Media bias: nothing new under the sun

 

Forsyth, Frederick. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Judging from all the chatter about “Fake News,” one might think media bias is a wholly new phenomenon. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.

I have earlier blogged about Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography “The Outsider,” specifically on how he reinvented himself as a pioneering thriller writer after his journalistic career came to an abrupt end. (The Day Of The Jackal to me still stands as perhaps the greatest thriller ever written.)

Forsyth never went to journalism school (he’d probably snicker at the thought): his formal training was as a jet fighter pilot! He had instead learned the craft on the job as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper, then decided to try his luck in London. By coincidence, the Reuters deputy bureau chief in Paris had just returned home with a heart condition. As this was a time of great political turmoil in France following de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria, the agency needed a replacement urgently. The polyglot Forsyth spoke French like a native and thus was hired basically on the spot.

Forsyth credits his boss in Paris, Harold King, with teaching him the value of professionalism and objectivity even on a subject where your own passions are palpable — such as de Gaulle, whom both men admired.

In this spirit, Forsyth relates a telling anecdote for those who think manufactured press conferences with planted questions are a recent innovation:

“I had turned twenty-four, and in January attended the now-famous press conference in the Elysée when de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community. It was a huge slap in the face to British premier Harold Macmillan, who, in Algeria in the Second World War, had pushed de Gaulle’s claims to be the sole leader of the Free French.

His conferences were no press conferences at all. He simply planted five questions with five ultraloyal senior pressmen in the audience, memorized the speech he intended to make in reply, and also memorized the placements of the five so-called questioners, because he could not see them. Harold King, in the front, was awarded a question to ask.

Later, Forsyth became the Reuters correspondent in East Berlin. I won’t detract from his many humorous tales of that period, many of which feature unintentionally comic behavior by the Stasi and regime officials. Pride of place is given to the press secretary of the East German Communist government, who acted as a de facto censor for the foreign press. Forsyth discovered that Kurt Blecha was, in fact, a former Nazi who underwent a “conversion” in a POW camp and now served the competing brand of totalitarians.

At Christmas, Easter, and on his birthday, I sent him an anonymous greeting card at his office. It was bought in East Berlin but typed on a machine in the West Berlin office of Reuters, in case my own machine was checked. It wished him all best, with his Nazi Party membership number writ large and purporting to come from “your old and faithful Kameraden.” I never saw him open them, but I hope they worried the hell out of him.

He tells of a few amusing amorous capers, one of which made it quite advisable for him to get back to the West. After another stint in Paris, he obtained a job with the BBC.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.[…]

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

After various assignments, the BBC sent him to Nigeria to report on the developing civil war and the secession of what became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Here, Forsyth became an eyewitness to an unfolding human tragedy — his collected dispatches were later published in book form as The Biafra Story.

The BBC toffs were in lockstep with Whitehall (the Foggy Bottom of the UK) and the Wilson administration: they sided with the predominantly Muslim, pseudo-democratic, feudal regime of Nigeria against the predominantly Christian Igbo people who populated Biafra. (In this respect too, nothing new under the sun.) They repeated the propaganda of the Nigerian dictatorship as gospel truth.

Every journalist will know that he may have to report what a dictatorship is saying, but must make plain early on that it is the government talking, not him. This is the “attribution”—the words “according to the Nigerian government.”

Forsyth reported what he actually saw, and that did not go down well:

What I had actually done was point a Colt .45 at the forehead of my reporting career with the BBC and pull the trigger. It was not out of mischief but naïveté. I was trained by Reuters. I had never covered a controversial story in my two years with the BBC. I did not realize that when broadcasting for the state, a foreign correspondent must never report what London does not want to hear. And that is what I had done.

Forsyth was recalled to England, and then resigned from the BBC to continue reporting as a freelancer.

Every day, the horrors of Vietnam were copiously reported, but that was an American mess. Nigeria was a very British one, apparently to remain clothed in secrecy.[…]

For the record, there were no starving children visible at that time. They would appear later, and the ghastly images of them, splashed across the world’s media, would transform everything.

This happened after the blockade against Biafra had been enforced for a while. The Igbo grew their own sources of starches, but for protein were basically dependent on imports:

 It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five. The native population had always raised a few chickens and some small pigs for their eggs and meat. Other than these, there was no protein source and, unperceived, the hens and pigs had been consumed. The traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian-imported dried cod called stockfish. These rock-hard sticks of cod went into the family stew pot, became rehydrated, and served as the family protein ration. For nine months, no stockfish had entered the surrounded and blockaded enclave. The meat/milk sources were gone. The national diet was now almost 100 percent starch.

And hence kwashiorkor made its appearance. Forsyth and others reported.

I did what I did, not in order to do down the Biafrans—far from it. I did it to try to influence the Whitehall argument that continued intermittently for the next fifteen months until the final crushing of Biafra, with a million dead children. The argument was between: “Prime Minister, this cannot be allowed to go on. The human cost is simply too high. We should reconsider our policy. We should use all our influence to urge a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution,” and “Prime Minister, I can assure you the media reports are as usual sensationalist and grossly exaggerated. We have information the rebel regime is very close to collapse. The sooner it does, the sooner we can get columns of relief food into the rebel territory. Meanwhile, we urge you to stick with the hitherto-agreed policy and even increase the support for the federal government.”

