Monday, June 1, 2020

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

This was a frustrating read. In alignment with its subtitle, the author tries to explain “the evolutionary origins of belief,” essentially, why humans believe (sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly) that one thing causes another.

In doing so, the author comes up with a hypothesis. It was the rise of tool making in early humans that gave us this system of “causal” beliefs. To make effective and ever more complicated tools, the author seems to argue, we needed to understand and correctly predict that one thing causes another, an awareness that we then mapped onto all aspects of the world around us.

The evolution of the skills for tool making and the use of tools, together with language, opened up a whole new set of mental operations. Humans were now thinking about the causes involved in all sorts of activities: hunting, food gathering, social relationships, illness, probably dreams, and even life and death itself. This, I am proposing, is the origin of what we now call beliefs.

But maybe, assuming Wolpert is even in the right ballpark, it’s not tools that gave rise to beliefs, instead it’s beliefs that gave rise to tools. Or some unidentified third thing that gave rise to both beliefs and tools at the same time. It’s never very clear which is the chicken and which is the egg, and the author actually does very little to make such distinctions clear.

I must admit that the transition from understanding cause and effect in relation to tool use, to trying to understand the weather and death, is not easy to explain, and probably requires creative thinking. It is possible that the evolution of consciousness and language could have been involved. It has been argued that people experience consciousness because they are aware of their own casual actions.

What what that I said about some unidentified third thing?

The problem is pretty much that Wolpert admits this fuzziness. So although he claims again and again that he has made an argument, he never cites any actual evidence in support of his claim. Instead, he makes two hundred pages of interesting observations, few of which seem to cohere into any plausible mechanism that explains his hypothesis.

And worse, sometimes he just makes assertions.

I think that religious beliefs were adaptive for two main reasons: they provided explanations for important events, and offered prayer as a way of dealing with difficulties. Those with such beliefs most likely did better, and so were selected for.

Were they? I don’t know. And I don’t think Wolpert does either.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 25, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 37 (DRAFT)

“Is everything all right?”

Shit, I was thinking. An in-person interview. That means I’ll have to find time to fly to Boston. Unless they were planning to send someone out to meet me. That would be more convenient, but what are the odds of that? Will they at least pay my plane fare?

“Alan,” Bethany said. “Is everything all right?”


“You look like you just got some bad news. Is everything all right at home?”

“Yeah,” I said quickly. “It’s fine. It’s nothing.”

“Is it Jacob?” she said, clearly not believing me. “Is he sick?”

I forced myself into the moment, thrusting my wayward thoughts aside. “No, he’s fine,” I said reassuringly. “It’s nothing, really. Just some everyday bullshit. I’m sorry it interrupted our conversation. Where were we?”

Bethany looked at me searchingly, perhaps wanting to move on, perhaps not. Then she looked down. “I was embarrassing myself in front of you,” she said. “Telling you all kinds of things I shouldn’t have.”

“Like what?” I said, genuinely surprised.

“Like all that business with Mary. I shouldn’t have told you that. She’s your boss.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked, sensing a change, and wanting to rekindle the connection that had evidently been lost. “She treated you like shit. She treats everyone like shit. It’s okay. You can say it. It’s just you, me and the ocean out here.”

She smiled and then gave me a look, a look like I hadn’t seen in a long time, something that took me back to a time when Jenny and I were dating. It was nice, but awkward, and we both had to look away.

“And then I cried in front of you,” she said with gentle annoyance. “Of all the monumentally stupid things to do, a woman crying in front of her male boss has got to be at the top of the list. I can only imagine what you think of me.”

I felt the whirlpool of my worldly thoughts draining away as I realized she was doing that thing women do when they want you to reassure them, to come to their rescue. Sometimes that meant they were flirting with you, and the realization that Bethany might be flirting with me—that she had recognized my half-hearted overtures and had decided to respond in kind—it seemed to transport me. It was tantalizing, the idea that here, amidst the reminders of all the roles we were forced and we forced ourselves to play—husbands and wives, supervisors and employees—it was tantalizing that she still wanted me to think about playing one more, tantalizing and frightening at the same time. I wondered wildly how to respond, suddenly unsure if I wanted things to progress or not. In such situations, I knew, there were things you could say to shut it down, to clearly communicate that you weren’t interested, and there were other things you could say to unequivocally drive it forward, and still other things that were coy and playful, not undeniably leading anywhere, but keeping the door open and both players in the game.

“I don’t think any less of you,” I said, meaning every word but at the same time conscious of how scripted I sounded.

“You’re just saying that.”

“No,” I said. “Really,” feeling the indignation as if it was real. “You didn’t know what she was. You needed some advice and went there in good faith.”

She nodded her head ruefully, as if knowing I was right, but unable to accept it. “But I haven’t told you the worst of it. The part that makes me really upset.”

I waited the requisite number of seconds. “I’m listening.”

She settled back on her hands, her strong calves and bare feet dangling off the ledge and her white blouse glowing in the moonlight. Was she arching her back? Or just stretching?

“How does Jenny like staying at home with Jacob?”

I remembered the phone call from earlier that evening and the way it had made me feel isolated and impotent, and I realized that this conversation, this script no one had written but everyone knew by heart, would probably end at the same destination. I suddenly wanted to derail it. I wanted something, but not this. Maybe it was the sea air. Maybe it was the kind of day I had had, starting in one time and place and ending in another. Maybe I was just sick of pretending, of play-acting, of trouble-shooting other people’s problems as if I knew how to fix everything.

“She hates it,” I said. “She can’t handle it. I called home earlier tonight and caught the two of them in the middle of a battle royal. I had to talk them both in off the ledge. If I hadn’t called, I think Jenny would have wound up hurting him.”

It was a stark confession, but it fell effortlessly off my lips, and felt good doing so. These things were true, weren’t they? Sometimes you had to say them out loud to really be sure.

“Maybe Jenny and I should change places.”

She said it flippantly, giving me enough latitude to take whichever meaning I preferred. I looked at her and our eyes locked. Are you still flirting with me? I sent silently. I’ve dropped my fa├žade. Will you?

Slowly she nodded, lowering her eyes as if unsure of her footing in this new territory.

“What I mean is I’m thinking about quitting and staying home with Parker.”

“You are?”

“I am,” she said, her words starting to flow more easily. “It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally beginning to realize that Mary wasn’t just rude, she was manipulating me. She manipulates everyone. She gets you to do what she wants by making you second-guess your own instincts. I was struggling, and she knew it. God was telling me to stay home with my baby, but I didn’t want to listen.”

Oh, fuck. God.

“Don’t look at me that way, Alan. He’s real, you know, and sometimes He tries to tell you things. But you have to listen, and I wasn’t. I was so focused on trying to be something I’m not, something I thought I wanted to be, that I couldn’t hear Him even though he was talking directly to me.”

I held my tongue. Bethany and I didn’t see eye to eye on God, but we didn’t have to. He was part of who she was, and if we were going to walk together on this beach, I was going to have to accept that and not judge her.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. What matters is Mary played me, and I came back to work after Parker was born just like she wanted. By reacting the way she did, by treating my pregnancy with so much disgust, she made me think that’s how all professional women felt, that all successful women dumped their kids in daycare and got back to work as soon as they could. If that’s what I wanted to be, that was what I was going to have to do. She didn’t even have to convince me. Just looking at me the way she did, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

As I listened, letting go of my expectations of her, it became clear that all our scripts truly had been left behind, and I found a new exhilaration absent the fear that had accompanied the previous one. Boss and employee, husband and wife, father and mother—we had not only dropped all of our existing roles, importantly we had failed to pick up the new one we had been toying with, not wanting it, not even for the frivolous thrill play-acting it would bring. Out here, alone and in the presence of infinity, we had become just two people talking honestly with each other, all of our pretense left at the foot of the wooden hotel stairs with our shoes.

“And now you feel differently,” I said.

“God, yes,” Bethany said, her eyes tearing up again.

I held out my arm. It felt honest and natural. And Bethany accepted it in the same spirit, scooting over to nestle in next to me, her head in the crook of my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I said, squeezing her warmly. “You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be. Not for David, not for Mary, not even for me.”

She touched my thigh, but there was nothing provocative about it, and it did not arouse me. It was just a human touch, her inner need silently matching mine, desperate for the non-judgmental connection it seemed only we could offer each other. On our beach that night there was no history and no presumptions, just two people who had found each other lost in the same maze. In a few minutes, I knew, we’d get up and resume our independent searches for the way out, but for that moment, for that endless and fleeting now, we blissfully shared the simple understanding that neither one of us had built the damn thing—at least not intentionally.

She sighed heavily. “Why are things so difficult?”

I shook my head, my chin brushing through her hair, the fresh smell of it filling my nostrils. “I don’t know, Bethany.” I said soothingly, almost adding, I wish I did, but holding it back. The waves came crashing in, and I felt comfortably lost in the limitless possibilities of life.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 18, 2020

A Campaign of Giants by A. Wilson Greene

This one has a nice story behind it. Here’s what I said at the end of my post on On to Petersburg by Gordon C. Rhea:

Sadly, there are apparently no more works coming anytime soon from Rhea’s masterful pen. But he does leave this reader with some kind of hope for the future.

“The executive director of Pamplin Historical Park, A. Wilson Greene, is the leading historian of the Petersburg Campaign. He has recently completed the first book of a multivolume study that when finished will stand as the authoritative word on the campaign.”

It’s already on my "Books to Get" list.

That was in September 2018. I’m writing now in August 2019 and, needless to say, A Campaign of Giants, subtitled The Battle For Petersburg, and further subtitled Volume One: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, is that referenced work.

Let’s jump right in. It is Saturday, June 18, 1864. Much of Grant’s army has already crossed the James River, and major pieces of it are hurling themselves against earthwork lines hastily thrown up by the Rebels in an attempt to capture Petersburg and cut the supply lines for the Confederate capital at Richmond. As you read this extended excerpt, know that I am including it because it is essentially the story of the entire campaign in miniature.

Colonel [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain had emerged from the obscurity of regimental command on July 2, 1863, when his unit, the Twentieth Maine, successfully defended the far left flank of the army on Gettyburg’s Little Round Top. Chamberlain would receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism that day, but a more immediate reward resulted in his promotion to command of Griffin’s First Brigade. Chamberlain’s outfit included five depleted veteran regiments and an oversized new one, Pennsylvanians all. The thirty-five-year-old Chamberlain had been a professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College when he left the classroom in 1862 to fight for the Union. His distinguished postwar political and literary career -- including a penchant for self-promotion -- and the attention paid him by modern writers and filmmakers have elevated Chamberlain’s stature well beyond what it was on June 18, 1864, although without doubt the colonel from Maine enjoyed a sterling reputation among those who knew him.

Are you with me so far? A citizen soldier, in the proudest American tradition. Elevated to command because of his courage, competency, and good fortune. Now, for the situation he’s facing.

Chamberlain had managed to advance his brigade across the railroad and into cleared ground south of Baxter Road, where Confederate shells played havoc with his waiting troops. The colonel placed his seasoned regiments, averaging about 250 men each, in his first line, extending along a front of about 400 yards. The 121st Pennsylvania anchored his left with the 142nd Pennsylvania, 150th Pennsylvania, 149th Pennsylvania, and 143rd Pennsylvania aligned, in that order, left to right. The rookie 187th Pennsylvania, numbering about 1,000 muskets and innocent of any combat experience, deployed in a second line some fifty yards behind the first and covering about three-fourths of the length of its five sister regiments. Two batteries -- Capt. Patrick Hart’s Fifteenth New York and Capt. John Bigelow’s Ninth Massachusetts -- came forward to provide close support, joined later by a third set of guns.

The war has been going on for a long time. Pennsylvania would in total organize 215 numbered infantry regiments in the Civil War, and the rookie 187th is now making its appearance. The “veteran” regiments of the 121st, 142nd, 143rd, 149th, and 150th are all down to about 250 men, meaning that each has lost 750 or more to battle wounds, death and/or disease. And note the precision that Greene attempts when placing each one on the battlefield. This, I’ve discovered, is often the mark of a serious historian.

