Monday, September 21, 2020

Book Review: In the Shadow of Dora by Patrick Hicks

 As a Jewish slave of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, Eli Hessel works on the Nazi’s V-2 missile program. Terror and death, his constant companions, make it nearly impossible to remember that he is a living, breathing human being suffering utterly inhumane conditions. He toils in the tunnels dug deep in the Harz Mountains of Germany, always hungry, always thirsty, always fighting to survive. The SS, especially SS-Hauptscharf├╝hrer Erwin “Horse Head” Busta, torment Eli and his fellow prisoners through beatings, intimidation, torture, and sadistic games. Nazi scientists watch with indifference, all too willing to sacrifice lives to see the V-2 program succeed. Eli, gifted in mathematics and with a keen intellect for science, often stares at the stars and moon, wishing for escape. And then one day, miraculously, Eli finds himself liberated, the war over, and a new life ahead. But he will forever carry his old life, the burden of the survivor, the burden of the living.

Eli moves to New York, marries, becomes a father, and earns his college degrees. And then, another miracle: he lands a job with the American space program, NASA, and works at the Kennedy  Space Center in Florida. His demons, however, haven’t left; indeed, some of them are literally in the flesh: the Nazi scientists at Dora-Mittelbau are now the beloved, much-lauded scientists making it possible for the United States to have a space program.  That the men complicit in and, indeed, responsible for, the death of so many now stand as darlings of NASA without facing justice torments Eli. But what can he do? Eli tries to focus on the upcoming launch of Apollo 11, but the trauma he lives with begins to consume him once more. Is surviving really the best revenge? 

In the Shadow of Dora is as ambitious as it is profound. Patrick Hicks has a gifted ability for writing gritty, vivid realism. From the lice biting inside Eli’s camp uniform and the sickening thud of a SS guard’s truncheon on an inmate’s skull, to the clacking typewriters and ringing telephones inside NASA offices to slabs of ice falling from Apollo 11’s fuel tanks, Hicks engages all five senses with startling clarity. Hicks’ thorough research provides compelling historical details, both for Dora-Mittelbau and the Kennedy Space Center. But the power of this novel lies in how Hicks’ makes us wrestle with difficult questions. What price technology? What price justice? Why should those who inflicted pain and death upon so many escape punishment? That the U.S. government spirited away numerous Nazi scientists as part of Operation Paperclip is a         well-documented fact; less documented, however, is how Holocaust survivors grappled with this grave injustice. Through Eli, Hicks forces us to examine this issue, and we must face the disturbing answers, just as Eli must face how his past collides with his present.

In the Shadow of Dora presents a unique, compelling story of survival and endurance, one that shows how the future often intertwines with our past, and how we must never, ever give up hope that “all is well.”

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Devil's Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin by Roger Moorhouse

The pact between Hitler and Stalin in the early days of World War II registers as only a blip to many Western historians who study this period. Perhaps it is because there were not many works that provide such a comprehensive and detailed study on the topic, but Roger Moorehouse's The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941, ably fills that gap.

When Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, the world reacted in shock and disbelief - and that included  German and Soviet citizens. Hitler had never shied away from openly bashing communism as a scourge upon the Earth, and neither had Stalin been fond of fascism. It took a great deal of propaganda to convince the citizens of each country that this was in their best interest. Few took the bait.

Yet this pact had far-reaching consequences that stretched well beyond the war's end. Initially, it led directly to Hitler's invasion of Poland and Stalin's invasion of Finland, but as the months went by, millions of people became caught up in these two leaders' craving for power and conquest. Thousands upon thousands of people lost their lives in the brutal actions to follow as the Baltic states were carved up, the Low Countries and France were occupied, and the horrific actions of the Einsatzgruppen spread.

During the pact, each country traded natural resources and armaments, and indeed, secrets, as well. But underneath it all, there was always unease and distrust between Stalin and Hitler about who would stab the other in the back. In the end, Hitler struck first, as indeed he had perhaps been planning all along.

As Moorhouse shows, the ramifications of this pact damaged communism worldwide and played an integral role in Eastern Europe for decades to come. In the years to follow, the official Soviet history stated that Stalin had been coerced into signing the pact and indeed, that the secret protocol contained in the pact - which dealt with the boundaries of the Baltic States and Poland, how to maintain an independent Polish state, and Germany's complete "disinterest"in Bessarabia - didn't even exist. This fairy tale continued well into the 1980s.

