Category Archives: Nonfiction – History

Review: Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away (Ann Hagedorn)

An infiltration of the Manhattan Project by a Russian spy should be fascinating. Sleeper Agent tries to be compelling, but doesn’t quite get there.

George Koval, raised as an all-American boy in Iowa, returns to Russia with his parents after the Russian Revolution, convinced that with the Tsar gone, the country would be on the right track and the anti-Semitism would be tamped down. Alas, they were to be disappointed, but that is another story.

George, a brilliant student, is recruited by Soviet intelligence to return to the US, and he does. At first, not a whole lot happens, but eventually, he is tapped to join the teams at Los Alamos and work on the creation of the first nuclear weapon.

He’s a diligent spy, happy to be a patriot for his parents’ country, and provides his handlers with the information he has stolen. But it isn’t a great life, being a spy in the middle of this particular setting, and he is under enormous stress. There are a ton of details about everything in this book, at times to its detriment. This is not one of those times.

George, knowing that it’s about time to wrap up his stay, flees back to the USSR in 1948, well before the US even knew he was a problem. But as can be the case when spies come in from the cold, he is neither celebrated nor the recipient of great wealth.

It’s a five star story, but a three star read. Too often the story gets bogged down in minutiae, times at which I was hoping for fleshing out different parts of the narrative. It falls a bit flat comparatively to other books of this nature.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Barbed Wire University: The Untold Story of the Interned Jewish Intellectuals Who Turned an Island Prison Into the Most Remarkable School in the World (Dave Hannigan)

In 1940, Britain gave in to hysteria and fear, rounded up Germans who were in the country, assigned them a classification ranging from not a real threat to extreme threat, and put them into internment camps – just as the US would do with Japanese-Americans later. They did this even for those people who had been in England for decades, and even if they a) posed no real threat and b) were contributing to the British war effort.

On the Isle of Man, that resulted in one of the most remarkable collections of intellectuals at the Hutchinson Camp. Writers, musicians, educators, artists, journalists – all were kept on the island, behind barbed wire.

The book details many of the more well-known internees, and how they made their way to England as Hitler’s grip on Germany tightened. Often, those escapes were made under dangerous circumstances and many came after a first meeting with the Gestapo, to ensure there wouldn’t be a second.

We get to see the day to day lives of those locked up for no good reason, and the lengths some would go to keep creating their art behind the wire. To keep themselves busy, they also began what could only be called one of the best universities in the world: the experts among them gave talks on their particular expertise, and demand for something – anything – to do was so great, they would often give the same lecture multiple times to meet demand.

The end of the book highlights some of the internees, where they landed once released, and how they went about the remainder of their lives.

The narrative is compelling while not being overly stuffy, and the book is impeccably researched. It’s an excellent addition to WWII history, and a history not told nearly enough.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowman and Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Hitler Years: Disaster 1940-1945 (Frank McDonough)

The Hitler Years: Disaster 1940-1945 is the companion to The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939, which I previously reviewed.

As with ‘Triumph’, Disaster is a strict, chronologically presented layout of the events from 1940, when Hitler was at the apex of his power, to 1945, when Germany was defeated and Hitler committed suicide in Berlin.

I’ll caution that this is not a narrative nonfiction work. The two books taken together could form a large collection of references about what was happening on what day in what year in (primarily) Germany’s sphere between 1933 and 1945. If you haven’t read the first volume,it isn’t a huge issue as long as you have some kind of base understanding as to how the world got to where it was in 1940.

It’s a terrific addition to the field, and I’m giving it five stars, just as I did with the first volume.

One note I will make is that the e-ARC was a terrible mess. Letters are missing from words, entire dates are left out, and it was a tremendously difficult and tedious read to get through it. I’m not dinging it for this, as it is an advanced copy, and it comes with the territory. It was, however, disappointing that it was so very, very bad in this regard.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Hitler Years: Triumph, 1933-1939 (Frank McDonough)

Have you read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? Are you interested in early the mid 20th century Germany and the runup to WWII? If so, this is right up your alley (as is volume two, Disaster, which I am reading now).