While supervising the initial deployment, Chamberlain and his staff looked up to see a Confederate shell that exploded immediately above them. The blast unhorsed every officer in the colonel’s entourage, severely wounded Chamberlain’s mount, Charlemagne, and claimed the lives of three men while wounding seven others, including the brigade color bearer. Chamberlain retrieved the flag and held it aloft as his troops withdrew a short distance to a safer location, awaiting orders for an assault against the main Confederate line.

Needless to say, mortal danger abounds. For his men. For Chamberlain and his officers. Even for his horses.

Those orders, according to Chamberlain, arrived in the person of an unidentified lieutenant colonel bearing instructions “in the name of the general commanding” for Chamberlain’s brigade to assault the enemy’s works alone. An astonished Chamberlain purportedly penned a three-paragraph response to the unidentified general officer (presumably Meade) explaining the operational situation and suggesting that if an attack be made, the entire army should be ordered forward. When the staff officer returned, he brought the welcome news that the rest of the army would, indeed, be ordered forward, but that Chamberlain’s advanced position dictated that his brigade lead the effort.

Perhaps because of the hasty movement across the James, general officers are far from the troops that they command. Orders are sent based on the sketchiest of operational understandings. Some brigade or even regimental commanders question the orders they are given, some carry them out, and some firmly refuse to do so.

This tale had been repeated so often as to become generally accepted as factual. Its pedigree, however, is suspiciously limited to Chamberlain’s own testimony and that of a sergeant in the 143rd Pennsylvania, Patrick DeLacy, both writing several decades after the war. The notion that Meade would send direct orders to a lowly brigade commander, bypassing both Warren and Griffin in the process, is illogical, as is Chamberlain’s claim that he directed a written response straight to the army commander without going through channels. No evidence exists of any order designating Chamberlain to lead the attack, although the peculiar terrain that prevented a coordinated advance among Warren’s units might have left Chamberlain with the impression that his regiments had charged alone. The complaints of Sweitzer’s soldiers that Chamberlain had failed to provide support on their left demonstrates that both of Griffin’s attacking brigades went forward without a firm physical or visual connection. Chamberlain’s postwar version of events has come under question in other contexts and this seems to be an example of the eloquent colonel’s fondness for enhancing his personal reputation and that of his soldiers at the expense of the truth.

We see only through a glass darkly, and one of the things darkening the glass is the desire of the combatants to promote their own brands rather than communicate (or even understand) the truth. Again, like any serious historian, Greene is trying to get to the truth, and is willing to call into question anything that seems fishy or otherwise calculated for the approval of posterity.

It is incontestable, however, that Chamberlain’s Pennsylvanians charged ahead about 3:00 P.M., consistent with Warren’s wishes. They faced a daunting task. Kershaw’s Division, thought by the Federals to be 3,000 to 5,000 strong and well supported by artillery, waited behind the works of the old Dimmock Line and the hasty barricades constructed by Beauregard’s forces early that morning. Ransom’s Tar Heels and Elliott’s South Carolinians Dug in on Kershaw’s left, opposite Chamberlain, as part of an unbroken chain of Beauregard’s brigades. Chamberlain’s men would top the small ridge behind which they had sought protection, descend into the valley of Poor Creek, and then climb toward the Confederate line across shelterless ground. Chamberlain explained to his regimental commanders that they were to move quickly down the slope, break ranks to cross the stream as rapidly as possible, then re-form on the other side and rush the enemy. The veterans in Chamberlain’s first line knew that many would never return from such a mission, and an officer in the new 187th Pennsylvania shared their concern. “My heart dropped to my shoes,” he remembered. “Cold drops stood on my forehead [and] my blood was frozen solid.”

Men were about the charge an entrenched line of determined defenders. They were frightened, but they would do it anyway, believing it was necessary and honorable to do so.

The Maine colonel attempted to calm the nerves of his anxious soldiers by delivering an inspirational speech and positioning himself at the head of the lead column. “Attention! Trail Arms! Double-quick, march,” Chamberlain intoned as the buglers sounded the advance. The men crested the ridge and began to take musketry and artillery fire while yelling “like a pack of infuriated devils,” then plunged into the morass at the base of the hill. Chamberlain, on foot, reached the little stream, whose banks were festooned with dwarf trees and thick vegetation. Enfilading fire peppered the drainage, and Chamberlain saw that maneuvering through this terrain would be a deadly business. He turned to his left and began to give instructions for the men to oblique to their left in order to expedite their advance. As he did so, a minie ball ricocheted off the ground and into his right hip, passed through his lower abdomen, nicked his bladder and urethra, and came to rest just under the skin behind the bone near his left hip.

Correctly diagnosed. A deadly business.

The wound was as painful as it was serious, and Chamberlain staggered under the blow. Fearing, however, that by falling he would demoralize his men, the colonel thrust his officer’s sabre into the ground as a prop and continued to stand as his troops rushed past and ascended up the slope. Eventually, a loss of blood compelled his collapse. In the meantime, some of Chamberlain’s men reached the base of the Confederate works before the lethal fire pouring from the muzzles of rifles and cannon stopped them, and then drove most of them back down the hill, leaving the ground blanketed with casualties. A few intrepid souls remained at the base of the works, in defilade and hoping that a renewed attack or nightfall would provide them relief. The green soldiers of the 187th Pennsylvania broke when they reached the ravine, and although some of them rallied, their hesitance robbed the brigade of whatever slim chance it enjoyed of breaking the Rebel line. “Our boys killed ‘blue bellies’ to their hearts content,” wrote a satisfied captain in Kershaw’s Division.

An unsupported attack, breaking hard against an entrenched line, and fizzling, leaving some men in retreat, some dead, and some pinned down in an impossible situation.

Two of Chamberlain’s aides, Lts. West Funk and Benjamin Waters, spied their colonel lying down in the mud and muck and dragged him out of the defile. Chamberlain remained conscious and ordered the subalterns to notify the brigade’s ranking officer that he was now in charge. He also instructed them to find support for the artillery, which was on the near side of the railroad cut and in danger of capture should the Confederates come screaming down the slope in a counterattack. Funk and Waters did as they were told, and Chamberlain remained alone, his life blood oozing into the Virginia soil.

Meanwhile, the attention of combatants, commanders, and historians alike are drawn to the gallantry of their officers, men bravely committed to achieving the practically impossible. To wit, the following three paragraphs.

When Captain Bigelow of the Ninth Massachusetts Battery learned of Chamberlain’s wounding, he sent some men to retrieve him. The colonel waved them off and, thinking his wound fatal, urged them to devote their attention to those who might be saved. The cannoneers ignored this plea and, under fire from Confederate ordnance, loaded Chamberlain onto a litter and carried him to a spot behind Bigelow’s guns. Eventually, an ambulance transported the colonel to a field hospital several miles distant, where the first surgeon he saw declared him a lost cause.

By this time, the colonel’s younger brother, Capt. Tom Chamberlain, had learned of his sibling’s dire situation and persuaded two surgeons form his old brigade, Dr. A. O. Shaw of the Twentieth Maine and Dr. M. W. Townsend of the Forty-Fourth New York, to examine his brother. These physicians recognized a difficult case but decided to attempt to repair the damage to Chamberlain’s internal organs. Chamberlain had not been fully sedated, and at one point during the procedure his suffering became so acute that the doctors considered abandoning their work to spare a dying man such agony. Chamberlain, however, encouraged them to continue, and against all odds they managed to complete their work and provide the colonel at least the chance for recovery.

Warren and Griffin both reached the hospital once the fighting ebbed for the day and watched somberly, believing like most others that the gallant colonel would soon breathe his last. At Chamberlain’s behest, they hurriedly drafted a request to promote the wounded man to brigadier general, hoping that the honor could be approved before the sufferer expired. Their request reached Grant’s desk on June 20 and by virtue of Special Orders No. 39, the general-in-chief named Chamberlain a brigadier general of volunteers to rank from June 18. Despite the work of Shaw and Townsend, Chamberlain also considered himself mortally wounded and wrote a heartfelt letter to his wife on June 19, pledging his undying love and promising to meet her in heaven. But God had other plans for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Transferred to the Naval Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, Chamberlain received excellent care, and on September 20 he earned a discharge and a convalescent furlough. On November 18, 1864, Chamberlain would return to active duty.

But God had other plans. What tribute to gallantry would be complete without the obligatory appeal to Providence? Disappointing that the Almighty wasn’t focused on rescuing any other members of His flock.

Chamberlain’s brigade failed to break the Confederate line for reasons other than simply the wounding of its popular commander. Like Sweitzer, Wheaton, and Martindale, the Pennsylvanians had charged with what they perceived as little direct support on their left.

And there you have it. As I said, a story in miniature of the whole campaign -- and maybe the entire Civil War. Courageous action, hampered by political jockeying and uncoordinated attacks, and lauded with providential appeals to heart-tugging gallantry.

All That Is Possible For Men To Do

I really want to underscore the juxtaposition of what happened in the trenches versus what happened in the command tents of this campaign. Here’s a description of another uncoordinated and unsupported attack on the Confederate line.

Ayres ordered his division forward at 3:00 P.M. in concert with the rest of the Fifth Corps, but he made little progress. “Just as soon as we raised the top of our works the rebs opened,” wrote Sgt. Charles Thomas Bowen of the Twelfth U.S. Infantry. “Sometimes a solid shot would knock a file of men ten feet in the air or a charge of canister tear down half a dozen files.” Bowen thought that “the air seemed full of iron of all shapes whizzing by us” and the officers ordered the regulars to hit the dirt. “We gradually sunk ourselves in the sandy soil by a regular hen scratching with our hands,” admitted Bowen, who considered the resistance to be “the heaviest artillery fire I ever was in … Arms, legs, headless trunks, & heads without bodies were strewn in every direction.” The 146th New York suffered a similar nightmare. Their officers quickly called a halt to the slaughter and the men employed their bayonets and tin cups to create “a miniature breastwork” behind which they made themselves “as small as possible to avoid Confederate fire.” A shell decapitated the Fifth New York’s color bearer, splattering his brains over his comrades before that regiment reached cover.

Want more?

Dushane’s Marylanders hardly moved forward at all, but on Ayres’s right Kitching’s heavy artillery regiments formed in two lines and advanced at the signal. Kitching reported the loss of 159 men to a “fearful fire of artillery and musketry” and his soldiers, too, employed “bayonets, spoons, hands, sticks, -- almost anything … to ‘scratch dirt,’ and like magic a line of two or three thousand men who are one moment exposed to every shot will be pitching head foremost into the earth, like moles.” Field’s troops were beginning to arrive and they contributed to the almost effortless repulse of Ayres’s division. “The men went in, but not with spirit,” thought Colonel Lyman, “as much to say, ‘We can’t assault but we won’t run.’” Ayres managed to shift some of his troops into abandoned Batteries 22 and 23 on the Dimmock Line, facing west, and thus refusing the army’s left flank. Warren suggested that the assaults be renewed that evening, but Meade disapproved. “We have done all that is possible for men to do,” confessed the army commander, “and must be resigned to the result.”

That, I think, may be the best summary of all. We have done all that is possible for men to do, if, by men, you mean the men in the squads, companies, and regiments that are offering themselves up for slaughter on the off chance that someone, somewhere can pierce the Confederate line and turn the tide of battle for the scattered and distracted Federals.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get it. Like Lee at Gettysburg, or Grant at Cold Harbor, you don’t really know what men can do until you throw them with love and patriotism into the meat grinder of battle. And in the brutal efficacy of combat, there are only so many tools in the toolbox, and most of them are thinking, breathing people with inner dialogues and others who love them. But at some point, does it not become essential to break out of the mold that has been cast for you, to recognize meaningless slaughter for what it is, and to seek some other way of solving your problems and resolving your differences?

That, unfortunately for the American Civil War, was never the job of the generals. It was the job of the politicians. And they, famously, were abundantly inadequate to their task.

The Incident at Stony Creek

But the lessons explored above are manifest in dozens of other Civil War engagements. The Petersburg Campaign has other and somewhat unique lessons to teach us, to better understand the heartlessness of man and the horror of war.

