Berlin 1936; Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes. Other Press, 2018.

One of the less significant moments in the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936 was an incident involving Jessie Owens, the American star of the track and field events. Having just won one of his four gold medals, he was denied a recognition by the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. But Oliver Hilmes believes the incident’s authenticity is dubious.

The Olympic Games, held in Berlin’s magnificent new stadium, was the successor to the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles in 1932.  The Germans created a new tradition; a runner delivering a lighted torch on the opening day of the Games. Supposedly the flaming torch would come from the city that had hosted the previous Olympic Games. But the Los Angeles-to-Berlin run involved one or another ocean.

The Olympics were intended to showcase the “peace-loving” Nazi regime. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, were regular attendees at the Games. But Hilmes suggests that their peace-loving gesture was senseless. Poland and Austria had already been occupied and added to the Third Reich, Poland by a German invasion and occupation of Austria after a fraudulent plebiscite. Austrian Nazis attending the Games were determined to outdo the Germans in their ardor. The Reich had competition on two fronts.

Hitler opened the event with his usual “mob oratory”. He was acclaimed by a capacity crowd of 100,000 sports fans in the Olympic Stadium. Hard to overlook were the numerous swastikas and the stiff-armed fascist salutes that accompanied Hitler wherever he went. Richard Wagner’s music was used as the score for the occasion.

The grand events on this first day were mostly the result of Leni Riefenstahl’s planning. Hitler was pleased. Leni was a moderately well-known photographer and lately a film-maker. She photographed the annual Nazi party rallies from 1933 through 1938 from which her newsreel, Triumph of the Will, was taken. Hilmes argues that Riefenstahl’s staging and broadcasting of these sports events became the model for radio – later television – broadcasts around the world.

The Chancellor’s favor she had, but Riefenstahl did not get along with Herr Goebbels.

The Nazi Regime had not yet displayed the murderous edge that it would soon show. By the summer of 1936, Hitler was moving against the German Jews. Jewish athletes were barred from membership in the German sports clubs that sponsored the German team.

The work camps were not yet established. They would begin to appear in the next few months. And there were still Germans who felt free to complain about the Nazis, though it was considered bad form to do so in front of the foreigners visiting Berlin for the Olympics. Hitler especially wished to impress the British. Perhaps the beginnings of an alliance could come out of this sports gathering?

It was one thing to bar German Jews from competition. But American Jews were outraged when it appeared that the American delegation to the Berlin Olympics had been closed to Jewish athletes to curry favor with the Nazis. The head of the International Olympic Committee in the U.S., Avery Brundage, was asked to investigate the situation. After a look around and some mild criticism, Brundage revealed that his sports club in Chicago also barred Jewish membership.

Forty-nine countries were represented amongst the 4000 athletes, and eighty-nine medals were passed out. Germans won the most medals, easily, followed by the U.S. But Hitler was perturbed by the success of athletes from the U.S. and other countries doing well against their German competition.

Hitler had ensured that the homeless street people would not bother the image of a prosperous Germany. Mostly Gypsies, ‘Chancellor Hitler regretted the “Gypsy Plague”. They had been largely removed from Berlin’s streets by opening day.

Hilmes takes an odd turn when he describes the Berlin night life that entertained those who attended the Berlin Olympics. He describes the high-end dining and better-known bars where the beer flowed. The presence of so many attendees to be entertained provided an opportunity for American jazz musicians, newly arrived in Germany, to find European audiences. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra presented an Olympic Anthem, to be performed in the new stadium.

Oliver Hilmes’s final chapter is interesting – “What became of…?” Many of those attendees who come alive in Hilmes’ narrative had unfortunate endings. Berlin was badly damaged by Allied bombing during WWII. Hence the Berliners who once sparked avant-garde restaurants and trendy bars came under aerial attack – along with their establishments.

The Race to Save the Romanovs; The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport. Penguin, 2018.

Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated his throne in March 1917, to be succeeded by the Provisional and then Revolutionary (Bolshevik) governments. In this eventful year, Nicholas, his family, and his entourage were imprisoned in several towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway. They were eventually taken out into the woods near their last prison in the town of Ekaterinburg, shot and then bayonetted by their guards under the supervision of a band of Bolsheviks.

