What to do with Japan, by Wilfrid Fleisher

August 20, 2012 at 17:38 (Asian History, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

What to do, indeed, with a book bearing such a deliciously arrogant and condescending title? There is something brash and daring about it: the refusal to wonder if anything might be done, but the decision what shall be done. As a piece of history in itself, What to do with Japan is a fascinating prospect, written as an opinion piece by a journalist from the New York Herald Tribune some time in 1945. But it is shocking just how prescient Fleisher’s insights into the allied nations’ looming post-war ordeal actually are. It is remarkable how sage and levelheaded he remains, with no emotional outbursts and few racially-motivated generalisations on the “yellow race”. Even when he does make cultural judgements, they are as much reflections on the Western mindset as they are descriptions of a foreigner. “We know them to be fanatical and vindictive…” he begins, setting the stage for a book in which what America (and the rest of the world) ‘knows’ ought perhaps to be re-evaluated.

“If we expect to be welcomed back in Asia with open arms as liberators, we may experience some rude shocks unless we are prepared to return with a new philosophy…we assume, perhaps too readily, that the conquered peoples are yearning to rid themselves of their Japanese masters and to welcome the return of the occidental Powers.”

-What to do with Japan

Starkly prophetic are his insights into the difficulty of managing a post-colonial world, and of occupying a foreign country in the modern era. From predicting grave trouble between Russia and China in the decades ahead, to warning that any American occupation of Japan must have a clear exit strategy and a roadmap towards responsible self-government, there are entire paragraphs that would not look out of place if they were transposed sixty years into the future.

There are moments where Fleisher makes inaccurate predictions, but these are none the less interesting for their errancy.  He utterly fails to predict the Cold War, and it is deeply interesting and even a little humbling to hear him use the words ‘united nations’ as an adjective and a noun more than as an organisation, several times evoking the sincere belief that the nations of the world would have general consensus throughout the rest of the century, only pausing to solve occasional disputes.

An interesting and manageably brief little book, that stands out from its competition by virtue of the tact, humility and conciliatory nature with which it is written. It is truly rare to find so much good sense packed into such an unassuming form.

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Hiroshima, by John Hersey

February 29, 2012 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )


This book shines as a piece of primary-source history, and is elevated to excellence by the sterling work Hersey did in editing it. Published immediately after the end of the war in 1946, it contains very little of the sort of analysis or wider political context that many straight history books do, but also manages to veer away from gutter press journalism (despite the fact that these accounts were indeed published in The New Yorker). The story was sensational enough, and Hersey evidently saw no need to sensationalise it any further.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki…had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”


Instead, he captured the voices of his interviewees respectfully, without embellishment, and simply, editing the stories into compact and powerful narratives that somehow become as cohesive a tale as though he had invented the stories himself. His arrangement of the witness accounts in such a masterful way is impressive, especially given his constraints of telling the story through the eyes of his interviewed subjects.

For obvious reasons, this book is rather shy with statistics and wider analysis, and while that limits its usability in historical study, it does help the reader to see things more through the eyes of the victims, and helps transmit some of the emotional helplessness and fear that otherwise might have been lost by a more comfortable and more distant view. An excellent human-interest book, and an invaluable and unique historical document.

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Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer

August 29, 2011 at 19:18 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, War) (, , , )


Albert Speer is a convincing and likable writer: and therefore any discerning reader would do well to resolve to dislike him and remain utterly unconvinced. This was harder than it sounds, possibly because it is easy to want to find some wholesomeness even in the darkest and vilest of pits. Speer’s apparent willing martyrdom in Spandau and his bleating and repetitive urges for the reader to realise that he considers himself guilty (even as he coolly explains why he was not guilty) are winsome, appealing and ultimately dangerous.