When the Federals reached the narrow bridge over Stony Creek, they found a deep stream defined by precipitous and rocky banks. General Wilson and his staff forced their way across the span near the head of the column, leaving the impression that the commander “was confoundedly alarmed.” A bottleneck occurred as the frantic aggregation of cavalry and hundreds of terrified blacks attempted to gain access to the slender bridge. The Second New York Cavalry, First Connecticut Cavalry, and Fifth New York Cavalry tried to blunt the pursuing Confederates. They inflicted a few casualties, wounding Maj. James Breathed of Lee’s horse artillery, but the mass of retreating humanity turned the entire operation into anarchy. “The men were almost completely demoralized,” remembered Chaplain Louis Boudrye of the Fifth New York Cavalry, “at least one third having either thrown away or lost their arms in the flight.” Some troopers desperately endeavored to ride their horses down the steep slope and across the wide stream, many of them tumbling into the swirling water. “Men and horses mingled in almost every conceivable shape, struggled to reach the opposite bank,” remembered Boudyre, “while bullets whizzed among the trees, and shells screamed over our heads.”

Lomax and Wickham applied the pressure at Stony Creek. “They fired right smartly … & partially checked us but … the enemy retired rather sullenly until our sabres began to knock their caps off,” boasted a trooper from the Third Virginia Cavalry. “They then fled precipitately exposing to view about 1500 negroes scampering across the fields (of all sizes & sexes) with great bundles of plunder stolen from their masters’ houses, upon their backs. … Such screaming & yelling as they sent up Pandemonium itself could scarcely beat.”

Are you following the scene here? The Confederates have repulsed another anemic Federal charge -- this time of cavalry -- and are chasing not just the soldiers, but a passel of (soon to be former?) slaves, who are desperately trying to reach the perceived safety of the Union lines. And the slaves in question are not just young men (like the Union soldiers), but include whole families: men, women and children. Now, brace yourself before reading on.

Many soldiers in blue and gray commented on the tragic abandonment of infants and toddlers, tossed aside by desperate slave mothers facing the awful choice between escaping slavery or being seized with their offspring. “Little nigger babies could be found lying in the woods nearly dead that were thrown away by the Yankees in their flight,” wrote a Virginian, choosng to blame Northern soldiers under the standard premise that few of the slaves left their homes voluntarily. The African Americans vied with Union troopers at the crossing of Stony Creek, faring poorly in the competition, and many were left stranded on the north side, to be captured or killed by the pursuing Confederates. “Negro women were seen throwing their little babies ruthlessly aside,” reported Pvt. John Gill of the First Maryland Cavalry Battalion, although it is possible instead that the mothers sought safety for their infants by placing them out of harm’s way. “Our men became greatly enraged, and it was difficult to restrain them. It was a question of quarter or no quarter, and it was mostly no quarter.” An officer in the First Vermont Cavalry confirmed that “the Rebels seemed to be inflamed with rage against the Negroes for running away, and leaving the ‘Yankees,’ would sabre the ‘Niggers’ without mercy.” Only about 200 of the runaway slaves managed to navigate the creek and keep pace with the fleeing Federal horsemen. Few Civil War scenes involving noncombatants would present greater horror.

It’s a good thing those Southerners were fighting for their right of their States to secede from the Union, because I’d hate to think of terrified mothers and their babies being slaughtered for some unimportant reason. Was there anyone, I wonder, who witnessed this scene and seriously asked themselves what they were doing in the war and why? If it hadn’t happened to me before this, I’d have to believe that this is the incident that would have pushed me off the pacifist cliff. I mean, really. Is anything you want so important that it warrants the murder of mothers and their babies?

The Sacrifice of Life Was Useless

I was happy to see, however, that some in the Union army began to question some of the tactics of their commanders.

The soldiers manifested their disillusionment in several ways, most pointedly in their disinclination to execute frontal assaults, the standard tactic in most engagements. “One thing is certain,” averred Lt. Col. Hazard Stevens, “our men are not so ready to charge earthworks as they were, so many of the best officers and men have been killed that the remainder are rather averse to rushing in blindly.” Surg. Nathan Hayward of the celebrated Twentieth Massachusetts, a unit that had seem more than its share of savage combat, agreed that “the Second Corps will no longer charge works with the vigor and enthusiasm with which they commenced their series of charges.” Citing the death or wounding of twenty brigade commanders and seventy regimental leaders in such assaults, Hayward asserted that “the sacrifice of life was useless and the soldiers knew it.” He decried that “orders for the charges have been given in the coldest methodical official manner … not the presence of general to encourage and inspire the men by the example of their own determination,” and insisted that these reluctant soldiers “are not cowards; they are eager to meet the rebels on an equal field. But they have lost faith in the wisdom of generals who order assaults … with what they consider insufficient means.” Lt. Claron I. Miltimore of the Thirty-Seventh Wisconsin simply concluded that “Grant and Lee are building a mighty slaughter pen for many an innocent victim as the ox who walks coolly to the slaying floor.”

This is a much different army than the one Grant took into the Wilderness in early May 1864. In two short months, assault after fruitless assault has not only worn it down, it has shown it the absolute futility of the approach still championed by its generals.

And perhaps nowhere is that futility more apparent than in the debacle that is “battle” of The Crater. Greene uses this as the climax to this, his first volume on the Petersburg campaign. It is the slaughter that ensued when some Pennsylvania miners tunneled under the Confederate line and exploded a mine directly beneath it, creating a deep and steep-walled crater that the waiting Union troops were unable to exploit. Instead, inexperienced troops (mostly African-Americans) were marched down into it, where they were shot mercilessly by the surviving and surrounding Confederates.

Wounded men … were the exception in the crater that grim afternoon. “The slaughter was fearful,” explained Captain Featherston. “The dead were piled on each other. In one part of the fort I counted eight bodies deep.” Pvt. James Paul Verdery of the Forty-Eighth Georgia entered the crater, but found the center “invisible to the eye owing to the many dead & dying Blacks piled upon one an other.” David Holt of the Sixteenth Mississippi thought that the scene in the crater “was the most horrible sight that even old veterans … had ever seen,” exceeding the carnage at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle. Surgeon Minor considered the spectacle unnerving. “The ditches were almost filled with the dead. Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet. Such a sight,” he informed his sister, “was never seen before.”

It was a nightmare. But in many ways, only a sequel of what had come before, and a preview of what horrors were yet to come. I’m anxious to read Greene’s forthcoming volumes.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 11, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 36 (DRAFT)


“Well, he’s finally to bed.”

I looked at my watch. It was almost eleven, more than three hours since Jenny and I had last spoke.


“Yes, Jacob. Your little trick worked. I let him calm down and then let him choose.”

“Did he brush his teeth?” In some ways it was like no time had passed at all.

“Yes. I let him pick which toothpaste to use. We opened the new tube I just bought at the pharmacy. It was a new flavor and he really liked it.”

Bethany had turned her head away, as if to give me some measure of privacy, but I didn’t want it. I reached out and grabbed her hand, forcing her to turn back and look at me.

“I’m glad.”

“Where are you?” Jenny asked. “I think I can hear the ocean.”

I smiled at Bethany. “I’m taking a walk on the beach,” I said, and she smiled back, exactly like we were sharing a secret.

“Nice. Throw a stone in the ocean for me.”

“It was a long day. I thought I’d try to clear my head a little before going up to bed. I’m nearly back to my hotel now.” It was fun, in a way. These lies. That’s what they were, right? Lies? They didn’t feel like lies the way they rolled off my tongue.

“Well, I’m tired, too. I was just calling because I forgot to tell you something earlier.”

“What’s that?” I said, giving Bethany’s hand a squeeze.

“Quest Partners called. They want to set-up an in-person interview.”

“What?” I said, suddenly pulling my hand away from Bethany’s and switching the phone to the other side of my head. “When?”

“This afternoon. I tried to call your cell but you must have been in the air. And then tonight with Jacob it slipped my mind.”

“No, when do they want to set-up the—” I stopped suddenly, realizing that I may not want to reveal to Bethany that I was interviewing. “When do they want to meet?”

“As soon as you’re able,” Jenny said. “They seem really interested in meeting you in person. I told them you were traveling on business and wouldn’t be back until late next week. But you should call them tomorrow if you can.”

Bethany was looking at me with great concern, and I could only imagine what she might be thinking. I tried to dismiss her with a quick shake of my head and fluttering hand. “Who? Call who?” I said intently into the phone.

“Pamela Thornsby. The woman you already spoke to. Do you have her number?”

“Yes...” I said, my free hand unconsciously patting myself down as if I would turn up Pamela’s number in one of my pockets. I had blown the phone interview with her. I was absolutely certain I had. Now she wanted a second, in-person interview. It couldn’t make any sense out of it. “Yes, I do. I’ll call her.”

“Good. If you get the chance, call me a let me know how it goes. I told you I had a good feeling about this one.”


“Good night, honey. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” I said it distantly, the phone folding shut as it fell away from my face.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 4, 2020

The Redskins by James Fenimore Cooper

One of the things I like about Cooper -- and about the series of “Littlepage manuscripts” of which The Redskins in the third and final volume -- is that he is a political writer. He’s writing fiction -- fiction with characters and plot and pacing -- but with a political subtext throughout. And although that political subtext is taken from the now long-forgotten 1840s, some of the issues that he dramatizing are as relevant today as they were then.

Case in point, this, from Cooper’s preface:

Every one who knows much of the history of the past, and of the influence of classes, must understand, that whenever the educated, affluent, and the practised, choose to unite their means of combination and money to control the political destiny of a country, they become irresistible; making the most subservient tools of those very masses who vainly imagine they are the true guardians of their own liberties.

Cooper is talking about tenants on gentried land, who have been taught to couch in the language of liberty their desire to abdicate the lawfully-binding covenants with their landlords and to take possession of the land they have worked and improved, sometimes over generations. But his words could just as easily be applied to today’s political movements of both the left and right, where different segments of the educated, affluent, and the practised are choosing to unite their means of combination and money to control the political destiny of a country, while the subservient masses imagine they are truly guarding their own liberties. Think of battles over the Second Amendment. Or Abortion.

But although Cooper isn’t dramatizing those thorny issues, he is dramatizing a kind of political science. Indeed, the first hundred pages or so of his manuscript read almost like a Platonic dialogue, in which spokespeople on both sides of the argument present and defend their positions. One of these voices, of course, is a Littlepage -- in this case Hugh Littlepage, the grandson of Mordaunt Littlepage, the protagonist of Cooper’s earlier work The Chainbearer, himself the son of Cornelius Littlepage, the protagonist of Cooper’s even earlier work Satanstoe.

At one point in this dialogue, Hugh, having just returned from Europe to his native estate in upstate New York, is learning from his uncle the extent to which some of the tenants of his estate are going to claim the lands for themselves. He is aghast that such unlawful conduct. He says:

“I wonder the really impartial and upright portion of the community do not rise in their might, and put this thing down -- rip it up, root and branch, and cast it away, at once.”

To which his uncle replies:

“That is the weak point of our system, which has a hundred strong points, while it has this besetting vice. Our laws are not only made, but they are administered, on the supposition that there are both honesty and intelligence enough in the body of the community to see them well made and well administered. But the sad reality shows that good men are commonly passive, until abuses become intolerable; it being the designing rogue and manager who is usually the most active. Vigilant philanthropists do exist, I will allow; but it is in such small numbers as to effect little on the whole, and nothing at all when opposed by the zeal of a mercenary opposition. No, no -- little is ever to be expected, in a political sense, from the activity of virtue; while a great deal may be looked for in the activity of vice.”

This will give you a taste of what I mean. It is a fictionalized dialogue, but in it you can hear the echoes of Edmund Burke, James Madison, and other political philosophers.

Hugh Littlepage is the novel’s narrator, and he, and therefore much of Cooper’s narrative voice, is clearly on the side of the landlords in the political dispute that frames the drama of The Redskins. At one point, in a discussion with his business agent, the agent says this:

“One thing has struck me in this controversy as highly worthy of notice; and it is the naivete with which men reconcile the obvious longing of covetousness with what they are pleased to fancy the principles of liberty! When a man has worked a farm a certain number of years, he boldly sets up the doctrine that the fact itself gives him a high moral claim to possess it forever. A moment’s examination will expose the fallacy by which these sophists apply the flattering unction to their souls. They work their farms under a lease, and in virtue of its covenants. Now, in a moral sense, all that time can do in such a case is to render these covenants the more sacred, and consequently more binding; but these worthies, whose morality is all on one side, imagine that these time-honored covenants give them the right to fly from their own conditions during their existence, and to raise pretensions far exceeding anything they themselves confer, the moment they cease.”