Guess which path the Whitehall mandarins chose? Worse, through a sleight-of-hand, they actually armed the Nigerian regime while professing neutrality.

Another early lie was that no weapons at all were being shipped from Britain to fuel the war. The key word was from, not by. In fact, the supplies were coming from British stocks at the immense NATO weapons park outside Brussels, and thus technically from Belgium. They were then replaced by shipments from Britain to Belgium.

And thus, slowly but surely, Biafra was crushed to death, even as the famine became an international humanitarian cause célèbre. Forsyth tells at some length of the aid efforts by Catholic and Protestant aid organizations —including an improvised air bridge that is estimated to have saved over a million lives. A secular relief effort that started in France would later (1971) rename itself Doctors Without Borders.

On another occasion, the war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was asked to go to visit, be shown around Nigeria only, and return to peddle the official line. He duly went to Nigeria, but then refused not to go to Biafra. What he saw on the second visit so shocked him that he came back and denounced the official policy. He was immediately smeared as a gullible fool.

It was pretty standard to smear every journalist who expressed disgust at what was going on as either a mercenary, arms dealer, or [Biafran leader] Ojukwu propagandist, even though a million pictures are rather hard to dispute. No massive humanitarian tragedy, save those inflicted by nature herself, is possible without two kinds of contributors[: perpetrators and enablers].[…]

Starting with Sir David Hunt’s biased and flawed analysis, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Relations Office, taken over and intensified by the Foreign Office, and cravenly endorsed by Harold Wilson and Michael Stewart, what happened could not have happened without the wholesale and covert contribution of the Wilson government. I remain convinced of it to this day.

Nor was it necessary to protect some vital British interest, and what interest merits a million dead children? Britain could have used its huge influence with Lagos to militate for a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution. It chose not to, despite repeated opportunities, pursuing Hunt’s conviction that Biafra must be crushed no matter the cost, but without ever explaining why.

That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.

Frederick Forsyth was a journalist not just with a brain and a heart, but with a kind of raw moral integrity and intellectual honesty that made it impossible for him to continue in that profession, as he was “blackballed” upon his return to England. Looking for a way to support himself, he struck gold as a fiction writer, almost single-handedly establishing a new kind of tightly factual thriller.

Many journalists were presstitutes [sic] and mediatamites [sic] in Forsyth’s day — nothing is new there. What has changed is more that they morphed from high-class courtesans to pathetic streetwalkers—and that the tools to expose them are more readily available to those of us who want to hear what really went down.

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Tisha be-Av

Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the more

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman occupiers. The last Jewish stronghold at Betar was crushed, the site of the former Temple plowed over by order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the land that was hitherto known as Provincia Judea punitively renamed Palestina. [This is, BTW, the first recorded usage of that term, taken from the seafaring people known as the Pelishtim or Philistines who used to dwell in the Ashdod/Ashkelon/Gaza region of the coastal plain.]
  • July 18, 1290 OS (9 Av, 5050): expulsion of the Jews from England
  • July 22, 1306 OS (9 Av, 5066): ditto from France
  • July 31, 1492 OS (7 Av, 5252): Gerush Sefarad: a royal decree gave the many Jews of Spain the choice between expulsion and conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who did convert (Conversos or Nuevos Cristianos) secretly continued to adhere to Jewish customs: these so-called Marranos faced torture or death when caught.  Many others found temporary refuge in Portugal, only to be faced with the same choice five years later. Sephardic Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, as well as in some northern European port and trading cities, were founded by refugees who left wherever ships would take them. The oldest synagogue on US soil was, in fact, established in 1654 by Marranos “come out of the closet”.

The Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah = catastrophe) is itself linked multiple times to this date:

  • August 1-2, 1914 (9-10 Av, 5764): Germany entered World War One. While this did not directly involve or affect the Jewish people as such, the aftermath of WW I created the conditions for the rise of National Socialism, and hence indirectly led to WW II and the Shoah.
  • July 31, 1941 (7 Av, 5701): Reich Marshal (and de facto deputy Führer) Hermann Göring (y”sh) issues a written order to SD-chief Heydrich (y”sh) to “Expanding on your earlier orders […] I order you to submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this phrase appears in an official document.]
  • July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place.

Indeed, some religious Jews favor commemorating the Shoah on Tisha be-Av rather than create a separate memorial day. They had the support of Menachem Begin (prime minister 1977-1983), whose parents and brother had been murdered by the Nazis (y”sh) and who himself had narrowly escaped their clutches. However, this proposal did not gain adequate support, and thus Yom HaShoah, with its more secular complexion, continues to exist side by side with Tisha be-Av.

Finally, it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam — baseless hatred that had Jews too obsessed with factional infighting to be able to form a united front against the common enemy. I have a feeling that if the sages of the Talmud could have been put in a time machine and see the situation in the West today, that they would sadly have nodded in recognition. “Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.”

