A. I recommend a video about Ray Bethell, a flyer of kites.
B. I saw an interview with a young filmmaker, Matthew Heineman. Heineman recently made a documentary called Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare. Heineman argues that our healthcare system is actually a “disease care” system, that pays doctors for treating disease instead of for preventing disease. Prevention is under-emphasized, and primary-care treatment is under-emphasized.
Wikipedia says that an “escape fire” is “a fire lit to clear an area of vegetation in the face of an approaching wildfire,” so that when the fire arrives, there will be nothing to burn. The phrase “escape fire” was first applied to healthcare by Don Berwick, who had read Norman MacLean’s book about firefighting, Young Men and Fire. (In an earlier issue, we discussed a movie called A River Runs Through It, which is based on Maclean’s short story of the same name.)
C. I saw a film called Buena Vista Social Club, about aging Cuban musicians who re-unite to make an album, and perform in concert. I enjoyed the film — good music, interesting scenes of Cuba. An album with the same name (Buena Vista Social Club) was a worldwide hit. You can sample the film here.
D. I saw a film called Ice Kings, about hockey in Rhode Island, especially the legendary Mount Saint Charles team, which won the state championship 26 years in a row. This team was also the focus of a book called Pride on the Mount. Ice Kings is an excellent sports movie, especially for a hockey fan.1
E. I saw the new Oxfordian documentary, Last Will. & Testament. It’s good: there’s a lot of evidence and argument, but not so much as to over-burden the viewer.
The documentary mentions the Prince Tudor Theory, which says that Southampton was the child of Queen Elizabeth and Oxford/Shakespeare. And it mentions the even more controversial theory that Oxford himself was the child of Queen Elizabeth. But it doesn’t provide much evidence for either of these theories, so I’m not sure it was wise to mention them. The Frontline documentary on the Shakespeare controversy doesn’t mention these two theories; it’s shorter, more focused, perhaps more digestible than Last Will. & Testament. Instead of making more documentaries, perhaps Oxfordians should try to make the Frontline documentary more widely available. Click here for a Youtube version of the Frontline documentary. Last Will. & Testament is available on iTunes, Amazon, etc.
F. Some people say that desktop applications like Quicken are becoming obsolete, and the future of computing is in the cloud. A website called Mint allows you to manage your money online — a task previously performed on your hard drive by Quicken. The company that owns Quicken (Intuit) acquired Mint, so perhaps they believe that the future of computing is in the cloud. But until Mint allows you to import your Quicken data, I think many users (including me) will continue using Quicken.
G. The American novelist Herman Wouk became popular in the 1950s, and he’s still publishing novels today, at the age of 97. His best-known novels dealt with World War II, and drew on his own experiences in the Pacific Theater. The Caine Mutiny (1951) won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a bestseller. “In the 1970s, Wouk published his two most ambitious novels, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978). He described the latter, which included a devastating depiction of the Holocaust, as ‘the main tale I have to tell.’ Both were made into hugely popular TV miniseries.”2
Wouk was born into a Jewish family in the Bronx, and attended Columbia. He’s sometimes classed as a “middle-brow” writer, as opposed to a “high-brow” writer (a middle-brow writer appeals to the man on the street, rather than to the scholar or critic). Somewhat conservative in his Judaism, Wouk “has commenced each day of his life with a reading of Scripture in Hebrew.” In 1959, Wouk wrote a non-fiction work, This is My God, explaining Orthodox Judaism.
H. I discovered a Russian historian named Edward (or Edvard) Radzinsky. Now 76, Radzinsky has written more than 40 books, including several biographies of Russian czars, and several books about Stalin. Radzinsky writes popular history, but he has some training in historical research. In addition to being a historian, Radzinsky is a playwright, and the son of a playwright. He’s been married three times; all three of his wives were actresses.