This is much of the sense of Littlepage’s opposition throughout the novel -- they are not just confused, or even duped by “the educated, affluent, and the practised” -- they are, in fact, sinful and immoral. They wish to take what is not theirs, and they wish to do it in the hypocritical guise of their own liberty. And there is one particular device that Cooper employs to illustrate this hypocrisy that helps to make this novel a very interesting read.

The Redskins

The title of the novel, The Redskins, is an allusion to this device. Some of the tenants, modeling themselves after the storied patriots of the Boston Tea Party, have taken to disguising themselves as Indians, and in that costume, have perpetrated night raids and vandalism on the property of their landlords. These Redskins, however, are not called that by any of the characters in the book. The term of reference is instead “Injins.” And in the long narrative arc of Cooper’s trilogy, this is not meant as a term of respect.

Here, Hugh is thinking about asking some true Native Americans to help him keep watch against an attack from these “Injins.”

If “fire will fight fire,” “Indian” ought to be a match for “Injin” any day. There is just the difference between these two classes of men, that their names would imply. The one is natural, dignified, polished in his way -- nay, gentleman-like; while the other is a sneaking scoundrel, and as vulgar as his own appellation. No one would think of calling these last masquerading rogues “Indians”; by common consent, even the most particular purist in language terms them “Injins.” “Il y a chapeau et chapeau,” and there are “Indian” and “Injin.”

For there are “Indians” in The Redskins -- in particular one Indian, who has been with the Littlepage story from the very beginning. His name is Susquesus, also known as Trackless, and when Hugh and his uncle first come across him, sunning himself in a clearing with an equally old companion, these are the comments that are offered:

“There are the two old fellows, sunning themselves this fine day!” exclaimed my uncle, with something like tremor in his voice, as we drew near enough to the hut to distinguish objects. “Hugh, I never see these men without a feeling of awe, as well as of affection. They were the friends, and one was the slave of my grandfather; and as long as I can remember, have they been aged men! They seem to be set up here as monuments of the past, to connect the generations that are gone with those that are to come.”

Cooper doesn’t get much more transparent than that. For Susquesus, and his companion, the slave Jaaf, are exactly that. Monuments to the past. And in that guise they serve several important functions. They are not just rocks that stand in the swift-moving stream, they are moral sentinels that stand watch over the changing generations; the unchanging and innate sense of truth and justice that lives at the heart of men.

A central action of the novel is a large sojourn of many Indians, all come to pay homage to the wisdom of the ancient Onondago chief Susquesus, and perhaps to take him back with them to the advancing wilderness. For as Cooper did so expertly in The Leatherstocking Tales, he does here again in The Littlepage Manuscripts. As the white man and his civilization encroaches deeper and deeper into the American continent, the wilderness, and the natural morality that attends it, flees farther and farther west.

Here is how Susquesus begins his much-anticipated speech to the gathered Indians:

“Brethren,” commenced Susquesus, “you are welcome. You have travelled on a long, and crooked, and thorny path, to find an old chief, whose tribe ought ninety summers ago to have looked upon him as among the departed. I am sorry no better sight will meet your eyes at the end of so long a journey. I would make the path back toward the setting sun broader and straighter if I knew how. But I do not know how. I am old. The pine in the woods is scarce older; the villages of the pale-faces, through so many of which you have journeyed, are not half so old; I was born when the white race were like the moose on the hills; here and there one; now they are like the pigeons after they have hatched their young. When I was a boy my young legs could never run out of the woods into a clearing; now, my old legs cannot carry me into the woods, they are so far off. Everything is changed in the land but the redman’s heart. That is like the rock which never alters. My children, you are welcome.”

Are you following that? Everything is changed in the land but the redman’s heart? You have travelled on a long, and crooked, and thorny path? We’re back to the idea of the moral pathfinder, the needle on the compass that responds not to magnetism but to the moral force; and not of man and his civilization, but of the natural world.

Nuther Tomahawk Nor Law

Against this ancient nobility the baseness of the “Injins” are continually shown in sharp relief. But it is not just the natural order that they have violated.

“Colonel, I can’t say that I do rightly understand the state of things down hereaway,” drawled out the interpreter, after yawning like a hound, and giving me the most favorite title of the frontier. “It seems to be neither one thing nor t’other; nuther tomahawk nor law. I can understand both of them, but their half-and-half sort of thing bothers me, and puts me out. You ought to have law, or you had n’t ought; but what you have should be stuck to.”

“You mean that you do not find this part of the country either civilized or savage. Not submitting to the laws, nor yet permitted the natural appeal to force?”

This is a discussion between Hugh Littlepage and a character called Manytongues, an interpreter brought in to help the disputants communicate with each other. And although he can speak all the appropriate languages -- those of the white man, the Injin, and the Indian -- he is unable to determine to which tribe the Injins belong. In their words and actions they have removed themselves both from the laws of man and from the natural order of things. In Hugh’s words, they are neither civilized nor savage. Nuther tomahawk nor law.

And Manytongues’s reaction to this reality is both interesting and predictable. Manytongues is a kind of pathfinder in his own right, used to helping others find their way down the “long, and crooked, and thorny path.” But there is no path to follow here, leaving each man to survive by his own wits and devices.

“There is no court and jury like this, colonel,” slapping the breech of his rifle with energy, “and eastern powder conspired with Galena lead, makes the best of attorneys. I’ve tried both, and speak on sartainty. Law druv’ me out upon the prer-ies, and love for them keeps me there. Down thisaway, you’re neither one thing nor tuther -- law nor rifle; for, if you had law, as law ought to be, you and I would n’t be sitting here, at this time of night, to prevent your mock Injins from setting fire to your house and barns.”

To these sentiments Hugh Littlepage can only accede and, in doing so, summarize the political lesson of the entire novel, which Cooper helpfully places in all caps so as not to miss it.

There was only too much truth in his last position of the straightforward interpreter to be gainsaid. After making some proper allowances for the difficulties of the case, and the unexpected circumstances, no impartial man could deny that the laws had been trifled with, or things never would have reached the pass they had; as Manytongues affirmed, we had neither the protection of the law, nor the use of the rifle. It ought to be written in letters of brass in all the highways and places or resort in the country, that A STATE OF SOCIETY WHICH PRETENDS TO THE PROTECTION THAT BELONGS TO CIVILIZATION, AND FAILS TO GIVE IT, ONLY MAKES THE CONDITION OF THE HONEST PORTION OF THE COMMUNITY SO MUCH THE WORSE, BY DEPRIVING IT OF THE PROTECTION CONFERRED BY NATURE, WITHOUT SUPPLYING THE SUBSTITUTE.

The Excesses of Popular Delusion

And the villains in all of this? They are not the anti-rent Injins themselves. Not according to Cooper. To Cooper, the real villains are the partisan demagogues who have hoisted the Injins onto their anti-rent petards by appealing to their sense of liberty and freedom.

America no longer seemed America to my eyes; but, in place of its ancient submission to the law, its quick distinction between right and wrong, its sober and discriminating liberty, which equally avoided submission to the injustices of power, and the excesses of popular delusion, there had been substituted the rapacity of the plunderer, rendered formidable by the insidious manner in which it was interwoven with political machinery, and the truckling of the wretches intrusted with authority; men who were playing into the hands of demagogues, solely in order to secure majorities to perpetuate their own influence. Was, then, the State really so corrupt as to lend itself to projects as base as those openly maintained by the anti-renters? Far from it: four men out of five, if not a larger proportion, must be, and indeed are, sensible of the ills that their success would entail on the community, and would lift up heart and hand to-morrow to put them down totally and without pity; but they have made themselves slaves of the lamp; have enlisted in the ranks of party, and dare not oppose their leaders, who wield them as Napoleon wielded his masses, to further private views, apostrophizing and affecting an homage to liberty all the while! Such is the history of man!

See what I mean? Is Cooper writing in the 1840s, or the late 2010s?

The Wisdom of the Stranger

But, for me at least, the novel does not end well. Susquesus seems to betray his very nature by ultimately siding not just with the laws of the white men, but with their God. Here he is responding to the requests of the sojourning Indians, who wish him to return with him to the advancing wilderness.

“My sons, the journey you ask me to make is too long for old age. I have lived with the pale-faces until one half of my heart is white; though the other half is red. One half is filled with the traditions of my fathers, the other half is filled with the wisdom of the stranger. I cannot cut my heart in two pieces, I must all go with you, or all stay here. The body must stay with the heart, and both must remain where they have now dwelt so long. I thank you, my children, but what you wish can never come to pass.

“You see a very old man, but you see a very unsettled mind. There are red traditions and pale-face traditions. Both speak of the Great Spirit, but only one speak of his Son. A soft voice has been whispering in my ear, lately, much of the Son of God. Do they speak to you in that way on the prairies? I know not what to think. I wish to think what is right; but it is not easy to understand.”

It is difficult for me to interpret this, as it seems to run counter to the subtext that I have seen throughout this work and many of Cooper’s others. Here is Susquesus, frequently called Trackless through the three Littlepage manuscripts because of his unerring ability to find his way through both environmental and ethical forests, succumbing to a kind of confusion. Apparently, as the soft voice of the white man’s “Son of God” whispers in his ear, he loses his ability to think and to understand.

But not, evidently, to render judgment.

“These men are not warriors,” continued Susquesus [speaking of the anti-rent Injins]. “They hide their faces and they carry rifles, but they frighten none but the squaws and pappooses. When they take a scalp, it is because they are a hundred, and their enemies one. They are not braves. Why do they come at all? What do they want? They want to land of this young chief [referring to Hugh Littlepage]. My children, all the land, far and near, was ours. The pale-faces came with their papers, and made laws and said ‘It is well! We want this land. There is plenty farther west for you redmen. Go there, and hunt, and fish, and plant your corn, and leave us this land.’ Our red brethren did as they were asked to do. The pale-faces had it as they wished. They made laws, and sold the land, as the redmen sell the skins of beavers. When the money was paid, each pale-face got a deed, and thought he owned all that he had paid for. But the wicked spirit that drove out the redman is now about to drive off the pale-face chiefs. It is the same devil, and it is no other. He wanted land then, and he wants land now. There is one difference, and it is this. When the pale-face drove off the redman there was no treaty between them. They had not smoked together, and given wampum, and signed a paper. If they had, it was to agree that redman should go away, and the pale-face stay. When the pale-face drives off the pale-face, there is a treaty; they have smoked together, and given wampum, and signed a paper. This is the difference. Indian will keep his word with Indian; pale-face will not keep his word with pale-face.”

It is fair, in other words, what the white men did to the Indians because they had no treaty or common law between them, but it is unfair what the anti-rent Injins did to the white landowners because they did have a treaty and a common law between them. Is that really the judgment that Susquesus wants to impart to his loyal followers? It certainly isn’t the kind of moral judgment I would expect from a trackless pathfinder -- but maybe that’s the point. Susquesus has lived so long with the white man, and has been so confused both by his laws and his willing contempt of them, that even he can no longer see things clearly.

Perhaps so. With his parting words to his Indian brothers, he appears to both acknowledge this and to try and reclaim his moral compass.

“My children, never forget this. You are not pale-faces, to say one thing and do another. What you say, you do. When you make a law, you keep it. This is right. No redman wants another’s wigwam. If he wants a wigwam, he builds one himself. It is not so with the pale-faces. The man who has no wigwam tries to get away his neighbor’s. While he does this, he reads in his Bible and goes to his church. I have sometimes thought, the more he reads and prays, the more he tries to get into his neighbor’s wigwam. So it seems to an Indian, but it may not be so.”

So it seems to an Indian -- an Indian, I suppose, that is serving not Cooper’s great narrative arc, but the political axe his wishes to grind. For indeed, in the end, Cooper will use this Indian to nail home the theme he began with, namely that liberty, proclaimed loudly and stridently, is often anything but.

“How is it with the pale-faces? They say they are free when the sun rises; they say they are free when the sun is over their heads; they say they are free when the sun goes down behind the hills. They never stop talking of their being their own masters. They talk of that more than they read their Bibles. I have lived near a hundred winters among them, and know what they are. They do that; then they take away another’s wigwam. They talk of liberty; then they say you shall have this farm, you shan’t have that. They talk of liberty, and call to one another to put on calico bags, that fifty men may tar and feather one. They talk of liberty, and want everything their own way.”