Triumph is an orderly, year by year examination of Hitler’s rise to power. note that it helps immensely if you are aware f the events between the Treaty of Versailles and 1933, including Hitler’s personal life during that time and the people he collects around him along the way.

Each chapter details the events occurring in that year, ranging from what Hitler and his cronies were doing, to the economy of Germany as a whole and cities like Berlin in particular, to what was happening in the arts, continued German recovery from the disastrous debt assigned to them by the Allies after WWI, government policies, and so on., Rest assured that other governments are not spared a look – the appeaser Neville Chamberlain, for instance, is there on the page. There is also time spent detailing how other countries viewed Germany and Hitler in his role. Some were convinced that everyday Germans would toss him out, while others laughed at the cartoonish thug, and others began sounding the alarms about the megalomaniac who had methodically made his way to Chancellor.

I often hesitate to use the word “comprehensive’, as typically it does not accurately describe the reality of the pages in the book, but McDonough has done an excellent and, yes, a comprehensive job of moving the reader through these formative years of complete Nazi control of Germany’s government.

Incredibly interesting as well as eminently readable, this is a fine addition to the oeuvre of WWII books that focus on Hitler.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: American Agriculture: From Farm Families to Agribusiness (Mark Wetherington)

American Agriculture traces the very beginning of agriculture in America from the earliest days of settlement well into the current giant agribusiness outfits that control the vast majority of American farmland.

This is not, however, just a dry recitation of facts and figures and graphs about farming. Wetherington also goes into social, economic, and political considerations that trailed along ag (and later, Big Ag), through periods off boom – wars, foreign markets -and busts – Dust Bowl, collapsing markets, and movement of rural people to cities, looking for work off the farm.

We also get to see how the addition of heavy machinery, subsidies, and chemical pesticides helped boost production per acre to astronomical levels, to better feed the US and the world. On the downside of that, if the market for a particular commodity collapses, the government can and does step in to help offset the losses farmers experience and to make it worth their while to simply not plant the next round of crops.

If you’re curious about the evolution of agriculture in the country, or how it affects people and policy, it’s a good read.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowman & Littlefield and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Iron Women: The Ladies Who Helped Build the Railroad (Chris Enss)

Having enjoyed Chris Enss’ Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West some years ago, I had high hopes for Iron Women. However, the title is a bit misleading, and I didn’t much care for the writing, what there was of it. It seems more like notes made in the course of research, or verbatim transcribing of quotes, and women didn’t actually work on laying the the physical rails.

Their contributions were in rail-adjacent items: engineering better bearings on axle wheels, designing the interior of the cars, creating refrigerated boxcars, and so on. All these things, of course, are incredibly important to rail travel overall, for both people and goods. There were other women, from the bad side of the tracks, as it were, as well: prostitutes and train robbers also plied their trades. I don’t see, however, how these women contributed anything to “building the railroad”, and the text didn’t enlighten me to see how they were.

I was disappointed in this outing. Two out of five stars. Sorry, this was a miss (ha!) for me.

Thanks to Rowan & Littlefield and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874: Heroes, Victims, Survivors (Phyllida Scrivens)

In 1874, a momentary lapse – in protocol and in communication – at a railway station in Norwich led to the head on collision between two trains on a single trail rail line at Thorpe St Andrew, in Norfolk, England. Almost two dozen people died; scores more were injured.

The book begins by introducing us to some of the people aboard the train. for some, we get two or three paragraphs. For some, we get two or three pages (especially if they are part of the aristocracy or are involved in the actual running of the train). I do usually enjoy this, but after awhile I found myself skimming them – it became a little tedious, and very difficult to remember all of them, especially given the sheer number of Johns and Roberts and Marys and Anns, and all the other quite common names primarily given in that place at that time.

