Sunday, March 18, 2018

In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets by Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois is partly responsible for our understanding of "The Holocaust by Bullets," the mass murder of millions of Jews throughout Eastern Europe that is often overshadowed by the assembly line mass murder of Jews and other "undesirables" in German death camps.  In his first publication on the subject, Desbois took an original approach to the topic by aiming to interview adolescent bystanders who could still recall how and where the local Jewish population was murdered by the invading Germans and their collaborators.  

"In Broad Daylight" takes that initial research a step further as Desbois and his team have continued to gather information through interviews and presents the minutia that has often been overlooked or simply never considered by researchers or academics. We have many accounts from German concentration and death camps by survivors and perpetrators, but Jews murdered by the millions in mass graves no longer have a voice.  Those who were lucky enough to survive can only offer accounts from their limited perspective, but Desbois is interested in the minute details that were needed for mass murder to become an almost acceptable everyday phenomenon.  

He looks at a typical mass murder site starting from the night before, when locals were conscripted to help transport Jews to their final destination and when German forces and their collaborators would begin arriving inevitably leading to a night that finally saw the last vestiges of human decency disappear as Jews were beaten and raped before their eventual executions in the early morning hours.  Aside from speaking to those who only witnessed German aktions Desbois's team also initiates discussions and interviews with those who participated in cooking the food the Germans ate while on break from executing Jews, those who dug the mass graves, and numerous others who one day lived with their Jewish friends and neighbors and the next found themselves drawn to either watching their death, including hearing their cries and screams, or in some way participating in the German aktion itself.  

This is a haunting and deeply disturbing text.  For many, simply reading a list of sites where German mass murders took place throughout Eastern Europe leaves them unable to grasp what those on the ground witnessed and experienced as their everyday lives were torn apart by an invading army and a genocidal occupation policy.  Therefore, this is a volume best read slowly and methodically so that readers can contemplate what humanity is capable of all too easily when presented with a specific set of circumstances as those with a superiority complex decide human life is cheap and disposable.  This is a study that offers an important contribution to our understanding of how the Holocaust by bullets unfolded and presents in a new light the vital role played by the local population in the mass murder of East European Jewry.    

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

Continuing revelations about Russian interference in American and European elections have become routine, almost banal.  Timothy Snyder, a historian who achieved some popularity after his previous publications (Bloodlands and Black Earth), leaves history (although not altogether) with this latest volume and enters our current political discourse.  Historians are usually wary of entering into debates about current events.  However, when our present administration regularly attempts to rewrite and adjust history to fit its needs, historians should and ought to help penetrate the fog of baseless opinions that has begun to consume and displace civil discourse and the foundations of civil society.
“The Road to Unfreedom” serves as an important starting point for readers who want a more comprehensive understanding of the political intersection between Russia, Europe, and the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  As this text focuses on recent events, the diligence historians usually bring to subjects they are investigating is not always present.  News and media publications – making up a large portion of the source material – make mistakes.  Archival access is limited or nonexistent for recent government actions and operations, and Snyder himself admits that he is still processing the underlining ideas and theories he posits for readers.  Although Snyder received mixed reviews, from historians, for his last two major publications, he is nonetheless an excellent researcher and writer.  Thus, while not the final word on the numerous topics he covers, this is a volume that readers who want a better understanding of what has been happening for the past few years in the US and the past few decades in Russia need to read carefully.

The volume’s theoretical foundations rely on Snyder’s discussion and concentration on the writings of Ivan Ilyin, a little known personality until Putin’s rise to power.  Ilyin, a philosopher and Slavophile who lived through the First and Second World War, struggled to determine Russia’s place in the world and to explain the Russian Revolution.  He sought a middle ground, or a third option, between totalitarian dictatorships and democracy.  Nikita Mikhalkov helped introduce Ilyin to Putin, who in turn incorporated Ilyin’s thoughts into his own ideas about Russia’s place in the world while shaping his administration.  This leads to Snyder’s ideas about the two types of politics that we now live under: the politics of inevitability and eternity.  For Snyder, the politics of inevitability apply primarily to the United States in the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  The idea is that democratic and capitalist progress is inevitable, no matter what you do, the course is still there and will invariably be followed because others will pick up the slack or help steer the ship of state in the predetermined direction of democratic progress.  The politics of inevitability relies on the peaceful process of succession and transition of power.  If a president or prime minister performs poorly, citizens know that eventually they can vote out an existing administration and a new one can take its place to right previous wrongs.  The politics of eternity, however, are what Snyder classifies Russia’s current administration as, a state kept in eternal crisis with the outside world.  Most recent examples include the frozen conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and now Ukraine (regularly characterized as “fascist” to tie into Russian memories of the Second World War), and the “cultural conflict” against homosexuality that Putin’s administration consistently emphasizes when it comes to Europe and the United States. 