Liberty, both Susquesus and Cooper seem to be saying, to the white man, is something he takes a full measure of for himself, but leaves nothing behind for his neighbor.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, April 27, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 35 (DRAFT)

We left our shoes at the bottom of the wooden staircase that led down from the hotel pool deck to the beach. Bethany stood waiting, wiggling her red-painted toenails in the sand as I tucked my socks into my shoes. I even rolled up my pant legs, expecting that we would spend some time walking in the shallow surf. The hem of Bethany’s business skirt, three inches below her knee in full compliance with the company dress code, would certainly pose no problem.

There was a full moon that night, hanging over the ocean like a watching eye, but it didn’t cause me any self-consciousness. I loosened my tie and took off my suit coat, draping it over one shoulder like a GQ model. When our feet first touched the cool water, I reached out a hand and she took it, like it was the most natural thing in the world. We walked on in silence for a long time, not looking at each other and listening to the sounds of the surf.

“Are you still angry?” she asked me.

“Angry? Angry about what?”

“About what Mary did to the staff qualities?”

I looked inside myself and saw that I was still angry—angry that she had taken something so promising, so full of potential, and had turned it into another soul-sucking part of her operation, another cog in the machine that used people as its raw material and churned out only pettiness and perks for the elite. There was the anger, burning hot inside me like a thousand suns, but seeing it there, repressed and bottled as it was, it seemed small and trifling, an indulgence I neither desired nor could afford, and in a moment I let it go, spreading it out over the immensity of the sea and bidding it goodbye like the ashes of an abusive parent.

“No,” I said. “Fuck her.”

I don’t know if Bethany was surprised by my use of language, but I was. I never would have said such a thing back in the office or even at the hotel restaurant. But out there on the beach, it didn’t seem to matter as much. She didn’t sound surprised when she spoke.

“Well, I am,” she said. “We worked really hard on them and we were so close. They could have really changed things, and she torpedoed them. She clearly saw them as a threat to her power.”

“Don’t read too much into it,” I said. “Most of the time Mary acts out of instinct, not out of malicious intent.”

“I don’t care. She’s evil and I hate her. I used to look up to her, used to think I wanted to be like her, but not anymore.”

I looked at her, her hair partially hiding her face in the moonlight.

“Those are some strong words.”

“They’re true. I was a fool, looking up to that woman.”

I looked up the beach. A few dozen yards away was a little shack on wooden stilts, the kind of place where the hotels locked up their beach umbrellas and water jugs for the night. It had a little rickety staircase and a raised wooden platform facing the ocean.

“Let’s go sit down,” I said, tilting my head towards the structure.

We moved away from the waves, our wet feet seeking purchase in the warm sand as we struggled up a small rise. We were still holding hands but released so we could go up the steps single file, Bethany first, then me. I draped my jacket over the splintered railing, and we sat down on the edge of the platform, our legs dangling over the side and our crusty feet rocking back and forth in the breeze. We stared out at the ocean and in the far distance I could see the lights of one of those colossal cruise ships. There were people out there, I knew, thousands of people on that little patch of light, living, laughing, breathing, dying.

“David didn’t want me to come back to work after Parker was born.”

I didn’t know if this was related to our earlier conversation about Mary, but I didn’t question her. She began to remove her short business jacket and I helped her, her movements comprised of hooked elbows and stooped shoulders in the confined space, and as it came off I saw the thin stripe of perspiration down the back of her blouse.

“I thought he was trying to control me, to turn me into his mother.”

She stopped suddenly, as if she had much more to say, an avalanche of confessions, but stopped short, her toes on the edge of a precipice.

She looked at me.

“What?” I said.

Her eyes seemed more open than I had ever seen them before, pools large enough for me to drown in if I chose to do so, but her brow was furrowed, and her oddly-shaped nose wrinkled in concern.

“Bethany,” I said, taking her hand again. “What is it?”

She looked down at my hand, patted it softly, and then drew hers away. When she spoke she kept her face down, and her voice was resigned.

“I actually talked to that woman about it. Went to her and sought her advice.”

“Who?” I asked. “Mary?!”

“Yes, Mary,” she said bitterly, looking up but out at the ocean instead of at me. I sat quietly and watched the reflected moonlight dance across her face.

“Oh, I can’t believe how stupid I was!” she said, as if purging some dark secret. “Look at her, I told myself. She’s got two kids and she’s running this business. She’s a successful career woman with a family and an obedient husband, and that’s just what I want to be. She’ll help me. She’ll help me make this thing work.”

Mary’s husband Dan ran his own engineering consulting business out of their home in the northern suburbs. I didn’t know what Bethany meant by obedient, but I kept my mouth shut. Now that she got started, I knew, she wouldn’t want to be interrupted.

“But did she help me? No. Not one little bit. She made me feel like a fool, that’s what she did, made me feel like a child who couldn’t make up her mind when the truth was so obvious to grown-up women like her. I asked for some time on her calendar, told her I wanted her advice on a personal matter, but when I went to her office and shut the door it was like I was interrupting her or something.”

I could imagine. Especially given the subject matter. Mary had only one expectation when it came to female employees deciding to have babies. Given how many young women we had on staff and how many times it happened, it was shocking that no one had taken Bethany aside and counseled her. I was a man, but even I knew that Ruthie usually cautioned anyone Mary wanted to keep on how to handle the situation. The fact that she hadn’t made me wonder how long Bethany would be with the organization.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you? That’s what she said to me—first words out of her mouth—like I was about to break water all over her Persian rug. I wasn’t even showing yet, and that’s what she says to me, as if the very thought made her ill. Ugh, you filthy cow, you’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

Bethany was crying now, not sobbing, but the tears were rolling down her face. I thought about rubbing her back, but kept my hands to myself.

“She called you that?”

“No,” she said, wiping a tear away with her finger while looking high into the sky, careful not to muss her mascara. “But she might as well have. The derision was certainly there in her voice.”

“What did you do?” Now that I had asked one question, the second was easier.

“Nothing, at first. I had gone there for advice, but being met with such hostility, I didn’t know what to do. Her next question took me just as much by surprise. You’re not going to stay home with it, are you? That’s what she said. It. Like it was a lizard or something growing inside me.”

“Well, even you didn’t know the baby’s gender at that point, did you?”

“Oh Christ, Alan, that’s not the point. You don’t call a baby an it. Even before she knows what the gender is, or if she decides not to find out, you never tell a pregnant woman she’s carrying an it. A baby isn’t an it. How can she not know that? She’s got two kids of her own and she doesn’t even know that?”

Bethany was crying again and now she slumped forward as if defeated. This time I did put a soft hand on her back, more fingertips than anything else, and traced gentle trails over the ridge of her shoulder blade.

She gave no outward sign of objecting to the touch of my hand. Lifting her head she stared out at the ocean, shaking her head dismissively. When she spoke it was as if she had firmly decided to stop crying.

“You know what makes me the most upset?”

I think the question was meant to be rhetorical, but in the pause that followed my cell phone rang, its shrill ring pulsing out into the night air. I took my hand off her back to fish the thing out of my pocket. Holding it up to see who was calling, the phone ringing even more loudly, Bethany became a fuzzy image in my far vision as I focused on the tiny screen.

It was Jenny.

I let it ring again, my mind empty apart from wondering why I had chosen such an annoying ringtone, and then looked past the phone and into Bethany’s wet eyes.

“Who is it?” she asked quietly.

“It’s my wife.”


“Do you want to answer it?”

No. “I probably should.”


“Go ahead,” she said, sighing, but not without understanding. “I’ll wait.”

I focused on the phone again, the digits of my home telephone number glowing back at me in the night air.


+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, April 20, 2020

Robert’s Rules of Order by Henry M. Robert

This short work is commonly known as “the classic manual of parliamentary procedure.” And if my experience is in any way typical, it is casually referenced far more frequently than its principles and procedures are rigorously applied.

As the blurb on the front flap describes:

Even groups which have their own constitutions or bylaws frequently state that procedures not covered therein shall be governed by Robert’s Rules. One might not be able to identify General Henry M. Robert, but almost everyone knows that Robert’s Rules is a standard manual outlining the conduct of meetings.

Something that surprised me is what that outline actually looks like. Here’s one I found on the Internet that’s very similar to the one reproduced in my copy of Robert’s Rules:

Got that? Ready to chair your first session, guv’ner?

Much more useful that this chart and the encyclopedic description of each line that follows is the few places where the General offers some practical wisdom for anyone seemingly foolish enough to go down this road of managing his parliamentary procedure.

The chairman should not only be familiar with parliamentary usage, and set the example of strict conformity thereto, but he should be a man of executive ability, capable of controlling men; and it should never be forgotten, that, to control others, it is necessary to control one’s self. An excited chairman can scarcely fail to cause trouble in a meeting.

Anachronistic with regard to gender, sure, but as important today as it was in 1905. Anyone who has spent any time in association board meetings has undoubtedly seen the contrasting results affected by chairs who meet with Robert's admonition and those who do not.

But there's more:

A chairman should not permit the object of a meeting to be defeated by a few factious persons using parliamentary forms with the evident object of obstructing business. In such a case he should refuse to entertain the dilatory motion, and, if an appeal is taken, he should entertain it, and, if sustained by a large majority, he can afterwards refuse to entertain even an appeal made by the faction, while they are continuing their obstruction. But the chair should never adopt such a course merely to expedite business, when the opposition is not factions. It is only justifiable when it is perfectly clear that the opposition is trying to obstruct business.

Another pervasive problem even today -- factions using the very forms of parliamentary procedure to bend an assembly to its will rather than to its own. Chairs should have none of it, and must be able to master those factions at their own game when needed.

Some final advice from the General:

A chairman will often find himself perplexed with the difficulties attending his position, and in such cases he will do well to heed the advice of a distinguished writer on parliamentary law, and recollect that

“The great purpose of all rules and forms is to subserve the will of the assembly rather than to restrain it; to facilitate, and not to obstruct, the expression of their deliberate sense.”

That seems far more useful to me that the entire Table of Rules. Err you might, but never do so in support of obstruction; only in your efforts to quell it and to allow the will of the assembly to sensibly take form.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, April 13, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 34 (DRAFT)

After all the work was done and we had thanked and dismissed the staff for the night, Bethany and I went and grabbed a bite to eat. We didn’t go out like we knew a few of the younger staff were—Jeff and Caroline among them—but stayed at the hotel and got a table on the terrace overlooking the ocean. It was close to ten P.M., and we could see the lights of the hotels and condos up and down the beach and the moon and stars in the sky above, but the ocean was a dark and invisible mass, the sounds of the waves rolling forward but only their foamy crests visible in the moonlight. It was late and we were ready to unwind. We ordered a couple of tropical mai tais—a drink for tourists for sure, with goofy little umbrellas and giant wedges of pineapple—the appetizer sampler, and an entree salad to share.

We talked about work for a while, things we had done and had yet to do to prepare for the conference. When there was a lull, and after the waiter brought us our second round of drinks, Bethany changed the subject.

“So how’d it go at the board meeting today?”

The board meeting? I remember thinking distantly to myself. Had I been to a board meeting that day?


“The board meeting,” Bethany repeated, as if speaking to a moron. “Didn’t you give your report to the board earlier today?”

“Yes,” I said, deciding I had, and confirming it both for her and for myself. “Yes, I did.”

Bethany waited for me to go on. “Well...? How’d it go?”

“Fine,” I said slowly, my brain waking up, and realizing it was uncertain about how much I should share. “It went fine.”

“I hope they realize how much work we’ve put into organizing this conference,” she said pointedly. “You most of all.”

“Mmm mmm,” I said noncommittally, moving the umbrella out of the way and taking a slurp of my mai tai.

“What does that mean? Do they know how hard it’s been or not?”

“Not really,” I said easily, putting my glass down. “They seemed more interested in the bottom line. How many people we had attending. How much money we were likely to make. Stuff like that.”

“Well, that sucks,” she said, taking her own drink and rattling the ice in the bottom of the glass. “With Susan and Michael gone, you’ve bent over backwards to keep this stupid thing on track. We all have. Seems like that should at least be recognized.”