I. I discovered a Scottish writer named Fitzroy MacLean. MacLean wrote Eastern Approaches, “in which he recounted three extraordinary series of adventures: travelling, often incognito, in Soviet Central Asia; fighting in the Western Desert Campaign, where he specialized in commando raids behind enemy lines; and living rough with Tito and his Yugoslav Partisans. It has been speculated that Ian Fleming used MacLean as one of his inspirations for James Bond.”3 MacLean wrote more than fifteen books, mostly about Scotland, Central Asia, and Yugoslavia.
J. When MacLean was in Yugoslavia, he crossed paths with Churchill’s son, Randolph; he met Randolph again in the Desert Campaign. Randolph undertook some dangerous missions, and was seriously wounded. He died rather young (57), perhaps due to alcoholism. Martin Gilbert, who worked for Randolph on a massive biography of Winston Churchill, says that he may have drank to alleviate the pain of his injuries. Randolph completed the first two volumes of the biography, Gilbert the final six volumes. About twenty volumes of Churchill’s papers were also published, as “companions” to the eight volumes of biography.
Winston Churchill made many enemies among English Conservatives by advocating independence for southern Ireland, and the eventual unification of southern and northern Ireland. He also believed in independence for India, and unity for India; he didn’t believe in separating Pakistan from India. Gandhi shared Churchill’s view that India should remain united.
When India became independent of Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh were split off, and became one Muslim nation (called Pakistan). In 1971, though, Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan, after a bloody war. If the Palestinians have their own nation, perhaps they’ll divide into two nations — Gaza and the West Bank — as Pakistan divided into two nations. Will a “two state solution” ultimately become a three state solution?
Churchill opposed the idea of a small Israel alongside an Arab-ruled West Bank; he thought Israel should stretch from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.
Churchill wasn’t a churchgoer, but he believed in the spiritual, and was receptive to life-after-death.
Churchill said that he tried to strangle Bolshevism at its birth (by supporting the “White” forces in the Russian Civil War). But Woodrow Wilson wasn’t persuaded by Churchill’s arguments; Wilson wanted to stay out of the Russian Civil War. (In the late 1940s, a similar debate took place: should the Western powers assist the Chinese Nationalists in their war with the Chinese Communists?) But despite Churchill’s hostility to the Bolsheviks, he offered to recognize them and support them if they would stay in the war; Churchill feared that if the Bolsheviks made peace with Germany, Germany could commit all its forces to the Western Front. In the event, the arrival of American forces may have offset the arrival of German forces from the East.
When Stalin died in 1953, Churchill was eager to have a rapprochement with the Soviets, and end the Cold War. He asked Eisenhower to go to Moscow with him, and meet Stalin’s successors. Eisenhower would have none of it.
Churchill objected to the indiscriminate bombing of German cities. Stalin, however, argued that, if the Allies weren’t ready to invade Europe from the West, they should at least bomb German cities.
Churchill’s ancestor was a legendary English general, John Churchill, better known as the Duke of Marlborough, or simply “Marlborough.” Churchill wrote a 4-volume biography of Marlborough. His research for this biography took him to Munich, shortly before Hitler’s accession to power. When Hitler heard that Churchill was in town, he tried to arrange a meeting. Churchill responded that he would meet Hitler, and would ask him why he was so hostile to Jews. Unwilling to discuss this subject with Churchill, Hitler decided not to meet with him. Still, Hitler was curious about Churchill, and wanted at least to see him, so he went to the balcony of the dining room where Churchill was eating, and looked at the famous man.
