About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Choices of Pope Pius XII

Last week I put up a post on the choices of people in Germany and Western Europe during World War II. My post did not discuss the choices of Pope Pius XII.

During the war he chose not to issue public protests about Nazi actions against Europe’s Jews. Author Mark Riebling stated in the summer of 1942 the pope had written an article:

The pages contained the Vatican’s strongest protest yet against the persecution of Jewry. The pope planned to publish it in L’Osservatore that very evening. But Leiber urged His Holiness to remember the Dutch bishops’ pastoral letter. If it had cost the lives of 40,000 Jews, an even stronger protest, from even more prominent lips, could cost the lives of many times more. The pope would do better to keep a public silence and do whatever he could in secret. Pius handed the pages to Leiber, who thre them into the kitchen fireplace and watched them burn.
With that decision the pope became one of the millions of Europeans who chose to be silent about the Holocaust.

Among those who remained quiet with him were the leaders of the International Red Cross. Determined to maintain neutrality during the war they were silent on the Holocaust.

Red Cross visits to concentration camps were carefully managed by the Nazis and those conducting the examinations did not stray from the Nazi arrangements. They published reports of sanitized camps.

The Pope joined thousands across Europe who sought to protect and save Jews in private. Riebling states:

Over the same period (German occupation of Rome), 477 Jews had hidden in  Vatican City, and 4,238 received sanctuary in Roman monasteries and convents.

We look with admiration on the brave Berliners who kept 2,000 Jews known as “U-boats” alive through the war in the Nazi capital.

The pope did choose to become a part of the underground Resistance to the Nazis by working with the German military Resistance plotting against Hitler.

It remains striking to me that the Pope participated in conspiracies to kill Hitler. Should the leader of the Catholic Church be a part of the assassination of a Head of Government?

It means the Church is taking an active violent role in world politics.

Could Pope Pius XII have saved more Jewish lives had he publicly protested the genocidal actions of the Nazis towards the Jews of Europe?

I have come to doubt such actions would have had an impact. It was an ideological decision to embark on the Holocaust. The traditional methods of Anti-Semites in marginalizing Jewish people and seeking to exile them were inadequate for the Nazis. They were determined to render Europe Jew free.

They did not care if their persecution and execution of Jews damaged Germany’s economy and scientific research.

While eliminating Jews was the highest priority of the Nazis there was a public protest that saved Jewish lives. In 1942 the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men about to be deported to the camps in the East took to the streets of Berlin. The Nazis backed down and did not deport the husbands.

I believe it would have been different had the pope protested. The Nazis wanted to eradicate the Christian faith, especially the Catholic Church. I think public protests from Pius would have accelerated their efforts to destroy the Church.

While Nazis were reluctant to conduct reprisals against German women I do not think they would have hesitated with regard to the Church.

Most important the Pope had been unable to influence the Nazis in their actions in Poland against the Church. Three thousand Polish clergy and three million Christian Poles were killed.  When his efforts on behalf of Catholics were ignored I cannot see the Nazis reacting more positively to protests by him with regard to the Jews.

Popes, including Pius XII, had publicly protested against the persecutions conducted by Communist Russia to no avail.

Did the pope have a moral obligation to protest even if his words were futile is a different question? I am sure he thought about the choices he made every day for the rest of his life.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

2016 Winners of the Arthur Ellis Awards for Canadian Crime Fiction

Congratulations to the winners of the 2016 Arthur Ellis Award winners. They were announced at the annual banquet of the Crime Writers of Canada.

Best Novel:
Peter Kirby, Open Season, Linda Leith Publishing
Best First Novel:
Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead, Minotaur Books
The Lou Allen Memorial Award for Best Novella*:
Jeremy Bates, Black Canyon, Ghillinnein Books
Best Short Story:
Scott Mackay, The Avocado Kid, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
Best Book in French:
Luc Chartrand, L'Affaire Myosotis, Québec Amérique
Best Juvenile/YA :
Stephanie Tromly, Trouble is a Friend of Mine, Kathy Dawson Books
Best Nonfiction:
Dean Jobb, Empire of Deception, HarperCollins Publishers
The Dundurn Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel:
Jayne Barnard, When the Flood Falls

The Grand Master Award winner was distinguished Canadian mystery author Eric Wright. The CWC announcement summarized his career:

     He wrote eighteen crime novels, in four different series,
     as well as novels, a novella, and a memoir. Eric’s first
     novel, The Night the Gods Smiled (1983), won the first
     Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel, the John
     Creasey Award from the Crime Writers’ Association
     (CWA), and the City of Toronto Book Award. The
     Kidnapping of Rosie Dawn (2000) won an Arthur
     and was nominated for an Edgar from the Mystery Writers
     of America (MWA).

