Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany

Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly. Scribners, 2016 paper.

Never Surrender opens with the victory parade in London in July 1919. Britain and her allies had won the Great War, but the toll on European lives had been huge. It is estimated that thirty-seven million men, women, and children were killed or wounded in World War I. “Never again” was a commitment to peaceful ways of resolving conflicts amongst the European nations to avoid another slaughter. It produced a strong British pacifist movement, one that would have to be overcome twenty years later as the European skies once again darkened.

British military planners recognized that warfare would be different in future wars. Air power would be decisive; naval power could no longer ensure the safety of British cities. Good people on both sides of the English Channel were talking about the necessity to negotiate solutions, and if necessary even make concessions. Appeasement! But it did not have the connotations of weakness that the policy would come to have.

Appeasement is a considered policy associated with Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. The Munich Agreement that he negotiated with Adolf Hitler in 1938 was intended to solve through negotiations the problems of the Sudeten Germans living as a minority in Czechoslovakia. The author, John Kelly, ‘goes easy’ on Chamberlain. But unfortunately for his reputation with historians, Chamberlain, returned from Munich making the claim that appeasement had brought “peace in our time.”

Chamberlain’s determination to negotiate an amiable settlement was supported by the prominent Conservative statesmen, David Lloyd George who had led Britain to victory in WWI. Winston Churchill, also a Conservative, believed that in future negotiations, Britain must keep to its commitments to its allies, France and Belgium and after 1939 to Poland.

Kelly makes it clear that Churchill believed Britain would ultimately have the support of the United States. But President Roosevelt would also have to overcome pacifist sentiments in America. Among other prominent supporters of American neutrality in European affairs was the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.

It was hoped that Benito Mussolini and Italy would continue to play the role of peacemaker as he had at Munich. Churchill never trusted Mussolini but there were those in Britain who believed that his interests were sufficiently different from Adolf Hitler’s to qualify him as neutral. But in return for his participation in 1940, Mussolini was asking for concessions, even some of Britain’s Mediterranean possessions. Mussolini was waiting to see who was going to win the war. Ultimately he miscalculated.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and was immediately confronted with the German invasion of Belgium and France. An expeditionary force sent to France was an attempt to bolster French morale, crumbling under the rapid German advance, the Blitzkrieg.

The French pressured the Brits to send more troops and more aircraft. Churchill, assumed that once Germany had defeated the Allied armies in France, it would invade the British Isles. To defend Britain he would need his army and the British air squadrons that he had sent to France. Much to the outrage of the French high command, he withheld their request for more planes.

Perhaps the single greatest “victory” in Churchill’s first months as Prime Minister was the evacuation from Dunkirk. There is a touching story about the “the little boats” summoned to ferry a substantial army across the English Channel. Kelly reports that most of the evacuees were transported across the Channel on destroyers and troop transports, not fishing boats.

Dunkirk poses a conundrum. Why did Hitler order a halt of his armies as they approached Dunkirk, favoring a bombardment by his Luftwaffe? (The order was given by General Gerd von Rundstedt but validated by Hitler.) Kelly offers no hypotheses.

The miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill referred to it, saved 340,000 British and French troops from death on the beaches or a long wartime imprisonment. Soldiers’ lives were saved but all of their military equipment and supplies had to be abandoned.

The Battle of Britain, German air bombardment of British cities and military installations, began almost immediately in June 1940 and lasted until the following June. Britain, despite having fewer aircraft, had the advantage of home air bases, had radar which allowed them to use their fighters more effectively and acted and which acted as an early warning system. Kelly points out that German bombers only had enough fuel to remain in the skies over Britain for a half hour. Rarely was that enough time to find their targets, while being chased by British fighters.

The reader is left with the Battle of Britain not over and its outcome uncertain. “Britain’s decision?” Kelly would have us believe that it was a series of small decisions that extended back to the botched peace after WWI and forward to the decision to continue the good fight after the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Never Again became Never Surrender.






