Category Archives: History

Happy Birthday Ernst Toller

Self publishing is probably not the correct route for me, simply because I am so lazy about the self promotion side of the equation. I haven’t written anything on this WordPress blog in over a year, but today’s the birth date of one of the major characters in Fire Answers Fire, Ernst Toller, born on December 1, 1893, one of only a couple people in my novel about the Nazi airship Hindenburg who enjoyed a real life as well as a fictional one. Toller’s story deserves to be known so much better and I’m sorry that my book didn’t sell well enough help to raise his profile except among a small handful of readers.

The story was different on May 22, 1939, when his suicide in New York as an exile from Hitler’s Germany was news around the world, as was his funeral where he was eulogized by Sinclair Lewis and others.

In its June 17, 1939 issue, The New Yorker published the following poem from W.H. Auden about Toller.

 

IN MEMORY OF ERNST TOLLER (d. May 1939)

The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice

Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

Already been too injured to get well?
O for how long,like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

About the big friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

—W. H. Auden

The Bund back on page 1 of the Times this morning (and may have never left Suffolk County)

When I was researching Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund for Fire Answers Fire, I spent a lot of time getting lost in back issues of The New York Times from the 1930s, where the Bund and its camps and marchs and meetings would often be mentioned on the front page, but I  did not expect to see them making a reappearance on page A1 in late 2015.

The article this morning entitled “In Long Island Hamlet, Home Buyers’ Rule Is a Relic of Its Nazi Past” is about a community in Yaphank on eastern Long Island — on the grounds of the old Camp Siegfried — where owners of homes do not own their lots and “The original owners of this tract of land kept a clause in its bylaws requiring the homeowners to be primarily ‘of German extraction.’ That has kept this community of 45 families almost entirely white.” In October of 2015.

While it does not appear that there are parades with brownshirts and swastikas or street signs with “Adolf Hitler Straße” in the current Yaphank settlement, it’s amazing that the Times piece does include a photo of a large current sign at the entrance to the neighborhood that reads “German American Settlement League – Private Community – Members & Guests Only.” That is the exact same organization name that was being used in 1938 when the following film about Camp Siegfried was made by British Pathé:

Here’s an article from Untapped Cities published earlier this year, “This Former Nazi Neighborhood on Long Island with Adolf Hitler Street Still Exists,” with even more information and photos illustrating this strange neighborhood’s past and present states.

And here’s a collection of NYPD Alien Squad photographs of Camp Siegfried in its heyday.

The ‘Potshots by Pineys’ Theory

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon has been one of those books deep in my to-read list since I first read reviews of it in 1982, but I’m just getting around to reading it now. Imagine my surprise this morning when I ran across the following passage in that book (on page 370/location 6798 of the Kindle version) as the author enters New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

It isn’t widely known in America that the descendants of Jolly Roger pirates put an end to dirigible flight. So I heard at breakfast in a diner.

As someone who did a little bit of research about the event that ended airship travel for my own 2014 novel Fire Answers Fire, the story about offspring of pirates bringing down the Hindenburg was new to me, but here are the details, as related to William Least Heat-Moon by a diner compaBlue Highwaysnion in a loud shirt.

     “Let me tell you about the Pines,” he said. “Maybe you heard of the Hindenburg — the zeppelin — but I’ll let you in on the true story of what really happened. I’ve lived here all my life, and I know what happened even if the government said they didn’t know.”

The gist was this: a storm forced the Hindenburg into a holding pattern (that was a fact I could check out). The airship, only a few hundred feet off the ground, circled central New Jersey for two hours. Lakehurst, where it was trying to land, is on the edge of the Pines, and everyone knows Pineys don’t tolerate anyone poking into their woods. They figured the zeppelin was a government ship looking for their stills where they turn blueberries into whiskey, so they shot at the thing and opened leaks in the fabric. By the time the Hindenburg started to tie up, there was enough free hydrogen to blow the ship to kingdom come, which it did.

“The official explanation was St. Elmo’s fire,” he said. “Static electricity. St. Elmo never in his life set fire to any aircraft. People can believe it was anti-Nazi sabotage if they want, but I’m telling the truth. It was potshots by the Pineys, and it was nothing new. They’re descendants of pirates and smugglers who ran into the woods to hide. Mixed in with a few Tories and Hessians.”

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBIThe Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The tale of the FBI office burglary itself deserves five stars and it deserves to be known by every American. The loss of a star comes from some loss of focus as the book spends a few more pages than necessary on the current decade’s familiar intelligence history and abuses since 9/11 (but even if you skim some of the later chapters, please read the acknowledgments for the personal, almost accidental, story of two of the burglars revealing their identities to the author).
The world of 1971 is well rendered and the brave people who burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania to expose J. Edgar Hoover’s crimes are treated sympathetically. How much longer would the FBI have been able to deny their abuses if not for the documents stolen by these eight ordinary people, sent to Betty Medsger at The Washington Post, and published by the Post over the objections of the Nixon Administration? The fact that none of the burglars were ever caught by the FBI despite J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with finding them is astonishing. I was personally struck by the connections with Catholic peace movement of the Berrigans and with Philadelphia Resistance (a group I was at the fringes of in high school) and the members who overlapped with the Camden 28. That draft board break-in (and the amazing trial and verdict that followed) deserves a book of its own, but Betty Medsger does a great job of placing the Camden 28 story in context here. I hadn’t thought of that group of priests and lay people in years, but I remember going to benefits for them, including one starring George Carlin. I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I don’t think my recommendation is too highly colored by the fact that the story has some resonances from my youth; it’s an amazing and overlooked event in our recent national history, and a personal story of what ordinary people can do in extraordinary times.

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From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the PresentFrom Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished reading this today, but I wish I had stopped about a hundred pages before the end. The first 700 pages have a historian’s distance and breadth and I found the chapters on the 1500s and 1600s especially fascinating. There was a heavy Western European slant, but that’s right in the subtitle and I was expecting that. What I wasn’t expecting was that the history of the years between 1945 and 1995 read like a curmudgeon’s “oh, these kids today” rant with a very narrow focus on the concerns and conflicts in late-20th-century American academia. If the book had ended when Jacques Barzun was a young boy in France listening to the German guns at the beginning of World War I, I would have had no problem giving this book five stars. The last hundred pages not only distract from those early pages, but they put some of the value judgments in those earlier pages in doubt.

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