Monday, July 28, 2014

"Secret Germany" by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (2008)

In July of 1944, a bomb went off inside the same room where Adolf Hitler was receiving a briefing. It was placed by German officer, Claus Von Stauffenberg, who had more in mind than just the assassination of an insane tyrant. The bomb was just the beginning of a larger plot to topple the entire Nazi government in order to sue with the Allies to end the most destructive war in human history. Von Stauffenberg was the ring leader of a movement within the German Army's highest levels, a clandestine group, a cadre of men, a Secret Germany, that had been planning this event for years.

You thought "Secret Germany" was going to be another typical history book. It is not. Only the first 70 pages or so follow a traditional nonfiction format by detailing the events of the July 20th plot to overthrow the Nazi government. By page 70, Stauffenberg, the protagonist has already been unceremoniously executed in a downtown Berlin courtyard. The rest of the book moves from a biography of Claus Von Stauffenberg, into a deep historical contextualization of the German nation, followed by a mystical/spiritual justification for the ambitious coup attempt known as 'Valkyrie.' At times, "Secret Germany" seems more philosophical than historical, more Joseph Campbell than Stephen Ambrose.

The Americans were first able to meet the Germans on the ground in face to face combat at a place called Sidi Bou Zid in Tunisia in 1942. To put it bluntly, the Americans got their asses kicked. They turned and ran from the enemy who had taken over almost all of Europe and had threatened to dominate North Africa. Staff Officer for Operations of the 10 Panzer Division at the time (the German unit directly responsible for the American rout) was 36 year old Count Claus Von Stauffenberg. He was undeniably brilliant and had an ease of command that belied his young age. He dealt with problems in his units quickly and informally, remembering small, personal details about his subordinates. Stauffenberg was the kind of officer to whom even his superiors deferred in battle when it counted most. He was a legend in the Wehrmacht, on par with Irwin Rommel. Commanders scrambled to get him in their units. He was destined for high rank.

On April 7th, 1942, Stauffenberg was wounded by strafing American P-40 fighter-bombers. The American .50 caliber rounds tore off his right hand, destroyed his left eye, and left him with only three fingers on his left hand. His knees and legs were so badly wounded that it was believed this promising brilliant officer would never walk again. Transferred to Munich to recuperate, the famous Lieutenant Colonel Stauffenberg received more high ranking visitors than any patient the hospital had ever seen. He refused all pain killers and sedatives and was miraculously back on his feet and on active duty less than three months after he was wounded. While recovering he had remarked to friends that he believed his life had been spared for a reason. He believed he was meant to stop the senseless slaughter of millions (and he wasn't even aware of the full scope of the Holocaust) and do everything in his power to save Germany from utter destruction. "Since the generals have so far done nothing," he remarked to his uncle, "The colonels must now go into action."

A cabal of anti-Hitler conspirators had existed within the German military hierarchy as early as '38. As the new Fuehrer planned an invasion of Czechoslovakia, the conspirators were also planning to use the pretext of this clearly unnecessary war to depose (and likely execute) Hitler. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's act of appeasement put the brakes on any need to invade since the Czhecks had been handed to Adolf on a silver platter.

Maybe even more tragically than infamous appeasement of Chamberlain was the fact that this whole debacle served to effectively pull the rug out from under the coup and the conspirators subsequently lost all momentum. The conspiracy lost even more energy as the German military went on to invade country after country and to be met with victory after victory. The conspirators felt they had lost their best chance for success and that popular support for their efforts had likely evaporated.

Stauffenberg became head of the Reserve Army in October of 1943, and took up office in his new headquarters in Berlin. His arrival in the inner circle of the plot to overthrow Hitler energized everyone involved. His charisma, his confidence, and his passion motivated the others to move with purpose and coordination. Assassination attempts had been made on Hitler before (approximately 46 attempts between '21 and '45!), but the new circle of conspirators, lead by Stauffenberg, had plans to not only kill the Fuehrer, but to overthrow the entire German government. He called his plan and his circle of conspirators the "Secret Germany."

The plan already existed within the government and was, ironically, approved of by Hitler himself. It was called 'Valkyrie. ' Intended as a fail safe in case of an emergency, the official plan stated that the German Army (unbeknownst to the SS or the Gestapo) would seize control of all the levers of power within Germany, all government buildings and public spaces. The conspirators, who were all embedded in the highest levels of the military, planned to use Hitler's assassination to put 'Valkyrie' into motion, take control of the government, and then contact the Western Allies to put an end to the war.

