Monday, September 30, 2013

Frederick Douglas by Philip S. Foner

This biography introduces one of the greatest American personalities in American history.  Mr. Douglas, a former slave becomes one of the most articulate spokesmen for the abolitionist movement. He becomes a foremost activist for the causes of abolition, negro suffrage , women's suffrage and other civil rights.  He speaks out against the colonization movement, the demand for the black populace to go back to Africa because white America can not seem to amalgamate black people into white society.

One striking feature of this bio is that the author records the observations of Karl Marx, founder of Socialism/Communism.  Marx was keenly observing what was going on during the Civil War because he was sure that the economic revolution would be triggered by the overwhelming work force of newly emancipated slaves!  Although what Marx predicted did not come to fruition, nevertheless the upheaval and struggle for black rights is well detailed here.

Mr Douglas has his fans among white society.  At first he aligns with William Lloyd Garrison in the cause for abolition.  Garrison turns on Douglas because Douglas questions Garrison's need for radicalism.  Mr. Douglas gains a following in England and is joined by the white Julia Griffiths who becomes indispensable in cranking out his periodicals and newsletters.  Speculation about their relationship creates a stir and is used to attack him.  Some claim that perhaps Griffiths edited and tutored Douglas because his articulation of ideas and his oratory are too fantastic to believe originating from a former slave.  Mr. Douglas feels compelled to write his own memoir to stop the speculation about his integrity.  Griffiths ends up leaving him so as to not upset the equilibrium of his family.  Curiously, after his wife dies, he marries an educated white women to the chagrin of the black community.  He, nevertheless, explains that he always believed in humanism and has always been colorblind.

The book details the nightmare of Reconstruction, the hatred of blacks and the murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan.  And throughout the entire period, Frederick Douglas is constantly agitating not only for the betterment of his people but also for women's rights.  He shows courage to speak out.  Newspapers throughout the USA testify to his amazing oratory skill by following his career as a lecturer and adult educator.

The book teaches us how the Republican party was originally the party of choice for the black man and Frederick Douglas was steadfast in his support of it.  The Democratic party represents Southern interests and prejudice.  Not until after the Grant administration does the Republican party seem to abandon the black man's plight and align with big business ignoring past pledges.

This is an inspiring, excellent introduction to the origins of the politics of Black America and of one of its greatest spokesmen.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

This strong narrative documents the career of William Dodd, a historian by vocation in the role of the American Ambassador to Nazi Germany in the beginning of Hitler's rise in the 1930's.  It also follows the promiscuous behavior of his daughter, Martha as she is first lured by the seductive nature of the nationalistic momentum of the German people following their leader and then romantically linked to a Soviet spy.

Dodd is given a mandate directly from President Roosevelt to represent the values of the USA in stark contrast to what was happening in Germany.  The lengthy reports being submitted by the Consul General about the violent attacks on Jews become politically sensitive because the USA does not want to interrupt domestic issues.  What makes this a very interesting read is that Dodd himself and his daughter have genteel antisemitic tendencies and initially can identify with Germany's irritation of their "Jewish problem".  What unfolds in this narrative is, however, Dodd's evolution starting out as a neutral diplomat and turning into a tough social critic of Germany, rejecting Nazi terror and brutality.

The title is a double entendre because it refers to the section of Berlin in which houses the Zoo and where the Ambassador lives and where much of his political activities occur.  Moreover, it reveals the brutal nature of the Nazis as beasts.  The reader is introduced to the cast of brutal characters: Hermann Goering, Josef Goebels, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself.  In Dodd"s only meeting with Hitler, he experiences Hitler's flash temper with his piercing stare.  As time goes on, Dodd becomes more and more revolted and repulsed by the violent nature of the regime.

One gets a glimpse of harsh American politics through the developing opposition to him as Ambassador because he refuses to temper the truth about Nazism.  His own antisemitism wanes as a result of his constant witnessing of innocent people being beaten.  At first seeing Jews being beaten, his (and his daughter's) immediate reaction supposes justification and reason.  When an American is beaten, however, by mistake, the Ambassador must lodge a complaint.  These events go unreported back home in the USA.  Dodd eventually is eased out of his position because of his refusal of doctoring and tempering the truth.

Dodd goes down in history as an honest reflection of American values of justice and seeking the truth. His daughter, however, is more embarrassing than a reflection of American values.  She is seen as being seduced by Nazi men and then by a Soviet.   One of her first loves is the first commander of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels.  Diels comes off human and actually is out maneuvered by Himmler who takes over as Gestapo chief. She enjoys the wild hedonism of the Nazis and falls in love with a Soviet diplomat who is a spy.   Nevertheless, she too, transforms into a critic of the Nazi regime.  The brutality is too much to stomach.