The most interesting art of the book is the breakdown of the accident and just how a series of errors, boiled down to one single lapse, can have disastrous results. In this case, the trains were running late. At the time, the station agent had to give he telegraph clerk a written slip – signed – so the clerk could transmit the authorization to proceed down the line. In Norwich, the clerk had a group of friends in the office, against protocol, and the station agent, aggravated by this and by the lateness of the train, failed to sign off on the authorization. The telegraph clerk transmitted it anyway, which set the trains on the collision course toward one another. Although the engineers on both trains saw each others’ trains coming and attempted to brake, it was too late for the crash to be avoided.

After the crash, people from towns on both sides of the crash flocked to the area to pull people from the wreckage. The engineers and firemen (coal stokers) in both trains were killed instantly, as were a number of people in first class at the front of the trains. Other people suffered rather gruesome injuries, ranging from severed limbs to burns from the boilers spewing uncontrolled steam.

For the time, the response was remarkable, in my opinion. Constables went door to door in each town looking for doctors and nurses to help the wounded, and a response train, loaded with supplies and more medical professionals, ferried wounded from the crash site to yet another town, moving back and forth through the evening.

We get the details for many of the people we met a the opening of the book, dead or alive/wounded, but again, without flipping back to the beginning, I couldn’t place about half of them. Quite a number of the doctors get their chance to shine here as well. working doggedly to save who they could.

The inevitable lawsuits begin, and most of the blame is found to lie with the station agent (and the railway, of course).

The book ends with a sort of “where are they now” look at what happened post-Thorpe to many of the wounded and the doctors who treated them.

If you can get past the first part, it’s a four star read. The beginning, though, just gets a two. I’m spitting the difference and giving it three stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters (Railey Jane Savage)

I generally love books about swindles, cons, and assorted grifters, no matter the time period – after all, Bernie Madoff is just Charles Ponzi with internet access.

Neither of those men play a part in this book. Not including Ponzi was an interesting omission, as the book covers selected people and incidents between 1850 and 1950 and Ponzi was active within that period, but perhaps that’s because so much has been written about him that having another swindler in line to step up to the spotlight was a good call.

While the book covers other con men and women and their schemes, the most fascinating one for me was the one that leads the book: Gordon Gordon, the supposed Lord of Glencairn, from Scotland, once he flees England to America, first trying to swindle people with land deals in Minnesota, and moving from there to New York This is mainly due to him interacting with many of the biggest power brokers of the gilded age. Among them were Horace Greeley (“Go west, young man!”) and shady mogul Jay Gould, whose was up to his eyeballs in his own scandal in the Erie Railroad, and who was so desperate he went along with what could only be termed a fantastical scheme cooked up by Gordon Gordon, and wound up just another mark. As Gordon Gordon’s con plays out, another figure pops up, although briefly: Diamond Jim Fisk. This was at a time when those various power brokers were trying to corner the gold market via claims in Alaska. Why did this please me? Because I have read and reviewed a book solely about that attempt called A Most Wicked Conspiracy (I gave it five stars, it’s excellent).

The others, comparatively, didn’t grab me the way the Gordon con did, but that were all readable and interesting in their own way – and likely things most people have never heard about. The last chapter, dealing with the faked Drake disk – supposedly set by Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the globe, came in second for me, and I felt rather badly for the man who was basically pranked by so-called friends. I thought that was rather nasty work.

I realize the ebook version sometimes has its issues with ARCS and their formatting, but the formatting was atrocious., with giant, bold text at random places, giving the publisher name, but also sometimes containing a piece of a sentence, and in the middle of the page. The beginning of each chapter gives the date, place, amount of the con and the things it involve (free hotels, jewels, cash, etc), and the main assorted players. These were also often formatted poorly, and I hope that is repaired prior to publication.

