Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree" by Stan and Jan Berenstain (1978)

It makes sense for you to review those epic scholarly books about influential wars or extraordinary individuals for this blog. You don't want to forget some of the salient details of those works, but these days that's not what you are reading the most often. With a toddler in the house, other titles are showing up in your reading list. And, as with most things in toddler circles, those books keep coming back to you over and over and over again. But just because these books are written for the smallest among us, for those just learning how to sit and listen to stories, it doesn't mean that they don't have great value. Indeed, only after having read this particular title for decades now, the lessons hidden in it are finally becoming more and more obvious.

Your daughter Eleanor is just a bit over 1 year old (moms say fourteen months old, but that is annoying to you). She is walking and starting to talk and eating everything in sight... you know, the cutest and most endearing phase any of your kids go through. What makes this phase even more adorable is that Eleanor is constantly bringing you books to read to her. Most of them are board books, the ones with titles like "Baby's First Colors" or "ABC's." They mostly have simple, bright pictures with one word per page and require you to make a lot of animal sounds. The only book that she has latched on to that is not made of those thick, indestructible card board pages is this gem from Stan and Jan Berenstain. What's surprising is that it's a real book, with regular pages and an actual plot line.

The three Bear siblings (no names in this book) set out from their home armed with the necessary tools of exploration. One with a light. One with a stick. One with a rope. They find the titular spooky old tree and climb inside through a knothole, discovering a stairway over a gator filled river, a secret passage through a darkened hall lined with cobwebs and rusted suits of armor, and the lair of a great sleeping bear (no explanation why the little bears and their family sleep in a cozy lighted home with curtains and bedspreads while this beast prefers to rough it in a cave). The three little bears run in fear from the bear they have awakened all the way back home to the waiting arms of their loving mother bear. And the story is over.

There is an enduring draw to this book. It stands alone among the Berenstain Bears books. No other in the endless series embraces the creepy, scary qualities that make for great kids' stories.

Simple. Easy. Only 200 words.

And yet there are so many questions left unanswered. Why is there a haunted tree so close by the home of the Bear family? That seems like it would depress the retail value of their property, and I don't think Papa Bear would let that slide. And how are there alligators under that tree, and where does that river they swim in lead? Did the Bear family move into a mangrove swamp in the Everglades just for this one book? And where did that spooky old hall come from? Who built it? Why did they abandon it? Where did they go? What is up with those tapestries and melted candles and suits of armor with battle axes and shields? And how did that huge bear come to hibernate in that hall when the only two entrances or exits are clearly built for tiny people/bears?

These unanswered questions only add to the mystery of the book, hinting at a greater world beyond. But Stan and Jan Berenstain aren't content to leave us with just intriguing mystery. They have woven so many great lessons into this silly story written for children.

The first page of the story shows the bears setting out from their front door. It's a reminder to you and your kids that you have to leave the comforts of home to find adventure. As great as home is and as inviting as you try to make it, we all have to leave our comfort zones in order to accomplish most of the things we want to do in life. It is only in seeking adventure that we can answer life's big questions and even find newer, greater questions. If you stay safe at home and try to keep anything from happening to you or your kids, then nothing ever happens to them.

Each of the bear siblings sets out on their adventure with a different item. One with a light. One with a stick. And one with a rope. In the adventure that is our lives, everyone brings different tools and skill sets. The key is to recognize what each person has to offer and to be ready to take advantage of those tools and skills when the time is right. Politicians are always saying that our differences make us all stronger as a nation, not weaker. What is true for nations is also true of families. Dismissing what others have to offer is an easy trap that we can fall into, one that can rob us of richer, fuller experiences.

Throughout the book, the bears come across situations that appear to be precarious or worrisome, a twisty old stair and a spooky hall lined with suits of armor. As a team, they decide to face these challenges despite their misgivings, but each time something is lost, one bear loses their rope to the hungry jaws of a leaping alligator and another bear loses their trusty stick to a falling battleaxe. This is a reminder that often what looks scary is actually dangerous. Children need to be encouraged to trust their instincts. Adults have a tendency to downplay children's fears, but often those fears are well placed and kids have those instincts in place to protect them. Ours is not always the sanitized and perfectly safe world we like to believe it is. In fact, many adults could stand to remember this lesson today.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes what looks scary and dangerous to us needs to be tackled anyway. Our instincts are valuable, but our fears are not always the greatest guide to our actions. Bravery is not the absence of fear, bravery is the fortitude to do things even when we are terrified of them. Neil Gaiman begins his fabulous children's' book "Coraline" with a quote from G.K. Chesterton. "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." But we have to be willing to face our dragons in order to defeat them.