Although these two categories offer a Manichean view of the current state of politics, they are still useful for understanding what is at stake and they help explain, at least in part, Russian actions both at home and abroad.  Putin and Russia have evolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, this is one of Snyder’s weaknesses in that he hardly discusses the numerous decisions made by the United States in the 1990s that negatively affected Russians and their views of America, NATO, and the European Union.  Snyder offers little to no analysis of Russia’s attitude toward NATO, how Putin perceived the decision to include the Baltics and other East European states into NATO, or how Russians propagandized the decision to become a regular talking point against the US.  Nor is there any mention of the numerous economic crises suffered by Russians throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including how they altered Russian perceptions of capitalism and democracy, including their representative institutions.   This also raises a more inherent weakness of the entire volume in that Snyder constantly emphasizes Russian agency to the detriment of Europe and the US, who are portrayed more often than not reacting to Russian actions – in effect giving too much credit to Russia and exaggerating her strengths and weaknesses.  This is a strategy Putin himself utilizes on a regular basis as he simultaneously portrays Russia as a power that still matters – both in the near abroad and in world affairs – but one that hardly has the power to influence an election in the US. 
As Snyder explains, living in a country that relies on the politics of eternity means consistently manufacturing crises, including what happened a decade ago with the Russian invasion of Georgia.  Although Russia was not the direct instigator of the conflict, it created another opportunity to portray Russia as under attack from both forces on the border and those “sponsoring” Georgia, inevitably the West.  Ukraine became another victim of opportunity after the Sochi Olympics.  Putin did not necessarily plan to annex Crimea or begin a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine.  However, he used the opportunity to employ WWII era rhetoric, initially insisting on the need to protect Russian citizens in the “near abroad” (those located in Ukrainian territory) while portraying the post-Yanukovych government as fascist – thus an enemy of Russia and Russian citizens in general.  Russian actions in Ukraine laid bare the extremes of Russian propaganda at home and abroad, and this is the topic that Snyder does so much to bring to the forefront and analyze for the benefit of his readers.  Moreover, here is where we can begin to trace Russian interference in our 2016 election.

Following Ilyin’s philosophy, Snyder describes how Putin’s administration portrays Russia as an innocent victim vulnerable to the fascist tendencies of those surrounding her, who themselves were regularly victims of western conspiracies.  Thus perceived notions of western interference in the color revolutions and in Russian protests against Putin at home provided ready fodder for Russian propaganda outlets.  Moreover, this resulted in Putin’s hatred of Hillary Clinton (who was Secretary of State in 2012, when some of the largest demonstrations took place in Russia).  Originally, propaganda meant emphasizing the perceived good of an idea or event and an omission of anything that might look bad (in the US we call this PR).  Today’s propaganda coming out of Russia is quite post-modern in its disregard for a single “truth” and use of “whataboutism” to divert attention from indefensible positions.  The truth or facts do not matter for Russian propaganda.  Be it with respect to Russian forces showing up in Crimea, or the shooting down of MH17, Russian sources began producing numerous narratives for why “little green men” were suddenly showing up in Crimea or, in the case of MH17, who or what was responsible for bringing down the plane.  No matter the evidence, media outlets presented new versions, new sources, and new theories in order to muddle the conversation and steer it away from the truth.  The result was an inevitable degradation of informed discourse and the idea that one conspiracy theory is just as good as another or is just as good as the truth and only your emotional needs at any given point in time will decide what you choose to believe.  Snyder fears that feelings will displace logical explanations, theories that reinforce pre-existing beliefs will replace factual evidence with the result that intellectual discourse will breakdown and help usher in an “unfree” state that relies on the politics of eternity rather than inevitability.  Truth ceases to matter in a fractured society that moves from one manufactured crisis to another, kept in eternal fear of the other.  This, in essence, is what we have recently witnessed occur throughout America.  For Putin, turning the US into another version of Russia is part of the endgame.  Showing that US “democracy” at its core is no more factual, truthful, or representative of its citizens than Russia’s current government, means America carries no greater credibility on the world stage than its Russian counterpart does.  Today, there is no doubt that our current administration had regular contact with Russians – before, during, and after the election – and that Trump’s business has been sustained on money funneled through shell corporations and off-shore accounts as Russian oligarchs and mobsters laundered untold millions through questionable real estate ventures.  Trump’s business acumen relies on his either being too dumb to realize what was happening, or simply not caring because he was in debt for billions, and all his “genius” business ventures failed. 