By 1917, European royalty were one large, unhappy family. Much of the royalty were cousins: or uncles, aunts, second cousins. They would show up for family reunions but not always enjoy each other’s company. Though occasionally those connections had been useful in keeping the peace in Europe.

But another political structure, republicanism, had arisen in Russia, Britain, Scandinavia, Greece, Spain, and elsewhere. It represented a challenge to the influence of these royals.  This complicated the diplomacy surrounding a rescue of the czar. Complicated also by the fact that since 1914 these countries were at war with each other.

This was the fate of the Russian royal family. Nicholas II, his German wife – Alexandra, and their five children – four sisters and their brother, Alexey who was heir to the Russian throne.  Alexandra’s concerns about her son’s health and the influence that Rasputin had over her generated critical public opinion. But also she was German and not popular with the Russian aristocracy.

 Those who have already read several books about the Romanovs will be surprised at how little time Helen Rappaport spends describing Rasputin’s influence on the royal couple. He was believed to have healing powers that would help with Prince Alexey’s health problems. Alexey had hemophilia.

Among many complaints Alexandra was blamed for the Czar’s ignoring Russia’s ills. Things were not going well. Nicholas had hoped that the war in Europe would bring some reprieve from the disorder of Moscow and St. Petersburg (Petrograd). But if anything, the strikes and workers’ protests and the mutinies within the Russian navy were complicating any political resolution and certainly any collective wisdom about what to do about the growing anarchy. Nicholas had reconciled himself to abdication, but he did not want to leave Russia.

The rest of Europe, however, was looking for a place that would provide a satisfactory exile. Britain was the most likely location. The British Government had long welcomed deposed monarchs and welcomed the idea of extending an invitation to Nicholas and his family. But the British royalty were less welcoming. Their being in the midst of World War I, the British thought they should consult with their ally, France. The latter was definitely uninterested. The Germans might have been willing to accept a dethroned Russian monarch, but they were presently at war with the Russians.

It would seem that no one wanted to compete for the role of saving the Czar’s family. Or bolstering the Provisional Government and the radicalism that arose in the Duma.  Or further spreading of the Russian Revolution elsewhere in Europe. Or using the Czar’s alleged funds “stashed away in European banks” to fund a return of the Russian autocracy.

Rappaport takes us back and forth on the Trans-Siberian railway, to the frozen harbors of the Barents, to the dusty plains of Russian Asia. Nicholas agreed to become a prisoner of the Provisional Government if it meant any guarantee about the safety of his family. Talk of a Crimean exile. Had Nicholas and Alexandria agreed early on to an exile that would have opened up other possibilities?  Murmansk and Archangel would have been likely ports for their departure.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) ended the war between Germany and Russia but failed to mention the fate of the Czar. Though likely the Russian royal family would have been mortified with the idea of being rescued by the Germans. 

What triggered the “murder” as Helen Rappaport called it? Likely it was the growing success of the Bolsheviks and the fear that the Czar would escape and lead a counter-revolution. But can we pronounce with any certainty about the outcomes: what might have been done, but wasn’t.  

The Darkening Age; The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey. Macmillan, 2018.

Those defaced Greek statues and their Roman copies that you view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and elsewhere?  Wear and Tear? Not really; many of them were literally “defaced” by Christian fanatics in Alexandria, Rome, Athens, and other cities of the Roman Empire. Once the Roman emperors, beginning with Constantine the 1st withdrew their protection from the classical world’s physical and literary heritage, damage occurred often beyond what twentieth-century restoration can achieve.

Not only was the artistic production of the Classical world damaged, so also were its texts. The most notorious was the destruction of the famous library in Alexandria, but libraries all over the Roman world were destroyed as well. Christian zealots even invaded private homes and destroyed their owners’ libraries. “Wisdom is foolishness” is the way that the Christian world dismissed the Classical. Greek philosophers were forbidden to carry on the long oral tradition of tutoring the next generation. Catherine Nixey sums it up: Athens was silenced.

Paper had not yet come along, so ancient manuscripts were copied onto parchment, i.e. prepared animal skins. The ink used, though remarkably well preserved, could be removed and the parchment covered with a new text. This removal and reuse was symbolic of the Christian text replacing the Latin, thus retaining a Classical foundation for the Christian literary tradition.

