Book Review: They Fought Alone

Glass, Charles. They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Spies and spy craft have long captured the imagination. Agent 007. Emma Peel and John Steed. Even Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. Espionage is intriguing, especially when we are privy to the tricks of the trade. It is entertaining, especially when we know our heroes and heroines will be saved from a dastardly fate at the very last second and live to spy another day. Real life is not like the movies. James Bond actor Roger Moore once explained the difference saying, “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is.” Transparency is a luxury that gets spies killed.

In They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, Charles Glass tells the story of two brothers who gathered intelligence for the British during WWII. Adolf Hitler’s September 1939 invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia prompted Britain’s declaration of war, but that declaration was not an impediment to his march across Europe. Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the next to fall. Planning to “set Europe ablaze” by bolstering local resistance movements and gather the intelligence needed to win the war against Nazi Germany, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. Taking his title from Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s memoir, Glass’s book highlights the experiences and contributions of two SOE spies: George and John Starr. “Theirs would be a lonely struggle, cut off from the wives and children they loved, deprived of the comradeship of a regular military unit, and on their own behind enemy lines,” writes Glass.

If male spies “fought alone,” where did that leave their female counterparts? According to Glass, George Starr disliked female SOE agent Odette Sansom from the beginning, also complaining he was “put in charge of three bloody women” for his first overseas assignment. Starr later complains Sansom made unwelcome sexual advances, implying her espionage was more horizontal than on the up and up. The British and French governments reached different opinions regarding Sansom, however, awarding her the George Cross and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Sansom survived torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought the enemy, but also the prejudices and biases of her own side. Some female spies did use sex appeal to their advantage in gathering intelligence about enemy troop movements and plans, but we cannot say all female spies employed “sexpionage” because of shortcomings in character and moral standing. Sex can be a tool, just like encryption machines and short-wave radios, and the spy who does not use all the tools at her disposal is not that effective a spy at all.

A biography tells the truth about history as it was perceived by that person. Glass is correct to include Starr’s biases against Sansom in his book because it was a true part of Starr’s experience in the SOE. They Fought Alone should be read in conjunction with other histories of the SOE, including some of the recent works that focus on the women who served. This will give the most balanced view of the men and women who fought alone during WWII. The Allies fought against the tyranny of the Axis powers but held onto their own prejudices. The only thing more dangerous than being a spy at war was being a female spy at war. The enemy inherently distrusted because you were an enemy; your own side inherently distrusted you because you were a woman.

KMS, 22 August 2018

 

Book Reviews: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Stanley, James. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House Publishing, 2018.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism…” The high-sounding phrase “the American way” will be used by interested groups intent on profit, to cover a multitude of sins against the American and Christian tradition, such sins as lawless violence, tear gas and shotguns, denial of civil liberties

Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion,” September 11, 1938[1]

The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

History’s propensity to rhyme has always intrigued me; more recently it keeps me up at nights. You can ignore the individual warning signs only too long before they coalesce into a sustained feeling of dread. We can hope, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, for the moral arc of the universe to bend towards justice, but more often human nature bends towards its baser instincts. Racism and prejudice is more prevalent than ever. In 2017, a politician used FDR’s policy of Japanese internment during WWII to justify a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. The quest to “Make America Great Again” is a policy of regression to eras when only white was right, women knew and were kept in their place, and anyone who didn’t fit the norm was criticized and ostracized.

Some historians see even more disturbing overtones in the current rhyme. In their recent books, Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley sound a haunting alarm about the overwhelming similarities between current American domestic and foreign policies and those of fascist sites in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Snyder and Stanley take different approaches to the topic, but each is effective, to the point, and as my Dad would say, scary as all get out. Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century reads as a handbook for resisting authoritarianism. “History does not repeat,” he writes, “but it does instruct.” (Snyder, 9).

Stanley, on the other hand, does not shrink from making pointed comparisons between Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Trump’s America. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is an indictment of the ways in which the President’s open nativism, racism, and sexism have opened the floodgates for others to openly express the same. Stanley does not place the blame for America’s woes solely on the President, however. He also indicts the whole of the President’s administration and Republican-majority Congress for aiding and abetting the presidential view of “Americanism.” Stanley’s narrative on the Republican response (or lack thereof) to the President’s boast to “grab ‘em by the p***y” should chill anyone who supports women’s rights to the bone.

Stanley’s and Snyder’s cogent use of historical evidence and documents makes their arguments even more persuasive. Stanley’s understanding of Mein Kampf probably rivals that of the author himself. Historians and layman readers who support the current Administration’s policies will no doubt say when you go looking for unicorns, you will undoubtedly find them. We still cannot afford to ignore the patterns Stanley and Snyder reveal. We cannot afford to ignore the ways in which our current rhyme fits nicely into the goose-stepped past. We cannot afford not to ask to what “American way” we are dedicated to returning: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” or “I know nothing but my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country.”

