This Week’s Book Review – Painting War

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Painting War’ a fascinating, meticulously researched work

By MARK LARDAS

May 25, 2019

“Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II,” by Kathleen Broome Williams, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 312 pages, $29.95

George Plante was a commercial artist before World War II. From Scotland, he was in London illustrating advertisements when World War II started. He wanted to serve his country.

“Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II,” a biography by Kathleen Broome Williams, tells what happened next.

Plante discovers that the RAF, the Navy and even the Army were uninterested in him in the spring of 1940. A navy recruiter suggested Plante volunteer for service as a radio operator aboard merchant ships. Wartime requirement tripled the needed number of radio operators. Plante applied, went through training, and served from 1941 through 1943 as a radio operator in the North Atlantic.

It was the most dangerous period of the war to serve in the Merchant Marine. Plante’s ships, tankers, were twice torpedoed and sunk (the second sinking occurred while he was on leave awaiting the birth of a child). Plante spent his spare time between watches painting. His artwork came to the attention of the British Information Service. The BIS’s role was shaping American public opinion in Britain’s favor before American entry into World War II. The BIS wanted Plante’s artwork and Plante for propaganda purposes. The America-loving Plante made a great interview subject.

After Plante’s second tanker sank, Ian Fleming recruited Plante into the Political Warfare Executive. Plante finished the war in the Mediterranean illustrating propaganda leaflets and newsletters. The material was parachuted into the Balkans and Occupied Italy. Plante’s activities remained classified for years.

Once the war ended he returned to life as an adman, enjoying a successful career. He retired to the United States, settling in Hilton Head.

Kathleen Williams, a professional historian, was also Plante’s stepdaughter. She grew up entertained by her stepfather’s amusing stories of his wartime experiences, but in the universal manner of children, thought them just stories. After his death, realizing their significance, she set about writing a serious biography of his life. The result, “Painting War,” is both a fascinating and meticulously researched work. It also shows that sometimes the best history comes from the stories you grew up hearing.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Churchill: Walking with Destiny

“Churchill” by Andrew RobertsAt the point that Andrew Roberts sat down to write a new biography of Winston Churchill, there were a total of 1009 biographies of the man in print, examining every aspect of his life from a multitude of viewpoints. Works include the encyclopedic three-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid, and Roy Jenkins’ single-volume Churchill: A Biography, which concentrates on Churchill’s political career. Such books may seem to many readers to say just about everything about Churchill there is to be said from the abundant documentation available for his life. What could a new biography possibly add to the story?

As the author demonstrates in this magnificent and weighty book (1152 pages, 982 of main text), a great deal. Earlier Churchill biographers laboured under the constraint that many of Churchill’s papers from World War II and the postwar era remained under the seal of official secrecy. These included the extensive notes taken by King George VI during his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister during the war and recorded in his personal diary. The classified documents were made public only fifty years after the end of the war, and the King’s wartime diaries were made available to the author by special permission granted by the King’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The royal diaries are an invaluable source on Churchill’s candid thinking as the war progressed. As a firm believer in constitutional monarchy, Churchill withheld nothing in his discussions with the King. Even the deepest secrets, such as the breaking of the German codes, the information obtained from decrypted messages, and atomic secrets, which were shared with only a few of the most senior and trusted government officials, were discussed in detail with the King. Further, while Churchill was constantly on stage trying to hold the Grand Alliance together, encourage Britons to stay in the fight, and advance his geopolitical goals which were often at variance with even the Americans, with the King he was brutally honest about Britain’s situation and what he was trying to accomplish. Oddly, perhaps the best insight into Churchill’s mind as the war progressed comes not from his own six-volume history of the war, but rather the pen of the King, writing only to himself. In addition, sources such as verbatim notes of the war cabinet, diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. during the 1930s through the war, and other recently-disclosed sources resulted in, as the author describes it, there being something new on almost every page.

The biography is written in an entirely conventional manner: the author eschews fancy stylistic tricks in favour of an almost purely chronological recounting of Churchill’s life, flipping back and forth from personal life, British politics, the world stage and Churchill’s part in the events of both the Great War and World War II, and his career as an author and shaper of opinion.

Winston Churchill was an English aristocrat, but not a member of the nobility. A direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As only the first son inherits the title, although Randolph bore the honorific “Lord”, he was a commoner and his children, including first-born Winston, received no title. Lord Randolph was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, the year of Winston’s birth, and would serve until his death in 1895, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India. His death, aged just forty-five (rumoured at the time to be from syphilis, but now attributed to a brain tumour, as his other symptoms were inconsistent with syphilis), along with the premature deaths of three aunts and uncles at early ages, convinced the young Winston his own life might be short and that if he wanted to accomplish great things, he had no time to waste.

In terms of his subsequent career, his father’s early death might have been an unappreciated turning point in Winston Churchill’s life. Had his father retired from the House of Commons prior to his death, he would almost certainly have been granted a peerage in return for his long service. When he subsequently died, Winston, as eldest son, would have inherited the title and hence not been entitled to serve in the House of Commons. It is thus likely that had his father not died while still an MP, the son would never have had the political career he did nor have become prime minister in 1940.

