The War to End All Wars didn't. At least in the United States, the vast majority of those alive today probably view World War I as the chapter in theiThe War to End All Wars didn't. At least in the United States, the vast majority of those alive today probably view World War I as the chapter in their history textbook before the Depression and World War II. And the death earlier this year of the last surviving combat veteran of the Great War reinforces that people with firsthand memories of the conflict recollection of it grow fewer each day. Yet British author Geoff Dyer suggests that even while it was being fought, "the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered."
First published in Britain in 1994, Dyer's The Missing of the Somme is making its first appearance in a U.S. edition. A slim (176 pages), somewhat quirky work, Dyer considers World War I through the poetry, literature, biographies, and photography of the time, along with a bit of travelogue of monuments and cemeteries. It is as far from a history of the war as one might get. To the contrary, Dyer says his goal was not even to write about the war itself but, rather, its impact on his generation. (He was born in 1958.) Nor was this to be a novel. Instead, he viewed the project as "an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…"
A meditation on remembrance is the best way to describe the work. The various literary and artistic works Dyer discusses deal with how the war would be and is remembered. In fact, remembrance started early, according to Dyer. He points to perhaps the best known poem by Laurence Binyon, "For the Fallen," which would come to adorn many war memorials. It was published in September 1914, about a month after the first British troops went to France and three weeks after the first British soldier died in the conflict. That means, Dyer says with just a hint of exaggeration, perhaps the leading remembrance of those killed in the war was written "before the fallen actually fell. 'For the Fallen', in other words, is a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining."
Remembrance arose to the point that 30,000 war memorials were erected in France between 1920 and 1925. Yet even memorials feel the toll of time. And the fact time also affects remembrance itself is seen in another example. For decades, November 11 was Remembrance Day in the U.K. (Armistice Day in the U.S.). People would cease activity for two minutes of silence at 11 a.m., the time the Armistice was signed. Although that may still occur, Britain now has Remembrance Sunday, held the second Sunday of November to commemorate those who served in both World Wars. (Here in the U.S., Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1958 and 10 years later it became a movable Monday holiday.)
Dyer's interest in the memory of World War I stems in part from the fact his grandfather fought in the Battle of the Somme, which still holds the calamitous distinction of seeing the most British casualties ever in one day. Undoubtedly, ensuing generations were impacted by World War I. The numbers are almost stunning. According to Dyer, there were 918 cemeteries built on the Western Front with more than 750,000 graves, approximately a quarter of which contain unidentified remains. He also notes that it would take three and a half days if the dead of the British Empire marched past the war memorial where the Remembrance Sunday service is held.
It is difficult perhaps for Americans to grasp the extent of the generational impact for Britain, France and other European countries. After all, the U.S. suffered 10 percent of the military deaths the British Empire did and even fewer compared to France and Germany. This alone means it is unlikely The Missing of the Somme will attract much attention in the U.S. That does not, however, change the fact it is a unique, albeit idiosyncratic, reflection on war.
Why do certain political ideas take root and gain acceptance while others advocated by the same party or movement do not? That question can't help butWhy do certain political ideas take root and gain acceptance while others advocated by the same party or movement do not? That question can't help but come to mind reading R. Alton Lee's Principle over Party: The Farmers' Alliance and Populism in South Dakota, 1880-1900.
lThe Farmers' Alliance and the political parties to which it helped give birth had a couple primary goals: government ownership of railroads, the abolition of national banks, and the free and unlimited coinage of silver. (Briefly, and perhaps inadequately, explained, free silver advocates saw it as a way to increase the money supply and, hopefully, make it easier for farmers to pay their debts given declining farm prices.) None of the three goals was achieved and, at best, they brought limited electoral success for political offices. Yet other issues these groups championed during the last two decades of the 19th Century were adopted near the end of the movement or after. These included the Australian (secret) ballot, direct election of senators, initiative and referendum, and a graduated income tax. Plainly, the lack of success on one front didn't keep these organizations from changing the country.
To a great extent, Lee tells the story of the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist movement in South Dakota through its most prominent figures -- Henry Loucks and Alonzo Wardall. Loucks not only helped found the Dakota Farmers' Alliance in 1886 and became its president, he would go on to lead the National Farmers' Alliance and was recognized nationally as a leader of the Populist movement. Wardall, meanwhile, helped lead many of the business activities of the Alliance and worked nationwide in attempting to achieve its success.
