at times glossed or inaccurate. I don’t lack empathy for the effort involved in the book, and the shortcuts it might require. Shortcuts will mean missed details, errors and such; I have made some myself in my own historical writing, not that I pardon myself for them. I see this book as someone who might have written it: hundreds of individuals to include, with a limited amount of time to spend on each, and without the resources to do academic-quality work.

That, friends, is the reality of historical writing. Academic-grade work involves the kind of research that the book’s proceeds cannot possibly recoup, and that’s why the books cost a lot, and why they are credible as sources. Mass-market-grade work is profitable, but will vary in quality. In the historical writing I have done, I’ve prided myself on coming within perhaps 90% of the credibility of academic grade, without the travel costs and months of focus needed for the latter. But I’m no expert on WWII, and to write the book, Ailsby must fundamentally purport to be such. If he is, it follows that I should not catch him in many, if any mistakes. I do. That leaves me no choice but to find this fault.

In the end, Ailsby has produced an okay book, but no better, even allowing for the research practicalities. He has collected a fair bit of good information, gotten some wrong, and misnamed the book with a misleadingly lurid title.

Books: The Last Lion Vol. 3, Defender of the Realm

If you ever sought to research Winston Churchill, you at least examined William Manchester’s The Last Lion Vol. 1 (Visions of Glory) and Vol. 2 (Alone). Authors have an interesting time writing biographies of Churchill, because the old bulldog offered his own version. Whether you can believe Winston gives you the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which you should at least question, he could out-prose almost anyone. Truest words he ever said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

There was to be a Vol. 3 (Defender of the Realm) in the early 2000s, but Manchester’s health failed before he could complete the work. He passed in 2004, a tremendous loss to the art of historical biography. During his final illness, Manchester asked journalist and friend Paul Reid to complete the work. Interesting choice: Reid was a newspaper reporter who had never authored a book. He had all Manchester’s notes to work with, but that’s much like a pretty good college baseball player yanked from alma mater’s dugout and marched up to the plate in a major league playoff game with men on base.

Having waited for this for ten years, you might say I was ardent to start reading.

I’m about halfway through, just after the start of Barbarossa (Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the USSR) and Operation Crusader (Auchinleck’s Western Desert offensive). While I like most of it, I see some weaknesses. Manchester chose Reid for his writing talent rather than his historical immersion, and it shows. I’ve noted a few side stories worthy of exploration, not generally known to most non-historians and WWII buffs, which Reid does not mention–yet which were directly pertinent to Churchill’s life and prime ministry. Manchester got what he wanted, though, for Reid is a capable writer and doesn’t shield us from his subject’s weaknesses.

The word on why it took this long is the combination of Manchester’s semi-legible scrawled notes, the sheer volume of the work undertaken, and Reid’s non-historical orientation. Considering what he went through in order to do this, I have to respect what Reid accomplished. I find that article fair in that Reid did not hew slavishly to all Manchester’s decidedly pro-Churchill stances, and despite discovering the depth of the sea only through repeated dives into it, kept at it until he finished the job.

Definitely good biography. I think those who insisted on having the first two books in hardcover will be happy.

Writing: my hardest day

I’ll tell you a story of my most difficult writing day.  I’ve never told anyone every detail.  Maybe it’ll help me to do so, and if not, maybe it’ll interest you.

About four years back, I was working on Armchair Reader: World War II.  It was at once challenging and invigorating:  about thirty articles in forty days, with respectable research.  For some I had to blaze through three books.  As fate had it, my topic listing hewed to two general concentrations:  conspiracy theory/controversy topics (Rudolf Hess, the Rosenbergs) and atrocity-related subjects.

Now, I am not easily shocked.  I can be disgusted, or angered, but not shocked.  A side effect of the research I did for the articles on this book was the cumulative impact of the images one sees in the course of intensive research.  Had you asked me in advance, I’d have worried I would become desensitized.  I was pulling 12-14 hours days seven days a week during the holidays, I was anxious to please my editors…you might say I was pretty strung out.

It happened about 7 PM one December evening.  I was digging for details on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (“Juden Haben Waffen!”, pp. 151-53), specifically wrestling with the unending debate over the degree to which the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) assisted the Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.  To this day, that one gets ugly, and my best assessment is that both sides have fair points.  I suspect the AK gets less credit than it deserves for the help it did give; I also suspect that there were many in Poland who didn’t really see Polish Jews as Poles, or even as people.

As I read through yet another account of the way Nazi soldiers laughed at the ‘paratroopers’ (Jews leaping from burning buildings to their deaths), I came across a photo I would wipe from my mind if I could.  I hope you never locate it, and I’ve at least forgotten where I did.  Bear in mind, I had seen many very sorrowful images this day already.  The photo was of three captured ghetto fighters under the submachineguns of the SS.  All almost surely died within the hour, or were shipped somewhere to die.  One was a young woman or teenage girl, nude, attempting to cover up but at the same time standing in a certain degree of proud defiance.

I flipped the page in haste, but I couldn’t unsee it.  As I kept on with my work, I felt a growing sense of a deep melancholy I’ve only experienced twice.  Once was at Andersonville, Georgia (Civil War POW camp), as I washed my hands in Providence Spring.  The other was at the Famine Graveyard in Skibbereen, Cork, Ireland.  About half an hour later, my research ground to a meandering halt in a mire of melancholia.  It came to me that I was nearing emotional collapse.  Professionally and personally, I didn’t have time for an emotional collapse.  And I realized:  I must finish this article tonight, while I yet can.  However I do it, I mustn’t go to sleep until it’s fully drafted and I’ve resolved my questions.  Tomorrow it will be too late, and I will fail in this assignment, almost surely damaging my future prospects.

While it’s not the ideal way to get through pain, there’s a reason people sometimes decide to have a drink.  I went to the liquor cabinet and got something; don’t remember what.  I drank some of it (not sure how much), sipping steadily through the evening.  I don’t remember when I turned in or how hammered I was, but I did get the research and draft done sometime after midnight.  What I edited the next day was surprisingly all right considering the circumstances, and I moved on to the next topic, something far tamer.

Unfortunately, to this day I still see the image too clearly.  Am I proud of the way I dealt with it? Yes and no.  Yes, that I did my job anyway.  No, that I wasn’t strong enough to do so without ethyl assistance.  But either way, I am reminded by it of a quote and a song.  The quote is Kurt Vonnegut’s from Slaughterhouse Five:  “So it goes.”  The song is Voodoo (Godsmack), and I can’t tell you exactly why this Goth tune associates with the experience in my mind.  Just that it does.

© J.K. Kelley, 2011