The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor.  Henry Holt, 2016.

Astra Taylor poses a question early on in her book, The People’s Platform. Is the internet a democratizing force where all voices can be heard and can participate equally? A cultural leveler? Or rather, is the internet now reflecting real-world inequalities? She argues for the latter.

Taylor has an axe to grind; she is an author and documentary filmmaker; and it is not clear how those professions will fare in our digital future. The internet, she argues, straddles two economies: a “gift economy” and a “market economy.” Those who are creating the cultural content for the internet are not bringing home big paychecks; they are expected to do their jobs without a fair compensation: the gift economy.

The companies and platforms which dominate the distribution of that cultural content on the internet – Google, YouTube, etc. – are making the big bucks. And many of those technology companies are, in turn, being acquired by the ‘legacy media’, companies such as Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Comcast, and AT & T. And there are even bigger bucks to be made through an old capitalist phenomena, mergers and acquisitions.

This mixture of the two different economies is not unlike the much older issue of copyrighted material. How long does a person own his or her work and receive the benefits of that ownership? Cultural content is constructed on the work of other scholars, artists, etc. who have been the creators of earlier cultural content. And none of them are compensated.

Taylor talks about “search engine success.” The internet is a contest for attention. But the rewards from internet users are clicks rather than dollars. The result, sadly, is a race to the bottom; celebrity affairs, fake news, and the trials and tribulations of ordinary folks “gone viral.” Few web sites have succeeded well enough to be sold for large figures. But don’t forget the Huffington Post. It was launched in 2005 and after six years was acquired by AOL for $315 million.

The “people’s platform” is being constructed just as we are experiencing another new phenomenon. Our smartphones and the internet have made us into citizen journalists. We have become the documentarians of this new media. Crime scenes, for example, are being recorded by witnesses and posted to a network of internet users.  Anything can be posted on a web site and there are no challenges. Where are the “gate keepers” of old? Fact checkers we have but with little of the authority that editors have had over what gets said in the print media.

The recent presidential election has demonstrated that the internet – and specifically Twitter – can be an effective means of political communication. Is the press conference with its constraints and safeguards being replaced by short communications on Twitter (140 characters)?  These factoids are now passed around without the usual questioning by professionals.

The internet creates echo chambers and reflecting mirrors from the choices we make in the sites we visit. We cooperate with these invisible filter bubbles to sort through the voluminous internet traffic to provide us with “the daily me.” We marvel at the freedom the internet holds out to us; yet we retreat mostly to our comfort zones.

Yes, the Internet is free but not without costs. Those are born by users, and more-and-more by those who advertise on the sites that we visit. Taylor argues, however, that the revenue generated is considerably less than the advertising revenue enjoyed by the broadcast and print media in their heydays. We have begun to replace them and their traditional advertising sources with a medium that is far less able to finance its programing. This pattern of compensation, Taylor contends, is not a sustainable arrangement for the future of the internet.

There is a related phenomenon of inadequate compensation in the recording industry. As music fans chose to copy files rather than buying CDs, musicians saw the revenue stream on which they had counted shrivel. They were forced to take to the road again and earn their money through performances. That parallel situation will require those creating cultural content on the internet to seek other sources of reimbursement.

Taylor is apparently less concerned with two additional threats to a viable future for the internet that have surfaced in recent years. Europeans, at least, were shocked to find out about the extent of international surveillance. Spying on German politicians! While we Americans are told that the internet of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees were hacked by Russian cyber-specialists, and that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, may have used information gained from that hacking to assist Donald Trump in his run for the Presidency. We can’t respond in kind because Russia has nothing like our American electoral cycle and the attendant partisan politics.




City of Sedition; The History of New York City During the Civil War

City of Sedition; The History of New York City During the Civil War by John Strausbaugh. Twelve, 2017 paper.

In April 1861 Fort Sumter was fired on by rebel guns, provoking the American Civil War. New York City was then the largest city in North America with 813,000 residents. That included all of the five boroughs that would eventually unite in 1898. Manhattan, at this time, did not extend much beyond 42nd Street.

