Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: Lucky Hitler’s Big Mistakes (Paul Ballard-Whyte)

First thought: terrible title. Each time I returned to the book, I disliked it more.

Second thought: history is not just something that happens *to* people. Everyone exerts a force, no matter how small, on history, which in turn reacts in some fashion. Taken over a long enough span of time, we could construe any number of events in our own lives we could deem as “lucky” – and thus beyond our control, as the author seems to think some of Hitler’s “luck” was. Certainly there are some elements he could not control: the end of WWI, for instance. Other things, though, like the Reichstag fire, which the author seems to lie down at the feet of “luck”, Hitler having nothing whatsoever to do with it, ignore that it’s quite possible Hitler had a hand in it, as well as other things. It’s easy enough to point at events well after the fact and deem them luck.

I would accept instead of “luck” that Hitler (and Stalin, and Mao, and [insert other dictatorial names through history here]) benefited from a confluence of events that served to propel him to the top of the Germanic mountain. However, we must never forget that he willingly took advantage of these things. A lax prison sentence, which came with his own personal secretary, for instance, Hitler used to polish off his horrific screed Mein Kampf. Hindenburg’s ill health? Vaulting into the Chancellor’s office and from there to dictator. Terrible penalties assessed on Germany following WWI? Stoked ultra-nationalism and decrying anyone “foreign”. And so forth.

It’s also terribly simple to look back in hindsight and see the big blunders Hitler made. Simpler still to use those as stepping stones to decide how Germany could have won WWII, even though, as I said, history is not made in a vacuum. There are times when the author sounds quite bullish about Nazi chances to dominate and conquer all of Europe and much of Asia, if only Hitler had done XYZ instead of ABC. If Hitler had ordered the destruction of the soldiers at Dunkirk, he could have invaded Britain. If Hitler had listened to his generals, he could have taken Moscow. Could he? Really? While I agree that wiping up the beaches at Dunkirk would have gone a great deal of the way in securing the western front, equating that with an automatic W on invading Britain is not a step I would take as a given. Ditto taking Moscow as a death knell for Russia. Make no mistake, Hitler made a great number of blunders, some incredibly large – but again,we’re looking at it in hindsight. We could say the same about any time, any place, any conflict.

Third thought: the author spends a lot of time on the same points, over and over. In one instance (the exact memory of which escapes me, as I just did tick marks on the repetition) I saw the same point repeated five different times. We get it. ABC was a mistake, undoing the “luck” Hitler had back in year YYYY. The point was made, move on.

The result is a book that at times reads a bit like a student giving a presentation. Fair play to the author for writing the thing, but it could have done with some editing.

And a much better title.

Two out of five stars. Sorry, author, not for me.

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

Review: A Judge in Auschwitz: Konrad Morgen’s Crusade Against SS Corruption & ‘Illegal’ Murder (Kevin Prenger)

I’m not certain I’ve ever read about such a self-serving, morally corrupt, pretend good deed doer, and fantasist that eclipsed even The Former Guy as I did in this book.

Konrad Morgen – yet another Nazi who fails to meet the Aryan ideal the Nazis themselves decided was the untermensch – was a lawyer in Germany during WWII. While he claims not to have joined the Nazi party voluntarily, it’s clear he did, as otherwise he would not have been consistently promoted as he was, and he certainly would never have been in the SS.

Eventually. Morgen is tasked with rooting out corruption in the SS, which only makes sense if you’re a completely twisted jackass. Most of what was deemed corruption dealt with stealing from the luggage left behind by Jews and other “undesirables” and the absurdly termed “illegal killing” – that is, killing inmates outside the defined policies under which the camp operated. While I can see how the Nazis would be able to separate the two, it makes my brain hurt to do so.

Morgen bounces around from camp to camp: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other camps, investigating any thievery or murders. He is, as one might surmise, astonishingly ineffective at bring many people up on charges: those people are transferred, or deemed necessary to do the heinous work they do, or have powerful friends like Himmler to step in for them. Like some of the camps (Thereisenstatd, for instance) this investigatory thing into the SS was, in my opinion, a show: an act put on so that people would see the SS was bound to certain policing, just like anyone else. Except it isn’t policing if you’re investigating yourself, and there are few charges and fewer punishments involved.

There is one documented death sentence handed out from his investigation, involving the commandant of Buchenwald, Karl Koch. Koch’s sadist and equally evil wife was also found guilty, but face no serious punishment for her part.

Morgen lays claim to attempting to charge a slew of other people, from Eichmann to Dirlewanger to Mengele, but there seems to be no “there” there, as he claims his investigations suffered interference at all turns. Shocker.

The most outlandish of Morgen’s claims, however, come after he war. As he is questioned by the military tribunal and testifies at various trials, Morgen paints himself not only as a paragon of justice – he tried to stop the thefts of items that now belonged to the Reich and tried to stop the so-called illegal killings and use of the punishment bunkers in the camps! – but also someone working inside the system to stop the Holocaust itself.

What he was in reality: someone with delusions of grandeur and a serious worker of the tribunal system, on one hand throwing other defendants under the bus, while on the other insisting that he was within the law to ignore the mass murders that were policy at that time.

It’s a sometimes infuriating read, and shares a lot in common with books about con wo/men in any sort of setting. It may also make you want to punch Nazis. If you’re already in great favor of punching Nazis, as I am, this will simply bolster that feeling.

Five out of five stars.

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

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.