I shrugged, a little surprised by her tone, but not upset about it. There was more I could’ve said, and maybe that’s what she was fishing for. There was Paul’s question about being short-staffed and the lie Mary had made me tell, but I knew better than to share details like that with her. What happened at the board table stayed at the board table. It was a rule that didn’t have to be written down. It was partly the mystique Mary wanted to create about what happened behind that closed door, but it was also an important survival strategy. Having reached a position where I was now invited to attend board meetings, it would be suicide to start telling tales out of school.

“I’m sorry,” Bethany said, probably realizing she sounded more bitter than she wanted to.

I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it,” I said with compassion, and then with stoic resignation, “Ours is not to reason why.”

Bethany smiled, but not in a knowing way, and I wondered what she would think about the second line of that couplet.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said, reaching again for the mai tai.

“Did Mary try to sabotage you?”

She startled me with the question, her lips still smiling, but her voice dripping with venom. It seemed both to come out of left field and to be strangely prescient.

I put the glass down without taking a sip. “What?”

“Mary,” she said slowly. “Did she sabotage you? Did she undercut you and try to make you look foolish in front of the board?”

I looked around at the handful of other patrons on the terrace. I didn’t recognize any of them but, for all I knew, they were all people attending our conference.

“Because that’s what she does. She’s a jackal. She sets people up to fail. You of all people must know that.”

“Bethany,” I said. “This isn’t a conversation we should have here.”

She sat there smugly, her arms crossed across under her breasts, not caring, challenging me to contradict her, here and now, to try and prove her wrong. Her nostrils flared while a sea breeze came in and lifted her dark hair off her shoulders.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said suddenly, surprising myself as much as her.

“A walk?”

“Sure. A walk on the beach. Do you want to? It’s a beautiful night, and with the week we have ahead of us, it might be the last chance we get.” I paused, meeting her eyes without fear. “And we can talk more freely out there.”

“Okay, sure,” she said, now with comprehension. “That would be nice.”

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer

The Third Reich which was born on January 30, 1933, Hitler boasted, would endure for a thousand years, and in Nazi parlance it was often referred to as the “Thousand-Year Reich.” It lasted twelve years and four months, but in that flicker of time, as history goes, it caused an eruption on this earth more violent and shattering than any previously experienced, raising the German people to heights of power they had not known in more than a millennium, making them at one time the masters of Europe from the Atlantic to the Volga, from the North Cape to the Mediterranean, and then plunging them to the depths of destruction and desolation at the end of a world war which their nation had cold-bloodedly provoked and during which it instituted a reign of terror over the conquered peoples which, in its calculated butchery of human life and the human spirit, outdid all the savage oppressions of the previous ages.

That is a tight summary of Shirer’s thousand-page masterpiece. In commenting on it I fear I can only scratch the surface. It is one of those books, I think, that every thinking person should read. Here are some of the reactions I had to it.

The Rise

One of the best parts of the book is the description of how Hitler’s Nazi party came to power in Germany in the first place. There were several key factors that are often overlooked by casual history. The first is that the very institutions that comprised German society were either broken or, as is the case with the German Army, not subservient to the democratic government.

As a state within a state [the German Army] maintained its independence of the national government. Under the Weimar Constitution the Army could have been subordinated to the cabinet and Parliament, as the military establishments of the other Western democracies were. But it was not. Nor was the officer corps purged of its monarchist, antirepublican frame of mind. A few Socialist leaders such as Scheidemann and Grzesinski urged “democratizing” the armed forces. They saw the danger of handing the Army back to the officers of the old authoritarian, imperialist tradition. But they were successfully opposed not only by the generals but by their fellow Socialists, led by the Minister of Defense, Noske. This proletarian minister of the Republic openly boasted that we wanted to revive “the proud soldier memories of the World War.” The failure of the duly elected government to build a new Army that would be faithful to its own democratic spirit and subordinate to the cabinet and the Reichstag was a fatal mistake for the Republic, as time would tell.

And the Army was not the only institution that was improperly aligned with Germany’s attempt at republican democracy in the years after the disastrous First World War.

There was the judiciary:

The administrators of the law became one of the centers of the counterrevolution, perverting justice for reactionary political ends. “It is impossible to escape the conclusion,” the historian Franz L. Neumann declared, “that political justice is the blackest page in the life of the German Republic.” After the Kapp putsch in 1920 the government charged 705 persons with high treason; only one, the police president of Berlin, received a sentence -- five years of “honorary confinement.” When the state of Prussia withdrew his pension the Supreme Court ordered it restored. A German court in December 1926 awarded General von Luettwitz, the military leader of the Kapp putsch, back payment of his pension to cover the period when he was a rebel against the government and also the five years that he was a fugitive from justice in Hungary.

Yet hundreds of German liberals were sentenced to long prison terms on charges of treason because they revealed or denounced in the press or by speech the Army’s constant violations of the Versailles Treaty. The treason laws were ruthlessly applied to the supporters of the Republic; those on the Right who tried to overthrow it, as Adolf Hitler was soon to learn, got off either free or with the lightest of sentences. Even the assassins, if they were of the Right and their victims democrats, were leniently treated by the courts or, as often happened, helped to escape from the custody of the courts by Army officers and right-wing extremists.

Wait. Let’s take a pause there. Imagine that. Revolutionaries assassinate government officials, and the courts, because they are sympathetic to the militaristic and authoritarian impulses that inspired the assassins, only slap them on the wrist. Too frequently, I think, modern Americans accuse one side or the other in a political dispute of being Nazis, or of seeking to bring about a new “Nazi Germany” in our country. Conditions like this one with the German courts show, I think, how unrealistic some of those screeds are.

And speaking of that, there was also the currency:

The [German] mark, as we have seen, had begun to slide in 1921, when it dropped to 75 to the dollar; the next year it fell to 400 and by the beginning of 1923 to 7,000. Already in the fall of 1922 the German government had asked the Allies to grant a moratorium on reparation payments [forced on them by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War]. This the French government of Poincare had bluntly refused. When Germany defaulted in deliveries of timber, the hardheaded French Premier, who had been the wartime President of France, ordered French troops to occupy the Ruhr. The industrial heart of Germany, which, after the loss of Upper Silesia to Poland, furnished the Reich with four fifths of its coal and steel production, was cut off from the rest of the country.

This paralyzing blow to Germany’s economy united the people momentarily as they had not been united since 1914. The workers of the Ruhr declared a general strike and received financial support from the government in Berlin, which called for a campaign of passive resistance. With the help of the Army, sabotage and guerrilla warfare were organized. The French countered with arrests, deportations and even death sentences. But not a wheel in the Ruhr turned.

The strangulation of Germany’s economy hastened the final plunge of the mark. On the occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923, it fell to 18,000 to the dollar; by July 1 it had dropped to 160,000; by August 1 to a million. By November, when Hitler thought his hour had struck, it took four billion marks to buy a dollar, and thereafter the figures became trillions. German currency had become utterly worthless. Purchasing power of salaries and wages was reduced to zero. The life savings of the middle classes and the working classes were wiped out. But something even more important was destroyed: the faith of the people in the economic structure of German society. What good were the standards and practices of such a society, which encouraged savings and investment and solemnly promised a safe return from them and then defaulted? Was this not a fraud upon the people?

This default, and this loss of confidence, would ultimately have a fatal impact on the German republic.

And was not the democratic Republic, which had surrendered to the enemy and accepted the burden of reparations, to blame for the disaster? Unfortunately for its survival, the Republic did bear a responsibility. The inflation could have been halted by merely balancing the budget -- a difficult but not impossible feat. Adequate taxation might have achieved this, but the new government did not dare to tax adequately. After all, the cost of the war -- 164 billion marks -- had been met not even in part by direct taxation but 93 billions of it by war loans, 29 billions out of Treasury bills and the rest by increasing the issue of paper money. Instead of drastically raising taxes on those who could pay, the republican government actually reduced them in 1921.

From then on, goaded by the big industrialists and landlords, who stood to gain though the masses of the people were financially ruined, the government deliberately let the mark tumble in order to free the State of its public debts, to escape from paying reparations and to sabotage the French in the Ruhr. Moreover, the destruction of the currency enabled German heavy industry to wipe out its indebtedness by refunding its obligations in worthless marks. The General Staff, disguised as the “Truppenamt” (Office of Troops) to evade the peace treaty which supposedly had outlawed it, took notice that the fall of the mark wiped out the war debts and thus left Germany financially unencumbered for a new war.

The masses of the people, however, did not realize how much the industrial tycoons, the Army and the State were benefitting from the ruin of the currency. All they knew was that a large bank account could not buy a straggly bunch of carrots, a half peck of potatoes, a few ounces of sugar, a pound of flour. They knew that as individuals they were bankrupt. And they knew hunger when it gnawed at them, as it did daily. In their misery and hopelessness they made the Republic the scapegoat for all that had happened.

This is all before Hitler. He would make use of this situation and these realities in order to orchestrate his rise to power, but the staircase that he would ascend had been built long before he arrived on the scene and, frankly, by people who should have known better. Let the following words sink it. Industrial tycoons, the Army, and the State, conspiring against the people to purposely ruin their currency. No wonder Germany had such a historical inheritance of intolerance and mistrust.

To the lack of political and dynastic unity was added, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the disaster of religious differences which followed the Reformation. There is not space in this book to recount adequately the immense influence of Martin Luther, the Saxon peasant who became an Augustinian monk that launched the German Reformation, had on Germans and their subsequent history. But it many be said, in passing, that this towering but erratic genius, this savage anti-Semite and hater of Rome, who combined in his tempestuous character so many of the best and worst qualities of the German -- the coarseness, the boisterousness, the fanaticism, the intolerance, the violence, but also the honesty, the simplicity, the self-scrutiny, the passion for learning and for music and for poetry and for righteousness in the eyes of God, left a mark on the life of the Germans, for both good and bad, more indelible, more fateful, than was wrought by any other single individual before or since. Through his sermons and his magnificent translation of the Bible, Luther created the modern German language, aroused in the people not only a new Protestant vision of Christianity but a fervent German nationalism and taught them, at least in religion, the supremacy of the individual conscience. But tragically for them, Luther’s siding with the princes in the peasant risings, which he had largely inspired, and his passion for political autocracy ensured a mindless and provincial political absolutism which reduced the vast majority of the German people to poverty, to a horrible torpor and a demeaning subservience. Even worse perhaps, it helped to perpetuate and indeed sharpen the hopeless divisions not only between classes but also between the various dynastic and political groupings of the German people. It doomed for centuries the possibility of the unification of Germany.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on Shirer’s prose above. Its dense in many ways, but beautiful in so many more. There’s a lot packed into every paragraph (the one just quoted demonstrating Shirer’s deep understanding of German culture and its underpinnings), but I suppose that’s what makes this book so worth reading (and perhaps re-reading).

But back to this strange and complex situation -- a failing democracy, undermined from within by the very institutions meant to defend it, all operating in a historical milieu of militant and self-styled religious and political division -- was broken any way you look at it. And into this comes the second factor behind the Nazi’s rise to power, often overlooked by casual history. It is a kind of one-two punch of the failures of democracy. First up, factions.

No class or group or party in Germany could escape its share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler. The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it. At the crest of their popular strength, in July 1932, the National Socialists had attained but 37 per cent of the vote. But the 63 per cent of the German people who expressed their opposition to Hitler were much too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger which they must have known would overwhelm them unless they united, however temporarily, to stamp it out.

There were too many political parties in the German Republic, each vying with all the others for a slightly larger small piece of the overall pie. The differences between them were esoteric, but bitterly defended and fought. One case in point, the Communists.

The Communists, at the behest of Moscow, were committed to the last to the silly idea of first destroying the Social Democrats, the Socialist trade unions and what middle-class democratic forces there were, on the dubious theory that although this would lead to a Nazi regime it would be only temporary and would bring inevitably the collapse of capitalism, after which the Communists would take over and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Fascism, in the Bolshevik Marxist view, represented the last stage of a dying capitalism; after that, the Communist deluge!

In such an environment dozens of ministers, each representing a faction barely eking into double digit support, can literally be a step or two away from ultimate power. Constitutional separation of powers become opaque, or, as the second punch demonstrates, dismissed entirely.

