Sunday Book Review: “The Candy Bombers”

March 18, 2012

Call it the first battle of the Cold War.

For much of 1948, the world worried that another global conflict, “World War III,” was about to break out. Over the preceding years since the end of World War II, the Soviets under Stalin had clenched an iron fist around the throats of the nations of East and Central Europe, quashing democratic movements and establishing Communist governments in Poland, Rumania, Hungary and finally Czechoslovakia, where Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was murdered, an event that shocked and frightened the West. Stalinist Communist parties and unions threatened the weak democratic governments of Italy and France, while Communists were in open revolt in Greece, leaving people to wonder if these nations would be next.

And then Stalin blockaded Berlin.

That’s the situation in Andrei Cherny’s “The Candy Bombers: the untold story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour,” which tells the story of this increasingly and undeservedly forgotten struggle. He takes the tale from just before Germany’s surrender — the meeting of the Soviet and American armies at the Elbe and the surreal, horrific Battle for Berlin– to the moment in 1949 when Stalin lifted the blockade and the West realized it had won. The cast of characters is large, ranging from American presidents and Soviet generals to children surviving in the rubble of Berlin, and sometimes their treatment borders on cursory (often necessary in a single volume on a huge topic), but, taken as a whole, they come together in a fascinating story. That cast includes people such as:

  • Harry Truman, a hack machine politician who suddenly became president, faced with having to thread a course between appeasement and all-out atomic war (and win an election he was expected to lose);
  • Lucius Clay, an American general who had never fired a shot in battle, but who became Military Governor of Germany and found himself surrounded in Berlin;
  • James Forrestal, the brilliant, eccentric Secretary of Defense who clearly saw the Soviet threat and was desperate to get American ready for war — and who went mad in the process;
  • Ernst Reuter, a Social Democrat who rallied the people of Berlin to resist the Soviets and take a stand for democracy;
  • William Tunner, an Air Force general and logistics genius who made the Airlift work;
  • …and Gail Halvorsen, the original “candy bomber” and an “average Joe” from Utah who became a hero to the Germans and a celebrity back home.

As Cherny tells it, the story of the Berlin Airlift is one of transformations and evolutions: of individual Americans, who came to occupied Germany hating Germans and wanting to punish them hard for starting two devastating wars, but who then came to sympathize with and even like Germans, risking war to save those they could from Stalin; of the Germans, nearly stripped of civilization itself by the conquest and its aftermath (in the first years after the war, Berlin women would great each other not with “Hello,” but with “How many?”, as in “how many times have you been raped by Russians?”), who went from a shell-shocked passive hatred of Americans to shock at our generosity to eventual love and admiration, as well as passionate defenders of democracy; and of the United States as a whole, from a desperate desire after Depression and war to just enjoy life and tell the world to go away, to recognizing that a new, different war had begun and only America could lead it.

Cherny writes with a fluid, easy style that never drags. While engaging his audience and painting dramatic portraits of people and events, he never over-simplifies or resorts to cliche. One particularly effective device, one that humanizes for the reader an otherwise vast story, is the interspersing of letters from children and adults to Lt. Halvorsen, thanking him for what he was doing and often asking if he could drop candy over their houses. (One girl gave him very specific instructions about how to find her house, but Halvorsen never could. He finally mailed her the candy.) Those letters, and Halvorsen’s own back home to his girlfriend, Alta, remind the reader that the great events of history are always inhabited by individual people with names, families, hopes, and fears.

If I have but one criticism, it’s that very little is told from the Soviet view. While one meets and even comes to like individual Soviets (and even sympathize with some clearly uncomfortable with what Moscow had ordered them to do), the motives behind Stalin’s actions can only be theorized from outside, observing events as they happened. What the decision process of the USSR leadership was, what options they considered and what risks they were willing to take, are as obscure as anything hidden behind the Kremlin’s walls. Of course, the nearly non-existent access to Soviet archives (except for a brief period in the 1990s), makes this lack almost inevitable and no real fault of the author’s. Still, one wishes there was a way to “see their side of it,” even if that side is one of utter evil.

Summary: If you like narrative history that relates great events through the people who lived it, and if you yearn to read a true story of American heroics in which the good guys face huge odds and win big, you’ll enjoy The Candy Bombers.

Afterward: While Cherny’s book focuses rightfully on the American effort to supply Berlin, the British and French also played important roles, which the author notes. But it is also fair to say that, without American leadership and will behind the Airlift, it would never even have taken place, let alone succeeded. Berlin would have fallen, to the incalculable detriment of Western Europe. The Berlin Airlift truly was one of our finest hours.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Not that I can afford a Mercedes-Benz…

January 12, 2012

But, after this, slap me if I ever do try to buy one:

“Some colleagues still think that car-sharing borders on communism,” Mercedes-Benz Chairman of the Board of Management Dieter Zetsche said onstage at CES today, speaking about Mercedes’ new CarTogether initiative. “But if that’s the case, viva la revolucion!”

To be sure, a luxury-car maker like Mercedes is not actually promoting communism. But during his CES talk, Zetsche pushed hard on a vision that the company has for a greener future that allows drivers to reduce emissions by using connected and social technology to easily find compatible passengers to share rides with.

Still, it’s odd–and no doubt intended to stir up conversation–to hear a company so inexorably tied to money and lavish lifestyles invoking philosophies like communism. Especially with a picture of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara towering over Zetsche as he talked. Of course, Che’s signature beret sported a Mercedes logo.

What’s next? VW embracing its past as the “People’s Car” and using Hitler in its ad campaigns?

I could go on a rant about stupid people treating murderous tyrants such as Che Guevara as trendy fads (the ubiquitous t-shirts come to mind), but two writers have already done a fine job of showing why this is not only mind-numbingly stupid, but a nauseating insult to Che’s victims. First, Michael Gonzalez at The Huffington Post, quoting Guevara’s own words:

Hatred is the central element of our struggle! Hatred that is intransigent…hatred so violent that it propels a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him violent and cold- blooded killing machine…We reject any peaceful approach. Violence is inevitable. To establish Socialism rivers of blood must flow! The imperialist enemy must feel like a hunted animal wherever he moves. Thus we’ll destroy him! These hyenas are fit only for extermination. We must keep our hatred alive and fan it to paroxysm! The victory of Socialism is well worth millions of atomic victims!

Then Humberto Fontova at Big Peace, who’s often written of Che’s murderous sociopathy:

“When you saw the beaming look on Che’s face as the victims were tied to the stake and blasted apart by the firing squad,” said a former Cuban political prisoner Roberto Martin-Perez, to your humble servant here, “you saw there was something seriously, seriously wrong with Che Guevara.” As commander of the La Cabana execution yard, Che often shattered the skull of the condemned man (or boy) by firing the coup de grace himself. When other duties tore him away from his beloved execution yard, he consoled himself by viewing the slaughter. Che’s second-story office in Havana’s La Cabana prison had a section of wall torn out so he could watch his darling firing-squads at work.

Even as a youth, Ernesto Guevara’s writings revealed a serious mental illness. “My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any vencido that falls in my hands!” This passage is from Ernesto Guevara’s famous Motorcycle Diaries, though Robert Redford somehow overlooked it while directing his heart-warming movie.

Guevara was also a rabid racist (see the Gonzalez link) and set in motion plans for a mass terror-bombing of Manhattan in November, 1962, a plot foiled by the FBI.

And this is the figurehead for the new Mercedes-Benz campaign.

Now, I could write something about how this shouldn’t be surprising, because MB is a German company that collaborated with the Nazis, and Naziism was form of Fascism, and Fascism is a product of the Left, as is Communism, so by extension it’s only natural that a Mercedes-Benz executive would feel drawn to Che Guevara, but that would be leaping to conclusions. (1)

It’s much more likely that Herr Zetsche is simply crass, ignorant, and stupid.

But I still wouldn’t buy his cars.

via Dan Mitchell

Footnote:
(1) Perhaps. Maybe.

UPDATE: Fontova on Mercedes-Benz and Che.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Anniversary of a bad idea

December 11, 2011

On this date in 1941, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini declared war on the United States in support of their Japanese ally.

Benito, I have this great idea...

How’d that turn out for you, guys?

Mein Führer?

Berlin, 1945. Second thoughts?

Il Duce?

Not what you'd hoped for?

Prime Minister Tojo?

That worked out well, didn't it?

Maybe you should have thought about it a bit more. See, it’s generally not a good idea to make us angry.

In fact, it’s a really bad idea.

Morons.

Note: This is one of a few WWII anniversary posts I put up every years.


Pat Condell: Europe needs a revolution

August 26, 2011

British comic Pat Condell rips into the anti-democratic European political class and the “European Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” with an aside for some interesting observations about the nature of the American Revolution:

RELATED: At the Telegraph, Peter Osborne argues that the EU debt crisis will finally give Germany the empire it’s always dreamed of.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


I’d like a 100-watt heat ball, please

January 4, 2011

Many of you know that the California legislature, in a valiant effort to save us from both a problem that does not exist* and a problem they helped create†, banned the evil 100-watt incandescent light bulb as of January 1st, 2011.  Those of us who’d rather not light our homes with mercury-filled, hard-to-dispose-of CFLs were beginning to fear we’d have to smuggle contraband light bulbs in from Mexico.

But, fear not, for human ingenuity and the desire to thumb one’s nose at the nanny state know no bounds! In Germany, an ingenious man has found an invention to circumvent the EU’s earlier ban on incandescents: the heat ball!

You gotta hand it to German businessman Siegfried Rotthaeuser, who came up with a brilliant run around the European Union ban on conventional incandescent light bulbs- he rebranded them as “Heat Balls” and is importing them for sale as a “small heating device”.

Rotthaeuser’s website is in German but Google does a passable job of translation. First, he’s very clear that the Heat Ball isn’t for lighting, stating (in German, the following is translated) “A HEAT BALL ® is not a lamp, but it fits in the same version!”

Further down: “The use of Heat Balls avoids the lack of heat. The intended use of heat Balls is the heating. “

The funny thing about this is that incandescent bulbs are fairly efficient when they are used as heaters, throwing off around 95% of the energy they draw as heat.

The article clucks its tongue in mild disapproval, but I like Herr Rotthaeuser’s style. Take that, Eurocrats!

Meanwhile, I need to look into getting the Heat Ball(tm) concession for California.

*Global warming, that is.

†Power shortages caused by doing everything humanly possible to block the construction of new power plants in this state.

via Moe Lane


Anniversary of a bad idea

December 11, 2010

On this date in 1941, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini declared war on the United States in support of their Japanese ally.

Benito, I have this great idea...

 

How’d that turn out for you, guys?

Mein Führer?

 

Berlin, 1945. Second thoughts?

Il Duce?

Not what you'd hoped for?

Prime Minister Tojo?

That worked out well, didn't it?

Maybe you should have thought about it a bit more.

Morons.


Peace at last! World War I is over!

October 3, 2010

Today Germany makes the last payment on the debt imposed on her by the Treaty of Versailles, thus marking the end of the First World War after 92 years:

The final payment of £59.5 million, writes off the crippling debt that was the price for one world war and laid the foundations for another.

Most of the money goes to private individuals, pension funds and corporations holding debenture bonds as agreed under the Treaty of Versailles, where Germany was made to sign the ‘war guilt’ clause, accepting blame for the war.

Germany was forced to pay the reparations at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as compensation to the war-ravaged nations of Belgium and France and to pay the Allies some of the costs of waging what was then the bloodiest conflict in history, leaving nearly ten million soldiers dead.

The initial sum agreed upon for war damages in 1919 was 226 billion Reichsmarks, a sum later reduced to 132 billion, £22 billion at the time.

(…)

“On Sunday the last bill is due and the First World War finally, financially at least, terminates for Germany,” said Bild, the country’s biggest selling newspaper.

It can be reasonably argued that the crushing burden of the debt was a significant barrier to Germany becoming a stable democracy after the war. Indeed, Hitler made resentment of Versailles one of the centerpieces of his rise to power, and he ceased payments once he became Chancellor.

Of course, in my opinion, Versailles really didn’t end the shooting war: it merely created a long armistice, a timeout before the firing started again in 1939. Indeed, much of the 20th century was dominated by one long war , hot and cold, for control of Europe. Though the primary actors changed over time, the war that started in 1914 really didn’t end until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But, whether one considers the World War to have ended in 1918, 1919, 1991, or today, the great question that’s been asked since it began has been “Whose fault was it?” Who was responsible for the devastation and carnage? Some saw great impersonal forces at work as the Great Power system of the 19th century headed toward an inevitable crisis. Others point fingers here and there, desperate to find individual devils, or even blaming it on one ruler’s overcompensation for his withered arm.

In the end, I agree with David Fromkin’s conclusion in his “Europe’s Last Summer.” Seeing Germany at the apex of her power, from which she could only decline vis-a-vis France, Britain, and especially Russia, the Imperial German General Staff used the crisis created by the regional war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to generalize it over the whole Continent in order to smash Germany’s rivals then and there and establish her as the unquestioned predominate power of Europe. Thanks to this one Pandora’s Box moment, the world suffered 37 million dead and wounded in World War I, the rise of totalitarianism, over 60 million dead in the second round from 1939-45, and the crushing of Eastern Europe under the Soviet heel in a decades-long Cold War that periodically threatened the world with nuclear devastation.

And that’s just the quick list.

Gee. Thanks guys.

(via Big Peace)

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,568 other followers