The book ends at the beginning of the end for European Jewry and thus is a heartbreaking read.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Mr. Goldhagen analyzes the perpetrators of the Holocaust in this compelling study.  He studies the least Nazi indoctrinated group: police battalions and finds some chilling facts about the group.  The alacrity with which the shooters killed and the brutality inflicted on the innocent victims and lack of moral concern or dissent from the killings put the Germans in a different category of antisemitism. Mr. Goldhagen claims only an "eliminationist" antisemitism could have produced an efficient killing apparatus to have killed so many people without serious dissent or without moral outrage.  Mr. Goldhagen challenges the previous studies that gloss over the lack of moral outrage and shows that the real problem was not even the lack of moral outrage but rather the alacrity and enthusiasm with which the task was carried out!  He shows that those few who opted out of being the shooters did so not out of moral principle but rather out of squeamishness; in principle they were convinced that Jews should be destroyed.

The traditional German defense that was brought out and introduced in the Eichmann trial of "only following orders" is completely destroyed in this study.  There is evidence that photos were proudly sent home picturing the actual shootings.  There is evidence that wives supported husbands in the field of killing operations.  The author shows that the program was so large requiring so many people to perpetrate the murders that there could not have been any serious coercion.  The evidence does not support any serious argument in Germany against killing the Jews.

Churchmen calling out against the evil like Karl Barth are unique and not the rule.  The opposite seems to be true that the Church allowed the spewing of hatred and only a few Churchmen called out against it.  Only a few voices remind that "Pauline love" precludes hatred of the Jews. Those voices fall on deaf ears.

Mr. Goldhagen studies the concept of the labor camp (not killing centers) and concludes that the exploitation of slave labor had little positive economic effects or advantages.  The labor camp, the author asserts served as an outlet for orgiastic terror and brutality.

The author argues that Germany went through long stages of indoctrination toward antisemitism but only with Hitler's racial and eliminationist tendencies do the German people become inured to persecution of the Jews and agree enthusiastically to carry out his plan and wishes.

I would like to offer that eliminationist tendencies in hating Jews do not start with Germany.  Biblical exegesis from Nachmanides shows that the ancient Pharaoh wanted to eliminate the Israelites and could not call for their destruction for fear of the immediate moral outcry.  Rather, Pharaoh gradually introduces an incremental persecution program when eventually everyone in the country sees the necessity of casting the male infants into the Nile without moral outrage.  Additionally, the Biblical character of Haman hates Mordecai the Jew and hence forth desires to eliminate the entire Jewish nation.

Additionally, the concept of willing executioners is also not necessarily originating with Germany but perhaps has its origin in ancient Egypt too.  Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik comments that the killing of the first born that culminates in the 10 plagues recited at the Passover Seder represents the concept of willing perpetrators.  The Rav explains that the first born in antiquity was the basic administrator of the family.  Striking down the first born meant that he had to punished for the complicity in the persecution of the Israelites.  Egypt was a country with willing executioners.

I do not seek to minimize the uniqueness or minimize the gravity of the Holocaust because the German efficiency and scope of murder is so great. I point out, nevertheless that the single concepts of eliminating the Jews and being complicit in persecuting them are old themes. The event of the Holocaust is uniquely German because as Mr. Goldhagen argues the brutality coupled with alacrity in killing creates a whole new strand of Jew hatred.

ISRAEL VS. IRAN The Shadow War by Yaakov Katz and Yoaz Hendel

In order to understand what is happening between Israel and its neighbors, this book is a good primer. Katz, a military corespondent for the Jerusalem Post and Hendel, a military historian at Bar Ilan Unversity effectively discuss that last twenty years of the political tension and war between Israel and its neighbors concluding that Israel is in a proxy war with Iran.

The immediate neighbors of Israel are essentially being armed by Iran.  In the north, in Lebanon, Israel must contend with Hezbollah,  a Shi'ite military organization that constantly threatens Israel through rhetoric with heaving its arsenal of rockets down on Israel's north periodically.  Its main supplier is Iran.

Hamas, a terrorist organization that took over the Gaza strip, is constantly struggling with Fatah for control of the West Bank threatens Israel from the Southwest.  It is supplied secretly by Iran even though culturally Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi'ite.

Syria's ruling party, although not an immediate threat to Israel at this time because it is in midst of a civil war, nevertheless receives its weapons and support from Iran.

As Iran continues to march toward building a nuclear arsenal, Israel has had to make adjustments. The authors contend that Israel has adapted its army to the new conditions of a proxy war with a possible showdown by reworking its armed forces into a more commando style fighting force and utilizing high technology as opposed to a conventional army that is protected by a superior air force.  In the past, Israel has prided its army as fundamentally based on the civilian reservist who during war is called up to fight.  Now, the army does not rely on the reserve but relies on the commando concept of preemptive and surgical strikes with electronic warfare.

The ultimate gambit must include Israel's successful preparation for any serious counter strike from her immediate neighbors or from Iran itself.  Military planners must include a program to absorb the massive retaliation bound to occur from a very vocal and animated opponent.

This book is a very sobering, chilling read of history, strategic possibilities and military scenarios.