On July 20th of '44, six weeks after the D-Day invasion, Claus Von Stauffenberg flew to Hitler's operations headquarters, called the Wolf's Lair, in east Prussia. He was scheduled to brief the Fuehrer on the state of the Reserve Army. A massive bomb was hidden inside Stauffenberg's briefcase. He set the ten minute timer (with only three fingers) and placed the bomb underneath the briefing table a mere six feet from Hitler. Stauffenberg immediately made an excuse to leave the room and exited the building. He and a co-conspirator watched from a safe distance as the hut in which the Fuehrer's briefing was taking place exploded into splinters. Stauffenberg drove to the nearest airstrip and flew to Berlin, convinced no one could have survived the assassination. He prepared himself to arrive in the capital and complete the coup d'etat he had begun.

The problem was that Hitler had survived. Another officer at the briefing had scooted the bomb farther under the heavy oak table and behind a thick divider. The explosion was thus channeled upwards and away from Hitler's body. Four men were killed in the blast, but Adolf was merely stunned and bloodied (though his right hand had a tremor for the rest of his life). As information leaked out from the Wolf's Lair, Stauffenberg's co-conspirators were paralyzed by indecision and impotent fear. They needed his motivating presence to spur them to action. Four critical hours were wasted while Stauffenberg was airborne.

Arriving in Berlin, Stauffenberg began to suspect Hitler had indeed survived, but he continued with the plan and kept 'Valkyrie' in motion. There was a massive manhunt on for his head, but he continued to encourage his fellow conspirators and attempt to overthrow the Nazi government. Men of conscience, the members of this Secret Germany had decided to deny their instincts to round up and execute all of the heads of the Nazi state. They would stick to the official 'Valkyrie' contingency plan. They refused to become the monsters they were fighting.

The coup actually succeeded for a brief time. The orders went out and commanding officers and civilian governors alike faithfully began to enact the 'Valkyrie' plan. The Fuehrer was dead, the German Army was in charge of the country, the SS was powerless. Eventually, word began spreading that Hitler might not be as dead as rumor had him. Soon, a power struggle began between Claus Von Stauffenberg and Adolf Hitler. One man would give an order and the other would immediately countermand it. Men in position of power were forced to choose a side, and they didn't all choose the Nazis. All the oaths of loyalty, all the massive rallies, all the trappings of absolute power, all the cult of personality, the threats, the unprecedented violence... they almost weren't enough to keep the Fuehrer in power. Eventually however, the Nazis reasserted their authority, with Hitler himself making a radio broadcast to assure all that he was still in control.

It has been estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 men were killed in reprisal for the failed coup. 200 were condemned to die before a sham court in the days that followed. Hitler ordered that the hangings be filmed and for weeks afterwards he sadistically watched the footage while surrounded by loyal SS men.

Stauffenberg didn't live through the night of July 20th. He and several fellow conspirators were dragged into the courtyard of their headquarters and put in front of a firing squad. Just before he died, Claus Von Stauffenberg cried out, "Long live our Secret Germany!"

The book would have been fascinating if it had stopped there, but "Secret Germany" kept going and delved deeper into the issue than you had thought possible. Part 2 of the book chronicles the rise of Prussia and the creation of the modern German nation. The region known as Prussia essentially became the Germany that Hitler wanted to shape into a thousand year Reich. The First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire, the Second Reich was the newer German Empire of the 19th century; a superpower forged by Bismark and based on a militant industrialization inspired by the American Civil War. Stauffenberg's ancestors held pivotal roles throughout German history.

Part 3 is a biography of Stauffenberg and therefore also a brief history of the Nazis and Hitler's rise to power. Stauffenberg was a devotee of the famous German poet Stephan George. George stressed the importance of mythology and symbolism and was no fan of the Nazi party. He valued action over words and above all a sense of service to the public. Hailing from such an important and aristocratic family, Stauffenberg had always felt an obligation to serve his countrymen, to give back some of the privileges his fellow citizens had bestowed upon him. Stauffenberg defied everyone's expectations and joined the military to fulfill his sense of obligation to Germany.

As a logistics officer for the 6th Panzer Division during the invasion of Poland, he saw firsthand the brutality and wanton violence of Hitler's new SS murder units as they executed civilians for little or no reason at all. Stauffenberg did what he could to stem the needless bloodshed, but realized that bolder actions needed to be taken by men in positions of greater authority if these atrocities were to be stopped. If no one else would stop it all, he would be forced to climb the ranks and do it himself.

The battle of Stalingrad and the loss of the 300,000 man 6th Army to the Russians in January of '43 proved that Hitler was not the military genius that some claimed he was (some idiots still claim this). Hitler was a lunatic whose flights of vengeance and wrathful tirades needlessly proved the death of hundreds of thousands of German soldiers. It wasn't just civilians in foreign lands suffering under the boot hell of this mad man, it was Germans as well.

