Sunday, January 27, 2013

Two books and a Magazine on the Vikings

We’ve all heard of the Vikings. Big, fierce, wearing hats with horns (they didn’t actually wear hats with horns, only Hagar the Horrible). From the 10th century to the 12th, the Vikings were the scourge of Europe. They raped, pillaged, plundered everything they came across. What they left they burned down to the ground. But who were these barbarians from the North and how did they go from being some of the grossest violators of human rights (to put it in a modern context) to embracing Christianity and sending out missionaries to places, such as Africa, in their own turn?

Two books and one magazine attempt to provide answers to this question. They each cover a lot of the same territory which reinforces not only their accuracy but that there are not a lot of resources in existence to enlighten us of these people whom Wagner romanticized in his operas and whose myths and sagas J.R.R. Tolkien based his own novels on. This review is a compilation from all three sources: Both books are titled, The Vikings, one by Robert Fergeson, the other by Johnathon Clements. The magazine articles are by writers of Christian History Magazine, Issue 63:  A Severe Salvation: How the Vikings took up the faith.

Based on what these three sources tell us, we know the Vikings came from Scandinavia, primarily Norway but also Sweden and Denmark. Their whole system of creeds and beliefs come from gods of war. The two main inspirations and justifications for their invasions across Europe are the gods Odin and Thor. Their heaven, Valhalla, was a place where men went to happily war against each other for eternity. Graves show that the younger the man died in death, the more honor he was given with showers of gifts and treasures, while the graves of older men are austere.

Each book tries to explain why the Vikings left their homelands in the first place. The consensus seems to be that the Norse men who left were the losers of internal warring and fighting in their respective provinces. It doesn’t answer certain questions, however, such as why they returned to their homelands and why certain kings also went “a pillagin'.”

Europe seemed to be as helpless as little girls under the scourge of these men from the north. Even Charlemagne, after conquering most of Europe and unifying it for the Holy See at Rome seemed unable to withstand the onslaught. Some explanations offered are that the European kingdoms had weakened themselves by their own internal war mongering and corruption of the Catholic Church. More than one monk seemed to think so.

Some aspects of European politics seem sadly similar to the international relation tactics that Western leaders are attempting today. Many kingdoms throughout England, Ireland, France and Germany emptied their nation’s coffers to pay off the Vikings in an effort to get them to leave and not come back. The actual result was that the Vikings were encouraged to continue invading and demand exhorbant amounts of “protection money,” only to return the following year to do the same. There’s no record that paying off these barbarians even slowed them down, much less discouraged them from razing everything in their path to the ground.

Actually, the Vikings conversion to Christianity is one of the most mysterious events about them. When they were profiting so enormously off robbing Europe, why did they convert to a religion that they are recorded as labeling as weak and effeminate? The conversion wasn’t smooth or easy. The first king to convert, King Olaf, gave out an edict, “Convert or die!” Many a Scandinavian chose to fight to the death before converting.

Another Viking, Ethelred brought a monk to Iceland with him where he and the monk were taunted by some local men as being lovers. Ethelred slaughtered all of them. So much for turning the other cheek.

Yet they did eventually convert and, at least until the last century, were Christian nations. This was brought home to me the other day when at church I struck up a conversation with a family from Tanzania. I asked them how or when they became Christians. They informed me that they had grown up in the church because their grandparents had been converted by Swedish missionaries.

The books trace the origins of the Norse men, the battles and invasions across Europe, Russia, and interactions with the Muslims. DNA testing can trace their lineage throughout Ireland, Scotland, Britain and Russia. They devote chapters to Viking travels to Iceland and Greenland and even North America. They quote Snorri Sturleson’s sagas but try to place them in a romanticized context since they were written a couple of hundred years after the fact, (which is still several hundred years closer to the fact than either writer of The Vikings).

The magazine’s main thrust is trying to trace and understand how the conversion to Christianity took place. The authors of The Vikings are disappointingly obtuse in their failure to make a connection between the Vikings conversion to Christianity and their forsaking of barbaric practices. Practices that made it common to bury a dead person with their slaves, after they had been ritually sacrificed. That made it common to leave unwanted babies out in the cold to die. Practices that made blood feuds last for generations and, oh yeah, practices that sent out young men to rape, pillage and burn every village in sight for personal wealth and glory.

I think if one wants to gain more insight into the Viking mind, plus read some great sagas, one would do well to read Snorri’s sagas as well as Norse mythology. Sometimes fiction gives us better insight into a culture than historical books.

