April 30, 1945: Hitler Kaput


Seventy-nine years ago today, Adolf Hitler, aware of the imminent defeat of Germany’s armed forces, and aware of the ignominious end to Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, on May 28th, died by suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin.  He had just turned 56 on April 20.  His body, along with that of Eva Braun, his bride of one day, was quickly brought up to the Reich Chancellery courtyard, doused with gasoline and burned.  Their remains were buried in a shallow crater in the courtyard later that evening.  As Hitler’s biographer, Volker Ulrich, concludes: “There was hardly anything left of the man who at the height of his career had fancied himself the ruler of the world.”

Eight days later Germany surrendered.

It is safe to say that, but for Hitler, upwards of 50 million people might not have met an untimely end in the 12 years that Hitler’s Third Reich existed. “Nor,” as William Shirer wrote the day after Hitler’s death, “will the world he poisoned be purified for a long time.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing the Hitler phenomena: how a sociopath could acquire complete control over the levers of power in the German Government and military, and how he reaped the uncritical adulation of millions of otherwise ordinary citizens of one of the most advanced and cultured societies in the world, leading them on a path of utter destruction. In his newly published book, Takeover: Hitler’s Final Rise to Power, author Timothy Ryback is at pains to point out that Hitler’s ascent to power was achieved entirely by peaceful means—he was duly appointed Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg, and granted plenary power by the German Reichstag.  His enablers (such as Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen) ultimately failed to take seriously his warnings, outlined in his book Mein Kampf, and believed they could control him.

I continue to believe the best, most succinct, description of this phenomena is that provided by French historian François Kersaudy (which I quote in the source notes to From Day to Day).  Here it is again:

“Few destinies can be as amazing as that of the homeless, unemployed painter from Vienna who, in less than two decades, had made himself the absolute master of Germany.  He had certainly been powerfully helped by the rancours [sic] of defeat, the fear of communism, a devastating economic crisis, the near-sightedness of the big German industrialists and the ineptitude of his political rivals.  Yet none of the above would suffice to explain this solitary, uncultured and unbalanced Austrian’s Hitler meteoric rise to power, unless one were to take into account his fanatical singleness of purpose, high degree of opportunism, and complete lack of scruples, added to an astonishing personal magnetism, undeniable talents both as an actor and as a stage manager, and of course an unrivalled ability to browbeat and paralyse [sic] through an expertly balanced combination of secrecy, surprise, verbal abuse and concentrated violence.”

I read the foregoing as both a description of what once was, and as a warning of what can be yet again.

April 12, 1944: “They’re bombing and bombing”


“They’re bombing and bombing, more and more and oftener and oftener.”

Odd Nansen’s Diary
April 12, 1944

B-17 Flying Fortresses over Dresden

Odd Nansen wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote the above diary entry.  The Allied bombing effort over Germany had gone from a trickle in the early years of the war to a deluge by 1944.  The combined RAF and US Army 8th Air Force tonnage dropped in 1944 represented a whopping 311% increase over the tonnage dropped over Germany during the preceding five years combined.

And it would get even worse.  Fully 60% of all the bombs rained on Germany fell after July 1944 (i.e., in the final nine months of the war).

Only four weeks before Nansen wrote the above diary entry, on March 16, 1944, the USAAF launched its first daylight bombing raid over Berlin. (Berlin is only about 25 miles due south of Sachsenhausen.) Losses were severe on both sides; the Americans lost 69 B-17 Flying Fortresses (out of 672 launched) together with 11 P-51 Mustang fighter planes.  Luftwaffe losses were even worse—160 planes in all.  But whereas the Allies could replace their losses, the Luftwaffe could not.

One of the more contentious, and never-ending, debates on World War II concerns the efficacy of strategic bombing.  Did the enormous costs involved: constructing planes, building airfields, training crews, maintaining facilities, and most importantly, the human cost, justify the results?  As to the human costs, the US Army 8th Air Force alone suffered 47,000 casualties during the war, including 27,000 fatalities—over 6,000 more than all the Marines lost during the entire war.

After all, critics maintain, strategic bombing never broke the morale of the German people, never led to capitulation.  Moreover, German war production actually continued to increase until the final months of the war, despite the relentless bombing.

RAF Lancaster over Hamburg (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

A subset of the great strategic bombing debate concerns the role that strategic bombing played vis-à-vis the Holocaust.  Usually couched in queries such as “Should we have bombed the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz?” these disputes maintain that the Allies could have—and should have—done more to ameliorate the worst effects of the Holocaust—by, for example, destroying the rail lines that led to Auschwitz.  The standard government response at the time was that winning the war as quickly as possible—by focusing strictly on military targets—was the best way to rescue the Jews.

My own belief has historically tracked the initial conclusions of historian Nikolas Wachsmann in his magisterial KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, where he observes: “While a direct attack on Birkenau would have carried great symbolic weight, it might not have saved many lives.”

