Category Archives: History

Gilbert, Martin: The Boys – Triumph Over Adversity (1996)

ForsideWhen I read “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” I was once again reminded of the story of 732 Jewish boys and girls whose story Martin Gilbert tells in his “The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity“. One book is from the viewpoint of someone standing outside the suffering while the other one is about the kids who went through hell. I’m not a believer in the many after-life versions of hell, but I am certainly a believer in the human ability to create hell for their fellow humans. In fact, we’re really creative in the many ways we cause others pain, and that worries me.

The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity tells such a story. This is the story of children who (along with their siblings and parents) were uprooted from their homes and dragged into the horrors of the Holocaust. These children were originally from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Their lives were the lives of ordinary children with loving parents. As they just below and above ten years old for the most part, these children had no understanding of all of the abrupt changes in their lives. From living in regular homes, they were stuffed into ghettos and then dragged to even worse circumstances.

And then it all ended. No more parents or siblings, all alone in the world after having endured what only few people in the world have had to endure.

After their liberation from the camps, they had to begin rebuilding their lives in Britain. Despite being physically and emotionally drained by their nightmare past, they drew strength from their group. After leaving their hostels, they remained a close-knit and devoted band of siblings. Their families having been destroyed, they created a family among themselves.

So many people ask themselves how something as terrible as the Holocaust could have happened. I doubt there is any one answer to that question. After all, we let history repeat itself all over the world. What I do believe is that we are all capable of becoming something we had never thought was possible. Ervin Staub in his “Roots of Evil” and Max Weber in his “On Bureaucracy” – Iron Cage both try to look at why people are dehumanized and warn us of the consequences.

Staub, Ervin: The Roots of Evil – The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1992)

The Roots of Evil - Ervin Staub

Some books are life-changing. The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub is one of them in my life. I was at one of those life-choices that we sometimes make. Studying psychology cleared up a lot of questions in my mind. When we got to Staub’s look at the horrible choices some of us make (either as a group or as an individual) I saw how caught I had been in group-thinking that makes “Us” look so much better than “Them”.

Genocide, mass killing, torture and war. Psychology, socialization and culture. How does one go from being a regular, boring person to being a torturer of citizens of ones own country? How did Hitler get an average population of humans to participate in invasion and genocide? Is there such a thing as “EVIL”?

In this clip Stephen Fry discusses the importance of language in the mass-extermination of eight million people during World War II in Europe. (At the bottom of this post see Staub’s lecture in Stockholm.)

My father’s father was a Prisoner of War during the Occupation here in Norway. During his time at Grini (one of the POW camps) he was tortured for information regarding his cell-mates. Not the kind of cell-mates you have in prison, but the kind you have when you participate in resistance against those you consider your oppressors. He was part of the Communist underground.

Torture is one of the many practices of war that Staub discusses in The Roots of Evil. He shows us how the torturer is habituated to the specialized kind of violence that torture is and he shows us that these torturers are simply people. Some of them probably enjoyed their work more than others, but the rest were trained to see the torturee as an object/non-human/sub-human that held needed information.

After the war, the US was incredibly strict about some of the rules for receiving Marshall aid. One of them was a fight against the Evil of Communism. My war-hero grandfather remained an unsung hero due to his political views. He was harassed by employers and spied on by our Norwegian surveillance department. There again propaganda reared its ugly head and lessened his value as a human being.

Source: History Lists
Roman destruction of Carthage | Source: History Lists

Humanity’s mass exterminations of groups of people follows us through history. The practice of killing all of the men above a certain age while keeping women and younger children alive goes at the very least back to our earliest written records. According to Ben Kiernan, “The First Genocide” happened around 149-146 BC (Jones, 2006). This was the Roman destruction of Carthage. In 2015 the United Nations called the Islamic State out on the IS attempt to wipe out the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

So! Nothing new. According to Staub, we need to learn to interpret early warning signs in order to avoid getting to a point where genocide happens. By that time, it will be too late. According to Staub cultural and social patterns and historical circumstances are vital in understanding whether a country, a people or a belief is in the danger zone. And are there ever plenty of traps that people can fall into (even those who are aware of the dangers):

  • Cultural stereotyping
  • Cultural devaluation
  • Societal self-concept
  • Moral exclusion
  • A need for connection
  • Authority orientation
  • Personal and group goals
  • “Better world” ideologies
  • Justification
  • Moral equilibrium, and so on.