It is impossible to read this book and remain a sceptic. It is impossible to read this book and consider Speer to be entirely deserving of his harsh sentence. It is almost impossible to read this book and understand the full horror behind such clinical phrases as “imported workers” or “forced labour”. The stinking body count and the ploughed mud of Europe’s cities seem utterly irreconcilable with Speer’s gentleman’s war. Quite besides his genteel and sympathetic self-portrait, he presents a Hitler both familiar and new. Even forty years after this book’s publication, Hitler is still spoken of by serious historians as a tactical genius (a madman, naturally – but a genius nonetheless).

“…the chaotic command structure made it possible for men of good will to limit chaos in the future.”

-Inside the Third Reich

If Speer is to be believed (and he is no less convincing here than when protesting his own innocence) Hitler was an utter idiot. A lucky idiot, but a poltroon of poltroons. Besides the intimate portraiture of the Fuehrer, Speer provides his true judgement in a comic facade of buffoonery and incompetence at every level, and gives a convincing argument for the Third Reich’s hypothetical triumph under steadier hands. Speer’s memories can be questioned; his motives even more so. But if this is not after all the true inside story from a true inside penitent, then it is at least the inside story that a man who thought he was penitent, thought was true. A priceless historical document and a deeply interesting memoir.

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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon

July 24, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , , )


Piers Brendon writes with the sort of jocular and sardonic style that has become the form for modern histories; always gently mocking all that is positive in his chosen study, and phlegmatically acknowledging all that is negative, all the while maintaining a carefully constructed distance so as not to be sullied by the riff-raff he describes. This permits him astonishing liberties in both damning and lauding, but is a little frustrating due to the difficulty of pinning him down to an honest opinion: these he gives sparingly and reservedly.

While this book is an overview and a glossed account of some two hundred years of global history: in spite of–or even because of his title, Brendon spends very little time at all in the British Isles, and omits almost in their entirety such crucial subjects as the industrial revolution, the repeal of the corn laws, the liberalisation of the British Parliament and even the fierce battles of Disraeli and Gladstone for control of Bristish destiny. All of these subjects are admitted only insofar as they relate to Empire, and then only as they relate directly.

“They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for ‘curried black babies.’ Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until ‘you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.'”

-The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Despite this selectiveness and despite his massive scope, Brendon manages to treat several intricate colonial stories with surprising detail. There are the ubiquitous anecdotes and personal recollections and slanders, following modern history’s trend of focusing a little myopically on the “common people” (whoever they were) at the expense of wars and acts and personages; but Brendon allows himself enough space and time to pause on occasion to actually question the causes and reasons for some very singular events. Seldom does he allow himself to give a definitive answer, but at least he ventures so far as to offer out definitive questions.

With prose both lyrical and perversely vernacular, this is not the sort of book where any committed reader will find himself bogged down in a syntactically murderous discussion of dusty manuscript or appalling old civil servants and their historical meddling. It is thrilling in parts, but not gratuitously so, and has a depth that is unexpected in such a casual treatment of such a vast subject. The book’s greatest omission is its apparent failure to contextualise its history, or to link its chronology in a dynamic way to the evolution of global politics and society: however, this omission is apparent only at the first glance, and only because of the sheer mass of material presented, which outweighs the clear comparative commentary that Brendon provides. This is not a flawless work, and it is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a pleasing introduction written with a fluent pen and a surprising amount of insight and detail.

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The Sinking of the Lancastria, by Jonathan Fenby

July 21, 2011 at 11:39 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Second World War, War) (, , , )


Reading this book, it’s easy to see that Fenby has not really left behind his background of journalism. The formula of “find an event, slap a scandalous title on it, and interview as many people as possible who were remotely connected” is really the pith of this book. In contrast to Fenby’s much more meticulous work on the life of Chiang Kai Shek, it seems an extremely poor hash of a harrowing and tragic story.

“…a man swimming past a flaming patch of oil towards the float on which he sat. Suddenly, the man’s hair caught fire. He began to scream. His head went under, and the oil closed over him.”

