An Iron Wind; Europe under Hitler by Peter Fritzsche. Basic, 2018 paper.


Looking back on the 1930s, Peter Fritzsche believes that we underestimate the support that Adolf Hitler had for the National Socialist plan to reshape Europe. He uses various kinds of resources to justify that contention, but particularly memoirs and diaries to ascertain what Europeans were thinking about the future and whether there was any possibility that there could be some kind of accommodation to Hitler ambitious plans for a new age.

The story varies as we peer into those private thoughts of Europeans in the 1930s: France and its notion of cooperation with the German occupation differed from Poland with its large Polish/Jewish community. We listen to the German rejoicing in their occupation of Paris, a city which they much admired, and the account of the German treatment of Russian civilians and prisoners of war on the Eastern front and hits administrative structure, the General Govenorate. The murderous response to Polish resistance and the accommodations which the German occupation made to French public opinion.

In both the fronts, there is little to be said for the common theme, “we didn’t know.” There is rare mention of the Jewish round ups in Paris in the sources Fritzsche uses. Nor much concern about the fate of Polish Jews amongst the Polish underground, the Home Guard, or the Polish Government in Exile in London. We hear no mention of the packed train stations and trains in the East. The transports of Jews to detention centers and concentration camps was there for everyone to see. They were driven to the central market in their towns, often with whips. There is mention frequently of Jewish placidity but rarely any mention of the silence of the Poles as they watched the fate of their fellow citizens.

Fritzsche has included an interesting account of a group of Swiss volunteers, doctors and medical personnel who would travel with the German forces as they drove deep into Russia. These volunteers were no doubt the Swiss way of dealing with their neutrality. They understood their vulnerability to German invasion, and so this was an opportunity to keep their version of neutrality in their hands. And minds. They kept their mouths shut and their industries supplied the German armies in Russia.

When you follow the German land armies as they invade Russia, literally what the Swiss volunteers were doing, there is no hiding the arbitrary violence of the Germans. The German administrative structure that followed the German army, and established the General Government did not like the arbitrary violence and particularly as it became clear that Russia would not easily be conquered. The Germans resisted Napoleonic parallels, when the snows began and food became scarce. German difficulties before Leningrad and particularly their defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943.

The German treatment of Russian prisoners of war is perhaps the most notorious part of the Eastern Front.  And we only recently are we beginning to understand the contribution of the Russian army to Germany’s defeat.

An Iron Wind; Europe Under Hitler has little to say about the position of the Catholic Church. Surely Europeans asked Where is God? Catholics still used the rituals of the church to celebrate baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. The scale of the European disaster resulted in no immediate answer. Also Church people were worried about what the Nazi response might be to an resistance and quickly and violently suppressed in evidence.

Fritzsche mentions the silence that often fell over individuals and groups as the best means of avoiding any complications. Stay out of the way; keep to old friends. Listen but do not talk. Even though that silence could often be interpreted as collaboration. And collaborationists were executed without much fanfare. Parisians were watched.

Adolf Hitler’s radio speeches filled the public square. In Germany of course, but in occupied Europe as well. Radio ownership had expanded in Germany and elsewhere. And radio made the broadcasts of his speeches “spell binding.” At times Hitler became almost deranged, but his speeches were carefully written and planned. They were broadcast in Britain and even on American radio. And particularly as the war news turned less favorable, his speeches sustained many hopeful Germans.

Hitler alternated between international triumphs –union with Austria, the demilitarization of the Rhur, the crisis over the Sudeten Germans. But also the appeal of marching men on the streets of German cities, motorized units, tanks and trucks and flights of German bombers overhead. The lists of war casualties caused great sorrow, but a soldier’s death, Hitler insisted was the most honorable of deaths.

Fritzsche talks about silence; he also talks about noise, both representing power.

An American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz. Beacon, 2018.

Paul Ortiz has succeeded in weaving together the roles that African American and the Latinos have played in American history. And he has done so at a critical moment when many of us are appalled by how Latino immigrants are being treated. Ortiz has shown how an amalgamation of Latin and African-American traditions have worked to the benefit of both groups. And how the considerable achievements in politics and culture of the black community since World War II have helped to welcome Latinos.

            Contrary to most accounts, Mexicans arriving at our south-western borders are not landless. The U.S. war with Mexico (1846 to 1848) had created a precarious land settlement that gave this impression. Ortiz likens it to the gradual stripping the rights of former American slaves over the land they cropped after their Emancipation. (Slavery was abolished in Mexico by proclamation in 1810, and officially in 1829, earlier than in the American South.)

