§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I finished Go Set a Watchman and it's a much better book than I anticipated. The early chapters were boring because they cataloged life in a small town in the South in the 50ies. All except the racial stuff would characterized the small town in Iowa where I grew up in the 50ies. I'm younger than Lee, was still a child growing up in the 50ies. I found that world ideal for a child but as I grew up I knew I didn't want to play a female role in that sort of world. Clearly Jean Louise had similar feelings.

But the conflict arises when she see her father in a meeting of a Citizen's Committee which had pretty racist intentions. But it's not just that Atticus was a racist. I thought maybe he was really a different character in this book when I heard of many reader's disillusionment reading it. But that is not the case. Atticus is the same person. He's just seen in a more realistic light in this book. To Kill a Mockingbird is a fable and a lovely one and obviously it's spoken to generations of Americans, but it is a fable where the important issues are highlighted and grim reality is held off. Good and bad stand out clearly. But childhood must end, and the acceptance of Boo Radley represents a kind of growing up for the children, or at least a step on the way.

But Go Get a Watchman is a different kettle of fish. It becomes an ugly clash of generations. Jean Louise thinks she's following her father's lead in absolutely turning her back on the South's persistent racism. So when Atticus seems to be as racist as the rest of them, she is horrified, gets physically sick after sneaking into the balcony to watch the meeting. 

When she confronted her father she was hysterical and nasty, feeling like her whole upbringing had been a lie, the basis of her life undermined, her father who seemed so good, now irretrievably evil. It was her uncle, the doctor/scholar brother of Atticus, who takes her in hand. His arguments are, in part, that a leading lawyer in town has to participate because part of his role is to moderate, to lead in the town but actually to be a voice for moderation in racial situations which could quickly get doctrinaire and dangerous. But his basic argument is that Jean Louise has to "grow up" and stop idolizing her father. For most children that process happens slowly and uneventfully. For Jean Louise, she's already 26 and realization is devastating. I thought it was handled very well actually but for that reason, I too think the book is likely a fictional autobiography.

You can argue till the cows come home whether moving slowly on racial justice in the South was better than being dragged kicking and screaming into actual equality of the races (which of course as we see now has still not really happened). I don't think that's the main point of the book. The main point was the very painful jerk Jean Louise got when she finally recognized her father as just another fallible human being.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story Of Survival During The War In The Far East by Alistair Urquhart

I read this book for two reasons. I'd been reading another book about prisons in WWII (Ravensbruck) and I was curious about the background for Richard Flanagan's THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH which is one of the best novels I've read recently and the main character of which was an Australian Army doctor who was in a prison camp building the railroad in Thailand. I wanted to read a memoir of someone who'd actually been there.

This was an excellent memoir, written by a hear 90-year-old who'd not talked about the war much since he returned home to Aberdeen in late 1945 after six years serving with the Gordon regiment, 3 and a half years of which he'd spent in Japanese prisons. He was imprisoned first in Singapore in 1942, and then was transported in a railroad car packed with fellow prisoners to Thailand and then marched through the jungle for days to work on the railroad. Many died in the railroad cars but the march through the jungle was indeed a "death march". The prisoners had to build their own huts. They never got more than a measure of rice and some water once a day, rice full of weevils and other stuff. Their clothes deteriorated (most tragic was losing his boots) and thereafter they went naked or with loin cloths only. He managed to stay alive to "keeping his head down" as far as possible and concentrating on survival. When he came down the cholera he was evacuated to a prison hospital which was like heaven especially since he met a doctor who helped him recover. Then it was off to the river Kwai to build the bridge, a situation orders of magnitude more dire than in the movie. From there he was evacuated by sea (thousands of men locked in the hold of a ship). The ship was torpedoed (because the Japanese put red crosses on arms shipments but not on hospital or POW ships), and he spent several days alone on the sea (which he barely survived after ingesting salt water and crude oil from a tanker sunk in the encounter too) then to another ship which took him to Japan, a camp near Nagasaki where eventually he was blown down by a whoosh from the atomic bomb and marched out through radio active waste when rescued by American forces. 