Young, from a distinguished family, wealthy (by the standards of the average Briton, but not compared to the landed aristocracy or titans of industry and finance), ambitious, and seeking novelty and adventures to the point of recklessness, the young Churchill believed he was meant to accomplish great things in however many years Providence might grant him on Earth. In 1891, at the age of just 16, he confided to a friend,

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world, great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … This country will be subjected, somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.

He was, thus, from an early age, not one likely to be daunted by the challenges he assumed when, almost five decades later at an age (66) when many of his contemporaries retired, he faced a situation uncannily similar to that he imagined in boyhood.

Churchill’s formal education ended at age 20 with his graduation from the military academy at Sandhurst and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the cavalry. A voracious reader, he educated himself in history, science, politics, philosophy, literature, and the classics, while ever expanding his mastery of the English language, both written and spoken. Seeking action, and finding no war in which he could participate as a British officer, he managed to persuade a London newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent and set off to cover an insurrection in Cuba against its Spanish rulers. His dispatches were well received, earning five guineas per article, and he continued to file dispatches as a war correspondent even while on active duty with British forces. By 1901, he was the highest-paid war correspondent in the world, having earned the equivalent of £1 million today from his columns, books, and lectures.

He subsequently saw action in India and the Sudan, participating in the last great cavalry charge of the British army in the Battle of Omdurman, which he described along with the rest of the Mahdist War in his book, The River War. In October 1899, funded by the Morning Post, he set out for South Africa to cover the Second Boer War. Covering the conflict, he was taken prisoner and held in a camp until, in December 1899, he escaped and crossed 300 miles of enemy territory to reach Portugese East Africa. He later returned to South Africa as a cavalry lieutenant, participating in the Siege of Ladysmith and capture of Pretoria, continuing to file dispatches with the Morning Post which were later collected into a book.

Upon his return to Britain, Churchill found that his wartime exploits and writing had made him a celebrity. Eleven Conservative associations approached him to run for Parliament, and he chose to run in Oldham, narrowly winning. His victory was part of a massive landslide by the Unionist coalition, which won 402 seats versus 268 for the opposition. As the author notes,

Before the new MP had even taken his seat, he had fought in four wars, published five books,… written 215 newspaper and magazine articles, participated in the greatest cavalry charge in half a century and made a spectacular escape from prison.

This was not a man likely to disappear into the mass of back-benchers and not rock the boat.

Churchill’s views on specific issues over his long career defy those who seek to put him in one ideological box or another, either to cite him in favour of their views or vilify him as an enemy of all that is (now considered) right and proper. For example, Churchill was often denounced as a bloodthirsty warmonger, but in 1901, in just his second speech in the House of Commons, he rose to oppose a bill proposed by the Secretary of War, a member of his own party, which would have expanded the army by 50%. He argued,

A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community. … A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.

Bear in mind, this was a full thirteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, which many politicians and military men expected to be short, decisive, and affordable in blood and treasure.

Churchill, the resolute opponent of Bolshevism, who coined the term “Cold War”, was the same person who said, after Stalin’s annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939, “In essence, the Soviet’s Government’s latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler’s potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system than the German one.”

Churchill, the champion of free trade and free markets, was also the one who said, in March 1943,

You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave. … [Everyone must work] whether they come from the ancient aristocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler. … We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.

And yet, just two years later, contesting the first parliamentary elections after victory in Europe, he argued,

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

Among all of the apparent contradictions and twists and turns of policy and politics there were three great invariant principles guiding Churchill’s every action. He believed that the British Empire was the greatest force for civilisation, peace, and prosperity in the world. He opposed tyranny in all of its manifestations and believed it must not be allowed to consolidate its power. And he believed in the wisdom of the people expressed through the democratic institutions of parliamentary government within a constitutional monarchy, even when the people rejected him and the policies he advocated.

Today, there is an almost reflexive cringe among bien pensants at any intimation that colonialism might have been a good thing, both for the colonial power and its colonies. In a paragraph drafted with such dry irony it might go right past some readers, and reminiscent of the “What have the Romans done for us?” scene in Life of Brian, the author notes,

Today, of course, we know imperialism and colonialism to be evil and exploitative concepts, but Churchill’s first-hand experience of the British Raj did not strike him that way. He admired the way the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history, as well as railways, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, the possibilities for extensive international trade, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, an uncorrupt legal system, medical advances, anti-famine coordination, the English language as the first national lingua franca, telegraphic communication and military protection from the Russian, French, Afghan, Afridi and other outside threats, while also abolishing suttee (the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres), thugee (the ritualized murder of travellers) and other abuses. For Churchill this was not the sinister and paternalist oppression we now know it to have been.

This is a splendid in-depth treatment of the life, times, and contemporaries of Winston Churchill, drawing upon a multitude of sources, some never before available to any biographer. The author does not attempt to persuade you of any particular view of Churchill’s career. Here you see his many blunders (some tragic and costly) as well as the triumphs and prescient insights which made him a voice in the wilderness when so many others were stumbling blindly toward calamity. The very magnitude of Churchill’s work and accomplishments would intimidate many would-be biographers: as a writer and orator he published thirty-seven books totalling 6.1 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens put together) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1953, plus another five million words of public speeches. Even professional historians might balk at taking on a figure who, as a historian alone, had, at the time of his death, sold more history books than any historian who ever lived.