The reason the Alliance supported financial reform is relatively easy to understand. Difficult economic times meant farmers in the Dakotas and elsewhere were burdened by debt, including mortgages with up to 20 percent interest. At the same time, elevator and railroad charges to get grain to market meant little or no profit. The Farmers' Alliance arose from numerous local social and political groups combining under its umbrella. Although wanting change in government policy, the Alliance also used cooperatives to try to help farmers. These cooperatives operated warehouses and grain elevators, while the Alliance offered farm equipment, twine, barbed wire and household items at prices significantly less than farmers could get on their own. It also successfully underwrote hail, fire and life insurance.
Yet these efforts did little to remedy what supporters of the Farmers' Alliance saw as the underlying causes of the economic distress. By 1890, U.S. Census Bureau statistics suggested farmers were so heavily mortgaged they would never be able to pay off the debt given the cost of money and the prices farm products brought. Loucks and other leaders realized that the ability to legislate was key. Using original source and other materials, Lee details the formation of the Independent Party, its evolution into the People's Party (commonly know as the Populist Party), and its political efforts. Yet while the Populists would find support and limited political success --including the election of James Kyle as U.S. Senator in 1891 and, in 1896, not only Andrew Lee as governor but both of South Dakota's U.S. Representatives -- they discovered that implementing policies was much more difficult. South Dakota had been controlled by the Republican Party for decades and resisted the Alliance's major platform points.
The move from advocacy to party politics may also have foreshadowed the ultimate downfall of the Populists, at least in South Dakota. The political reality that required forming a party ultimately produced a crucial division. Lee explores how some in the movement came to believe that the only way to political success was through "fusion," jointly supporting candidates with Democrats or so-called "silver Republicans" (GOP members who disagreed with the party's opposition to free silver) in some races. Although they realized it might mean occasionally compromising on certain issues, they viewed it as the only way to obtain electoral office and effectuate change. Laucks was perhaps the chief opponent of the idea, believing it crucial for Populists to nominate and support only candidates fully committed to its platform and principles. "We cannot afford to sacrifice our principles for the sake of office nor yet can we afford to do it for the sake of temporary success," he wrote in 1892.
Loucks was on the losing side of the debate. Fusion was unquestionably a reality in 1896, when Populists supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential candidate, rather than having their own. Although Bryan lost the election, fusion with South Dakota Democrats and silver Republicans helped produce the Populist success in the gubernatorial and Congressional races, although by by a slim margin. Loucks, however, may have been correct. Neither Congressman was re-elected and while Lee was, he was hamstrung during both terms not only by the effects of longtime Republican control of patronage but the need to gain support outside the Populist movement for various measures. Populism had passed its peak and the party would disappear, although many of its ideas would provide spark for the ensuing Progressive movement.
Principle Over Party makes clear that the Alliance and the Populist movement were truly grassroots organizations. No one knows how broad success by the Populist movement might have changed the country. Some historians view Populism as a true reform movement, others as little more than a relatively brief coalition of special interest groups. Regardless, like many grassroots movements it found difficulty when confronting powerful, entrenched and politically adept opponents. Although Lee doesn't put it this way, the ultimate political reality was that farmers or agrarian interests stood little chance against large corporations and financial institutions. Yet Lee, a professor emeritus of history at the University of South Dakota, does an excellent job using original source material and related matter in not only taking the reader inside the movement but also demonstrating how large a role South Dakota played in both the rise and fall of Populism. That makes the book a worthy and important addition to the canon of South Dakota political history.
World War II is often seen as the last "good war," a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. And there was plenty of evil to go around, not just inWorld War II is often seen as the last "good war," a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. And there was plenty of evil to go around, not just in the Axis forces. Take, for example, the case of Marcel Petiot.
Petiot, a French physician, was convicted of murdering 26 people in Paris during World War II. As David King explores in unprecedented detail in Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, there were likely many more, perhaps up to 100. Petoit claimed he was a Resistance member who killed Germans and collaborators. Others, like the jury, said he used a phony escape network to lure people -- and their money and valuables -- into his deadly clutches.
One thing is clear. Petoit took advantage of the horrors of the war. As King points out, when thousands of people are disappearing and dying, who will think the disappearance of a couple people they know is the work of a serial murderer? And what person of Jewish descent is going to approach authorities in Nazi-controlled France to report a missing relative? After all, 33,000 Jews alone disappeared in France an 11-week period after Nazis began a mass round-up of Jews in mid-July 1942, some 13,000 in Paris in just 48 hours.
Although Death in the City of Light has somewhat of a choppy feel, it is thoroughly researched and told. King doesn't present it as some sort of mystery tale. The reader fairly well knows from the outset that Petiot is involved or responsible. A preface sets the stage with police fortuitously discovering dismembered body parts and bones, as well as bodies in a in a coal stove and lime pit, in property owned by Petoit. The balance of the book is given over to the ensuing investigation, the search for Petoit, and his trial. With the investigation as a framework, King explores Petoit's background, including him becoming a physician after getting a 100 percent mental disability rating following his service in World War I and potential murders prior to the war, as well as life in Nazi-occupied France, Petoit's scheme and some of his victims.