Adolf Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, one of the three balancing positions of power in the German Republic -- the other two being the office of the President (a kind of sovereign for the country, made manifest in the person of Paul von Hindenburg) and the Reichstag (the true legislative branch, what Americans would call the Congress). From that position, Hitler was able to get the Reichstag to pass an emergency powers act, in which the Chancellor and his cabinet would be given exclusive legislative powers for a period of four years. The dismal state of the German Republic demanded it, more than just Hitler argued. The Reichstag was too divided and too factionalized to respond with firmness and alacrity to the multiple emergencies facing the nation. It was a bold gambit, but it made some sense in the moment that existed, and the act was passed by a vote of 441 to 84.

Thus was parliamentary democracy finally interred in Germany. Except for the arrests of the Communists and some of the Social Democratic deputies, it was all done quite legally, though accompanied by terror. Parliament had turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide, though its body lingered on in an embalmed state to the very end of the Third Reich, serving infrequently as a sounding board from some of Hitler’s thunderous pronunciamentos, its members henceforth hand-picked by the Nazi Party, for there were to be no more real elections. It was this Enabling Act alone which formed the legal basis for Hitler’s dictatorship. From March 23, 1933, on, Hitler was the dictator of the Reich, freed of any restraint by Parliament or, for all practical purposes, by the weary old President.

And, initially -- at least to a German people who had so long suffered under broken institutions and a forced inferiority in the community of nations -- that seemed like it might have actually been a good idea.

When Hitler addressed the Reichstag on January 30, 1934, he could look back on a year of achievement without parallel in German history. Within twelve months he had overthrown the Weimar Republic, substituted his personal dictatorship for its democracy, destroyed all the political parties but his own, smashed the state governments and the parliaments and unified and defederalized the Reich, wiped out the labor unions, stamped out democratic associations of any kind, driven the Jews out of public and professional life, abolished freedom of speech and of the press, stifled the independence of the courts and “co-ordinated” under Nazi rule the political, economic, cultural and social life of an ancient and cultivated people. For all these accomplishments and for his resolute action in foreign affairs, which took Germany out of the concert of nations at Geneva, and proclaimed German insistence on being treated as an equal among the great powers, he was backed, as the autumn plebiscite and election had shown, by the overwhelming majority of the German people.

That’s how the Nazis came to power and how they solidified their support and loyalty from the German people. And most of it, according to the jurisprudence of the day, was done legally. Throughout everything that was to come, Hitler maintained at least the appearance of constitutional legality.

Though the Weimar Republic was destroyed, the Weimar Constitution was never formally abrogated by Hitler. Indeed -- and ironically -- Hitler based the “legality” of his rule on the despised republican constitution. Thus thousands of decreed laws -- there were no others in the Third Reich -- were explicitly based on the emergency presidential decree of February 28, 1933, for the Protection of the People and the State, which Hindenburg, under Article 48 of the constitution, had signed. It will be remembered that the aged President was bamboozled into signing the decree the day after the Reichstag fire when Hitler assured him that there was grave danger of a Communist revolution. The decree, which suspended all civil rights, remained in force throughout the time of the Third Reich, enabling the Fuehrer to rule by a sort of continual martial law.

The Enabling Act, too, which the Reichstag had voted on March 24, 1933, and by which it handed over its legislative functions to the Nazi government, was the second pillar in the “constitutionality” of Hitler’s rule. Each four years thereafter it was dutifully prolonged for another four-year period by a rubber-stamp Reichstag, for it never occurred to the dictator to abolish this once democratic institution but only to make it nondemocratic. It met only a dozen times up to the war, “enacted” only four laws, held no debates or votes and never heard any speeches expect those made by Hitler.

Life in the Third Reich

One of the most compelling sections of Shirer’s book is the chapter he titled “Life in the Third Reich: 1933-37.”

What the Hitler government envisioned for Germany was clearly set out in a thirty-point program for the “National Reich Church” … A few of its thirty articles convey the essentials:

1. The National Reich Church of Germany categorically claims the exclusive right and the exclusive power to control all churches within the borders of the Reich: it declares these to be national churches of the German Reich.

5. The National Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably … the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.

7. The National Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests, but National Reich orators are to speak in them.

13. The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany …

14. The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Fuehrer’s Mein Kampf is the greatest of all documents. It … not only contains the greatest but it embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and future of our nation.

18. The National Church will clear away from its altars all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.

19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf (to the German nation and to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.

30. On the day of its foundation, the Christain Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels … and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.

I’ve heard a lot of people debate whether Hitler was a Christian or an atheist, and I can see why some might use the above to argue for the side that he was a non-believer. But the more striking point to me is that while Hitler may not have thought of himself as a Christian, he evidently thought of himself as a God.

The emphasis on Mein Kampf is especially noteworthy. Because another amazing thing about Adolf Hitler -- he never hid what his real plan for Germany was. Indeed, he wrote it all down in his magnum opus.

Not every German who bought a copy of Mein Kampf necessarily read it. I have heard many a Nazi stalwart complain that it was hard going and not a few admit -- in private -- that they were never able to get through to the end of its 782 turgid pages. But it might be argued that had more non-Nazi Germans read it before 1933 and had the foreign statesmen of the world perused it carefully while there still was time, both Germany and the world might have been saved from catastrophe. For whatever other accusations can be made against Adolf Hitler, no one can accuse him of not putting down in writing exactly the kind of Germany he intended to make if he ever came to power and the kind of world he meant to create by armed German conquest. The blueprint of the Third Reich and, what is more, of the barbaric New Order which Hitler inflicted on conquered Europe in the triumphant years between 1939 and 1945 is set down in all its appalling crudity at great length and in detail between the covers of this revealing book.

But the larger point is how much life in Germany became the ideology of the Nazi Party an its unconquerable leader, Adolf Hitler. As reflected in the above excerpt about the churches, the dogma of the party took over every aspect of life in Germany -- the press, the work setting, the family unit, the social structure and gathering. Under such a relentless reordering of reality, even foreign journalists like Shirer found himself questioning himself.

I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a cafe, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.

I don’t normally like to do this, and I’m not saying that I’m living in a totalitarian state, but the last half of that excerpt could just as easily be said in some sections of 2010s America as it was of 1930s Germany.


What follows, of course, is war. In the next several hundred pages Shirer does historian’s work in describing and documenting every significant action of Hitler and his Nazi government, both diplomatic and militaristic. Things follow a regular pattern. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland -- it starts with Hitler expressing concern for the German populations living inside these strange borders, many of them created in the haste and ill-thought that accompanied the end of what is not yet called the First World War. All ethnic Germans, he will claim belong to and are under the protection of the German Reich, regardless of where they live. And then, after propagandizing oppression and atrocities committed against these ethnic German by these foreign governments, Nazi troops march in to rescue and protect them. And, of course, the Nazi troops don’t leave. Instead, they topple governments and absorb the now undisputed territory officially into the German Reich.

But throughout Shirer’s meticulous description of these events something is missing. Given his reliance on the official records and newspaper reports of these times, the madness that must have already been consuming Adolf Hitler is entirely missing from this part of the narrative. Political and military maneuvers, after all, can seem entirely logical and appropriate once one accepts the premise under which they are driven. And, of course, Hitler’s premise -- that ethnic Germans were being oppressed by the illegitimate governments under which they lived -- was no more true that the “fact” that Mein Kampf was the most sacred book to God and to the German nation.


And, eventually, madness is what many in the Nazi military would come to understand actually drove their Fuehrer. As he pushed harder and harder for new conquests -- over Denmark, Norway, France, Britain, even, eventually, his ally Russia -- the military commanders would push back, would object, and slowly, one by one, be removed or eliminated by the madman who held absolute power over them and their nation.

The former Vienna vagabond and ex-corporal was now head of state, Minister of War, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Commander in Chief of the Army. The generals, as [General Franz] Halder complained -- in his diary -- were now merely postmen purveying Hitler’s orders based on Hitler’s singular conception of strategy.

This is what happens, I joked in the margin next to that paragraph, when you’re a leader that can’t work with people. They disappoint you. You replace them. Their replacement disappoints you. You replace them. The second replacement disappoints you. Eventually, you stop replacing people and just take on the jobs yourself, thinking it’s the only way for things to get done correctly, and not realizing that the problem isn’t them, it’s you.

We can make jokes about that, but in the case of Adolf Hitler, it’s not funny in the slightest.

Actually the megalomaniacal dictator would soon make himself something even greater, legalizing a power never before held by any man -- emperor, king or president -- in the experience of the German Reichs. On April 26, 1942, he had his rubber-stamp Reichstag pass a law which gave him absolute power of life and death over every German and simply suspended any laws which might stand in the way of this. The words of the law have to be read to be believed.

“...In the present war, in which the German people are faced with a struggle for their existence or their annihilation, the Fuehrer must have all the rights postulated by him which serve to further or achieve victory. Therefore -- without being bound by existing legal regulations -- in his capacity as Leader of the nation, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Head of Government and supreme executive chief, as Supreme Justice and Leader of the Party -- the Fuehrer must be in a position to force with all means at his disposal every German, if necessary, whether he be common soldier or officer, low or high official or judge, leading or subordinate official of the party, worker or employer -- to fulfill his duties. In case of violation of these duties, the Fuehrer is entitled after conscientious examination, regardless of so-called well-deserved rights, to mete out due punishment and to remove the offender from his post, rank and position without introducing prescribed procedures.”

Truly Adolf Hitler had become not only the Leader of Germany but the Law. Not even in medieval times nor further back in the barbarous tribal days had any German arrogated such tyrannical power, nominal and legal as well as actual, to himself.

That’s right. If you people won’t follow my orders, I’ll have the right and power to kill you. That’s how much of a genius I am!

And, very interesting, as Hitler chewed through the generals as World War II was coming to its close, his perspective on what was needed in such tough military times could be excellently summed up in this excerpt taken from that same diary of General Franz Halder.

Later the Chief of the General Staff, whose own days at his post were now numbered, would come back to this scene and write:

“Hitler’s decisions had ceased to have anything in common with the principles of strategy and operations as they have been recognized for generations past. They were the product of a violent nature following its momentary impulses, which recognized no limits to possibility and which made its wish-dreams the father of its acts…”

As to what he called the Supreme Commander’s “pathological overestimation of his own strength and criminal underestimation of the enemy’s,” Halder later told a story:

“Once when a quite objective report was read to him showing that still in 1942 Stalin would be able to muster from one to one and a quarter million fresh troops in the region north of Stalingrad and west of the Volga, not to mention half a million men in the Caucasus, and which provided proof that Russian output of front-line tanks amounted to at least 1,200 a month, Hitler flew at the man who was reading with clenched fists and foam in the corners of his mouth and forbade him to read any more of such idiotic twaddle.”

“You didn’t have to have the gift of a prophet,” says Halder, “to foresee what would happen when Stalin unleashed those million and a half troops against Stalingrad and the Don flank. I pointed this out to Hitler very clearly. The result was the dismissal of the Chief of the Army General Staff.”

This took place on September 24. Already on the ninth, upon being told by Keitel that Field Marshal List, who had the overall command of the armies in the Caucasus, had been sacked, Halder learned that he would be the next to go. The Fuehrer, he was told, had become convinced that he “was no longer equal to the psychic demands of his position.” Hitler explained this is greater detail to his General Staff Chief at the farewell meeting on the twenty-fourth.

“You and I have been suffering from nerves. Half of my nervous exhaustion is due to you. It is not worth it to go on. We need National Socialist ardor now, not professional ability. I cannot expect this of an officer of the old school such as you.”

“So spoke,” Halder commented later, “not a responsible warlord but a political fanatic.”

Indeed. We need National Socialist ardor now, not professional ability. That, in essence, is all you need to know about both the rise and fall of the Third Reich.


Want more proof? Read this.

On the morning of January 8, 1943, three young Red Army officers, bearing a white flag, entered the German lines on the northern perimeter of Stalingrad and presented General Paulus with an ultimatum from General Rokossovski, commander of the Soviet forces on the Don front. After reminding him that his army was cut off and could not be relieved or kept supplied from the air, the note said:

“The situation of your troops is desperate. They are suffering from hunger, sickness and cold. The cruel Russian winter has scarcely yet begun. Hard frosts, cold winds and blizzards still lie ahead. Your soldiers are unprovided with winter clothing and are living in appalling sanitary conditions … Your situation is hopeless, and any further resistance senseless.

“In view of [this] and in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, we propose that you accept the following terms of surrender…

Not unlike the note Grant sent Lee at Appomattox.

