Hitler’s missing years – new evidence, new insights

Hitler’s early life has long been an inscrutable mystery. Read any book about him and you will discover how little can be pinned down as fact. What does stand out is the paradox that he was clearly an unremarkable drifter who somehow managed to garner significant popular support in the early 1930s and ultimately became Reich Chancellor. All books to date struggle to offer a convincing explanation for this, posing more questions than they answer.

The origin of this problemFind this in our libraries stems from the highly distorted and selective historical record Hitler left us. His book Mein Kampf is his largely invented heroic account of his experiences as a soldier in the First World War and how that crucible forged his world view and ‘calling’ to lead Germany back to greatness. At this time he was becoming a prominent public figure taking pains to suppress, destroy or distort any evidence or any one threatening to contradict his own version of his life. Historians have had to rely unsatisfactorily on Mein Kampf along with the few surviving crumbs of credible historical evidence.

However not all of the credible evidence has been lost to us. Recently the German historian Thomas Weber got lucky when the Bavarian State archives recovered the dusty, previously lost war diary of the regiment Hitler served in during the First World War. It proved a valuable mine of information which contradicts many of the assertions Hitler made about his war service and the war generally. The diary also provided Weber with leads to other previously unknown sources such as descendants of the men who served with Hitler. His book Hitler’s First War at last opens up a window on Hitler’s early life.
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Helen Webby – New Zealand Music Month

Helen Webby in performanceA full-sized harp is a thing to behold . Its size dwarves the human player and (get this ‘air guitarists’) the expanse of its strings requires the player to manoeuvre to reach the lower notes. Its profile is like the prow of an elegant sailing ship. But what exquisite sounds it can produce!

In the hands of the highly talented and internationally acclaimed Helen Webby it is truly enchanting and magical. Last night Fendalton Library hosted the first of Helen’s recitals for Christchurch City Libraries New Zealand Music Month line up of entertainment.

Her choice of programme ranged widely from a movement from the famous Harp Concerto by Handel, to Fields of Gold by Sting, a few Irish Hornpipes, Jigs and Reels and a couple of pieces she commissioned from New Zealand composers Rachel Clement and Helen Bowater.

Perhaps the most famous and familiar piece, the brief solo for harp from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, was mesmerising. Helen mentioned that hearing this piece on her parents’ record player at the age of 11 inspired her to learn to play the harp. Since then she has gone on to play for the Christchurch Symphony and NZSO, played in chamber music ensembles here and in Europe and has a very successful solo career.

On thanking her for yet again being a part of the Libraries’ Music Month entertainment she said that libraries were one of her favourite places to perform. This certainly comes out in the warmth with which she talks to her audience both during the recital and afterwards.  She performs again in our libraries during May and if you have kids to bring along it will put smiles on their dials!

True ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ – Jungle Soldier

Unlike the Band of Brothers,  Freddy Spencer-Chapman fought World War 2 mostly on his own in the jungles of Malaya.

A very hardy and undaunted explorer and keen observer of wildlife he volunteered to fight a war of sabotage behind Japanese lines using his expert outdoor survival skills. The lightning victory of the Japanese and surrender of Singapore left him isolated and without any support.

This is a remarkable story for several reasons; survival against a terrifying enemy, tropical diseases, near starvation and evading capture over four years not to mention that for most of this time the Japanese believed they were hunting for hundreds of Australian commandos. Moreover, during his extraordinary ordeals Chapman managed to discover and record new plant and wildlife species which was a significant legacy he left to the catalogue of natural history.

The book is loaded with other equally fascinating ironies. For example it became clear early on that the British could not spare any trained agents or special forces for Malaya so they had to authorise Freddy to train locals to fight their guerilla war. Just which group of locals that was will certainly raise a few eyebrows! This book makes for a real, if gruelling ripping yarn.

Forgotten Battalion of Brothers

The TV series Band of Brothers based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of that name faithfully recreated the stories of the surviving veterans of Easy Company (in full that’s “E company of the Second Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division”). Easy Company’s exploits are now legendary.

