Tag Archives: world war ii

Scumbag studies: myths and realities of Nazi society and its war machine

Kind of the ultimate modern-day scumbag study, no?

When it comes to Nazi Germany, perception and reputation are a fog clouding reality. Here are some realities you might not know, with pro forma apologies for wandering a little afield here and there:

German industry wasn’t very efficient. As a practical reality, it couldn’t be. There were multiple reasons: slave labor, materials shortages, rushed designs that had to be tweaked, and perhaps most importantly…

German industry did not go onto a full war footing until mid-war. Oh, it got a great head start on the Allies, who began re-armament late in the pre-war picture. Doubt that? In 1939 Germany produced 247 tanks and self-propelled guns. That’s all. 1940? 1,643. Ah, but surely a sixfold increase is a big deal? In 1941 they made 3,790. 1942, 6,180; in 1943, 12,063. Another example? Sure. Combat aircraft: 1939, 8,295. 1944, 39,807. One wonders what might have happened had German industry geared up sooner to its full potential.

Germany wanted to take Gibraltar. Why couldn’t they, with Spain friendly enough to rank as a non-belligerent Axis supporter? Because Franco’s Spain, still bleeding from its internal Spanish Civil War wounds, had no intention of getting into the war unless/until victory was certain. At one point, Hitler went so far as to meet Franco along the Franco-Spanish border. Adolf reckoned that the Spanish dictator owed his victory to Germany and would be thankful. First, Franco made long professions of fraternity, gratitude, and sympathy. Then he began a long litany of the equipment Spain would need from German industry, punctuated with frequent expressions of Spanish poverty and suffering. He then pointed out that of course it would be a matter of national pride for Spanish troops to carry out any such assault (one suspects Franco doubted that Hitler would hand Gibraltar over if German troops were once allowed to occupy it). Adolf went home pissed off and frustrated, thinking dark thoughts about ingratitude.

Malta and El Alamein were indeed great sticking points for the Nazi war machine, but most people don’t realize why. Neither do most realize how much the free world owes to the people of Malta and the motley Commonwealth/Allied (British, Free French, Polish, South African, New Zealander, and Australian) forces defending Egypt. Had the Axis captured Malta–and with a determined effort, they might have done so–Allied movement through the Mediterranean would have become a problem, whereas Axis resupply of northern Africa would have become far easier. Everyone has heard of Afrika Korps supreme commander Erwin Rommel and his genius, but not everyone realizes that his biggest problem was running out of everything (fuel in particular). That’s partly because so much of it got sunk on the way across the drink. So imagine Malta were captured, and a renewed Axis force stormed into the Nile delta (fanning the flames of Arab resentment at Allied control, and running off the disliked colonial powers). The Allied position in the eastern Mediterranean would be compromised. The Soviet positions in the Caucasus could have been flanked, perhaps with Turkish entry on the Axis side. Axis forces could have reached the Middle Eastern oilfields. Doesn’t that sound pretty catastrophic? It could have been.

Germany had high hopes for the Irish Republic to remain neutral, but there might be a united Ireland today if Éamon de Valera had answered Churchill’s note. The Republic of Ireland remained neutral during the war, famously denying the UK aero-naval basing access that made Atlantic convoy protection far more difficult.  When the United States entered the Atlantic war, as a former First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill saw the strategic opportunity and sought to pounce. He sent Taoiseach de Valera a simple note: “Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again. Am very ready to meet you  at any time.” Dev didn’t answer. Did Churchill really mean that if the Irish joined the Allies immediately, the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland would be handed over to the Republic? At least one British leader hastened to advise the envoy to Ireland, John Maffey, that Churchill’s intent was metaphorical rather than literal.

