God’s Red Son; The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America by Louis Warren. Basic Books, 2017.

            On 29 December 1890 there was a massacre at a place called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. It was the result of a long-standing clash of the officialdom that administrated the reservations in the Plains and the Native Americans who lived on them. The Indians were determined to maintain their old ways in the face of pressure on the part of these agents. Reservation Indians were being encouraged to adapt themselves to working as wage labor or taking up farming, getting an education in government schools, and accommodating their spiritual life to a new movement amongst the Native Tribes of the Southwest. They were frequently participants in a movement called the Ghost Dance.

            In the interest of modernity, Indians had been forced to drop certain practices that were part of their traditional Sun Dance. That included piercing the chest and back muscles with skewers and then dancing until they fell into a trance-like state. Helped along by the use of peyote. The reservation officials had had various objections to the Sun Dance when it was popular. But as it became less popular on the reservations, as the more mind-altering, Ghost Dance swept through the Indian communities on the Plains.

            This was also a time of revivalism in the Evangelical religious movements in white America. Ghost Dancers and Evangelical Christians were spiritual opponents in many ways, Louis Warren argues. For one thing they both claimed a Christ-like redeemer. But there could only be one redeemer in this monotheistic world and one means of acquiring redemption.

            There had long been many critics but also proponents of the reservation system. It enabled confinement and surveillance, both alien to Indian ways and to American religious movements. Moreover, the federal government provided Indians with food, medicinal supplies, etc.

            Eastern newspapers were frightening the country with stories about the Ghost Dance. It was part of an end-time when destruction would rain down on the white people. South and North Dakota were joining the Union (1889), and politicians worried about the spread of the Ghost Dance amongst the Dakota Indians would frighten white settlers from the new states.

The agencies also thought it important to reduce the number of firearms available to the Indians. The massacre at Wounded Knee involved a performance of the Ghost Dance. And, Warren suggests, that got linked together in the minds of newspaper readers. The effort to disarm these Lakota Indians resulted in the US Army intervening and shooting up the encampment.150 women and children were killed and 51 wounded. 

            Wounded Knee also undermined the long tradition of an assimilationist policy. These days we are proud of the success of our assimilationist policy in terms of Europeans and their comfortable settlement in the New World.  We have been less successful in accommodating freed slaves and Native Americans. European immigrants quickly settled into a job-oriented life. That was not so true of either of freed slaves or Native Americans. “Working for the white man” seemed natural to the European immigrant, but not so for the Native American.

            Meanwhile their sacred sites in the American West remain largely undisturbed and magnificent. 

            With exception of those who were forced into reservations in Oklahoma, Native Americans had lived in various environments west of the Mississippi and adapted themselves to each new environment. Only to watch as their lands became “zones of resource extraction.” (Warren) It was, however, possible to move further west. Though that would soon change.  

The Ghost Dance eventually became a “weekend activity.” The National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington seeks to help us understand the cultures of the plains Indians and supports the continuance of that culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native American life. And perhaps in some unknown corner of the western plains the Ghost Dance is still being performed.

The Liberators; America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust by Michael Hirsh. Bantam, 2010.

Michael Hirsh has interviewed dozens of GIs who had a part in the Allied liberation of the German concentration camps in 1945. Out of those interviews he has ascertained that the concentration camps had multiple purposes. They were never part of a static system. And they were still being built and closed in the last years of the war. For one thing the Russian army had broken the back of the Wehrmacht, and as the Russian armies moved west, the Germans moved their prison population west, ahead of the Russians. They were intent upon hiding evidence of the terrible condition that the camps were in at that point in the war.

There is considerable speculation by Hirsh and other historians of the War about what the German citizens knew of these camps, often located in wooded areas near them. More to the point: How much did the American military leadership know of the camps, where they were located, and the conditions under which the inmates were being held? And transferred to other camps?

There is the famous story of Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton visiting the concentration camp at Ohrdruf in Thuringia, part of the Buchenwald camp network intended for political prisoners. Prisoners of War were kept in Stalags, military prison camps, though they were later mixed in with political prisoners in the concentration camps.

(The smell; everyone mentions the smell. Of rotting corpses. General Patton’s response was to go off and regurgitate.)

The Allied military leadership has often been criticized for not having prepared the front-line soldiers likely to encounter these camps,as their visit to Ohrdruf revealed. But they were in a hurry. The British and American armies were occupying the German heartland, and they wanted that momentum to continue. Hirsh makes the point that the future of Occupied Germany was at risk. We were staking out the American Zone of Occupation; the Russians their zone.

