Last year I reviewed a book about Erik Jan Hanussen, a mentalist and con man who first flourished and then crashed and burned in Berlin during the Nazi era — an Austrian Jew posing as a Danish aristocrat. Hanussen struck me as one of the most bizarre characters in the drama of that time, but he has to make room in the pantheon for a puny Jewish teenager who is the subject of Jonathan Kirsch’s arresting book, The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan.
Herschel was living with his Polish parents in Hamburg, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. During the run-up to the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s scheme was to make life so unbearable for Jews that they would leave the Third Reich by their own volition, Herschel’s parents became concerned about his wellbeing. Their solution was to send him East when he was 15 years old, and he wound up living with his uncle and aunt in Paris.
During his sojourn, Herschel’s parents and siblings were among about 12,000 Polish Jews who were abruptly taken from their homes by the Nazis and deposited on the Polish side of the border with Germany. From the refugee camp there, Herschel’s sister wrote to him, describing the harsh conditions.
After an argument with his uncle over the question of helping the Grynszpans financially, Herschel bolted from the apartment and, on the following day, bought a revolver, entered the German embassy on a pretext, and shot a young diplomatic aide, who died from the wounds.
When he was taken into custody by French authorities, Herschel, who saw himself as some kind of avenging angel, immediately and then repeatedly told them that he had shot the man, Ernst Vom Rath, in response to the treatment of Polish Jews and, in particular, of his own family.
The Nazis reacted to the murder with the carefully staged mob rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues and terrorized Jewish people throughout Germany and Austria on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938 — the so-called Kristallnacht.
Meanwhile, Hitler and his partners in paranoia had a different take on the crime. They saw it as the work of the “international Jewish conspiracy” that actually existed only in their nightmares. Hitler sent representatives to both observe, manipulate, and exploit the proceedings against Herschel.
Before the case was played out, however, Germany invaded France, and after Herschel, with the connivance of the French, dodged the grasp of the Nazis in a chain of events that sounds like a Marx Brothers scene, he fell into German control.
Hitler, employing a brand of logic of which only he was capable, decided to stage a show trial so that the international community would conclude from this solitary crime that Jews everywhere were plotting to take control of Germany if not the whole world.
Kirsch describes the elaborate investigations and other preparations the Nazis made for this spectacle, inquiring into the most remote details of Herschel’s background.
But Hitler didn’t know whom he was up against. The hundred-pound dropout pulled the rug out from under the Nazi propaganda machinery by telling interrogators that he and Vom Rath had actually been involved in a homosexual relationship that went sour. It was a idea that had been suggested to him by one of his lawyers while he was still in French custody. The Nazis were stymied. Given Hitler’s horror of homosexuality, they couldn’t let the show trial go ahead and take a chance that Herschel’s claim would become public. On the other hand, they also couldn’t simply do away with Herschel after making such a big deal about how the case would be tried in public. The trial was postponed — indefinitely, as it turned out.
In a way, that’s where this story ends. No one knows what became of Herschel Grynszpan, although the debate goes on about whether he was a megalomaniac lone ranger or an overlooked hero of the Jewish resistence.
It’s a wonderful yarn, and Kirsch tells it like a novelist, exploring the psyche of an oddball teenager who played a quirky role in the biggest historic epoch of the twentieth century.
January 5, 2013
Turner Classics the other night broadcast a fascinating relic of World War II, a dark comedy entitled To Be or Not to Be, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. This 1942 film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is set in Warsaw during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. The plot concerns a troupe of Polish actors who use the tools of their art to upend a plan by the Nazis to identify and track down families of Polish airmen fighting against the Third Reich.
Benny and Lombard play a married couple, Josef and Maria Tura, who are popular Shakespearean actors in the city. A young Polish airman, Stanislav Sobinski, played by 23-year-old Robert Stack, has become enamored of Maria and she, appreciating the attention, begins a clandestine romance with him. Josef deduces that the two are having an affair after Sobinski repeatedly leaves the theater to meet Maria just as Josef is beginning to recite the “to be or not to be” speech in Hamlet.
Sobinski, however, is sent off to England where he meets Alexander Siletsky, a Nazi spy who pretends to be a member of the Polish resistance in order to gather information about anti-German activists. In a conversation with Siletsky, Sobinski mentions Maria Tura and is suspicious when the supposed denizen of Warsaw doesn’t recognize her name.