Moorhouse's research spans several archives, and he uses the words of those most closely involved, including German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Soviet minister of affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, Hitler, Stalin, and more to create a compelling story that is far from boring. It's rare to find a history book written to be accessible to the professional historian and lay person alike, but Moorehouse has accomplished this feat. He tackles a rather difficult subject and all its strange nuances clearly and concisely, an absolute necessity for this particular topic. Moreover, he delves into how, exactly, the pact figured in the Cold War and eventually led to the European Parliament declaring August 23rd as the European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

In short, if you wish to truly understand how historical events shape our world and how the Nazi-Soviet Pact was not an isolated occurrence (and if you're a student of World War II, this is a must), you need look no further than this book.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Taster by V.S. Alexander

What I enjoy most about studying World War II is how much I don't yet know. There are constantly new discoveries, new interpretations, and new viewpoints. Such is the case with V.S. Alexander's historical novel, The Taster, set in Germany during World War II. Magda Ritter becomes embroiled in the highest echelons of the Third Reich when she lands a job as a food taster for none other than Hitler.

Along with other women, Magda daily puts her life on the line tasting food to make sure it's not poisoned before it is served to Hitler. She lives at the Berghof and at the Wolf's Lair, rubs shoulders with Eva Braun, and enjoys a sheltered existence while the rest of the country burns.

Magda falls for an SS officer named Karl who is anything but a loyal officer. As their relationship develops, Karl tells Magda about the horrors of the concentration camps and confides in her that he is part of a group of officers planning to assassinate Hitler. Magda, who already had doubts about Hitler, secretly supports Karl's cause, but must continue to pretend to be a loyal Nazi. 

Hitler soon learns of their relationship, and encourages them to marry so they can produce children for the Reich, even giving them engraved wedding rings with his name on them. Karl and Magda marry, and resume their life at the Wolf's Lair. But their happiness is short-lived. Karl is present in the room the day Claus von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt fails, and because he is afraid he will be implicated in the plot and thus be a danger to Magda, Karl flees. Magda is arrested and sent to an internment camp.

What follows is Magda's journey from imprisonment to release, her return to Berlin and a ragged existence as she tries to cope with hunger, daily bombings, and then, the appearance of the Russians. She ends up in Hitler's bunker and becomes witness to the last days of the Reich. When the war ends, however, Magda's life again takes a surprising turn.

All in all, The Taster was fairly well-done. The portrayal of Germany's downfall, of how Hitler , a man of power and magnetism, was reduced to a pitiful, sick old man cowering in his bunker, is commendable and very realistic. I had no quibble with the historical details, and I applaud the author for doing his homework.

I did take issue, however, with what I felt to be an overall lack of emotion not only from Magda, but from the work as a whole. There was far too much telling instead of showing, and I didn't connect to the main characters as much as I'd hoped to. It lacked depth in some places, and one issue in particular - Magda's presence in Hitler's bunker when he committed suicide - bothered me a great deal. I won't reveal what that is as it will spoil the novel, but it didn't ring true for me, and left me shaking my head in disappointment.

Nevertheless, The Taster is still a good story. Hitler really did have taste testers in his employ, young women who saw it as an honor to perhaps sacrifice their life to save Hitler's, and Alexander does a great job of exploring this little-known piece of history. 


Friday, March 10, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Resistance Radio

If you haven't watched the alternative history drama, The Man in the High Castle, on Amazon Prime, then you are missing out on one of the best TV shows on any television platform, period. It is that good.

Germany and Japan have won World War II, and the United States is no more. The show starts in 1962. America has been divided into the Greater Nazi Reich from Nebraska to the east coast, and the Japanese Pacific States on the west coast. In the west, there is a strip called the neutral zone (it snakes up Montana,Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico), a buffer between the two empires.

The story centers on Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) and Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). Juliana lives in the Japanese Pacific States while Joe Blake hails from New York City in the Greater Nazi Reich. Their paths cross in the neutral zone when Juliana promises her sister, who is in the Resistance, to deliver a film called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the Man in the High Castle. This film depicts an alternate history, one where the Allies won World War II. In the neutral zone, she meets Joe Blake who supposedly wants to help her, but in reality, he's working for Obergruppenfurhrer John Smith (brilliantly played by Rufus Sewell). Smith wants The Grasshopper Lies Heavy for one reason: Hitler wants it (yes, the Fuhrer is still alive and well in Berlin). There are several other story lines, including Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi, Julianna's boyfriend, Frank (who is Jewish), Chief Inspector Kido of the formidable Japanese police, the Kempeitai, and others. But they all intersect.

It is chilling to see how the world might have been if the Axis powers had won. To see Nazi policy carried out on American soil, to see Americans being subservient to their Japanese masters, to see a Nazi flag flying where the American flag should's disconcerting and jarring. 

Amazon has done a remarkable job in making this show. The sets, the costumes, the characters, the's brilliant. You are completely sucked into this alternative reality.

But here's something really cool.

Amazon just launched Resistance Radio, a website built as a radio that allows you to listen to DJs and radio hosts talk about the Resistance, make fun of their Nazis and Japanese masters, and work to keep the hopes alive of Americans seeking to find their freedom once again. It's pirate radio. They even have remade some of the most beloved classic songs of the period, putting a twist on them as if they were made under the boot of the Japanese and Germans. 