The Alexandrian library had also been a center for the translation into Greek of Jewish and Christian texts, most notably the Septuagint or, as we call it the Old Testament. Several centuries later, the Christian community in Alexandria took an anti-Jewish turn. Christians went around destroying the city’s many synagogues, and their libraries.

But Christianity borrowed heavily from the philosophers and historians of the city’s Classical and Jewish literary world as well. That was particularly true after the grant of religious toleration during the reign of Constantine in AD 312 and the Edict of Milan in the following year. The enlightenment of the Christian world was the work of monks, bishops, and parabalani. The latter were a brotherhood that initially performed the work of removing the dead but took on the additional roll of “cleansing” the public space of “remnants” of the classical world and its classical scholars. Catherine Nixey calls the parabalani “thugs.”

Most of the art from the Classical Age now resides in European and American museums. But the beautiful mosaics and frescos survived in the ruins of the baths and other communal structures.

Christians did not agree to the beauty of the naked body, the penis, nipples, etc. And they looked upon the baths as the workshops of the devil. They put the fig leaf to good use on statuesque males when that statuary began their lives in European and American museums.

What might explain those remarkable paintings of Christians being driven into an arena with hungry lions? Nixey suggests the importance of self-destruction by a public death might explain this imagery.

The flames of damnation were licking at Roman daily life. Greek theater survived but was subject to Christian disapproval. Festivals no longer were enjoyed for their merriment. Bathhouses were deplored as sinks of immorality. Blasphemers were strung up by their tongues, adulterers by their testicles.  And this new world was shaped by the censorious gaze of God’s Christian enforcers, the new priestly class. Violence against a sinner was an act of kindness; flogging him was to help him.

In a final paragraph of The Darkening Age we learn that the statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, had been decapitated in the early Christian era. Her torso ended up face down in a corner of her Parthenon, now a step for the many tourists who visit her famous former home.

Christianity had participated in the destruction of the classical world. It had also become an heir to the classical tradition. Perhaps most importantly it began to preserve Latin and Greek literature, absorbing the wisdom of classical learning. And understood better its axiom, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you’ll be dead for eternity.”

Odessa; Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. W.W. Norton, 2018, paper.

Odessa has a colorful history. Presently it is the third largest city in Ukraine, located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea. As part of the Russian Empire, it was known for its massive grain exports, challenging the European trade in American wheat. The city was a counterpoise to the two largest cities of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Its Jewish citizens had been a boon to the growing city in the nineteenth-century, engaged in handicrafts of all kinds and the Black Sea trade. However, many of the professions had Jewish quotas.

Though it had a large Jewish population, it had never attracted a culture of the learned shtetl and well-spoken rabbis. Odessa became instead an important center of modernizing Judaism. And an important refuge for many different Balkan nationalities: Bulgarians, Albanians, Greeks, and Romanians. King quotes the census from that time: 39% were Russian speaking, 36% Jews mostly German or Yiddish speaking, and 17% Ukrainian. Speaking to its secular learnedness, there were six bookstores in the city.

One of the early “dreamers” of Odessa was Armand duc de Richelieu. He was a proponent of the French Enlightenment whom Czar Catharine II brought to this growing city to give it some culture and design. Catherine also encouraged the settlement of Mennonites from Germany on farms in the “New Russia,” the agricultural areas that surround Odessa.

Odessa participated in the Russian Civil War mainly on the side of the Bolsheviks and the Red Army. Sadly the Bolsheviks proved no less brutal than the Imperial Armies. [Sadly the public monuments, heroes from the Russian “occupation,” are now mostly removed from the City’s many parks and squares.]

King speaks of “Jewish neighborhoods” in this city of many nationalities. But at some point he begins to talk instead of the Jewish ghetto. Odessa is often called a “hero city,” even though Odessa; Genius and Death in a City of Dreams suggests that it proved to be deadly to its Jewish refugees.

Many of those “heroes” later migrated to the U.S. and particularly to the Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach sections of Brooklyn. Mostly thought of as Jewish, the new Brooklynites were drawn from the various ethnic groups of Odessa, especially Russians. King notes that the Brighton Beach Music Hall hung on to Yiddish language productions longer than did Odessa.