Within this conceptual framework, Staub then considers the behavior of perpetrators and bystanders in four historical situations:

  1. Holocaust (his primary example)
  2. Genocide of Armenians in Turkey
  3. Genocide in Cambodia
  4. Disappearances in Argentina

Is there hope. Perhaps and it depends. It has taken us thousands of years to not learn a single thing from history. People like Ervin Staub have warned us against a repetition of gruesome actions. Perhaps the secret lies in people like Staub being able to write about terrors and publish his writings. Once people like Staub begin disappearing from the public arena, we must really begin to worry. Until then, we can only hope that by learning some of the warning signs and recognizing that we, ourselves, are also potentially people who do terrible things, will keep us from them.

Boyne, John: The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas (2006)

The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is a book that all children ought to read, preferably in company with an adult so they can understand the topic better. The Holocaust has been described and fictionalized time and time again. However, there are some topics that can never be delved into enough.

This novel is about 9-year-old Bruno, a German boy who has no idea of the times he is living in. He just realises that times are changing, and not in a manner that he prefers. Then his father, the handsome Commandant, is commanded to go to a dreadful place with his family. Bruno is struggling to understand why Out-With has a fenced-in area where there are many people walking around in striped pyjamas. On his side of the fence people are dressed in uniform or regular clothing.

One day, while exploring along the fence, Bruno meets a friend – Shmuel. He is thinner than Bruno but that is the only difference Bruno can see. Bruno understands enough that he keeps the friendship secret, but has no understanding of what is going on.

The ending was perfect and the last words of the author were: “Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.” Sadly humans have not learned and we and them thinking continues.


Winner of the:

  • Irish Book Award Children’s Book of the Year
  • Irish Book Award People’s Choice Book of the Year
  • Bisto Book of the Year
  • Que Leer Award Best International Novel of the Year (Spain)
  • Orange Prize Readers Group Book of the Year

Nominated for the:

  • British Book Award
  • Border’s New Voices Award
  • Ottaker’s Children’s Book Prize
  • Paolo Ungari Literary Award (Italy)
  • Irish Book Award – Irish Novel of the Year Award
  • Leeds Book Award
  • North-East Book Award
  • Berkshire Book Award
  • Sheffield Book Award
  • Lancashire Book Award
  • Prix Farniente (Belgium)
  • Flemish Young Readers Award
  • Independent Booksellers Book of the Year
  • Deutschen Jugend Literatur Preis (Germany)

2008 filmadaptation by Mark Herman

The movie has won several awards

Oliveira, Robin: My Name is Mary Sutter (2010)

My name is Mary Sutter - Robin Oliveira

Even though the story is placed at the time of the Civil War in the US, I imagine Robin Oliveira’s own background as a nurse helped in describing some of the work and attitudes we read about in her novel My Name is Mary Sutter. At this time being a physician and a woman was practically unheard of. Physicians were trained through apprenticeships, and for a man to take in a woman as a student would mean overcoming prejudices. Professionally schooled nurses were also a thing unheard of. Apprenticeships were the way to go if a woman wanted to become a mid-wife or assistant to a physician.

All of this haphazard training of either physicians and nurses left both professions with vast differences in the abilities of the people who had finished their training. Some nurses and doctors made matters worse for their patients while others were miraculous healers.

Mary Sutter’s mother was a mid-wife and Mary had gone along with her on her many trips into the child-bearing population. What Mary learned about herself during those trips was that she would love to become a surgeon and thereby save people who otherwise did not get visited by a physician in time. Due to the above apprentice-shipping she was refused this opportunity and also refused admittance into medical school.