As they were moved west, many of the camps’ inmates were packed into railway cattle cars. (Standing room only!) And since these trains packed with prisoners had a low priority, they were sometimes parked for days on rail sidings. And when unsealed, they were found to contain hundreds of dead and dying men. As more inmates were moved west and railway cars weren’t available, the result was another horror; the death marches.

The flight of the German guards in these prisons was often preceded by a final orgy of indiscriminate torture and killing. Many of the camp guards, members of the SS, Schutzstaffel, were shot or beaten to death by their former wards. They were often toughs, who had guarded Nazi party rallies.

There is the oft-told story of the dead being stacked like logs, awaiting their cremation. And locals, often young men, were drafted to dig the graves for their charred remains.

Retribution on the part of the inmates was an understandable response to the way they had been treated, but this free-for-all was not the kind of justice that the Anglo-American leadership intended for post-war Germany. The camp inmates often expressed the hope that the liberators would stay on to look after them but also to protect them against the possibility of a return of the camp guards.

It is interesting to note how frequently the gates to the concentration camps became symbols of the entire prison system. Perhaps the most famous is the entrance to Auschwitz, where the wrought-iron gate reads Arbeit macht Sie frei. “Work makes you free.”

Germany surrendered unconditionally on 7 May 1945. The war was over, and the liberators and their stories returned to this country. But much was left to be sorted out in Germany. Polish Jews who attempted to return to Poland found the same antisemitism that had forced them to leave their homeland.

For this book, Hirsh interviewed many American veterans who had been part of the liberation of the concentration camps. Many had trouble talking about their experience. They got over it; there were lots of opportunities to talk to American high school students about the Holocaust and their part in the liberation.

Most of these veterans are now approaching the age of 100. They will soon disappear from the ‘memory bank’ along with their aging memories. How will memories of World War II be altered once these liberators are dead?

The camps will, however, remain always a world of anger and remorse, for the historians of WWII and their readership to shape and reshape over time.


The Third Reich; A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers. Simon & Schuster, 2018 paper.

Thomas Childers has introduced many of the politicos who competed with Adolf Hitler for control of the conservative movement in inter-war Germany. Childers has described Hitler’s consolidation of power within the National Socialist German Workers’ Party the NSDAP and his dictatorship lasting from 1933 to 1945. Part of the activist foreign policy that Hitler and the Nazi Party pursued in the inter-war years, Childers makes clear, was meant to be a distraction from these Party struggles.

Adolf Hitler had an early career in Vienna as an artist painting postcards for a living. He had served in the German army in the Great War where he had won an Iron Cross for bravery in combat. He and most Germans believed that Germany had not really lost WWI. Rather, its armies had failed because of a “stab in the back.” Retaining their paramilitary formations, Hitler and others in the National Socialist movement took to the streets. These brown-shirts, as they were called, bothered the peace of Hitler’s Vienna. Its radical leadership could marshal as many as 100,000 of these brown-shirts to party rallies. They maintained their uniforms and their ardor for causing trouble. There were a half-dozen Reichstag elections between 1926 and 1932, ample opportunity to enter party politics and cause trouble.

In additional to his organizational skills, Hitler contributed his speech-making talents to conservative right-wing causes. His oratorical skills were enhanced by the popularity of radios. You could participate in street demonstrations. Or you could listen to them over the radio. He appealed to a heterogeneous group of voters, the working class but also the German middle class, tuned to their new radios. Many of the early challenges to his leadership came from this middle class.

(Adolf Hitler was not a good negotiator; this was clear in his negotiations within the Nazi Party. He would present an initial offer that had to be accepted.)

During the inter-war period, Germany suffered from a failing economy – a huge drop in industrial production and growing unemployment. The rhetoric that explained these economic woes was tinged with Anti-Semitism. It was believed that wealthy Jews had undermined the war effort. This Anti-Semitism, a mix of anger and frustration, colored the right-wing politics of the 1920s and 1930s. In reality it had long been a part of German politics.

The National Socialists were one of many political factions looking for allies that would create sufficient power in the Reichstag and give their party leaders an office. Hitler was good man for this political milieu.

Adolf Hitler used his successful advocacy of an aggressive military policy to further his career. The German military leadership was impressed – bewildered – by Hitler’s guessing correctly so consistently.  Though they faulted his “baseless optimism” and were dubious of his “apocalyptic strategizing.” Thomas Childers argues that the German political leadership, including Hitler, turned to targeting Polish and German Jews when they began to realize that they could not win a war of attrition. And their radical rhetoric was no longer finding its audience.