Based on Sobinski’s description of Maria, Siletsky, who travels to Poland to deliver to the Nazis a list of the families of Polish airmen, determines to enlist the actress as an informant. When he meets her, he also takes a more personal interest in her. But Sobinski has informed his superiors of his suspicions about Siletsky and is sent back to Warsaw to warn the resistance. When the acting company learns of this, they determine that the only solution is to murder Siletsky before he can turn over the names.
The plot proceeds as a classic farce in which one of the actors poses as Adolf Hitler in order to hoodwink the German authorities.
This film (which Mel Brooks remade in 1983) is regarded as a comedy classic, but it was controversial in its time. Some folks were uncomfortable with the humorous approach to the situation in Europe, which was anything but funny. Lubitsch began this project with Jack Benny in mind for the lead. Benny, whose birth name was Benjamin Kubelsky, met some resistance first-hand when his father, Meyer, walked out of the theater, scandalized by the sight of his son in Nazi uniform. Meyer reputedly changed his mind under Benny’s influence and eventually saw the movie more than forty times. Despite its humor, the film is very dark, though, and emphasizes the level of destruction the Germans rained on Warsaw.
To Be or Not to Be was the last film for Carole Lombard, who was the highest-paid Hollywood star at the time. Before this movie was released, she was killed in a plane crash while returning from a U.S. Bond tour.
The first American film to attack Hitler and Nazism through ridicule was You Natzy Spy! a short subject by The Three Stooges. That was followed a few months later by Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first true sound film and his first commercial success. In that movie, which appeared in 1940, before the United States and Germany were at war, Chaplin mercilessly pillories Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism, and Benito Mussolini.
Walt Disney got into the act on January 1, 1943, by releasing In Der Fuhrer’s Face, a propaganda cartoon in which Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he is forced to work on the assembly line of a munitions factory in “Nutziland.” This film included some broad German, Japanese, and Italian caricatures, including send-ups of Hitler and Mussolini. The cartoon featured a song that had been recorded and already released by Spike Jones: “When the Fuhrer says, ‘We are the master race,’ we heil, we hiel, right in der Fuhrer’s face”
You can watch a high-quality video of this cartoon at THIS LINK.
November 10, 2012
Warsaw came as a surprise to me. Because of my uneducated impressions of Eastern Europe, I expected the city to be grim, but it was not. Warsaw was lively, handsome, well-swept, festooned with parks, and imbued with the spirits of such as Paderewski, Chopin, and Wojtyla.
But as satisfying as it was to see the city thriving, it was impossible to escape reminders of its darkest days, when it was occupied and devastated by Nazi Germany — and its Jewish population virtually exterminated — a period that is described in vivid human detail in Matthew Brzezinski’s book, Isaac’s Army.
Brzezinski, who has been a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, concentrates in this book on the walled ghetto in which the Nazis confined hundreds of thousands of Jews in subhuman conditions until most of the poor people were either worked to death, killed by hunger and disease, shot to death in summary executions, burned to death in their homes and hiding places, or shipped off to death camps.
I saw remnants of the ghetto in Warsaw, but it seemed almost like an abstract idea. In Brzezinski’s book, however, the depth of the depravity with which the Nazis and their collaborators treated Polish Jews comes through with shocking force.
Brzezinski is particularly interested in a relatively small group of Jewish men and women who recognized from the beginning that the Nazi presence was an imminent danger to their community and were not willing to stand by and let the Germans proceed unhindered. The writer relates the stories of about a dozen individuals who were in that category. They belonged to underground paramilitary organizations that struggled to maintain some semblance of resistance to their persecutors. These folks defied and undermined the Nazi attempt to isolate the Jews and ultimately, in 1943, participated in the uprising that stunned and momentarily humiliated the SS when the “supermen” entered the ghetto with the object of leveling it.
Unfortunately, as Brzezinski relates, Polish Jews were not of a single mind about how they should respond to the Nazis or whether they should respond at all. They also were sharply divided over issues such as Marxism and Zionism.
They were frustrated by the fact that so many people and nations were indifferent to their plight, and they had to resort to bribery and subterfuge to accumulate even the poor excuse for an arsenal they had to defend themselves against the combination of Adolf Hitler’s insanity and his military machine. Their situation may have been hopeless to start out with, but Brzezinski shows that some of them would not give up hope or, at least, would persist in their struggle against the Nazis even when hope was gone. While this book, on the one hand, records one of the worst examples of human cruelty, it also records one of the best examples of human resilience. The account of a few score sick and starving Jews escaping the ghetto by stumbling for hours through a sewer laden with human excrement, corpses, and rats is disgusting to the imagination. At the same time, it is uplifting to know that people who would not concede their right to dignity and justice were willing to undergo even that in order to deny Hitler his dream of eradicating Judaism in Europe.