Part 4 was the longest portion of the book and it is an exhaustive examination of the history of Germanic philosophy, a massive contextualization of World War II; from Goethe to the brothers Grimm, from Heine and Fantane to Hegel (with whom you disagreed completely). It was fascinating to read and helped you place the war in a larger story of human evolution that you had never been able to do before... but you kind of just wanted to get back to the exciting part of the story.

It was from this rich history and unprecedented philosophical underpinnings that Hitler and the Nazis were able to infuriatingly draw any justification for their monstrous actions. They could pick and choose from paganism and Christianity or from Nihilism and Nationalism to inspire the German Volk, infuriatingly able to claim both Germany's position as the paragon of culture and art at the same time as they justified racism and military aggression. The Nazis stitched together a Frankenstein's Monster of a new religion cobbled together from Christian eschatology, the growing field of psychology, and popular social movements. In this new religion, Hitler was fashioned, unsurprisingly, as the Divine's representative on Earth.

Stauffenberg, a devout Catholic, rejected this return to barbarism, this casting off of responsibility that the Nazis idealized. He stands as a beacon of bravery and sanity in a terribly dark time in human history, and he is seen by many as the redeemer of modern Germany. Claus Von Stauffenberg was a man of action who knew exactly what he was getting into and he did it anyway. He was, and still is, a hero. He proved that good people can stand for what is right, even in the face of defeat. He showed the world that mass hysteria and unstoppable waves of totalitarian insanity can never sweep aside all those who oppose evil. Stauffenberg serves as a reminder that fighting against evil, raging against the dying of the light is what makes us noble beings. He proves that our hopes are not naive, that the lesson of World War II is not the darkness in human souls. The lesson is that the darkness will never win.

Resistance is never futile... even when it is.

On to the next book!

P.S. The final nine months of the war in Europe were as bloody as the previous four and a half years. With the end in sight, the Nazis were thrown into a frenzy of killing. German concentration camps stepped up their brutality and their output of corpses, the Russians cut through Eastern Europe like no one since the Mongols hordes, and the Western Allies firebombed entire cities into dust heedless of civilian casualties.  It is a powerful "what if" to think that had Stauffenberg's July 20th plot succeeded, and it almost did, the body count for World War II might have been cut in half.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Divergent" trilogy by Veronica Roth (2011)

While interviewing John Green, Stephen Colbert recently defined the term Young Adult novel as "A regular novel... that people actually read." The genre gets crap from the snobbish, but a good story is a good story. If Tolkien published "The Lord of the Rings" today it likely would be pigeonholed into the YA category. You bought the first of this trilogy because you thought your wife would like it and she burned through the series in a week. So, you thought you'd give it a try as well. Not surprisingly, you were glad you did.


The "Divergent" trilogy is written in First Person Present Tense, like "The Hunger Games." Books written like this always make you feel like you can't put them down because the story feels like it's happening right now! It is a limiting style and forces authors to write characters who miss obvious details or make assumptions that readers can see right through, but it is a fun way to read an action story.

"Divergent" is followed by "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" and follows the story of one sixteen year old protagonist who lives in a dystopian future. Beatrice Prior lives in Chicago, but she doesn't know her city even has a name. The city is walled off and the citizens aren't sure what is on the other side of the walls, but they know it's dangerous. Society is arranged into factions, which are like castes but with two major differences. At sixteen, everyone is allowed to choose which faction they want to be for the rest of their lives, and these factions are based on basic personality traits determined by trippy psychological tests. Most people follow the Hindu idea of dharma (although they never call it that) and stick to the factions they are born into, but some switch even though it means being ostracized from their families.

Right away it is clear that Beatrice does not want to stay in Abnegation, her faction. They dedicate their lives to selfless service and she has decided that she cannot live like that. They don't even look at their reflections in mirrors for fear that it might lead to unseemly vanity. She knows that she is not good enough for that life. There are other options for her as Choosing Day arrives for all of the city's sixteen year old citizens; Dauntless value bravery, Amity are dedicated to peace and cooperation, Candor hold the search for truth and honesty as the ultimate goal, and Erudite value lives of study and intellect. Some fail to meet the standards of their chosen factions and face a terrifying prospect. They are kicked out into the cold world of what constitutes a sixth faction, the Factionless.

At her test, Beatrice discovers that she is something special, something that defies easy categorization, something Divergent. Confounding the authorities, her aptitude test confirms that she could fit well into three different factions. She is warned to hide her Divergent status from everyone. Divergents are dangerous and she is not the only one.