Mary Sutter was nothing if not determined in eventually reaching her goal. The US Civil War presented her with one such path. Washington was desperate for help on the battlefield and many women felt called to duty. Mary Sutter happened to be one of them. Her experience seems representative of the others I have read of. As such Sutter’s experience seems to correspond with the experiences my nurse friends tell me of today. Arrogant doctors, incompetent doctors, miracle doctors and patients who span the gamut from assholes to angels. As a someone who has been a patient I have met nurses of all kinds but mainly wonderful ones. Most of my nurse friends feel a “call” to serve and this is their way of serving others. Amazing people!

War is a gory and horrifyingly brutal affair. Not one gram of glory is present anywhere on the battlefield. But what a school for aspiring doctors and nurses. One doctor Mary Sutter had to work with had to care for more than 100 men. She helped with operations and learned how to treat stitch wounds. Eventually she managed to be sent to the front and learned how to amputate and live with the gore of poor medical hygiene.

I liked her character. Mary was a goal-oriented woman who worked extremely hard to achieve her dreams and she was certainly a woman that I could have looked up to. Inserting extraneous yet historical characters did not work well for me. It was Mary I wanted more of. But my wishes are irrelevant to an author’s work and it isn’t even a complaint just an observation.


Reviews:


Winner of the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction


Civil War-Era Women Physicians

Invisible Women Now In Clear Focus

Mary Edwards Walker

Nursing During the US Civil War: A Movement Toward the Professionalization of Nursing

Springing to the Cause

Watkins, Paul: The Promise of Light (1992)

The Promise of Light - Paul Watkins

The Irish War of Independence (Irish: Cogadh na Saoirse) or Anglo-Irish War was a guerrilla war fought between the Irish Republican Army (the army of the Irish Republic) and the British Government and its forces in Ireland. (Wikipedia)

The Promise of Light is for the most part about the above war that happened between 1919 and 1921 and Ben Sheridan’s part in it. However, we also get a look at some of the background for the war and the hostilities that had brought Ben Sheridan to Ireland.

When Ben Sheridan discovers that the man he thought was his biological father isn’t, he also discovers that his adopted father’s background was different from the one he had thought. He and other exiles from the Irish conflict had settled on Rhode Island and tried to gain support for the Irish side of the conflict from the US government. They also collected weapons and money and sent these covertly to Ireland.

Ben Sheridan goes with one of these transports on his way to discover who his biological father was.

Without Ben going to Ireland we would not have had this fictional tale of the Black and Tan war / Anglo-Irish war / Irish war for Independence. Just looking at these three different names for the fighting between 1919 and 1921 shows me how incredibly important the combination of our words is. Words have a great deal of power in forming our world views. Some of the links below use this power in their portrayal of the terrible killings of that time.

Inside my head that is what Paul Watkins shows us with The Promise of Light. We get to see the despair of the innocents and the participants who are brutally murdered and tortured by the other part of the conflict. Except for the people who enjoyed killing, raping and maiming what we are dealing with is a bunch of frightened people who are following some kind of leader. These leaders manage to bring others to their side. Sometimes they use words, sometimes money and sometimes brutality in getting people to support them.

I understand the need to be free of the tyranny of rule by people we feel have no right to rule us. After all I am Norwegian and Norway was used as collateral in wars and went between Danish and Swedish rule for centuries. Then the Germans took us over. But I would stink as a patriotic warrior.

However, I do see how Ben got drawn into the conflict. Chance has the potential of bringing about terrible things in our lives. On his way over to Ireland he did not envision killing others, but that is what he ended up doing. Ben was beaten for the cause and he got to watch people he had befriended killed. He also learned even more about grief than he had thought possible.

Paul Watkins portrayal of this period of Irish history drew me in and kept me reading.