I don’t know what exactly would have happened, but one can hardly doubt that was Ireland’s strongest bargaining moment from a risk/reward standpoint. With Americans in the war to defend the Republic, it might have been bombed but it would not have been invaded; the unpalatable concept of British troops on the ground in the Republic would be avoided; it might have done great work against the U-boat menace without its own military firing a single shot; the Allies would have constructed updated facilities the Irish would inherit. All that, potentially, for letting people use some air and naval bases. I lean to the side that Churchill at least meant to dangle Northern Ireland as a negotiable possibility. He gets bad press nowadays, some of it deserved, but he was a visionary who dared to try things, and he knew the Irish well enough. “A nation once again” remains a very loaded phrase even today, and Churchill was not one for idle words. If Hitler had seen that note, he might well have ordered the Republic added to Northern Ireland as a bombing target.

Myths you might believe, and why you shouldn’t:

Pearl Harbor did the United States terrible harm. This one doesn’t relate directly to Germany, but it always needs repeating because its pervasive inaccuracy had a major impact on German warfare and plans. While the deaths and injuries can never be discounted, in the grand scheme of war one could argue that Pearl was a very lucky beginning from a US perspective. Of the weaponry it damaged, the part that would take years to repair or replace (battleships) was mainly obsolete. None of our carriers were present, and the Japanese use of their own carrier strikes told us much about the wave of the future. Then Hitler decided to throw into war against the US, bringing us into that conflict without putting us in the unpleasant position of having to leave the British and Soviets hanging. As painful a memory as Pearl is, it was about like shooting a sow grizzly in the butt with an arrow. The attack didn’t cripple American naval power, but did piss off an industrial powerhouse.

Germany always had the best tanks and planes. For one thing, early versions were often hurried into the field with serious problems; for another, the opposition often had better gear. The Soviet T-34 series might be the best example: a weapon that, for a time, Germany had no tank cannon that could penetrate at any range (and which could outrun every German tank of the war). While the Messerschmitt Bf-109 was a great early war fighter plane, it met its match in the RAF’s Spitfires. The later Focke-Wolf FW-190 more than met its match in the American P-51 Mustang. Ah, but surely the post-D-Day German tanks were far superior to the Sherman M4 series? They had lower profiles and better gunnery, but there are other factors to consider. First, during that time, Allied ground support aircraft had free rein to terrorize all German armor. Second, German crews were generally more experienced and better led, at least until the end of 1944, so they got more out of their vehicles. Third, German vehicles were more prone to trouble. Say this for the Sherman: for its flaws, it was a reliable tank. The engine tended to start and the gun tended to fire. I wouldn’t take it over a Panther–it was slower, higher profile, and earlier models were undergunned–but I’d take a running Sherman over a non-running Panther.

It was an issue even during the potential invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had better tanks than the Germans. Even with the captured Czechoslovak tank models, the French in turn had better (and more) tanks than Germany. In North Africa, Commonwealth/Allied armor was more than a match for the German models. It should have been unsurprising for the Wehrmacht to arrive on Soviet soil and find that Soviet tanks were also better. It must have been refreshing indeed to face the Americans–finally an opponent with inferior armor!

The Nazis were close to developing nuclear-armed missiles. German rocket science was very advanced, leading to the first primitive cruise missiles (V-1) and surface-to-surface missiles (V-2), as well as a rocket interceptor aircraft. Their nuclear science was far less so, partly because nuclear research was very expensive with no known certainty of ultimate success. The Nazi nuke cause certainly took harm from the large number of scientists who did not stay to work for Nazi ends (or would not have survived had they stayed).

The United States ultimately destroyed the German war machine. No, no, no. The Anglo-Americans, assisted by many allies, did great damage to the Luftwaffe–but they never put onto the Western Front anywhere near the ground numbers that the USSR did on the Eastern Front. In fact, the Germans had more divisions tied up watching occupied areas than they had facing the western Allies. The vast majority of the Nazi forces that were not deployed against partisan activity were occupied in a futile effort to hold back the Soviet avalanche. The main reason D-Day wasn’t thrown back into the Channel was that so much of the Wehrmacht was somewhere else, typically fighting Soviets. If you want to give the United States credit for something major that caused the Nazi war machine enormous damage, let it be the thousands of Studebaker trucks we sent to the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were still driving some of them in the Russian countryside. Every weapon and vehicle we and the British sent them probably saved Allied lives simply by shortening the war.

