Robert Capa’s Slightly out of Focus: A Captivating Photographer’s Memoir of World War II

Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is absolutely one of the best war memoirs I’ve ever read. Capa, was born in Hungary in 1913 and then killed by stepping on a mine in Vietnam in 1954. In between, he made a career as a war photographer. Slightly Out of Focus covers Capa’s experiences before and during World War II. As an Hungarian Jew, he was basically stateless, but nonetheless managed to get to the United States and then got an American magazine to send him to London to photograph the war. Capa was in North Africa and Italy, and then landed with the first troops in Normandy on D Day. His book has astonishing photographs, but it also recounts his adventures. Capa makes cutting through all the American and British red tape to get to the war zones sound almost as daunting as the War itself. As if his own story weren’t amazing enough, Capa’s tales include cameos by Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pyle, among others. Robert Capa is an amazing raconteur who writes with tremendous brio, but he also zeroes in on the terrors of the war and demonstrates a profound understanding of the horror and waste. You really need to read this book.

Incidentally Robert Capa was one of the people featured in Katie Marton’s 2006, The Great Escape — Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, which is another great book.

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Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – A Terrifying Read for Our Own Era

People really need to read this book!  William L. Shirer, the famous author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany, kept a diary while he was stationed in Berlin from 1934 to 1941.  Shirer began as a print journalist but was converted to a radio journalist in Berlin the 1930’s and though 1940.  I recently read his diary from that period, Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941.  Shirer’s writing is clear and absorbing. His diary is a primary source, and it makes for harrowing reading.

Shirer was a foreign correspondent for various American outlets when he found himself in Germany in the 1930’s and through the pivotal year 1940.  His own experiences of struggling with censors and putting out his broadcasts in the midst of heavy bombing are justification enough for his book.  His visits to the countries Germany has defeated are fascinating and ominous all at the same time.  Many of his colleagues were kicked out by the Germans.  Shirer tries to stay on the grounds that his witness is important, but he knows the Germans are using him or at least think they are.  It is a fascinating game.  Shirer’s narrative bounces from visits to battlefields, to encounters with Nazi leaders, to every day life in Berlin, to worries about his own safety and self-respect.  He tries to figure out exactly what is happening and get the word out without getting kicked out of Germany.

The transcending importance of this book is that Shirer’s personal experiences occur within the malevolent atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the countries it defeated.  I found it impossible to read about the unrelenting cruelty and domination of the Nazi’s and not think about what is happening in the United States today.  Whereas here we have attempted censorship of the press and ham-handed efforts to exclude reporters, in Nazi Germany this is what actually happened as a matter of course.  Germans had long been denied accurate internal reporting of hardships and loss, so they became inured to it and stopped believing anything they read.  Now we find ourselves in an era of “fake news,” where our leaders feel no compunction to tell the truth or keep their promises.   Bullying has become an accepted political tactic.  Are Americans getting to cynical and complacent to resist?   Similarities with Nazi Germany are growing, and we should fear what might come next in our own country.

Shirer’s diary underscores the point that the truth ceased to matter in Nazi Germany and that the Nazi leaders felt emboldened to create an endless, self-agrandizing narrative to dress up and justify their criminal actions.  So, too, were they emboldened to villify Jews and other handy scapegoats because they felt they could. This is a terrifying blueprint.

Although Shirer’s book feels particularly prescient at this time and he openly states his opinions, he has not written a polemic. This is the diary of someone trying to be a journalist in the midst of Nazi Germany.  Shirer’s own American perspective is very much in place and enhances the value of his diary, which he obviously kept hidden while in Germany.

Lastly I should note that whereas liberals like myself may read this book and draw ominous analogies with current American politics, even if your politics are far to the right of mine, this book has profound historical significance and is an excellent read.  I recommend it.