Recently, Russian cyberattacks have surpassed interference in the US election process.  Russian bots and trolls on the internet will inevitably exploit any events that occur in America (NFL players kneeling during the anthem, Black Lives Matter, 2nd amendment, etc.) to fan the flames of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hostility in order to continue the degradation of our most valued institutions.  Russian meddling does not have to be sophisticated nor does it need to create conspiracy theories; they use and exploit those that already exist to steer us away from conversations we need to engage in and they rely on obfuscation to continue showing the US in the worst possible light.  In truth, America’s political climate cannot be solely blamed on Russian cyberattacks; the US has a host of problems and issues that it needs to address aside from Russian interference.  Snyder discusses some of them, including the rising level of inequality, the death of local news, gerrymandering, and the Citizens United ruling that allowed corporations and those with enough money to buy political influence.  These problems are creating fertile territory for racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and xenophobia to become battlegrounds for Russian internet trolls or serve as talking points for political pundits paid for being nothing more than a mouthpiece on behalf of special interest groups. 

We have no way of knowing to what extent Ilyin’s philosophy has influenced Putin (although Putin has referenced him in speeches) or what effect Snyder’s ideas around the “politics of inevitability” and “eternity” will have on our society.  Nor do we know the full impact or extent of Russia’s interference in our electoral process, aside from the fact that it worked in tandem with the Trump campaign’s general rhetoric against Democrats and aimed at specific segments of the American population.  What we do know is that Putin’s administration has attempted to export its ideology throughout the world by employing a type of cyber warfare.  Trolls regularly attempt to reduce the value of facts and the truth so that societal development is stalled because a conversation without an agreed upon factual foundation will never lead to solutions, only an endless cycle of arguments that rely on entrenched positions and talking points both sides have previously perfected and will continually employ.  Without an ability to make progress on issues that continue to divide our society, we will transition to a politics of eternity, reduced to a never-ending existential crisis, as we reinforce our fears instead of confronting them.  

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Dangerous Woman: American Beauty, Noted Philanthropist, Nazi Collaborator - the Life of Florence Gould by Susan Ronald

Susan Ronald's "A Dangerous Woman" sets out to document the life of Florence Gould.  From a young age, Florence seemingly already knew what she wanted out of life - a relationship with a wealthy suitor and the freedom to take and leave lovers as long as she had the desire and ability to do so.  Surviving the San Francisco earthquake, which in many respects ruined her family business for the moment, her family sought comfort in France.  Her initial marriage was hardly worth the paper that created it.  All too soon, she was once more free to find a suitable husband worth her attention and desire and someone who came with a fortune that could offer her security for life.  She found all of that and more in the form of Frank Gould.

Together with Frank, Florence began to sink millions into French real estate, creating a hotel and gambling empire that at times rivaled Monaco/Monte Carlo.  The Great Depression hardly made a dent in her finances thanks to some fortuitous timing in the sale of stock in the US and the ability to begin buying up property throughout France for bargain prices.  Her collaboration activities during the Second World War ensured she hardly suffered from the occupation as she continued to host lunches and dinners, creating a "salon" atmosphere where artists, writers, aristocrats, and other public notables could mingle and seek financial help for their projects or simply enjoy the company of other like-minded individuals.

