Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: World War II

The Diary of a Young Girl

In my ongoing quest to catch up with the “high school reading list” books I missed the first time around, I listened to the audiobook of Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl and, holy crap, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised due to its reputation, but it’s kinda amazing. Not sure how much the translation from Dutch affected the language, but Anne comes across as incredibly intelligent, self-aware, funny, honest—oh is she honest—and even noble in her struggle to become a better person even in confinement.

Knowing the ending of the story while I read it, I felt an immense sadness as I neared the end. I seemed to go through all the stages of grief: I’m sure they’ll make it through the war, then Why do they have to be discovered? then Couldn’t they just make it a few more months? then Screw Hitler and the war. This whip-smart teen who wanted to be a journalist (she would have killed it on Twitter and as a blogger), who was a self-admitted chatterbox, who struggled through boy troubles, who resented her family but tried to love them… she didn’t get the chance to see the fruit of her laboring, and the world is worse for it.

Selma Blair reads the audiobook and perfectly captures the voice of a teen girl. It’s a classic mix of sarcasm, angst, gossip, philosophizing, high-minded ideals and aspirations, and *ahem* frank discussions of sexuality.

Another high school reading list classic I recently caught up with and loved was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Like Diary, Douglass’s memoir is a hyper-articulate and honest account of oppression that writes beyond its setting and subject, much to the benefit of future readers. I highly recommend both.

So even though The Fault In Our Stars nearly ruined the Anne Frank museum for me, I’d love to visit it one day to pay my respects to an incredible young woman:

“We’re all alive, but we don’t know why or what for; we’re all searching for happiness; we’re all leading lives that are different and yet the same. We three have been raised in good families, we have the opportunity to get an education and make something of ourselves. We have many reasons to hope for great happiness, but… we have to earn it.”

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

51MAjxi5d1L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t do drugs, kids. But do give it up for whoever thought of the perfect double entendre title and cover for Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drug Use in the Third Reich.

This topic is definitely not something I’ve heard about in the history books, as they say, so perhaps it’s fitting that Ohler is not a historian buta novelist and journalist. His writing style is much more vivid and conjectural than what you’d expect from a typical history book, yet it’s still rooted in the historical record, which makes it all the more riveting. Who knew that the same German scientist who invented Aspirin also discovered heroin? And that the Nazis’ infamous blitzkrieg that toppled France was aided by the entire army being hopped up on meth?

Add to this the (more well-known) fact that Hitler was a morphine, cocaine, and oxycodone addict and needed several injections a day of vitamins, uppers, and animal proteins to keep going. This would explain his volatile mood swings, insatiable megalomania, and disconnection from reality toward the end. It would also explain why he was a terrible military strategist but an excellent demagogue and tyrant.

It doesn’t mean, however, as Ohler is clear to point out, that the drugs turned him into someone he wasn’t. The “pharmacological barricade” he erected around himself in his final years only ossified what was already there:

His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.

Highly recommended fast-paced, unorthodox history of a degenerate time and place.


Some informal book notes:

  • Serturner derived morphine from thickened sap of opium poppies in 1805
  • Merck began selling in 1827, and after injections invented in 1850 was used in Civil War
  • Drinks containing morphine and cocaine available at drugstores
  • Hoffman, chemist at Bayer Company, synthesized Aspirin from willow bark and heroin, a derivative of morphine
  • With small operations and low overhead, business boomed especially in Germany, with high stock of engineers, chemists, and education system
  • Germany lost colonial sources of stimulants after Versailles, so had to produce synthetic ones and soon became global leader
  • The Nazis “hated drugs because they wanted to be a drug themselves”; stigmatized and severely punished drug use after 1933
  • Hitler mythologized as anti-drug teetotaler without personal needs
  • Strict anti-drug measures used to deepen surveillance state and prevent addicts from marrying so as not to reproduce faulty genes
  • Jews depicted as pathogen or disease poisoning the Reich needing to be exterminated
  • Celebrity doctor Morell pioneered use of vitamins mixed with stimulants; Hitler made him personal physician
  • Inspired by US’s amphetamine Benzedrine at Berlin Olympic games, pharmacist Hauschild synthesized new methamphetamine Pervitin, like adrenalin but gentler and longer lasting
  • Meth’s long lasting effects kill nerve cells, and once it runs out the hormones take weeks to resupply, leading to lack of drive and joylessness
  • Pervitin became widely used, assumed safe; marketed as slimming agent because it curbed appetite (meth chocolates: “Hildebrand chocolates always delight”)
  • Appeasement wouldn’t work because Hitler, a morphine addict, always needed more
  • Morell revived Czech president Emil Hacha, who had a heart attack before signing papers of capitulation, so he could sign them
  • According to studies Pervitin kept people from sleeping but didn’t make them cleverer, so it was considered ideal for soldiers
  • Blitzkrieg in France fueled by meth, including Rommel; French and British unprepared for constant attack
  • Propagated idea that Germans were superior beings reinforced by meth’s symptom of arrogance
  • Hitler’s inferiority complex made him distrust success of smarter generals
  • Luftwaffe’s Göring a morphine addict and felt victory shouldn’t be left to army, so convinced Hitler to halt Dunkirk advance
  • “Gröfaz” German soldiers’ derogatory acronym for Nazi propaganda’s term for Hitler as “greatest commander of all time”
  • Morell created new vitamin combo Vitamultin, which had unremarkable elements but was marketed solely to Hitler and generals; when Luftwaffe medical chief rejected them Morell got Goring to fire him
  • Word about Pervitin spread in late 1940 and Reich health fuhrer Conti fought to have it eradicated under Reich opium law, but war needs made it essential
  • Pervitin of no use on Russian front, which was attritional
  • Hitler had “severed relations with geopolitical reality” by declaring war with US; out of touch in bunker
  • Mid-1943 started taking Eukodal (oxycodone), twice as powerful as morphine, created euphoric state higher than heroin
  • Hitler was doped up for Valkyrie explosion so didn’t have pain despite busted ear drums and splinters
  • Giesing, ear nose throat specialist summoned after Valkyrie in July 1944, prescribed cocaine, which “erases self-doubt and encourages megalomania”
  • Hitler consented to full-body examination to get more cocaine from reluctant Giesing
  • Erected “pharmacological barricade” around himself, within “deluded totalitarian system”
  • “His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.”
  • Used death camp prisoners to test new endurance pills and cocaine-spiked gum, kept awake and marching
  • Started running out of supplies and withdrawing in early 1945

A Frozen Hell

51m1TGDWHPL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgFinland alone, in danger of death—superb, sublime Finland—shows what free men can do. —Winston Churchill

And Trotter, the author of the superb book A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, shows what fine historians can do. Not sure how I found this book, but after visiting Finland last summer I wanted to learn more about the history of my distant ancestors. When this one popped up on Goodreads and had a good rating, I checked it out from the library, and am glad I did.

Like the “Phony War” of mainland Europe, which was playing out at the same time, the Winter War was a kind of prelude to the main events that would devastate the rest of the hemisphere. Trotter posits that Stalin didn’t actually want to go to war with Finland. Considering Russia’s close relations with Finland in the past and seeing Germany’s advance through Europe, Stalin saw Finland’s value as a buffer between Russia and Scandinavia, and thought his demands for some of Finland’s Baltic islands reasonable.

But Finland thought otherwise. After the rejection of Stalin’s ultimatum and a “who shot first?” controversy (it was Russia, who then claimed it was Finland to publicly justify their preemptive belligerence—they were expelled from the League of Nations for it) the Winter War was off and running. Or rather, lumbering. Though equipped with far more soldiers, artillery, tanks, and supplies, the Russians were an unwieldly force in unfamiliar terrain, making them easy targets for the dug-in Finns, who were well-acquianted with the snowy forests and much better prepared for the frigid siege. The Red Army had also been gutted of its senior officers and commanders thanks to Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the late 1930s, so it was partially a self-inflicted debilitation.

The Finns’ homefield advantage made sabotage and survival the keys to survival. The Finnish commander Mannerheim didn’t even expect total victory, knowing the disparity of men and munitions was against the Finns; “the most honorable annihilation” was what he expected. After a long battle of attrition between two armies unprepared for sustained combat—and a Russian surge months after they expected to win once Stalin was sufficiently fed up with the incompetence—that’s what they got.

But even on so brutal a battlefield, there were some funny moments:

Propaganda efforts by both sides were amateurish and negligible in effect. During the so-called January lull in the Isthmus fighting, the Russians began using loudspeaker trucks to broadcast propaganda programs toward Finnish lines. The Finns started looking forward to them, since the music was refreshing and the Red artillery had orders to cease firing during the playing of Kuusinen’s speeches so the Finns would not miss a word. The Finns used these interludes to “make a break for the head.”

The Finns also weren’t very impressed with the paper the propaganda was printed on:

Leaflets by the million were airdropped all over Finland, promising an improved standard of living. They were printed on such grossly inferior paper stock that the Finns, many of whom knew a thing or two about the paper industry, disdained to use them in their latrines. In the leaflets Finnish workers were promised an eight-hour day, something they had already enjoyed, by law, for the past twenty years.

