Traveling and Reflecting with Gloria Steinem

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Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, is just a gift.  This is a person I would so like to know.  Steinem has always projected a cool and confident mystique  —  she is thoughtful, rational and stratgic.  Yet it is clear from her stories that she had a very challenging, impoverished and unsettled childhood.  While her parents’ cross-country wandering may have been the source of  Steinem’s love of travel, it is also true that they provided her with precious little security and nothing came easy for her.  Certainly there was nothing inevitable about Steinem’s success.

This book is a collection of life stories and travel writing.  It moves gracefully among autobiographical stories and an eclectic mix of travel encounters and gives a good sense of how Steinem evolved into a feminist organizer.  She is an eager and avid traveler and comes across as a low-maintenance companion.  Steinem doesn’t just see new places  —  she relishes new experiences and new people.   All sorts of people come up do her and share their own stories, and she loves it.  She chides herself for sometimes making unfounded assumptions about people and relishes the surprises people present to her.

This is by no means a self-help book, but it is certainly inspirational.  I hope I will think of Steinem the next time I am confronted with travel snafus or have the opportunity to meet new people.  Say yes to the trip, and never assume.  More importantly, it is always the right thing to try to help people, to do whatever needs to be down and to be kind.

It would be nice if the women’s movement had succeeded, such that this book could be an anachronism.  Sadly, it remains terribly relevant.  The struggle continues, and we all need to try harder to advance equal rights for all women.

This is a great book.  Please read it!

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History’s People – Personalities and the Past

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Margaret MacMillan has written a wonderful book, History’s People – Personalities and the Past.  Rather than engage in a heated debate about the extent to which individuals drive history, MacMillan’s chapters focus on different types of personalities, many of which have directly affected the course of history.  Some of her chapters make odd bedfellows.  It isn’t often you see Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler discussed in the same chapter, but MacMillan’s parallels are fascinating, even as she recognizes that Wilson and Thatcher could never share the malevolence of Hitler and Stalin.

HIstory’s People was created as a series of distinguished lectures, and the book is fairly short.  MacMillan’s accounts are absolutely fascinating, and I wish she had written still more.  The book comfortably describes famous, infamous and relatively unknown people with thoughtful attention.  MacMillan is Canadian, and she writes about a number of characters in Canada’s history that would be little known to anyone outside Canada.  The new information is welcome, and the themes she develops are compelling.  She pays particular note to women who may not be well known, but who nonetheless were important pioneers and observers.  She recognizes how important observers such as Samuel Pepys and Victor Klemperer (I Will Bear Witness) are to our understanding of the past.

This book informs the reader about a huge variety of historical movements and events.  Using individual lives to tell these stories makes this a tremendously worthwhile book for both scholars and those of us who will welcome having some of our knowledge gaps filled with thoughtful and intriguing accounts of some very interesting people.  I highly recommend this book!

An Amazing First Person Account of the French Resistance

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Agnes Humbert’s Resistance  —  A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France is simply a wonderful book.  Humbert was an art historian in her forties when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940.  She immediately located fellow patriots and recklessly threw herself into acts of resistance.  Although her activities were largely confined to spreading dissident literature, Humbert and the other members of her group were soon betrayed and savagely punished.  Many of the men were executed, while Humbert ended up with a five year prison sentence, most of which was spent under appalling conditions in a miserable assortment of German prisons and labor camps.

Humbert kept a diary as long as she was able.  When that became impossible, she held on to her memories.  Once the war ended, she filled in the enormous gaps of her miserable incarcerations in diary-like fashion.  This approach makes her book extremely compelling because the tortures and privations she suffers are set forth in real time.  Humbert was imprisoned with women from all over Europe and who had been imprisoned for all sorts of reasons, ranging from prostitution and murder to black market violations, political dissent and simply being the wrong nationality or political party at the wrong time.  She was starved and beaten and phenomenally lucky to survive .

The manner in which Humbert survived is the genius of this book.  She was blessed with courage, maturity and no fatal illnesses, and that was all extremely important.  But her real strength lay in remaining optimistic and seeking friendship wherever she went.  She always managed to find at least one friend with a similar perspective who could always manage to find the humor in something.  The companionship of her fellow prisoners gave Humbert strength throughout her ordeal.  Humbert was far less reckless in prison than she had been in the Resistance, but she nonetheless seized opportunities to sabotage the goods she was forced to make for the German war machine.  She was really annoyed when she was placed in a factory where she couldn’t figure out how to sabotage the goods.

Once she was freed from prison by the advance of the Allies, Humbert lost no time in teaming up with like-minded colleagues and organizing the ensuing chaos.  She grasped political realities and helped restore order and human services, even as she helped compile the record of war crimes she provided to the Americans.

This is an heroic story, but it is not told in a conceited fashion.  So much of this book is written about how “we,” as opposed to “I,” suffered and about the courage and kindnesses of other prisoners and even a few of the guards.   Humbert comes across as a rather unremarkable individual who drew on her personality and her convictions to become a hero.  This is a unique and valuable first person account of a savage time and some very brave people.   I strongly recommend this book!

A German Military Judge Is Really Fed Up During the Last Years of World War II

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It is hard to know what to think of WernerOtto Muller-Hill, the German military judge who kept a diary during the last year of World War II while he was serving as a military judge for the Third Reich.  Muller-Hill’s diary has been translated with some editing in The True German, with an introduction by Benjamin Carter Hett, and translation and editing by Jefferson Chase.  Muller-Hill was approaching 60 and had a wife and young son, when he decided to start a diary in March 1944.  He knew that this was a dangerous act that could get him killed if he were discovered, but he wanted to make a record for his family.  As he writes, Muller-Hill knows Germany will be defeated and that it is only a matter of how and when.  He is furious with Hitler for dragging German into what he sees as an unnecessary and catastrophic war.   He is completely cynical about Goebbels’ incessantly shrill and groundless reports of victory and as well as all the aggressive military orders that cannot be executed because the German army is in shambles.  Several times he writes that Germany has no right to expect any mercy when the war is over because of how it has behaved and, in particular, how it has murdered Jews.  Muller-Hill clearly knows quite a bit about that and seems to appreciate how unforgivable Germany’s behavior has been.  He is very concerned about what will happen to him and his family.

Yet, as he criticizes his countrymen for buying Hitler’s false promises and behaving so badly, the sixty-four thousand dollar question is where was he?  It seems that the best he could say for himself is that he wasn’t an active supporter of the regime, but neither was he taking any active measures to resist.  Indeed, he kept doing his job until the end.  Given the timing, it is of course possible that Muller-Hill wrote this with an eye toward making himself a more sympathetic prisoner for the Allies, but that doesn’t seem to be the thrust of his diary.  For example, he writes about the Holocaust as if it were a tactical error that will doom Germany, but doesn’t express any empathy for the Jews or give any indication that he ever opposed Anti-Semitism.

It is a short book that leaves a lot of questions, but it does provide a primary source and helps us understand what at least one person was thinking as the war drew to a close.  Interestingly, after the war, Muller-Hill returned to his legal career as a prosecutor.  It seems like life largely went back to normal for him until he died in 1977.