Being brave is scary, by definition, but one of the biggest lesson in this little book is that being scared can be fun! As each bear loses their tools, they are overtaken by their fears and get "the shivers." When you first started reading this book to her, Eleanor would scramble to a safe distance at these pages because she was avoiding you grabbing her and playfully shaking her belly to give her the shivers. But now she leans in and squeals with delight every time you grab her and say the phrase "the shivers!" We all like to be scared. It's why we watch scary movies and read suspenseful books. It's why we ride roller coasters and jump out of airplanes. Being scared gives us that adrenaline rush that makes us feel more alive. We crave that excitement of facing our fears, even as we avoid actual dangers in our lives. This book has helped you to remember that it's okay to let your kids watch intense moments in movies, it's okay to tell them ghost stories, or sing lullabies that end in the main character being eaten by a bear. Being scared is fun, even when you're one year old.

But when real challenges arrive in our lives, when we are truly scared, it is always best to have loved ones nearby to back you up, to encourage you. The three little bears did not set out to explore the spooky old tree individually, they did it together as a team. When we have someone we trust backing us up they can support us where we fail, they can encourage us to overcome our fears and our hesitations. They can bring new perspectives to our problems and help us overcome our greatest obstacles. It's a reminder to keep your friends and family close, you may need them some day, and they may need you.

We need to face our fears and seek challenges and adventure in life, but we must remember that there is often a cost for pushing our boundaries. As each challenge is met in the book, a tool is lost. Before they make it home again, the three little bears lose their light, their stick, and their rope. It is important for us to remember that sometimes our greatest challenges demand a cost and we don't always know what that will be. It could be as simple as losing sleep, or it could be as important as losing relationships. We must take an honest look at the outcomes of our actions, and ask ourselves if the cost is worth the benefit. The scary times are those when we aren't sure what the cost will be.

Those tools the bears bring with them aren't just tools. We can think of them as talents too. This book reminds us that our talents are pointless unless we use them. If you wield a stick, use it to clear away cobwebs. If you wield a light, shine it into the darkness where it is most needed. We have been given talents and tools for a purpose and no one is served by our refusing to use them when they can do real good in the world. Children need to learn what their talents are, and they need to be praised for their natural strengths, but they also need to be reminded that without using them thier talents are wasted.

Faced with a particularly terrifying challenge (a great sleeping bear), the reader of "The Spooky Old Tree" is asked if the three little bears will dare to go over the bear. The next page then gives a brief overview of the previous pages of the book. In a simple, matter-of-fact way, the reader is reminded of all the challenges the bears have already faced and how they overcame each one. The conclusion then becomes obvious. "So of course they went over Great Sleeping Bear!" This is a reminder that we can look to our own past to draw inspiration to face the future. When we aren't sure if we are brave enough to accomplish something scary, we need to look back and remind ourselves of how much we are truly capable of. The voices of doubt and hesitation can be silenced by our own history. This is a great lesson for kids, but it is also a great lesson for nations, and even humanity as a whole. Can we move forward into the future and set tremendous goals for ourselves with confidence that we can achieve them? Can we eradicate extreme poverty or stave off planetary disaster due to Global Climate Change? Well, we defeated slavery, saved the world from the Nazis, faced off in a half century long Cold War without annihilating the planet, put people on the moon, and made many devastating diseases a thing of the past. So of course we can do these other things!

There is one lesson here that might be the most important, if the least likely to be used by your kids in the future. The three little bears did indeed climb over Great Sleeping Bear, but they were not so stealthy as they had hoped and their actions angered him. The three little bears suddenly found themselves running for their lives. Traditional wisdom tells us to not run from bears, but this is bullshit. You have met actual bears in the wild and it is important for your children to know what to do if they should ever find themselves in similar situations. You want them to learn this lesson... Run! Run fast and run far. There is no metaphor here, no hidden meaning. Bears are scary as hell and you should run away form them. Those monsters eat people!