The details are horrendous and generally understated so doubly believable. An important witness for events we knew had happened but need to remember. Incidentally he mentioned an heroic Australian doctor who may have been the model for Flanagan's character. Not someone he met, but he later found out the Australians went to the railroad building camp after the Brits.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Ravensbrűck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm

First published in 2014 in the UK where the title was If This is a Woman
First of all the UK title comes from Primo Levi’s book If This is a Man (often titled Survival In Auschwitz in the US:
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember
Her eyes empty and he womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.

This is a remarkable book and not only because the author tells a part of the German concentration camp story that’s not generally know. I’ve read a lot about  WWII (not at all an expert mind you) and before reading this book knew only the name of the camp and that it was for women.

What’s most remarkable about this book is the characters that she manages to bring to life, the women who lived this nightmare primarily but also the women who were their guards and doctors, the SS men who ran Ravensbrűck and its satellite camps, and the various people and organizations who form part of its story: Himmler who planned and managed all the camps, and the Swede, Bernadotte, the only one who actually mobilized to save any of the millions in the camps. (The military, American, British and Soviet armies overran camps on their way to Berlin and certainly offered freedom and succor to the inhabitants, but there was no other effort to save those in the camps, even toward the end of the war when Hitler’s orders were to kill all the inhabitants of the camps, burn them down and plow them under before they could be captured by the enemy. Eisenhower said he could help those prisoners best by military defeat of Germany. His attitude was that of all the Allies.)
Many people don’t realize that prisoners in Hitler’s concentration camps had a “different status” from those in POW camps where generally men were not made slave laborers or starved or denied communication with the outside world (their relatives were notified they were POWs and they had a right to receive aid packages, etc.). There were no rules governing concentration camps…none except Hitler’s rules.

Ravensbrűck was unique among Hitler’s camps in that it was experimental, a camp for women, built in 1939 in Mecklenburg near the town of Furstenberg. If you have Google Earth search for Ravensbrűck Memorial and you’ll see the remains of the camp with even some of the barracks still standing. Near of beautiful lake—it was a vacation spot—east of Hamburg in what became East Germany. It was intended as something of a “model camp”.

The new camp had buildings like other camps: an Appellplatz (square where prisoners assembled for roll calls) a revier, or infirmary, and an Effectskammer or prisoner’s clothes store. (The latter held the belongings of those who died or were killed and was the only source of clothes for the living.) The camp had electrified fences (with enough power to kill a person trying to scale them) but no watchtowers or gun emplacements like the men’s camps. Flowers, red salvias, were planted alongside the first row of barracks. Some ex-prisoners were to hate the sight of red salvias in their afterlives….

The first 867 prisoners entered Ravensbrűck in May of 1939 (there would be several hundred thousand at the end of the war, many not even processed, as prisoners were moved hastily from places further east, many ill and starving or worn out from forced marches). They were divided into groups: asocials (prostitutes, beggers, lesbians, petty criminals, gypsies, mentally ill or retarded people, etc), political prisoners who were mostly Communists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews were divided into political and non-political. Political Jews were usually those arrested for Rassenschande (polluting the race by having relations with non-Jews).

There were many Germans in the prison who were not Jews, a fact which is sometimes ignored, but all the categories Hitler wanted out of Germany were there as well in later years as women who citizen Hitler or the regime. Among the foreigners, the different groups tended to stay together. Among the most close-knit were the Russians, many of whom were actually in the Red Army as nurses, doctors, even foot soldiers. The closeness of the Russian group and the wisdom of their leader gained them some points in negotiating with their captors. The Poles were the next largest group, but there were also many Austrians, Czechs and others. When the American army was poised to take Paris, the Gestapo transported all its prisoners east, the women to Ravensbrűck. Most were arrested for working with the Resistance, but there were some SOE women from the UK and at least one American who had helped get stranded pilots out of Framce/

The book opens with Johanna Langefeld inspecting the site. Langefeld is the first of many women Helm brings to life. An experienced prison guard, she was to be the Oberaufseherin  (head female guard).We see her as excited about an experimental project at first. Then we see her later through the prisoner’s eyes, not exactly a nourishing type of person but generally decent. Later we see her when she’s transferred to Auschwitz and is unable to tolerate the degree of cruelty. Then we see her back at Ravensbrűck only to find much of what she hated at Auschwitz. Finally we see her on trial and in 1957 we see her knocking on the door or an ex-prisoner trying to explain herself.

