Category Archives: History

Hemingway at War

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Hemingway at War –
Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent
By Terry Mort
Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton 

Money can be easy to come by, especially and obviously when it’s inherited; integrity is not.

This is a terrific book.

Apart from being very readable and very honest – not to mention flawlessly written – its fifteen chapters take the reader on a perilous journey through wartime Europe, as brought to bear by that equally perilous and utmost of seemingly blokey characters, Ernest Hemingway. Yet even if you’re not into Hemingway, which admittedly I am, it’s the sort of book that’ll have you turning the pages with all the great haste regularity of a curious gazelle.

There again, we are talking about Ernest Hemingway; who not only led one of the most interesting and colourful lives this side of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, but is perhaps someone, many would consider as among the first rock’n’roll writers of his generation. He was after all, married four times, was something of a rebel rouser (to put it mildly) and enjoyed a pint. All of which is painfully, yet marvellously captured throughout Hemingway at War – Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent.

Indeed, so far as Hemingway’s spell as a most reticent reporter during the Second World War is concerned, Terry Mort (whose previous books include The Hemingway Patrols, The Wrath of Cochise and The Monet Murders) has herein left no stone unturned.

The author has unearthed his subject with as much truth, daring and research as is surely possible.

For instance, as the outset of chapter two, Mort touches on Men at War – which Hemingway spent much of 1942 editing and to which he also contributed three selections from his own novels – which, in and of itself, could well trigger an abundance of debate among Hemingway aficionados: ””This book will not tell you how to die.” That is Hemingway being Hemingway, but not the best of him […]. And in what surely is an unintentional visitation of irony, he writes that Mussolini’s bluster and military posing were designed to cover up the fact that he had been fearful, even terrified, during World War I. Surely Hemingway would be enraged to know today that that is almost exactly the criticism that was, and is, levelled at him, in some quarters. Worse, that same criticism is also used to question his sexual identity – does a hairy chest conceal some different needs! He would not have liked that, either. And in fairness, that sort of analysis – the defence mechanism argument – is facile and in some cases has a whiff of agenda-driven criticism. But if you, meaning Hemingway, are going to use it, you cannot be surprised when others do it to you.”

Suffice to say, the above is loaded with what many could well assume to be high-octane ambiguity; especially from the stand-point of ”Mussolini’s bluster” and Hemingway’s chest quite possibly concealing ”some different needs.”

It’s all relative conjecture of course; although in historically literal terms, there is needless to say, no smoke without fire. Or in this particular instance, no cover up without the most boisterous need to both subvert and divert.

Assorted light is further shed on such thinking in chapter eleven, by which time, Hemingway, who was involved in the Liberation of Paris, was staying at the Ritz Hotel. Mort writes of Hemingway having initiated a reunion with his old friend and occasional benefactor, Sylvia Beach. Quoting from her memoir: ””There was still a lot of shooting going on, and we were getting tired of it, when one day a string of jeeps came up the street and stopped in front of my house […]. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while the people in the street cheered.

We went up to Adrienne’s apartment and sat down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake […].”

The author then goes on to (perhaps clarify?) by writing: ”Beach’s account of the meeting suggests strongly that it took place as Hemingway was entering the city. His ”bloody” and ”grimy” appearance does not suggest the appearance of a man who had just spent the night at the Ritz. And you would think he would not need a bar of soap – surely the could Ritz provide that. (Although there were shortages of everything after four years of occupation and rationing).”

The mere fact that Terry Mort writes of such open ended conundrum, is just one aspect of what accounts for Hemingway at War being such a valuable and weighty, if not quasi-inflammatory read.

Naturally, not all of the 263 pages (excluding Introduction, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index) lean toward such supposition, as the following direct Hemingway quotation from a 1958 edition of the Paris Review – one among many – surely substantiates: ”All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last, you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”

It’s not often a book will have one reading on the edge of one’s seat – but hey, this Hemingway. Replete with bluster and braggadocio.