Wachsmann points out that rail lines are not easy to hit, and even if hit, are easy to repair.  Moreover, even if all railroad access to Auschwitz could somehow have been permanently damaged:

“it is hard to see how it would have stopped the mass murders.  The determination of Nazi leaders to exterminate Jews would not have been deflected by bombs on Birkenau (in fact, SS men habitually blamed Jews for Allied air raids and sometimes attacked Jewish prisoners ‘in retaliation’ after KL [the concentration camp] had been hit.  No doubt the SS killers would have found other ways to continue their murderous mission.”

The mass murders at Babi Yar (33,771 killed September 29-30, 1941) and in Operation Harvest Festival (approximately 42,000 murdered, November 3-4, 1943) all using nothing more than bullets, reinforces Wachsmann’s observations that Auschwitz and its gas chambers were not essential to implementing the horror of the Holocaust.

But there is another perspective to keep in mind—the perspective of those who were the victims of the Holocaust itself.  And it seems as if the prisoners uniformly welcomed Allied bombing, even when those very bombs occasionally strayed and killed their own compatriots.

Mary Berg, a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, of whom I have written extensively (here, here, here, and here) recorded in her secret diary for October 1, 1942:

“Bombings by Soviet planes have been taking place every night.  The explosions shake the walls of the Pawiak [Prison]. We are now so accustomed to these bombings that we wait for them eagerly: they are like a greeting from the free world.”

Similarly, Avraham Krakowski, who worked in the secret counterfeiting operation in Sachsenhausen (which I have written about here) published a memoir after the war entitled Counterfeit Lives, where he observed:

“During April and May, 1944, the Allied bombings of Berlin were stepped up.  Day and night, the drone of the B-17s told us that the time of vengeance against the Germans was near.  The sound of the engines was music to our ears.”

Odd Nansen’s feelings about the bombing were, as typical of Nansen, more nuanced, but nevertheless instructive:

“The night before there was a big raid on Berlin. . . . A few bombs seem to have fallen nearer Oranienburg [site of Sachsenhausen]; the crash and blast were so powerful that they made one doubt that the hut would stand up.  But it did.  The attack lasted for an hour. . . . The whole time I was lying engrossed in the struggle between the forces in me that desired the raid, and those that were reacting against this barbarism—this degrading fashion of making war.  But for that matter is there any way of making war that isn’t degrading?  No, to be sure–! Later we shall return to culture, and all we’re fighting for; but now we’re fighting!” (diary entry November 20, 1943)

Even young Tommy Buergenthal enjoyed the feeling of Schadenfreude when the SS guards actually fled into Sachsenhausen precisely to avoid the bombs raining down elsewhere:

“Oh, how we relished this information, and how it must have irked them.  To think that the Germans now finally feared for their lives and had to seek protection in our camp!  That made us feel good, even though one or two stray bombs did fall just inside the camp wall and killed a few inmates.”

Concentration camp prisoners were not concerned with the measures by which the strategic bombing campaign was judged: tank and plane output, oil production, ball-bearing capacity.  They were fighting a more personal war—a war where the only weapon they had, the only weapon the Nazis could never take from them, was hope.  It was a war of hope versus despair.  And, from the (admittedly small) sample I have seen, knowing that someone cared enough to even try and improve their lot, no matter how little the chances for success, meant a great deal.

And as Wachsmann ultimately concludes, and as I have come to accept as well, the best rationale for bombing the approaches to Auschwitz was this:

“The realization that they had not been forgotten by the outside world gave the prisoners new hope, as well as greater determination to resist the SS.”


April 7, 1895: Fridtjof Nansen Reaches Farthest North


On this date, 129 years ago (also a Sunday), Fridtjof Nansen (Odd Nansen’s father), along with Nansen’s companion, Hjalmar Johansen, reached a point, in Johansen’s words, “most northerly that any human foot had ever trod.”  They had arrived at 86°14’ north latitude, besting the previous record, set 13 years earlier, by almost 200 miles.  Nansen had originally hoped, when he left the safety of his ship, the Fram, on March 14, 1895, to be able to ski and sledge his way to the North Pole, but that dream now seemed out of reach.  As Johansen confided to his journal just one day earlier, they were experiencing “the very worst ice we had as yet encountered—nothing but ridge after ridge and long stretches of old ice rubble with very deep snow and [open water] lanes here and there.”

With no change in these surface conditions discernable as far as the eye could see, mindful of their finite food supply, and of the short window—less than five months—before the onset of the long polar night, and finally, uncertain as to exactly where and how he would meet up with civilization again, Nansen elected to turn south.  Thus began the 600-mile trek over ice and open water to Franz Josef Land, an uninhabited and largely unmapped archipelago east of Svalbard.