Also thought it was funny how even on the frontlines the Finns wouldn’t be denied their saunas:

For many of the encircled Soviet troops, just staying alive, for one more hour or one more day, was an ordeal comparable to combat. Freezing, hungry, crusted with their own filth (while the besieging Finns, a thousand meters away, might be enjoying a sauna-bath), for them the central forest was truly a snow-white hell.

The war ended once the Soviets changed tactics and were finally able to overwhelm the exhausted Finnish troops. Though Finland had to cede some land, Stalin’s dream of annexing Finland as a whole wasn’t to be, and Finland would remain the only Baltic state to remain independent from the Soviet Union. Hostilities would renew three months later in the Continuation War, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa and would see Finland fighting with Nazi Germany as “co-belligerents” against Russia. The enemy of their enemy was their friend, I guess.

Like many a military history, A Frozen Hell often gets too far into the weeds of troop formations and movements for my taste. But it shines when focusing on the grander strategies and diplomatic endeavors of the belligerents, and especially the ground-level experience of the men in the trenches. Highly recommended.

So Far Advanced

Here’s a funny bit in an otherwise unfunny but fascinating book called A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. After Finland refused Stalin’s ultimatum, Russia initiated war and installed a puppet Finnish government that signed the “treaty” Stalin had wanted:

Never change, Finland.

The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)

The Weight Of History

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.   —Shirley Abbott

Today, as on every veterans’ themed day, I thought of my grandfather. A lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army in World War II, he earned a Bronze Star for bravery. It is now on display at my parents’ house, encased with the citation letter and his other decorations and badges. He later served under Hoover in the FBI, stationed in Superior, WI, because he could speak Finnish.

It’s funny how something small like that – being able to speak a foreign language – can affect the future so drastically. Had he not been assigned to northern Wisconsin, my grandparents would have never built the cabin on the lake I cherished visiting as a kid. And if we go Back to the Future Part II alternate-reality on this, maybe I would not have even been born. It’s a scary thought.

But that’s why I’m so grateful to my grandpa and all of those in my family line who lived as they lived, for better and for worse. We cannot escape history, as Lincoln said seven score and ten years ago. Everything our family was and is, we are too. This thought may disturb some, but for me it’s a blessing. I consider myself fortunate to have a grandfather from whom I most assuredly inherited my love of history, desire to learn new words, and my penchant for crossword puzzles and squinting.

So more than a simple thank-you for military service, let’s take days like Memorial Day to remember our ancestral heritage and cherish all that our progenitors gave us.

The War by Ken Burns

I’m still working my way through it, but I’ve already come to appreciate Ken Burns’ seven-part 2007 miniseries The War.

Burns explains in the making-of feature that he wanted to show the war not through historians but through average citizens, men and women and children from every corner of the country who endured the front lines abroad or did their part at home. He focuses on four towns—one in California, Minnesota, Alabama, and Connecticut—and uses interviews with the veterans and their families from those towns to make the enormous scope of World War II more intimate.

It’s a great historical record of the American involvement, delving deep into topics that are not often discussed like Japanese internment and the segregation of minorities in the Army. Burns employs his trademark use of photos, footage, and interviews in each scene. Some photos we’ve seen before, but most are new and show us a different view of what has become a very familiar war.

Norah Jones’ “American Anthem,” the series’ theme, is very good, though not as good as the theme for Burns’ The Civil War, called “Ashokan Farewell.” And while I really love David McCullough’s narration in The Civil War, actor Keith David’s here has quickly grown on me.

So if you have 15 hours to spare one these days, fill them with The War.

Forty-One

I’m watching the video tribute to George H. W. Bush at the Republican National Convention. It reminded me how great a person and American he is. World War II fighter pilot, Congressman, Ambassador to the U.N., envoy to China, Director of the CIA, Vice-President, and finally, President — there are few public servants with such a record.

Seeing him at the ripe age of 84, he reminded me of my grandpa Cliff, both by his appearance and by his resume. Grandpa Cliff served as a lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army, trudging through the Battle of the Bulge, then through decades of service in the FBI. Both men are decorated members of the Greatest Generation.

I watched the Bush Sr. episode of American Experience a while back and it explained that regardless of some of Bush Sr.’s decisions in office, he held true to his own code of honor and dignity. That code guided him through some tough times and hard decisions. Even when the decisions were unpopular. Perhaps we’ll be thinking the same things about 41’s son Dubya one day. Or not.

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