Andrew Roberts steps up to this challenge and delivers a work which makes a major contribution to understanding Churchill and will almost certainly become the starting point for those wishing to explore the life of this complicated figure whose life and works are deeply intertwined with the history of the twentieth century and whose legacy shaped the world in which we live today. This is far from a dry historical narrative: Churchill was a master of verbal repartee and story-telling, and there are a multitude of examples, many of which will have you laughing out loud at his wit and wisdom.

Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking, 2018. ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about Churchill and this biography.

This is a lecture by Andrew Roberts on “The Importance of Churchill for Today” at Hillsdale College in March, 2019.

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This Week’s Book Review – Admiral Gorshkov

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears, I post the review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Admiral Gorshkov’ a biography of the Soviet Navy’s architect

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 28, 2019

Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the U.S. Navy,” by Norman Polmar, Thomas A. Brooks, and George E. Feederoff, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 304 pages, $39.95

Historically, Russia has been a land power, with large armies and limited mobility. Yet during the 1960s and 1970s, during the Soviet era, it built an oceangoing navy to challenge the United States at sea.

“Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the U.S. Navy,” by Norman Polmar, Thomas A. Brooks, and George E. Feederoff, is a biography of the architect of that Soviet challenge.

Born in 1910, Sergei G. Gorshkov grew up in the new Soviet Union. He bypassed the university to enter the Frunze Naval Academy in 1927. When a Communist Party screening committee asked why, a then-teenaged Gorshkov replied, “I will be more useful serving in the Navy than doing anything else.”

As this book shows, he proved correct, rising to be the longest-serving commander of the Soviet navy and the longest-serving admiral to command the Soviet navies since its establishment by Peter the Great.

After a brief period as a navigation officer in the Black Sea, he spent his career before World War II, from 1932 through 1939 in the Pacific, where he rose to command of a destroyer brigade. Reassigned to command of a Black Sea cruiser brigade in June 1940, he spent World War II in the Black Sea, the one theater in which the Soviet Union could significantly challenge the Axis at sea. Gorschkov amassed a remarkable record of achievement during the war years, gaining the trust and friendship of Nikita Khrushchev, then a senior political officer.

Remaining in the navy at war’s end, his career took off after Khrushchev took charge of the Soviet Union in 1956. Gorshkov was given command of the Soviet navy and the freedom to rebuild it as he saw fit. During the next decade, he created a navy that threatened the supremacy of the United States navy — then the most powerful in world history. Gorshkov did this by creating a force balanced between submarines and surface ships, one providing a serious challenge within the limitations of Soviet resources and goals.

“Admiral Gorshkov” is a fascinating portrait of a man who was the U.S. navy’s most dangerous 20th century adversary.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Lady Death’ the story of a successful sniper

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 12, 2019

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Greenhill Books, 2018, 272 pages, $32.95

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the Soviet Army’s most successful female sniper during World War II. A fourth-year history student when Hitler invaded Russia, she quit school to enlist as a sniper. In 1941 and 1942 she racked up 309 kills.

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, is an English translation of her memoirs. She died in 1974, leaving a manuscript copy of her memoirs, which remained unpublished until this century.

In it she recounts her life, with a primary emphasis on her wartime experiences. She shows how she became an expert marksman before the war, joining shooting teams at work and in school, becoming fascinated with both the machinery of the rifle and the art of shooting.

She put those skills to good use when Russia was invaded. Enlisting as a private, she served as a sniper in the 25th Rifle Division. She recounts her experiences during the summer of 1941 through the spring of 1942. She fought at the sieges of Odessa and Sevastopol, was wounded several times, promoted to lieutenant (and command of a sniper platoon), married a husband and saw him die in combat. These experiences are described in the chapters covering her combat career.

Wounded near the end of the latter siege, she was evacuated before Sevastopol fell. She had become famous, the subject of several published Soviet “histories” she states invented exploits for dramatic purposes.

Against her objections (she had a husband to avenge) she was sent to the United States on Stalin’s orders as a Soviet student representative to an international youth conference. There she met and was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is as fascinating an account as her combat recollections. The United States, Canada, and Britain were environments to which she had never been exposed.

Pavlichenko was an unapologetic communist, who grew up a privileged member of the nomenclature, the Soviet elite. This colors her history of events. She mentions Hitler invading Poland, but fails to mention the Soviets aided Hitler.

Regardless, “Lady Death,” is fascinating, and Pavlichenko’s beliefs don’t change her real accomplishments. This is a book worth reading.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Stanley Marcus

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Stanley Marcus’ highly entertaining and informative

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 5, 2019

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, State House Press, 2018, 280 pages,$19.95

Neiman Marcus is Texas’ signature department store. It was the first place where Texas and high fashion converged. It remained the Texas arbiter of fashion throughout the 20th century.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is a biography of the man who turned Neiman Marcus into the aristocrat of department stores.