Fridtjof Nansen

In my lectures on the polar adventures of Fridtjof Nansen, I like to emphasize his sheer bravado, his disdain for caution, his headstrong will.  After all, wasn’t he the one who famously explained that the lack of a Plan B/line of retreat was actually a positive: “Then one loses no time in looking behind, when one should have quite enough to do in looking ahead—then there is no chance for you or your men but forward.  You have to do or die!”

And yet.

In an endeavor fraught with danger, Fridtjof Nansen managed to lead not one, but two, polar expeditions,* setting records in both cases, and yet (as I also recognize in my lectures) brought both crews home without serious mishap.  Through some mysterious alchemy of careful planning, extensive preparation, will, and luck, Fridtjof Nansen succeeded where many other capable men (and they were all men) had failed.  Here is but a small, random sampling of the fates of other polar expeditions:

  • Franklin Expedition (1845): all 129 crew members perished;
  • Jeannette Expedition (1879—1881): 20 of the initial crew of 33 died;
  • Greely Expedition (1881—1884): 20 of the initial crew of 27 died; another perished on the rescue voyage home;
  • Terra Nova Expedition (1910—1913): 5 killed, including the leader, Robert Falcon Scott;
  • Brusilov Expedition (1912—1914): only 2 survivors remaining from initial crew of 24.

By contrast, not only did all of Nansen’s crews arrive home safely, in the case of his assault on the North Pole, all crew members (including, amazingly, even Nansen and Johansen) actually gained weight in the Arctic!

Fridtjof Nansen in Greenland

I think the best, and most accurate, summation of Nansen’s skillset may be found in a recently published book dealing with polar exploration, Darrell Hartman’s Battle of Ink and Ice: “Nansen represented a rare combination of ingenuity, athleticism, courage, and scholarship.”

Now, I will readily admit that I probably would not have fared well with Fridtjof Nansen as my father.  He was a stern taskmaster.  In my Introduction to From Day to Day I observe that home life with the Nansens may have “resembled nothing so much as a training camp for future polar expeditions.”

On the other hand, if I knew I would be subjected to three and a half years of sometimes brutal incarceration at the hands of the Nazis, perhaps life in the Nansen household would be the best “tough-love” upbringing possible.

And so perhaps Fridtjof Nansen’s greatest legacy is not his cross-Greenland trip, or his quest for the North Pole, but rather his preparing his son to meet—and surmount—the rigors of war and captivity.

And for that we should be always grateful.

* In addition to his record setting attempt to reach the North Pole, in 1888 Nansen and his crew became the first persons to cross Greenland from coast to coast.

Odd Nansen, Thornton Wilder, and Bridges


“[But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.]  But love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Those are the thoughts of Madre María del Pilar, the Abbess of the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas, a character in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, written by Thornton Wilder. In fact, they are the closing words of the novel.

Original Cover

The unbracketed language also appears in the original, 1947 Norwegian version of Odd Nansen’s WWII diary, From Day to Day.  The words are strategically placed, in English, after the dedication page, after the title page, after the Foreword, after the name index, after the frontispiece, and immediately prior to the start of the diary, on their own page.  Nansen clearly thought those words were important, although, interestingly, he does not mention the title of the book the words came from, only Thornton Wilder’s name. Perhaps Nansen felt in 1947 that so few of his fellow Norwegians would (or could) read English that the book’s title was irrelevant.

In the 1949 British translation the quote again appears immediately preceding the first diary entry, and again only with Wilder’s name.  In the 1949 American version (which is slightly different from its British cousin—more pictures and less text) the quote stands before the title page.  It does not appear at all in the 1949 German translation, which is considerably more abridged, with none of Nansen’s many sketches.

Epigraph as it appears in the 1947 Norwegian edition of From Day to Day

When I worked with Vanderbilt University Press in 2016 to republish Nansen’s diary, they expressed concern about including Wilder’s quote without the explicit permission from the holders of his copyright, which they felt would be too difficult, and too time-consuming, to obtain.  Accordingly, nothing was done, and the 2016 reprint merely mentions in the Author’s Note (pg. 54) that “The 1949 edition began with an epigraph from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey that described love as the ‘bridge’ between the living and the dead.”

I now regret that I did not try harder to include this text in the reprint as well, given Nansen’s clear attachment to it.

Throughout all this, and in the intervening years, I never thought much more about how Nansen came by this quote.  After all, he was highly literate—his diary is replete with literary, biblical, and classical allusions.

Recently I gave a virtual (Zoom) lecture about Nansen’s diary to members of the Hamden, Connecticut Public Library.  Hamden is a suburb of New Haven, not far from where I was raised.  (My high school alma mater, Notre Dame High, plays Hamden High in football every Thanksgiving Day in the Green Bowl; we lead the series 47-23-2).

In preparing for my talk, I was surprised to learn, for the first time, that Thornton Wilder owned a home in Hamden, where he lived, on and off, with his sister, for many years, until his death in 1975.