I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 were characterized in some detail and followed through their lives, including before and after the camp. Though there were not an after for many. 50 or 60 other woman are also presented so that we not only associate them with the part they played in the story of Ravensbrűck but as people, with pasts and in some cases futures, with likes and dislikes and problems, illnesses, talents and peculiarities. And friendships—there were a lot of friendships especially among women who were long-term prisoners, evidently considerably more than in men’s camps.

One case would be that of 15-year old Krysia Czyz . She was one of about 75 “rabbits” (kännchen is the German word; we’d call them guinea pigs), young and fit girls from Lublin in Poland who were singled out for possible medical experimentation by Dr. Karl Gebhardt. Of those actually experimented on, some died of the operations performed on them, other died later and still others, including Kysia, lived through many transports (when a prisoner was selected for transport it usually meant to be killed. At first they were sent away to mental hospitals elsewhere in Germany—where Hitler had arranged to experiment with gassing as a way of killing large numbers of people—but later they were sent to the “Youth Camp” adjoining Ravensbrűck where they might be starved to death, left to die because they were already ill, or shot. Eventually Ravensbrűck got its own gas chamber.)

The Polish prisoners were allowed to correspond with family, though the letters were severely censored. Krysia came up with a plan to write in urine between the lines of her letters home, telling her family what had been done to her and others and asking them to contact anyone they can in London (remember there was an interim Polish government in exile at the time). Krysia’s daughter was eventually able to give the author a copy of one of those letters.

I recommend this book highly. It is not a depressing read. Any book where bad things happen is much less likely to be “depressing” if you understand something of the individuals involved. That is this author’s genius, to dig in, which was not easy nearly 70 years after the end of the war, and give faces and characters to the people involved.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Venice:A New History by Thomas F Madden

Picked this up on a whim and was initially bored: too many dates, not enough people. But I really got into it. The author argues that Venice was not the oligarchy most have assumed because there were no hereditary rulers but an elected Doge whose sons could not inherit his position. Elections were carried out by an elaborate series of committees working one after another, organized in such a way that no one person could either dominate or or form a clique to so. Furthermore there were multiple ways in which common people could work themselves into the governing bodies so Venice was not just a rich man's empire. And there was no nobility.

Venice, which during much of its existence  was an empire including much territory in what is now northern Italy, land across the Adriatic, islands like Crete, even Constantinople at one point, was primarily a business and made decisions deliberately and with both eyes to the future. Venice's business was ship building and trading, mostly around the Med. But you remember Marco Polo? He was the younger son of a wealthy Venetian merchant to traveled to China and later when he languished in jail during one of the wars with Genoa, he wrote about it.

Venetians were sailors and businessmen who governed themselves without a King or Sultan and whose government lasted longer than Rome. It was Napoleon who shut it down in the name of the ideals of the French Revolution and demanded it release all its political prisoners (there were now). 

This is a very upbeat history  (biog.)  of an empire and a city and it ends with a plea for preservation (and hopes for fewer tourists and cruise ships). I'm no specialist in the history of this region, but I enjoyed the book enormously.