He died last year not long after being advised he had been chosen Grand Master.

As I have done for the past few years I am working my way through the shortlist of Best Novel and will be reviewing them shortly and providing my thoughts on which is the best mystery.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Personal Choices in the Third Reich

Albert Goring
I have been thinking about choices this year as I have read a group of books about life in Western Europe during the Third Reich.

In The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo there were the choices made by the owners and staff of a great hotel in Paris, the Ritz, during the German occupation. High ranking Germans stayed at the hotel. They enjoyed meals and celebrations with their French mistresses and French citizens working with the occupiers. While some hotel workers were in the French Resistance at the hotel they spent their shifts making life comfortable for the German occupiers. Madam Ritz and her staff conducted business as usual.

Choices were possible in Occupied Europe. The leaders of Bulgaria worked to protect their nation’s Jewish population. They refused to let them be deported to concentration camp. At the same time they made the choice not to oppose the transport of thousands of Jews from other nations, mainly Greece, who had sought refuge in Bulgaria.

I have written about my personal contacts with individual choices made in Occupied Europe. I met a Danish farm family who sheltered a German Jewish girl. I know a Dutch war bride who as a teenager altered ID cards in an office next to the local German Army headquarters. She successfully saved young men from being sent to Germany as slave labour.

Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald explored the life of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a respected professor of art history and museum director, who made the choice to become an art dealer benefiting from the forced sales, confiscations and looting of art works under Nazi rule. He was a classic war profiteer only concerned with profiting from the opportunities of war. He was uncaring about the fate of Jews beyond his family. He exploited Nazi ideology to become rich. Cooly objective he was among the earliest to realize how the Nazis would govern and conqueor and later that they were going to lose the war. He made money in victory and defeat.

By contrast, Josef Muller, in Church of Spies by Mark Riebling made a different set of personal choices. A lawyer and devout Catholic he could have had a profitable war. Refusing to grovel to Heinrich Himmler in the mid-1930’s he turned down an invitation to join the SS because its principles were opposed to his principles. He aided Jews in his law practice. Muller opposed Hitler acting as a courier and a liason between Pope Pius XII and the German Resistance led by Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr. He put his life at stake.

Albert Goring made choices that were both profitable and principled. The brother of Hermann Goring he enjoyed opportunities in the armaments industry spending most of the war working as the export director of Skoda in Czechoslovakia. While diligently working to build weapons for the Wehrmacht he also aided Jews and others being persecuted by the Nazis. Using his connections with Hermann he saved a significant number of people. He refused to adopt the customs of the Nazis. He was known in Czechoslovakia for responding to the stiff arm of the Hitler salute with a lift of his hat.

For German soldiers there was the decision on whether to participate in the Holocaust. For every fictional Bernie Gunther who refused to take part and was re-assigned there were an abundance of real life Arthur Nebe’s who moved from the Berlin Police Department to the killing fields of Western Russia in 1941.

Average Germans had their own choices.

Several thousand Berlin residents protected, fed and housed about 2,000 Jews during the war. These Jews were known as U-boats as they secretly lived in Germany’s capital.

Many more thousands personally profited from the Holocaust. In Seduced by Hitler there is the story of how over 100,000 residents of Hamburg chose to buy, from 1941 to 1945, at bargain prices in public auctions the furnishings confiscated from Jews sent to concentration camps. Such auctions were held throughout Germany.

Gitta Sereny in her book, The Healing Wound, talked about an aspect of German culture that continues to lead Germans to conformity with the prevailing establishment. She spoke of “Obrigkeit – authority or hierarchy”. In talking about young people a generation after the war she said:

Only a few of them connect own incapacity for battling with authority, with the unprecedented success of the totalitarian idea in Germany.

While culture played a role every German made his or her own choices.

