Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Notes: "A European Past" and "City of Women"

Here's a few notable books on World War II that I've read in the past year or so, but never had the opportunity to write up a full review. That's why I'm introducing a new feature here at my blog: Book Notes. These will be concise reviews of WW2-related books all in one post.

Without further ado...

A European Past
By Felix Gilbert

Felix Gilbert grew up in Germany and witnessed first-hand the rise and reign of Adolph Hitler. He left Germany in 1933 and went to exile in England before eventually joining the U.S. Army. Later in life, he became a noted historian. He's brutally honest in his writing, and offers an uncompromising look at Germany between the two world wars.

City of Women
By David R. Gillham

This is gritty, realistic fiction at its best, a lush, highly readable novel of Berlin during World War II. Sigrid Schröder's husband serves in the German Army while Sigrid waits behind for him on the homefront. But Sigrid has many secrets, including a Jewish lover, and her involvement with the Resistance. This story has so many twists and turns that it's a definite page turner. Sigrid's character grows and changes a great deal from beginning to end as she faces questions of morality and guilt in a world that is seldom black and white.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My New Book: Nebraska POW Camps

It's been quite the journey, but all the hard work has been worth it.

My book, Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland" published by The History Press, is now available for pre-order.

Official Release Date: April 15, 2014

About the Book

During World War II, thousands of Axis prisoners of war were held throughout Nebraska in base camps that included Fort Robinson, Camp Scottsbluff and Camp Atlanta. Many Nebraskans did not view the POWs as “evil Nazis.” To them, they were ordinary men and very human. And while their stay was not entirely free from conflict, many former captives returned to the Cornhusker State to begin new lives after the cessation of hostilities. Drawing on first-person accounts from soldiers, former POWs and Nebraska residents, as well as archival research, Melissa Marsh delves into the neglected history of Nebraska’s POW camps.

Pre-Order Here:

It will also be available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, and Apple. Details to come.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

Many of the stories that come out of Wartime France are about those who risked everything to fight the Germans. Brave men and women fought in the Resistance or hid Jews or did whatever small act of civil disobedience they could to take a stand against the Nazis.

This is not one of those stories.

Instead, this is a story of survival, of guilt, of shame, and of collaboration.

When author Nicholas Shakespeare was young, he used to go with his parents to his aunt and uncle's house in rural England. His Aunt Priscilla always mystified and fascinated him at the same time. Who was this woman, really? He didn't find out until after she'd passed on and he was gifted with a treasure trove of her wartime letters, journals, and photographs.

Priscilla had been a British citizen living in France during the Occupation. But her documents revealed a very different person than what he'd previously thought.

In what must have been an exhausting search, he went to archives, followed leads, tried (and sometimes found) people who knew her. More and more of the puzzle began to fill in, but it was creating an astonishing picture. In short, if Priscilla had not returned back to England in 1944, after the liberation of France, she would have had her head shaved and been paraded around the town as a German collaborator.

It may be easy to immediately dismiss Priscilla after reading such a damning conviction. But that is one thing you simply cannot do when reading Shakespeare's remarkable book. For Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman Living in Wartime France shows just how blurred the lines of survival and collaboration were during this time of upheaval, especially for women.

Priscilla's unconventional upbringing brought her to France at a young age to live with her mother, leaving her father, a noted BBC broadcaster, behind in England. Those formative years in France, especially exposed to the loose morality of her mother, left a mark on Priscilla. When Priscilla got pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion, she chose marriage to a French aristocrat old enough to be her father to save her. It didn't. Priscilla wanted to be loved in all the ways a woman can be loved - but her husband couldn't provide it for her.

When the Germans came to France, Priscilla became part of a world where the line between friend and enemy was frazzled. At first, she tried to keep her head down, stay out of sight. But then she was put into Besancon, a concentration camp for British subjects where she suffered unspeakable conditions. After her release (who pulled the strings to release her?), she had affairs with numerous men, and some of them turned out to be connected to the highest members of the Nazi party. Was it a matter of survival that she became involved with these men, poor judgment, or a need to be loved? Was she blind to their activities? The record suggests not. Why, then, did she stay with them? It's a complicated question and one that has a multitude of answers.

What Shakespeare does, and does very well, is to ask a question about France itself. When the war was over, of course everyone was a patriot in France - just as everyone had been against Hitler and against the Nazi party in Germany. But this simply wasn't true. Priscilla symbolizes France in her bid to survive the war, and her own questionable, some would say unforgivable, decisions mirror those made by the French government and other French collaborators.

Written using a novelist's style with intimate details of life in Occupied France (and it is done very well considering Shakespeare is a noted novelist), Priscilla is a gripping read. Yet it challenges our notion of good and evil and more than anything makes us ask ourselves the question, "What would I have done?"