Many of its good German farmers – Mennonites – eventually found their way to the wheat-growing areas of the Midwest and returned to farming. It would be interesting to know from what Russian seaport the Russian Mennonites left for the New World. Odessa?

Its large Jewish population has both enriched the city but also brought the city and region great tragedy. Odessa was the site of numerous pogroms. Some 33,000 Jews were massacred in Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev in September 1941. This was followed by the murder of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by German and Romanian troops. The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in Kiev and earlier the headquarters of the German occupation in Odessa was leveled by a huge explosion. Retaliation followed.

Charles King frequently uses the category “thugs” to describe the mixture of seamen, runaway serfs, poor Italian middlemen, and an underworld of “self-confident thieves” found on Odessa’s port-side. It took only a spark to fire up a world of violence.

Odessa and surrounding rural areas were jointly occupied by Germans and Romanians during WWII. The latter were especially brutal.

The good citizens of Odessa are happier these days. Happy that they are no longer part of the Russian State, preferring their new national identity – Ukrainian. Dozens of statues of Lenin and other Russian notables are coming down. Even though they are part of a memory bank that Odessan’s treasure. Sadly that collective memory is missing much of the Jewish component that King has reconstructed for us.

A note to film buffs. Odessa is famous for a long flight of stone steps leading from the old city on the high bank above the Black Sea down to its shoreline and port facilities. One of the most famous sequences in cinema history is of a baby carriage tumbling down those steps toward the Sea.

The Balfour Declaration; The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Jonathan Schneer. Random House, 2010 paper.

The Balfour Declaration remains of interest to the twenty-first century because it became the agreement upon which a Palestinian homeland for European Jewry rested, “solving the Jewish problem.” The Declaration (2 November 1917) also provided safeguards for the religious rights of the existing non-Jewish inhabitants (Arabs) of Palestine, and less assuredly, the rights and political status that Jews were to enjoy in other countries.

This preoccupation with a homeland for the Jews on the part of European ruling elites has been termed Zionism. On the day that the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed, there were 300,000 Jews living in Britain.  Only 4,000 of those Jews considered themselves Zionists.

Jews had differing views about a future in their Holy Land. Many were intent upon creating settlements based on cooperative agriculture, the kibbutzim. Part of the Jewish Problem was that Jews had always been city folk, but only a relationship with the soil, it was argued, would give them a nationality.

Creating a homeland for European Jewry would also help consolidate Jewish support for the wartime alliance of Britain, France, and Russia. The Russian war effort was lagging and would soon dissolve in revolution. Jewish support for the war would be all the more important.

There was a big complication to realizing the Zionist goal: Palestine was well-occupied with Arab pastoralists and they would have to be cleared out, hopefully through land purchases. But also Palestine was part of the British Empire in the Near East. The agreement would have to be approved by the British Foreign Office.

British statesmen were making decisions on behalf of Arabs. That might not have been so bad. Except that the Europeans were suspected of maintaining, even attempting to expand their imperial reign in the post-war world at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. They, the British and French, were attempting to ensure a resolution to the Jewish problem in order to give some creditability to the question: “Why are we fighting the Great War at such a huge cost of the lives of young men?” The War was now three years old, and nothing was being decided on the Western Front.

Part of the thrust of European imperialism in the early twentieth century was the construction of railroads throughout their Empires. A railroad that would link the Near East to Europe was under construction. It would provide access to Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina from Damascus. The railroad was particularly important during the Hejaz when thousands of Moslems made a pilgrimage to their holy cities.

Germany and hence its allies, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers), were concerned about whether the Hejaz Railroad would lead to even greater imperial competition with an advantage to Britain and France.

The Balfour Declaration addressed many of these issues. Arthur James Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary (1916-1919) and a member of the Conservative Party was intent upon including a provision for a national homeland for European Jews but also safeguarding the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jews living in Palestine. And with British support, the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

But another party of Jews considered themselves assimilationists. Palestine was not the only homeland for Jews. Moreover Jews should not be required to settle in Palestine to acquire their rights. Nor to entangle themselves in British and French imperialism.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in the Imperial War Cabinet, became totally absorbed in fighting the war on the European fronts and little was heard about “next year in Jerusalem.” The War Cabinet, a coalition Government, promised Turks that their flag would continue to wave over the Holy Land. Whatever that meant!

