Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Media: Selling Hitler,

NB: This is another of my occasional archival posts, originally written ages ago and posted elsewhere. But it came to mind as I was reading and reviewing Tim Heath's recently published, Hitler's Housewives, as I wondered (or rather worried) about the author's unverifiable sources.

This short 5 episode series tells of the highly intriguing affair of 'the Hitler diaries'. Bought by a credulous and over zealous German reporter with a Nazi fixation, and sold to Stern magazine (and beyond), they were endorsed by handwriting analysts and even some historians, but forensics eventually proved them to be fakes.

It's a strange thing, in a way, knowing the outcome before you see the story unfold. But the drama is in the desire to believe, which grows exponentially the more money and faith is invested. The acting is good, with a strong cast filled with both the well and the lesser known of British acting at the time, headed up by Jonathan Pryce, who's excellent as Gerd Heidemann, the Stern reporter nicknamed 'the bloodhound', whose nose for a good story, whilst not quite failing him altogether, certainly leads him astray.

Some pretty big guns, like Tom Baker & Richard Wilson are great as other journalists, some supportive some sceptical. Alan Bennett is very enjoyable as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Roger Lloyd-Pack makes a credible David Irving, whilst Alison Doody is suitably siren-like and enchanting as the rather air-headed air-stewardess wife of Heidemann. Barry 'Dame Edna' Humphries is convincing as hard nosed mogul Rupert Murdoch, and we even get to see a very young Peter Capaldi.

Alexei Sayle plays Konrad 'Connie' Kujau, a former petty criminal turned dealer in Nazi-memorabilia. Discovering he could turn his artistic skills into large sums of cash by forging pretty much anything his shifty but eager clients wanted, this ultimately leads him to fake a growing collection of 'Hitler diaries', which he feeds to Heidemann. Sayle is an aptly ironic and intriguing choice for this role, which he plays pretty close to the knuckle in terms of comedy (almost lapsing into farce), given the combo of his personal left-radical leanings and Jewish ancestry.

Selling Hitler aired in '91, but looks and feels very '80s (exhibit A: Peter Capaldi's hair!). On the whole this is fine, and quite interesting in itself. But there's one moment where the full horror of the worst of the '80s asserts itself, when Heidemann and his wife go on a shopping spree with his ill-gotten gains; thus brief episode is set to an appallingly awful slice of electro-pop. It was very difficult to watch that mercifully brief scene! Fortunately it was a one-off.

Much of the filming appears to have been done on location in Germany, which helps make it look authentic, and there are mocked up bits of newsreel footage (spliced with genuine stuff) that relate to the backstory of the plot. There are also some bizarre pseudo-Wagnerian moments, complete with near surreal '80s style 'video montage' effects. The titles also betray a slightly comic edge.

All in all, this is an odd package. Mostly played quite straight, it nonetheless has occasional undertones of comedy. This, and the surreal Wagnerian stuff, conspires to make it feel somewhat uneven. But it tells a very interesting story, and even has a strange period charm. Definitely well worth watching.

Book Review: Hitler's Housewives, Tim Heath

This is the second book I've read by Tim Heath. The first was Creating Hitler's Germany. He's also written Hitler's Girls, Women of the Third Reich and In Hitler's Shadow. As can readily be seen from the titles alone, they all share certain themes, chiefly around women and the home front.

Both of the Heath books I've read so far are overwhelmingly made up of extensive quotes, attributed to personal correspondents, with fairly minimal connecting material from the author. My biggest issue at present, something I flagged after reading/reviewing Creating Hitler's Germany, and I feel even more strongly now, having just read Hitler's Housewives, is his sources. 

Most history books - especially those by professional/academic historians - are, and rightly so, painfully scrupulous about making their sources clear. In any field of history this is, I feel, crucial. Otherwise it could either be, at the worst, all made up (remember the whole 'Hitler Diaries' fiasco?), or, and still not right, 'sexed up'.

And it's this possibility - very literally in this case (the erotic elements of numerous accounts are one of several things that have raised my suspicion antennae; other things include English vernacular in alleged WWII-era German diaries, technical or historical info that sounds more 'military buff' than German housewife, etc.) - that casts a shadow over these works. 