-The Sinking of the Lancastria

For Fenby to take this dreadful event and try and squeeze a cheap conspiracy theory out of it seems rather cynical (the subtitle is, “The twentieth century’s deadliest naval disaster and Churchill’s plot to make it disappear”), and the disjointed journalese simply does not lend it credibility as a historical account (one might reasonably expect to see the individuals’ ages printed in brackets after their names). Needless to say there is not the slightest piece of evidence presented in the book to justify this book’s bombastic title, and surprisingly little attention given to either the Dunkirk evacuation (to which Fenby constantly references in passing but never in detail, and frequently with derision) or any contextual information detailing naval warfare, the legitimacy of troop ships as targets, or other peripheral essentials.

With those damning shortcomings, it has to be said that the quality of the interviews is second to none, and that if this book is useful in any regard, it gives the reader quite a good idea of what it would be like to survive a bombed ship during the Second World War. It is short and easy to read, and if the hyperactive claims and conspiracies are ignored then it is quite a useful source book.

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A Special Mission, by Dan Kurzman

June 21, 2011 at 18:34 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, War) (, , , , , )


As a piece of investigative journalism this work is almost unparalleled, with a remarkably detailed story accompanying a melodramatic and unbelievable title: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII. Kurzman’s interviews with Vatican archivists and with General Wolff himself are indeed a coup for him, and this book’s premise is almost as stunning in premise as the incredible capers of Otto Skorzeny or Hanna Reitsch.

Kurzman’s disclaimer that all information is taken directly from memoirs or interviews is important, as his tale is intricately detailed and painstakingly constructed, with intimate depictions of the likes of Himmler, Hitler and the distasteful nest of Nazi diplomats, SS troopers and intriguers lurking in Rome. It is exceedingly difficult to judge the book’s authenticity, and it must be kept in mind that the history’s chief character related most of its material points. Kurzman is usually good about mentioning whether a particular part of his story has documentary evidence or corroboration, but third-party verification remains the largest problem for this book.

What Kurzman provides, true or false, is an elaborate treasury of inside conversation and confession (which is valuable in its own right). He does a marvellous job in putting it all together in a readable format that is full of opinion, but which stops short of forcing conclusions or judgements down the reader’s throat. After reading what is essentially a biography in extreme brevity, independent biographies on Pius, Zolli, Weizsäcker and others are almost essential reading as supplements to Wolff’s moment in history.

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The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

May 19, 2011 at 12:43 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War) (, , )


The lives of saints can make for difficult reading. They are better than their readers, humbler and kinder in every way. What would they do with a negative response? Smile and bless their critic. It is easy to come out of those pages feeling angrier and more hopeless than before, knowing that there is no way to live up to each particular glowing account. How fortunate then, that Corrie remains charming and honest throughout the entirety of this book. When she is furious with the stupidity (and yet grudgingly impressed by the faith) of her sister, she admits to it. When she makes mistakes she owns them, and is never one to straddle a high horse; when she preaches it is from a place of profound humility and shyness.

Moreover, the resounding theme throughout this book is that nothing good–not patience or forgiveness or strength or wisdom, or even love–can be conjured up from some hidden place within. All are given to the Lord, and all are ascribed to his mercy. If anything could drag a painted saint down to the level of the despairing reader and impart comfort and grace, this simple axiom is that. As an historical account the book is flawless, written without reserve or without demonising either man or machine. The impression of unimpeachable honesty stands throughout, and while it is perhaps a shame that the biography of the ten Boom family is so abruptly truncated, there is ample and delightful digression into the distant past of the Beje and Casper’s grandfather to satisfy the transfixed, though not enough to drown the light reader.

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When Light Pierced the Darkness, by Nechama Tec

April 19, 2011 at 15:20 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )


Remarkably well-researched, in this book Tec does an admirable job of walking the line between publishing meticulously-recorded interviews and presenting a survey-based thesis with no possibility of a control group under trying circumstances on a massively controversial issue.

The largest criticism to be applied to this book strikes at its stated goal, and is Tec’s lack of differentiation between the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Pole’; somewhat cynically, Tec admits to using both terms interchangeably. Although this does not really weight the conclusions she comes to, it certainly makes the book’s subtitle extremely misleading (although some distortion is inevitable, such as her somewhat naïf and contradictory description of hardcore Communist Atheist Christians!).