 

Dering v. Uris, QB VII, and Pyrrhic courtroom victories

Like many, I devoured Leon Uris’s Exodus as a teenager. By modern standards, it is a severe romantification of a story that hardly requires it (the great Jewish historian Howard Sachar described the book as “a shallow swashbuckler”), but there is no denying Exodus is an immensely entertaining read. Published in 1958, it not only became the greatest bestseller in US history since “Gone with the wind”, but became a samizdat (underground publishing) classic among Soviet Jews.

A single line in the book gave rise to one of the most remarkable libel trials of the 20th Century, Dering v. Uris and others. (See also Jack Winocour’s long 1964 article here.) The trial is thinly fictionalized in Uris’s later bestseller courtroom novel, QB VII (“Queen’s Bench Court Seven”).

The backstory of one of the main Exodus characters, Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, contains this line about Auschwitz:

Here in Block X, Dr Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr Schumann sterilised by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr Dehring [sic] performed 17,000 `experiments’ in surgery without anaesthetics.

Auschwitz chief physician Eduard Wirths had committed suicide after his arrest, while Carl Clauberg had died of a stroke in pretrial detention and Horst Schumann had fled to Africa after the war. (At the time he was living in Sudan.)

Clauberg, a prewar gynecology professor of some renown, and Schumann, an undistinguished physician who had earlier been  a “veteran” of the mass euthanasia program Aktion T4, were carrying out experiments on human subjects trying to find an inexpensive method of mass sterilization, to be applied on the Reich’s slave labor population of so-called Untermenschen (subhumans). Clauberg favored injection of caustic chemicals into the womb — which were to cause blockage of the ovarian ducts through scarring —  Schumann irradiation. The ovaries and testicles of the irradiated prisoners were removed for pathological examination by Schumann himself and by two prisoner doctors, the German Jew Maximilian Samuel and the Pole Wladyslaw Dering (see Robert Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors”, pp. 246-249 for more about him).

Dering was a surgeon who had been imprisoned at the Auschwitz main camp for resistance activities. As Lifton tells the story (much of which came out during the libel trial), Dering at first enjoyed a good reputation among the prisoners, then became embroiled with the medical experimentation, and eventually was taken away by Clauberg to come work at his private clinic in Silesia. (In order to enable his release from the camp, Dering is said to have been administratively declared a Volksdeutsche — an ethnic German.)

After the war, Dering  had made it to England with the help of fellow Poles in the British army. He actually spent a year and a half in prison there following an extradition request by (now Communist) Poland. After a witness, who had been castrated at Auschwitz, was unable to recognize During (he had in fact been ‘operated’ upon by another prisoner doctor), the request was denied on grounds of mistaken identity. Following his release, Dering worked as a physician for the British Colonial Service in Somalia (then a British protectorate) for about a decade, before eventually being knighted (OBE) and returning to London to work as a physician for the NHS.

Following publication of Exodus, Dering was confronted with his past when his wife Maria and her daughter from a previous marriage came across the offending passage while reading Exodus. Dering took legal counsel and eventually sued  printer, publisher, and author for libel.  The printers quickly issued a note of apology;  Uris and his publisher (William Kimber, Ltd.), on the other hand, decided to fight the libel case on grounds of substantial truth.

Dering’s complaint was that, while he had completed operations, it was nowhere near 17,000 and he never did so without anaesthetic. He also said that he obeyed Nazi physicians’ orders under threat of death. The printer issued an apology and settled with Dering. The other two went to court and ran truth as a defence. It was the Holocaust on trial again.

While Uris and his publisher admitted that they could not prove 17,000 operations, they did proffer a list of 130 individuals on whom shocking operations were performed.

Uris’ solicitor took 2 years to compile evidence and find witnesses.

The trial was held before a jury of 12 (10 men, 2 women) in Queen’s Bench Court VII. It lasted 18 days, having started on 1 April 1964. It was conducted in Greek, Polish, Hebrew, English, German, French and Ladino. The judge was Justice Horace Lawton. Lord Gerald Gardiner, later Lord Chancellor of England, appeared for Uris and the publisher.

[…]

The plaintiff called 7 witnesses, some of whom were fellow Polish prisoners. The defendants called 22 witnesses from Auschwitz.

[…]

Some of the evidence on behalf of the defendants included this:

  • In October 1943, 10-12 Greek girls aged 15-19 had ovariectomies conducted on them without any medical, physical, psychological or legitimate reason;
  • In 1943 Dr Dering removed 1 or both testicles from 12 young males for no legitimate reason; See British Medical Journal Vol 1, 5393 16 May 1964.
  • 8 witnesses gave evidence of having received ovariectomies;
  • 6 gave evidence whose testicles had been removed;
  • A list was obtained from the Auschwitz Prison Hospital Register. It included the names of 130 people who received surgical operations, where Dering was either the surgeon or assistant. The list was at least partly in Dering’s handwriting.
  • While the defendants could not show that Dering operated without anaesthetic, there was evidence that operations were conducted under painful spinal anaesthetic that left the patient conscious;
  • 3 prisoner doctors gave evidence for the defendants: Dr Kleinova, Dr Breuda and the defendants’ star witness, Dr Adelaide Hautval.

Dr. Adelaide Hautval (who appears as “Susanne Parmentier” in QB VII) was a French psychiatrist (the youngest daughter of a Protestant minister) who had been arrested for aiding Jews and sent to the Auschwitz main camp. (“If you love the Jews, you will share their fate,” she was told.) After the war, she was made an Knight in the French Legion of Honor for her resistance and humanitarian activities in the camp, and Yad Vashem bestowed the title of “Righteous Gentile” on her. Recently a geriatric hospital in the Paris suburb of Villiers-Le-Bel was renamed in her honor.

Dr. Hautval quickly discovered that the project entailed inhuman experiments, performed without anesthesia, on Jewish women prisoners. She told Dr. Wirth that she would not participate in his experiments and added that no person was entitled to claim the life or determine the fate of another. When forced to assist in the surgical sterilization of a young woman from Greece, Dr. Hautval told Dr. Wirth that she would never again attend such a procedure. When Wirth asked Dr. Hautval: “Don’t you see that these people are different from you?” she replied, “In this camp, many people are different from me. You, for example.”

Notably, Dr. Hautval was not even punished for her refusal. This demolished Dering’s argument that whatever he had done, he had done under pains of death. (Admittedly, Hautval was somewhat safer as she was racially considered an Aryan, while Dering was still considered a Slav.)

Technically, Dering “won” the trial, but was awarded “the smallest coin of the realm”, one-half penny, in damages. Dering was also assessed the hefty costs of the trial (about 30,000 pounds, or 3/4 of a million dollars in today’s money). He died one year later.

As mentioned above, Leon Uris turned the experience, and the massive amount of documentation he had gathered, into the bestselling QB VII. While including some dramatic license as well as some romantic subplots, the novel in general sticks so close to the actual trial as to qualify as a roman à clef. The fictional concentration camp “Jadwiga” and its satellite extermination camp “Jadwiga West” are clearly stand-ins for Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), respectively. “Adam Kelno” was a colonial physician in Sumatra rather than Africa, but otherwise appears to substantially be based on Dering. “Abraham Cady”, the womanizing fighter pilot turned writer, was of course the fictionalization of Uris. “Thomas Bannister”, a “future Prime Minister” (rather than Lord Chancellor) is of course based on  Gerald Gardiner, and so on. The Jewish prisoner doctor Boris Dimshits was elderly, suffered from eczema, and was sent to the gas chamber when no longer able to operate well enough — just like the real-life Maximilian Samuel. (According to Lifton, the cooperation of the latter — a decorated WW I veteran — had been secured by false promises his 19-year old daughter would be spared. )

One lurid detail about the medical “examinations” — too obscene to be repeated on a somewhat family-friendly blog — that I was convinced had been added by Uris for dramatic effect,  turns out to be based on an actual “invention” of Horst Schumann. In general, despite some minor glitches (such as the cringe-worthy nonsense IDF rank of “Sergent (Captain)” when “Seren” is clearly meant), the book was as thoroughly researched and fact-checked as one could hope to see before the Internet and Google era. Possibly in order to forestall another libel suit, Uris did, however, make sure to use fictional names wherever he could, and some character names are linguistically so improbable that they appear to have been chosen deliberately to ensure nobody with that background would bear said name.

Some suspense is created in the novel with the hunt for Egon Sobotnik and his medical log book: in fact, the log book was obtained from the Auschwitz memorial site, although its role was as central to the real as to the fictional trial. While the fictional Sobotnik is the key witness in QB VII, the testimony of Dr. Adelaide Hautval’s fictional stand-in “Suzanne Parmentier”s is given pride of place, and contains extensive word-for-word quotes from Hautval’s at the real-life trial.

King Pyrrhus, after winning a battle at enormous cost in lives, is supposed to have said “One more such ‘victory’ and I am undone”. If there ever was a case of a Pyrrhic victory at a libel trial, it would be this.

End of an era: Shimon Peres (1923-2016)

The Times has a mostly fair-minded obituary. Peres may not technically have been one of Israel’s Founding Fathers (the way David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were), but he was the last living representative of “the founder generation” of Israeli politics.

A protégé of David Ben-Gurion’s, he started his career in the final years of the Mandate as the person in charge of arms acquisition for the Haganah, and continued to act in that capacity after the founding of the state and the Haganah’s transformation from the pre-state militia  into the IDF.  In 1952 he was appointed deputy director general of the Ministry of Defense, becoming director-general (and de facto minister) in 1953 at the age of 30. He has been a mainstay of the Israeli political landscape for over six decades, ending with his term as  President (a mostly ceremonial position) from mid-2007 until mid-2014.

There is a Hebrew saying, acharei mot kedoshim (after their death, saints) — a pun on the titles of two consecutive Torah readings, acharei mot (Leviticus 16-18) and kedoshim. (Leviticus 19-20). “Do not speak ill of the dead,” if you like. I am however reminded of Oliver Cromwell, who told a painter to paint his portrait, “warts and all”. Paradoxically, because Peres was too great a man to need hagiography.

In his early career, Peres made tremendous contributions to the Israeli defense establishment and the security of the State. The Israel air force, Israel Aircraft Industries, RAFAE”L (Hebrew letter word for reshut le-pituach emtza’ei lechima, Weapon Systems Development Authority), Israel’s alleged nuclear deterrent… all came about on Peres’s watch. In 1959 he was first elected to the Knesset on the Mapai (mifleget poalei eretz Israel, Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel) ticket, and became Deputy Defense Minister (again, de facto minister, as Ben-Gurion officially held the portfolio himself).

In 1965, Peres, Ben-Gurion, and Moshe Dayan broke away from Mapai as  a new ticket Rafi (reshimat poalei Israel, Israel Workers List). After the Six-Day War, Mapai and Rafi merged into ha-Ma`arach (the [Labor] Alignment), and Peres joined the cabinet first as Immigrant Absorption Minister, then as Postmaster General and Information Minister. An intense rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin (Chief of Staff during the Six-Day War, later ambassador to the US) started with their competition for the Defense portfolio. After the Yom Kippur War and the resignation of Golda Meir, Rabin became Prime Minister and Peres Minister of Defense. Ironically, Peres was then the more hawkish of the two, fostering settlements in the disputed territories on the one hand and green-lighting the daring Entebbe Rescue on the other hand.

Peres never fared well at elections: an old Israeli joke was that “he could run against himself and still lose”. He always felt more in his element in the boardroom and carrying out diplomacy (sometimes incognito) with the high and mighty than on the campaign trail. He succeeded Rabin as party leader following the latter’s forced resignation over a (by today’s standards picayune) financial peccadillo: Rabin had maintained a US bank account from his days as ambassador, which had about $2,000 in it. (The law prohibiting Israelis from maintaining foreign bank accounts would later rightly be wiped off the books.) Peres’s triumph was brief: the general election put Menachem Begin’s Likud in power, and consigned the Labor Alignment to the opposition for the first time in history.

Peres had another shining moment after Begin’s “I cannot go on” (eineini yachol `od) resignation following the Lebanon War (and the demise of his wife Aliza Begin, to whom he was deeply attached). In the following National Unity Government, Peres and the Likud finance minister Yitzhak Moda’i put a stop to the hyperinflation that was ravaging the country. Under the coalition agreement, Peres started out as PM and Begin’s successor Yitzhak Shamir as Foreign Minister: after two years, the two men traded posts. Peres engaged in ample “behind the scenes” diplomacy in that era — something at which he excelled.

Following another narrow loss at the polls, the national unity coalition was continued, now with Shamir as PM all the way through. A failed scheme by Peres to topple the government in favor of a coalition of the left wing with fervently religious parties entered the Israeli political lexicon as ha-targil ha-masriach (“the stinky maneuver”, a term coined by Rabin).

After Rabin led Labor to victory in the 1992 elections, Peres became Foreign Minister in  his cabinet — the two erstwhile rivals established a surprisingly good working relationship until Rabin’s assassination. Here his main legacy became the Oslo Agreements — which must have “seemed a good idea at the time” but would become ashes in the mouths of so many of us.

Peres’s party was widely expected to win the election in the wave of sympathy and mourning following the Rabin assassination. True to form, he lost again, and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu became PM for the first time.  Former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak replaced Peres at the helm of Labor and three years later led it to victory in the polls, but left Peres on the sideline as Minister of Economic Cooperation.

Following the collapse of the Camp David Talks and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Barak lost a direct election for Prime Minister to Ariel Sharon. Peres brought Labor into Sharon’s coalition, thus forming another national unity government and holding the Foreign Ministry once again.

His record as foreign minister was mixed. While his personal diplomatic skills are undisputed, FM insiders have told me he devoted little attention to the ministry’s hasbara (“explanation”, PR) activities: he was quoted as saying that a good policy sells itself, while a bad policy cannot be sold. (It is fitting that my interlocutor, who generally is opposed to Netanyahu’s policies and favors those of Peres, acknowledged Netanyahu’s running of the ministry was much more effective.)

When Sharon founded a new centrist “Kadima” party and pursued a policy of unilateral disengagement, Peres followed him to Kadima and became his ally. After Sharon was rendered permanently unconscious by  a cerebral hemorrhage, Peres became deputy PM under Sharon’s successor Olmert.

Peres had earlier run for the post of President (the largely ceremonial head of state of Israel), but lost to Moshe Katzav in the Knesset vote. Katzav was ultimately forced to resign, and eventually imprisoned, in a sexual harassment scandal. Peres threw his hat in the ring again, successfully this time. His tenure as President restored dignity and prestige to the office, friend and foe agreeing he was perfect for the position.

Throughout it all, Peres remained a workaholic with an extraordinary drive, an insatiable intellectual curiosity, and an energy level that belied his age. It was widely assumed that Peres would either die with his boots on, or shortly after finally having to retire.

On a personal note: Across Peres’s triumphs and failures, and the many decades of his career, the one constant feature that stands out to me is his fascination with science and technology. Even just a couple of years ago, he could still be relied upon to hold forth to philanthropists, VC types, and foreign dignitaries on nanotech, renewable energy, virtual reality, you name it.

Some loved him, some hated him, many of us did both at one time or another. The prophet of the New Middle East, the ‘indefatigable schemer’ (chatran bilti nil’e, as Rabin called him in his memoirs), the arms master of early Israel, the father of our nuclear program,… he was all that and more. A man larger than life. Once there was a giant. May his memory be blessed.

PS: movie buffs might be interested to know that Peres (born Szymon Persky in Vishnyeva, present-day Belarus) was a second cousin of Lauren Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske).

In honor of Battle of Britain Day

 

The above is a montage of aerial combat scenes from the movie “Battle of Britain“, set to the Iron Maiden song “Aces High” (lyrics). Churchill’s immortal words form the intro.

Also in observance of the day, here is an interesting documentary on the Polish RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain.

“The few, the proud…”

 

 

Book review: “Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot to Assassinate Hitler” by Nigel Jones

https://www.amazon.com/Countdown-Valkyrie-JULY-ASSASSINATE-HITLER-ebook/dp/B00DN5U49Q/

This book is an underrated gem. I’ve read quite a few tomes on the history of the anti-Nazi underground in Germany, starting (back in my teens) with Hans-Bernd Gisevius‘s inside story “To the bitter end”, a book as entertaining as it is self-serving. Peter Hoffmann at McGill University has written more scholarly treatments, but this volume, at less than $5 in eBook, offers a concise and very readable one-book summary.

The title tried to create a tie-in with the movie “Valkyrie” (on which Hoffmann worked as a historical consultant). Readers looking for a lot of material on the July 20 Plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie) and its leader Col. Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg, will not be disappointed. Yet many of the earlier plots are covered in some detail. Allow me a brief summary of some that really stood out.

In the lead-up to the Czechoslovak adventure, a number of senior army officers around the ousted Chief of the General Staff, Ludwig Beck, and Abwehr second-in-command Col. Hans Oster had planned a putsch, as they expected a major debacle in a battle against the fairly well-armed Czech Army, especially if the French intervened on their side. The cravenness of the Chamberlain and Daladier governments led to Czechoslovakia falling in Nazi hands without a shot being fired, albeit in two installments: Sudetenland at first, the rump state second. This unexpected success gave Hitler (y”sh) a boost and took the wind out of the sails of the would-be putschists.

On Nov. 9, 1939, just minutes after the Führer had prematurely left the Munich beer hall where he had delivered a speech on the anniversary of his abortive 1923 coup, a powerful bomb went off, killing over a dozen people and wounding many others. The bomb maker was a journeyman and clock maker named Georg Elser, a lone wolf (with clear signs of being “on the spectrum”) who had patiently hollowed out a space in a pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum and concealed a bomb with redundant detonator clocks of his own design and construction.  (The explosives were pilfered at a quarry where he had taken on a job for that purpose.) Elser was caught while trying to cross the border into Switzerland: he was interrogated for years, as the Gestapo could not believe he had acted alone and kept looking to pin the operation on British intelligence. In fact, SD-spy master Walter Schellenberg, posing as an anti-Nazi Wehrmacht officer, managed to entrap two British MI6 operatives , thus ensuring Whitehall would never want anything further to so with anti-Nazi conspirators in the Wehrmacht.

Elser, who was shot near the end of the war as the Allies were approaching, acted out of left-wing political convictions. The French-speaking Swiss Maurice Bavaud, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic who sincerely believed Hitler was the Antichrist and that killing him was his religious duty. He attempted to shoot him during a commemoration parade in Munich but was, ironically, prevented from getting a clear shot at the target by the arms of other spectators suddenly going up in the Nazi salute. He was caught while trying to get a free ride on a train to Paris, confessed, and was guillotined in 1941.

Two men actually planned suicide bombings. Cavalry captain Rudolf Baron von Gersdorff  had been recruited, shortly after the invasion of the USSR, into the conspirator cell around Henning von Tresckow and his adjutant Fabian von Schlabrendorff at Army Group Center headquarters. The most revolting part of Gersdorff’s duties was coordination between the army and the  SS Einsatzgruppen (mass murder squads) operating in their rear: while there is no evidence he was an eyewitness, he must have been aware of what they were doing. On March 21, 1943, Gersdorff was to give the Führer himself a tour of captured Soviet weaponry at the old Berlin armory. He arrived with a bomb in his pockets — captured British plastique explosives, with a 10-minute ‘time pencil’ detonator. The tour was scheduled to last 30 minutes: Gersdorff primed his detonator, thinking within 10 minutes he and his target would be blown into the next world. Alas, Hitler rushed through the exhibit in a few minutes, leaving Gersdorff with a bomb about to go off, but no target. He rushed into a restroom and managed to yank out the time pencil just before the acid had eaten through. Gersdorff survived the war to later found a voluntary ambulance and emergency relief service, the Johanniter Unfall-Hilfe (St.-John’s Accident Assistance), under the auspices of the Lutheran branch of the Knights Hospitaler — the Johanniterorden, in which his family had been very active and he himself was an Honorary Commander.