Eventually the three little bears escape the jaws of Great Sleeping Bear but they don't stop. Terrified, they keep running fast for their ultimate destination, home. At their front door they are greeted by the loving arms of their mother bear and find themselves, "Home again. Safe at last." It is a great reminder that children need a place that feels safe to come home to. Home should be comforting and inviting, a respite from the challenges of the world. Children need that assurance. If all they think about home is "that's where I'm going to get in trouble for my test scores," or, "When I get home, Dad is going to grill me on my sight words," then there is no 'safe at last.' Kids need that. As much as they need discipline and boundaries, they need a welcoming home to offer them rest and safety. It is your job as a parent to provide that.

The last lesson you have learned from this book is a little less concrete than the others, but no less important. It is entirely possible that the whole story was just a figment of the three little bears' imaginations. Children go on adventures all the time inside their own heads. Maybe the mysteries and unanswered questions in this book can all be easily explained by saying that the whole adventure was make believe. The important thing to remember is that that makes no difference. Human brains are story-telling machines and we are hard wired to learn from the stories we are told. Some of our greatest lessons can be learned through fiction and mythology. In fact, that is how humans have taught one another lessons for eons now. To quote the great Albus Dumbledore, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"

Once again you are reminded that books written for children can serve adults just as well. Also, they can provide us all with a sense of continuity. You vividly remember reading this very book to your younger brother Nick when he was barely older than Eleanor is now. Holding your own kids on you lap and reading them a story that takes you back to your childhood, teaching your kids the same lessons from the same book you helped your brother learn, helps forge a sense of continuity to your life. It brings you back to your Granny's lap, and to your older brother's lap. It creates a connection with your past even as it extends a bridge to your future. As the years race by and your children grow at an astonishing rate, familiar books allow you the opportunity not just to teach and learn lessons, but to slow down and enjoy the small moments, to drink in the joys of this life you and Liz have created. When you open a beloved book you are flooded with that familiar sense of "Home Again. Safe at last."

On to the next book!

P.S. One of the greatest conspiracy theories around today actually involves the Berenstain Bears. It's possible that we might all be living in our own alternate universe, like Worf in that one episode of 'Star Trek.'

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Panzer Commander" by Hans Von Luck (1989)

This one was absolutely fabulous.

To begin with, this image was not the cover of the book you read. There was no swastika at all on your copy (which is an original printing). You weren't able to find an image of your copy (and uploading an actual photo you took of it would be SO tedious) but the swastika is pretty inappropriate. Yes, Hans Von Luck fought for the Wehrmacht under Hitler in almost every theater of war during WW II, but he was no Nazi. This is the story of a soldiers' soldier. A man who fought for Germany because it was his duty, not because he agreed with the insanity of Nazi propaganda. Even while fighting, he longed to marry a woman of Jewish descent, he loved Paris and London, he befriended men he damn well knew were part of The Resistance. I mean, the forward is written by Stephen freaking Ambrose! Colonel Von Luck was not a Nazi.

He was, however, one hell of a soldier. Hans Von Luck was in the vanguard of almost every offensive the German army (the Wehrmacht) launched from Poland in 1939 to France in 1940 to Russia in 1941. He held Erwin Rommel's exposed right flank in the battle of El Alamein and fought against the famed British paratroopers who held the crucial Orne River and canal crossings on the morning of June 6th 1944 in Normandy (D-Day) and he lead one of the last units to be captured in the defense of Berlin. He earned the highest decorations for bravery and valor his nation awards her soldiers and he was widely respected by his enemies. Among the warriors of the 20th Century, he deserves to held in the highest regard.