Thornton Wilder in 1920

It was the outstanding success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder’s second novel, that allowed him to build a home in Hamden, not far from Yale University, where he had been a student (class of 1920).  The fictional story relates the lives of five people who, in 1714, were crossing an Incan rope bridge on the road connecting Lima and Cuzco, Peru, when the bridge collapsed, sending them to their deaths.  A Franciscan friar, Brother Juniper, witnesses the scene, and thereafter attempts to find meaning, or some cosmic purpose, in their random deaths.  Wilder’s novel was not only the bestselling work of fiction in 1928, it was a literary success, earning him a Pulitzer Prize.  (Wilder is the only writer to have earned a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and drama—the play Our Town).  Wilder accordingly called his Hamden home “the house that the bridge built.”*

I learned all of this from Elisabeth Angele, Head of Information and Patron Services at the Library.  I pride myself in finding connections—across dates (here); locales (here); and people (here).  But it was Elisabeth who pointed out to me—based on my very own lecture—that Odd Nansen was living and working in New York City in 1928, the same year Wilder’s novel was the talk of the town.  No wonder he knew of the book!  And undoubtedly that is when he read those final words.  Certainly Wilder’s words must have made a great impression on Nansen, and perhaps consoled him during his three and a half year confinement, that he would choose to include them so prominently in his own all-important diary almost two decades later.

Thank you Elisabeth!

The Hamden Public Library has re-created, and displays in its main lobby, Wilder’s writing studio down to the last detail.

Here’s where serendipity comes in (once again).  As I was preparing this blog, I happened to take down from my bookshelf a book titled Noah Adams on All Things Considered: A Radio Journal. The book “captures a year in the life of ‘All Things Considered,’” the NPR radio program.  And the book just opened to page 152, describing Adams’s broadcast for Wednesday, October 18, 1989.  The Loma Prieta earthquake had just struck the previous evening.  Centered northeast of Santa Cruz, California on the San Andreas Fault, the quake killed 63 and injured another 3,757.  One of the more enduring images of the event was the collapsed upper deck of the Bay Bridge.

Here is part of the transcript for Adams’s broadcast for that day:

“Someone said this morning about the Bay Bridge in San Francisco that every time you go across the bridge in a car, you always have a moment’s thought—could this be the day for an earthquake?  And it brings to mind an expression from a novel by Thornton Wilder, the saying, ‘I may see you on Tuesday, unless the bridge falls.’”

Adams then describes Wilder’s novel, and how a certain

“Franciscan monk set out to determine why those five people died.  He thought ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.’ He resolved to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, and therein lies the novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In the end though, even Brother Juniper was unhappy with what he could find out.  Wilder writes: ‘He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction, and the good called early to Heaven.’”

Noah Adams concludes his broadcast by reciting the novel’s famous last lines, as above.

Before I could even post this newest blog, another senseless bridge tragedy has struck, this time in the Baltimore Harbor.  Two road workers are dead, and another four are still missing and presumed dead.  How could they possibly have imagined what would befall them, before their shift was over, when they reported for work?

And we are no closer to understanding the meaning of this event than Brother Juniper.  All we have left to fall back on is Thornton Wilder’s, and Odd Nansen’s, words of almost a century ago.

Francis Scott Key Bridge


* The Bridge of San Luis Rey remains popular to this day.  In 1998 it was selected by the editorial board of The Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.

Marit (Nansen) Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21


Marit as a child

Three years ago today my dear friend Marit Greve, eldest child of Odd and Kari Nansen, and granddaughter if Fridtjof Nansen, died.  She was 92 years old.  Those of you who have heard my presentation on Odd Nansen’s diary know that Marit is only briefly mentioned; however, she played a key part in my life, and since many of my subscribers have only recently signed up for my blogs, I feel it worthwhile for my readers to revisit our relationship (portions of which have appeared in previous posts). 
Marit was born November 8, 1928, in Brooklyn, NY. (I would often kid her that, beneath her Norwegian lilt, I could still detect a trace of a Brooklyn accent.)  She was 13 years-old when her father was arrested in 1942, old enough to remember vividly the night he was taken away.

She was also old enough to remember well the hardships that followed—like learning to make and eat dandelion salad and soup.  But there were also moments of humor.  Like many families, the Nansens raised animals during the war for food.  At one point they were down to a single rabbit, which they then kept with the chickens.  According to Marit the rabbit soon began to think it was a hen: “It climbed the perch . . . in the evenings like the hens, [and] had a siesta in the sitting box  . . . every day.  Astonishingly, it did not produce an egg.”

Marit admiring a Tryon, NC pumpkin, September 2016.

Odd Nansen of course worried about his family while he was incarcerated, and what effect his long separation might have on his children.  On March 3, 1943, he wrote: “Marit looked very fit, but I noticed that she’s almost grown a bit shy of me, and it went right through me like a stab.  Have I been away so long already? . . . I can’t stand for my children to drift away.”  Five months later (Aug. 5, 1943), when Marit was temporarily denied access to her dad, and cried in despair over the thought, Nansen was overjoyed: “Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I’m not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”  On Marit’s 16th birthday Nansen once again fretted in his diary that he was losing his little girl, who was now becoming a woman, despite her protestations to the contrary in a letter she sent him.  “Poor little Marit, she can’t help it.  And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives.  But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,” and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for both of us.”