As time went on and Frank's health began to deteriorate, Florence only continued participating in activities that would eventually bring her to the attention of French authorities and the US FBI for her role in various collaborationist activities.  No matter, thanks to her money and connections she hardly suffered any consequences in the postwar period and continued to enjoy a life defined by wealth and privilege.

Susan Ronald's look at Florence's life also includes numerous digressions to help steer the reader in understanding the world Florence inhabited.  She describes how the Gould fortune was initially created and the infighting that took place among the Gould family before and after Florence's arrival.  Having previously written on the period of the Third Reich, Florence's activities during the occupation take up about a quarter of the book but offer a lot of detail with some analysis as well.  An issue that might trouble some readers are the conclusions that Ronald sometimes reaches without adequate documentation/sources.  Otherwise, this is a highly engaging look at the less well known side of a woman acknowledged for her philanthropy and enormous wealth.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Marshal Malinovskii: Hero of the Soviet Union: Architect of the Modern Soviet Army by Boris Sokolov

One of the great wartime commanders to come out of the Second World War was Marshal of the Soviet Union Rodion Malinovskii.  He had the added benefit of serving in France during the First World War with the Russian Legion, thereby experiencing warfare on the Western Front, and served as an adviser to Spanish Republican forces during the Civil War in the 1930s.  Furthermore, after the war against Germany, which he participated in from 1941-1945, he was one of the leading commanders to take on the Japanese Kwantung Army in the Far East at the end of the Second World War.  His postwar career was no less significant, as he eventually served as Deputy Minister of Defense, and Minister of Defense, after replacing Zhukov.  The above outlines a rather impressive career of a significant personality whom the west knows relatively little about.  Unfortunately, this effort by Boris Sokolov is a missed opportunity, and by missed I mean this comes nowhere close to doing justice to the figure of Malinovskii nor can this volume be accurately categorized as a biography.  

I was not expecting something extraordinary, I know Sokolov’s reputation well enough, but this ‘biography’ is best described as disjointed, discursive, disorganized, and poorly sourced.  Instead of a historical look at Malinovskii, Sokolov decided to meander his way through various primary, secondary, literary, and hearsay materials he has discovered in one archival source or another, or simply in a text he previously read, and try to weave it into a greater discussion of Malinovskii’s life.  Unlike most trained historians, who would attempt to contextualize, summarize, and organize the material at their disposal for their readers, Sokolov decided to avoid reducing block quotes – ranging in length from a paragraph to 3 – 4 pages – and instead include them in full as readers scramble to figure out their significance.  Moreover, often Sokolov will introduce two similar quotes from different periods that discuss similar events and/or people, which he could have summarized while pointing out differences that readers should note.  The result is a first chapter of some 40 pages where Sokolov attempts to ascertain who Malinovskii’s real father was, which has little to no bearing on Malinovskii’s activities during the First World War, Civil War, Second World War, or his postwar career.  An experienced historian could have discussed his early childhood in a dozen pages, at most.  The follow chapter, another 40-50 pages, feature Sokolov stumbling about trying to recreate Malinovskii’s time in France and his activities during the Russian Revolution.  Once again, the chapter is full of block quotes that go on for pages at a time, disconnected ideas, discussions, and arguments, and no substantial analysis of any significant event(s) that occurred in either France or Russia.  The chapter on the Spanish Civil War overwhelmingly consists of circumstantial meetings with Malinovskii by various high-ranking Spanish commanders and foreign advisers, followed by Malinovskii’s discussion of various episodes and technical questions on military themes from a technical document written after his service in Spain.  Yet, this is supposed to be a discussion of Malinovskii’s life, not block quotations detailing his thoughts on the weaknesses and strengths of the Republican effort and Soviet equipment during the Spanish Civil War.