They even sent me this amazing record player and a flyer for Resistance Radio. 

I've been listening to it all morning and if you close your eyes, you really can imagine yourself living in an America where the Nazis and the Japanese rule. It's eerie. 

Check it out here:

I could probably write a thousand word essay or more on The Man in the High Castle. It's one of those shows that encourages debate and discussion, and I've had more than one conversation with fellow fans as we analyze certain character's motivations or try to determine where the plot will go next. It's great fun.

I don't know that I've ever been this excited over a show before and have recommended it to everyone I know. There are two seasons now, so you can binge watch it (and believe me, it will be very easy to do). Amazon is making a third season, and I cannot wait.

If you haven't taken the plunge, take it now! Immerse yourself in this alternative world and muse upon "what might have been." Then thank your lucky stars that the Allies won the war!

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Return to D-Day: 35 Men, 70 Landings at Normandy

The importance of recording the stories of World War II veterans cannot be overstated. Thankfully, there is a large push to do just that through several wonderful organizations and museums, incluing the National World War II Museum and The Greatest Generation Foundation. It is the latter organization that has put together this wonderful book to record the stories of 35 men who participated in the Normany invasion. The book is a result of these men's return to Normandy decades after the landings. From the back cover:

"Since 2004, the Greatest Generation Foundation has offered the opportunity for veterans to return to their battlfields at no cost to them. These voyages back to the battlefields are often emotional, providing aging veterans a long-overdue method of dealing with their war experiences, a chance to re-kindle pride in their service and sacrifices, and a venue to education others."

What an incredible, honorable mission.

Return to D-Day: 35 Men, 70 Landings at Normandy by The Greatest Generation Foundation and Warriors Pubishing Group profiles 35 men who were part of one of the most important military actions in history. Each story is accompanied by two photos: a current phone and one from when the veteran was in service. The book is divided into sections and concentrates on each force involved in the Normandy invasion: ground forces, paratroopers, naval support, air support, pathfinders, and those at Eisenhower's headquarters. The men's individual stories paint a harrowing picture of just how all-encompassing the Normandy Invasion was.

It's a moving, sobering look at how the past has shaped these men, proving once and for all that a warrior's spirit never dies.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation

There are many books written about France, and in particular Paris, during the Nazi Occupation. But few focus specifically on the women of Paris. Anne Sebba skillfully fills that gap with her well-researched book, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation.

The strength of Sebba's work is that she covers a wide swath of women from every socioeconomic class, resisters and collaborators, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor and in-between. Each has a story. Each had specific reasons for acting the way they did. Through cold winters and hot summers, some women struggled to survive while others lived high on the hog, basking in the delights of their German lovers. Everything came at a price. For those who stayed strong in their convictions and fought against the Nazi Regime, they risked being arrested, sent to a concentration camp, or being shot. After the war, those who collaborated faced derision and hatred, even expulsion from their communities.

These are their stories. And there are many of them. This is, perhaps, the harshest criticism I have of the book. There are so many names and stories that it is difficult to keep track of them. It would have perhaps been easier to select a few women from each socioeconomic category and followed them throughout the war, comparing and contrasting their experiences.

However, this criticism could also be the book's greatest strength. The sheer amount of experiences recorded by Sebba offers a very comprehensive look at the book's central topic. Bolstered by an extensive biblography, this is certainly a valuable book for those studying women under the Occupation. Thus, academics will undoubtedly find greater value in the work than some general readers, but both audiences will come away with a far greater knowledge of this crucial moment in French history.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Liberation of Europe: The Photographers Who Captured History from D-Day to Berlin

There are undoubtedly millions of photographs of World War II. A great deal of them have been published and are now familiar to us. Think of Robert Capa's harrowing photos of Omaha Beach or the Times Square kiss taken on V-J day in New York City.

But it's always a treat to see photos that have not been published or were not widely distributed, offering us yet another fascinating glimpse into this global war.

Photographers from The Times of London were part of the great media presence of the war, capturing images that helped us understand every stage of the fight to defeat Hitler. A collection of over 400 images, rarely seen or never before published, are available to you in this fantastic new book, The Liberation of Europe: The Photographers Who Captured History from D-Day to Berlinpublished by Casemate. Mark Barnes, a librarian at The Times, has taken on the mammoth job of compiling these photographs from The Times photo archives to create an incredible photographic history of the campaign from D-Day to Berlin.

Photos range from military commanders Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery to political leaders Winston Churchill and King George VI, but more often than not, they are of the average soldier and airman. Each photo caption includes detailed information and the name of the photographer. The photos are sharp and clear, the pages slick and glossy. It's an absolute pleasure to thumb through this book and see yet another aspect of World War II.

This is simply a must-have for anyone interested in The Second World War. It is already available in the UK and it will be released in the US on November 14, 2016, so it will make a perfect Christmas gift for the historian in your life - or for you!