I bought these books.

Further links:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why I Write by George Orwell

Why I Write is a collection of four essays, none of which has to do with HOW to write, which was why I bought the book.  Nevertheless, each essay was thought-provoking and had some interesting insights to give.

The first essay, Why I Write, is a miniature autobiography where Orwell describes his upbringing, his sense of social isolation and how that affected his writing. In fact how it made him a writer. I think that many writers are people who are on the outside looking in, which gives them an ability to describe the world around them and present it to the rest of us.

Most people are entrenched in daily routine and take much of what they do for granted. Writers, because they feel a detachment from the majority, can point out the things that make our way of life interesting and cultural and show to the reader things they would otherwise not have noticed.

The next essay is titled, The Lion and the Unicorn. Orwell wrote this essay during WWII, while bullets were flying over his head as he squatted in a trench. It’s important to read what he has to say in that context. A very angry Orwell wrote this essay.

Much of his anger is directed at his own countrymen. He waxes eloquent on the utter stupidity of the British upper class and those governing the country in particular. He is not very sympathetic to the “proles” either. They are described as little more than simple-minded buffoons.

His main gripe is what he sees as the unequal distribution of the country’s resources and wealth. I was surprised to discover that the author of Animal Farm and 1984 was pro socialist. He believed in a society of absolute equality and that this could only be accomplished through forcible redistribution of wealth and equal educational opportunities for all.

He spends some time listing all the other methods tried for a successful society throughout history and how they failed. Monarchy-failure. Religion-failure. Parliament-nix on that too. What is the solution? Socialism, of course. Orwell’s faith is in the State and it is a devout faith.

Now Orwell doesn’t mean Marxism or at least how it was applied in Russia or how Fascism was used in Germany. He admits that those efforts at equalizing a society were disastrous. What’s interesting are his conclusions.

The reason the socialistic system didn’t work in Germany or Russia was because the culture of those societies made it impossible to apply it. Naturally, tyranny and destruction ensued. Why? According to Orwell, it was because they were Germans and Russians.

So why will socialism work in England even though proven to be an abject failure in other countries? Orwell’s answer: Because we’re English, for gosh sakes!

After spending some time declaring to the reader the British aristocrats and commoners are nothing more than a pack of dummies, he then proceeds to take up several pages asserting that if Socialism were implemented, a classless, egalitarian society would take place and voila! Utopia on earth. Or at least in the British Isles.

What makes this essay valuable is that England did, in fact, socialize their businesses and such- as did the rest of Europe. Orwell’s attitude probably reflects the reigning attitude during a poverty-stricken, war sunk population. His book shows how the seeds of Europe’s present economic systems were germinated and today we have the fruition of that: A continent that is economically imploding.

Or, as I like to say, you can only take money from Peter to pay Paul for so long before Peter doesn’t have anymore money left to give.

The next essay, The Hanging is a brief account of the execution of a criminal in Burma. He doesn’t tell us what the man was guilty of; his focus is on the procedure and the callousness of the soldiers. This apparently left an indelible imprint on him.

The final essay, for me as a writer, is the most instructive. Politics and the English Language is a short lesson on rhetoric and how it can be manipulated to make even the most damaging blights to society sound like a good and necessary thing.

In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible...(pg. 114)

He goes on to describe how, not only “corrupt thought can corrupt language” but how a “corrupt language can corrupt thought.” (pg. 116)

As I listen to the rhetoric of today’s politicians using the same hackneyed phrases that sound as though we, the general populace, will benefit from an ever growing government with it’s marching, invasive army of multiplying regulations, dictating more and more of our private life I consider this last essay to be the most relevant.

Maybe if Orwell were alive today, his faith in the state might not be so implicit.

I bought this book.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Agent Garbo: the Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day by Stephan Talty

Tangle within tangle, plot and counterplot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.
-Winston Churchill

Juan Pujol was born and raised in the blood fest that was the Spanish Civil War. He saw his beloved country razed to the ground by the fighting between Franco’s Fascists and the Republicans. He escaped to Portugal where he was determined to fight the horrors of war and those that mongered it. In the 1930’s that was primarily the Nazi’s in Germany. So be it. That would be his target.

After several unsuccessful tries to hire himself out to the British as a spy, he finally hired himself out to the Nazis. Not to help them but to hinder them. He did it entirely on his own. Having never been to England, he persuaded the Spanish branch of the Abwehr (Hitler’s spy organization) that he was living in the UK (when he was really staying in Portugal) and finding out all sorts of highly classified information that he would pass on to the Germans (Heil Hitler!) to help the Nazis conquer the world.