The book is pretty new, published in 2012.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Truly a book which straddles the fence between a novel and a memoir,and succeeds brilliantly in my opinion. A memoir doesn't always have a central idea or theme and this one really does: his mother's suicide and coming to terms with it, a process in which I suspect this book played an important part. We learn relatively early that his mother committed suicide when he was 12 and that as soon as he could get away, he left his father and joined a Kibbutz to be another kind a Jew in Israel, not a bookish, intellectual ultra observation with roots in Eastern Europe but an energetic, liberal agricultural worker, the kind who, it seemed to him, was really going to build the new country of Israel. After all his was born in Israel, lived as a child through the war for independence and played on the borders in Jerusalem as a growing boy. He considered Hebrew his native language. He doesn't  say whether he learned Russian but it seems his parents could talk in that language when they didn't want him to understand.

One of the most interesting parts of this European backstory was his mother's school days in a Hebrew school in Rovno, which was first Poland then then Russia (Ukraine). (The government evidently encourage the Hebrew schools, hoping that the Jews would immigrate.) This part is told from the point of view of her younger sister Sonia who almost becomes the author/narrator in this part and brings the reader much closer to this part of Oz's heritage than any other. I found it brilliantly managed.

The early part of the book lays out that Eastern European background which was his heritage, the writers, the intellectuals, the books, the ideas as well as the places and the people. Both sides of the family were Zionists who watched and waited and then immigrated to Israel in the 30ies. One brother of his father chose to stay in Vilnius because he had a good university position and hoped for advancement but then he and his family disappeared in the Holocaust. The family were all relatively poor in Israel and like so many immigrants stuck to their own kind in the new country. (I found the descriptions of Jerusalem and to some extent Tel Aviv where his mother's sisters lived, interesting too since I've never been to Israel.)

Gradually the mother is mentioned more and more but the reader never really understands what happened to her until the very end which is carefully plotted and very emotional—brilliantly sustained suspense and emotion, much more like a novel than a memoir.

I've never read any of Oz's fiction but I probably will now. By the way, in rebelling against his family, he changed his name from Klausner to Oz because it meant powerful, I presume NOT like the Wizard of Oz.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Promised Land: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel by Ari Shavit

Excellent book. Heavy emotional overtones, but the author never promised a straight-forward history. I've been fascinated by Israel for a long time but lately been more and more critical. The Wall is horrifying ( we're building a wall--even here in Texas--to keep the Mexicans out, but I don't like that either and believe both will go the way of the Berlin Wall). Shavit calls Israel now a colonizing power in a age when colonialism's light has gone out. 

The book begins with Shavit's Great Grandfather, a well-to-do English Jew, arrives in Palestine to "scope out" the land as a homeland for the Jews, for the Zionist movement. He and many others recognized that Jews were unwelcome in Europe and though he and many like him had done well in England, the only way to thrive going forward would be to assimilate as many Jews were doing all over Europe already. He foresaw that in a few generations they would intermarry and lose their Jewishness. A Jewish homeland was the answer. The problem was, the problem which started way back there in the 19th century, was that the visiting Jews did not "see" that the land was already occupied, any more than the Conquistadors did not "see" that Peru was already occupied.

It's a powerful image which Shavit comes back to again and again as he both celebrates what the Zionists made of Israel and recognizes that they will not survive unless they deal with the current problems. One is that huge numbers of residents don't contribute to the society. The ultra orthodox Jews who won't even serve in the military and maybe don't pay taxes either (I may be wrong about that). And the Arabs who are a subjugated people in their homeland but who with a different social and governmental structure, would have much to contribute.

What it seemed to me (perhaps naively) was that he seems to think (as any thinking person must) that Israel would work best if all its citizens were equal and contributed to the whole. No walls. No occupied and occupier classes. But at the same time, he can't quite give up the "Jewish state" idea, even as he recognizes that Arabs will outnumber Jews in a few years. I've always thought there was no hope for a two-state solution but one state without walls is another story. Not that Israeli political elite are likely to go in that direction.... Shavit writes this book partly out of frustration because he too sees that.

The Zionists didn't explicitly see The Third Reich coming, but they did feel at a crossroads. And while WWII gave their dream a reality, that reality was not a well-thought-out plan and only because of the utter chaos in Europe at the end of WWII, with millions homeless, and no one ready to step in with the solution, did it become a solution for the displaced Jews of Europe, most of whom would rather have gone somewhere else more urban, more "civilized" had they only been welcome.

