Thursday, May 26, 2016

Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus

Meaty historical fiction is an absolute treat to read. When it is infused with the details of that time period and seamlessly integrates story and history, then you know the author has succeeded in their job. And James MacManus is no exception with his latest novel.

Set in Berlin in the critical years of 1938-1939, Midnight in Berlin follows the life of British military attache Colonel Noel Macrae as he tries to navigate the choppy waters of dealing with not only Hitler's government, but his own.

When Macrae arrives in Berlin with his wife, Primrose, neither are particularly anxious to be in a Germany overtaken by Hitler. Macrae was a sniper during World War I, and he has no desire to participate in another war. However, he is no fool and he sees the truth behind Hitler's pontificating speeches. Hitler wants war and he will have war.

Unfortunately for Macrae, the British ambassador in Berlin believes negotiating peace with Hitler and following a policy of appeasement is the only way to avoid a war. Macrae bangs his head against the proverbial wall time and time again in trying to convince his superior and others in the embassy to open their eyes to Hitler's plans for the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. And though he is technically not a spy, Macrae finds himself playing the espionage game with Florian Koenig, a top general in the German Army (and Primrose's lover) who informs him of the Army's plans to overthrow Hitler. Macrae is walking a tightrope.

Things become even more complicated when Sara, a Jewish woman who works in the Gestapo's elite brothel, The Salon, asks him for his help in finding out what happened to her brother. Even though it's dangerous to be seen with her, he can't help but fall in love with her.

As the British government continues to appease Hitler and the months roll by with no peace in sight, Macrae becomes desperate for action and makes a choice that might seal everyone's fate.

The vast amount of research done for this novel is mind-boggling. At times, it reads more like a history of Germany in those years than a novel. In certain places, however, there was too much history and not enough story. Nevertheless, it wasn't a hardship to read these sections because they were written so well. But it did detract from the overall plot. The last quarter of the book also felt rushed, as if the author needed to hurry up and finish and didn't have time to write engaging scenes.

But what MacManus succeeds at, and admirably so, is showing the absolute diplomatic failure of the European governments - especially Great Britain. That they utterly failed to see who Hitler really was despite repeated warnings from those who could see the truth is maddening, especially in hindsight. But there were those, like Macrae, who accurately predicted Hitler's actions, and to see their warnings to their superiors discarded so easily is frustrating. Appeasement was indeed the order of the day, and we all know how disastrously that policy played out.

Midnight in Berlin is a terrific read, one that not only entertains, but educates. And that is the mark of a truly good piece of historical fiction.

Note: This review was done from the advance uncorrected proof. I did not receive any remuneration for this review.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2016

71 years ago today, the Soviet Army entered Auschwitz and liberated the camp. Today, the international community remembers this day.

Yad Vashem has a remarkable online exhibit called "The Anguish of Liberation as Reflected in Art 1945-1947."

From their website:

"This special on-line exhibition, based on the Yad Vashem Art Collection, features works created between 1945 and 1947 and attempts to investigate how survivors reacted to the liberation through art.
For most of these survivor-artists, the ability to paint again signified freedom and renewed independence. The choice of their art's subject and the grip on the pencil or brush symbolically restored a feeling of control, after years of helplessness. The act of painting represented a process of psychological rehabilitation through which they could synthesize the trauma."

One of the more powerful images is by Israel Alfred Gluck. He was held in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. 

"This page depicts the moment of liberation at Buchenwald: a soldier riding on an American tank is shown as the savior and is eagerly received by the prisoners, yet most of them are unable to even stand in order to welcome him. The artist signs the drawing with his name, accompanied by his prisoner number from Auschwitz."

 Never Forget.

View more of the exhibit here:

Sunday, December 27, 2015


This blog has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside. I have had a great deal of health struggles this past year and it has put me quite far behind in my reviews. Unfortunately, those health struggles are not going away as I have two chronic illnesses, so I'm learning to accept a new normal and to focus my limited energies on the things that are truly important to me. Writing about World War 2 history remains one of my passions, so I definitely have no plans to abandon the blog. 

If you sent me a book to review and I haven't done it yet, please accept my apology. I hope to get to all of them at some point. 

Thank you for understanding.

 I wish you a wonderful 2016!