            Native Americans were treated differently. The Seminoles in Florida, for example, were herded onto reservations. Children were often separated from their parents and sent off to boarding schools. The Cherokees were relocated farther west, and they were forced to walk there. Hence the Trail of Tears.

Ortiz has little is say about the pogroms and massacres of Chinese laborers in California in the 1870s. Or the hanging of cigar makers who had crossed picket lines in the Tampa Bay area. The 1870s saw a general improvement in the treatment of the agricultural work force as New World economies became more integrated into the growing North Atlantic trade. The former slaves were producing valuable crops: cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane. Professor Ortiz has sutured these various groups together in many different ways.

He has also integrated them with labor unrest amongst industrial workers in the North. The major influx of Europeans – Irish, Germans, Italians – into the industrial cities had occurred a decade or two earlier. They should be added to the mix of refugees.

Their effect on the job market and organized labor continues. Ortiz claims that the General Strike declared on May Day 2006 was the biggest single strike in American history. And it included migrant laborers from countries “south of the border.” Professor Ortiz’s rewrite of history argues that labor unrest should be part of this collective front.

 The Progressive politics of the last century should not be misrepresented. Corporations and employers had consolidated their power over the working classes. By 1910 that combination had created the greatest industrial power in the world. However, not everyone received what they considered to be their fair share.  And the differences within the work force weakened further attempts to enact reforms.

Ortiz describes what he calls “emancipatory internationalism.”  The abolition of slavery in the U.S. led to the end of slavery in the West Indies and elsewhere. He advocates a return to an alliance with organized labor that made emancipatory internationalism possible. Slavery had been financed by North American banks and that fostered military interventions. We have largely ended our “gunboat diplomacy” and turned to negotiating leagues and trade agreements that created a working relationship between North Americans and Latinos.

But, alas, we still have amendments to make. For example, minority groups continue to be subject to mass incarceration. Ortiz argues this means of controlling insurgencies and defending an economic system based on persistent inequalities is divisive.  African Americans and Latinos must continue their joint efforts to rewrite our history. And perhaps most importantly, to go after those inequalities.  

The Thirst for Empire; How Tea Shaped the Modern World by Erika Rappaport. Princeton 2017.

Erika Rappaport’s book is as much about the manipulation of consumption, in this case food consumption, as it is about the development of tea as a food crop. It is also a significant point in both the evolution of the British Empire in India and the Temperance Movement in Britain.

The late nineteenth century was becoming a world of scarcity. The “Planter Raj,” as Rappaport calls British India, was competing for land and other resources with food crops for a growing South Asian population, but also with other commercial crops, most importantly cotton. And the cotton crop was vital to the growth of the Indian textile industry. Tea was grown and harvested mostly on white-owned tea plantations. The Indian Tea Association’s membership included British growers, British manufacturers, and British retailers.

Indian tea competed with tea from China in British and European markets. It was introduced to the American market, but here it met up with resistance. Here the consumption of tea was taxed, and hence opposed by those North Americans who disagreed with the English governance on political matters.  North Americans were opposed to that particular form of raising revenue. Hence the Boston Tea Party.

Indian “black tea” competed with a more established tea consumption, “green tea” from China. The latter was thought to be superior to the Indian product. Indian tea also competed with two other beverages, coffee and chocolate. They had arrived on the European market at about the same time. There were many coffee shops in London; there were also tea shops.

Proponents of Chinese tea claimed that Indian tea was adulterated, and that was often true. Opium was added as a “flavoring” in Chinese tea. Opium was cultivated in the Indian province of Assam, largely for the Chinese market. It was mostly grown by Indian peasants, and hence also competed for land and resources with Indian tea.

Indian tea had to overcome another hurtle before it was readily accepted in Britain and elsewhere, the Victorian temperance movement. Some looked upon this newish drink as a support for temperance, the avoidance of beer, whisky, and other intoxicants, teetotaler. Others thought it was yet another support for idleness.  The consumption of tea also became associated with the evangelical movement. There was some opposition, particularly to a tea-drinking Indian Army

Rappaport has an interesting discussion of the various ways in which Indian (and Sri Lankan) tea battled their way into Imperial and North American markets. To help with this, Indian tea was displayed in the popular exhibitions and worlds’ fairs of the time and by well-known entrepreneurs. Lipton became a brand of Indian tea introduced by Thomas Lipton.