Overall: four out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowan & Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, His Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolf Hitler (David McKean)

Decades after WWI, the US people, and most of the US government, truly believed in Woodrow Wilson’s insane and unworkable isolationism stance. I understand the wish to not be dragged into some war that’s not yours to fight, but the US and everyone else on the planet have been globalists almost as soon as (most of) the map had been tentatively finalized. Backbiting Ambassadors too interested in their own machinations on higher office don’t help.

Watching Darkness Fall is primarily the story of FDR – both a Wilsonian politician and charged with pulling the U out of the Great depression – and four of his Ambassadors, posted to offices in Europe. Of the four included in this book, only one seemed to understand the threat posed by Hitler in Germany, and the great conflagration he would cause: William Dodd. He warned FDR, early and often, that Hitler was going to be a problem to our allies (especially Great Britain and France) and potentially the world at large. The others – Breckenridge Long in Italy, William Bullitt in Russia and subsequently in France, and Joseph P. Kennedy – either heaped praise on a fascist while acting like a tourist (Long), wrote what amounted to love letters to FDR (seriously!) and constantly painted a pretty picture for him, even while things were falling apart, and had the audacity to think he could speak for the US or French(!) government when the leaders fled France, all the while angling for a job as head of the war department (Bullitt), or were anti-Semites, particularly uninterested in the plight of Jews in Germany (Long and Kennedy).

It isn’t an easy read, particularly to start; there are names and history and political dealings thrown at the reader in order to set the stage. Presumably anyone reading this would have a basic understanding of the runup to WWII. If you do not, it will likely be fairly rough sailing, at least until all the characters are in place.

Once that’s complete, however, it’s easy to see – through letters, diaries, newspapers, and official government issues – just how ready some were to allow Europe and possibly even Russia go up in flames because no one really wanted to hear any bad news from abroad, much less help our own allies fight against a maniac. It’s especially troubling to read Bullitt’s missives. He was grossly unqualified and unprepared for the duty he accepted. Equally disgusting was Long, who deliberately held up visas for those fleeing to the US, especially Jews and even children, and Kennedy, who urged FDR to make people with Hitler.

The book ends rather abruptly, but by that point, I was tired of all of them and quite glad of it.

Five stars, no doubt in my mind.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review – The Auschwitz Photographer (Luca Crippa; Maurizio Onnis)

Wilhelm Brasse spent an astonishing five years in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a photographer in the identification office. His history of recollections are the basis of this book, although they are not direct survivor interviews, but a BBC interview and also a book he himself wrote. The sourcing of this is rather thin, and I have automatically removed a star for that reason.

That said, Brasse was arrested after refusing to fight for the German army after the invasion and capture of Polish. Although born in Poland to a Polish mother, his ancestry on his father’s side was German. For his refusal, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to Auschwitz. At first selected for hard labor, he was pulled from that work to head the new identification office, so the Nazis could keep track of the many Jews and others sent there to be exterminated.

The timeline in this narrative details how Brasse kept his head down and rarely looked out a window while at work- the better to survive what a part of him knew might very well be his eventual death in the camp.

After many chapters given over to the photographs of people arriving via train, the Nazis decided that cataloguing Jews and undesirables was a waste, since so many were killed straightaway. Brasse’s job then shifts more into portraiture: SS soldiers and officers getting their portraits made to send to their parents, for instance, and when the Birkenau barracks were constructed, the women bound for those instead of the crematoria that run nonstop.

There is a brief suggestion of an almost romance between Brasse and a Polish interpreter for the German kapo in charge of bringing female subjects for Brasse to photograph, but this eventually goes nowhere – how could it be otherwise, the way prisoners were kept to a rigid schedule.

Brasse and his office lived in better quarters and had steady, indoor work during brutal winters. They even managed to barter their services with the kitchens to keep themselves well fed.

