Sunday, April 9, 2017

by Robert Klara 

When it came to automobiles they had to be 100% German. For Hitler it was a given that whatever car he had would be a Mercedes. He was devoted to them. Luckily for him two huge German automakers would merge in 1926 and become Daimler-Benz AG. As for the name Mercedes, it was attributed to the daughter of one of Daimler's wealthiest patrons, who was Jewish. How ironic that Hitler being so obsessed with race never knew nor investigated where the name came from.
Daimler-Benz hand-built a car called the Grosser Mercedes W07 ("Great or Super Mercedes") in 1930 that was marketed to heads of state and the elite. Because it was large, the Grosser had a menacing appearance. How perfect for Hitler and the Nazi Party.
By 1938 Mercedes-Benz thought the car was outdated and told their engineers to expand the entire thing. The Grosser 770K (7.7-liter engine) Model 150 Offener Tourenwagon was now twenty feet long, seven feet wide, and weighed five tons. It could speed over 100 miles per hour. It was quite a beast. Inside the car was quite luxurious with leather seats that could easily hold eight passengers. There were hidden compartments for pistols. These limousines would be used primarily as Nazi propaganda. Hitler would ride standing in the front seat, unsmiling, while adoring crowds would cheer in ecstasy. These automobiles would come to symbolize wealth, power, and also death since they looked like hearses. By the time World War II was over many of these cars were destroyed. Two of them came to the United States separately and covertly. One was supposed to be Hitler's car and the other to be Hermann Goering's. Through the years different people would own and exhibit them. None of these owners had any paperwork on who exactly these cars belonged to. It didn't seem to matter until one of these cars ended up in the Canadian War Museum in 1970. Ludwig Kosche (the librarian) took it upon himself to find out whose car the museum actually had and to uncover the truth.
Author Robert Klara is a terrific writer. Previously I had read his The Hidden White House (reviewed in this blog) and while I thought that book was good, The Devil's Mercedes is even better. Who would have thought that a five-ton Mercedes-Benz could be so interesting? In lesser hands it would have been boring. Klara really knows how to tell a story. The amount of research that was done is mind-boggling. Just look at the Endnotes when you are finished reading the book. They consist of ninety-nine pages. These could easily be another book and are quite informative. If you're a history nut, a car buff, and would like to know how Americans felt when these two cars showed up on our shores, you must read The Devil's Mercedes.
Very highly recommended. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

by Norman Ohler 

After the end of World War I, the people of Germany were depressed. They could not believe that they had been defeated. How could they get themselves out of this funk? They really needed something to get through life. Would National Socialism heal them? The Nazis thought for sure that their ideology would intoxicate the people. Nope. Drugs would become the magic elixir for the population.
In the 1920s the pharmaceutical industry came to the forefront in Germany. All of these companies started to produce and many chemical factories joined together to become IG Farben, which would become one of the most powerful companies in the world. Opiates, morphine, heroin, and cocaine (Merck's was considered the best) became quite lucrative.
By the time World War II rolled around, methamphetamine (soon to be known as the Volksdroge, the "people's drug") reared its ugly head. Its trademark name was Pervitin and was available in every pharmacy all over the country. Everyone took it: firemen, doctors, barbers, businessmen, housewives. Meth was guaranteed to last for at least twelve hours. Energy was elevated, stress abated, tasks were done faster. To fight the battles against the Allies, soldiers were given the drug in pill form.
Drugs went all the way up the line of command from the Party members, the SS, and to Hitler himself. He went from being a complete teetotaler to a drug addict. How ironic that the Nazi propaganda espoused purity and abhorrence of chemical stimulants when they themselves were doped up. What would have happened if Germany had never acquired such drugs? Would they have been so invincible in their victories? 
Blitzed is a stunner.  Author Norman Ohler spent five years doing research for it in both German and American state archives. In the Bibliography he lists unpublished documents that became main sources for this book and after reading them, they are much more interesting than the published ones. There have been endless volumes about the Third Reich and many of them have been tremendous but none of them compare to this one. It's quite an eye-opener and truly outstanding.
Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