Stanley Marcus did not found Neiman Marcus. His father and uncle did. They, along with Stanley’s aunt, made Neiman Marcus into Dallas’s leading store. Herbert Marcus’ salesmanship and insistence on customer satisfaction, Carrie Neiman’s (nee Marcus) fashion sense and Al Neiman’s shrewd management of expenses proved a perfect fit for a Dallas growing wealthy through then-new oil money. The new-money rich could go to Neiman Marcus, get dressed right without feeling condescended to.

Stanley Marcus became the prince inheriting this kingdom because he was Herbert’s oldest son (Al and Carrie had none). That was how family businesses ran back then. But, as in a fairy tale, he had a magic touch when it came to retailing luxury goods.

Alexander’s biography shows how Stanley Marcus transformed Neiman Marcus from Dallas’ leading department store to an American fashion icon. Alexander shows how in the 1930s Marcus managed to make Dallas a fashion center by a combination of fashion sense, marketing and exclusivity. Neiman Marcus was the first fashion store outside of New York City advertising nationally, creating a national identity.

The book is told from an insider’s perspective. Alexander became Neiman Marcus’ sales promotion director in 1970. He worked directly with Stanley Marcus for decades, becoming close friends with Marcus. Alexander’s accounts of the store’s fashion “fortnights” (two- and later three-week marketing extravaganzas focusing on fashions of a country) are often personal recollections. He recounts the successes, failures and challenges met. A similar approach frames his accounts of the company’s expansion to other cities.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince” is a book praising a respected friend who has passed. It’s also a highly entertaining and informative look at a great store and the man most responsible for its greatness.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Thomas Cromwell

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Thomas Cromwell, from commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 8, 2019

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 2018, 752 pages, $40

Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a biography of Cromwell who, when remembered is credited with the dissolution of church properties and, along with Thomas Cramner, as one of the twin pillars of Britain’s Protestant Reformation.

MacCulloch provides a fresh appraisal of Cromwell in this book, a man more nuanced than Sansom’s bully, and as significant as Oliver Cromwell. MacCulloch reveals Cromwell receives too much credit for monastic dissolution, and was more equivocal about introducing Protestantism than commonly believed.

McCulloch spends considerable time on Cromwell’s early life, before his meteoric rise in the 1530s from an obscure lawyer to Henry VIII’s chief minister. This is valuable because it puts Cromwell’s actions in context.

A yeoman’s son, Cromwell left to make his fortune on the continent, returning after several years in Italy. On the strength of his Italian connections, Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then Henry’s leading minister. Through sheer ability Cromwell rose to become Wolsey’s chief deputy, playing a leading role in dissolving dysfunctional monasteries (experience he used later for Henry). Wolsey was tolerant of religious dissent, including that of Cromwell who already favored evangelism (the precursor of Protestantism).

Cromwell attracted Henry’s attention and transferred to Henry’s service, when Cromwell could further his religious beliefs. He maintained Wolsey’s tradition of toleration, initially remaining cordial to Catholics and friend to Princess Mary.

Henry advanced Cromwell, but at the price of Cromwell serving Henry’s whims, eventually forcing Cromwell to adopt positions he disliked. Yet Cromwell was well rewarded — rising from a commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman in just six years.

His fall was even swifter. When he displeased Henry (chiefly over promoting Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves) Cromwell was attainted, convicted of treason, and executed within one year.

MacCulloch’s biography is long, but rewarding. He brings Cromwell to life, stripping away myth to reveal a great, but flawed man.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928

“Stalin: Paradoxes of Power” by Stephen KotkinIn a Levada Center poll in 2017, Russians who responded named Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history. Now, you can argue about the meaning of “outstanding”, but it’s pretty remarkable that citizens of a country whose chief of government (albeit several regimes ago) presided over an entirely avoidable famine which killed millions of citizens of his country, ordered purges which executed more than 700,000 people, including senior military leadership, leaving his nation unprepared for the German attack in 1941, which would, until the final victory, claim the lives of around 27 million Soviet citizens, military and civilian, would be considered an “outstanding person” as opposed to a super-villain.

The story of Stalin’s career is even less plausible, and should give pause to those who believe history can be predicted without the contingency of things that “just happen”. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (the author uses Roman alphabet transliterations of all individuals’ names in their native languages, which can occasionally be confusing when they later Russified their names) was born in 1878 in the town of Gori in the Caucasus. Gori, part of the territory of Georgia which had long been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, had been seized by Imperial Russia in a series of bloody conflicts ending in the 1860s with complete incorporation of the territory into the Czar’s empire. Ioseb, who was called by the Georgian dimunitive “Sosa” throughout his youth, was the third son born to his parents, but, as both of his older brothers had died not long after birth, was raised as an only child.

Sosa’s father, Besarion Jughashvili (often written in the Russian form, Vissarion) was a shoemaker with his own shop in Gori but, as time passed his business fell on hard times and he closed the shop and sought other work, ending his life as a vagrant. Sosa’s mother, Ketevan “Keke” Geladze, was ambitious and wanted the best for her son, and left her husband and took a variety of jobs to support the family. She arranged for eight year old Sosa to attend Russian language lessons given to the children of a priest in whose house she was boarding. Knowledge of Russian was the key to advancement in Czarist Georgia, and he had a head start when Keke arranged for him to be enrolled in the parish school’s preparatory and four year programs. He was the first member of either side of his family to attend school and he rose to the top of his class under the patronage of a family friend, “Uncle Yakov” Egnatashvili. After graduation, his options were limited. The Russian administration, wary of the emergence of a Georgian intellectual class that might champion independence, refused to establish a university in the Caucasus. Sosa’s best option was the highly selective Theological Seminary in Tiflis where he would prepare, in a six year course, for life as a parish priest or teacher in Georgia but, for those who graduated near the top, could lead to a scholarship at a university in another part of the empire.