As humble as a memoir can be, it is clear in reading Von Luck's book that he was one of those people who was simply born for combat. He speaks of it with little passion and an almost disappointing lack of flare. But it is exactly that clinical analysis that hints at his excellence. Von Luck needs not embellish... his story is enthralling enough without any exaggeration. Von Luck is obviously a cultured man, one whose family history of devotion to national service stretches back to Frederick the Great. He is an open-minded, tolerant, almost apolitical man who loves art, music, and bustling cities filled with diverse peoples who can engage in interesting conversation over plates of excellent food and glasses of even better booze (during the war he held off on shelling a particular monastery because he enjoyed the liqueur they made there). His memoir is ultimately a twisted tragedy, a story of how such a cosmopolitan and extraordinary man could become the tip of the spear in the useless and cataclysmic war waged by Adolf Hitler's extremist totalitarianism.

As with other memoirs of former German commanders you have read ("Panzer Battles" by F.W. Von Mellenthin was the best) this book was written with the Cold War in mind. Von Luck starts talking about his relationship with the Russians on page 12! He learned the Russian language in college and went to dance at parties with live performances by Rachmaninoff himself. He studied Tolstoy Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. These were experiences that would serve him well during his five years of captivity in Russia after the war. I mean really, are their any other German commanders who can claim to have danced to live performances by Rachmaninoff? Maybe it is a proven marketing strategy for former German officers to emphasize the lesson the learned in fighting they Russians during the war rather than playing up how many Americans they killed, or maybe it reflects a genuine concern to pass on to the the next generation of soldiers who were likely to face the Red Army the lessons of how to win the looming Third World War. In either case it sets the book in that confusing and terrifying era between the Fall of Berlin and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Before the Second World War broke out, Von Luck traveled Europe. As Hitler was moving to create a secret armored military to dominate the continent, Von Luck was making friends across all nationalities. He fell in love with Prague and London, but he lost his heart to beautiful Paris and to the French people as well. His network of connections would serve him well as Germany was soon to expand to consume almost all of Europe. Von Luck even mentions hanging out in Berlin in and around the Tiergarten with Martha Dodd (from your first "Reviews For Sam" ever!). You know you love it when a book you're reading references a person or event form another book you loved.

Von Luck was one of the few men serving in the shrunken armed forces of Germany allowed by the Treaty of Versailles after the Great War. He witnessed the secretive expansion of German military might after Hitler had come to power and was one of the first soldiers in the Wehrmacht to get to develop armored, high speed warfare, in violation of international treaties. Von Luck observed the meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler into power. The people of Germany liked the new Chancellor. He found jobs for millions of people, built a national highway network ( the autobahn), expanded German infrastructure, and peacefully recaptured the Rhineland (lost in the Great War). Most of the population saw nothing ominous in the rounding up of communist activists, they wanted the violent troublemakers off the streets too. But, in this memoir, Von Luck remembers all these things through the lens of what was to come. The highway system was crafted with strategic corridors leading to probable jumping-off points for the wars Hitler was planning. The fabulous jobs program would soon evolve to become the brainwashing 'Hitler Youth' movement, and those militant communists who had been rounded up would soon be joined by peaceful Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and any other people deemed politically undesirable. The words "concentration camp" and "ghetto" had not yet been heard by the German people, but it was only a matter of time.

By September of 1939, Von Luck's days of leisurely touring Europe were over. He would soon return to many of his favorite locations throughout the continent but this time on the back of a tank. He was one of the first men to cross the border into Poland. Von Luck, and many other soldiers like him, introduced the world to the concept of blitzkrieg that summer. It would take many more lessons in many more countries before the world caught on and became better at making war than the Germans who raged across the Polish countryside in September of '39. But as it was, this war in Poland was over before October set in and Von Luck was back in his homeland waiting to teach another country what it means to fight a war of movement and envelopment.

The next year, Von Luck invaded France. Again, he was at the vanguard of the first units to cross the border. This time he was under the leadership of the famous Erwin Rommel. Right away, the men under Rommel's command could tell he would be a leader with something special to offer. He was a man who understood from personal experience the need to avoid the stalemates of the last war. It occurred to you as you were reading this part that the Germans' greatest fear during the invasion of France in 1940 was not that they would lose, but that their invasion would bog down. More than achieving victory, the Germans on the ground were fighting to prevent a repeat of the terrible trench warfare of the Great War. As they invaded Belgium in May of 1940 Rommel exhorted his men, especially the men of the recon battalions, "Keep going, don't look to the left or right, only forward. I'll cover your flanks if necessary. The enemy is confused; we must take advantage of it." Rommel knew what the world was soon going to learn, speed kills.