Reviews:


Amazon UK


The Anglo-Irish War (BBC History)

The Black and Tans – who were they? by Tom Toomey

The Irish War of Independence by Noreen Higgins

Timeline of the Irish War of Independence Wikipedia

Kay, Guy Gavriel: Under Heaven (2010)

Under Heaven

Under Heaven affected me profoundly. I believe it was the depth of Shen Tai’s mourning for his father and his offering to his father’s spirit that moved me most. Imagine setting yourself the task of burying all the bones from a battle twenty years past in order that those spirits might find peace. A more appropriate place for restless spirits than a battleground I cannot imagine.

Kay went on to say that he’s interested in how the course of a person’s life can change in a moment, and how “small moments and events can ripple outwards.” Whether it’s an individual or the life of a people, he pointed out, “significant consequences can begin very inconsequentially. That’s one thing that fascinates me. The other thing that fascinates me is how accident can undermine something that’s unfolding, something that might have played out differently otherwise.”

To Kay, “the human condition is redolent with this aspect of randomness, and I try to work that into all of my books.” (CBC Books)

The choices Shen Tai, his older brother and their younger sister, Shen Li-Mei, make end up having both intended and to a great extent unintended consequences. All three discover that assistance and opposition comes in many forms and sometimes from unexpected quarters.

In this story there aren’t any really bad people. There are mainly just people with the regular gamut of human emotions and with varying degrees of ability to do something about their desires. While the Tang Dynasty was a better place for women than the ones before it, women held less room in society than men. As with most places in the world today, women had to be a lot more creative in their maneuvering than men did. Their accepted roles were also very different from the one men were able to hold. To become a warrior like Wei Song, one who even guarded a man, was not something that was open to most women (much like today).

Reading about the role of women was both a painful process but also a delight. Delightful because of the intelligent and brave women I got to meet and painful due to the few changes that have happened in the world when it comes to the roles of women and how true their power is.

Under Heaven is a fairly dark story. Considering the times and the rebellion it portrays that is no wonder. I am trying to decide if I would call it dark fantasy, but I don’t know if that would be appropriate. I love its complexity and many threads that all come together one way or another in the end. What an awful race we humans are. It really is rather sad to see us revealed in all our terrible glory. Under Heaven was an intensely touching book that left me thankful for having found it. According to the author, his goal in writing is to keep the reader turning pages. It worked.


Reviews:


Women of the Tang Dynasty

Song Dynasty (the Kitai Empire in Under Heaven)

An Shi Rebellion (simplified Chinese: 安史之乱)

Hua Mulan (Chinese: 花木蘭): female warrior

Uyghur Khaganate


  • Winner of the 2011 Sunburst Award for Adult Litterature
  • Nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Best Novel
  • Nominated for the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature

deRosnay, Tatiana: Sarah’s Key (2007)

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key was lent to me by my sister. Serendipity. I found it a page-turner. No question about it. The author manages to switch from present to past without effort. Tatiana deRosnay is a truly gifted author.

Sarah’s Key is about poor little Sarah Starzynski. The Germans come to collect her family. To protect her little brother she locks him in a cupboard and tells him that she will be back in a few hours. Alas. The fates want it otherwise.

There are two time-lines to Sarah’s Key. The first one, of course, follows Sarah. The second time-line follows the story of the journalist, Julia Jarmon, who delves into the story behind a hidden skeleton. Along follows the secrecy behind Jews in France during WWII.

Some truths are painful for a nation to acknowledge. Nevertheless, healing comes through shining a light on both what we want visible and what we want hidden.

The story is wholly fictional, but as Leo Bretholz (Holocaust survivor) says: “The perusal of Sarah’s Key evoked memories of my own experiences during the war in the Vichy zone of France.” It tells a terrible story, one that has happened over and over again in history. It reminds us of how easily we turn our heads from what is happening around us.


French film-adaptation (Elle s’appelait Sarah) in 2010 by Stéphane Marsil (won two awards and had three nominations)


“Holocaust in France was encouraged by French anti-Semitic trends which created a climate where the French offered assistance to the German forces, who without such aid, could not have carried out, to such ends, the Final Solution in France.” (Elizabeth Ciarrocca)