Eventually tea promoters took on the Indian market. Hindu Orthodoxy tolerated tea drinking. Initially only those who could afford both the time and money involved, mostly moderately well-off women, took up tea drinking. Add in the sweets that usually accompanied tea-drinking and tea-time became a recognized meal.                          Tea eventually broke down caste, class, and gender barriers. It was brewed on the curb side for the ordinary Indian laborer. And eventually crowded out traditional inebriants: bhang, cannabis, and others. Iced tea now competes successfully with bubbly beverages. The colas got a boost in their competition with tea, following the American military around in World War II.

Could iced tea be considered hot tea’s major opponent? An intramural contest?

Once tea-drinking was well established in Britain and the Empire, it began to be taxed and proved to be an important revenue source for the Boer War and then WWI.

An Anti-Tea-Duty League carried on a long crusade, utilizing many of the arguments used to repeal the earlier “corn law”- the duty on grain. The tea duty returned in the 1930s. It became part of the Imperial Preference scheme, enacted in 1932, that benefitted Empire tea.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tea rooms is perhaps the most famous tea establishment in Britain. It was part of the Glasgow School of Art, built in a fashionable residential area and at the height of tea-drinking popularity. The room was festooned with images of young willow trees, all designed by Mackintosh. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire which left these wonderful tea rooms a smoldering ruin. Twice! But afternoon tea has survived.

Grocery; The Buying and selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman. Abrams, 2018 paper.

Michael Ruhlman has analyzed the spaces in a mid-sized grocery chain based in his hometown of Cleveland, Heinen’s Grocery. A tour of the store reveals much about how we preserve our food, what a grocery store of that size stocks, and who determines the inventory.

A grocery store, at least the one in which I shop, is arranged by the degree of refrigeration needed to preserve an item. Thus the meat and dairy items are refrigerated and frozen items are in the outer perimeter of refrigerators and freezers. Good portions of what we find in a grocery store are items that need various degrees of preservation, though not necessarily refrigeration. Most items in Heinen’s Grocery that need cold storage are located with that in mind. Soaps, spices, and canned goods have much longer expiration dates and occupy the center of the store. Paper products can go almost anywhere, but are kept together.

Shopping carts. They haven’t always been around. At the store where I shop they come to the check-out-counter quite full. And judging from these full carts, most grocery shopping is done only once a week.

Ruhlman reports that decisions about stocking new items are generally made at the suggestion of the representatives hired by wholesale companies. Or the store’s buyers may attend trade shows and find new items there.

Food fads come and go surprisingly fast; customer demand generated by lots of advertising. At one time Swanson’s TV Dinners were popular. They have largely disappeared. Hydroponically-grown leaf letter has replaced iceberg lettuce. Several kinds of lettuce are combined, washed, and bagged. Eggs! From a regular dozen eggs to organic, cage-free, Omega-3, and half or full dozen of all those egg options.

The typical customer at Heinen’s is likely to buy food that has been partly prepared. Thanksgiving is the biggest food holiday of the year and involves eating turkey “with all the trimmings,” available to the grateful family.

Health crazes come and go: granola bars, avoiding GMOs (genetically modified organisms), grass-fed rather than corn-fed beef. Antibiotics and hormones that have gotten into the food we eat and the water we drink are to be avoided. Hence bottled spring water. Low sodium for those avoiding salt. Reduced caloric consumption.

Confused? There have been several successful books that give advice on eating and, therefore, shopping: Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire; How Cooking Made Us Human, Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar Fat; How the Food Giants Hooked Us. And other suggestions in Michael Ruhlman’s selected biography.

My father was a grocer in Garwin, a small Iowa town serving a farming community of 2000. The R & T Store – Rider and Thomas – was half groceries, half “dry goods,” the latter a mix of work cloths, small gifts, and other non-grocery items. The store delivered twice a week; the deliveries were the fulfillment of orders that had been placed over the phone. To entice its customers, the R & T offered specials, money losers for the store.

My father spent his days in the store but, like many of his customers, he kept a garden that produced food for the family table. He had an asparagus bed, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and string beans.

We rented a large “locker drawer” where mom kept frozen foods including chickens and food grown in dad’s garden.

There were two other, smaller, grocery stores in town; but, in general, dad avoided competition with other retailers. There was a butcher shop, and hence we had only cold cuts and several cheeses. The R & T was next to the major “anchor store” in town, the post office.

In the R &T Store there were a lot of food items that weren’t packaged. That included sixteen different kinds of cookies, often “sampled.”  Customers brought their own jugs to fill with vinegar for pickling. My mother canned tomatoes as well, and stored them in our basement.