He took the examinations and easily passed, gaining admission, petitioning and winning a partial scholarship that paid most of his fees. “Uncle Yakov” paid the rest, and he plunged into his studies. Georgia was in the midst of an intense campaign of Russification, and Sosa further perfected his skills in the Russian language. Although completely fluent in spoken and written Russian along with his native Georgian (the languages are completely unrelated, having no more in common than Finnish and Italian), he would speak Russian with a Georgian accent all his life and did not publish in the Russian language until he was twenty-nine years old.

Long a voracious reader, at the seminary Sosa joined a “forbidden literature” society which smuggled in and read works, not banned by the Russian authorities, but deemed unsuitable for priests in training. He read classics of Russian, French, English, and German literature and science, including Capital by Karl Marx. The latter would transform his view of the world and path in life. He made the acquaintance of a former seminarian and committed Marxist, Lado Ketskhoveli, who would guide his studies. In August 1898, he joined the newly formed “Third Group of Georgian Marxists”—many years later Stalin would date his “party card” to then.

Prior to 1905, imperial Russia was an absolute autocracy. The Czar ruled with no limitations on his power. What he decreed and ordered his functionaries to do was law. There was no parliament, political parties, elected officials of any kind, or permanent administrative state that did not serve at the pleasure of the monarch. Political activity and agitation were illegal, as were publishing and distributing any kind of political literature deemed to oppose imperial rule. As Sosa became increasingly radicalised, it was only a short step from devout seminarian to underground agitator. He began to neglect his studies, became increasingly disrespectful to authority figures, and, in April 1899, left the seminary before taking his final examinations.

Saddled with a large debt to the seminary for leaving without becoming a priest or teacher, he drifted into writing articles for small, underground publications associated with the Social Democrat movement, at the time the home of most Marxists. He took to public speaking and, while eschewing fancy flights of oratory, spoke directly to the meetings of workers he addressed in their own dialect and terms. Inevitably, he was arrested for “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority” in April 1902 and jailed. After fifteen months in prison at Batum, he was sentenced to three years of internal exile in Siberia. In January 1904 he escaped and made it back to Tiflis, in Georgia, where he resumed his underground career. By this time the Social Democratic movement had fractured into Lenin’s Bolshevik faction and the larger Menshevik group. Sosa, who during his imprisonment had adopted the revolutionary nickname “Koba”, after the hero in a Georgian novel of revenge, continued to write and speak and, in 1905, after the Czar was compelled to cede some of his power to a parliament, organised Battle Squads which stole printing equipment, attacked government forces, and raised money through protection rackets targeting businesses.

In 1905, Koba Jughashvili was elected one of three Bolshevik delegates from Georgia to attend the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Tampere, Finland, then part of the Russian empire. It was there he first met Lenin, who had been living in exile in Switzerland. Koba had read Lenin’s prolific writings and admired his leadership of the Bolshevik cause, but was unimpressed in this first in-person encounter. He vocally took issue with Lenin’s position that Bolsheviks should seek seats in the newly-formed State Duma (parliament). When Lenin backed down in the face of opposition, he said, “I expected to see the mountain eagle of our party, a great man, not only politically but physically, for I had formed for myself a picture of Lenin as a giant, as a stately representative figure of a man. What was my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”

Returning to Georgia, he resumed his career as an underground revolutionary including, famously, organising a robbery of the Russian State Bank in Tiflis in which three dozen people were killed and two dozen more injured, “expropriating” 250,000 rubles for the Bolshevik cause. Koba did not participate directly, but he was the mastermind of the heist. This and other banditry, criminal enterprises, and unauthorised publications resulted in multiple arrests, imprisonments, exiles to Siberia, escapes, re-captures, and life underground in the years that followed. In 1912, while living underground in Saint Petersburg after yet another escape, he was named the first editor of the Bolshevik party’s new daily newspaper, Pravda, although his name was kept secret. In 1913, with the encouragement of Lenin, he wrote an article titled “Marxism and the National Question” in which he addressed how a Bolshevik regime should approach the diverse ethnicities and national identities of the Russian Empire. As a Georgian Bolshevik, Jughashvili was seen as uniquely qualified and credible to address this thorny question. He published the article under the nom de plume “K. [for Koba] Stalin”, which literally translated, meant “Man of Steel” and paralleled Lenin’s pseudonym. He would use this name for the rest of his life, reverting to the Russified form of his given name, “Joseph” instead of the nickname Koba (by which his close associates would continue to address him informally). I shall, like the author, refer to him subsequently as “Stalin”.