Odd Nansen and Marit, 1930s

Based on everything I learned from Marit, Nansen needn’t have worried at all.

I first met Marit in August of 2011.  Having decided to republish Nansen’s diary, I first arranged a meeting in Washington, DC, to introduce myself to Tom Buergenthal.  Tom, gracious as ever, offered during the meeting to write to Marit and introduce me so that I could start a correspondence with her.  After all, by that time, Tom and Marit had been friends for over 60 years.  In Tom’s Preface, he writes of his first trip to Norway in 1948: “Kari Nansen, Odd Nansen’s wife, and their four children—Marit, Eigil, Siri, and Odd Erik—treated me almost from the beginning like a member of the family.” Tom further indicated to me that Marit was the “keeper of the flame” and was the best resource to answer all my questions about her father.

Several months later my wife Tara and I were invited to a wedding in Stockholm, Sweden, and I arranged ahead of time to stop over in Oslo on our way home and meet with Marit.  We agreed to rendezvous at Polhøgda, the house built by Fridtjof Nansen that Marit had grown up in as a child.  (When Marit married she moved into a new house a mere five-minute walk away.)  We sat outside on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon and Marit  patiently answered all the questions I could think of.  Tara (who was furiously taking notes on my behalf) and I had been warned about Norwegians’ habitual reserve, and so we were pleasantly surprised when Marit then invited us to her home.  There we chatted further, and she showed me a framed photo of the Nansen family on the day her father returned from captivity (the same photo appears on page 567 of From Day to Day).  I couldn’t stop staring at this photo, at which point Marit removed it from the frame and handed it to me! A typical example of her graciousness and generosity.

Hotel Grande, Oslo, October 2014. From the left: Me; Marit; Anne Ellingsen (Odd Nansen’s biographer); Anne Greve, Marit’s daughter; Robert Bjorka (last living Norwegian survivor of Sachsenhausen)

And thus began a wonderful friendship and collaboration. Marit visited the U.S. as our houseguest twice, in 2013 and 2016, and I followed up on my 2011 visit with trips to Norway in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019.  Had COVID not intervened, I would have travelled to Norway for another presentation, and Marit had even agreed to attend a Kristallnacht commemoration set for November 2020 in New Haven, CT.

Marit in Tryon, NC, September 2016

My many favorite memories include: her visits to America; sharing the podium with Marit at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, where we spoke in the same room Fridtjof Nansen gave his own Nobel Peace Prize address decades earlier; speaking at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies; and most importantly, sharing in Marit’s special 90th birthday party in 2018, held on the deck of the Fram, the ship Fridtjof Nansen built for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).

Marit’s Birthday. She is wearing the apron I gave her, which states “I just turned 90. What did you do today.”

When From Day to Day was re-published in 2016, I acknowledged the critically important contributions of three individuals: Tom Buergenthal, for introducing me to Odd Nansen in the first place via his memoir; Sten Vermund, for introducing me to Vanderbilt University Press, my eventual publisher, and most importantly, Marit Greve.  At the time I wrote: “Many of the insights into Nansen’s diary entries would have remained impossible without her knowledge of the events of 1942-1945.  Marit is a wonderful friend, self-effacing to a fault, and the inheritor of her father’s wit and humor.  To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

My last image of Marit, holding a US Senate Commendation for Odd Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees, received January, 2021.

Skål, Marit, and may your memory be a blessing.  I miss you terribly.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head.
Night is falling;
You have come to journey’s end.
Sleep now,
And dream of the ones
Who came before.
They are calling
From across the distant shore.

2023 Year-End Potpourri


8th Distribution Goes Out

Recently I was able to send out to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities their 50% share of the royalties and speaking fees I earned this past year related to Odd Nansen’s diary.  To date my cumulative distributions now amount to almost $29,000.

Nuremburg Update

Recently I wrote about the anniversary of the Nuremburg Trials (here).  I have since learned that Russell Crowe and Rami Malek are planning to star in a forthcoming film about the trials—Crowe to play Herman Göring, and Malek to play an American psychiatrist who must determine if Göring is fit to stand trial.  (As noted in my earlier post, Göring was found guilty, but died by suicide with poison one day prior to his scheduled execution by hanging.}

What I did not mention in my earlier post was a fortuitous event that occurred during the final semester of my senior year in high school, I qualified for an independent study program, and chose to work with the New Haven, CT Public Defender’s Office.  In the course of my work, I befriended a student at the Yale Law School who was also volunteering at the Defender’s Office.  One day he invited me to sit in on one of his law classes.  Little did I know it was a senior seminar taught by Telford Taylor, the assistant to chief prosecutor Robert Jackson in the initial Nuremburg trial, and, after Jackson stepped down, the lead prosecutor in the 12 subsequent Nuremburg Trials.  Wow!  Taylor was most impressive, and helped cement my decision to pursue a career as a lawyer as well.  (We’ll just have to wait and see if his character ends up in the new movie.)