The narrative content, if genuine, is fascinating. And work on the domestic/home front, the female experience of WWII, and the minutiae of everyday life under extreme circumstances are all welcome. But for me the issue of verifiable sources is a serious stumbling block.

In conclusion: a potentially useful and interesting addition to WWII historical literature, especially so in that it shows aspects of these events often ignored or glossed over. But with the significant caveat that the authors' sources cannot, at present, be verified.


As far as I'm aware, other and more readily credible historians who rely heavily on firsthand accounts cite sources that can somehow be verified. I'm not sure if there's a standard process, but I gather (from other reading) that most countries have numerous bodies whose roles include the collection and archiving of historical testimonies. Whether or how such bodies vet such materials is beyond my ken, at present. 

I would imagine that authors seeking to meet standard forms of professional historical credibility would be expected to submit any new materials they unearth in their researches to such archives. Without such fact-checking procedures authors would be free to make stuff up with relative impunity. I'm not saying Heath is creating works of pure fiction. Only that the reader should be aware that without any means to verify sources the material needs to be viewed with a degree of circumspection.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review: The Americans, from the Ardennes to VE Day, Brooke S. Blades

This is the third and final instalment of what is now a trilogy, by American author Brook Blades, covering the Americans in NW Europe during WWII (I've posted a review of the first part here). The best thing about this book, as befits an Images of War title, is the rich and varied selection of photographs.

Troops of 399th Inf, 100th Div, entrenched near Bitche, France, Dec, '44.

The text is perfectably serviceable. But, as with many titles in the Images of War series, it's a data-heavy compression of large amounts of info, making for rather dry and not easily memorable reading. Chapters titles convey what is covered: The Winter Offensive (i.e. the Battle of the Bulge, part one); The Ardennes Winter (or Bulge, part two); Advance to the Rhine; Varsity (the Allied crossings of the Rhine); The Allies in Germany; Aftermath.

One of the more familiar images in the book.

There are also a few maps covering key events. But it's the photographs - and more than usual notice is given to the photographers who took these amazing shots - that are the stars in this book. Although I did recognise a good many images here that I've seen before elsewhere, given how much I've read and viewed on this theatre, the amount of new and unfamiliar photographic documentation presented here is, to me, very exciting and impressive. 

As a putative wargamer I particularly love the occasional aerial photos, of which there are a decent number. These really help convey something of the mix of strategic and tactical reality, as 'played' out in the real world. As well as many portrait like shots, and behind the lines stuff, there are a good deal of images captured on ornear the sharp end. And - one of my favourite types of scenario - there are a good deal of images of the logistical chain, from ammo and fuel-dumps to troops en-route, and equipment (particularly impressive are the rows of planes and gliders preparing for Varsity) being prepared for combat.

One of a number of interesting aerial photographs.

The main focus, as signalled by the title, is on Americans and their stuff. Next in order of coverage come their adversaries, the Germans. British and Canadian allies also appear, but less so, and chiefly in areas - such as after the messy aerial drops of Varsity - where they worked together, whether by chance or design.

The several photos of the paratroop deployments of Varsity, with their many planes and the almost ack-ack looking smatterings of parachutes, very densely concentrated, are amazing. This is one of the best in this excellent if occasionally rather variable, quality wise, series - by which I'm referring to IoW, as opposed to Blades' trilogy. Whilst I know I've got and have reviewed part one of this trilogy, this third and final volume is so good I feel I must ensure I also have volume two!

Cpl. Hood works to prevent trench-foot, near Bastogne, Jan, '45.

So, all in all, a fascinating and compelling resource, whose text covers the period as concisely and as thoroughly as could be wished for in a book mostly devoted to imagery. And in terms of the pictures, another exemplary addition to the Images of War series. Highly recommended. here

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Book Review: Holocaust, Stephen Wynn

This short and easy to read account of the holocaust is, I think, really very good. It's not your typical bloated academic heavyweight tome; worthy but nigh on unreadable. Put together by author (and former policeman) Stephen Wynn, it's refreshingly brief, drawing on a very small number of sources, but still covering quite a lot. 