When Russia entered the Great War in 1914, events were set into motion which would lead to the end of Czarist rule, but Stalin was on the sidelines: in exile in Siberia, where he spent much of his time fishing. In late 1916, as manpower shortages became acute, exiled Bolsheviks including Stalin received notices of conscription into the army, but when he appeared at the induction centre he was rejected due to a crippled left arm, the result of a childhood injury. It was only after the abdication of the Czar in the February Revolution of 1917 that he returned to Saint Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd, and resumed his work for the Bolshevik cause. In April 1917, in elections to the Bolshevik Central Committee, Stalin came in third after Lenin (who had returned from exile in Switzerland) and Zinoviev. Despite having been out of circulation for several years, Stalin’s reputation from his writings and editorship of Pravda, which he resumed, elevated him to among the top rank of the party.

As Kerensky’s Provisional Government attempted to consolidate its power and continue the costly and unpopular war, Stalin and Trotsky joined Lenin’s call for a Bolshevik coup to seize power, and Stalin was involved in all aspects of the eventual October Revolution, although often behind the scenes, while Lenin was the public face of the Bolshevik insurgency.

After seizing power, the Bolsheviks faced challenges from all directions. They had to disentangle Russia from the Great War without leaving the country open to attack and territorial conquest by Germany or Poland. Despite their ambitious name, they were a minority party and had to subdue domestic opposition. They took over a country which the debts incurred by the Czar to fund the war had effectively bankrupted. They had to exert their control over a sprawling, polyglot empire in which, outside of the big cities, their party had little or no presence. They needed to establish their authority over a military in which the officer corps largely regarded the Czar as their legitimate leader. They must restore agricultural production, severely disrupted by levies of manpower for the war, before famine brought instability and the risk of a counter-coup. And for facing these formidable problems, all at the same time, they were utterly unprepared.

The Bolsheviks were, to a man (and they were all men), professional revolutionaries. Their experience was in writing and publishing radical tracts and works of Marxist theory, agitating and organising workers in the cities, carrying out acts of terror against the regime, and funding their activities through banditry and other forms of criminality. There was not a military man, agricultural expert, banker, diplomat, logistician, transportation specialist, or administrator among them, and suddenly they needed all of these skills and more, plus the ability to recruit and staff an administration for a continent-wide empire. Further, although Lenin’s leadership was firmly established and undisputed, his subordinates were all highly ambitious men seeking to establish and increase their power in the chaotic and fluid situation.

It was in this environment that Stalin made his mark as the reliable “fixer”. Whether it was securing levies of grain from the provinces, putting down resistance from counter-revolutionary White forces, stamping out opposition from other parties, developing policies for dealing with the diverse nations incorporated into the Russian Empire (indeed, in a real sense, it was Stalin who invented the Soviet Union as a nominal federation of autonomous republics which, in fact, were subject to Party control from Moscow), or implementing Lenin’s orders, even when he disagreed with them, Stalin was on the job. Lenin recognised Stalin’s importance as his right hand man by creating the post of General Secretary of the party and appointing him to it.

This placed Stalin at the centre of the party apparatus. He controlled who was hired, fired, and promoted. He controlled access to Lenin (only Trotsky could see Lenin without going through Stalin). This was a finely-tuned machine which allowed Lenin to exercise absolute power through a party machine which Stalin had largely built and operated.

Then, in May of 1922, the unthinkable happened: Lenin was felled by a stroke which left him partially paralysed. He retreated to his dacha at Gorki to recuperate, and his communication with the other senior leadership was almost entirely through Stalin. There had been no thought of or plan for a succession after Lenin (he was only fifty-two at the time of his first stroke, although he had been unwell for much of the previous year). As Lenin’s health declined, ending in his death in January 1924, Stalin increasingly came to run the party and, through it, the government. He had appointed loyalists in key positions, who saw their own careers as linked to that of Stalin. By the end of 1924, Stalin began to move against the “Old Bolsheviks” who he saw as rivals and potential threats to his consolidation of power. When confronted with opposition, on three occasions he threatened to resign, each exercise in brinksmanship strengthening his grip on power, as the party feared the chaos that would ensue from a power struggle at the top. His status was reflected in 1925 when the city of Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad.

This ascent to supreme power was not universally applauded. Felix Dzierzynski (Polish born, he is often better known by the Russian spelling of his name, Dzerzhinsky) who, as the founder of the Soviet secret police (Cheka/GPU/OGPU) knew a few things about dictatorship, warned in 1926, the year of his death, that “If we do not find the correct line and pace of development our opposition will grow and the country will get its dictator, the grave digger of the revolution irrespective of the beautiful feathers on his costume.”

With or without feathers, the dictatorship was beginning to emerge. In 1926 Stalin published “On Questions of Leninism” in which he introduced the concept of “Socialism in One Country” which, presented as orthodox Leninist doctrine (which it wasn’t), argued that world revolution was unnecessary to establish communism in a single country. This set the stage for the collectivisation of agriculture and rapid industrialisation which was to come. In 1928, what was to be the prototype of the show trials of the 1930s opened in Moscow, the Shakhty trial, complete with accusations of industrial sabotage (“wrecking”), denunciations of class enemies, and Andrei Vyshinsky presiding as chief judge. Of the fifty-three engineers accused, five were executed and forty-four imprisoned. A country desperately short on the professionals its industry needed to develop had begin to devour them.