Imperial objectives that had been incorporated into the Balfour Declaration remained part of the intentions of the British during the Great War. The Brits no longer had the strength they had in 1914, and the Balfour Declaration held the British war efforts together as their Imperial strength ebbed.

It became clear, however, that the homeland for European Jewry was getting in the way of the peace efforts; the Zionists were making the search for a truce more difficult. And that was particularly true once the U.S. got involved in the competition for Jewish Zionist support and the fading interest in Jewish assimilation. And ambitious politicians involved themselves in the struggle between Jewish Zionists and Assimilationists.

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.

March 1917; On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. W.W. Norton.

Will England has marched us through the difficult months leading up to American entry into the Great War. German submarines were systematically sinking our cargo ships hauling industrial goods and food to Britain and her allies. There was supposed to be an exception made for passenger liners, but in May 1915 the Lusitania was sunk off the Irish coast with American lives lost in this great “crime against civilization.”

Or at least that was the judgment of President Woodrow Wilson (1913 to 1921). Wilson had campaigned for the Presidency in 1913 on a peace plank. He would not lead us into the war in Europe, already eight months old and exhibiting its enormous deadliness. In truth the country was as divided about this war as was Wilson’s mind. That encouraged him to make it “the war to end all wars,” and “peace without victory.” His 14 Points and the League of Nations Organization were already becoming, in his mind, the means to that end.

Europeans had endured their share of armed conflict in the previous century, but those wars were short and decisive, often not much longer than the year it took to complete the massive mobilization for war that their military bureaucracies had planned. But this War was proving to be not short and infinitely more deadly. If it were to serve any purpose other than killing and crippling a lot of young men, it seemed important to begin the negotiation process with the country most likely to end the war a victor, Germany.

The Germans had temporarily suspended submarine warfare with an eye toward helping Wilson sell the neutrality that he was preaching. And they were hoping to thwart the deployment of our arms and armies. But that would require a quick victory. Which meant shutting off both from the European conflict.

America was a nation based on strong Anglo-Saxon traditions. But millions of Germans had migrated to this country in the last century, mainly to the Midwestern farm belt. I grew up in a small Iowa town that had a lot of those farmers. They didn’t have a German association in town. They had a Schleswig-Holstein association. Berlin was a small town just north of us; the town’s name was changed to a safer, Lincoln.

Englund spends a good part of a chapter on a famous incident that the British hoped would persuade the U.S. to join them in their war with the German empire. The German Embassy in London had sent a telegram from the German Foreign Mister in Berlin, Arthur Zimmermann, to the president of Mexico, Venustiano Caranza, suggesting that if he would join Germany in the war against the U.S. and the Allies, the Germans would, in turn, help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, lost in the Spanish American War. And the Zimmermann Telegram – as it came to be known – accomplished its purpose of drawing America into the war.

In addition to the European conflict, the country was divided about both prohibition and women’s suffrage. There was much labor unrest, agitation for an eight-hour work day. All this when Wilson had to deal with a big international crisis. W.E.B. DuBois added the new demands formulated by blacks, particularly in the North. There had been a considerable migration of African Americans out of the South, who were making demands in exchange for their labor and their patriotism.

The dust cover of Englund’s book has two portraits one of President Wilson and one of the Czar of Nicholas II. Although Nicholas enjoyed the real estate that went with the position, he was not fond of his job. Moreover he had surrounded himself with reactionary Russians, who imagined that their Czar’s decisions regarding the Great War were being influenced by his German wife. Russian elites, many of them at least, were inclined to join the Germans. But they also were surrounded by troubles: food shortages, labor unrest, police firing on demonstrators. Radicals stirring up factory workers in St. Petersburg, and mutinies in the navy and army.

Russians had joined the French in their hopes of holding on to territory in Eastern Europe.  They also had territorial gains in mind, provinces dominated by Ukranians, Balts, and Belarusians. On 15 March Nicholas abdicated, breathing a sigh of relief with his release from constant worries.