There has been much speculation about Adolf Hitler’s decision to enter the war between the US and Japan after Pearl Harbor. Perhaps he understood the enormous military might that we would bring with our entry into the European War. Or was it possible that his thinking ahead to a time when the Germans and the Japanese would be dividing up the Far East for themselves.

Having suggested Adolf Hitler’s alleged military acumen, it would be interesting to explain why Hitler let 338,000 Brits escape from Dunkirk in May-June of 1940. Was he looking beyond this success to a time when he might want to gain French and British cooperation against his main obstacle to dominance of continental Europe, the Russian army? In the midst of Dunkirk, was he thinking strategically of an all-out assault on Russia – Operation Barbarossa?  Hitler was well-aware that the military defeat of Russia could only be the result of a slow war of attrition, and Hitler didn’t have the time.

The German army failed to take either Leningrad or Stalingrad. But the German military leadership delayed its invasion of Russia, and then, following Napoleon, let “Winter” and Russian armies halt the German advance.

This is only a brief review of a few of the many interesting observations that Thomas Childers has made of Nationalist Socialist Germany – The Third Reich.

Roosevelt and Stalin; Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler. Vintage, 2016 paper.

Even in the dedication of her book, Susan Butler makes her point: “To the 405,000 Americans and the 27,000,000 Russians who died in World War II.” This was an uneven partnership, based on Russia’s assuming a greater share of the human sacrifice. Perhaps for that reason alone Stalin would have had the keener interest in the peaceful settlement to a long and deadly war.

Wars were fought by armies to be sure. But the author has carefully argued that this was not so true of World War II where planning and critical decisions were made well ahead of time and in concert with other allies.

In the nineteenth century, the European peace was dominated by a system of alliances and alignments kept together by the Prussian statesman, Otto Von Bismarck; nothing like the conferences in the inter-war period or the war years. A century after Bismarck’s dismissal, European peace was kept in place by the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, signed on 23 August 1939 by Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov.

Stalin was not fooled into thinking that this Pact was a permanent solution. He hoped that he had bought time, which Russia badly needed. Its army was not in any shape to fight the Wehrmacht at that point. True to the agreement, on 1 September 1939 the German and Russian Armies invaded Poland from their respective sides as they had agreed.

The British also moved to make peace with the German domination of Central Europe. Hence the famous (notorious?) Munich Pact between Britain and Germany, signed on 29 September 1938.

Much of the planning for the Allied conduct of the war and the peace-keeping mechanism after the German defeat took place at a series of conferences that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and other diplomats attended during World War II

They began with a meeting of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941.  Josef Stalin attended most of the subsequent conferences, which included a varied list of other diplomats. On to Casablanca, Cairo, Tehran, Yalta, and ending with Potsdam after Roosevelt’s death. The American delegation was headed by a less than enthusiastic President Harry Truman. These conferences required huge amounts of planning and much concern about the safety and security of their participants.

These conferences did not anticipate the continued maintenance of post-war Europe by a triumphant American military machine. Nor a North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead the peace was to be maintained by an organization called the United Nations and planning for a post-war peace was a major part of the conversation and then commitments that arose out of these discussions.

Most of the issues that these conferences discussed concerned the European front. And here the most significant issue was the opening of another front – Normandy – that would relieve some of the pressure on the Russian armies trying to recapture vast territory lost to the Germans. Stalin understood that the invasion across the English Channel would involve considerable planning, and he wanted to see signs that it had begun. The Russians had timed an offensive on their front to relieve pressure on the American-British army at the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 to January 1945).

The war with Japan in the Far East also involved the some bargaining. The Russians could promise assistance there in return for military equipment – tanks and heavy trucks – in the reoccupation of Poland. The American military leadership was assuming that they would have to invade the Japanese homeland to end the war in the Far East and asking for an unconditional surrender. Hence Russian military assistance would be valuable in that sphere in return for Allied assistance in France. The Roosevelt-Stalin partnership involved some “horse trading,” and critics of our wartime diplomacy believed that we got the worst of it.

Neither Stalin nor Roosevelt was as concerned as Winston Churchill about the fate of European colonialism – particularly India. Britain had used their Sepoy army to fight their battles in colonial Malaysia. Churchill made it clear, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”  He was always informed about issues coming before the Stalin-Roosevelt partnership, but not always consulted.