KMS

16 July 2018

Cartoon from University of California San Diego Library Digital Collections, https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb4164680v

[1] Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion” The New York Times, 11 September 1938), 15.

Book Review: Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History

O’Brien, Keith. Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

In Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien reminds the reader that only one of the names of the women he profiles will be familiar: Amelia Earhart. Even then, Earhart is known more for his defeat by than her conquest of the air. The “friendly sky” described by modern commercial airlines is in reality a jealous mistress: aviators that do not give her total attention or fail to decipher the roles that changing conditions play on flight patterns and aircraft will not enjoy her company very long. The race to tame the sky claimed many lives,  male and female.

One of the most poignant episodes in the book comes when an interviewer asks Earhart why she wants to fly. “Why do men ride horses?” she replies. She seems stunned by the idea that women could not share the thirst of adventure felt by men. By the end of the chapter, Earhart’s contribution to that flight would be reduced to that of ballast, with several male aviators claiming it would have been better if she had been left behind and two hundred gallons of fuel loaded in her place. Aviator instruction and training for men and women were the same: they had to complete the same education and tasks to earn flying licenses. Flying while female, however, was often seen as a bigger liability than flying while intoxicated. The various commercial schemes women undertook to be able to get in the cockpit also made them appear to be more interested in fame and fortune than in flying.

Fly Girlslends new lyrics to a familiar tune. As women’s history gains readers and with them, profitability, we can expect to see many more histories of forgotten women in male-dominated spaces. Women made important contributions to early aviation and would continue to make contributions as pilots, mechanics, and engineers during the world wars. They laid the groundwork for pilots like Tammie Jo Shultz, the former Navy fighter pilot who landed a Southwest plane after it lost one of its engines after takeoff earlier this year. O’Brien’s book also reminds us that for every Shultz and Earhart, there are thousands of female pilots who never make it into the papers.

KMS

June 2018

Book Review: Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II by Jane Dinsmoore

Dinsmoore, Jane. Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

The only thing we commoners like better than a royal wedding is a royal scandal. The magazines and newspapers who ooh-ed and aah-ed over the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle saw no irony in publishing snarky articles about supposed rows with her new family members a week later. The British royal family lives in a gilded cage, and for all the riches, pomp, and splendor, we would do well to remember they are also people. In Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II, author Jane Dinsmoore allows us to see the world’s longest-reigning monarch as just that: a regular person born into unbelievable and sometimes overwhelming responsibility.

Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1926, Princess Elizabeth was known as Lillibet by close family members. She was third in line for the throne, but this could all change if her uncle David finally married and produced an heir. She loved horses, participating in Girl Guards activities (the British version of America’s Girl Scouts), and putting up with the theatrics of her little sister, Margaret. She lived a charmed life as the apple of her parent’s eye, and if she begrudged sharing them with their royal duties, she said little. Ten years later, everything changed. With King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, Lillibet’s father became king and she became the heir presumptive. The princess began learning statecraft at one of the most difficult points of British history: the abdication threatened the monarchy as an institution while the coming war with Germany would test the monarchy’s place in governing the country.

Pulling from interviews, memoirs, and other writings, Dinsmoore’s writing sometimes resembles a day planner more than a narrative, but her attention to detail is phenomenal. Elizabeth II’s childhood and adulthood could be seen as a type of school for scandal, perhaps preparing her for the issues that would crop up with her children’s and grandchildren’s marriages. George VI’s handling of the continued machinations of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (made Duke and Duchess of Windsor after his abdication) and discovery of Mountbatten designs on the monarchy (introduced with Elizabeth’s relationship with Prince Phillip of Greece) no doubt impacted how Queen Elizabeth would deal with her children’s affairs, failed marriages, divorces, and remarriages.

“When I was a little boy I read about a fairy princess, and there she is,” wrote American President Harry Truman, but there is so much more to Elizabeth Windsor’s story. The Queen Elizabeth seen during the Trooping of the Colour, royal weddings, celebrations, and memorial ceremonies is also the woman who battled insecurity and loved fiercely. She was once a young girl, a young wife, a young mother. The beautiful grounds of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle were once torn apart by Luftwaffe airstrikes, their lights dimmed and dining tables bare as the royal family stayed true to the austerity measures they asked of their people. When we go looking for fairy stories, we will find them. The truth is harder to locate and often harder to take. Dinsmoore’s Princess Elizabeth is a girl hoping to meet the expectations of her family and nation while also wanting to make her own mark on it all. Perhaps she was not that different from any young woman on the cusp of taking the world by storm.

KMS