February 27, 2012
One of the most bizarre characters among the opportunists, lackeys, and hangers-on who orbited around Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party was Erik Jan Hanussen — a mentalist who is the subject of Arthur J. Magda’s book The Nazi Séance.
Hanussen, who worked his way up from rinky-dink vaudevillian to international celebrity, lived on the edge. Driven almost entirely by his appetite for fame and fortune, he dazzled some people and irritated others, and while he was being applauded for his feats on stage he was also being hounded by skeptics and enemies.
His act consisted of such effects as finding people in an audience whose names had been written on slips of paper and sealed in envelopes, finding hidden articles, telling strangers details about their lives, and occasionally foretelling the future.
He had many critics, but the most serious challenge to his credibility may have been a criminal case of fraud brought against him in Czechoslovakia. Although he probably had defrauded the people involved, he beat the charges after the judge, who seems to have been sympathetic anyway, allowed Hanussen to conduct a daring demonstration of his skills in the courtroom.
He also became a target of the communists who in the late ’20s and early ’30s were struggling with the Nazis for political control of Germany and who had no patience with such things as magic and spiritualism.
Some of the Nazis, on the other hand, including some high-ranking ones, were caught up in a post-World War I wave of interest in other-worldly things.
Hanussen, Magida writes, had no interest in politics or government, but he cast his lot with the Nazis to the extent that he used his charisma and manipulative skills to make some influential friends, not the least of whom was Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, head of the Nazi storm troopers in Berlin. Hanussen, who lived lavishly, entertained Helldorf in style and, while the Nazis were still trying to consolidate their power, the mentalist repeatedly lent money to Helldorf, holding onto the IOUs. Hanussen, who owned a newspaper in Berlin, used it to vigorously promote Adolf Hitler and his party.
Hanussen’s success was to a large extent a result of his hubris, and the primary example of that was the fact that he was not a Danish aristocrat, as he claimed, but an Austrian Jew named Hermann Steinschneider.
How he kept this from the Nazis for as long as he did is unclear, particularly since he continued to observe some Jewish rituals. In fact, one of his three wives converted to Judaism when she married him.
Eventually he was outed, first by a German communist newspaper and then by a Nazi publication. Even after this happened, he continued to behave with an extraordinary recklessness. He went too far, though, in February 1933, when he conducted a séance attended by some Nazi elite and tried to goad a hypnotized young actress into talking about a large fire. The following day, the Reichstag, seat of the German government, was torched. The circumstances surrounding that fire are still in dispute, but the Nazis blamed the communists. Magida writes that Hanussen, from his apartment, inexplicably telephoned the editor of a communist newspaper — a man he was otherwise unlikely to talk to — to inform him of the fire and warn him of the possible consequences.
In addition, Hanussen tried to use Helldorf’s IOUs to strong-arm the Nazis into letting him in on a lucrative business deal from which he had been shut out. The Nazis hadn’t been in power very long before three men took Hanussen for a ride. His body, with three shots in it, was found much later in the forest where he had been killed.
Unlike most of the Nazis’ millions of victims, Hanussen asked for it. Ironically, the success he enjoyed before he was eliminated was in part a result of an attitude that he shared with Hitler, who took advantage of the desperation and aimlessness of the German people after the combined blows of defeat in World War I and deprivation during the Great Depression. The following remarks are Hanussen’s, but they might have come from either man:
“”Their sadness comes from the fact that they don’t have a teacher, a father, a boss, a friend who impresses them enough that they can trust him. Why do these people come to me? Because I am stronger than they are, more audacious, more energetic. Because I have the stronger will. Because they are children and I am a man.”
December 29, 2011
Chelsea, an aspiring actress, tells Cosmo Kramer during an episode of the TV series Seinfeld that her manager is “trying to put together a miniseries for me on Eva Braun. I mean think about it, is that a great idea? We know nothing about Eva Braun, only that she was Hitler’s girlfriend. . . . What was it like having sex with Adolf Hitler? What do you wear in a bunker? What did her parents think of Hitler as a potential son-in-law? I mean it could just go on and on….”
It could and it will, because while it isn’t true that we know nothing about Eva Braun, it is true that we know relatively little, considering that she was the consort of one of the most recognizable and most reviled men in human history.