By the beginning of June 1940, barely a month from the start of the invasion of France and the lowlands, the British Army had been evacuated from continental Europe. In two days, supported by the fighters and dive bombers of the Luftwaffe, Von Luck and his division raced through Normandy, the coastal region of France that would, just four years later, take the combined efforts of all the Western Allied forces more than two months to move through. Von Luck lead his men along the Atlantic coast, bypassing areas of major resistance and gobbling up French land like the men of the Great War could never have dreamed. Half way through June, German tanks were in Paris, by the end of the month France had called it quits. When the shooting had finally stopped, Von Luck's recon battalion had pulled up on the outskirts of the famous city of Bordeaux, just 120 miles form the border with Spain! Von Luck himself arranged the escort for the removal of Marshall Petain's provisional government from Bordeaux to Vichy.

These staggering successes left the world shocked and terrified at the prospect of which country might be next. Von Luck describes how he and his men all knew in their hearts that the promised invasion of Great Britain would never really happen. They were right. The Luftwaffe could never gain control of the skies long enough to protect any invasion flotilla crossing the English channel.

For a year, Von Luck did not fire a shot in anger. He and his men were now preparing for the invasion of Russia. They were increasingly disillusioned with any prospects for victory. Their enemy's country was just too vast, the people too numerous for the Wehrmacht to defeat before winter set in. Even with the anti-communist rhetoric and anti-Jewish propaganda ramping up to new heights, no one could understand why Hitler wanted to open up a second front.

Nevertheless, despite the fears and doubts, in June of 1941 Von Luck found himself crossing the Russian border, leading another spearhead into yet another country. Again all enemy resistance crumbled before the shock and power of the German blitzkrieg. Again huge pockets of soldiers were surrounded and eliminated en masse. Again hundreds of thousands of soldiers were captured. Again speed was the key, but this time Hitler had miscalculated. He had delayed his invasion of Russia in order to deal with problems in Greece and the Balkans. The delay proved critical. Even as the Germans advanced at a pace that had been unthinkable in warfare for the history of mankind, time was ticking by and the area they were invading swallowed armies whole. By late October, Von Luck was securing the approaches to Moscow itself. He established a bridgehead across the final water obstacle before the Russian capital. The Germans had almost been fast enough, but not quite.

Overnight Von Luck describes the temperature dropping to levels no one anticipated. Hitler had believed the war would be over before winter set in and as such, in a betrayal of the German soldier as well as the German innate sense of efficiency and perfectionism, had not provided his armies with the appropriate equipment or clothing to fight in -40 degree weather. And even if he had, the German supply lines were stretched over 1,000 miles of Russian steppe with no modern road system and railways with tracks the were the wrong sized gauge for German locomotives, it would have taken too long for the needed winter gear to reach the men who could have taken Moscow. Instead those men, along with their vehicles and weapons, froze in place. Siberian soldiers appeared like ghosts from the snows, clad in white camouflage and gliding silently on skis to rip though the German defenses and wreak havoc on their ridiculously exposed supply lines. New Russian tanks showed up and were more than a match for the German armored units. Von Luck was forced to abandon his bridgehead and retreat. Russia was not Poland or France. It suddenly became clear to everyone that this war was now guaranteed to be a long one. To make the prospects bleaker, before 1941 was over, America had entered the war.

But for Von Luck, the war in Russia was over. Rommel, in command of a headline grabbing army in North Africa had requested the presence of his favorite recon battalion commander. Von Luck describes his drive from the gates of Moscow back to Germany as one would a man fleeing hell itself. He and his trusted aide, Beck, push their beloved Mercedes to the limit, popping stimulants so they could take turns driving westward 24/7, always on the lookout for ski patrol raids or aerial attacks. Escape from the frigid certain doom of the Russian war could not come fast enough.