Happy New Year to all, and every best wish for a healthy, happy, and fulfilling 2024!

December 26, 1941: The Boxing Day Odd Nansen Would Never Forget


Boxing Day, December 26, also known as St. Stephens Day, originated in Great Britain, but is observed in many other European countries, including Norway.

Boxing Day 1941 must have been a dispiriting day indeed.  Germany had overrun practically all of Europe, and was all but poised to defeat the Soviet Union.  The United States had formally been in the war for a mere 19 days; much of its Pacific Fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, its army was woefully undersized when compared to that of its new enemies, the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, Italy).

Great Britain was less than 18 months past the “miracle” of Dunkirk, but calling the evacuation a miracle could not soften the blow to its armed forces, with many of its best troops, and most of it tanks, artillery, trucks, etc., lost.

Things looked bleak.

Churchill was eager for any kind of victory, symbolic or otherwise, to change the narrative, and lift the spirits of the Allies.  With that motivation in mind, the British, along with Norwegian special forces, conceived and launched two audacious commando raids against the Norwegian coastline.

Operation Anklet was the code name given to a commando raid of 300 men (223 British and 77 Norwegian), along with a 22-ship naval task force, aimed at Norway’s Lofoten Islands, beginning at 6:00 AM on Boxing Day, December 26, 1941.

Much like George Washington’s assault on Trenton during America’s War for Independence (December 26, 1776), the planners of Operating Anklet were counting on the German garrison at Lofoten being distracted by Christmas festivities.

They were right.

The landings were unopposed, and the raiders successfully destroyed several German boats, as well as two radio transmitters, and captured a number of German soldiers (together with some Norwegian sympathizers—Quislings).  Most embarrassing of all, over 200 local Norwegians made the spontaneous decision to volunteer to serve in the Free Norwegian Forces, returning with the departing Allies, who left the area on December 28.  Allied forces suffered no casualties.

Operation Archery

Operation Anklet, while successful on its own terms, was primarily designed to serve as a diversionary raid for a much larger, more important, raid by British and Norwegian commandos on December 27, 1941, known as Operation Archery.  The immediate goal of Operation Archery was the destruction of fish-oil processing plants at Vågsøy, in western Norway (such plants were used in the production of explosives).  In the longer term, it was hoped that the raid would induce Hitler to deploy more troops to Norway, instead of the all-important Eastern Front.

Lofoten and Vågsøy

Much like Anklet, Operation Archery was a success.  At the cost of four naval deaths, and the loss of 17 commandos (including the commander of the Norwegian Armed Forces in exile, Captain Martin Linge), the Allies killed 120 defenders, captured another 98, destroyed several fish-oil plants, sank 10 enemy ships, and returned with 70 loyal Norwegians eager to join resistance forces in England.

A Fish-Oil Plant Burns

The material damage incurred by Operations Anklet and Archery was modest; the psychological impact, on the other hand, was substantial.

First, the raids convinced Hitler to divert 30,000 additional troops to Norway, troops that were badly needed on the Eastern Front.  Hitler was reported to have said “the outcome of the war will be decided in Norway,” and ended up stationing almost 370,000 soldiers there, or approximately 1 soldier for every 10 Norwegians.

Equally important, the repercussions were felt in Norway itself.  Hitler’s personal representative in Norway, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven was mortified at the embarrassing news generated by the raids.  His reaction was not long in coming.  Finding that many of the Norwegian escapees to Britain were former Norwegian officers and soldiers on parole, Terboven ordered the re-arrest of many such officers, who spent the remainder of the war in POW camps.  Secondly, the SS arrested and imprisoned relatives of the Norwegians who had opted to leave with the British.

Finally, and most ominously of all for Odd Nansen, “Twenty former high court officials and close friends of the exiled royal family were arrested in reprisal for what . . . Terboven . . . called ‘the kidnapping of eight members of the Nasjonal Samling party by Englishmen in violation of international law.”

One of those close friends of the exiled royal family was Odd Nansen (whose father Fridtjof had been instrumental in bringing King Haakon VII from Denmark to Norway in 1905). Nansen was taken into custody “for questioning” on January 13, 1942, and would spend the next three and a half years in captivity—the very last of the 20 hostages arrested in January 1942 to see freedom.

Nansen’s agony would be our gain, for without the fateful events triggered on Boxing Day 1941, we would never have had the “epic narrative of life in Nazi concentration camps,” in the words of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, a narrative which has taken “its place among the great affirmations of the power of the human spirit to rise above terror, torture and death.”

Happy Birthday Odd Nansen


Today marks the 122nd anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth, in 1901.

