KL; a history of the Nazi concentration camps – Nikolaus Wachsmann

An interesting book but, if you decide to read it, know that you’re in it for the long haul.  This is not a lightweight book in any sense of the term.

The book sets out to tell the full history of concentrations camps in Nazi Germany; a wider context than the Holocaust, which most histories tend to concentrate on.

It covers the early camps, the SS camp system, expansion, war, mass extermination, holocaust, anus mundi, economics and extermination, camps unbound, impossible choices, death or freedom.

The book gave me a better understanding of the different camps and the differences of purpose as well as a wider understanding of the different groups who were sent to the camps.  I hadn’t previously understood how small a proportion of camp inmates Jews were until quite late on nor how many Russian POWs were sent to die in the camps.

I also learned quite a lot about how the camps were run and the key players in the development and administration of Himmler’s camp empire.  It is horrifying to hear about how quickly most of the guards became normalised to the casual brutality of the system.

The level of detail in the book meant that it took me a long time to read; this was both because it took a lot of concentration to follow and because of the horrific details one is reading.  There were times when I had to put this book down and read something frivolous before I could go on with it.

Overall, I think there is a lot in this book that people should know more about, particularly in a world where certain segments of society are being radicalised and demonised; don’t think this style of camp couldn’t happen again!  However, it isn’t an easy or comfortable read.

Double Cross; the true story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre

I couldn’t resist reading more about the D-Day spies after having read Operation Garbo and Ben Mackintyre seemed a good place to start; I always find his books readable and this one was no different.

I read it on the train on the way to college and found myself slightly resenting my colleague when he wanted to talk on the way home and I couldn’t read a bit more of my book without appearing really rude!

The most powerful statement in this book is somewhere near the beginning when it states that by 1943 Tar Robertson, Head of the Double Cross section of MI5 knew – not just thought or guessed but knew – that every spy the Abwehr thought they had in Britain was actually working for him.  Think about that for a moment.  I find it utterly astonishing, especially considering the Russian spies who were undetected in the higher echelons on the Secret Services!

As well as including Juan Pujol Garcia – Agent Garbo – this book tells the stories of Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy, Roman Czerniawski, a passionately patriotic Pole, Lily Sergeyev, a bored French woman, Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, a Peruvian playgirl and Johnny Jebsen, an anti-Nazi German Abwehr officer.

The individual stories have a slightly incredible feel to them, almost a feeling of “this has to be true because you just couldn’t make it up” and yet together this group of remarkable people helped to save the lives of many of the soldiers who were part of the D-Day landings.  Their misdirections kept units of the German Army tied up away from Normandy.

The stories that stand out for me are those of Lily Sergeyev and Johnny Jebsen.

Sergeyev’s because I feel she wasn’t treated particularly well.  It is remarked upon throughout the book that double agents are a tricky bunch of people to deal with.  You have to keep them happy/occupied/interested in what they are doing to make sure they don’t become triple agents.  It doesn’t seem beyond the capability of the secret services to have turned a blind eye to Sergeyev bringing her dog into the UK.  Especially when it seems to have been the only thing she really cared for.  MI5 were lucky that Sergeyev cared more about the work she was doing than in engaging in payback.  They were fortunate that Lily was content to know she could screw things up if she wanted to.

Jebsen’s is a more difficult story.  He was a close friend of Dusko Popov and each tacitly admitted to the other they were spies without spelling it out.  Jebsen was seen as a risk by the Double Cross team, in part because he was a Abwehr officer and in part because of his lifestyle.  He knew he was at risk of being abducted by the Gestapo, because of some financial mis-doings, and of being whisked back to Germany from Lisbon.  Unfortunately, he trusted his boss in Lisbon and didn’t have time to alert the British and escape.  The Double Cross team knew Jebsen’s health wasn’t good and expected him to break easily under torture.  This happened close to D-Day and everyone in the Double Cross team was concerned that Operation Fortitude would be blown out of the water.  As well as anxiously trying to find out what had happened to Jebsen they were searching the transcripts from Bletchley to find out if their misinformation was still being believed. Against all the odds Jebsen held out and reports came in, after the war, that he was sent to Mauthausen and then Sachsenhausen.  He disappeared from there and Ian Wilson, his MI5 handler, spent until his death in 1978 trying to find out what happened to him.  A remarkable man.

This is another great and readable book about spying in WWII from Ben Mackintyre.  I would definitely recommend it if you want to know more about Operation Fortitude and the people who created it.

The German War: a nation under arms, 1939 – 1945 – Nicholas Stargardt

The blurb on the back of this book describes it as being a history of the ordinary people of Germany using the letters and diaries during the war years.

I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while but saving it as a bit of a treat.  More about ordinary people and less of an historians perspective on what was happening.