It is a mistake to regard Stalin purely as a dictator obsessed with accumulating and exercising power and destroying rivals, real or imagined. The one consistent theme throughout Stalin’s career was that he was a true believer. He was a devout believer in the Orthodox faith while at the seminary, and he seamlessly transferred his allegiance to Marxism once he had been introduced to its doctrines. He had mastered the difficult works of Marx and could cite them from memory (as he often did spontaneously to buttress his arguments in policy disputes), and went on to similarly internalise the work of Lenin. These principles guided his actions, and motivated him to apply them rigidly, whatever the cost may be.

Starting in 1921, Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy, which lightened state control over the economy and, in particular, introduced market reforms in the agricultural sector, resulting in a mixed economy in which socialism reigned in big city industries, but in the countryside the peasants operated under a kind of market economy. This policy had restored agricultural production to pre-revolutionary levels and largely ended food shortages in the cities and countryside. But to a doctrinaire Marxist, it seemed to risk destruction of the regime. Marx believed that the political system was determined by the means of production. Thus, accepting what was essentially a capitalist economy in the agricultural sector was to infect the socialist government with its worst enemy.

Once Stalin had completed his consolidation of power, he then proceeded as Marxist doctrine demanded: abolish the New Economic Policy and undertake the forced collectivisation of agriculture. This began in 1928.

And it is with this momentous decision that the present volume comes to an end. This massive work (976 pages in the print edition) is just the first in a planned three volume biography of Stalin. The second volume, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, was published in 2017 and the concluding volume is not yet completed.

Reading this book, and the entire series, is a major investment of time in a single historical figure. But, as the author observes, if you’re interested in the phenomenon of twentieth century totalitarian dictatorship, Stalin is the gold standard. He amassed more power, exercised by a single person with essentially no checks or limits, over more people and a larger portion of the Earth’s surface than any individual in human history. He ruled for almost thirty years, transformed the economy of his country, presided over deliberate famines, ruthless purges, and pervasive terror that killed tens of millions, led his country to victory at enormous cost in the largest land conflict in history and ended up exercising power over half of the European continent, and built a military which rivaled that of the West in a bipolar struggle for global hegemony.

It is impossible to relate the history of Stalin without describing the context in which it occurred, and this is as much a history of the final days of imperial Russia, the revolutions of 1917, and the establishment and consolidation of Soviet power as of Stalin himself. Indeed, in this first volume, there are lengthy parts of the narrative in which Stalin is largely offstage: in prison, internal exile, or occupied with matters peripheral to the main historical events. The level of detail is breathtaking: the Bolsheviks seem to have been as compulsive record-keepers as Germans are reputed to be, and not only are the votes of seemingly every committee meeting recorded, but who voted which way and why. There are more than two hundred pages of end notes, source citations, bibliography, and index.

If you are interested in Stalin, the Soviet Union, the phenomenon of Bolshevism, totalitarian dictatorship, or how destructive madness can grip a civilised society for decades, this is an essential work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-14-312786-4.

Here is a two part Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about the book and Stalin’s rise to power.

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This Week’s Book Review – I’m Dr. Red Duke

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘I’m Dr. Red Duke’ a study in greatness

By MARK LARDAS

Oct 2, 2018

”I’m Dr. Red Duke,” by Bryant Boutwell, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 284 pages, $30

“Red” Duke was known to millions for his televised broadcasts about medicine. He was one of those larger-than-life Texas characters who left people wondering if he was for real.

“I’m Dr. Red Duke,” a biography of Dr. James H. “Red” Duke, by Bryant Boutwell, provides the answer. Not only was he the real deal, but in many ways he was greater than his public persona.

Duke a native Texan, grew up in central Texas. He always took pride in being an Eagle Scout and an Aggie (he was a yell leader at Texas A&M). His Texas accent was authentic.

Although he planned to become an engineer, his career path changed many times. He studied to be a minister and then served as an armor officer in Germany. He finally settled on medicine after leaving the army. While finishing up his residency in Dallas, Duke was on duty at the trauma room when Kennedy was shot. Duke operated on Texas Gov. John Connolly that day, saving Connolly.

Duke went on to teaching medicine and did medical research on the East Coast before doing a two-year stint in a teaching hospital in Afghanistan. He came to Houston after his Afghanistan tour, joining the staff of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston in the late 1970s. He became one of their greatest teachers.

Among his other accomplishments, he helped start Houston’s Life Flight air ambulance service, pioneering rapid-reaction trauma surgery techniques. He became a television star, when UT used him as the spokesman for a series of medical advice programs. They became nationally syndicated and made him a household name.

Boutwell is well-positioned to write this book. He was a colleague of Duke, who worked with Duke for many years and knew him professionally and personally.

Boutwell presents Duke’s many strengths and virtues, but Boutwell also discusses Duke’s shortcomings, ones that led to two failed marriages and left Duke a prisoner of his celebrity.

“I’m Dr. Red Duke” is a focused and balanced look at one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary and talented surgeons. It is worth reading as a study in greatness.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Turncoat

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Turncoat’ offers a fresh look at Benedict Arnold

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 7, 2018

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell, Yale University Press, 2018, 384 pages, $30

Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with treason. Yet few today know his story.