New York had had a long relationship with the American South, with its cotton exports but also with the slave trade. Its banks supplied the financing that sustained the economy of the Southern States. John Strausbaugh quotes a figure: in 1861, southern plantation owners owed $200 million (in current dollars) to New York banks and other financial institutions. The outbreak of the Civil War left those loans uncertain. New York capital journeyed south; Southerners journeyed north. New York, the American metropolis, was a major travel destination for the South.

During the Civil War, New York quietly continued to buy cotton for mills in the North, but also for British mills. At the same time the city was a center for war production. Perhaps the best known was the shipbuilding industry located in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

New York was the focus of both Irish and German emigration in the 1840s and 1850s. With some enthusiasm these emigres joined the city’s volunteer regiments raised after the war began. They were less enthusiastic about the military draft imposed after the North ran out of volunteers. Hence the New York draft riots in March 1863. The Irish were not enthusiastic about fighting a war when the stated purpose was to free African-American slaves toiling on Southern plantations. It was not their war.

City of Sedition gives some idea of the sorrow and bereavement that accompanies any war of this magnitude. Many of those who joined or were inducted were very young. They witnessed the huge numbers of fatalities and the seeming indifference of the military leadership to their suffering.

Strausbaugh describes the importance of journalists and newspapers in support of, but also opposing Abraham Lincoln’s decision to resist secession. They used the telegraph, a new technology, to flash their field reports back to their home offices in New York City so the suffering and death seemed almost next door.

War correspondents evolved what we now call photo-journalism. Matthew Brady, perhaps the most famous, sent a team of documentary photographers to follow the army. They had their own wagons to carry their photographic equipment and supplies and could develop exposed film in the field.

“The Dead of Antietam” is perhaps the first ever photographic essay. It was hung in Brady’s New York gallery in October 1862. The exhibition’s tone was somber rather than heroic. (Think about it, photographic essays of the wars of the twentieth century tend to be heroic. Those photographing World War II battlefields were rarely allowed to include the dead.)

One other means of participating in the celebrations and sorrows of the War was through popular music. The same songs were often popular in both the South and the North, songs like Dixie, Battle Cry of Freedom, and We’re Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground. They were sold as sheet music and sung around the parlor piano.

It seems as though Strausbaugh has many of the individuals prominent in the Union gathering in New York and taking part in its wartime ‘street theater.’ Naturally those regiments raised in New York returned to the city when their enlistment was over, to much excitement. But also many of the various groups that opposed the War and Negro emancipation arose in New York or found refuge amongst its disorderly streets and alleys.  They were a haven for draft dodgers. Hence the author’s “city of sedition” is an appropriate moniker.

New York streets had long been the venues for the mob violence characteristic of city life at this time and place. These ruffians destroyed property; they also took their anger out on the free blacks they found in the city. Lynchings were common.

That abolition was not their cause seemed even more obvious with the Emancipation Proclamation issued in January 1863. Lincoln was responding to the frequent calls from substantial numbers of prominent New Yorkers and others to free the slaves. He continued to claim, however, that the war was fought over the right of a state to secede from the union, not the end of African slavery – or even its expansion.

Since Canada was neutral, Confederate agents found a haven, and the Canadians had little control over their movements back and forth across the border. We would consider these agents to be terrorists, but the situation never became a crisis in international relations. Great Britain never recognized the Confederate States of America. Had they done so, the Union’s relations with Canada would have been more difficult.

New York may have been close to sedition and certainly individuals were, but they nevertheless celebrated the end of the war as though it had been their war. Thousands of Union soldiers paraded through its streets, Irish, German, and even regiments of black troops. Church bells tolled all over the city; canons boomed.

But the tone of the post-Civil War was already established in the segregated Union regiments that paraded down New York streets. Racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces did not end until 1948. And in many ways New York City would remain the segregated city that it had been prior to the Civil War.





Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956

Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956 by Anne Applebaum. Anchor, 2013 paper.

Anne Applebaum’s “crushing” in her book’s title is misleading. While she describes Eastern Europe’s brutal experience in the aftermath of World War II with the Russian occupation, she argues that the creation of the ”Iron Curtain”, brutal though it was, followed a brutal German occupation.  Also Eastern European borders were shaped by decisions made by the Allies at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in August 1945. All of this was before Churchill named the Russian occupation zone in March 1946.

One of those Allied decisions was to forcibly move Germans (Volksdeutsche) living in Eastern Poland and Ukraine into a truncated Germany. That single act created 7.6 million German refugees. Add to that the 2.5 Czech refugees returning to the vacated Sudetenland. Applebaum suggests that these numbers dwarf the refugee problem in the twenty-first century.

By 1945 German armies in Eastern Europe were collapsing, with little hope of preventing Russians from capturing the great prize, Berlin. President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about ending the war and bringing the soldiers home, had agreed with General Dwight Eisenhower to allow the Russians to occupy Berlin. Russian armies had also occupied Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Hence allowing the Russians to determine the future of Eastern Europe’s boundaries was simply recognizing the ‘facts on the ground.’

The “liberation” of Warsaw and Poland was a particularly complicated story. There were several Polish organizations involved, and they were bitter rivals: the Poles who had escaped to Britain in 1939 (the London Poles), those who formed a resistance in the forests of eastern Poland, and those Poles who had been in training in the Soviet Union to take over the administration of Poland after the war (Moscow communists).

Initially Joseph Stalin was willing to allow communist parties in Eastern Europe to cooperate with other left-wing parties to form post-war governments.  That effort, Applebaum reports, quickly proved to be impossible. Pre-war Polish and Hungarian governments and certainly the National Socialists in Germany had not allowed these left-wing parties, including the communists, to have any part of the political process and hence they had no governing experience.

Earning “hearts and minds” proved difficult for the Soviets. They realized that they must build a more sympathetic public, and an effort was made to reach out to young people. They opened summer camps and introduced indoctrination classes into the public schools. The Russians also worked to discredit alternative allegiances as well – the Catholic Church for example. Its clergy were branded as reactionaries.

Applebaum describes Russian destruction of civil society in Eastern Europe. Churches, educational institutions, newspapers, art, sports clubs, and universities were elements of civil society in Eastern Europe that the Soviets considered enemies of a workers’ and peasants’ democracy.

The loyalty of factory workers was assured by the intervention of the Russians on behalf of unions. On the other hand, the seizure of private companies that had survived physical destruction, their dismantling and shipment to Russia as war reparations must have reduced factory employment. Land was redistributed where it was not already in the hands of the peasantry, mostly the Junker estates, the German landed nobility of eastern Prussia.

The author notes that Jewish owners of companies and private dwellings were big losers. Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe after the War was alive and well.

She also follows the careers of three “little Stalins.” Trained in Moscow for leadership positions, they brought with them to their respective countries in occupied Eastern Europe a well-trained security police force. With their assistance the Russians held the equivalent of the Russian “show trials” of the 1930s. They already had their lists of enemies of the Soviet Union; more names were added.

The Russians had acquired the Reichsrundfunk, the fully equipped Berlin radio station. It proved to be an important component of efforts to sell communism. The American occupation forces established a rival Radio in the American Sector or RIAS. Radio Free Europe was its successor. The Nazi regime had used radio effectively as a propaganda tool. And like other components of the Allied occupation, radio built on precedents in the Nazi authoritarian state.

Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 was a blow to the ardor of the Russian occupation. Applebaum lists several other blows to Soviet prestige in Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan provided badly needed liquidity in Western Europe. The aid package was offered to Eastern European but declined at the Russian insistence. The blundering attempt to seal off Berlin from the three other occupying powers, the Berlin blockade and the dramatic Berlin airlift all blunders costing Russia considerable ill will.  And also Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito got away with a departure from the Eastern European Russian bloc.