The answer may surprise you.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Churchill and the King by Kenneth Weisbrode

Winston Churchill is a larger than life figure. He's become synonymous with Britain's victory in World War II, and is one of the most stubborn, controversial and downright fascinating characters in British history. There are museums devoted to him. His ancestral home, Blenheim Palace, is even open to the public. (It's a beautiful place to visit - I recommend it). His visage is found on a plethora of tourist baubles. And the stack of books written about him only continues to grow.

What more can we add to the narrative of his life? Hasn't he been poked and prodded enough by historians? Is there really any new ground to uncover?

Perhaps so. Kenneth Weisbrode's Churchill and the King: The Wartime Alliance of Winston Churchill and George VI is certainly a worthy addition to the Churchill historiography. The slim volume comes in at only 184 pages and is written in a conversational tone sadly lacking in more academic historical works. But perhaps that is because this book is not meant to be a rigorous academic study, but a personal and intimate look at a friendship between a prime minister and his monarch, one that became pivotal to winning the war.

Is this a bold claim to make? Undoubtedly. Yet in reading through Weisbrode's work, one can't help but at least consider such a conclusion. He uses a plethora of letters from both the King and Churchill, anecdotes from government aides, and previous scholarship on both men to present a portrait that is remarkably well-balanced. Neither Churchill or the King are made out to be saints or sinners, but quite human.

The two met almost every week during the war (always on Tuesdays, though locations would change due to Luftwaffe bombing raids) and frequently consulted each other on various issues as they valued each other's opinion. In fact, Weisbrode posits that "Churchill extended to the king the reassurance that he needed in order to reassure the British people" (70). By the same token, Churchill's devotion to the monarchy was well-noted and in this king, well-placed. In short, theirs was almost a symbiotic relationship.

The one glaring flaw of this work - which is really not the author's fault - is that we know more about Churchill's activities and thoughts than we do the King's. The answer to to this is simple: there are more archival documents on Churchill for this period of time than there is for the King. Still, Weisbrode makes good use of what he has and the result is an entertaining and indeed, intriguing look at this asymmetrical relationship.

One doesn't think of World War II without thinking of Churchill. And now, thanks to Weisbrode's addition, one will no longer think of Churchill winning the war without thinking of the King by his side.

Note: Book was received for review purposes only and I received no monetary remuneration for this review.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Terror Before Dawn: A Child at War

Anne Raghnild Fagerberg was just a child when the Germans invaded Norway in 1940. Yet she never forgot those years of terror and oppression, and she documented them in a handwritten manuscript that her son later turned into the memoir, Terror Before Dawn: A Child at War.

Born into a family of privilege, Anne enjoyed life at her family's villa in a suburb of Oslo. Yet their peace was quickly shattered when the Nazis invaded. Life under German occupation was strange and terrifying for young Anne. She vividly recalls the times she and her mother would go to Oslo and see the German soldiers all around. Gestapo visits to houses in their neighborhood became routine. Food became scarce. And the German persecution of Jews became evident.

Anne's father, Karl Ragnar Fagerberg, was the vice president of a large electric company in Oslo. But he was fiercely loyal to Norway and he became involved in the underground and resistance movements. Even though she was only seven years old, Anne began to help, too, smuggling illegal papers to specific contacts in the Resistance.

As the war carried on and the family put up with bombings, ever-dwindling food rations, and increased Nazi persecution, Anne became mature beyond her years, developing an intense hatred of the Germans and everything they stood for. Her father was taken by the Gestapo, but thankfully released, though he'd been severely beaten. Her sister was raped by two German soldiers and was never again the same, eventually having to be admitted to a mental institution.

The family continued to fight, increasing their underground and resistance activities until finally, the Germans were ousted from Norway and freedom came to the country once more. When Winston Churchill later visited, he shook Anne's father's hand and thanked him for his part in the victory over the Nazis.

Terror Before Dawn is a gripping memoir, and a quick-paced read. It offers an intimate look at Occupied Norway and contains remarkable details about everyday life. At its heart, it shows the incredible lengths one family -- and one young girl -- took to reclaim their homeland.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

2013 International Conference on World War 2

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana (USA) is holding their annual World War II conference starting today, November 21, 2013, and running through Saturday, November 23. The theme is "1943: Victory in the Balance." A whole host of noted historians and speakers will deliver terrific talks on this theme and engage in lively discussions. Some featured speakers include Rick Atkinson, Donald Miller, and General (Ret.) David Petraeus.

But don't worry if you can't make it. You can watch the entire thing on your computer, LIVE, for FREE.

Next to attending in person, this is the next best thing!

For more information, visit the website at:

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

A  few words of thanks...a smile...a handshake.

Little things can mean so much. So today, thank a veteran, smile, shake their hand. Remember those who have fallen. And most importantly, never forget.

God bless our veterans for their valor...their courage...and their sacrifice.