David Marx

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Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism

policy

Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism 
U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015
By Melvyn P. Leffler
Princeton University Press – £32.95

Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit. It’s one thing to be afraid when someone’s holding a shotgun on you, but it’s another thing to be afraid of something that’s just not quite real. There were a lot of folks around who took this threat seriously, though, and it rubbed off on you. It was easy to become a victim of their strange fantasy… When the drill sirens went off, you had to lay under your desk facedown, not a muscle quivering and not make any noise. As if this could save you from the bombs dropping. The threat of annihilation was a scary thing.”

                                                                   Bob Dylan
                                                                   Chronicles, 2004

That the above was written by Bob Dylan in his book, Chronicles (on pages 29/30), should go some way in both dismantling and deciphering the American psyche throughout much of the last century as well as the beginning of the twenty-first. That Dylan is of unquestionably severe intellect, and is rather renowned for his seething honesty, ought further highlight the very substantial link that lies at the heart betwixt American paranoia and its own self-induced perplexity.

After all, the very first part of this book’s title alone (Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism) immediately conveys a troubled, underlying essence of its own design.

The mere fact that U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security has to ”safeguard” it’s very own ”democratic capitalism,” is surely something of a political blight that has burdened North America for many years. Much of the manifestation of which has invariably been ingrained within the very fibre of American thinking. The above opening quote of which is a prime example.

One does need to remember however, that what Dylan professed to, absolutely wasn’t, and still isn’t something to be taken lightly.

It still isn’t something to be merely brushed aside, as if mere words; even if said words, were spoken by one of the most utmost of intellects in the world today. But where Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism – U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015 comes into its own, is its quintessential acknowledgement that what Dylan was saying, still remains at the very core of American psychosis.

And if psychosis – as characterised by an impaired relationship with reality; in other words: a symptom of serious mental disorder – isn’t at the helm of the current American presidency, then I really, really don’t know what is. Neither for that matter, may Melvyn P. Leffler (who, apart from having written For the Soul of Mankind and A Preponderance of Power and is also the Edward Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia), because these eleven chapters rather frustratingly conclude in 2015.

That said, in Chapter Two’s ‘Herbert Hoover, the ”New Era,” and American Foreign Policy, 1921-1929,’ Leffler does have the clarity of literary mind to regale readers with an excerpt from 1921 no less, made by the then Secretary of Commerce, Robert H. van Meter:

”There is nothing that would give such hope of recovery in life and living as to have this terrible burden and menace [arms expenditures] taken from the minds and backs of men. As Secretary of Commerce, if I were to review in order of importance those things of the world that would best restore commerce, I would inevitably arrive at the removal of this, the first and primary obstruction.”

Again, it does need to be remembered that van Mater wrote this (to President Warren G. Harding) in 1921. So is it any wonder that thirty years later, a young Dylan was perpetually being ingrained with the preposterous notion that cowering beneath his school-desk would save him from nuclear annihilation?

The notion of Dylan wanting to ”die in his own footsteps,” as aided and worryingly abetted by American Foreign Policy ever since God knows when, is herein brought to bear amid perhaps some of the finest essays written on the subject in a long time.

As such, these 335 pages (excluding Preface and Index) are, as the author of The World America Made, Robert Kagan, has since said: ”Always provocative, never doctrinaire, and often surprising in its lessons.”

David Marx

Ordinary Jews

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Ordinary Jews –
Choice and Survival during the Holocaust
By Evgeny Finkel
Princeton University Press – £24.95

Killings and seizures for forced labour began in mid-August 1941. Initially the Germans, assisted by Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliary troops and by the Belorussian police, seized males, who were then taken to the central square of the ghetto, beaten, and driven away to an unknown destination. None of them returned home. According to some sources, starting in late August women also were captured. About 5,000 people were caught and later executed during the August round-ups. The first large-scale massacre took place on November 7, 1941, the anniversary of the October Revolution. Ghetto inhabitants knew that something was brewing because skilled craftsmen, professionals and members of the Judenrat were moved to the ”Russian” part of the city on the evening of November 6th. Yet the scale of the killing shocked everyone. Local Jews, building on their historical experience, called it a ”pogrom.” The general assumption was that people would simply be thrown out of their apartments and probably beaten – no one imagined large-scale shootings in which thousands (10,000-12,000 is the estimated number) would perish.

