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.

Advertisements

Leon Stein’s Epic Book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a Timely Reminder of How Poor Women Suffer When Rich Male Employers Make Their Own Rules

Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962.  Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  

The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes.  This is a very timely book.  This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars.  While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made.  (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)

 Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die.  Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire.  The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed  — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.

This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first.  Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies.  Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products.  To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.

This is a relatively short and very clear book.  I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.

The Queen of Katwe — The Improbable Story of a Ugandan Chess Champion

Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers.  Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events.  Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one.  The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.  

Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life?  There is no satisfactory answer.  Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma.  What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way.  There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess.  (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace.  It was also no small thing that Phiona’s  brother let her tag along.  Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe.  The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game.   Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.

This is an inspiring book.  Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating.  I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life.  (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)

Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona.  Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills.  So kudos to Katende as well!

Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany


Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in Nazi Germany represents a fascinating and important contribution to Holocaust literature.  The author Marie Jalowicz Simon was a young Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin, often in plain sight.  She survived to complete her education and become a professor in Berlin.  Prior to 1997 Simon generally refrained from telling her story and angrily rejected requests for interviews.  But finally, in 1997 during the last year of her life, she dictated her story onto 77 tapes (900 pages of transcript).   Although she didn’t keep a written diary during her years of hiding, Simon had maintained a remarkable diary in her head.   Marie Simon died in 1998, and approximately fifteen years later, after substantial research and editing, her son published this important book.

Every survivor’s story is unique, but Simon’s is really unusual, mostly because of her attitude.  Simon was an educated woman in her twenties in Berlin.  Her parents had died and she had no one depending on her.   This gave her some freedom and mobility, but it also meant she had only herself to rely upon.  

To survive in and of itself was noble, and Simon insisted on surviving.  Apart from an unsuccessful effort to marry and relocate to Bulgaria, she stayed in Berlin and its environs.   She kept her health and had tremendous ingenuity and nerve.  Perhaps more importantly, she had just enough contacts to keep finding a series of short term places to stay.  Simon was furious at her situation and furious at the German people, so she wasn’t particularly grateful to those who helped her.  She never betrayed anyone, but neither did she waste much time mourning those who didn’t make it.  Simon comes across as a difficult person who probably wasn’t the easiest houseguest or the nicest person to have around.  But then, to hear her tell it, many of the people who took her in frequently weren’t very nice either.   They seemed to have jumbled motives and were frequently unpleasant.  

Not to digress, but an interesting study on what it takes to be a rescuer might be conducted just from looking at the lives of the people who stepped up to help Marie Simon.  They were a very diverse group of odd personalities from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.  Unpleasant they may have been, but undoubtedly they stuck their necks out when they sheltered Simon.  In the end, we  see her rescuers only through Simon’s eyes, and she doesn’t dwell on how scared many of them must have been.

This book is particularly striking because of Simon’s strong voice.  Simon absolutely rejects the fate the Naxi regime is determined to impose.   At some level she holds all Germans accountable for the crimes implicated upon Jews and thinks that those helping her are only doing what they were supposed to do.  Her rage is impressive and constant, even as she is always on her guard and looking for her next place to hide.  The bottom line is that Simon was courageous and bold, and she succeeded in surviving for three years in Berlin during the last years of World War II.  It is a great story.

The Butler’s Child – An Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer

image

Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography.  Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases.  The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife.  Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs.  Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.

Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living.  Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.

Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country.  Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness.  As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades.  Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there.  This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back.  Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.

Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges.  Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining.  Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys.  The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal.  Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel.  As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North.  One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.

This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney.  Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life.  One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform.  He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do.  For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches.  Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance.  It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”

Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures.  He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American.  He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white.  He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions —  he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood.   While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing.  Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia.  It’s almost like yoga:  Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do.   In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice.  In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task.  His was an historic crusade.

 

 

Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century

image

Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena.  He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck:  “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”

While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century.  This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book.  Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning.  At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.

Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told.  Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions.  There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.

I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.

 

Harrowing Tale of the Cambodian Genocide as Told by a Child Survivor

image

At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing.  You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine.  Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home.  First  They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.

This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been  abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky.   The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear.  No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots.  It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions.  They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.

Fortunately, Ung managed to get out.  After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers.  She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.

I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community.  In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began.  Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections.  Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.

Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book.  Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart.  This is what genocide felt like to a young child.  She may not have focused on the politics  behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror.  People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result.  At some level the politics really didn’t matter.