Applebaum doesn’t mention a fourth blow to Soviet prestige, the long battle with two Catholic cardinals Stefon Wyszynaski (Polish) and Jozsef Mindszenty (Hungarian). Both were progressive priests much admired in Eastern Europe as well as the West.

Despite these blows, why wasn’t there more open resistance? For one thing, the Soviet occupation followed a horrible war, now over. Many of those who tolerated Eastern European communist regimes had already taken earlier steps toward collaboration. There were rewards, small though appreciated, like a coal delivery or an additional ration card. By not discussing matters with colleagues, neighbors, and friends; you could avoid trouble. Simply keeping quiet was read as compliance.

Anne Applebaum guides the reader through much disputed territory.






Walking St. Augustine; An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City.

Walking St. Augustine; An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City by Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon. University of Florida Press, 2015 paper.

Just to give the reader some idea of the antiquity of the oldest city in the continental U.S., St. Augustine had been in existence for 224 years when George Washington was inaugurated as our first president in 1789. Britain had just relinquished Florida back to the Spanish in 1783. It became part of U.S. territory from 1821 to 1845 when it was granted statehood. St. Augustine played a significant role in several periods of the state’s history. Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon’s ‘time line’ is a good summary of St. Augustine history.

Most of historic St. Augustine can be comfortably walked, and Gordon provides walking itineraries. There are, however, sites that require a short car trip. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park manages to rise above the category “tourist destination.” It has a beautiful setting. Fort Mose Historic State Park housed the first free African-American community in the U.S., established as a refuge for slaves escaping from the British colonies. Fort Matanzas, an outlying fort built as part of the defenses of Castillo de San Marcos, is a magical place, administered by the National Park Service and a short ferry ride amongst Florida’s coastal marshes.

The Castillo de San Marcos – Fort Marion ­­- was a Spanish enterprise. Its construction began in 1672, a fortification intended to defend nearby Anastasia Island against intrusions by pirates and by raiders from the British colony of Georgia. Fort Marion never had any big-time opponents and hence was never breached and never surrendered. It is a well-preserved example of a star-fort military fortification. It has a moat, but the moat was not permanently flooded because the coquina stone in its ramparts would weaken after long periods of contact with water.

The Castillo de San Marcos was eventually named after Francis Marion, a hero of the American Revolution. In the early nineteenth century it was used as a prison for Native Americans who were resisting the spread of white settlement. Perhaps its most famous inmate was Osceola, an influential Seminole chief who took part in the Second Seminole War. Osceola, by the way, was captured under a flag of truce.

Coquina is a local stone quarried in blocks on Anastasia Island. It is a sedimentary rock composed of shell fragments. When first quarried it is soft but hardens over time. It was a good material for Castillo de San Marcos because it would absorb the impact of cannon balls, rather than shattering.

Gordon points out that coquina stone is different from tabby. Tabby is a type of concrete made by burning oyster shells to create lime that is then mixed with water, sand, ash, and broken oyster shells. The technology of tabby concrete was brought from Spain and used wherever its primary ingredient, shells, was available.

Gordon is most interested in the architectural history of the town, and its citizenry. Less so its early inhabitants. Timucuan Indians were settled in the coastal areas stretching from Cumberland Island in coastal Georgia to the lake district of central Florida. Estimates of their population vary from 50,000 to 200,000. In the early Spanish period their population plummeted, from warfare and European infectious diseases.

The Timucuan are best known from the engravings of a Belgian, Theodore de Bry. Much traveled in Europe, de Bry never made it to North American and hence had no contact with the Timucuans that his engravings have immortalized. Rather he used sketches that were made from life by Jacques Le Moyne, a French artist and member of an expedition to Florida in 1564. Much about Timucuan life has been gleaned from these engravings, though it is likely that the images of their muscular, graceful bodies were a romanticized version of reality.