In 1796 Ona Judge was living in Philadelphia as a young, black, slave woman owned by President George Washington and his wife, Martha. The Washingtons had moved from their home in Mount Vernon, in Virginia, to Philadelphia as it had become the nation's capital. They took nine slaves with them. Ona was the personal attendant to Martha. The North was quite different from the South when it came to slavery. In Philadelphia it was looked down upon and there was a large community of free blacks. For Ona, freedom was foremost in her mind and when she found out that the Washingtons would eventually be moving back to Virginia, Ona knew that she would not be returning with them. Once she made that decision, Ona slipped out of the house in Philadelphia and escaped.
George Washington was not willing to emancipate Ona and he was determined to find her and bring her back no matter what.
After reading Never Caught, my views about George Washington have changed somewhat. The man who I always thought so highly of as our first president of the United States has left a bad taste in my mouth, along with Martha. It's very disturbing to see how the two of them wanted to keep their slaves in bondage and used whatever means was necessary to pursue Ona Judge. She was their property and according to them, Ona had no right to leave.
The book is extremely well-written and quite detailed about the life of enslavement. Ona was one very brave, determined, and courageous woman. 
Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

by Dean Jobb

Chicago in the 1920s was the place to make easy money. More people were rich than ever before. The economy was booming. It was a great city for a swindler to operate in.
Leo Koretz was a charming, personable lawyer who enticed both men and women to invest in nonexistent entities: timberland and oil wells in Panama. Hundreds of people paid up ($30 million) including his entire family. He was like a Bernie Madoff except that he was a better liar and salesman and his fraud lasted much longer than Madoff's: for two decades. Leo worked by himself and took care of every aspect of the scam. By 1923 new investments (money) were not coming in as much and when everything collapsed, he disappeared. The search for him would take almost a year. Leo took off for Nova Scotia, Canada, grew a beard, and changed his name to Lou Keyte. Naturally, he was living a life of luxury and that is what did him in. Leo should not have taken his suit jacket to the tailor.
Empire of Deception is one hell of a ride. The writing is superb and you just cannot tear yourself away. Author Dean Jobb really knows how to tell a story. The amazing thing to me is why a man who duped so many people and then vanished to appear again in another country would continue to live the same way he did in Chicago. I can see him being a recluse and not bothering with anybody, but not him, although the second time around he did not swindle anyone in investing. Leo still tried, though, to morph into another person, so in actuality, he was still a con man.
This book is one fantastic read.
Very highly recommended.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

by Catrine Clay 

When one thinks of psychoanalysis the person who comes to mind is Sigmund Freud. In 1907 it was considered this new and shocking movement that everybody was talking about. Freud wanted to reach a wider audience so that the entire world would know about psychoanalysis. So he decided to name Carl Jung as his heir to take over the movement, which really annoyed Freud's colleagues. Carl was a young, Swiss, charismatic doctor who would be just perfect in the leadership role. Freud felt that because Carl was a Gentile more people would be interested in psychoanalysis. Being Jewish, as Freud was, actually hampered the movement as there was so much anti-Semitism. 
Before Carl was introduced to Freud, he was working in a lunatic asylum and didn't have much money. That all changed when he met Emma Rauschenbach whose family were wealthy industrialists, which then made her fabulously rich. They fell in love and got married. Now Carl was no longer poor. By marrying Emma he inherited all of her money and possessions. It would turn out to be a trying marriage at least on Emma's side. Carl was a complicated man. He actually had two personalities and was known as "Split Carl." He had "infatuations" that drove Emma crazy. Women just adored him. Emma learned to deal with it and Carl encouraged her to "individuate," to take classes, study, and be her own person. Eventually she would become a famous analyst herself and her career helped her in finally understanding Carl.
Labyrinths is an amazing book about two very interesting individuals. The title itself is brilliant. Labyrinth has several different meanings, but the one that applies to this story would be tortuous. Author Catrine Clay has done a terrific job in bringing Emma and Carl to such vivid life. The writing is wonderful. It was fascinating to read about psychoanalysis, Carl's patients, the Freuds, and the labyrinthine relationship between Emma and Carl. I loved it.
Very highly recommended. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee 