Almost too late, the British MI6 discovered what Pujol was doing and brought him over to the UK where they put him to good use. They gave him all sorts of information to feed the Germans. He was so good at playing the role of a rabidly pro fascist who wanted to help Hitler rule the world that the British named him “Agent Garbo” after the silent screen star, Greta Garbo.

Agent Garbo did not live the glamorous life of James Bond. He spent the entire war in an office answering the questionnaires the Germans gave him and making sure that his misinformation was convincing and effective. He developed a whole network of spies underneath him. They lived in South America, Africa, Scandinavia and throughout the UK. These spies were men and woman who each had their own name, history, family life, were all pro Hitler and had plenty of information to give to the Germans. The only thing they had in common was that none of them existed.

Garbo and his collaborator, the artist Tommy Harris, kept meticulous records of each invented spy, who knew what, where they were living, occasionally “killing” one off when necessary.

Garbo’s finest hour came when his “spies informed him" that the next big invasion was going to be in Calais and Scandinavia, thus splitting up and diverting the German army and keeping Normandy-the actual invasion venue- unprotected. If it wasn’t for this successful deception, the Allies probably wouldn’t have won the war.

Stephan Talty gives us a look inside the life of this fascinating man. His personal life is as colorful as his professional one. He married a hot blooded woman from Barcelona who supported him for most of the war until she tired of the loneliness and social isolation. Then she almost began to pose a threat to MI6 and their work.

Talty describes many of Garbo’s deceptions in colors that would be at home in a movie. The book is as enjoyable as one and more so because it’s true.

The only fault I find with Talty’s book is that he seems to be so enamored with his subject that he is stingy with crediting anyone else with helping the war effort.

Although Ben Macintyre in his book, “Operation Mincemeat” generously scribes about all the people who helped Britain’s espionage system, even including Nazi officials who were secretly helping England by passing on information they knew to be false, Talty would have us believe that Agent Garbo single-handedly won the war for the Allies.

This diminishes the credibility of what is otherwise an exciting and informative read.

After the war, Garbo disappeared. A report came from Africa that he died from disease. Another author, Nigel West, with the help of some of Pujol’s family was able to trace him to Venezuela and reunite him with some WWII war veterans. Talty gives a satisfactory follow up and conclusion to a remarkable man and- to most of the world- an invisible war hero.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Kindle $9.24

Other reviews and links:

Operation Mincemeat

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

If you love spy novels and movies-especially in the James Bond style, you will enjoy this book. All the more so because it’s true.

Ewan Montague knew that in order to turn the tide of WWII, they were going to have convince Hitler that the allied forces were going to invade in places other than where they actually intended to invade.

This was not a new concept. In fact many British agents and double agents, the most famous being Agent Garbo, had spent most of the war feeding the German spy network, the Abwehr, false information about where England and America’s forces were and where they weren’t.

What was unique was their approach.

Ewan Montague and Charles Chomondeley, both members of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA) concocted a plan that was so crazy and absurd it just might work. And it did.

Montague and Chomondeley enlisted the help of a man, Bill Martin, to plant information inside the Abwehr. This information would contain plans that the Allied forces were going to invade Greece rather than Sicily.  If Hitler bought it, he would concentrate his army far away from where the Allies were actually going to invade.

How did they do this? They had Lt. Martin’s plane crash into the ocean off the coast of Portugal where his body was discovered by Portuguese fishermen who turned it over to Spanish authorities. On his person was a briefcase attached to his trench coat with, among other things, tickets to a play he had just seen, a love letter from his fiancée, and..oh yes.. official letters “hinting” at the next Allied invasion. 

Did I mention that Bill Martin was already dead?

In fact, Bill Martin wasn’t his real name and he never served in the Royal Military. He was a homeless derelict named Glyndwr Michael whose body was found in a warehouse after he apparently committed suicide.
And his plane didn’t crash. He was never on a plane. He was transported by submarine and ejected into the ocean.

Operation Mincemeat, as the plan was dubbed, was an elaborate scheme that took months of preparation with no detail left unturned.

Macintyre’s books gives an excellent and exciting account of everyone involved. He gives the background of Glyndwr Michael, allowing the reader to see him as a real person that one could have sympathy for rather than viewing him merely as a prop in an espionage scheme.