In addition to the early Spanish settlers, Gordon mentions the Minorcans. They were Europeans from an island in the Balearic Sea off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. They had been recruited to establish the colony of New Smyrna and were under some degree of servitude. When that colony failed they migrated to St. Augustine and were granted freedom and sanctuary. They are an example of one of the several forms of servitude in Florida prior to Civil War emancipation.

Of course the most common form of servitude was black slavery, and Gordon is a little disappointing in her account of St. Augustine’s slaves and their liberation. Most St. Augustinians who fought in the Civil War did so on the side of the Confederacy. The St. Augustine Blues, mobilized in 1860 and part of the Army of Tennessee, fought in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Judging from Walking St. Augustine, the town began a several decade-long slumber in the post-Civil War period. Its primary industry in the Gay ‘90s was tourism, and that has remained the case up to the present. Perhaps the most important phenomenon in the late nineteenth century was Henry Flagler’s creation of a series of luxury hotels for a wealthy East Coast clientele.

Flagler built three huge hotels, the Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar, and the Cordova. All three are serving other functions these days, and housing tourists has been left to chain hotels and motels on the periphery of the city and to bed and breakfasts located in St. Augustine’s Victorian homes, the boarding houses of an earlier day.

Much of the housing in the old city is too expensive for those who work in its service sector; it is rapidly becoming second homes. There have been a few new commercial structures built in a traditional style with second floor loggias. St. George Street provides good examples.

Take a stroll in an interesting city and take along Walking St. Augustine.

NEW BOOKS: Conflicts of the Twentieth Century & Their Aftermaths.

We Will Not Be Silenced; The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics by William Robinso &, Maryam Griffin. AK Press, 2017 paper. Academic freedom confronts the Israel lobby in Washington, D.C.

On Antisemitism; Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine by Judith Butler. Haymarket, 2017 paper. Butler cautions that criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians should not be considered as anti-Semitism.

The Wall and the Gate; Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights by Michael Sfard. Metropolitan Books, 2017.  A farmer in the occupied West Bank asked to have a gate build through the separation wall so that he could get to his olive trees. Seemed reasonable, but that would lead a credibility to the wall which the Palestinians were denying

Anatomy of Terror; From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State by Ali Soufan. W.W. Norton, 2017. Our assassination of bin Laden was supposed to lead to the demise of radical Islamic affiliates of his al-Qaeda organization.

Sons and Soldiers; The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. William Morrow, 2017 Some 2000 German-speaking Jews formed into interrogation units to question German POWs. They were known as the Ritchie Boys.

The Kamikaze Hunters; Fighting for the Pacific: 1945 by Will Iredale. A new form of warfare – the suicide pilot – seems much less “foreign” to us in the twenty-first century.

The Untold Story of the Secret Capture by David Balme & Captain Peter Hore. Whittles, 2017 paper. Balme boarded a disabled German U-boat in the mid-Atlantic and captured one of the greatest secrets of WWII, the code used in the Enigma German machines.

Passchendaele; The Lost Victory of World War I by Nick Lloyd. Basic. A small, insignificant Flemish village was the site of a meaningless battle in the summer of 1917 when perhaps 500,000 men were killed or wounded, maimed, gassed, drowned, and all buried in this small corner of Belgium.

Humanitarians at War; The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust by Gerald Steinacher. Oxford University Press, 2017. The Red Cross was able to maintain its neutrality during WWII, but came under much criticism for both its opposition to the Allied de-Nazification efforts after the war and then the Cold War between former allies.

Allied Intelligence Handbook to the German Army, 1939 to 1945 by Stephen Bull. What did the Allies know about the German army? What were the sources of that knowledge?

The Guardians by Susan Pederson. Oxford University Press, 2017. Ending WWI, the Paris Peace Conference agreed to preserve French, British, Belgian, and Japanese dominions while handing out Ottoman territories and German colonies as “mandates” to the war’s winners.

My Lai; Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones. Oxford University Press, 2017. The massacre of Vietnamese villagers by American troops; the massacre was suppressed, but then a confession by an American soldier.