Von Luck writes about his time in Africa as if it were his favorite part of the entire conflict, more adventure than combat. And it wasn't just that the sands of the Sahara were preferable to the snows of Ukraine. The war there became what would later be referred to as a "gentleman's war." Eventually, despite the intense fighting, the British and the Germans reached what they called an agreement. Combat every day ended at 5:00 PM. Both sides made tea and ceased aggressive patrols for the day. The two sides even established radio contact with one another and would ask their opponents if they had captured friends who had been lost on patrols during the day. A German doctor was traded back to his countrymen for medicine to treat the British soldiers suffering from some native disease. A British soldier, son of a cigarette magnate, refused to be traded back to his side for anything less than 1 million cigarettes; he was sent back to a POW camp in Germany instead. For this brief time, Von Luck, one of the men to introduce the concepts of modern warfare to the world, was given a glimpse of what war had looked like for millennia before. When it was time to fight, both sides would be ferocious, but a certain civility was maintained and fair play ruled all but the most intense situations.

With the absolute trust that made him such a great leader, Rommel placed Von Luck in charge of the entire German flank as they attempted to drive eastward to expel the British from Egypt. If the British were to outmaneuver Rommel it could only be around the right flank, to the south through the endless trackless desert. Von Luck and his men made sure that never happened. Despite valiant efforts and brilliant leadership however, Rommel was forced to call off his advances. He simply did not have the supplies he needed to effectively wage the war Hitler was demanding. Unbeknownst to Von Luck at the time, the British had broken the German radio codes. Every convoy full of supplies and equipment was soon at the bottom of the Mediterranean. They could not hope to match the British in fuel availability, artillery shells, medical supplies, or aircraft. In contrast to the heady days in France when Von Luck helped kick the British out of Dunkirk, the RAF now ruled the skies of North Africa. No matter how extraordinary Rommel and his Afrika Corps were, they could not fight a war with no supplies.

Early in the summer of '42, the Americans landed on the west coast of Africa, outflanking Rommel from the sea rather than the desert. Immediately Rommel became interested in bloodying the Americans who were late comers to this most modern of wars. The Germans raced westward (the opposite direction of their initial advances) and smashed into the Americans in the battle soon to become known as "Kasserine Pass." Von Luck lead the charge through the pass and is therefore responsible for the deaths of more Americans than even the most extreme Nazi could ever dream. This was war. This was his duty. Even to this day, American soldiers hold Erwin Rommel in the highest regard. Despite the casualties at Kasserine Pass, Rommel's name is almost sacred to members of US armored divisions and especially the cavalry regiments, but it was Von Luck who personally lead the attacks that resulted in the most American losses. Reading this section reminded you, once again that this man was a soldiers' soldier.

Eventually the German army withdrew from Africa (three weeks after Von Luck had been sent to plead with Hitler to begin extracting Rommel's forces; the idea being that the Fuhrer might honor the opinion of a true combat commander fresh from the front over his generals who he believed infected with defeatism) and Von Luck was placed in charge of a recon training school outside Paris. By June 1944, he was back in command of a battalion defending the Normandy countryside just behind what were about to become the landing beaches for the Allied D-Day invasion. On the morning of June 6th the invasion came and Von Luck was in perfect position to roll his tanks from the east across all of the British and Canadian beaches, kicking his enemy back into the sea. Instead, he was forced to stay in position. Hitler and the German high command were convinced this was a diversionary attack and refused to commit their armored units to the fight in any decisive way.

But even after they realized this was, in fact, the real thing and Von Luck was allowed to attack, it was in no way an easy task. Not only did he face the same veteran British and Scottish troops he had fought in North Africa, but this time his enemy had both air superiority and naval offshore bombardments to support them. Every advance Von Luck tried to make in the open during the daylight hours was crushed from the air, and every advance that promised to make headway despite this disadvantage was met with a naval barrage that could have stopped the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Allies were in France to stay.

It is obvious that Von Luck learned a lot from serving under Rommel. During the fighting in Normandy he mimicked Rommel's style of leadership, always moving from hot spot to hot spot, personally leading attacks that were critical to the overall situation. He held back the Allied push inland from the beaches for weeks. During a massive offensive by the British, Von Luck almost single-handedly stalled the entire Allied advance by finding an idle anti aircraft unit, moving them to the perfect position, and insisting they lower the barrels of their weapons to fire into the exposed flanks of the advancing armored units. Without his actions on that day, it is conceivable that the British might have broken out of eastern Normandy a full week before the Americans did farther west.