I’m not a fan of Churchill the writer. He wrote too much and too fast, he often dictated, and his style leaves much to be desired. Evelyn Waugh spoke of Churchill’s “sham-Augustan prose,” and many other eminent writers also criticized Churchill’s prose.4
Churchill: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
In addition to working on the eight-volume “official” biography of Churchill (and its 20 companion volumes of documents), Martin Gilbert wrote a one-volume biography of Churchill called Churchill: A Life. Gilbert discussed this book in a Booknotes interview. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview, though the audio is a bit muffled at times. Gilbert has vivacity and wit as well as intellectual weight, so I’m sure his Churchill biography is a good one.5
Gilbert also wrote a three-volume history of the 20th century. Each volume is about 1,000 pages. Gilbert also published a one-volume, 800-page abridgement of the three-volume work. Gilbert takes a chronological approach: each year receives its own chapter. This is a different approach from most historical works. I suppose, however, that any approach can work, if the historian has ability. Gilbert also wrote one-volume histories of each World War. Since many of his books are 1,000 pages long, one wonders where he found the time and energy to write so much; he’s the author or editor of more than 80 books.
According to Wikipedia, “Gilbert describes himself as a proud practicing Jew and a Zionist.” Many of his books deal with Jewish topics. He has written extensively about the Holocaust; he’s probably one of the preeminent authorities on the subject. He wrote a 1,000-page history of the Holocaust, and he has worked with many Holocaust survivors, helping them to turn their experiences into books.6 The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust is about people who tried to save Jews from the Nazis. Gilbert also wrote a 750-page history of Israel.
Gilbert has a special interest in maps, and has published many historical atlases, such as an atlas of Jewish history, an atlas of Russian history, etc.
Gilbert was born in England, and attended Oxford, where he was a student of A. J. P. Taylor.
In the Booknotes interview, Gilbert mentions Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz, and later wrote a memoir called Escape From Auschwitz: I Cannot Forgive. Gilbert says that Vrba’s book describes the economic motives of the Nazis — their greed for Jewish property. Vrba’s story was made into a one-hour PBS documentary called Escape From Auschwitz (2008), available online. Since Vrba died in 2006, before the documentary was made, he doesn’t appear in it, but he does appear in the nine-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah. Vrba escaped with Alfred Wetzler, and their report about conditions in Auschwitz is called the Vrba-Wetzler Report.7
Vrba arrived in Auschwitz in June, 1942, when he was just 17. Soon he began thinking about how to escape. He had already made two escapes in his life, escapes that were at least temporarily successful.
Vrba and Wetzler escaped in April, 1944, and made their way from Auschwitz, in southern Poland, to Slovakia, where they had both grown up. When they told a Jewish group in Slovakia about the death factory at Auschwitz, their account was not believed, at least not initially. Vrba later said that “he could understand why some people doubted the true dimensions of the Holocaust. There was nothing in their experience remotely comparable.”8 When Vrba and Wetzler were finally believed, they wrote their detailed report about Auschwitz.
Vrba escaped not to save himself, but to save others. “The strength of the Final Solution,” Vrba later said, “was its secrecy, its impossibility. I escaped to break that belief that it was not possible. And to stop more killings.” Vrba knew that, early in 1944, the Auschwitz authorities were expecting large numbers of Jews from Hungary. Vrba was hoping to inform Hungarian Jews about Auschwitz before they boarded the trains; he thought Hungarian Jews would fight or flee rather than go to certain death.
But the Jewish group in Hungary (the “Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee”) was negotiating with the Nazis (more specifically, with Adolf Eichmann) for a large release of Jews — an exchange of 1,000,000 Jews for 10,000 trucks. The Jewish group didn’t want to disturb their negotiation by disseminating Vrba’s report, so they kept Vrba’s report “under wraps.” But while this “negotiation” dragged on, around 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. It was later believed that Eichmann wasn’t really negotiating, he was deceiving the Jewish group in order to keep the trains running smoothly. As part of this deception, Eichmann allowed 1,600 Jews to travel to safety in Switzerland (the so-called “Kastner Train”).
Eventually, though, the Vrba-Wetzler Report was publicized by the BBC and the New York Times. The Hungarian authorities feared that the Allies would punish them if they continued cooperating with genocide, so in early July, 1944, they stopped the trains to Auschwitz, saving perhaps 120,000 Hungarian Jews. (At this time, Hungary was controlled partly by the Nazis, partly by its own government.)