Sometimes I ask myself why I have become so enamored of a person I never met; why do I spend so much time devoted to a diary he wrote, before I was even born, and which I still have difficultly fully appreciating—the description is so divorced from any personal experience I have ever had.

Recently I read for the first time, the front inside dust jacket from the original, 1949 English-language version of From Day to Day.  It is worth quoting:

“To convey the flavor of Odd Nansen’s remarkable diary, kept while a prisoner in German concentration camps, in a brief description is impossible, for the essence of it is the spiritual quality that shines out on every page—the magnanimity, the tolerance, the humor, above all the humaneness of this daily record (emphasis mine).”

Interestingly, I also recently read a review in The York Review of Books of a newly published book entitled Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community by H.G. Adler.  Adler (1910—1988) was Czech Jew (like Ilse Weber) who, also like Weber, was deported to Theresienstadt in February 1942.  His wife Gertrude could have survived, but chose not to leave her own mother, and so was gassed in Auschwitz.  Adler was also transported to Auschwitz, but survived as a forced laborer, and ultimately emigrated to England in 1947 in anticipation of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.  He lost 18 relatives to the Holocaust.

Adler resolved, while in Theresienstadt, that if he survived, he would write about the camp I detail.  He left notes and materials behind when he was transported to Auschwitz (again, like Weber’s husband, Willi), accumulated more material after his liberation, and published his research, in German, in 1955.  An expanded second edition appeared in 1960, and was reprinted again in 2005 with an afterword by his son, Jeremy.  This version has only recently been translated into English, published by Cambridge University Press.

Not surprisingly, Adler’s book spends a great deal of time examining the role of the Jewish Council of Elders which administered Theresienstadt at the behest of the SS.  Also not surprisingly, he found their actions often falling short—corrupt, focused on self-preservation, condoning favoritism, etc.  However, the reviewer, Thomas Nagel, observes:

“The one positive conclusion [Adler] drew from his dark experiences is that there is nonetheless a ground of morality that is in principle always available.  Adler calls this personal quality ‘humaneness’ (Menschlichkeit, also translatable as ‘humanity”)—an inner resource that enables individuals of sufficient strength to act morally in any circumstance, however horrible.”

I guess it is this quality of “humaneness” that initially attracted me to, and still attracts me to, Odd Nansen.  I end virtually all my presentations with an observation that Nansen’s humane example, evidenced throughout his diary, should serve as an inspiration to us all—of how to “act morally in any circumstance, however horrible.”

Happy Birthday, Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen

December 2, 1942: The Graphite Piles Up


“The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.”

“How were the natives?”

“Very friendly.”

With these code words, Arthur Compton, head of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, notified James Conant, chair of the National Defense Research Committee (overseeing the Manhattan Project), that the world’s first successful, man-made, self-sustaining chain reaction had taken place, in a squash court beneath the viewing stands at Stagg Field, University of Chicago.

Other observers were a bit more loquacious:

“Nothing very spectacular had happened.  Nothing had moved, and the pile itself had given no sound. . .. We had known that we were about to unlock a giant; still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it.  We felt as, I presume, everyone feels who has done something that he knows will have very far-reaching consequences which he cannot foresee.”

With the discovery of nuclear fission by German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, as explained and named by their collaborators Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, it was known that the possibility of creating a self-sustaining chain reaction was possible.  However, finding the right material—one that would produce more splitting neutrons than it absorbed, and the right moderating material, to control the activity of those loose neutrons, had proved difficult.

It was up to Hungarian Jewish émigré Leo Szilard, who fled Hitler in 1933, to establish, while at Columbia University, that fission of uranium produced more neutrons than it consumed, and it was up to Enrico Fermi, another émigré fleeing persecution in Italy—his wife was Jewish—to construct the first nuclear reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, or CP-1.  (Fermi is the “Italian navigator” mentioned in the coded message above, and CP-1 is the “pile” referred to in the above quote)


Pile was a very appropriate descriptor, as, in the words of Fermi, his primitive reactor was “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers.”  The final structure required 45 tons of uranium oxide and 5.4 tons of uranium metal, all encased in 45,000 ultra-pure graphite blocks weighing a total of 360 tons.  (Graphite was the moderator needed to control the activity of the neutrons; heavy water, the only other suitable moderator, was too difficult to obtain in large quantities).  When completed, the elliptically-shaped pile stood 20 feet high, 6 feet wide at the ends, and 25 feet across the middle.

The team that worked on CP-1. Fermi is front row, on left; Szilard is second row on right (in white trench coat)

On the fateful afternoon of December 2, 1942, CP-1 was ready.  The control rods were slowly removed, and pile went critical (self-sustaining) at 3:25 PM.  Having run for approximately 4-5 minutes, and having generated about 0.5 watts of power, it was shut down.  A scientist in the party opened a bottle of Chanti, and all toasted the event from paper cups.  It was the first demonstration that a nuclear device was now feasible, a turning point in the evolution of the Manhattan Project, with consequences we are still living with today.  As Leo Szilard observed when he at last proved fission was possible: “That night, there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.”