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

2015 International Conference on World War II

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans never fails to produce an amazing line up of speakers and events every year for their International Conference on World War II. This year, the theme is 1945: To the Bitter End and it will explore some of the pivotal events of this last year of the war. The conference runs from November 19-21, 2015.

From their website:

"Our 2015 Conference explores the final year of World War II, from the Battle of the Bulge to the discovery of concentration camps across Europe to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a time when Allied nations celebrated victory and their leaders sought to implement their postwar agendas."

If you can't make it to New Orleans (like me), then you are in luck: the museum live streams the conference for FREE. This means you can sit in the comfort of your home or office and watch some of the leading scholars of World War II speak about the events of 1945.

A full list of speakers and lectures, plus the link to live streaming, can be found here:

If you missed last year's conference, (which focused on the events of 1944), you can watch it in its entirety here:

Make sure to mark your calendars. This is something you won't want to miss.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter)

When this German miniseries on World War II came out in Germany in 2013, I was quite anxious to watch it. I knew it had generated some controversy, but I also knew I had to judge for myself. It just recently appeared on Netflix streaming, and I binge-watched all three episodes.

Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) centers on five friends from Berlin who've been together since childhood: Wilhelm and his younger brother, Friedhelm, are in the Wehrmacht; Charlotte (Charly) just joined the German Red Cross as a nurse; Greta is a bartender with singing aspirations; and Viktor is a Jewish tailor.

The series follows the five friends from the summer of 1941 through the end of the war and shows how their lives intersect and dramatically change as the war drags on.

Both brothers serve on the Eastern Front, beginning with Russia. Friedhelm knows the futility of the war from the start and hangs on to his humanity until the war mercilessly grinds it out of him. Wilhelm, a lieutenant, does his duty even when he doesn't want to, but the senselessness of leading his men to slaughter becomes too much for him. Charly works at a field hospital and sees the war's gruesome toll on a daily basis. Greta, wanting to save her boyfriend, Viktor, begins an affair with a  Gestapo officer, one that will lead to her eventual destruction. And Viktor, after being held in a concentration camp, escapes from a train en route to Auschwitz and ends up embroiled with Polish partisans.

Not all of them survive, and those that do have changed so irrevocably by the war's end that they are a mere shadow of their former selves.

The acting is quite brilliant. I feel that the actors who played the two brothers (Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling) did an especially incredible job of portraying the relentless toll of war and how it fundamentally alters our perceptions of good and evil, moral and immoral.

Some of the reviews I read said it "whitewashed" Nazis crimes and made the central characters sympathetic. Two points to consider here. One, I don't believe it whitewashed Nazi crimes at all - there are several scenes that show just how horrific they really were and also shows the Wehrmacht's complicity in such crimes. Two, the fact that the central characters were sympathetic (and at times, they most certainly were not) is what a story needs to keep the audience intrigued. Not many people want to watch a movie with characters who are so despicable that you just want to throw the remote at the t.v. in disgust or turn it off altogether.

I also think there is a tendency for people to believe that any type of World War II movie that comes out of Germany cannot have main characters who are not fanatical Nazi ideologues because it's not "accurate." I dispute this notion. I don't believe that 100% of Germans were fanatics or subscribed to Hitler's ideology.  That is a statistical improbability, and we have historical evidence that proves otherwise. However, that the vast majority went along with the war is indisputable.

There were plenty of other characters who showed the hatred, racism, intolerance, and sadistic behavior of average Germans and soldiers alike. So all in all, I felt we were given all sides of the story.

A very strong point of the series: it shows how the constant brutality of war dehumanizes a soldier, no matter what side they're on. E.B. Sledge talks about this a lot in his memoir, With the Old Breed. He served in the Marines on Peleliu and Okinawa, two of the most brutal battles fought in the Pacific campaign. He started out with his humanity in full force and cringed at the inhumanity he saw his fellow soldiers participating in. For example, Marines would often take souvenirs from dead Japanese soldiers. But after awhile, Sledge found himself doing the same thing.

By the same token, the two brothers serving in the Wehrmact smack right up against this brutality. Freidhalm begins the war with a high sense of morality, appalled at what he sees going on around him, and determines not to participate in it. Yet two years later, after experiencing the horror of the Eastern front, he's turned into a hardened soldier, capable of killing on command.