         (‘Setting the Stage’)

Many made desperate attempts to escape when it was perceived as the last chance to survive, sometimes jumping off the trains carrying them to death camps. The vast majority perished, either hit by the moving trains, shot by German guards, betrayed, or killed by local Poles. In March of 1943, George Turlo, a non-Jew, took a train from Bialystok to Warsaw. ”During the first portion [of the journey],” he recalled, ”the train was stopping very often on the rail tracks, and a putrefied smell, stench, was coming from the outside. And I saw the German soldiers pouring the gasoline on some bodies along the track. And somebody told me this was the latest convoy from [the] Bialystok ghetto to…Treblinka. Only a few were lucky enough to survive the jump. Those who did had to navigate a hostile and unfamiliar terrain – physical, but more importantly also human and social. Gedaliyah Wender was ten years old when his father threw him and his sister out of a train bound to Treblinka; his mother jumped as well. His mother and sister were badly wounded in the jump, and it was clear they would not survive. In the last moments of her life the mother had to prepare her son for independent survival – she taught him how to say ”bread” and other essential words in Polish, because Gedaliyah had no knowledge of the language whatsoever.

          (‘Evasion’)

To say this is a mind-bogglingly tough read, would be something of an understatement.

To this day, I still find it nigh impossible to comprehend just how Europe’s Jewish population coped with what surely has to be one of the darkest (if not the darkest) periods in human history. As Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker (April 6, 2015): ”[…] the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate system of evil. The very names of of the camps – Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz – have the sound of malevolent incantation […] full of the kind of details that ordinarily appear only in Dantesque visions.”

Indeed, said visions aren’t worth thinking about.
They’re far too disturbing to come to (remote) terms with, even though Ordinary Jews – Choice and Survival during the Holocaust doesn’t so much focus on the Konzentrationlager (concentration camp) itself, but rather, that despicable penultimate place, the ghetto.

In focusing on the three Jewish ghettos of Minsk, Krakow and Bialystok, Evgeny Finkel brings to light the degree to which the Jewish response to Nazi genocide differed, depending on their experiences with pre-war polices that either ”promoted or discouraged their integration into non-Jewish society.” And like many books written on the subject, it’s the whole matter of fact mode of writing that in a way, is the most disturbing and distressing.

That’s not to say Finkel doesn’t care about his subject. Nothing could be further from the undeniable truth. He, along with his peers, clearly care very much.

It’s the sheer density of relentless suffering and the awful extent to which human nature can become so bestial and so ghastly (so quickly). Again, it doesn’t bear worth thinking about; which in turn, reiterates the issue as to why we choose to read about such horror(s) to begin with. If, as Kirsch writes: ”It is to merely to revel in the grotesque, then learning about this evil is itself a species of evil, a further exploitation of the dead.”

Like the eight chapters of this most sensitive of investigations, the actual execution of the reading itself is a tough call; yet Ordinary Jews is an ultimately important contribution toward the many writings on the subject of the Holocaust.

It’s complexity and deftness lies in Finkel’s telling, which, if truth be told, resonates with all the clarity of subdued beauty.

David Marx

Mayoral Collaboration Under Nazi Occupation in Belgium, The Netherlands and France, 1938-46

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Mayoral Collaboration Under Nazi Occupation in Belgium, The Netherlands and France, 1938-46
By Nico Wouters
Palgrave Macmillan – £63.00

One popular theory that has particular relevance for this book says that Belgian society was pervaded by a deep-rooted distrust of central governmental power, and this, in turn, led to a culture where there was a lower threshold for the evasion of certain central regulations.