When a large group of Russian POWs are brought the the camp, they are dutifully photographed for identification purposes, and like all the others, Brasse pushes their fate out of his mind as well as he can until someone tells him the Nazis are doing nothing to them: not selecting them for work or not, not feeding them, not anything. They are simply starved to death. Brasse happens to pass the area where they are being held and describes them as ghosts, thin, with their bones protruding as though they will break the skin, and with blank, dead eyes. He claims to have strayed near the fence where a Russian was standing, and reached through the wire to touch the Russian’s hand. The Russian soldier tells him that he is not a communist, then falls over, dead. This seems to be an iffy portion, as it is backed up by nothing other than Brasse saying it happened. We do know that Brasse was given an amount of freedom most other prisoners were not – his skills as a photographer saving his life, after all – but would he have been allowed to be anywhere near the Russians, as he was simply walking between one place and another through the camp?

Eventually, his boss calls him to what is a small viewing room, to show him a film. In it, the Russian prisoners are taken to a building that has been boarded up, and marched inside. The Nazis then throw canister of what are presumed to be Zyklon B into the building and close and seal the door. His boss has set up a camera inside the building, and has filmed the chaos of the people within trying to find an exit, only to find none. Throughout the book, Brasse claims that his boss speaks to him about declaring that he is German, and that it could be arranged for him to visit his family in Poland before he is sent to his assignment. He claims his boss attempts yet again to sway him, after viewing this film.

Later, Brasse becomes the photographer of choice for the doctors performing medical experiments, like forced sterilization of young women, and the various experiments performed by Josef Mengele himself, who wanted images of twins and dwarfs, along with another doctor who was fascinated by the prisoners with eyes that were different colors from one another.

There is a section describing the images and plates struck of counterfeit currencies, although this is very late and not very useful to the Nazis in the end.

As we know, the war was moving inevitably toward Germany. Toward the end, Brasse’s boss drives away to escape the advancing Russian army, and orders Brasse to destroy all of the negatives, photos, and especially the film of the Russian soldiers who were murdered there. As Brasse and his colleagues attempt to do so, these items will not burn. They concoct a story about how they tried, and even throw the tiny office into disarray, as if they had feverishly tried to follow the order, but Brasse stops them, and settles himself in to inform his boss of same, knowing it could mean a bullet in the head. However, his boss does not return, nor do any of the other SS men who escaped west toward Germany and away from the Russians.

After a few days, the camp is emptied and all the prisoners are forced to march out of Auschwitz. Brasse winds up in Mauthausen, and is eventually liberated. At 27 years old, he is finally a free man again.

After some time with his family, he sets out for another town in Poland to try to find the woman he’d met in Auschwitz, and of whom he had taken a portrait- the only thing he took with him when the prisoners were marched out. He does find her,but is disappointed when he finds her somewhat distant. He presents her with the photo, which she tears apart and allows to fall on the floor. She told him she didn’t like herself when she was there, and who could blame her? He leaves, dejected, and recalls his uncle saying something basically that meant women couldn’t be pleased, which I thought was a really shitty thing to include, regardless of whether or not it was true.

An afterword tell us that Brasse eventually married, had children and grandchildren of his own, and died peacefully, surrounded by family. Interestingly, he could not bear to become a photographer again for a living, after having taken and developed between 40 and 50 thousand photos in Auschwitz-Birkenau, so went into a different line of work. I can’t say I could blame him for that.

There is also an afterword by the authors, indicating their sources, as I noted in the opening. The third item on their source list is Night, by Elie Wiesel, which I thought an odd inclusion.

At the end, there are also photos, although there are notes that indicate not all of these photos may have been taken by Brasse.

Overall, it is a challenging read because of the nature of the work Brasse and his colleagues did and the often arbitrary treatment of the prisoners in the camp. Squeamish readers may wish to skip the parts describing the work of the crematoria crews and the experiments carried out by Mengele and others.

Is it a good oral history from a survivor? It is well written, in a straight timeline, and the horrors witnessed by Brasse and other survivors is all too shamefully real, as we well know. The very small sourcing pool, though, should be held for more scrutiny. I would recommend it with these caveats

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to SourceBooks and NetGalley for the reading copy.