At The Lanier Library

This past Thursday I gave a lecture at The Lanier Library (where I am a proud member of the board), located in my hometown of Tryon, NC. The talk was entitled “The Heavy Water War: Stopping Hitler’s Atomic Bomb.”  It focused on the years-long struggle by the Allies to prevent the Germans from obtaining heavy water—a crucial moderator, as noted above—from the only available source, a facility in Rjukan, Norway.  After my talk ended, a library member named Betty, sitting in the front row, approached me, and shared with me that her mother had worked on CP-1 during the war years, and for her efforts, had been awarded a piece of the graphite pile used.  Here it is:

Graphite from CP-1

Talk about a small world!  Thanks again, Betty!

Justice at Nuremberg–or Not?


“This, then, is the climax!  This is the moment you have been waiting for all these black, despairing years!  To see Justice catch up with Evil.  To see it overtake these barbaric little men who almost destroyed our world.  This, really, is the end of the long night, of the hideous nightmare.

And how the mighty have fallen! . . . Why, the sudden loss of power seems to have stripped them clean of the arrogance, the insolence, the truculence that was their very being in all the years I knew them.  How quickly they have become broken, miserable little men!”

(Written by William L. Shirer, Tuesday, November 20, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.)

Seventy-eight years ago today, the first Nuremberg war crimes trial, also known as the International Military Tribunal, began.  Twenty-four of the most important political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were on trial for, among other things, crimes against humanity.

The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were making good on the promise they had made just over two years earlier, in the so-called Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943. There, the three big Allied powers did “solemnly declare and give warning . . . as follows: At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above . . . atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries.”   Where such offenses had no geographic locale, the criminals would be punished by a joint decision of the Allies.

The Judges

The Nuremberg trials were the result.  The prosecution, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, wanted more than to simply win convictions against the initial 24 defendants.  They wanted the proceedings to 1) provide “irrefutable evidence” of Nazi war crimes, 2) offer a “history lesson” to the defeated German nation, and 3) delegitimize the traditional German elite.  Proceedings began on November 20, 1945, and ended on October 10, 1946. Of the 24 initially charged, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 received sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, 3 were acquitted, 1 was deemed physically incapable of standing trial, and 1 died by suicide before the trial could begin.

The hangings were all carried out on October 16, 1946.  Among the 10 actually hanged (Martin Bormann had been sentenced in absentia, and Hermann Göring, died by suicide the day prior to his scheduled execution), was Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the OKW (Supreme Command of Armed Forces).

November 20 also marks an anniversary of another sort with particular relevance to Keitel.  Those of you who have heard my lecture on the heavy water war/Vemork raid, have learned of the tragic fate of the 30 British demolition experts who took part in Operation Freshman (November 19/20, 1942), the attempt to destroy the Norwegian heavy water facility at Vemork.  The plan called for the sappers to land in Norway in two gliders, destroy the facility, and try and escape to neighboring Sweden.  Such an escape called for evasion over hundreds of miles of Norwegian terrain (in the middle of winter) despite the fact that the sappers could hardly speak a word of Norwegian. In other words, the odds of a successful evasion were practically nil.  By wearing British uniforms, however, the attackers could feel safe in the knowledge that, under the Geneva Convention, they would, if captured, be interned as POWs for the duration of the war.

What the sappers did not realize, however, was that Hitler had decreed that any enemy soldier caught in a commando operation was to be killed immediately, uniform or no, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding.  On November 20, 1942, those surviving British sappers in glider #2 were executed pursuant to the so-called Commando Order, which had been signed by none other than Keitel in October 1942. It is thus ironic that exactly three years after the deaths of the British commandos, Keitel would stand trial for his actions.  By signing the Commando Order, Wilhelm Keitel had sealed his own fate. Whether he realized the coincidence is unknown, although perhaps the enormity of his crimes finally sank in when his request to be shot by a firing squad was rejected by the Allies in favor of death by hanging.

The Defendants

Subsequent war trials at Nuremberg targeted a further 177 military and party leaders, leading to 142 additional convictions, and 25 death sentences. This represented a small fraction of the almost 100,000 Germans initially arrested as war criminals, and the 2,500 “major” war criminals identified by the Allies.

Although other war trials were also held in subsequent years in various venues outside of Nuremberg, the numbers convicted, and their sentences, like that of General von Falkenhorst* represent an exceedingly small price to pay for the many, many millions of innocent lives lost at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

* = Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the Supreme Commander of German forces in Norway, was also sentenced to death in 1946 for his role in the death of the British commandos in Operation Freshman.  His sentence was later commuted to 20 years imprisonment.  In 1953, having served only seven years of his sentence, he was released “for reasons of health.”  He lived for another 15 years, dying in 1968.

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