He also gives us backgrounds of all the players involved: Montague’s family life and background, Cholmondeley’s, Lieutenant Jewell- the commander of the submarine that carried Martin/Michael’s body, as well as the likes of Ian Fleming and other spies who went on to become novelists. We also meet a number of men who inspired some of Fleming’s Bond characters such and “M” and “Q”.

As much as he is able, Macintyre  gives us the personas of the Germans who were at the receiving end of Allied misinformation. He devotes some tantalizing portions of his book to Agent Garbo. Since then I’ve read books written about that fascinating and mysterious man who is considered to be the greatest double agent of WWII.

Macintyre’s book is methodical and allows one to easily read the whole story from the germination of the idea, to persuading the right powers to implement Operation Mincemeat, to creating the legend of Lt. Martin, the nuts and bolts of getting Martin over to the enemy and the use of British intelligence to work the information through to the upper echelons of the Reich’s spy network.

Everything hinged on persuading Hitler’s most trusted advisor that everything the allies said was going to happen was true.

This man was Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne, Germany’s chief intelligence analyst. While other German spy agents worked out of motives for monetary gain and personal gain, even self-preservation, Roenne, alone cast a clear, cold eye over every piece of information that came across his desk. If they were going to convince Hitler of an invasion in Sardenia (rather than the actual location, Sicily), they were going to have to convince Roenne.

Many sources like to attribute the Allied victory over Germany to Britain’s spy network, and especially Agent Garbo. The fact is, none of these intelligence operatives would have gone anywhere without Roenne. Roenne was the one Hitler most trusted. He had an unswerving faith in this descendant of Latvian aristocracy. If Roenne didn’t convince Hitler of the truth of the reports, nothing would have transpired. Not only would Operation Mincemeat fail but so would the work of Agent Garbo.

Can I say now that out of all the operatives working, the Nazi, Roenne, is my hero? Why, do you ask? Let me tell you.

Because Roenne was, in fact, a devout Christian and anti-Nazi conspirator. He was appalled at the carnage and holocaust of human life Hitler’s regime wrecked. In his own way he was determined to do something about it.

Von Roenne, however, may have chosen to believe in the fake documents for an entirely different reason: because he loathed Hitler, wanted to undermine the Nazi war effort, and was intent on passing false information to the high command in the certain knowledge that it was wholly false and extremely damaging.
It is quite possible that Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne did not believe the Mincemeat deception for an instant. (pg. 383)

Von Roenne was a secret but committed opponent of Nazism... he detested Hitler and the uncouth thugs surrounding him....His Christian conscience had been outraged by the appalling SS terror unleashed in Poland...From 1943 onward, he deliberately and consistently inflated the Allied order of battle, overstating the strength of the British and American armies in a successful effort to mislead Hitler and his generals....

.....Perhaps, like other German anti-Nazi conspirators, he just wanted Germany to lose the war as swiftly as possible, to avoid further bloodletting and remove Hitler and his repellent circle from power. Whatever his reasons, and despite his reputation as an intelligence guru, by 1943 von Roenne was deliberately passing information he knew to be false, directly to Hitler’s desk. (pg. 385, 386).

Macintyre goes on to say the Roenne’s finest hour was when he “faithfully passed on every deception ruse fed to him” about the Normandy invasion and the buildup to D-day. He accepted every “bogus unit” and “inflated forty-four divisions in Britain to an astonishing eighty-nine.”

Macintyre maintains that without Roenne’s “willing connivance” the entire deceptive operation surrounding D-Day could have unraveled.

Other historians, whom Macintyre lists in his bibliography, corroborate these facts.

Eventually Roenne was found out through his connections and friendship with the German Nazis who conspired to assassinate Hitler. Even though he wasn’t involved in the plot, his association with those that were sufficed to determine his fate.

Roenne was given a mock trial in the “People’s Court” where he stated that “Nazi race policies were inconsistent with Christian values.” (pg. 387)

I won’t describe here how he was executed. Just know that it was long and agonizing. And Hitler had it filmed for his personal viewing pleasure.

The night before he died Roenne wrote a letter to his wife:

In a moment now I shall be going home to our Lord in complete calm and in the certainty of salvation. (pg. 387)

I believe some of the most fascinating aspects of the war efforts as well as allied success can be attributed to Germans like Roenne who fought against Hitler and his regime from the inside. I wonder how many of us would have had the courage to do so in similar circumstances? Would I?

In conclusion, Operation Mincemeat is a rollicking read that pulls you right into the heart of a roller coaster ride of spy networking and scheming that prevented a terrorist organization to rule the world.

Kindle $11.99

I borrowed this book from my local library.