Over 18 chapters he ranges from pre-war Nazi beginnings, very briefly looking at the roots of anti-Semitism in Germany at that time, and then building to the formulation of the 'final solution' at the infamous Wannsee Conference, in '42, chaired by the equally infamous Reinhard Heydrich..

Various 'Operations', most of the major concentration camps (and mention of many subsidiary ones), and such sub topics as Einsatzgruppen, and female guards, are all covered, before the book looks at contemporary news of the events and ponders how much and what/when the allies learned.

The book ends with Wynn saying 'It cannot and must not ever happen again'. Well, amen to that. But in my view Brexit, Trump, Bojo and co. bode ill for political stability in our times, with their cheap openly xenophobic populism. But back to the book: as a quick and easy introduction to a vast much covered subject, this is a lively and engaging read.  

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Book Review: The Sniper Anthology, Various.

Subtitled Snipers of the Second World War, ten different authors contribute ten short biographies of snipers of WWII. This appears to be a paperback reissue of a hardback that first published by Pelican in 2012.

Many of us will be aware of Vassili Zeitsev and Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, from movies like Enemy at The Gates and Battle for Sevastopol, which portray the two aforementioned Soviet sharpshooters. The intro and back cover blurb of this book admit that snipers haven't traditionally been exactly celebrated, except at the time and by the countries, and even then chiefly the armies, of the countries that they served. This appears to be changing somewhat, perhaps especially thanks to movies such as those mentioned above, and others more contemporary movies like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper.

I have to confess that I don't like the whole idea of snipers. Older fashioned modes of fighting wars, even if in actual practice they might be as or more barbaric as any other form or era of combat, in theory at least often subscribed to a kind of warrior code; enemies would meet and fight face to face. I recall being troubled by many scenes in the films mentioned above, in particular one where German troops are picked off as they celebrate Christmas around a campfire.

In fact I have to lay my cards on the table, and state that, whils I understand that in war one it I shall wise to always seek surprise and the advantage, etc, the kind of killing typical in sniping is just much too close to serial murder for me. This I shall especially so because the 'prey' is human, as opposed to the hunting of game, with which it is often compared or equated, and from which - especially in the past - experiences many snipers derived their expertise. 

Simo Häyhä.

Still, as 'war is all hell', really (and to quote an ACW general whose name momentarily escapes me), I can't pretend that I'm not still interested in this rather more cold-blooded m.o. And admitting as much, let's move on to the book under review!

At the time of posting this review I've only read forty percent of the book, i.e.four of the ten chapters. The first in the book, and the first I read, tells of Simo Häyhä, the Finnish sniper said to have killed at least 500 Russians, perhaps as many as 800, in just 100 days. His career of killing was cut short by a gunshot wound to the face, that saw him invalided out of the war. Unlike the many young men he stealthily slaughtered, he lived to the ripe old age of 92, apparently losing no sleep over the impressively sanguine butcher's bill he dealt his Soviet adversaries. 

Next I read chapter eight, on German sniper, or Scharfschützen, Sepp Allerberger. This was interesting enough, although it left me wishing there was also a chapter on Matthäus Hetzenauer,  Alleberger's fellow German sniper, with the highest tally of the German armed forces. But I see that there's a whole book devoted to the latter, so I might read that at some point. I also read chapter two, on Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, aka 'The Most Dangerous Woman on Earth' as the chapter's subtitle has it.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Thus far the most recent chapter I've read was the final one - and this is definitely the sort of anthology one can dip into or cherry-pick as one pleases - on British sniper Harry Furness.  I found this both the most interesting and also the best written of all the chapter story I've read so far. It was also the one on a subject I knew the least about, making it more interesting and exciting.

My overall verdict on this book at this point - admittedly still in the process of reading it - is that it's certainly a useful addition to one's WWII library, perhaps of particular interest to gun-nuts like my pal Paul? It's not exactly exhaustive, or even that in-depth, despite some of the claims made to that effect in the promo blurb on the cover and elsewhere. The writing is of a variable quality, but all (so far) perfectly serviceable, if not always exciting or inspiring. All told, a solid introductory level primer on an interesting if perhaps rather specialist subject.