Well worth reading.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

First of all I read it in English, The Infatuations, but could not find the translation in English. As contemporary novels go this one is excellent, primarily because it's different. It' said thoughtful, even philosophical novel, not that it's propounding a philosophy but that it encourages the reader to do consider doing so.

At first I thought this was a stupid book, maybe one more love story. 

Aside: I must say that I'm not into fiction that much these days, especially fiction by Anglo women. Clearly a prejudice. I used to think there couldn't be enough books by women. Now I think there are too many and too many alike. I find myself drawn these days, if to fiction, then to fiction of writers who are not Anglo (meaning from the US, Canada, UK or Australia/NZ though I recognize many of those are not Anglo-) A clever plot. Well written. So what?

Back to The Infatuations. Written by a man with a female narrator. A Spanish man.
Maria, the main character, begins by talking about the "perfect couple" she sees every morning as she sits in the coffee shop before going to work. They are both good looking and seem genuinely wrapped up in each other. Well dressed, the kind of people she knows. She doesn't really know anything about them but she envies them.

Then she finds out that the man (Miguel and his wife is Luisa) was killed in a terrible attack where he was stabbed many times and must have suffered considerably. 

A scene in Luisa's house where they go after they've introduced themselves in the coffee shop and Maria wants to be helpful to Luisa: While Maria is there some friends stop by, a professor and another man, Javier, to whom she is instantly attracted. He's introduced as Miguel's best friend and clearly he's trying to help Luisa recover and take care of her home and children.

Then Maria starts an affair with Javier who makes it clear he's always been in love with Luisa and intends to marry her when she gets over the death of her husband. Maria really cares about him but tries to remain detached because she's convinced he's "taken".

Up to this point I don't see much hope for this novel. Where can it go from here? Some domestic, romantic tale? I hope not. It's a book group book and I already feel guilty because I refused to read the selection before (and I'm supposed to the the group leader).

Back to the plot: Maria is at Javier's apartment and they've fallen asleep after lovemaking. The doorbell rings and Javier gets up, assuming she's still asleep. He closes the bedroom door but she's curious so, without letting him know she's awake, she overhears some of the conversation. Enough to assume that Javier instituted the murder of his best friend whose wife he adores.

From this point on the story becomes a philosophical one, focusing on love and friendship and guilt and honor and loyalty. At this point I realize that we've moved from a plot driven novel to one that has another dimension, And at first I don't know what to make of it. Maria finds it hard to believe that Javier can actually have committed murder, or hired someone to do it, let alone such a vicious murder. But she doesn't know him that well.... 

So I'm hooked. At least it's not another so sincere but boring romantic tale. I recommend it. Not a long book. You'll enjoy it.

Harder to explain is this aversion I seem to have to most fiction these days. Maybe it's my age. I've heard so many readers  say that they read less and less fiction as they grow older, even though they still read a lot. That seems to be happening to me. Mostly I want to read history and let one book lead me to another, not read what the book groups want me to read. 

The best novels I've read lately (Chimamanda Ngozi's Americanah and Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son) take me into worlds I don't know, haven't experienced. I love the romance in each of them though romance is not the point of either. So I'm not down on romance per se and none of the novels I don't want to read would be classified as romance novels anyway....

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

My only complaint about Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, is that it ends too soon. That's saying a lot for a 900 page book! But I'd have been happy for it to go on in great detail instead of wrapping up the lives of the major figures relatively quickly after the election of 1912

Goodwin has made a career about writing about American Presidents in the context of the people and ideas of their own time: FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and the homefront in WWII, Lincoln and his “team of rivals” and now the earlier Roosevelt and William Howard Taft as well as S. S. McClure, his magazine and the journalists who would become known as the “muckrackers” (originally a perjorative term used by Roosevelt himself but later a badge of honor for the first and maybe the greatest investigative journalists: Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White).