So Vrba and Wetzler helped to save many lives, though they had hoped to save many more. The subtitle of Vrba’s book, I Cannot Forgive, probably means “I cannot forgive those who failed to disseminate my message promptly.” Vrba didn’t hesitate to criticize Holocaust historians, and the historians, in turn, criticized Vrba for embellishing his account.9
Vrba’s critics argue that the Vrba-Wetzler Report was written too late to save Hungary’s Jews, and that new information can’t be immediately acted on, it must be processed by the mind, digested by the mind. One critic of Vrba said, “During the Holocaust, countless individuals received information and rejected it, suppressed it, or rationalized about it, were thrown into despair without any possibility of acting on it, or seemingly internalized it and then behaved as though it had never reached them.” In 1943, Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski told U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter about Nazi genocide, but Frankfurter couldn’t believe him: “I did not say that he was lying,” Frankfurter remarked, “I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.” In other words, “He’s telling the truth, but my mind can’t grasp this truth, it’s too strange.” This is the problem that every new theory faces: people can’t grasp it, can’t grasp what doesn’t conform to their prior experience, their prior thinking. When I first heard about the Oxford Theory, I dismissed it.
In 1944, Karski published Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State.
The history of the Hungarian Jews was a bitterly controversial subject within the Jewish community.
One of the most popular biographies of Churchill is William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill. The first volume was subtitled Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, and the second volume was subtitled Alone, 1932-1940. Before Manchester could finish the third and last volume, his health declined, so he asked a journalist named Paul Reid to finish it. This third volume was just published a few weeks ago; it’s subtitled Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.10 When Manchester was looking for someone to complete his biography, he was “adamantly opposed to hiring a professional historian. He wanted ‘a writer.’”11 Evidently Manchester wanted his biography to be readable, entertaining, a good story. Manchester’s biography is popular with the general public, unpopular with specialists.
Perhaps Manchester failed to finish his biography not because of physical decline but because of “writer’s block.” Perhaps his soul finally rebelled against 50-hour writing marathons. When Manchester was 63, he wrote,
|“For the first time in my life, I have a writer’s block. It is a real crisis. In the past three weeks, I have written exactly four pages. It is very painful....” In 1998, after 50 years of marriage, his wife, Julia, died. About a month later, he suffered a stroke, followed by another soon after. He whiled away days playing with his cocker spaniel, following his beloved Boston Red Sox or, least productively, drinking whiskey.|
Manchester’s “block” reminds me of Max Weber, who pushed himself hard, and finally collapsed: “For hours [Weber] sat and gazed stupidly, picking at his finger nails, claiming that such inactivity made him feel good.” Weber’s soul seemed to rebel against his work schedule, and perhaps Manchester’s soul rebelled in a similar way.
I discovered a historian named Robert Conquest, best known for The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s. Conquest also wrote The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, and Reflections on a Ravaged Century. The son of an American father and an English mother, Conquest was born and raised in England, and attended Oxford. He’s now 95, and is affiliated with Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He appeared in a 1990 documentary called Red Empire. Click here for a Booknotes interview with Conquest.
According to Wikipedia,
|Conquest sharply criticized Western intellectuals such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre... Theodore Dreiser, Bertold Brecht and Romain Rolland for being dupes of Stalin and apologists for his regime, citing various comments they had made denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.|
Conquest is a poet as well as an historian. When Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union, he met with Conquest, and asked Conquest to translate his poem “Prussian Nights.” Doubtless Solzhenitsyn viewed Conquest as a kindred spirit since they were both passionate anti-Communists.
If you’d like to read an eyewitness account of Stalin’s camps, consider Journey Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg. Ginzburg also wrote a sequel called Within the Whirlwind. A film was made about her experiences. One of her sons, Vasily Aksyonov, became a well-known contemporary novelist (Booknotes interview here).