Farm wives that did a lot of baking bought flower by the fifty pound bag. Butter and cream were obtained from the local creamery. (Homemade ice cream made from real cream!) We acquired the eggs that we sold from farmers.

Eventually an A & P Store opened in Marshalltown, a small industrial town seventeen miles distant, and it began to challenge the R & T Store. After many years dad sold the store in 1956 and it survived another 10 years through another owner. Would the R & T be recognizable as a modern-day grocery business? Yes, I think it would. Although the R&T store was in a much smaller town than Cleveland and was operating twenty years earlier, my dad’s grocery was run in much the same way as Heinen’s.

The Moralist; Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

The Great War, as the War was called until it became World War I or the First World War, is best known for the introduction of new weaponry but also for efforts to block imports of food and essential inputs into domestic food production. Both Germany and Britain relied on food imports from the Western Hemisphere as well as materials for their war industries. Hence both imposed a blockade on the other. That in turn triggered the use of German submarines against British and American merchant shipping transporting those goods across the Atlantic. And ultimately the sinking of three British passenger ships, including the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland without a warning.

Britain had the advantage in Atlantic warfare. The British Royal Naval was superior in numbers to the Imperial German Navy. But German submarines evened the imbalance. Ultimately German submarines were sinking Allied merchant shipping faster than they could be built in Allied shipyards. By the end of the war, the British blockade had reduced German food imports to a trickle. Germans were starving.

In the midst of this oceanic warfare, President Woodrow Wilson, with the huge battlefield casualties in mind, insisted on our remaining neutral, avoiding involvement in this European conflict. The US was divided about entry into the war and their President’s refusal to do so. Nevertheless Wilson began efforts to defend the US from the oceanic war. Congress agreed to issue a series of war bonds to raise the funds necessary to put us on a war footing. Both Houses agreed to co-operate.

Was the US expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa intended to be a diversion from the European War? 4,800 troops led by General John Pershing were gathered at the US-Mexican border for what has been called the Punitive Expedition (March 1916 to February 1917). The author, Patricia O’Toole, does not comment on the motives of the Woodrow Wilson Administration.

Meanwhile back in Europe, the horrific land battles and the blockade of food and materiel were adversely affecting the war-making abilities of Germany and its allies. Wilson took this opportunity to start the negotiation for an armistice and eventually a treaty that would settle land disputes and create the conditions for a lasting peace.

Much against his moralist position, Wilson also made minimal preparations to create an army to send to the Western Front.  When Germany ended and then resumed unrestricted submarine warfare against the British merchant marine, Wilson asked the Senate for authority to support Britain and its Allies in this “war to end all wars.” Still he held back on full participation in this European War.

But then the Zimmerman Telegram. Germany’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a telegram to his Mexican counterpart, seemingly offering to help Mexico regain territory lost in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 – upon American entry into the European War on the German side. (The contents of the Zimmerman Telegram had been disclosed by the British.)

According to O’Toole this was a false promise. But it put additional pressure on President Wilson to end his policy of neutrality. War was declared in April 1917.

But by 1917 American banks were making huge loans to both Britain and France, funds that were used, in large part, to purchase munitions, raw materials, and food from Canada and the US. In 1917 a revolution in Russia led to her signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and exiting from the war in March 1918.

Despite his earlier position, Wilson understood that border adjustments after the war would be at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. This drove the Turks into an even greater resistance to a settlement in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The dumbest, most damaging political blunder he had ever made – so Wilson confessed, – was to call for a Democratic Congress to be returned in the 1918 election  despite the unanimity that had been shown by Democrats and Republicans to his neutralist policy. His injection of partisanship into his quest for Congressional support was the first of several mistakes in his building a peaceful post-war Europe. The ultimate the payback was the Senate rejection of the Versailles Treaty.

Throngs cheered President Wilson when he arrived in Paris on his way to Versailles. O’Toole argues that his involvement in the treaty-making was a miscalculation. His triumphant sweep into France seemed to be making peace over the heads of the delegates already assembled at Versailles. He did his best, but Post-War Europe would have to live with the reparations imposed on Germany, with numerous territorial adjustments, and sadly with the war guilt clause. Germany was forced to accept full responsibility.

Patricia O’Toole’s The Moralist; Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made is centered on individuals. That is an unusual approach. Historians most commonly talk about forces: economic, material, diplomatic, how these forces motivated behavior, and the mistakes that were made as a result.