I was completely engaged by this book which is not a full biography of either President, though at the beginning Goodwin reviews their early lives and that of their wives, but by the end—which is really when the two ex-Presidents made up their quarrel after the explosive and nasty presidential campaign of 1912 where Taft, the sitting President ran for the Republicans, the progressive Wilson (maybe the next President I want to read a bit about) ran for the Democrats, and Teddy Roosevelt ran for a new Progressive Party which he founded—I wanted more. The “bully pulpit” story was over but I'd have listened to more than a single chapter wrapping up the lives of all the characters. (Indeed a whole other book has been written about Roosevelt's trip to The River of Doubt in search of the source of the Amazon.)

The title is significant because Roosevelt was the President who first used his office as a pulpit to raise and “preach” about issues of fairness and concern for all citizens. And “bully” of course was his signature comment on anything he liked. He wanted to break the power of the party bosses and institute popular primaries in all states and to control the power of monopolies like Standard Oil which were controlling their own costs by deals which left small business and the general public at a distinct disadvantage. Enter Ida Tarbell, a remarkable woman, now remembered primarily for her exhaustive study of how Standard Oil controlled the railroads and of course the price of oil. Born in Pittsburgh, with a father who worked in the industry, she made it her life's work to investigate and write about how big corporations used their power and influence to disadvantage everyone else. She was a talented writer who could tackle any subject, including a biography of Napoleon which McClure wanted.
She and her colleagues became allies of Roosevelt, first as governor of New York and later as President as he worked to control the power of corporations, even at the considerable risk of alienating fellow Republicans.

The Republican Party was the source of “progressive-ism” (which I theorize got passed to the Democrats maybe about the time of Wilson who defeated both Roosevelt and Taft in 1912 with a pretty progressive platform).

Taft was a president I knew practically nothing about: he was so fat he wouldn’t fit into the White House bathtub and his son, Robert Taft, was a presidential contender when I was a child and first paid attention to politics. In reality, Taft, who grew up in Cincinnati, was a very interesting man, likeable, hardworking, effective, and congenial. He trained as a lawyer and was 100% dedicated to the law, including how to use the law to benefit the people and predatory corporations. He had a successful legal career, was appointed to the Federal Bench for his district and eventually came to Washington to work in the Attorney General's office. That's when he met and became very close friends with Theodore Roosevelt who had similar political beliefs and aspirations.

Taft was an exceedingly nice person probably too nice Goodwin and many others before her have concluded, to be President. And he never wanted to become President. He was smart and ambitious, but his goal was the Supreme Court, not the White House and in the end that's where he ended up as a very successful Chief Justice, after a rather unsuccessful presidency. And he quarreled seriously with Roosevelt, or rather Roosevelt quarreled with him. Taft was not a contentious person.

Roosevelt and Taft and SS McClure and the journalists on his magazine shared a set of common beliefs: the need to provide protection and benefits for all citizens, including the working people and the concomitant need to control corporations on behalf of all the people. Goodwin tells their story brilliantly. The book is a biography of all seven, the two presidents and McClure and his four main investigative journalists, how they worked for each other and sometimes against each other, how the journalists communicated with and aided the President on significant issues that paved the way for important legislation in their own time and later: lowering tariffs, controlling corporations, instituting an income tax and eventually providing what we call today a safety net for all citizens.

It's a timely subject with the Republican party, at least its progressive wing, supporting many of the issues we associate with the Democratic party today and with the progressive Republicans working against their conservative wing, even to the extent of splitting the party and creating a third party. Had it been anyone other than Teddy Roosevelt who was not really interested in a party per se but in getting elected so he could continue his work, that third party might have been successful. It was joined by many of those who felt disaffected by the current establishment, including among others those agitating for women's sufferage.... But Roosevelt was virtually out of control and though his causes were worthy ones and he attracted many followers, he was, in this compaign, mostly bombast and rhetoric (his slogan was “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”) He did nothing but use the “bully pulpit” and when he failed, the party did. But that's another story....

