Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General – Mungo Melvin

I can’t remember buying this book and it’s been sitting on my “to read” pile gathering dust for ages so I decided now was the time to get round to reading it.

I’m pretty sure I bought it wanting to learn more about the Nazi campaigns in the East. I should probably have checked out the author before buying it.

Some historians/biographers are great at telling stories and bringing their subject to life. Others are not and this book fell into the latter category for me.

I bought a biography rather than a book of the battles because I’m interested in people. What I got was factual information about von Manstein and a lot a battle detail I didn’t really want. It made it a very chewy book!

I did find out a lot from persisting and finishing the book: I didn’t know Hindenburg was Manstein’s uncle. I didn’t know how fraught the relationship was between Hitler and von Manstein. I didn’t know what happened to the Generals and Field Marshalls Hitler sacked. Most of all I learned more about the constraints Hitler’s distrust of the officer corps imposed on the Wehrmacht.

However, given that this is an account of some serious battles of WW2 the book is completely lacking any recognition of the suffering of front line soldiers on the Eastern Front and fails to acknowledge the scale of death and serious injury of these men.

If I’d known this book was written by a retired General I probably wouldn’t have bought it, rightly assuming it would be a detailed book of facts and events rather than about bringing a person to life. I’m pleased in a way I did buy it and did read it in its entirety. It has increased my knowledge. But it became a chore rather than a pleasure to read.

Do the birds still sing? – Horace Greasley

Another 99p offer on Kindle this book is an autobiography of a British POW who met a German girl and kept escaping from his work camp to spend nights with her.

I thought this was an interesting book from the point of view of finding out more about people growing up in the inter-war period and understanding more about what life was like for POWs in the Nazi regime.

My main problem with this book is that Horace Greasley comes across as an arrogant, selfish man, even before he joins the army, which means you don’t warm to him and care about what happens. There’s also an element of “poor me and what me and my mates went through” which, when you consider the atrocities carried out on other Nazi prisoners and POWs, comes across as whingeing. I’m not doubting life was hard and horrible but from a wider historical perspective British POWs came off quite lightly.

I felt sorry for Rosa, the girl Greasley leaves the camp to meet. I think she got the worst of all deals and I wanted her to survive and to have had a good life.

My other gripe about the book is the really crude language used at times. I thought it was unnecessary and crass.

Overall, it felt like a chore to read this book and I wouldn’t recommend it.

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.

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.

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.

HHhH – Laurent Binet

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, never quite shouting “read me” loud enough to be taken down from it so I decided just to pick it up and get on with it.  I’m really pleased I did.

The book is in three parts; the story of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination by Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, a biography of Heydrich and the story of the author struggling to write the book.

Firstly, the title; it is the acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, a phrase current in Nazi Germany, which translates as Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.  I have never heard this before and it fascinates me.

I knew a little about the assassination from reading other books about Nazi Germany and WW2 but not the detail and not the problems Gabcik and Kubis had.  It felt like shades of Gavrilo Princip and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; almost a disaster, then a farce but somehow succeeding in its aim.  What I didn’t know about was just how dreadful Nazi reprisals were against the Czech people.

Heydrich’s biography was also interesting.  I didn’t know much about him and his background.  Another example of a seemingly ordinary man, determined to make something of himself and disregarding any moral compass he might have had to achieve that success.  Do people who want power at any cost find it easy to do that or is it more a case of never having had a moral compass in the first place?  And are we back at nature versus nurture again?

I would have like to have known what happened to Lena Heydrich and her children after his death and after the war ended.

I found the section about writing the book really interesting.  There is a certain amount of evidence available in various archives attesting to what happened but none of the people are around to explain why things happened as they did or what it felt like.  This must make it difficult to write an account that captures a sense of being there whilst not putting words into people’s mouths or ascribing them motives that we do not know they had.  How do you fill in the blanks that the records don’t cover?

Overall, whether you are interested in this period of history or not, I would recommend it as an interesting book to read.

If this is a woman; inside Ravensbruck, Hitler’s concentration camp for women – Sarah Helm

I read this book back in June but it has taken me until now to think it through and get to a point where I can write about it.