Even when there is interesting material presented, as is the case with the Second World War, a lack of citations makes this study almost useless for researchers and academics.  This text is the equivalent of a random collection of primary and secondary source material, with very limited commentary, that sometimes features Malinovskii rather than a biography of the man himself.  Additionally, Sokolov has a rather large affinity for casualties sustained by Red Army forces.  In previous publications, he has utilized recent research and attempted to present a compelling argument for why official figures are lacking and need to be refined.  Reading this volume, however, the author produces random figures for casualties, both Soviet and German, without acknowledging any type of source(s) and at one point simply says all official Russian figures need to be multiplied by a factor of three – based on what study(ies)?

A final thought that needs to be emphasized is that Sokolov consistently emphasizes how after Red Army forces swept through previously occupied territory, those recently liberated, men and women, were regularly conscripted into the Red Army.   Soviet forces were continually on the move, sustaining casualties, and in constant need of replacements.  There is evidence that at times these conscripts received limited training (sometimes as little as two weeks).  However, I find it rather absurd to believe, as the author posits, that these recent recruits received no training, no weapons (they were instructed to pick them up off the battlefield), and were often employed on the frontline with such speed that they even lacked Red Army uniforms, and that this was the norm rather than an exception.  The author would have his readers believe that the Red Army, throughout 1943 and 1944, waged war against the Wehrmacht by employing soldiers with no weapons.  This means everything written about German actions in the east need to be reconceptualized so that we can understand how an armed force lacking basic small arms figured out a strategy to defeat ‘the conquerors of Europe’ with all the modern technology then available at their disposal.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Vitebsk: The Fight and Destruction of Third Panzer Army by Otto Heidkämper and Linden Lyons

Otto Heidkämper, chief of staff of Third Panzer Army, wrote a report of the numerous offensives undertaken by the Red Army in and around Vitebsk in 1943 leading up to Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944.  Being written in the 1950s, those familiar with German accounts of the fighting on the Eastern Front will find the usual here.  That includes the many attempts by German commanders on the ground to make the best of the situation they found themselves in, only to be rebuffed by either Hitler's orders of those of the Army Group Commander.  German forces stand defiantly against the Red aggressor, protecting Europe from the Asiatic horde.  German resistance is always heroic as stoic Wehrmacht troops are outnumbered by Soviet forces but are always able to inflict countless times the damage they themselves sustain.

The most egregious example of exaggeration is one of the few times the author discusses figures for German combat capable personnel compared to that of the Soviet forces attacking the Third Panzer Army.  The author lists some 19,150 men, spread out through three German corps, facing off against six Soviet armies with an estimated strength of 152,500 men.  This sounds preposterous for the following reasons.  Initially the author discussed the Third Panzer Army's ration strength as listed around 200,000 and, earlier, at 230,000.  No additional ration strengths were provided for the army throughout the rest of the book.  Taking into account the fact that support personnel were regularly forced to take up combat duties when situations escalated beyond what German frontline forces could manage, there is no way that three German corps (that at the time contained some 14 or 15 divisions) could solely consist of 19,150 combat capable men.  Either the author is regularly avoiding the true casualties suffered by German forces throughout operations around Vitebsk, is over-estimating Soviet forces, or is simply downplaying the strength of an entire German Panzer Army.

Those interested in attempting to ascertain some type of 'truth' from this account will need to read between the lines.  There are numerous instances of German formations facing encirclement or the threat of encirclement, hinting that Red Army commanders were continually trying to do more than launch frontal attacks.  Additionally, the formations Heidkämper lists on the part of the Red Army point toward a better utilization of combined arms operations, with some coordination by artillery, tank, and infantry forces.  Nonetheless, continued references to horrid weather conditions during the winter months shows that much of the Red Army's activity would undoubtedly have been nullified by the elements.  The more interesting chapter is the last that discusses the opening phase of Operation Bagration.  German forces defending Vitebsk were devastated within the first few days of the Red Army's offensive as Vitebsk was encircled with an entire German Corps of some 35,000.  In general, within a week of fighting the Third Panzer Army went from a force of around a dozen divisions to two.