The Soviet representing the workers issued Order No. 1, which directed the military to obey only orders from the Soviets, not those of the new Provincial government. The Civil War had begun.

Wilson hopes that the Russian Revolution as we now call this turmoil would lead to greater democracy in Russia. Thus it would be the democracies against the Empires. German, Austrian, and Italian.  Russia was no longer a safe bet for the democracies category.

Despite the situation in Russia, Wilson continued to procrastinate – on the “brink” of going to war, and supported by a majority of Americans, but also concerned about the anti-war sentiment. Particularly that was a problem because we had no army; he would have to rely on universal conscription to raise one.  Eventually there would be over two million Americans serving overseas in uniform.

President Wilson had to submit his decision to enter the war to Congress. By then there was considerable support for entering the war. And so we did. Many young American men were eager to get “over there.” My dad, for example, although he never made it. After he volunteered and got his training, he was sent around to bases all over this country to assemble Curtis Jennies that were used in military flight schools.

One Long Night; A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer. Little, Brown and Company 2017.

Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night, has a chapter halfway through her book called “The Architecture of Auschwitz,” and I think that a good starting point for any review of her book. The components of Auschwitz and other German camps were already in existence by the 1930s. The Germans had their own needs to house civilians temporarily in camps that would both protect them – though that was not generally the major purpose – but also utilize their labor.

In January 1942, the German bureaucrats who were responsible for devising a solution to a part of that puzzle, the “Jewish question” or Judenfrage, gathered in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. They came up with what they considered to be a ‘final’ solution Endlösung. The question of when and where to send unwanted civilians had been an issue in Germany, the British Empire, and elsewhere since the late nineteenth century. And their death had not been the most important reason for their detention.

The issue of how to treat enemy aliens during a war had been raised back in the Spanish-American War in 1898. There were, at the time, no formal detention centers, and hence no care given to their needs. During our war with Spain, it was decided to use a Naval Air Station in Cuba on Guantanamo Bay.

In the case of Guantanamo, we were concerned about health and safety, mostly. But the whole world was shocked by the British treatment and fate of a population of Dutch farmers in South Africa, the Boers, during the Boer War of 1899. The women and children had been providing support to their men folk off fighting a guerilla war against a brutal British colonial army. The facilities for their detention were inadequate, and the Brits mostly let them die of disease and hunger in poorly provisioned camps.

At the same time, Europeans were meeting at the Hague (1899, 1907) to iron out the rules of warfare including the treatment of civilians.

I don’t want to pick on Britain and the British Empire particularly, but there is the historical record. Back home when war broke out in France and Belgium in 1914, the British began collecting German civilian prisoners then living in Britain and sending them at first to a camp on the Isle of Man, then using defunct jails and a kids holiday camp. Neither had good security, so the ‘national security people’ added additional compounds surrounded by barbed wire. German POWs were also sent to Canada where they were required to perform useful labor. Hence another part of the Hague conventions and the architecture of civilian internment had been added.

There were various classifications for these prisoners: known as Nazi sympathizers, immediate internment. (The Brits were preoccupied with the possibility of espionage risks.) Another classification was just to monitor them, confiscate their cameras. They were restricted in their travel around Britain and Ireland. However, sixty-six thousand enemy aliens not considered in any way a security threat were simply required to register. Many of them were Jewish refugees who had recently arrived in family groups.  Britain was being cautious. Much the same was true of their policies in India.

Of course the Russians had always had their “gulags,” places of extreme neglect and suffering. They also were inadequate for the immediate task of housing of captured German POWs. Also, civilians caught on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution and the collectivization of rural populations were interned into labor camps.

The German involvement in camps for German and Polish Jews is too familiar to require more elaboration. But Pitzer makes the interesting point that those internment camps were generally not initially set up to exterminate unwanted populations. They came to that as European opponents of the Nazi regime in Germany and France – but also Austria and Northern Italy, multiplied and began flowing into whatever facilities were available.

The camps became specialized. Some were purely labor camps, some punishment camps for criminality, camps for women only, but some were extermination camps. All of the “architecture” of Auschwitz-Birkenau had evolved over decades of incarceration, even if their immediate function was not Jewish destruction.