Police concluded that, acting under the pseudonym "Dr. Eugène," Petoit claimed to be part of a network that could help people escape France to Argentina by way of Spain. Not only did they pay varying sums of money, they were instructed to arrive at their ultimate rendezvous in Paris with their most valuable possessions packed in no more than two suitcases or sewn into their clothes. Police would later discover 49 pieces of luggage Petoit hid containing hundreds of items -- but no money or valuables. Petoit had also remodeled the property in which the human remains were found, including the construction of a small triangular room with solid brick walls about 8.5 inches thick containing only eight iron hooks a false door on the walls and a concealed peephole. Petoit's escape network cover was good enough that he was actually arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, although he was released after several months.
In contrast, Petoit claimed that as member of the resistance he headed up a cell of what he called the Fly-Tox network. The network's main job, he said, was to track down and execute informers, although it also helped Frenchmen escape Paris. The method of finding these informers? Cell members would follow any civilian leaving Gestapo headquarters in Paris and, once in a secluded place, seize them with the Fly-Tox operative posing as a member of the German secret police. If the individual protested that he worked for the Germans, "he convicted himself," Petoit told investigators. He claimed to have killed 63 "collabos" but that it was Fly-Tox's escape operation that led to his arrest by the Gestapo. He said the bodies and remains police found in his building must have been dumped there while he was in Nazi custody.
The detail with which King explores the story is aided by the fact that not only did he have access to trial materials, including a stenographic record no one thought existed, but also the complete police dossier, which had been classified since the investigation began. The book struggles a bit because there were so many possibilities pursued during the investigation and, at times, the reader may become perhaps as befuddled as police were during the investigation. King also occasionally lapses into asides on what individuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Pablo Picasso were doing in Paris during this time. Although they add somewhat to setting the scene of Nazi-occupied Paris, their relationship to the story or its flow is inconsequential.
Death in the City of Light is a fair and in-depth examination of Petoit's case. It also contains an intrinsic question of perspective. If the prosecutors were right, Petoit clearly was a serial killer. But if Petoit was killing people he believed to be informants, does the fact he did so in the course of a "good war" render him any less morally culpable?
Early into reading Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, I came across a passage that made me think, "That is truly KafkaesquEarly into reading Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, I came across a passage that made me think, "That is truly Kafkaesque." For some reason, that sent my mind on a digression into the difference between something being Kafkaesque and something being Orwellian. While I eventually sorted it out in my own mind, it turns out that in the overall context of the book, it wasn't a key issue. Put simply, Funder's discussions with people who lived through the East German experience leave no doubt it was both.
Kafkaesque? In East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or "GDR"), it was entirely legal to file an application to leave the country and live elsewhere. Of course, if you applied to leave you were suspected of wanting to leave. Wanting to leave was the criminal offense of "Attempting to Flee the Republic." Thus, a legal act made you a criminal.
Orwellian? The State Security Service ("Stasi") had 97,000 employees in a country of 17 million. But the Stasi also had more than 173,000 informers. That meant there was one Stasi officer or informer for every 63 people. Some estimate that if all part-time informers were included, there was one informer for every 6.5 citizens. Or take the case of a highly popular East German rock band. When they sounded too political, the Stasi did not ban the band. Instead, they were told, "You no longer exist." Not only were they not on the radio or covered in the press, the record company reprinted its catalog to omit the band.
Caught up in this perverse world were the East Germans themselves. And they are the real focus of Funder's book, not only those who were spied upon but those who worked for Stasi. Funder, an Australian, displays her affection and admiration for the East Germans throughout her book. The book was sparked during her employment with a TV station in West Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was puzzled why producers felt that the GDR was a subject best forgotten. She embarked on her own search to find out what it was like to live in what the German media called "the most perfected surveillance state of all time."
Although written as a first person account of her exploration, Stasiland succeeds in allowing East Germans to tell their own story and bringing an entirely human face to both the spies and the spied upon. Stories of those affected by the Stasi's pervasiveness, of course, abound but Funder does a fine job of finding stories among everyday people that go to the heart of life there. Surprisingly, when she placed a newspaper ad asking to speak with former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators, she was flooded with responses. Why were there so many Stasi veterans? As a Stasi instructor told Funder, there was more and more work to do as time went on "because the definition of 'enemy' became wider and wider." In fact, being investigated may have been enough alone to make you an enemy of the state.