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell is a fresh look at the man and his times.

Arnold was a brilliant general, probably only second to George Washington in talent. Next to Washington, he may be most responsible for the survival of the patriot cause. His dogged defense on Lake Champlain in 1776, and his spirited attacks in the Saratoga campaign in 1777, defeated Britain’s northern offensive and led France to enter the revolution on the American side. Absent Arnold, Britain would likely have won by 1778. Three years later, he tried to give Britain the war by betraying West Point to them.

Brumwell traces what led Arnold to switch sides. It was more complicated than many believe.

Arnold was prickly and always protective of his honor. Washington and many of the other Revolutionary generals also were. Yet Arnold combined this with a personality that created jealous enemies.

Badly wounded at Saratoga, Arnold’s wound denied him the active battlefield command he desired. As a substitute, Washington appointed the injured Arnold military governor of freshly-recaptured Philadelphia in 1778. It proved a poisoned command.

Arnold quickly quarreled with Philadelphia’s civilian government. The ruling Philadelphia radicals attacked Arnold with a flurry of meaningless or trivial charges. They should have been dismissed. Instead, to placate this politically powerful faction led Arnold to be court martialed.

Additionally, the French alliance upset Arnold. The revolution began as a political party fight. This is why loyalists were called Tories. Many viewed the French alliance as inviting a stranger into a family quarrel.

This and disillusionment with the Colonial government led Arnold to switch sides. Viewing himself as a new General Monk (who dumped the Parliamentarians to restore Britain’s monarchy after the English Civil War) Arnold sought to end the war by reunifying colonies with Britain.

Arnold misjudged the moment. Instead his actions increased colonial resolve and made him a synonym for treason.

“Turncoat” is a book with surprising resonance today. It shows what happens when the political gets too personal.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Seven at Santa Cruz

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Biography offers intimate look at WWII fighter pilot

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 1, 2018

”Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 304 pages, $29.95

Living World War II veterans are fewer each day. First person accounts or histories written using personal interviews of surviving veterans are shrinking.

“Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards is a new biography of Vejtasa that bucks this trend. Edwards used extended interviews with Vejtasa and other World War II veterans researching it.

Nicknamed “Swede” for reasons comprehensible to only mid-20th century naval aviators, Stanley Vejtasa was of Bohemian and Norwegian stock, the first generation born in the United States after his father came here from what today is the Czech Republic and mother from Norway.

He grew up in rural Montana when most children, including him, were fascinated by all things aircraft. He joined the Navy to learn to fly.

He flew a lot and in combat, graduating from flight school just before the United States entered World War II. He flew dive bombers from the aircraft carrier Yorktown as part of the Atlantic “Neutrality Patrol” before Pearl Harbor. After Dec. 7, 1941, he accompanied Yorktown into the Pacific. There, in the action leading up to and including the Battle of the Coral Sea, he hit a Japanese transport off Tulagi, helped sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, and shot down three Japanese Zero fighters flying combat air patrol over Yorktown. He shot down the Zeros using a Dauntless dive bomber.

That earned him a Navy Cross and a transfer to fighters. Flying an F4F Wildcat from the carrier Enterprise at the battle of Santa Cruz, he shot down seven Japanese aircraft in one day. He saved the Enterprise and got a Navy Cross for that, too.

Edwards’ book follows these battles, but also looks at the totality of Vejtasa’s life, including life growing up in Montana, through Vejtasa’s later career in the Navy, which reached an apex with command of the aircraft carrier Constellation in 1962-63.

Vejtasa died in 2014, but Edwards interviewed him extensively before his death. “Seven at Santa Cruz” provides an intimate look at a man who played a small yet critical role in the Pacific War.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Conrad Black’s New Book – Hugh Hewitt Interview Part 2

This is part 2 of Hugh’s interview with Conrad Black on his new book, Donald J Trump, A President Like No Other. (12 minutes)

(The first post on this I used my Dropbox and put in a link to the mp3 file. Please let me know which is preferred or if we need both this embedded player and a download link so you can keep it and listen to it later offline.

Here’s the link, Bryan.)

Part 1 is here.

Black is asked if there is any similar such major leader in Britain’s history and they talk about Joseph Chamberlain and Benjamin Disraeli. But, they both say that there’s not a lot to compare with Trump.

Then Black tells a story by Mark Steyn when Trump was in his early campaigning in New Hampshire. Steyn tells how Trump is natural and easy to talk to and that he doesn’t have handlers hovering about:

Mark was very impressed in how completely lacking in the paraphernalia of  self importance he was. He was just a guy running for president – and how refreshing it was.

Hewitt mentions that Black reports on how Trump was on the Inspirational Tour circuit with Zig Ziglar and Colin Powell. This is where Trump developed more experience with large crowds. Also, how Trump’s confidence helped him with his creditors by convincing the bankers to trust him and he would get their money back. It worked. And Black makes the point that this experience helped with the Billy Bush tape and when two days later he had to debate Clinton.

There’s a nice digression into Nixon’s essential help with Eisenhower. Black is a great storyteller. In Black’s book, Hewitt quotes:

Nixon played chess, Reagan played poker and Donald Trump is a pool shark.

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