The Stuka was the deadliest ground support aircraft of the war. No; it was the deadliest of its early-war heyday. Later on, the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik, US P-47 ground attack configuration, and the British Typhoon were among the more versatile and deadlier strike craft. By that time, the Stukas didn’t have the survivability to risk precious pilots and fuel in the teeth of Allied air dominance.

American strategic bombing devastated Germany’s ability to produce war materiel. This is one of those areas where there are two polarized sides, neither listening the other, and the truth is somewhere in between. First, of course, it wasn’t just American. The British had begun some strategic bombing very early in the war. They hosted much of the US campaign and joined in it with their own significant numbers. We see from the rise in German production over most of the war that it didn’t decline until the full occupation and collapse process began in early 1945. However, that doesn’t mean the campaign wasn’t a massive pain in Albert Speer’s ass. It conveyed to the people of Germany, who had once been promised by their leaders that they would never be bombed, that the end could not be in doubt and it would not be to their liking. It required the deployment of much of the German interceptor force on the home front, burning scarce avgas and taking grave losses. It certainly tied up resources, hampered transportation, and made Speer’s armaments ministries scramble. Did it devastate German war production? The evidence says not, though it didn’t make production easier. Did it wreck the civilian urban economy and chew up scarce resources, wearing down homefront morale? I think the case for that is strong. Might the war have taken longer without it? I don’t think it’s possible to say. In any case, the Soviet onslaught was about to render the whole thing moot.

The SS were an excellent fighting force. In reality they were mixed. Early in the war, and at first recruitment in most cases, they were brave and enthusiastic but somewhat inept.  Experience makes the difference, and the survivors would gain it. Some units were led by fanatics, and some committed atrocities–in some cases making that a higher priority than fighting the armed enemy. The history-glancing public often does not realize that only about a quarter of the Waffen-SS came from metropolitan Greater Germany. Another quarter or so were Volksdeutsche, hailing from the established German-speaking diaspora in territories Hitler conquered; their record was mixed. Another quarter-odd hailed from variably Germanic peoples of northern and western Europe, generally proving effective in combat, and the last quarter came from all over the southern and eastern territories: Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Yugoslavia, and so forth. This portion ranged from good to awful.

The U-Boats were the deadliest subs of the war. Well, not so much. Germany bet most of its strategic warfare resources on submarine warfare, and it had a strong tradition of sub seamanship. When the Allies couldn’t or wouldn’t protect their shipping properly, the U-Boats went to town–but even then, the torpedoes didn’t always work. Surviving U-Boat skippers, a rather small population greatly respected by our own naval community as worthy opponents, have described the frustration of dud torpedoes. Americans should understand this very well because our own early torpedoes also included a high percentage of duds. Evidently the art of torpedo design is a very sensitive one where most laypeople’s assumptions don’t hold true. Best fish of the war? Arguably the Japanese, who invested great effort in torpedo development.

If our precious History Channel wants to do some good, it can stop leaning into pawn shops and ancient extra-terrestrial theories, and start doing a better job of exploring what people think they know and do not.

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

Recent read: Disaster at Bari, by Glenn B. Infield

This book, published in 1971, may have been the first to address in detail the calamity that occurred at the port of Bari, southeastern Italy, on 2 December 1943.

Since few but WWII and chemical warfare buffs know what happened, here’s how it went. When the Allies invaded Italy, port capacity was a limiter because it reduced the Allies’ greatest advantage, namely logistical wealth. Anglo-American industry was gushing forth weapons and their supplies, but this wealth had to reach the points of need. Freighters don’t unload themselves, and a port can unload only so many at once. When there are too many, the result is a harbor full of ships waiting to dock, carrying everything from blood plasma to artillery shells to the chaplain’s portable organ. (Stop that. You know who you are.)

The Allies assumed that there was no way the Luftwaffe would dare try to hit Bari. For that reason, the Allies declined to equip it with effective air defenses. No one bothered to inform the Germans that an air raid on Bari’s port was impossible; moreover, the Germans understood Italian port capacity and the importance of logistics. They considered it worth risking 150 of their remaining bombers, plus the necessary avgas, to fly to Bari and raise hell.