Then there were the Japanese-American internees. Always suspect by Californians, they were rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent inland, 120,000 of them. Many were citizens with Japanese ancestors. And the internment was blessed by the US Supreme Court in “U.S. vs. Korematsu”, a famous case involving the constitutionality of the action.

We have caught up with the long, sordid history of concentration camps. But one final chapter “The Bastard Children of the Camps,” and Pitzer is not talking about human infants but rather the continued practice of interning civilians. Back to Guantánamo where we have housed those arrested after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And then to General Pinochet’s Chili, Kenya, Malaya, Afghanistan, and French Indo-China to look at these “bastard camps”, and also add isolation, kidnapping, interrogation, torturing, and execution, to the “architecture” already described.

At the very end, Andrea Pitzer brings up another question: what to do with the ‘bodies.’ Some German concentration camps were solidly built of brick and are still around to visit, but many are collapsing into heaps of rotting wood. Memory is often attached to physical remains – and monuments of various kinds. Will the loss of those structures also mean the demise of their remembrance?

The Russian Revolution; A New History by Sean McMeekin. Basic Books, 2017.


            The Russian Revolution became entangled with both a civil war in Russia and the last months of the Great War on the Eastern Front. It had many turns and Sean McMeekin has given greater order to this momentous event. It involved the “Reds” – an alliance of Bolsheviks, Poles, Russian army officers and their Cossack regiments – and the urban “bourgeois” calling themselves the “Whites.” Neither side of this civil war had any enthusiasm for continuing the Great War.

Sorting out the first years of the Russian revolution is, however, complicated. It was shaped by the active involvement of revolutionaries, Alexander Kerensky and Vladimir Lenin. Kerensky was the Minister of War and then Premier in the last days of Czar Nicholas II’s reign. he led the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The more ambitious of the two parties, the Bolsheviks hoped to export their revolution around the world. The SRs were ultimately overwhelmed by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks.

            After his abdication the Czar and his family were held under house arrest; the Bolsheviks feared that Britain or perhaps even the United States would try to liberate Nicholas and restore him to the Russian thrown. Fearing this outcome, he was executed by the Bolsheviks along with his four daughters and his son and heir.

McMeekin relates the interesting story of the relationship between the Russian and German Empires over the course of war and revolution. When the Great War began, the two empires were on opposite sides of an Eastern Front. The Germans realized that the war-weary Russian state could be further weakened by introducing the Bolshevik revolutionaries into the political mixture. Thus Lenin was allowed to travel across Germany and the Eastern front and reach St. Petersburg (Petrograd) safely.

The Bolsheviks were advocating a popular decision to leave the war, coinciding with Woodrow Wilson’s talk of a “war without victory.” Kerensky had, upon acquiring power, launched a disastrous offensive that had failed, making it clear that, despite Russia’s wealth in agricultural land, it was not going to win a prolonged war with the Germans. The Bolsheviks initiated a negotiation for an armistice along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

The Russian army still had some fight left in its officers and men. However large numbers of Russian troops surrendered to the Germans and there were instances of German and Russian troops fraternizing. Agreement between Germany and Russia was hurriedly negotiated at the German military headquarters at Brest-Litovsk on 14 March 1918.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk reflected the growing weakness of the Russian Empire.  The Germans insisted that the Baltics and Ukraine be cleared of Russian troops leaving the region as a zone of occupation. And there were huge territorial concessions in Eastern Europe. Germany was acknowledged as a protector of the large German population in these Borderlands and in Russia. Russian civilians and soldiers felt that they had been betrayed by the Bolsheviks.

 As the civilian and military regimes in Russia collapsed and the Bolsheviks appeared to be winning the civil war, Russia’s wartime Allies decided that they had no option but to intervene in the civil war. British and American troops landed in Murmansk and Archangel with the intention of supporting the “Whites” fighting the “Reds.” Equally unwise was the Allied support for the Czechoslovak Legion, one of several armies serving in Russia, which complicated any settlement. The Legion seized large portions of the Trans-Siberian Railroad eventually all the way to Vladivostok.  In 1920 after the Revolution, they were evacuated from Vladivostok by the British and US.