The stories that arose in this type of atmosphere range from heartbreaking (parents separated from their ill child for years because of the Wall) to bizarre (the Stasi's collection of "smell samples"). Like the reader, Funder is an outsider in this society, allowing readers to share her feelings and reactions as she learns of the big and small moments of life in the GDR. By recounting events and viewpoints from both sides, she also provides readers a more complete look at and better understanding of the GDR and its residents.
First published in English in 2003, Stasiland won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize of Non-Fiction in 2004. Yet the stories and the people behind them seem timeless and the book remains as worthy a read today as it did then.
Good fortune -- luck -- manifests itself in a variety of ways. Frequently, just how lucky we are comes only with hindsight and even then we may not reGood fortune -- luck -- manifests itself in a variety of ways. Frequently, just how lucky we are comes only with hindsight and even then we may not realize just what contributed to a serendipitous result. Yet the extent of a person's fortune may well be a matter of perspective, much like the adage about regretting having no shoes until seeing the person with no feet.
Waydenfeld was a teenager in Otwock, Poland, a city not far from Warsaw, as the European continent moved toward the outbreak of World War II. The son of a medical doctor and a medical bacteriologist, Waydenfeld enjoyed the benefits and opportunities afforded by a comparatively comfortable life, one he even terms "idyllic." That would end rather abruptly when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and become even worse when the Soviet Union invaded the country from the east 16 days later. Waydenfeld's father, who had served as a medical officer in the Polish Army, was mobilized before the German invasion. Five days after the German invasion, Waydenfeld, then 14, set off on foot with friends toward a mustering point to the east to join the Army. He and his friends wouldn't join the Army on their trip -- and he would not see his home for another eight years.
Through a fortunate turn of events, Waydenfeld's father located him when he took shelter with another family. And, by chance, his mother joined them just as they were going to attempt to return to Otwock to find her. Yet the Waydenfelds faced a dilemma: try to return to the portion of Poland occupied by Germany or stay in what was now the Soviet occupied section. They ending up staying in the Soviet-controlled area. Ultimately, although not technically prisoners, hundreds of Poles were deported in crammed cattle cars to Siberian labor camps in 1940. The Waydenfelds ended up in Kvasha, a camp in far western Siberia with a subarctic climate. "Here you shall live," they were told.
Kvasha was not a prison camp. There was housing and food available. Yet survival depended on working in the great forests of the area cutting and removing timber. The phrase frequently heard from the Soviet officials at the camp was, "He who does not work, does not eat." Although in his teens, Waydenfeld performed a wide variety of difficult tasks in the camp. The worst, which gives the book its title, was when he and his father were part of a crew charged with maintaining "the ice road." The road consisted of iced ruts on which sleds would transport felled trees in the midst of the winter. Maintenance required traveling up and down the road gathering water from the adjoining river and resurfacing the ice in the ruts. Often working at night, the task not only involved working outdoors in sub-zero temperatures but often being coated with ice as a result of the water they were required to spread on the road. The physical burdens and distress of the work almost beggars the imagination.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviets released the Poles, although they were limited to places within the Soviet Union and were responsible for their own transportation. Although this meant the Weydenfelds would leave Kvasha, it also embarked them on a journey of thousands of miles through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by rail, on foot and by truck. They scavenged local markets for food and took up housing where available, aided by the senior Weydenfeld's ablity to occasionally find employment thanks to his medical degree. The family and numerous others eventually found passage to Tehran and outside Soviet and German influence.
Waydenfeld recounts events with an excellent eye for detail, both in terms of events and the family's surroundings. Some readers might even wonder about the extent of the detail given that he did not keep a diary and only started making notes of his experiences some 15 years after. Regardless, The Ice Road tells a compelling story about the treatment of the Poles during World War II, an aspect of the conflict that is often overlooked. Additionally, the book includes a look at the Polish deportations and the formation of a Polish Army corps, which Waydenfeld joined once outside Soviet control.
Despite the hardships it recounts, The Ice Road is a story of good fortune in that the Waydenfeld family survived. Yet a couple items in his recounting show just how fortuitous they may have been. For example, in May 1940 the Waydenfelds stood in line for a German repatriation train that would have returned them to Otwock and the part of Poland occupied by the Germans. The family ahead of them in line filled the quota of returnees and they were told to go back to where they were staying and wait for the next repatriation train. There was never another and they were deported to Siberia.
Or they could look back just a bit more. In May 1939, the Waydenfelds took a cruise to the Mediterranean. They picked it over one slated to go to New York City in August 1939. That ship was in New York City when the war broke out -- and the passengers spent the war in the United States.