This is a history of Ravensbruck from its inception, as a prison for “asocials” – prostitutes and criminals – to full blown concentration camp.  Helm pieces together the story of the camp from the testimonies of survivors, what few records remain and transcripts of war crime trials.  It relates the experiences of the different ethnic groups who were interred in the camp including the medical experiments that were carried out there and the Siemens factory staffed by the inmates.

There is quite a lot of detail in the book and it looks at both side of the fence; the guards and other staff as well as the women prisoners.

I found this book compelling but difficult to read.  It is one of those books where at some points you feel you can understand what these women were going through and then, in almost the same instant realising that you can, possibly comprehend small parts of their experience but never, ever the overwhelmingly, unremittingly, constant grind of horror piled on privation.  It is impossible for me in my safe, comfortable life to really imagine what it must be like to feel fear, uncertainty and hunger every minute of every day over a number of years.

I was slightly horrified to find that a well known and respected manufacturer like Siemens had established a factory at Ravensbruck and used slave labour to staff it.  I’m not sure why it shocked me as pretty well every other major manufacturer in Germany at that time did exactly the same thing.  I think it is possibly that I had never heard Siemens being directly linked to the use of slave labour before.

The thing that annoyed me most about this book was the author’s continuing assertion that Ravensbruck was totally forgotten.  It may not be as well known as Auschwitz, Dachau and Theresienstadt but although I didn’t know much of the detail of what went on there anyone who knows anything about Violette Szabo, Olga Benario and Karolina Lanckoronska will know something of it.

A minor niggle is that I think Helm could have come up with a better title rather than reworking Primo Levi’s If this is a man.

This book provides the detail missing from most accounts of the concentration camp network.  It shows how women were treated by Nazi Germany and shows the inadequacies of organisations such as the Red Cross who are unwilling to tread on the toes of murderous regimes to ensure humane treatment of prisoners.

Reading this book will leave you feeling sick and sickened at time.  It definitely isn’t bedtime reading.  But it is about something we should be aware of and, given the instability in the world and the rise of some regimes who would confine and constrain women’s freedom, we should learn from history and make sure it doesn’t get repeated.

The man who broke into Auschwitz – Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

Who would be crazy enough to break into one of the most notorious Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany…twice!

Despite its very specific title this book isn’t just about Auschwitz.  It is a wider story of Denis Avey’s life and his experiences in World War II.  The largest part is about his war experiences although it does cover a bit about his childhood in Essex and his life after the War.

I didn’t find the Denis Avey who comes through in the narrative a particularly likeable person.  I suspect he is entertaining in small doses and a class one pain if you see him regularly; an opinionated, cocky man who demands to be the centre of attention.

For me the most interesting part was learning about his active service in North Africa.  I have a personal interest in this campaign as my Grandfather fought there and I know very little about what it must have been like for him; he was killed in Italy later in the war and all that survives are sanitised letters to his family at home.  I knew the desert could be cold but had no idea about just how awful conditions could be.  In my naivety I hadn’t considered the brutal combination of the topographical conditions and warfare.

It was also interesting learning about the life of a POW in Italian hands.  Most of the books I’ve read have been about POWs in Nazi Germany so this was a different story as well.

Oddly, I found the Auschwitz part of the narrative the least interesting; if you want to know about life inside the IG Farben complex Primo Levi is a much better guide.  And I found the use of “Stripeys” to describe the concentration camp prisoners distasteful, whether or not it was the term used at the time.

For me the character of the man, as he is revealed in the book, makes it possible that he was foolhardy enough to break into the KL part of Auschwitz but I feel that if it did happen the noble motive of “bearing witness” he ascribes to it probably came later and it started off as an act of “derring do”.

At the end of this book, and in the couple of weeks since I finished reading it, I keep coming back to the central conflict within it; Denis Avey had a challenging War.  He fought in difficult conditions in Africa, he was a prisoner of war in Italian hands for a period of time and he was a prisoner of war near one of the most notorious prison camps in the world and yet…  And yet I am not sure how much of the story I believe, not sure what is truth and what is embroidery and not sure that I care enough to find out more.