Much of the territory Heidkämper covers is hard to contextualize as readers only have his postwar account guiding them.  Those interested in a more balanced view of the fighting taking place around Vitebsk, and the numerous offensive operations undertaken by the Red Army throughout 1943 and 1944, would do well to invest in David Glantz's recent "The Battle for Belorussia: The Red Army's Forgotten Campaign of October 1943 - April 1944."  Here readers will be able to put into a greater context the Red Army's offensive plans, the obstacles they faced, their reported losses, etc.  Glantz's title gives away much of what happened here, these offensive operations were failures and mostly forgotten as attention was devoted by Soviet and Russian historians to more victorious events, operations, and locations.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class by Ron Formisano

Without a doubt this is one of the most informative if depressing books I've read on the state of the United States in recent history.  There's no surprise in the fact that corruption exists throughout every level of our society, starting from senators in Washington to our local representative and officials.  Nonetheless, the level of nepotism evident throughout our government defies imagination; from giving cushy jobs to family members and friends, to directing earmarks for local and state businesses who in turn donate to local and national campaigns in order to keep the gravy train going.

A real surprise was seeing that this blurred line between legal and illegal activities (forget ethics) has penetrated our supreme court (which today contains no one that has done public service, unlike previous justices, thus in part leading to the Citizens United ruling), not for profit charities and hospitals that have enriched their CEOs, the mass media (which partly explains why we keep seeing familiar surnames with little in the way of brains or talent who could never do justice to issues that the majority of Americans are facing day to day thanks to their privileged upbringing), the pharma industry that with lies and deception has saddled the United States with an opiates crisis taking tens of thousands of lives a year, and for-profit colleges that have taken advantage of tens of thousands of Americans by distorting information about job placement rates while readily forcing students to take on ridiculous levels of debt.  These seemingly unrelated institutions are brought together by the connections they create when seeking government protection, aid, loans, or by simply giving donations (it's frankly embarrassing how little it takes to buy favors from our government officials).

In part this book treats Democrats and Republicans similarly, especially when it comes to the revolving door of the Senate and House with 'K street.'  Lobbyists and Think Tanks (conservative Think Tanks seemingly overwhelm their progressive counterparts) create platforms, positions, proposals, and justify actions and activities undertaken by our representatives and government officials.  Those who decide to leave their government positions, for one reason or another (taking their hefty pensions with them), readily joined lobbying firms and take in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as they helped shape future decisions and policies.  In fact, promises of such high paying jobs mean they are in debt to lobbyists even before they leave their government positions; no reason to rock the boat and actually serve as a representative of your constituents if it's going to cost you a cushy job in the future.

Suffice it to say that this is a must read, if only to make it clear that the system that is supposedly serving us is continually subverted and perverted by special interest groups.  Those with means and money continually alter the playing field as they reinforce old and create new obstacles for those hoping to escape poverty and deprivation.  That we are continuously presented with criminal cases against large corporations and government officials means this is something that happens daily.  There is no ready answer for the multitude of problems we face as a nation, but knowing they exist is at least a start to thinking about how we can identify and overcome them.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943 by Robert M. Citino

For what it's worth, "Death of the Wehrmacht" I found an enjoyable read that helped put German operations on various fronts into a greater context and offered an analysis that at the time seemed original and insightful.  "The Wehrmacht Retreats," covering the better part of 1943, is a resounding dud with little in the way of original research, analysis, or conclusions.  Additionally, the author's 'vignettes' (having the reader put themselves into the mind of a variety of personalities from the time) is pointless and an exercise in futility.  This is a historical monograph and should be treated as such - not prone to flights of fancy.  Moreover, the author seems to have one horse that he's decided to beat to death again and again.  That the "German way of War" has resulted in this many books makes me think anything the author touches that deals with Germany and war in a general sense will continually be reduced to the idea of a "German way of War" with no other insights to be found.  Finally, the author's analysis when it comes to the Eastern Front is banal, at best.  Having to cover so much territory (some three theaters of operations) in a single volume means the author sacrificed a detailed study into the Wehrmacht's actions in 1943 and rehashed well-known ideas with a minor sprinkling of "well, the German way of war explains it all."  Having invested in two of the author's volumes, I'll be sure to avoid the rest.