                                                                                       (‘Local Democracies’)

Having worked somewhat collaboratively with Belgian citizens, I do have to say there is indeed ”a lower threshold for the evasion of certain central regulations” within the Belgian personality. It may in fact, be somewhat (inadvertently) endemic within the nation’s psyche, which, considering that the head of the European Union is situated in the Belgian capital of Brussels, could be construed as rather ironic.

Mightily so. Or is it?

As this overtly analytical book testifies in relation to Belgium – along with The Netherlands and France – during World War II: ”The problems of imposing central policies became explicit early on (food supply organisation in 1940, for example). Specific local Belgo-German agreements prevailed. Large cities became islands in themselves. A systemic lack of clarity about the legality of orders – but, even more importantly, the legitimacy of national public authority – was endemic. In this context, the Germans could implement a system of direct (local) rule early on” (Conclusion – ‘Local States’).

This mode of behaviour, or ability, might partially explain why the European Union – as Britain once knew it – fundamentally works.

Mightily so. Or does it?

Mayoral Collaboration Under Nazi Occupation in Belgium, The Netherlands and France, 1938-46, as its title might suggest, could be considered as an early template to how said nations essentially operate(d) during times of duress and economic distrust. Each of the three countries social forbearance is brought to bear amid these 330 pages (excluding Abbreviations, Bibliography and Index), while author Nico Wouters ensures it is literally done so by way of clear-cut-understanding.

An understanding, all the more enhanced by way of proper substantiation.

To be sure, there are numerous examples scatted throughout the book, although, for the sake of continuity, the following follows on from the above opening quote (found in the chapter, ‘Local Democracies’): ”Conversely, Dutch collective mentality was supposedly conditioned to display much greater obedience to central power and regulations. The Flemish historian Lode Wils argued that this Belgian attitude had been moulded by centuries of foreign occupation. The Dutch mentality, on the other hand, was founded in historic, socio-economic liberal traditions combined with an obedient strand of Protestant culture”

That Wouters is Academic Coordinator at the Brussels CegeSoma and Guest Professor at the History Department of Ghent University (in Belgium), it should come as no surprise that these eight chapters equate a thorough assimilation of the complexities of the historical task in hand, with a writing that is as concise as it is occasionally surprising (at the right time/s).

In having researched such variable issues as food supply, public order and safety, forced labour, the repression of resistance, the persecution of the Jews and post-war purges, this most readable of books redefines our knowledge of collaboration, resistance and accommodation during Nazi occupation (in France, Belgium and The Netherlands).

David Marx

Jabotinsky’s Children

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Jabotinsky’s Children –
Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism
By Daniel Kupfert Heller
Princeton University Press – £27.95

On a winter evening in 1932, Adolf Gourevitch, a young man from Kiev studying at the Sorbonne, joined Vladimir Jabotinsky and his son, Eri, at a cafe in Paris. As he sat down at the table, Jabotinsky announced that he would devote the evening to composing a new anthem for Betar. Jabotinsky had good reason to create a new hymn for his youth movement. By this point, Betar had more than forty thousand members worldwide and was quickly emerging as one of the most popular Jewish movements in Poland, where some thirty thousand Jews had joined its ranks. ‘The youth movement was also becoming one of the most controversial in the country – its’ rivals accusations that the group’s members were ”Jewish fascists’ who aspired to the same values as antisemites on the European Right only intensified with Betar’s growth. Writing an anthem provided Jabotinsky with an opportunity to offer a clear declaration of his movement’s goals and to finally put these claims to rest. He even promised Gourevitch that the poem would follow a mathematical logic. Jabotisnky wrote the following lines to open his first verse: ”Betar / from a pit of decay and dust / in blood and sweat / a new race will emerge / proud, noble and cruel.”

                                             (‘Obedient Children/Reckless Rebels’)

Reading the above quote from this book’s third chapter, does not only initiate one into thinking what took place in Poland a mere seven years later, but also what took place in the country’s capital Warszawa just last Saturday (November 11th). A day which marked the official celebration of the country’s ninety-ninth year of independence, which saw the best part of 60,000 right-wing protesters – from all over Poland – calling for ”an Islamic Holocaust.”