Of course, this isn't limited to soldiers. Charly must cope day after day with wounded, dying soldiers to the point where, toward the end, she actually hinders some soldiers' healing process so they don't have to go back to the front.

I do have some quibbles. I was astonished at how they portrayed the Polish partisans as being so virulently anti-Semitic. Further research shows that this wasn't quite true, and I'm wondering at the filmmakers' decision on this.

What the series succeeds in, quite admirably, is to show how immensely war changes people. The carefree, happy group of friends from the first few scenes is a faraway dream. Those who survived and meet again after the war are a shell of their former selves, irrevocably different, and they will never view each other quite the same way again.

It's always interesting to see how other countries portray the war, and this experience was no different. I believe the filmmakers did an admirable job of portraying all sides of the German experience, and in this, they succeeded in achieving their goal: of starting a conversation about the war in contemporary Germany. With the generation who experienced this war fast disappearing, it's imperative that conversation continues.

For American audiences, this is a must see. It examines the war from a different perspective than the narrative we currently have, and deepens our understanding of not only how the war affected the common soldier, but how the Nazi ideology infected every segment of German society. This is its strength. While there were those who became profoundly disillusioned with Hitler's rhetoric, others believed in it up until the very end.

The series is currently on Netflix streaming.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation

Wartime brings out some of our strongest emotions, but arguably one of the most powerful is love. With the very real possibility of death hovering over them, men and women of the 1940s often rushed to get married before the soldier shipped off to war, or made a commitment to marry once the war was over. They often wrote ardent letters to each other full of dreams of the future. Those letters became the glue that kept them together when the fighting, the waiting, and the separation became too much.

War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation by Cindy Hval brings many of those stories to life. A journalist, Hval gathered 36 stories from men and women across America and compiled them into this wonderful volume.

Each story features wartime photos of the couples, as well as photos of their lives together 70 years later. This is perhaps the most poignant feature of the book, to see how their marriages have lasted for more than half a century. They will be the first to admit that it certainly hasn't been a bed of roses, but has taken commitment, strength, courage, and devotion to stay together through thick and thin.

There's Jerry and Nancy Gleesing who married and were expecting their first child before he was sent overseas, shot down over Hungary, and taken prisoner by the Germans; Gene and Evie Fields who waited to marry until Gene came home, carrying a Purple Heart he earned from wounds received in Italy; and Dean and Betty Ratzman who met as college students on a blind date in 1943 and married in February of 1946. These are just a small sampling.

Included with each story is a snippet of relationship advice from the couple, and it is here that you can catch a glimpse into the truth behind their marriage's longevity.

War Bonds is truly a heartwarming read, one that will renew your faith in commitment and marriage itself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Spy with 29 Names

Sometimes, life really is stranger than fiction.

Juan Pujol was a Spaniard who created one of the most incredible espionage networks in Europe during World War II. His incredible tale comes to life in The Spy with 29 Names: The Story of the Second World War's Most Audacious Double Agent by Jason Webster.

Pujol was caught up in the Spanish Civil War and because of it, he knew fighting totalitarianism was to be his life's mission. A quick, sharp-witted man, Pujol decided to become a double agent, and he began spying for the Nazis in 1941, pretending to be in London while he was actually in Lisbon. And the Nazis believed him. Once he hooked the Nazis, Pujol approached Great Britain with his newfound "status" and convinced them to begin a massive espionage campaign against the Germans.

The British - astonished at first at how well Pujol had done for himself - had to be persuaded that he was authentic, and once they did, they brought Pujol and his wife to live in Britain. Then Pujol got to work. Along with the help of his MI6 "handler", a Spanish-speaker named Tomas Harris, Pujol created an elaborate network of spies all across England. The catch? Not one of them was real. All of the spies were fictional: Pujol and Harris had made them all up.

Pujol, who was known to history as the famed double agent "Garbo", and MI6 were so successful that they were actually able to divert German Panzer divisions away from Normandy. The success of D-Day would not have been possible without them.

That one man was able to concoct such amazing, convoluted tales and have the German High Command trust his words was nothing short of incredible. This is a terrific, fast-paced, riveting story, one that must be read to be believed.