Like most of the Allied personnel at Bari, the Germans did not know that one of the Liberty freighters was waiting to unload a cargo of air-droppable mustard bombs (military code HS, I believe for sulfur mustard; another term for this compound was Levinstein-I mustard). While the Germans had not yet resorted to chemical weapons and evidently had no intention of doing so, the Allies could not know that and needed to be in a position to retaliate.

Mustard is evil stuff, as many WWI soldiers learned in the hardest possible way. Not technically a gas, mustard is a skin irritant and respiratory agent. To make matters worse, the symptoms take hours or days to manifest and can get worse before/if they get better. Like any munition, it can’t tell a civilian from a combatant. It raises heavy blistering, damages the airway, causes major swelling (especially in the genital area), and causes temporary or permanent vision loss.

If I believed in a devil, Levinstein mustard would be my idea of his air freshener.

The Luftwaffe bombers caught Bari defenseless, ships full of explosives and other supplies tied up like fattened steers. The raid sank seventeen, including the ship carrying the HS bombs. The explosions, fires, leaked petroleum products, and spread the ruptured HS contents about the harbor and town. Those caught in the water suffered greatly, especially those covered with fuel oil in which HS had partly dissolved. So did those brave and diligent enough to attempt rescue operations in small craft, inhaling HS vapor with every breath. The Italian civilian population was far down the priority list for suddenly overwhelmed medical facilities that contained not a single doctor who had ever treated a mustard casualty. Baffled, the doctors did their heroic best, but diagnosis is key to beneficial treatment. Until they knew what had happened, they had no idea they were doing more wrong things than right.

By the time they did know, it was too late for many of the victims. As for Bari’s port, it was out of action for multiple reasons (starting with the ship hulks clogging the docks and harbor). This situation turned out to affect the course of the war, slowing the Allied advance up the peninsula. It embarrassed the Allies, whose failure to defend against air attack can hardly escape the descriptor of “overconfident stupidity.” The air raid killed over a thousand military, naval, and merchant marine personnel; it took a similar toll on the civilian populace.

What is not well known is that the next step could have escalated the war into full-blown chemical weapons use. Once the Allies figured out that the agent was mustard–which only very few people knew had been sitting in Bari harbor–they might have concluded that the Germans had used chemical weapons first. Happily for untold numbers of people, the Allies did not jump to conclusions. As the truth emerged, so did the only sane conclusion: the M47A1 chemical bombs aboard one of the freighters had ruptured, not surprisingly, when the carrying ship exploded. This gruesome chemical wound, while proximately caused by the Germans, was not their design. In fact, had they known they might blow up a shipload of mustard, they might not have launched the raid lest they hit that particular ship and cause the Allies to draw a very different inference.

The book succeeds in the task of documenting the events, which one must concede is the most important work. I found three major troubles with it: wordiness, imprecision of terminology, and an attempt to present the events as a dramatic story by a writer without the necessary skills. Skillful editing could probably trim the word count by 15% without loss of meaning and with improved clarity. When one talks about unit titles, one should use precise terms: for example, it was not the New Zealand Division, but the 2nd New Zealand Division. Those parts read as though written by a journalist (and in historical writing, coming from me, that is rarely a compliment). You’d think a former Air Force officer would handle military nomenclature better. And while I approve of the idea to tell history through a storytelling format, one still needs to be good at the latter. The author was not, offering the same cliffhanger over and over before the raid. Many of the individual stories were never completed for us: what happened to that guy, anyway?

This is too bad, because Infield seems to have interviewed many survivors, from Italian civilians to Navy veterans and even German aircrew. As with Craig’s Enemy at the Gates, the story takes on different meaning when seen through surviving eyes. This creditable research and preservation deserved first-class storytelling, did not get that, and as a result does not satisfy as it could have.

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, nor have I experienced the like as an editor–only as a freelance writer.  Maybe doing so will help me, and 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