An ”Islamic Holocaust” no less, from countrymen, who know a thing or two about the meaning of genocide, and who, in their utmost heat of hearts, really ought to know better. The fact that the alternative American Right leader, Richard Spence, cancelled his plans to attend the march because he was deemed too extreme (by the Polish government), might go some way in substantiating a tad of Polish common sense. Although maybe not.

All things told, Jabotinsky’s Children – Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism, underlines the extent to which acute indoctrination is NEVER a good thing.

In and of itself, it has never qualified itself as a constructive mode of pristine behaviour, the absolute flip-side of which is surely evidenced in Poland’s more than brutal, heartbreakingly turbulent past. That Jabotinsky suggested that ”a new race will emerge,” one that was ”proud, noble and cruel,” isn’t that far removed from some of last Saturday’s chants of ”clean blood” and white Europe.”

So in a round-a-bout sort of way, this book really does shine something of an illuminating light on the spectre of ever increasing right-wing fundamentalism throughout Europe and the U.S. The latter especially, where Donald Trump openly promotes separatism and everything that is crass in human nature (a list far too long to mention here).

That Poland served as an inspiration and an incubator for the development of right-wing Zionist ideas, is herein brought to (unfortunate) bear, in all its myopic eventual mayhem. With reference to the inter-war years, the author Daniel Kupfert Heller writes: ”Poland […] was plagued by political corruption, factionalism, legislative gridlock, and violence. Tensions often ran high between Catholic Poles and the country’s minorities. The deep divisions pitting peasants against urban dwellers, socialists against conservatives, and liberals against radical nationalists only multiplied the staggering number of political parties clamouring for power” (Introduction – ‘Jews and the Right’).

Sound familiar?
One need look no further than current day Venezuela.
Or what took place in Zimbabwe yesterday.
Hell’s teeth, one need look no further than Downing Street.

These 254 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) most definitely shoot from the hip. In so doing, they place particular perspective on the origins of right-wing Zionist beliefs – along with their continuing allure in today’s Israel. As such, Jabotinsky’s Children will undoubtedly trigger much debate, which, to varying degrees, can only be a good thing.

David Marx

 

The Good Occupation

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The Good Occupation –
American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace
By Susan L. Carruthers
Harvard University Press – £22.95

No wonder, then, that uniformed Americans sometimes insisted that ”winning the peace” was harder than winning the war. Postwar reconstruction required greater finesse than the wartime work of destruction. Governing took more skill, patience, and insight than did killing. It was tougher, many officers averred, to discipline one’s emotions in peacetime than to keep the enemy in one’s sights in combat; harder to keep hatred properly directed, and harder to know whom to trust. Telling who was on which side was no easy business when individual identities, like uniforms, were so readily switched in the chaotic aftermath of war […].

                                                                                 (The Troublesome ”O Word”’)

Apart from the inevitable turmoil, grief and all round chaos, one can only imagine the logistical nightmare that must have beset the American forces immediately after the Second World War.

By any of today’s standards, not to mention the then potential for complete and completely out-of-control mayhem, it ought hardly be surprising that The Good Occupation – American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace makes for fascinating, although not particularly coruscating reading.

Each of its eight chapters illuminates the vast interior life of the U.S. occupiers throughout both Europe and Asia. An occupation, which in turn, invariably came to highlight ”the way military governance came to be imagined as a form of altruism” (Mary L Dudziak, author of War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences).

Indeed, a tiny tip of the literary iceberg is ever so marginally brought to bear in this book’s fifth chapter ‘Displaced and Displeased Persons,’ where authoress, Susan L. Carruthers, authoritatively writes: ”In Japan and Germany, U.S. Occupation authorities hastily rearmed the police forces of their former foes, in large part to tackle looting and clandestine trade by, or ascribed to, DPs (Displaced Persons) or minority populations. In both countries, American and local officials were united in their growing concern over black market activity. And those same ”outgroups” were vilified as the major participants in illicit economic trade, although black market activity was pervasive – among occupiers, occupied, and displaced alike.”