They were honorable terms. All prisoners would be given “normal rations.” The wounded, sick and frostbitten would receive medical treatment. All prisoners could retain their badges of rank, decorations and personal belongings. Paulus was given twenty-four hours to reply.

And not unlike the terms Grant offered. Could the officers, I wonder, keep their horses? How would Paulus respond?

He immediately radioed the text of the ultimatum to Hitler and asked for freedom of action. His request was curtly dismissed by the Supreme warlord. Twenty-four hours after the expiration of the time limit on the demand for surrender, on the morning of January 10, the Russians opened the last phase of the Battle of Stalingrad with an artillery bombardment from five thousand guns.

The fighting was bitter and bloody. Both sides fought with incredible bravery and recklessness over the frozen wasteland of the city’s rubble -- but not for long. Within six days the German pocket had been reduced by half, to an area fifteen miles long and nine miles deep at its widest. By January 24 it had been split in two and the last small emergency airstrip lost. The planes which had brought in some supplies, especially medicines for the sick and wounded, and which had flown out 29,000 hospital cases, could no longer land.

Once more the Russians gave their courageous enemy a chance to surrender. Soviet emissaries arrived at the German lines on January 24 with a new offer. Again Paulus, torn between his duty to obey the mad Fuehrer and his obligation to save his own surviving troops from annihilation, appealed to Hitler.

“Troops without ammunition,” he radioed on the twenty-fourth, “or food … Effective command no longer possible … 18,000 wounded without any supplies or dressings or drugs … Further defense senseless. Collapse inevitable. Army requests immediate permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops.”

Hitler’s answer has been preserved.

“Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution toward the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.”

It’s an interesting line for a commander to contemplate. To ask men to do more than what the men themselves think they can do. Lee did it, most notably, and most tragically, on the third day at Gettysburg. But Lee had something by this time Hitler did not. The love of his men.

The Western world! It was a bitter pill for the men of the Sixth Army who had fought against that world in France and Flanders but a short time ago.

Further resistance was not only senseless and futile but impossible, and as the month of January 1943 approached its end the epic battle wore itself out, expiring like the flame of an expended candle which sputters and dies. By January 28 what was left of a once great army was split into three small pockets, in the southern one of which General Paulus had his headquarters in the cellar of the ruins of the once thriving Univermag department store. According to one eyewitness the commander in chief sat on his camp bed in a darkened corner in a state of near collapse.

He was scarcely in the mood, nor were his soldiers, to appreciate the flood of congratulatory radiograms that now began to pour in. Goering, who had whiled away a good part of the winter in sunny Italy, strutting about in his great fur coat and fingering his jewels, sent a radio message on January 28.

“The fight put up by the Sixth Army will go down in history, and future generations will speak proudly of a Langemarck of daredeviltry, and Alcazar of tenacity, a Narvik of courage and a Stalingrad of self-sacrifice.”

Nor were they cheered when on the last evening, January 30, 1943, the tenth anniversary of the Nazis’ coming to power, they listened to the fat Reich Marshal’s bombastic broadcast.

“A thousand years hence Germans will speak of this battle [of Stalingrad] with reverence and awe, and will remember that in spite of everything Germany’s ultimate victory was decided there … In years to come it will be said of the heroic battle on the Volga: When you come to Germany, say that you have seen us lying at Stalingrad, as our honor and our leaders ordained that we should, for the greater glory of Germany.”

The glory and the horrible agony of the Sixth Army had now come to an end. On January 30, Paulus radioed Hitler: “Final collapse cannot be delayed more than twenty-four hours.”

This signal prompted the Supreme Commander to shower a series of promotions on the doomed officers in Stalingrad, apparently in the hope that such honors would strengthen their resolve to die gloriously at their bloody posts. “There is no record in military history of a German Field Marshal being taken prisoner,” Hitler remarked to Jodl, and thereupon conferred on Paulus, by radio, the coveted marshal’s baton. Some 117 other officers were jumped up a grade. It was a macabre gesture.

The end itself was anticlimactic. Late on the last day of January, Paulus got off his final message to headquarters.

“The Sixth Army, true to their oath and conscious of the lofty importance of their mission, have held their position to the last man and the last round for the Fuehrer and Fatherland unto the end.”

A curiously-worded message. Given how demoralized and near collapse Paulus was, one might believe that the note was a subtle poke in Hitler’s eye. But perhaps not. Given how near the end he was, it might very well have been sincere, since at that desperate point, the Fuehrer and the Fatherland might very well have been all that Paulus had left.

At 7:45 P.M. the radio operator at Sixth Army headquarters sent a last message on his own: “The Russians are at the door of our bunker. We are destroying our equipment.” He added that letters “CL” -- the international wireless code signifying “This station will no longer transmit.”

There was no last-minute fighting at headquarters. Paulus and his staff did not hold out to the last man. A squad of Russians led by a junior officer peered into the commander in chief’s darkened hole in the cellar. The Russians demanded surrender and the Sixth Army’s chief of staff, General Schmidt, accepted. Paulus sat dejected on his camp bed. When Schmidt addressed him -- “May I ask the Field Marshal if there is anything more to be said?” -- Paulus was too weary to answer.

Farther north a small German pocket, containing all that was left of two panzer and four infantry divisions, still held out in the ruins of a tractor factory. On the night of February 1 it received a message from Hitler’s headquarters.

“The German people expect you to do your duty exactly as did the troops holding the southern fortress. Every day and every hour that you continue to fight facilitates the building of a new front.”

This, at least, contains a kind of brutal practicality. And it, too, was met with another curiously-worded message -- the only kind of could be offered in the circumstances that the Supreme Commander had engineered.

Just before noon on February 2, this group surrendered after a last message to the Supreme Commander: “...Have fought to the last man against vastly superior forces. Long live Germany!”

Silence at last settled on the snow-covered, blood-spattered shambles of the battlefield. At 2:46 P.M. on February 2, a German reconnaissance plane flew high over the city and radioed back: “No sign of any fighting at Stalingrad.”

By that time 91,000 German soldiers, including twenty-four generals, half-starved, frostbitten, many of them wounded, all of them dazed and broken, were hobbling over the ice and snow, clutching their blood-caked blankets over their heads against the 24-degrees-below-zero cold toward the dreary, frozen prisoner-of-war camps of Siberia. Except for some 20,000 Rumanians and the 29,000 wounded who had been evacuated by air they were all that was left of a conquering army that had numbered 285,000 men two months before. The rest had been slaughtered. And of those 91,000 Germans who began the weary march into captivity that winter day, only 5,000 were destined ever to see the Fatherland again.

Meanwhile back in the well-heated headquarters in East Prussia the Nazi warlord, whose stubbornness and stupidity were responsible for this disaster, berated his generals at Stalingrad for not knowing how and when to die. The records of a conference held by Hitler at OKW with his generals in February 1 survive and shed enlightenment on the nature of the German dictator at this trying period in his life and that of his Army and country.

“They have surrendered there -- formally and absolutely. Otherwise they would have closed ranks, formed a hedgehog, and shot themselves with their last bullet … The man [Paulus] should have shot himself just as the old commanders who threw themselves on their swords when they saw that the cause was lost … Even Varus gave his slave the order: ‘Now kill me!’”

Hitler’s venom toward Paulus for deciding to live became more poisonous as he ranted on.

“You have to imagine: he’ll be brought to Moscow -- and imagine that rat-trap there. There he will sign anything. He’ll make confessions, make proclamations -- you’ll see. They will now walk down the slope of spiritual bankruptcy to its lowest depths … You’ll see -- it won’t be a week before Seydlitz and Schmidt and even Paulus are talking over the radio … They are going to be put into the Lublanka, and there the rats will eat them. How can one be so cowardly? I don’t understand it …

“What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the Nation. But how can anyone be afraid of this moment of death, with which he can free himself from this misery, if his duty doesn’t chain him to this Vale of Tears. Na!

“ … So many people have to die, and then a man like that besmirches the heroism of so many others at the last minute. He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow! …

“What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. That’s the last field marshal I shall appoint in this war. You musn’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

There followed a brief exchange between Hitler and General Zeitzler on how to break the news of the surrender to the German people. On February 3, three days after the act, OKW issued a special communique:

“The battle of Stalingrad has ended. True to their oath to fight to the last breath, the Sixth Army under the exemplary leadership of Field Marshal Paulus has been overcome by the superiority of the enemy and by the unfavorable circumstances confronting our forces.”

The reading of the communique over the German radio was preceded by the roll of muffled drums and followed by the playing of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Hitler proclaimed four days of national mourning. All theaters, movies and variety halls were closed until it was over.

This is what happens to megalomania. It feeds and feeds and feeds until it can only feed on itself.


Shirer wisely uses the proceedings and transcripts of the Nuremberg trials as one of his chief source materials for his thousand-page dissertation on the Third Reich. And some of the information found there is downright chilling.

“ … My foreman and I went directly to the pits. I heard rifle shots in quick succession from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks -- men, women and children of all ages -- had to undress upon the order of an S.S. man, who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1,000 pairs, great piles of under-linen and clothing.

“Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another S.S. man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the fifteen minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy …

“An old woman with snow-white hair was holding a one-year-old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The parents were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him.

“At that moment the S.S. man at the pit shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about twenty persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound … I well remember a girl, slim and with black hair, who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said: ‘twenty-three years old.’

“I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already two-thirds full. I estimated that it contained about a thousand people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an S.S. man, who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette.

“The people, completely naked, went down some steps and clambered over the heads of the people lying there to the place to which the S.S. man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or wounded people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay beneath them. Blood was running from their necks.

“The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot.”

I’m sure I’m not the first to say it. That men could be so methodical, both in their slaughter and in their sacrifice, is a horror from beginning to end, now and forever.

But, somehow even worse, is this.

There had been, the records show, some lively competition among German businessmen to procure orders for building these death and disposal contraptions and for furnishing the lethal blue crystals. The firm of I. A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, manufacturers of heating equipment, won out in its bid for the crematoria at Auschwitz. The story of its business enterprise was revealed in a voluminous correspondence found in the records of the camp. A letter from the firm dated February 12, 1943, gives the tenor.

“To the Central Construction Office of the S.S. and Police, Auschwitz:

“Subject: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp.

“We acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators for raising the corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting the ashes.”

The correspondence of two other firms engaged in the crematorium business popped up at the Nuremberg trials. The disposal of the corpses at a number of Nazi camps had attracted commercial competition. One of the oldest German companies in the field offered its drawings for crematoria to be built at a large S.S. camp in Belgrade.

“For putting the bodies into the furnace, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders.

“Each furnace will have an oven measuring only 24 by 18 inches, as coffins will not be used. For transporting the corpses from the storage points to the furnaces we suggest using light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.”

Another firm, C. H. Kori, also sought the Belgrade business, emphasizing its great experience in this field since it had already constructed four furnaces for Dachau and five for Lublin, which, it said, had given “full satisfaction in practice.”

“Following our verbal discussion regarding the delivery of equipment of simple construction for the burning of bodies, we are submitting plans for our perfected cremation ovens which operate with coal and which have hitherto given full satisfaction.

“We suggest two crematoria furnaces for the building planned, but we advise you to make further inquiries to make sure that two ovens will be sufficient for your requirements.

“We guarantee the effectiveness of the cremation ovens as well as their durability, the use of the best material and our faultless workmanship.

“Awaiting your further word, we will be at your service.

“Heil Hitler!

“C. H. Kori, G.M.B.H.”

Heil, Hitler, indeed. The whole society was pressed to this incredible and genocidal task, businessmen embracing it as they would any other kind of government contract. But...

In the end even the strenuous efforts of German free enterprise, using the best material and providing faultless workmanship, proved inadequate for burning the corpses. The well-constructed crematoria fell far behind at a number of camps but especially at Auschwitz in 1944 when as many as 6,000 bodies … had to be burned daily. For instance, in forty-six days during the summer of 1944 between 250,000 and 300,000 Hungarian Jews alone were done to death at this camp. Even the gas chambers fell behind and resort was made to mass shootings in the Einsatzkommando style. The bodies were simply thrown into ditches and burned, many of them only partly, and then earth was bulldozed over them. The camp commanders complained toward the end that the crematoria had proved not only inadequate but “uneconomical.”

Perhaps capitalism is not up to the task of mass murder. For that, perhaps only National Socialist ardor will do.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at