Other books soon followed giving further points of view including a couple about the company’s leader Dick Winters (Winters in his war memoirs has some interesting things to say about the television series). ‘The Filthy Thirteen’ jumped on the ‘Band’ band-wagon in 2003 with the story of a pathfinder unit of the 506th known for their ferocity and guts whose mission preceded everyone else’s. Yet Easy Company was just one small unit of the 506th and this well deserved attention makes one wonder where are the stories of the other 17 companies of the 506th Regiment?

Now at last we have a new book about the whole Third battalion of the 506th which hasn’t got the same level of attention until now. ‘Tonight we die as men: the untold story of the Third Battalion 506th parachute Infantry Regiment from Toccoa to D-Day’ by Ian Gardner and Roger Day captures far better than most books what actually happened when this battalion was dropped far from their planned drop zones often in very small, isolated, leaderless pockets.

Without any radio contact for the first three days, the high command assumed the whole battalion had been effectively wiped out and their objectives not gained (it has been called ‘The Forgotten Battalion’ ever since). It even reveals that the paratroopers were under orders not to engage the enemy until daylight.

I like the fact that the veterans interviewed for this book mention and acknowledge the presence and support recieved from and given to other units equally scattered in the drop. Intriguingly, one of the officers in the 3/506th whose account is used here was a Bobbie Rommel. Was he in any way related to the famous German Fieldmarshal Erwin Rommel? Read this book to find out.

Slavery in war and peace

Tears in the darkness : the story of the Bataan Death march by Elizabeth & Michael Norman
This book’s title came from a Japanese kanji for “the loneliest despair” imaginable. So be warned, it is as heart-wrenching as it is compelling a read as you will ever find on the Second World War. The book recounts the desperate fighting in 1942 in which the American and Filipino force fought the Japanese until near starvation in the worst military defeat ever incurred by the United States. This was but a foretaste of the horrors which the 76,000 allied POWs faced on the notorious 70 mile long “death march” to the POW camps after surrender to the Japanese. During the march and their subsequent two and a half year long incarceration thousands of POWs were literally starved, worked and/or beaten to death.

Tears gives us a dimension that other recent books of ‘wartime voices’ (which tend to give excerpts of accounts from one side) often don’t – a biographical account of Ben Steele (one of the American soldiers) and accounts of his American comrades are juxtapsed with Filipino and Japanese accounts of the same events. So we get powerful insights into what this hell did to the bodies and minds of the POWs. It also lifts the veil on the psyche of the Japanese soldier. Certainly callous indifference through to deliberate cruelty typified many a Japanese soldier but some quite startling insights emerge as well. A film The Beast of Bataan about the post-war trial of the Japanese commander has been slated but appears to have stalled for the time being. If you would like this as an audio book it is available for download at Christchurch City Library’s Overdrive.

Slavery by Another Name : The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War 2 by Douglas A. Blackmon
The history of race relations in the U.S. has for long told of how slavery was abolished with Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863. Black Americans endeavouring to merge into mainstream American Society met fierce resistance from mainly white Southerners who waged a campaign of violence and enacted many laws that deprived Black Americans of their social and political entitlements. The Federal government’s resolve to help Blacks or to even roll back the so called ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the South quickly waned after the Civil War ended. But there was always more to the picture than this because it never fully answered the question of why the integration of Blacks into mainstream American economic and political life is still far from complete and why Black America is still littered with families and communities torn apart by violence, delinquency, drug addiction, crime and low self-esteem. At last, this book reveals the missing chapter. A chapter in U.S. history far more sinister than segregation ever was.

Blackmon’s book documents a little known but widespread and systemic exploitation and appalling mistreatment of large numbers of black American men by several Southern states between the Civil War and the Second World War. After it’s defeat in the Civil War, the South resolved it’s desperate shortage of labour through a very peculiar means which Blackmon reveals was often more barbaric, cynical and deadly than slavery ever was. He also shows how Federal officials investigating abuses were often meek or ignored in the interests of rebuilding relations with the South.

Ironically, it was the U.S. entry into the Second World War that quickly brought an end to this neo-slavery because President Roosevelt knew that his country’s own dirty little secrets could compromise its efforts to fight a moral crusade against regimes that brutalised their subject minorities. Reading Tears in the darkness soon after Slavery by another name certainly put the undeniable suffering of the American POWs and Black Americans into a jarring perspective. The POWs suffered and died for their country. Many Black Americans suffered and died because of their country.