Instead, it was general Patton and his Third Army, west of Avranches, who broke through the German lines and into the open flat country perfectly made for tank warfare. And suddenly, it seemed as if every German, from Hitler all the way down to the most fresh-faced cadet, absolutely shit his pants. Patton had learned the lessons Von Luck had taught the world about how to fight a blitzkrieg war. He was racing through France as fast as he could go. Even Allied cargo planes had difficulty finding Patton's forward units in order to drop supplies; they had to follow the columns of smoke. Patton's unpredictability made him effectively unstoppable. If this man was in charge of an army that was on the loose, free from hedgerow country, then no German in France felt truly safe. Regardless of the situation in their own sectors, everyone went running for the safety of the fatherland.

But when the Allies came to the border with Germany, the rout ended and Von Luck fought near the border with Switzerland, in the Vosges mountains. Although he avoided the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge farther north, he describes the fighting in his sector as intensely savage. Von Luck talks about hideous hand-to-hand, house-by-house, street-by-street fighting, the kind of warfare where epic battles are waged to gain one floor of a building that will only prove to be demolished the next day by either side's artillery.

On page 209 he says of one such battle, "After eight days we still didn't know whether we were continuing to fight there for reasons of prestige, or whether there was a tactical significance to our holding the position." You thought this quote was a pretty apt metaphor for the entire last half of the entire war. Tragically, every day that Von Luck and his men so skillfully delayed the fall of the Third Reich, more and more civilians died in bombing raids or in that kind of savage street fighting being witnessed on both the western and eastern fronts, more soldiers died in a war that was clearly unwinnable, and thousands, maybe even millions of men women and children were dying in Nazi concentration camps. As monstrous as the actions of the guards and officers at places like Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz are alone, seeing them in the light of the ultimate sacrifice men like Von Luck were making at the fronts made these sins even more unforgivable to you. Genocide was not what the average German soldier was fighting to defend. Most of them had no idea it was happening.

Von Luck and his men were pulled off the front line to recuperate and receive replacements, but were immediately rushed to the Eastern Front instead, a front which was not so far east any longer. By spring of 1945, the Russians were ominously close to Berlin and Hitler was ordering every available unit into the defense of the capital, however futile that defense clearly was. Von Luck describes witnessing waves of Russians that seem unstoppable, cowering under firepower that seems withering, and facing a tide of vengeance that seems straight out of Dante's "Inferno." It was here, defending his countrymen against impossible odds at the gates of Berlin itself that Hans Von Luck, surrounded, out of ammunition, and at the end of a very long war, finally surrendered to his enemies.

Von Luck's captivity in Russian gulags lasted almost as long as his service in the whole war. Five years spent scrounging for the merest scrap of both food and dignity, being tortured both physically and mentally. His knowledge of Russian culture served him well, as did his deep seated compassion for the least among us. Recognizing that the population near his prison was being just as crushed under Stalin's boot heel as he was provided him the patience he would need to survive the ordeal.

When he was finally released and returned home, Von Luck realized that those five years he had lost in a Russian POW camp had been momentous years for the rest of the world. He and the love of his life no longer had anything keeping them together. They had planned to marry after the war, but she had become a television personality in Germany and he was still stuck in a 1945 wartime mentality. The two were worlds apart and it became clear to both that a relationship would not be possible. Von Luck found odd jobs here and there until settling into a sales position at an export firm, establishing a new branch in Africa. He loved his new career enough that when the West German military offered him a commission, he declined.

In the decades to come, Von Luck lectured and spoke in college classes and at various events commemorating the war he had such a hand in shaping. It was in this capacity that he was brought back into contact with many of the men he had faced across the killing fields of Africa and France. Bound by their mutual service and with no animosity, Von Luck and several Allied commanders struck up deep and lasting friendships. These men, like Colonel Hans Von Luck, had answered the call of their nations and served in the greatest war the world has ever known. As this book was published the clouds of another world war were gathering and Von Luck ends his memoirs with the wish that the young people of the world never be used again for such destruction.

On to the next book!