What an absolutely shocking scenario, albeit an utter understandable one.

That ”occupiers, occupied, and displaced alike” were responsible for (perhaps) inadvertently creating the predominantly economic chaos in the first place – as well as possibly prolonging it – can, to a great degree, surely be placed upon the shoulders of brute, human nature?

In the book’s penultimate chapter, ‘Getting without Spending,’ and in direct relation to Europe, such behaviour which faced the American forces is once again brought to bear, when Carruthers bequeaths the reader with the following: ”Popular culture reinforced this impression of tawdriness, conjuring a twilight zone of shadowy transactions in fittingly monochromatic tones. The black-market milieu called for innumerable shades of grey, and racketeering formed a staple fixture of noirish representation of occupied Europe […].”

To the point and very concisely written, The Good Occupation is as revelatory as it is informative. The author has done exceptionally well to convey such a subject as that drenched within the quintessential quagmire of such human frailty.

David Marx

Hitler’s Compromises

Hitler's Compromises

Hitler’s Compromises –
Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany
By Nathan Stoltzfus
Yale University Press – £30.00

Air raids did not crush the German will to fight as some Allied leaders had projected, although they did burden the regime’s capacity for totalitarian control by drawing its credibility into question. Air raids also disrupted home and family life, sharpening the conflict between private sphere values and Nazi demands.

                                              (‘Evacuations, Protests, Soft Strategies’)

Wouldn’t one be right to question the divisive line between ”private sphere values and Nazi demands?” Surely they ultimately overlapped to such a dire extent that Nazi demands were all encompassing; thus eliminating the private sphere (value) to a level of being null and void?

Either way, this more than illuminating book sheds an abundance of light on the degree to which Adolf Hitler and his inner circle demonstrated a high-octane, if not fundamentally insightful political skill, in ensuring a consistently strong home-base of support. A quality where the Nazi leader came into his own by proffering a fine, unquestionable political finesse – finesses being a word not oft associated with Hitler.

Yet, all things considered, maintaining such delicate support when all around was being blown to smithereens, quite literally, was clearly no mean feat. Indeed, this more than comprehensive examination of Hitler’s regime reveals a plethora of strategic compromises the Nazi leader made in order manage dissent.

By focusing on his use of both charisma and terror, Hitler’s Compromises – Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany, asserts – among other things – that Germany’s dictator made very few concessions to maintain power.

In and of itself, this is further substantiated by the continuation of the above opening quotation, where author (and Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University) Nathan Stoltzfus, writes: ”The ensuing grumbling challenged the regime’s control over information and its propaganda claims that the overwhelming majority of Germans were united under Hitler’s leadership. Ironically, the air raids did draw the Germans together in a ”community of fate,” in the solidarity of fear, and when this happened, the regime turned to ingratiating itself with the besieged people by playing the role of their best ally.”

Strong societal/social stuff.

There again, ”Hitler did not think he could achieve total state power without forming a total society […]. Nonetheless, in the context of the national humiliation and dislocation the Germans experienced after World War I, Hitler made surprising headway with brass-knuckled solicitations in gaining unquestioning fealty.”

The narrative of these 298 pages (excluding Preface, Notes, Acknowledgements and Index) are overtly well considered and researched, not to mention deft in delivery. As Jill Stephenson of the University of Edinburgh has stated: ”This book is based on a wealth of sources. It rehearses various episodes that give us an insight into the relationship between the Nazi regime and some sectors of society, including the Christian churches, women evacuees in wartime, and the gentile wives of Jewish German men. This is done in greater detail than in many accounts, and the detail is very illuminating. It’s message is that, again and again, Hitler chose to compromise with a group that stood up to him and his regime rather than risk outright confrontation, especially in wartime.”

National, internal confrontation towards Hitler isn’t something we often think of when it comes to the Nazi regime; which, for all intents and persuasive purposes, appeared to work (most of the time).

As such, for a further understanding on such subtle, political assimilation within German society throughout Hitler’s reign, this book most definitely hits the mark throughout.

David Marx