The only picture of Harry Furness I could find!*

* Pavlichenko, on the other hand? There are tons of pics of her.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Book Review: The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age, Mark Jessop

I think this is a really rather excellent if somewhat odd or unusual book. What's excellent is the density of information, and the vivid evocation of the era. It's how he achieves the latter that makes it odd and unusual. 

Modern writing on such subjects tends to be either factual or fictional (at least in declared intent). A deliberate mixing of the two, as here, is a rare thing these days. At least in my reading experience. As such, it takes a bit of getting used to. What author Mark Jessop does is intersperse - usually at the start or finish of a chapter - fictionalised scenarios with the more traditional historical meat of the book.

Initially wary of such an approach, I both think and feel - and that's an important point, this rather unusual approach definitely appeals to the feelings as much as the intellect (quite a refreshing thing!) - that it's sufficiently well done to have won me over. It's definitely 'mannered', so to speak. But it's also highly effective at bringing the subject vividly to life.

Having read this I feel inclined to seek out other writings by the author. Naval doings are not my primary area of interest for this period. But well written books such as this are definitely helping me develop a nascent taste for the briny sagas of this colourful 'age of sail', when sea power was key to England punching well above her apparent weight. 

Since initially posting this review I've learned that this is actually part two of, or a follow up to, another similar book by Jessop, entitled The Royal Navy 1793–1800, Birth of a Superpower, also by Pen & Sword, and written in the same style. My only real criticism of this second part is the lack of a glossary, which for a landlubber like me would've been helpful.

A fascinating subject, well served by an erudite and imaginative author. Great stuff!

Friday, 29 November 2019

Book Review: Glasgow Museums, The Ship Models

Wow... What an incredible book!

This chunky near square deluxe hardback coffee-table type book is a thing of incredible beauty. Both as an object in itself - chock-full of richly coloured beautifully crisp photographs of stunning models - and for what it documents. Since this arrived a couple of days ago I've lost myself repeatedly in awe and wonder, simply perusing the fabulous images. I've only skimmed small portions of the text, so I won't say anything for now about that aspect. Visually this deserves ten stars. It's simply jaw-droppingly stunning.

According to the books subtitle, A History and Complete Illustrated Catalogue, it covers the entire collection, making it not only enchantingly seductive, but fabulously complete and comprehensive. The ship models in the collection cover an impressive range: from models depicting the 'age of sail', including some amazing creations crafted by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, through all manner of vessels, from the enormous and/or ornate, to the small, simple and humble. From skiffs and tugs to Noah's Ark (!?) and huge models of modern vessels. From rudimentary half-hulls, to staggeringly detailed ships.

If you love ship models, which to me encapsulate so many things, from the strange but compelling desire we have to make miniature representations of our inventions, to the almost fairytale romance and sublime/terrifying awe of our relationships with the elemental seas, this is an essential publication. Beautifully produced, an honourable homage to the vast expenditure of skill and passion that the objects it depicts represents. Awesome is a much overused and devalued term nowadays. But it really does fit the bill here.

A lot of books of this ilk are shamefully overpriced. At £35 this is actually fair, and good value. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Book Review: Early Jet Bombers, 1944-1954, Leo Marriott (Images of War)

If I'm completely honest it's only the German part of this that really interests me. They lead the way, and had the funkiest ideas and gear. But here you also get info and pics on British, French, US and Russian stuff. 

Because the Germans were in a too little too late scenario, that's kind of reflected here: after brief mention of prop powered bombers such as the Do-17, He-111 and the rarer He-177, there's just a few pics each and basic info on the Arado 234, the better known Me-262, and the Ju-287. 

It's a pity there isn't more on the Ar-234 (which stars on the cover). And some mention of the myriad unrealised German ideas would've been nice, in particular the Ho-229, which was at least being built. These latter projects would feed into postwar jet work for other nations, the US and Russia in particular. 

The text is minimal, but clear and informative, the pictures, all black and white, are fairly interesting. A useful reference book depicting the shift from the prop to the jet age in warfare.