This book is certainly more of an academic work than a retelling of wartime events for an amateur audience, and while her rendering of personal stories is both lively and dramatic, there is a clear bias towards analysis of data and the preeminence of statistics in her study. It is a little disappointing that her focus is so utterly Polish (though she cannot be faulted for attempting even that mammoth task), and that the results of her study can only be of limited use in determining the motivations, challenges and successes of rescuers in the Third Reich. It is probably true that any frustration with this history’s limited scope simply demonstrates how well Tec has performed her task. At times traumatic, at times dull and at times lively, this is nonetheless a valuable addition to holocaust literature

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The Balkans, by Misha Glenny

March 24, 2011 at 14:57 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )


An essential book for anyone interested in anything more than a snapshot of the Balkans and their troubled history. Glenny does not go into great depth when dealing with peripheral issues such as Western European politics, and he relies heavily on his reader’s familiarity with the Byzantine-Turkish wars in particular and the entire region’s Medieval history in general; but when he reaches his subject he is thoughtful, painstaking and scrupulous in his artistic depiction of the shifting fates and follies of the Yugoslavian nations and their neighbours.

His book has a definite agenda to it, and his insistence on blaming the Treaty of Lausanne, Congress of Berlin and NATO for all of the Balkan violence seems a little one-sided; while external manipulation has certainly plagued the region excessively, the sheer scale of the repeated genocides, rapes and wanton slaughters suggests deeper-seeded issues than simply the provocation of careless and greedy superpowers. Nevertheless, although this particular perspective is laid on rather thickly, Glenny is a convincing communicator, and never relies upon blind assumption or tenuous causality, tracing his arguments out in abundant documentary caution, and providing a very attractive thesis.

This history expends itself mostly between 1890 and 1940, choosing the bookends of the Congress of Berlin and the disastrous Nazi occupation; but an extra hundred pages on the Communist Balkans would have been very welcome (Ceaucescu’s deposition and execution is given only one sentence, and many of the colourful and vital figures are given only brief mention). Evidently Glenny is of the opinion that these years were dominated by symptoms of earlier illnesses, and of only fleeting curiosity. While a great deal of credit must be given Glenny for his even coverage of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania and even peripheral nations such as Turkey and Hungary, after the Second World War his attention becomes almost entirely diverted to the Bosniak-Croat-Serb quarrels–a surprising choice, considering Albania’s and Macedonia’s supreme relevance to these three ethnic groups! He admits as much, but prefers to centre his efforts on the major players rather than the prizes for which they were fighting.

It seems that there is room for Glenny or another historian to expand upon the dooms prophesied in this book and write a lengthy sequel covering Yugoslavia from 1990 until Kosovo’s independence. Such a book would be very welcome, and would add significantly to this excellent work.

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Hitler’s Undercover War, by William Breuer

March 3, 2011 at 14:52 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Historical, Mediocre Books, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , )


This book contains some excellently-told stories, with just the right amount of suspense and window-dressing to keep dusty historical anecdotes interesting. With most of the material apparently from FBI transcripts and interviews, some creative license seems to have been taken. It is occasionally difficult to keep up with the dozens of names (especially considering so many pseudonyms!), but this is offset considerably by a very useful index, both of spies’ names and the sentences they received; and also by the author’s useful focus on three or four key figures and their stories throughout the book (some of whom were of chief significance, some who were unimportant but most interesting).

Some lengthier commentary on Operations Fortitude, Bodyguard and Quicksilver would have been welcome – even if they had only been comments on why they were led by British intelligence rather than American. Breuer does make a little too much effort to tell the story of the war alongside the stories of his spies (to do otherwise would open up accusations of an isolated and confused narrative) but he can spend a little too long dealing with events, people or politics largely irrelevant to his chosen topic. Usually, though, he manages to dip into the European theatre for just long enough to set contexts and introduce key characters upon whom he intends to focus. A difficult job well played, and a charmingly-written account.

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