It didn’t work out quite like that.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting book and it does seek to understand the extent to which ordinary German citizens were bought into the Nazi ethos and what alternative beliefs were current.  It just has more of an historian’s perspective and few quoted letters and diaries than I was expecting.

The book is in 5 parts; Defend the Attack, Masters of Europe, The Shadow of 1812, Stalemate, The War Comes Home and Total Defeat.

The first shock, to me, was that to the average German citizen the British were seen as the aggressors of war who wanted to encircle and weaken Germany.  Oddly, I’ve never come across this before.  I understand that nations always find another nation to blame when they choose to start a war but I was genuinely shocked that Britain was being held accountable. Probably gross naivety on my part!

The second shock was that Viktor Klemperer comes out of the book with his image slightly tarnished.  I’ve never actually read his diaries although I know of them so hadn’t realised he actually led a very sheltered life during the war and never ended up in a KL. I recognise that it seems unfair to blame him for that stroke of luck, which allowed him to survive.  And I feel uncomfortable with my reaction.  But…

However, what mostly comes out of reading this book is that whilst things were going well most people were happy to go along with things.  When things started going badly people couldn’t see an alternative to continuing going along with things.  The Nazi propaganda machine didn’t convince all the people all of the time but it did a ruthlessly effective job at doing it for a lot of the people a lot of the time.  A useful reminder of how important it is to gather your news from multiple sources.

It wasn’t quite the book I was expecting but it was a different perspective and I’m pleased that I have read it.

Operation Garbo; the personal story of the most successful spy of WWII – Juan Pujol Garcia and Nigel West

This is one of those autobiographies you just couldn’t make up; no one would accept the story as it’s just so incredible.

Juan Pujol Garcia was a British double agent in WWII who managed to persuade the German Secret Service that his entirely fictitious British spy ring existed and then persuaded them to accept the fictitious information he fed them from the fictitious spy ring!

Juan Pujol Garcia was, to cut a long story short, a chicken farmer who spent the Spanish Civil War avoiding fighting for either side. At the outbreak of WWII he wanted to help defeat the Nazis, again without fighting.  He offered his services as a spy to the British, who declined.  He offered his services to the Germans who accepted and encouraged him to travel to Britain.  He claimed to have travelled but in reality was in Lisbon making up reports from hat he thought might be interesting and from consulting library books about Britain.  Britain eventually recruited him after learning about his reports from decoded Enigma messages between Madrid and Berlin.

Once recruited by MI6 his “spy ring” expanded and through it Allied High Command were able to send useful misinformation to Nazi Germany, in particular the misdirects about D-Day.

The parts of the book written by Pujol Garcia are memoir and Nigel West contributes an historian’s perspective of the same points.

I loved finding out more about Garbo and his amazing, fictitious spy ring.  It was good to get more detail about some of the things I’ve read in other books such as MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat.

The problem is, mainly, that this is in part an autobiography.  I got a strong sense that Pujol Garcia is telling a very sanitized version of his story and he’s very assertive about telling his reader how apolitical he was and how desperate to help Britain defeat the Nazis.  I suspect the reality was a bit more complicated.  I’m not suggesting that Garbo was not really important to the war effort, he was, but in real life people don’t just wear a white hat or a black hat, they are a combination of both.

I would definitely recommend reading this book though.

Winter Men – Jesper Bugge Kold

This is another of my 99p Kindle Daily Deal purchases and one that at first I regretted buying.

I started reading the book at least 3 times and then set it aside wondering what had induced me to read it.

It seemed to be about a former Nazi who had escaped to somewhere in South America, grown old and then died.  But it seemed to be being told by someone who didn’t know him other than by watching the man go about his daily routine.

Typically, I got into the book when it was just about all that was available to read on a flight.  Once I got beyond the beginning, at the end of the life of one of the main characters, the real story began.

It is the story of the Strangl family from Hamburg.  The main characters are Karl, Gerhard and August.  Karl and Gerhard are brothers and August is Karl’s son. At the beginning of the book Karl is running the family clothing business and trying to accommodate the Nazis to win contracts from them.  Gerhard is a mathematics Professor at the university and a published author of a mathematics book.  August is an introverted child ill at ease within a society that values macho-military skills.

Via different routes both Karl and Gerhard end up working for the SS and August ends up in the army.  Karl ends up on the Eastern Front managing a supply chain.  August is also in Russia and a very frightened, inept soldier.  Gerhard ends up managing the logistics of moving Jews to Concentration Camps and then working in a Camp.

Gerhard is the only one to survive and he is the man who escapes to South America, the character at the beginning of the book.

I think overall the book is inconsistent.  Some parts are absorbing and interesting whilst others you read simply to get through to the next interesting bit.  I’m pleased I read it although I probably won’t seek out another book by this author.

The bit that lingers with me is the recognition that all of these characters were complicit in the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime but they are not monsters.  They are “normal” people sucked into doing extraordinary, dreadful things.  It’s chilling to read how easily it might happen.

Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

This book starts in Berlin, 2011, with Adolf Hitler waking up on a patch of wasteland smelling vaguely of petrol but alive and well!

The rest of the book is about Hitler discovering modern Germany and the modern world; the “Internetwork”, getting onto a television and becoming a media celebrity.  The book is absurd and laugh out loud funny in places.

But it also has a serious point to make.  We fail to see the ridiculousness of parts of our western culture and this book hold a mirror up to show us some of these things.  For example, collagen implants in lips, merchandising blitz when something new and expected to be popular comes out and having a media friendly email address.

The book ends as Hitler is recovering in hospital having been beaten up by 2 neo-Nazi things who think he is poking fun at “the real Hitler” and all he stood for.

The book is written by a German journalist and was first published, in Germany in 2012.  It became an international best seller and was made into a Netflix film in 2016.

I think the problem with the book is – as you might have guessed from the straws I’m clutching at writing this review – although the book is a fun read there isn’t enough of real substance.  It’s difficult to find enough to write about without regurgitating the whole story.

I’d recommend it as a fun days reading.  It will make you giggle and you can then move on to something you can get your teeth into.

Blitzed; Drugs in Nazi Germany – Norman Ohler

I saw this booked reviewed in one of the weekend papers and put it on my book “wish list”; two months before my birthday I put books onto my wish list rather than rush out and buy them or my partner grumbles that he doesn’t know what to buy me!  And then it came up as a 99p Kindle book deal.  As regular readers will know I can’t resist 99p bargains.

Having read the book I now know I will be leaving it on my wish list so I have an actual book version.

I thought the book start off slowly looking at the development of methamphetamine by a German chemist and the large-scale use of Pervitin as a cure-all during the period of the Weimar Republic.  There was a slightly odd diversion into the author’s visit to the Temmler laboratory where the drug was manufactured, which didn’t really make sense in the context of the opening chapter.

Once the book got going though I was thoroughly absorbed in it, much to the amusement of colleagues who I was on a residential course with, whose comments were along the lines of “Gillian’s doing drugs again!”

So, why was the book so absorbing?  I think, primarily, because it isn’t a topic that has been covered in any depth in my previous reading.  Also, because it is a mixture of personal stories and an overview; the reader gets to know about the people as well as the context and the “what”.  The idea of performance enhancing drugs being used to facilitate blitzkrieg also makes sense.  I also loved the story about the BBC doing an article, during the war, about blitzkrieg only being possible because of the use of drugs; because it gave the British population a reason why the German Army appeared invincible and inexhaustible they became exhaustible and defeatable.  The downside of the article was the start of the use of benzedrine by Allied forces.

I found the bit about Hitler’s decent into drug addiction less interesting although it does give a different insight into the man and his increasing narrow band of cronies.

The most frustrating thing about the book is its ending.  It just ends with the suicide of Hitler and the later death of Dr Morrell.  I want to know what happened after the war ended.  If you have an army who are addicted to, by that stage, fairly high doses of methamphetamine what happens to them?  Are they weaned off the drug?  Do they have to go cold-turkey?  Are their studies within Germany on the long-term after effects?  And I’m left in limbo not knowing!

That said, I would definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in German history, the history of drugs and drug taking and the tactics of war.

The Prussian Princesses; the sisters of Kaiser Wilhelm II – John van der Kiste

This is a biography of the 3 younger sisters of Kaiser Wilhelm II – Victoria, Sophie and Margaret – and their lives both growing up and after World War I.

The three girls were brought up by their mother, Kaiserin Frederick, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and they were brought up to think of themselves as “almost English”.  The stories of their childhood centre around their many visits to UK.

Their lives changed considerably as they reached adulthood.

Princess Victoria had problems finding someone suitable to marry, had an unhappy first marriage and her second husband turned out to be a Russian con-merchant.

Her younger sister, Sophie, married Prince Constantine of Greece.  Her married life was marked by the constant flux in the fortunes of her father-in-law and, later, her husband as they were deposed and reinstated to the Greek Crown.  She spent a long time of exile in Italy but died in her native Germany.

The youngest sister, Margaret, remained in Germany, married to the Prince of Hesse-Cassell.  She lost 2 sons in WW1 and became a Nazi in WW2.

It was interesting finding out more about the Prussian Royal family who were so closely related to our own.  However, in this book there is no real sense of these 3 women as people simply Princesses as pawns on the European political chessboard.  I think this is a shame as it’s always interesting to find out about the people behind the titles rather than add to knowledge of their dynastic significance.  That said, I didn’t really know that Kaiser Bill had siblings before reading this book so I have learned something from reading it.

I’m pleased I read this book.  It has increased my understanding of European politics in the early part of 20th century.  But I am disappointed that I didn’t get to know the 3 women as people.