Should the “partnership” between Roosevelt and Stalin continue after the War? Opposition within the US to any permanent alliance with the Russians was growing. They; the Russians, “were not our kind of people.”

There were few “thanks” to Russia from members of the Roosevelt Administration. Averell Harriman pointed out that had Russian soldiers not liberated those concentration camps in Poland and Eastern Germany when they did many more American POWs would have died.

We quickly assumed the mantel of the victor and constructed our own stories about the wartime Soviet-American partnership. This was an uneven partnership, so Butler maintains, based on Russia’s bearing a greater share of the fatalities and carnage of WWII.

Unfortunately FDR did not include Harry Truman in the work of these conferences, and when he became President upon Roosevelt’s death, he knew little about these discussions, over this five-year period. Moreover he had a different set of advisors. Many Americans felt that Stalin had taken advantage of an ailing Roosevelt and a novice Mid-Westerner.

The Inferno; the Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe. Penguin 2008, paper.

Hamburg was one of the many German cities firebombed by the British and US air forces in the last years of World War II. The city had been a supporter of the Nazi Party, and most of its administrators were good Party members.

Hamburg had been the beneficiary of German rearmament in the 1930s. It was a major center for both aircraft and naval production. Plus a mix of smaller industrial plants that supplied those major industries. Not far inland from the North Sea, it was an important port with huge docking facilities.  Royal Air Force bombers could reach the city, drop their bombs, and return to their bases in the UK on one tank of gas.

The city was subjected to an aerial strategy that the British called blanket bombing, which operated under the assumption that bombing of civilian targets would lead to public demoralization. The flights of bombers, mostly night flights, and the frequent air raid alarms, made life miserable for Germany’s city dwellers. To say the least, they suffered from sleep deprivation. The cellars and basements of Hamburg where its citizens spent a lot of time, were not only unsafe structurally. They were “unlivable.”

The German coast and Hamburg were well guarded. Long-range radar could pick up planes within one hundred miles of the coast. They had to contend with German fighter aircraft on the way, over the city, and on the way home as well.  Also the Germans had a new weapon, Düppel, bundles of strips coated with metal foil – could confuse targeting controlled by radar.

There were always a good percentage of British and American pilots who, for one reason or another, never made it to their assigned target. Hence they could choose a “target of opportunity,” If they could see the ground.

An alternative strategy was pinpoint bombing. There was a list of priorities of value to the German war effort: railroads, oil reserves, air fields, armaments industries, etc. There was, however, an even greater visibility problem with pinpoint bombing. These crucial industrial targets could soon be back in production after a raid.

Also these flights that involved specific targets needed to be bombed during day-light hours. Which made British and American bombers more vulnerable to German air defenses. In addition to the normal anti-aircraft guns, Hamburg was well endowed with flak batteries.

Allied bombers also faced heavy black smoke, the result of previous bombing runs. The mixture of bombs had included incendiaries which created fires and fire storms throughout the city, with gusts of up to 170 miles per hour. The smoke rose to 30,000 feet. Fires burned for hours using up the oxygen in the atmosphere over the city.

Hamburg was not the only city subject to Bomber Command (British). The historic cities of Lübeck and Rostock were selected initially because of their historic value. On to Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Wuppertal, Essen, Würzberg, and Dresden.

It must have occurred to many a German living through these destructive air raids that their Führer was tucked away in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, while they were desperately making their way through their destroyed neighborhoods, its streets littered with charred corpuses. After the raids of 27, 28 July 1943, the remains of 36,918 of Hamburg’s residents were buried in four massive graves. And the survivors had to deal with evacuation and finding a place to live until the fires were extinguished and the city functioning once again. By 1943 many Germans were convinced that they had lost the war.

In May 1945 Hamburg was handed over to the British, without firing a shot. And the British occupied the city for the remaining few weeks of the war. The Marshall Plan helped restore the city’s economy.  Nevertheless the housing stock was badly damaged.

The carpet bombing had destroyed the central part of the city and had had a negative effect on the city’s morale. The bombing of German cities had not recognized the difference between citizens and soldiers. Perhaps that was not inappropriate since “good Germans” mostly supported the National Socialists.

Iowa State University required undergraduate males to take the first two years of ROTC – Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Mostly we marched around the football field. But in the Iowa winter there had to be some other activity; we watched reconnaissance films that were taken during the aerial assault on German cities some twelve years previously. The message was Success! Aerial warfare had made an important contribution to our victory. Keith Lowe questions this judgment call.