Herbert Hoover was known for his relief efforts after the War, the American Relief Agency. Russian agriculture and their rail system were not able to feed the population. Hoover placed conditions on the Bolshevik government in return for US grain and other scarce commodities. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to make food relief to Russia and Poland part of a diplomatic give and take. Having to take handouts from a capitalist-bourgeoisie land was a bitter pill for the Bolsheviks to swallow.

Perhaps most offensive in Western eyes was that the Soviets confiscated the gold held by private individuals and then went after the churches. They were systematically stripped of their gold and their icons.  This gold was used to pay for food shipments.

What an informative book. Sean McMeekin has corrected the work of earlier historians of the Russian Revolution. And he has probably created his share of new stories that will then be reshaped as historians dig deeper into the archives of the Russian state.

Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman. Princeton University, Press, 2017.

Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman. Princeton University, Press, 2017.

The Nuremberg Laws were drawn up in the first years of the National Socialist Government in Germany. The inspiration for Nazi racial law was, James Whitman claims, was the racial regime in the US. In particular, Adolf Hitler admired the segregation in the public schools in the South, in transportation, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. The Nazi lawyers that drew up the earliest version of the Nuremburg Laws were, however, more interested in our interest in the “science of eugenics,  immigration law, and our decades-old success at pushing Native Americans out of tribal lands. The latter they found comparable to the Nazi geopolitical goal of lebensraum.

Provisions in American immigration laws were aimed at the feeblemindedness and other inheritable diseases. Strains of the American pseudo-science of eugenics and German racial murder.

Our exclusion of immigrants on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion dated back to the early years of the Republic. But the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 clarified what had long been a series of federal and state laws, based on a percentage of the number of immigrants of that nationality that were already living here, 2%. That favored Immigrants from Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany. It penalized immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and particularly, Italians, Russians and Polish Jews. Our National Origins and Asian Exclusion Acts excluded all Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast and Hawaii, mostly at the urging of Californians concerned about the “yellow peril”.

Perhaps the Nazi Party official most responsible for the Nuremberg Laws and the interest in American models was the Nazi Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner. He had been an early enthusiast for the National Socialist Party and had secured Hitler’s release from prison after his arrest for participation in the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Yet he argued for borrowing carefully from the American judicial practice. It was based on a longer tradition of liberal legal traditions with which he and his fellow jurists disagreed. He admired the independence of the American judiciary, but dubious of the harshness of our criminal law.

On the other hand, Gürtner found our separation of the US population into two categories, Caucasian and non-Caucasian, would have been far too simplistic for Germany. Whitman points out that the creation of a German race law must take into account the presence of substantial Jewish populations in eastern Germany. That was not an issue in the US.

The Nuremberg Laws had first to define the ethnic category “Jew.” Germans had lived amongst other ethnic groups for centuries, and found America’s “one-drop” rule impossible. In Germany you were deemed to be a Jew if either of your parents were Jewish or descended from two fully Jewish grandparents. Or, and this had nothing to do with ethnicity or race, if you belonged to a Jewish community or subsequent to the legislation were to marry into a Jewish family.

While the Germans who drew up the Nuremberg Laws found the legal and social structure of our Jim Crow South to be close to what they hoped to create, they were less admiring of the liberal outlook of the Amreican legal system in general. The US had many social-political arrangements that had matured over the decades and were worthy of German emulation. But the reverse was not so much the case. By the mid-1930s, there was considerable street violence in German cities which was abhorrent to most Americans.

In many ways German jurists believed our race laws to be “harsher” than theirs. For example the Germans were, even then, struck by the harshness of our criminal law and particularly our treatment of repeat offenders.

Wisely Whitman is careful not to exaggerate this, but Germans were, he reports, taken with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and its similarity to the German success in easing the severe depression with which both countries were contending. While there were no doubt more differences that congruencies between the two socio-economic programs, both involved authoritarian elements in their relief programs.

James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law tells the story of forty-five Nazi lawyers put on a luxury ocean liner in September 1935 bound for the US on a “study trip” to look firsthand at the structure of American racial law. By the time it arrived at our shores, things were chaotic, and no doubt these German Nazi lawyers welcomed a return to the ‘order’ that the National Socialists brought to Germany.