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!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Review: The Ups and Downs of a Gunner: My Life Story

Albert Figg has a story to tell, and it's a good one. His memoir, The Ups and Downs of a Gunner: My Life Story, is a quirky, no-nonsense look at how an ordinary man became caught up in an extraordinary time.

Born in Wiltshire, England, in 1920, Albert was the youngest of eleven children. His childhood was spent learning how to milk cows and harvest hay, frolicking in the fields picking blackberries and apples, going to school, and getting into mischief with his friends. But when Hitler came to power in 1933 and in the years that followed, Albert became intensely aware of the rumblings of war coming from Germany. And in February of 1939, to avoid being drafted, Albert enlisted with the Royal Artillery, 112 Field Regiment, of the Territorial Army.

During the war, Albert trained in preparation for the invasion of Europe, climbing to the rank of sergeant in less than three years. He and his crew landed on Gold Beach at Normandy on June 24, 1944, and would go on to be involved in the attacks on Hill 112 as part of the 43rd Wessex Division. Following his service in Normandy, Albert participated in Operation Market Garden and the Allied advance into Germany. After the war ended, he became part of the British Army of Occupation Rhine. He was discharged in Februrary of 1946.

The Ups and Downs of a Gunner also delves into Albert's post-war life. He details post-war Britain and the political upheaval that occured after the war, as well as his new role as a father and husband. In his later years after his children were raised and he retired, Albert focused on memorializing the 43rd Wessex Division and remembering the sacrifice of those who fought on Hill 112, a mission he still continues today at the age of 97.

What is most enjoyable about Albert's book is its folksy, down-to-earth style of storytelling. It's easy to imagine Albert telling you his tale while the two of you sit ensconced in wing-back chairs in front of a roaring fire on a chill English evening, with tea and biscuits close by. Albert is witty and charming in his descriptions of his life, and his anecdotes are vivid and at times, downright hilarious. Yet when the subject arises, Albert does not shy away from the horror of war.

This is a heartwarming, fun read about an Englishman's life before, during, and after World War II. Thank you, Albert, for writing your story.

For more information about Albert, please visit his website:

Monday, June 06, 2016

D-Day - June 6, 1944

Today, 72 years ago, the world's largest invasion force hit the beaches and soared over the skies of Normandy. Thousands were killed. Thousands were wounded.

We remember them.

Below is a snippet of a Peanuts cartoon called What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (reviewed on the blog here) that shows Snoopy, Woodstock, Charlie Brown, Linus, Marcie, and Peppermint Patty exploring Omaha Beach and Normandy.

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: