Back in September and early October when I was under quarantine, I didn’t have computer access, so I couldn’t take many notes or write reviews when things were fresh on my mind. I tried to post comments intermittently, but some titles I still haven’t gotten around to.
I Heard You Paint Houses, based on interviews with Bufalino associate Frank Sheerman, claims to answer the question: what happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Hoffa was an iconic labor leader in the 60s — whose mob affiliation eventually made him the eternal hide and seek champion, for 45 years running, when he disappeared in 1975. Sheeran, who became claims he became jaded to killing and taking what he needed while in combat in WW2. Already a hustler in his teens, after the war he used his position as a driver to steal part of his cargo and sell it on the side — one time emptying out an entire truck. After developing a reputation as a toughguy who knew who to respect and how to keep his mouth shut, Sheeran seems to have become a favored task-man of the Bufalino crime family boss, who later lent his services to Jimmy Hoffa, the teamsters boss who helped fund Mafia rackets and utilized their talent and tactics to help his own goals. I quickly lost interest in this after Sheeran proved more enthusiastic about sharing his apparently accomplished sex life than mob details, but plugged along until the end.
Navajo Weapon, lent to me by someone I’ve not seen since corona hit in March, is a history of the Navajo codetalkers, consisting largely of the men recounting their experiences in training and then in the field, connected with some narrative by the author, who also edited the interviews to flow chronologically. I was surprised to learn that the Army had experimented with creating a cipher based on native languages in WW1, too, and that one of the reasons the Navajo were chosen is that German ‘students’ had traveled in the US in the interwar years and begun familiarizing themselves with some eastern native languages. Navajo belonged to an entirely different lingual family, and was safe. I was pleasantly surprised to learn, according to the interviews here, that interracial/cultural incidents were minimal: only one trainer caused an issue.
Who Killed the Constitution, by historians Tom Woods and Kevin Gutzman, examines ten episodes in 20th century American history in which the rule of law was warped by political expediency or ambition to favor instead the rule of will. As the history indicates, the corrosion of the Republic into our current sad spectacle was not the work of one man, but every branch of government periodically and — consistently.
Ring of Steel covers The Great War from the German and Austrian perspective. Although I read this chiefly to learn about the German homefront, Austria-Hungary’s messy composition made a prolonged war on multiple fronts especially challenging: because the Dual Monarchy contained so many different ethnicities, many of which were eager to be at one another’s throats, the Monarchy’s military administrators had to be careful which troops they sent against which enemies: men who would be doughty and loyal on one front would be unenthused and unreliable on another. I was mildly surprised that the German government did make some tepid efforts to keep the peace, or at least keep the war restrained to a local one instead of a general conflict, but that this was overwhelmed by their desire — in the advent of Willie II undoing the work of Bismark and allowing France and Russia to become besties — to retain the one ally they had, problematic as it was. Also surprising was that Germany took France’s animus for granted, but was surprised by England’s ‘treachery’. Although this is a general history, Watson also engages in some analysis, arguing that Germany’s decision to recommit to unrestricted submarine warfare was its costliest mistake of the war. Overall, this was most impressive.
The German War by Nicholas Stargardt has a similar aim, but given the context is more depressing on the whole. Stargardt points out that Hitler was territorialiy ambitious from the beginning: in the early thirties, he presented his inner circle with various scenarios, all of which involved attacking Czechoslovakia. Regardless of whatever else happened, Czechslovakia — formed from the broken remnants of the Austrian-Hungarian empire — would be taken and its Germans joined to the fatherland. Hitler hoped that the western powers wouldn’t go to war over something as trivial as Poland, and was indignant that they did. I found The German War dispiriting, in part because it makes plain how so many Germans knew perfectly well something was happening in the east: the attitude expressed was often ‘better you than me’.
Finally, and still in Germany, I revisited Stasiland, one journalist’s account of interviewing various people who lived in Eastern Germany and whose lives were touched by the dark shadow of the Stasis, the socialists’ secret police whose network of spies and informants dwarfed that of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. I was introduced to the Stasi through Das Leben der Andern, the story of an accomplished Stasi man who realizes part of his regime’s corruption. The stories are mostly human interest, conveying a sense of what it was like to live under constant surveilliance and fear, to have one’s life so open to abuse and manipulation. Also explored was the weird disconnect between what socialist authorities proclaimed was truth, and what Germans subject to their rules could tell with their own eyes. The booming prosperity of western Germany, and of western Berlin, testified to the lies that would eventually bankrupt the socialist scheme and send the Union and the East German government to a long overdue grave. I was amused to see the same psychology at work in East Germany as in Nazi Germany: people saw abuses by the state, and fretted to themselves — if only Herr Hitler/Herr Honecker could see what those other men are doing!