Could someone be a dyslexic cryptologist? Sounds like an oxymoron. Except that being dyslexic means poor spelling and a cryptologist uses numbers to formulate codes. So, it is entirely possible even though it sounds impossible. There was somebody, though, who fit this characterization and he ended up being the first American in history to attempt espionage.
Brian Patrick Regan was always socially awkward. In school he was taunted by classmates and bullied, plus his teachers didn't think much of him either. He was terrible at spelling and was not so good at reading. 
After high school, Regan enlisted in the Air Force. He was determined to make something of himself. Regan had to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and, incredibly, was among the high scorers. He actually qualified for doing intelligence. Regan learned how to use Morse code and how to interpret and analyze signals. Being dyslexic was almost a plus for analysis because thinking in pictures, not words was a huge advantage. Regan did well and moved up the ranks. In 1995 he got a job with the National Reconnaissance Office and four years later thoughts of doing espionage began to fester in his brain.
The Spy Who Couldn't Spell is not your traditional story about famous spies like Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, but it comes close. Brian Regan really believed that he would not get caught as he imagined that he was better than the other spies who were. He was cunning and thought that finally people would stop underestimating him and no longer consider him to be stupid. Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for him, Regan was sloppy. The dyslexia that helped him to be brilliant with codes was a major part of his downfall in being a successful spy.
If you're a numbers person and are interested in figuring out codes, you'll definitely want to read this book. It's well-written and not what you would expect a spy to be like.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

by Greg Mitchell 

On August 13, 1961, a barbed wire barrier was put up between East and West Berlin courtesy of Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Thousands of people who worked in the West lost their jobs, their ability to finish their studies, and their freedom to visit family and friends. East Berlin had become a police state. If people tried to leave, they were shot. Regardless, in a couple of days, many East Germans jumped out of windows that were near the border. Some made it; some did not. Plenty were undaunted. By October, the barbed wire was replaced with an eight-foot wall of concrete. It still did not stop the escapees. They could either scale it or blast through it and there were those who were fortunate enough to get to West Berlin.
One year later, three young West German men decided to get their friends, family, and strangers out of the East to freedom in the West by digging tunnels. They risked being caught by the Stasi (secret police), thrown into prison, or executed. To them it was worth it as they were fed up with living under Communist rule.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, two television networks, NBC and CBS, heard about these hidden tunnels and took off for Berlin. Each one of them financed a tunnel (separate from the other) so they would then have the right to film the escapes and show them to the public. 
President John F. Kennedy was not keen on either network to even think of filming something that could cause a confrontation with the Soviet Union. He pressured both NBC and CBS to stop what they were doing and to forget about airing their documentaries.
The Tunnels is a terrific book written by a master storyteller. It's fascinating to read what happened during the Cold War specifically in Berlin and why Khrushchev wanted a wall put up in the first place. JFK was naive, inexperienced, and weak and Khrushchev walked all over him. There's many things that keep you riveted: how the tunnels were dug (what implements they used, how many volunteers helped); the main characters, two of whom consisted of a cyclist who could have been an Olympic champion and ended up being the prime target for arrest and an American student who assisted in the escapes. Of course, the most exciting parts (you're cheering the entire time to yourself) of the book are reading about the people who crawled their way to freedom.  
Author Greg Mitchell was able to interview just about all of the key people who were involved (that's pretty neat!) and was extremely lucky to have access to a large amount of Stasi reports on the tunnels and the specific individuals that not too many people have seen before.
This is a marvelous tale from the beginning to the end.
Very highly recommended.