Another would-be suicide bomber was Capt. Axel Baron von dem Bussche. He joined the underground after witnessing the machine-gunning of the Jews of Dubno — he even wanted to strip out of his uniform and join the victims. Being over two meters tall with poster-boy “Aryan”  looks, he was to model the new Army uniform and greatcoat design for the Führer — and planned to hide a suicide charge in it, this time with a five-second detonator taken from a hand grenade. His plan was to embrace his target and blow them both up. As fate would have it, the train on which the consignment of uniforms ‘traveled’ was destroyed in an Allied air raid, and the event called off. von dem Bussche returned to the front shortly after, was severely wounded in battle (he lost one leg) and spent the remainder of the war in hospitals and convalescence. He survived the war to later become a senior official in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany.

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin (son of another conspirator, and related to both Field Marshal Paul-Ewald von Kleist and the 19th-Century Romantic poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist) was to make a third suicide bombing attempt, but the Führer canceled his appearance at the last minute.

Yet another noteworthy plot was actually shown briefly at the beginning of the movie Valkyrie. A bomb with a time pencil was hidden inside a case ostensibly holding two large bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which was given to one of Hitler’s adjutants, Lt. Col. Brandt — who traveled with the Führer on board of the latter’s personal FW 200 “Condor” plane — to take with him to Berlin for handing over to Gen. Helmuth Stieff who had supposedly won a bet for this liqueur. Alas, the cold during the flight appears to have caused the detonator to malfunction, and the bomb did not explode. Fabian von Schlabrendorff flew out to Stieff  the next day to go retrieve the infernal device. (Brandt would later succumb to his injuries from the July 20 bombing.)

(Cinematographic note: In the movie, Junkers JU 52 passenger/transport planes — airworthy specimens of which still exist — were shown instead of the Condor, as well as of the Heinkel 111 on which Stauffenberg actually flew to Berlin.)

As one can see from all the “von”, “Graf” (Count), and “Freiherr” (Baron), many of the military plotters were scions of noble families with long military traditions. Yet I was not quite aware, until reading the book, of several of the linchpins in the plot being related by blood or marriage. For example: Col. Henning von Tresckow, the center of conspiracies at Army Group Center, was a first cousin of his adjutant and co-conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who survived the war thanks to a miracle, see below);  Col. Cäsar von Hofacker, at the center of the Paris cell, was a first cousin of Stauffenberg; while the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the brother-in-law of Hans von Dohnanyi, one of the main conspirators at the Abwehr (as Military Intelligence was called). A number were devout Christians, either Lutheran (Tresckow, von dem Bussche, Bonhoeffer), or Catholic (most notably Stauffenberg himself). [The book does not point out that quite a few were knights in the Johanniterorden — not such Gersdorff as described above, but also von dem Bussche, Kleist, and others.]

Motivations are shown in the book to be varied. Most of the officers initially approved, enthusiastically or grudgingly, of the new regime. Some turned against it after the first foreign adventures (e.g., the deposed Army Chief of Staff, Colonel-General Wilhelm Beck), or in the wake of the railroading of Field Marshal von Blomberg and Col.-Gen. Baron von Fritschopponents of the invasion plans who had been ousted on trumped-up morals charges. Others joined the underground after witnessing atrocities (e.g., von dem Bussche), yet others after seeing myriad comrades die due to Hitler’s grandiose and ever more dilettantish, delusional, and disastrous military decision making. Sure, there were also some ordinary malcontents, such as Berlin police chief Wolf Count von Helldorf who had been passed over for promotion. And yet others, who at first had approved of the war of expansion, wanted to “save what could still be saved” when the tide of war had decisively turned against Nazi Germany. Yet at the other extreme, the linchpin of the Army Group Center conspirator cell, Col. Henning von Tresckow, explicitly stated that an attempt on Hitler must be made on moral grounds even if it were hopeless: “Then, just as G-d would have spared Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men, He will spare Germany.”

Much ink has flowed about the July 20 plot, which is covered here in great detail. Without rehashing the story, it is worth emphasizing that this was not a mere assassination plot but a comprehensive takeover plan with three components: (a) the assassination itself; (b) the installation of a new government representing all Weimar-era democratic parties as well as the military; (c) a plan for subduing the SS and Party leadership and asserting military control over the capital and other nerve centers — under cover of a contingency plan named Unternehmen Walküre [Operation Valkyrie] for deployment of the Ersatzheer (Reserve Army) against an uprising by the myriad foreign forced laborers in Germany. Part (c) was only implemented thoroughly and efficiently in Paris: in Berlin itself, desultory planning and indecisive leadership led to disastrous results, such as radio stations remaining under the control of the loyalists. Alas, the decisive, practically-minded, and seemingly utterly fearless Stauffenberg could not be in more than one place at a time.

The author addresses the question why none of the attempts succeeded. He points to the near-miss of the Elser bomb, as well as the successful assassination of “the Butcher of Prague” Heydrich (y”sh) in 1942, as factors that led to (a) a drastic reduction in public appearances of Hitler; (b) ever more elaborate security measures, with physical access increasingly being limited to only the most trusted parties (Stauffenberg, as the chief of staff of the Reserve Army, was invited at situation conferences at Führer Headquarters); and (c) the Führer deliberately introducing an element of unpredictability in his schedule, showing up early or late for events, or canceling appearances at the last minute.

Sudden access interdictions forestalled, for instance, the March 11, 1944 attempt of Capt. Eberhard von Breitenbuch. An aide to Field Marshal Ernst Busch at the time, he was to accompany his boss at a briefing for the Führer at the Berghof. He would of course have to hand over his service weapon before entry, but had concealed a pistol elsewhere on his person, with which he planned to shoot Hitler. Alas, the SS guards had been ordered, earlier that day, no longer to allow aides into the conference room. Unlike many, Stauffenberg had fairly frequent access — he was the Chief of Staff of the Ersatzheer (Reserve/Replacement Army), subject to insistent queries as to how he proposed backfilling the mounting losses on especially the Eastern Front. (At the time of Valkyrie, Operation Bagration, a.k.a. the Destruction of Army Group Center, was in full swing.)

It surely did not help matters that the concept of operational security apparently was  unknown to some of the  key plotters, most notoriously to civilians such as the prime minister-designate, deposed Leipzig mayor Carl Goerdeler. But also some military men such as Stauffenberg’s own adjutant, Lieutenant von Haeften, were maddeningly loose-lipped, making one wonder just how many of them were under Gestapo surveillance.

My personal theory is that SS chief Himmler (y”sh) knew of the plot, but allowed it to proceed, hoping to either become the next Führer in the event of success, or to greatly strengthen the position of the “loyal” SS against the Wehrmacht in the event of failure.

Some anecdotes fall into the “unlike reality, fiction must make sense” category. Let me single out three. (1) The revised Valkyrie plan was typed up by Mrs. von Tresckow and Gen. Olbricht’s secretary at the Bendlerblock, named Margarethe von Oven. Both ladies wore gloves while typing and handling the documents, to avoid leaving fingerprints. Ms. von Oven was arrested and held for two weeks, then released. (2) While recovering from his war injuries in North Africa (including the loss of his right hand, his left eye, and two fingers on his left hand), Stauffenberg refused morphine and preferred to endure excruciating pain rather than run the risk of becoming addicted. The “Valkyrie” director reportedly struck that passage from the script as “nobody will believe this”. (3) On the very day that Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s show trial before the Volksgericht kangaroo court was to take place — which almost certainly would have ended with an agonizing execution by no-drop hanging the same day — an Allied air raid struck the building, and “hanging judge” Roland Freisler was killed on the spot when the ceiling collapsed under a direct hit. When the case came to court again under Freisler’s successor, the Allies were approaching, and the judge acquitted Schlabrendorff on a peculiar technicality — his confession had been obtained under torture, and was therefore technically invalid even under the Third Reich’s perverted legal code. Upon his ‘acquittal’, Schlabrendorff was immediately taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then moved ever further South until his group of ‘prominent prisoners’ — which was to be executed by their SS guards in the event of imminent capture or escape — was rescued by a regular army group under Wichard von Albensleven, who then handed them over to the approaching Americans. Schlabrendorff eventually became a Supreme Court judge in the Federal German Republic.

The book is well-edited: once or twice I had a “fact checker asleep at the wheel” moment, such as the reference to a “Brigadier-General” — a nonexistent rank in the Wehrmacht, where the table of ranks jumped straight from Oberst (full colonel) to Generalmajor, with an additional rank of Generaloberst (“Colonel-General”) sandwiched between General and Field Marshal. Such lapses are, however, thin on the ground.

All in all, if you are only going to read one book about the German anti-Hitler resistance, this would be an excellent choice.

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)

The Iron Lady left us today on April 8, 2013.

Stuart Varney singles out her most defining quote: “The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

As it happens, she passed away on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). The Tablet reminds readers that the very first foray of Margaret Hilda Roberts and her older sister was raising to help them bring over their Jewish penpal girl from Austria after the Anschluss. The girl survived: in later years the Iron Lady would remark that that, to her, was the most worthwhile thing she ever did.

Among the many articles that Winston Churchill, during his days in the political wilderness before WW II, proposed to write for the magazines that employed him was “will there ever be a female Prime Minister?” His editor dismissed the suggestion as ‘too fantastic’.

Thatcher, a chemist turned barrister (what the British call a lawyer licensed to plead in court) who grew up in a grocery store, brought middle class virtues and ideological conviction to the Tories, and all her life felt most comfortable among self-made men of modest origins, many of them Jewish. She was not the first Tory PM of modest origins — that would have been Edward Heath — but she, more than anybody else, was responsible for ending the grip of the squirearchy on the Conservative Party. When she eventually stepped down, her successor John Major was again not a “spare” son of some high nobleman nor some old money grandee, but a former circus performer’s son who became a banking executive despite having quit school at age 16.

The Telegraph gathers reactions to her demise (updated every 90 seconds).  [It misattributes to Chris Patten (!), however, the response of British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks: “I first got to know her early on in my life when she was the local MP. She was loved and admired by many in the Jewish community who will miss her deeply. Few people in my lifetime have left such a personal imprint on British life.”]

Thatcher was revered by some and reviled by others — some of us did both at various times of our lives. She left virtually none indifferent. She was an original — as much as she was Middle England. Of common birth with common-sense virtues, she was a noble soul. Here is a very English anthem for a noble soul.