Heike B. Görtemaker, tries to bring some clarity to this subject in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, which was originally published in German. The very things that have made Braun an obscure figure up to now were obstacles to the author’s work, beginning with the fact that Hitler wanted to be perceived as a solitary messiah whose life and energy were devoted to lifting Germany and its people from the ignominious consequences of World War I.
In order to maintain his image, Hitler kept the very existence of Eva Braun a secret from the German people, and he kept her at least at arm’s length and often much farther when they were in the company of his inner circle. Hitler married Braun on the day before they both committed suicide in a bunker in April 1945 while the Red Army was literally striding through the Reichstag grounds about 25 feet above their heads. He once said that he had never married because he needed the political support of German women and that he would lose some of his appeal if he had a wife. “It’s the same with a movie actor,” Hitler said. “When he marries he loses a certain something from the women who adore him. Then he is no longer their idol as he was before.”
When I read that in Görtemaker’s book, I wondered what “certain something” Hitler had that would attract any woman, never mind millions of them. Evidently the author wonders about that, too. When she writes that Braun’s life was shaped by Hitler’s power, his world view, and his “charismatic attraction,” she adds parenthetically, “however difficult it may be to explain what that consisted in.”
Görtemaker is convinced that neither Braun nor the other women around Hitler — principally the wives of men like Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels — were simply adornments who were expected to be seen but not heard. On the other hand, the author finds it impossible to say definitively how much Braun and the others knew about German policy, and particularly about the Holocaust. They had to know of the persecution of Jews in Europe; it was no secret. But discussion of the extermination program in Hitler’s presence was forbidden when he was in his “family circle,” as it were, meaning the crowd that frequented Berghof, Hitler’s frequent refuge in Bavaria.
Hitler met Braun in 1929 when he was 40 and she was 17 and working as an assistant to Dietrich Hoffmann who became the privileged official photographer of the Nazi party and the Third Reich. Görtemaker speculates that the couple were not intimate until 1933 when Braun had become an adult . At first they saw each other only intermittently, and this apparently weighed on Braun and was the cause of two suicide attempts. After the second incident, Hitler arranged for Braun to have her own home in Munich and to have regular access to Berghof, where her assertion of her prerogatives irritated some of Hitler’s coterie.
Whatever attracted Braun to Hitler in the first place, long before it was clear that he would lead the German nation, her commitment to him was complete. Görtemaker writes that the level of her loyalty was the object of admiration to at least some of Hitler’s associates and it may have been the one thing that most endeared her to him. There’s no evidence that she pressured him to marry her or that she complained about being kept out of the public eye. And, in the most dramatic possible demonstration of her constancy, however misguided, she went to Berlin against Hitler’s wishes with the clear intention of dying with him while many others, including Speer and Hoffmann, were already concocting lies about being “outsiders” in Hitler’s camp. The normal confidentiality of the culture in which Hitler lived, coupled with the loss and destruction of written records and the unreliability of later testimony by turncoats trying to save their own hides and reputation may mean that we’ll never know more about Eva Braun than Görtemaker has been able to tell us in this book. That’s unfortunate, not because Braun was so different from others who supported Hitler, but because she was so like them. She was in all respects an ordinary person who came under the still elusive spell of a bumbling, absurd little man who terrorized the world for more than a decade
December 15, 2011
I grew up among the remnants of war. I was born in September 1942 when the United States had been engaging Nazi Germany and Japan for less than a year. By the time I was old enough to be aware of my surroundings, there still were handwritten letters from the front, brass uniform buttons, photos of soldiers, sailors, and marines, patriotic records, and newspaper clippings reporting on the service of relatives and friends, including cousin Mike Aun, who was awarded the Bronze Star twice, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart with three oak-leaf clusters.
I also recall that for a long time after 1945, my parents and other adults would frame their conversations in terms of what had occurred before, during, and after “the war.” They needn’t say which war.
So although I don’t remember the war itself, I feel that it was a part of my life, and I eagerly learn as much about it as I can. My most recent opportunity came in the form of Pearl Harbor Christmas, a new book by Stanley Weintraub.
In this compact book, Weintraub describes events at home and abroad from December 22, 1941, to January 1, 1942 — devoting a chapter to each day. The dominant personalities by far are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Churchill was staying at the White House after crossing the submarine-infested Atlantic in winter seas. He couldn’t wait to get to Washington, because Pearl Harbor had accomplished what he could not, forcing the United States into a war that Britain probably could not survive otherwise. But, although the newborn American belligerence was directed mostly at Japan, Churchill wanted to make sure, and did, that the U.S. would go to war first against Nazi Germany.
Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress, spoke at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on the White House lawn — the only time he and Roosevelt spoke from the same platform — and dashed up to Ottawa to speak before the Canadian Parliament. What with his blustering, his cigar-smoking, and his drinking, he was quite the counterpoint to patrician, dignified Roosevelt. Actually, he came across more like Lyndon Johnson: Weintraub describes an incident on December 26 when Churchill was dictating to a male secretary notes for the address to Congress. Churchill was in his bath when he started dictating. He got out, wrapped a towel around himself, walked to an adjoining bedroom, dropped the towel, and continued dictating, stark naked. Suddenly, the secretary recalled, “President Roosevelt [in his wheelchair] entered the bedroom and saw the British Prime Minister completely naked walking around the room dictating to me. WSC never being lost for words said, ‘You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you.”’
While Roosevelt and Churchill and others were in Washington working issues of joint command, Adolf Hitler was in Berlin or Bavaria trying to chew the great deal he had bitten off.
Hitler’s troops were in trouble on the Russian front, and even those closer to home were suffering from a lack of adequate supplies. Hitler actually had Joseph Goebbels run a clothing drive to help keep his soldiers warm. In a radio address, Goebbels told the German people that they “would not deserve a moment’s peace if a single German soldier was exposed to the harshness of winter without articles of warm clothing.”
Meanwhile, the situation in the Pacific continued to deteriorate as the Japanese took advantage of their momentum and munched away at the region. Churchill had not yet publicly acknowledged the reality, Weintraub writes, and continued to waste resources trying to defend ground that was already as good as lost.
Even more closely involved in such a charade was U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had to abandon his headquarters and retreat with his wife and son to a tunnel in Corregidor while he continued to send out dispatches about tank battles, with nonexistent tanks, putting up a fight that wasn’t occurring.
Weintraub explains that there was a certain ambivalence about the war in the United States at first; it still seemed far away.
Still, the government took the impending conflict seriously enough to pack up the founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — and ship them off under heavy security to repose in Fort Knox for the duration.
The holidays went on as usual. Despite security concerns, Roosevelt insisted that the national tree be on the White House lawn, not in Lafayette Park where the Secret Service wanted it. There were presents, too, including eight thousand cigars sent to Churchill from various sources.
The new year was marked by a couple of oddities – Churchill making a rare visit to a church, attending a service with Roosevelt in Alexandria, Va., and the beleaguered Hitler publicly invoking “the Lord” in hoping that 1942 would bring positive results for the German people.
Throughout the United States, however, the prospects of what would come in the next three and half years did not weigh heavily on the celebratory spirit, and that, Weintraub writes, included the biggest celebration of all:
“ ‘If there was uneasiness over the possibility of Axis bombs falling into Times Square,’ the Times reported, ‘you could not read it in the celebrants’ faces.’ Despite Pearl Harbor and the reality of world war, it had not yet reached very far into the American psyche.’’
While we have been absorbed in the death of Michael Jackson and the whatever-you-call-it of Sarah Palin, Bernie Ecclestone has been telling what a swell guy Adolf Hitler was — and then sort of taking it back.
Ecclestone is the top man in Formula One. He was commenting recently about the seeming inability of governments to do anything to improve the economic condition of most of the world. Now Hitler, Ecclestone said, there was a guy who could get things done.
And that he could.
The remark attracted a predictable response. Ecclestone, describing himself as a “fool” for having said such a thing, took a second crack at it, writing in The Times of London:
During the 1930s Germany was facing an economic crisis but Hitler was able to rebuild the economy, building the autobahns and German industry. That was all I meant when I referred to him getting things done. I’m an admirer of good leadership, of politicians who stand by their convictions and tell the voters the truth. I’m not an admirer of dictators, who rule by terror.
Evidently Ecclestone was absent the day the teacher told how the German government, soon after Hitler took power in 1933, suspended civil rights including the writ of habeas corpus, suppressed the Communist party and other opposition organizations, and violently — sometimes to the point of murder — drove the Communists away. And Ecclestone might have dozed over that part of the history text that described how Hitler’s government, before turning the Fatherland into heaven on earth, got the legislature to pass an act that pushed aside inconvenient constitutional provisions and made the regime a legal dictatorship.
Every once in a while someone who hasn’t done his homework “discovers” how beneficial Hitler would have been for Germany if he hadn’t been the devil incarnate. These epiphanies always end the same way.