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A. D. 381 by Charles Freeman

When I was reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I admit I haven't finished), I was struck by the fact that before Christianity, the Romans were completely tolerant of different religions. Every area (city) had its own religion and no one tried to "convert" anyone. And no one claimed that their god ( but there were usually gods—plural) was the one and only and that you'd go to hell if you didn't believe. Freeman shows how Christian leaders in the early centuries fought over doctrinal issues and more or less invented heresy to the extent that the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD made church doctrine into state law for which those who disagreed could be punished, paving the way for religious wars, heresy trials, the Inquisition, etc. The doctrinal issues themselves often seem like how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin issues, issues that were passed on through the centuries, led to the dark ages (where scholarly inquiry and freedom of expression were gone)' and weren't even questioned much by Protestant revolutions.

I think I want to read Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Nuremberg Trial by Ann Tusa and John Tusa

Published in the 80ies, with access to huge archives which included films of the proceedings, this may be the best general interest book on the subject. Not sure. I've only read one other and this was much better. The Tusas are British, he a Czech immigrant who became a BBC news reporter. At first I was a bit put off with the Britishisms (like the "curate's egg") but also because they criticized the American prosecutors and lauded the British...but after awhile I decided they were right. The book is long and detailed and attempts to understand the people involved, the 22 defendants (including Martin Bormann who was never found and presumed dead)  the prosecutors from the US, Britain, France and USSR, the defense attorneys, the witnesses, the judges from the four powers, as well as many others--the jailers, the doctors and psychiatrists, the military officers and men, etc., altogether an enormous cast of characters. And don't forget the press. Inevitably I was having to look up who even major players were and many just faded into other defendants, or other prosecutors, or other judges. 

The US organized the effort and paid for all the facilities, including building a courtroom in the former Nazi Palace of Justice, at a time when building materials were hard to even find in a severely bombed out city. The physical and procedural details were as interesting as the people. Early on there were "Ashcan" and "Dustbin" the two prisons for potential defendants  one of which was in Luxembourg in a former luxury hotel which lead to  news stories about ex-Nazis living in the lap of luxury until the head of the prison organized a visit for the press.  IBM provided the first version of the simultaneous translation system now so critical to the UN and other organizations. A document center wrestled with the HUGE amount of documentary evidence, authenticating documents and getting them copied (photostats I think, there not being other copy technologies available) and distributed, in the correct language (English, French, German, Russian) to often huge numbers of participants.

Because the Germans documented everything and because the Allies captured records on a huge scale, the documents were the main evidence in the trial, witnesses accounting for relatively little impact. There were many legal and philosophical issues to deal with: law procedures that were similar in the US and Britain, but different on the continent. The US wanted to convict the whole gang on "conspiracy to conduct aggressive war" but conspiracy was not a usual charge in the other countries. Each country had pet issues they wanted to prosecute specifically, as did the occupied countries who were not directly represented. Russia wanted to prosecute the Nazis for the Katyn Forest massacre, even as most in the West were pretty sure the Russians had done it themselves.

There were personality clashes. Some lawyers and judges were more interested in developing international laws and precedents—in other words, theory, while others were better at practical matters, say, cross examining the witnesses. The Americans were preoccupied with theory while the British were better prosecutors—in general.  The trial lasted from November 1945 to the end of September 1946. The hangings took place in October (can't remember date; the book could have used a reference timetable). They all lived in nearby makeshift accommodations. They socialized together and lived in a world separate from the bombed out city. Even in long recesses, few could go home. The Americans did not usually travel home though occasionally wives came over. Travel was difficult on the continent so mostly only the Brits got much time at home.

One issue, though, predominated. While Göring sneered that whatever conclusions came out, it would be just "victor's justice", in fact, most agree now that it was a legitimate trial (no show trial). Three (Schacht, von Papen, and Fritsche) were acquitted altogether while five got prison sentences from 10 years to life. The rest were hanged—they even hanged Göring's body after he'd swallowed a cyanide capsule that even today no one is sure where he got. Many Germans were angry that they were not all hanged!

Altogether a very interesting book about a very interesting legal experiment. I highly recommend it.