I discovered a writer named Joseph Roth, best known for his novel Radetzky March, about the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1916, at age 22, Roth joined the Austro-Hungarian army. After the war, he became disillusioned with contemporary society, and nostalgic for the old empire. He became a successful, well-paid journalist, and lived in several European capitals. A volume of Roth’s Berlin articles has been published; also a volume of his Paris articles. His wife became mentally ill, and had to be committed to a sanatorium. In his later years, Roth descended into alcoholism; he died in 1939, at age 45.
While many Western intellectuals were deceived by Stalin, and became champions of the Soviet system, Roth was unimpressed: “I don’t for a second doubt the narrowness of a proletarian dictatorship.... I am quite unsentimental about the country and about the Soviet project.”12
Even in 1933, Roth understood the Nazi menace, and wrote to Stefan Zweig,
|You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.|
I discovered a historian named Lewis Namier. Born into Poland’s Jewish community, Namier spent most of his life in England, and wrote in English. He was a teacher of the well-known historian A. J. P. Taylor; Namier’s politics were conservative while Taylor’s were left-leaning. Among Namier’s books are England in the Age of the American Revolution and 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals. “A friend, admirer and patient of Sigmund Freud, Namier was an early pioneer in psycho-history.”13 Namier despised intellectual history. Isaiah Berlin knew Namier, and called him
|one of the most distinguished historians of our time.... one of the most remarkable men that I have ever known.... His immediate intellectual and moral impact was such that even those who, like myself, met him infrequently but regularly, and spoke with him, or rather were addressed by him, on matters in which he was interested, are unlikely to forget it.14|
Isaiah Berlin was much impressed by Namier’s 1929 essay on European Jews, and praised it for being “factually concrete” and for its “great historical sweep.” This essay was later published in Namier’s book, Skyscrapers and Other Essays. Namier is often praised for his prose style. His wife, Julia Namier, wrote a biography of him that won the James Tait Black Prize in 1971.
|1.|| Click here for information about Rhode Island hockey, especially the Rhode Island Reds, a professional team based in Providence from 1926 to 1977. back|
|2.|| Wikipedia back|
|3.|| Wikipedia back|
|4.|| See New York Times back|
|5.|| I also watched C-SPAN’s 3-hour interview with Gilbert, part of the In Depth series. It, too, is an interesting interview, though the host (Connie Doebele) is a lightweight. She begins by asking, What’s Churchill’s relevance for our time? This is the wrong question for a historian. Later she asks, Who is A. J. P. Taylor? Gilbert re-tells, in the 3-hour interview, many of the stories that he tells in the 1-hour interview. back|
|6.|| Gilbert’s 1,000-page history of the Holocaust might be compared to Raul Hilberg’s 3-volume, 1,300-page book, The Destruction of the European Jews (Hilberg was the only scholar interviewed for the documentary Shoah). Gilbert’s book might also be compared to Solzhenitsyn’s 3-volume work on the Gulag. back|
|7.|| Wetzler wrote a memoir called Escape from Hell. back|
|8.|| New York Times back|
|9.|| It was pointed out that Vrba mentions the imminent arrival of Hungarian Jews in his memoir, published in 1964, but not in the Vrba-Wetzler Report, where he speaks only of the imminent arrival of Greek Jews. back|
|10.|| When George Kennan wasn’t strong enough to finish the third volume of his study of the Franco-Russian alliance, he felt that no one else could finish it, and left it as a two-volume work. But while both Kennan and Manchester shrank from finishing their magna opera, they both seemed able to write other, shorter books. back|
|11.|| New York Times back|
|12.|| The Weekly Standard back|
|13.|| Wikipedia back|
|14.||See the chapter on Namier in Berlin’s book Personal Impressions. According to Berlin, Namier often spoke of “the absurdity of those who attempted to account for human behavior by invoking the influence of ideas.” back|