Beatrice chooses Dauntless instead of staying with her family in Abnegation, and she changes her name to Tris. The Dauntless seize every day and seek every adrenaline rush they can find. They travel around the city by jumping into open-sided train cars while the trains are still moving, they zipline from the tops of the tallest buildings just for fun. Tris finds that she is braver than she thought and quickly learns that the Dauntless realize that shared experiences and extreme exploits can forge a group of nonconformists into one unit. In Abnegation acceptance is expected, in Dauntless acceptance is earned and that makes it sweeter.

The Dauntless use a powerful hallucinogenic serum to face their fears in a dream world that can be projected onto a screen for others to see. They realize that bravery is not the absence of fear, rather it is doing something even though you are scared to, sometimes even because you are scared to. Roth made you ask yourself if your fears can ever leave you or if they just lose their power over you instead. The older you get, the more you agree with the Dauntless idea that the only way to find out, is to face those fears honestly and intentionally.

Tris falls in love with a slightly older Dauntless instructor named Four, and Roth does not shy away from the fact that sixteen year old girls are sexual beings. Every glance at Four, who lets her call him his real name, Tobias, makes Tris want to be closer to him, every touch sends electrics shocks through her body. The two spend the rest of the trilogy searching for times to be alone together. Tris' lust for Four is exciting and evokes a passion in her that reminds her why she chose Dauntless in the first place.

It soon becomes clear to Tris that something is wrong within the factions. They are all struggling against one another and tensions are high within the city as the factions slip into an "Us vs Them" mentality. And even within each individual faction, something has become corrupted, some central tenants lost. The Erudites are thirsting for power and influence. The Dauntless no longer seem to value the urge to sacrifice oneself in order to protect others. Conflict is inevitable and the plot of the trilogy is one of revolution, the second book is even titled "Insurgent."

Roth is able to subtly teach several lessons in her books. She reminds you of the utter finality of choices made with a gun in your hand and the regret that is inherent in using the ultimate violence against a soldier who was manipulated into fighting you. But really... aren't all soldiers manipulated to some degree into fighting? The plot reminded you of the tenuous nature of revolutions. Most of America's Founding Fathers had different ideas about how to shape their new nation, how to run it. It took two tries at forming a government and a bloody Civil War before we arrived at the system we have today. Most revolutions are far more bloody.

The story gives the lie to the idea that humans can be easily categorized by simple personality traits. We are far more complex than that. We can, of course, embody more than one faction at a time. We can be brave and smart, honest and cooperative. We can be happy and selfless, and in fact, you have learned that it is often difficult to be happy without being a little bit selfless. The last book reminded you also of the beauty in equality. There is a deep fulfillment and joy in the freedom of sharing the same citizenship and equal rights with all.

Above all, the "Divergent" trilogy is all about our choices. How they shape our lives, how each choice ripples out into the lives of others and echoes into the future. Our choices are precisely what make us who we are. You and Nico talked about this while you were reading the books and he observed, with the clarity of a child, that we literally choose to live. Every day. Every moment. We choose to go on. How we choose to define those lives is no less important than our choosing to live them at all. We are our choices.

Roth goes on to make the argument that we also get to choose what we believe, that truth may not be as objective as it seems. There is a conversation between Tris and her best friend in "Allegiant" that excellently tackles the idea of why we believe what we do. Tris starts:
"I know I'm fumbling for an explanation, one I may not really believe, but I say it anyway: 'I guess I don't really believe in genetic damage. Will it make me treat other people better? No. The opposite maybe.' 
And besides, I see what it's doing to Tobias... and I don't understand how anything good can possibly come from it.
'You don't believe things because they make your life better, you believe them because they're true,' Christina points out.

'But' - I speak slowly as I mull that over- 'isn't looking at the result of a belief a good way of evaluating if it's true?'"
The whole series was worth it to you just for that one scene.

The series, Like "The Hunger Games" is violent and bloody. Tris watches family members and good friends die right in front of her. She struggles with hard questions and impossible choices. There are deceptions within deceptions and the truth of the world that lies beyond Chicago's walls is one of a cold disconnection from humanity (and you missed those trains the Dauntless rode on). Lies and brutality are commonplace, people are treated like lab rats, and all for the sake of control. Also like "The Hunger Games," "Divergent" reminded you what we choose to sacrifice for. We should only do it for love, and we should only let others do it for the same reason. Self sacrifice should never be motivated by coercion or even obligation. Only love is powerful and meaningful enough to require the greatest price from us.

"Divergent" however, unlike "The Hunger Games," ends with a slightly more hopeful note. Roth leaves you with a beautiful reminder that although life is hard and we will all inevitably get hurt by living in this world, we can help mend one another. We each help to heal the hurts the world can inflict on us. We fix one another. There is hope in that knowledge, and also in the realization that we get to choose who will help make us better.

On to the next book!