In my travels to Germany I have met one man who was an avowed Nazi. It was in 1981 and he had been physically unfit to serve during the war. He had an amazing collection of  German war memorabilia and would ring a bell next to a skull in a German helmet in honour of the millions of German war dead. He added that in 50 years Hitler would be known as the Saint from Braunau.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Seduced by Hitler by Adam LeBor and Roger Boyes

Seduced by Hitler by Adam LeBor and Roger Boyes – A better description of the content of the book is in its subtitle – The Choices of a Nation and the Ethics of Survival.

There was some seduction by Hitler in Germany.

Average Germans benefited from the persecution of the nation’s Jewish population:

Public auctioning of Jewish goods in Hamburg began during 1941 – between three and four thousand giant containers of furniture and clothes abandoned by those Jews lucky enough to emigrate …. Public auctions of Jewish goods were held on every working day between February 1941 an April 1945. Forty-five car ships full of belongings stolen from deported Dutch Jews provided rich pickings for the bidders who soon extended well beyond the original qualifying groups …. The contents of 72,000 apartments in the East – Jews sent to Auscwitz – were loaded onto trains and sent to central collection points in German cities ….. Frank Bajohr, who has researched the “Aryanization” of Hamburg, calculates that more than a hundred thousand people in the city alone, “ordinary Germans,” directly profited from the Holocaust.

For workers in Germany the Nazis skilfully used the twin tactics of terror and seduction. The Gestapo arrested enough workers, including some family members, and used small scale camps adjacent to 165 industrial complexes to create an edge of uncertainty among German labourers. At the same time the Beauty of Work and Strength Through Joy organizations were the seduction. Many factories were improved in appearance though not often in working conditions. More important were the mass holidays available from Strength Through Joy. Many average Germans had their first travel holidays. While it may have been no more than 1% of the work force a large number of working Germans were able to go on cruises to Norway or the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean.

The elites benefited the most under the Third Reich. German generals were lavished with honours that included payments of hundreds of thousands of marks. The gifts were not limited to money. General Heinz Guderian was given a 2,340 acre estate in the area of Poland incorporated into Germany.

The Nazis were very conscious of style:

From the carefully choreographed Nuremberg rallies to the sharply-pressed black uniforms of the SS, the Nazis place great emphasis on presentation and a well-groomed appearance ….. While not every German wore a uniform, it was seen as a patriotic duty to look well-presented; it was part of the country’s national rebirth.

While in far less detail than Hitler's Empire - How the Nazis Ruled Europe the authors looked at how the Nazis treated the countries they conquered.

There was little seduction by the Nazis in Western Europe and none East of Germany.

Some bureaucrats in the West were allowed greater freedom to pursue their administrative dreams. In the Netherlands a civil servant, J.J. Lentz, was allowed to fulfill his dream of a national system of ID cards. The authors comment:

Instead of being appalled at the all-embracing reach of their Nazi overlords, Dutch civil servants such as Lentz were relieved to be working for an administration that would appreciate perfection, order and organization.

In Denmark the Nazis, because Denmark had not resisted its occupation, played a lesser role in the governance of the country for much of the occupation.

A few West European workers profited greatly. Farmers in northern Norway were paid far more than before the war as they were a part of the Nazi effort at self-sufficiency.

There were no major efforts to entice average Western Europeans into becoming fascists.

A greater part of the book than I expected related to the actions of Germans and Occupied Europeans with regard to the Holocaust. The authors were as interested in choices with regard to evil as choices with regard to enticements. Probably because of past reading in these areas I found these sections of the book less interesting.

The authors are very convincing on the strenuous efforts of the Nazis to influence and control every aspect of life in Germany. I have usually thought of propaganda in the context of politics. The Nazis effectively used propaganda to advance their policies and ideologies in all areas.

Written in 2000 the book is easy to read and filled with striking examples of lives and decisions in the Third Reich.

Much as a newspaper headline often does not reflect the story most Germans were not seduced by Hitler. The authors do make clear that only a small minority of Germans rejected and resisted the advances of the Nazis.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Josef Müller - A German Catholic Hero of World War II

Josef Muller in 1937
A week ago I provided a review of Church of Spies by Mark Riebling describing the intrigues of the Catholic Church, discreetly masterminded by Pope Pius XII, against Hitler and his regime.

Riebling told the stories of many fascinating people involved in those plots.

The most vivid German character aiding the Pope was Josef Müller: 

Josef Müller was a self-made lawyer of sturdy peasant stock, a beer-loving Bavarian with sky-blue eyes, and an Iron Cross hero of the Great War. Because he worked his way through school driving an oxcart, friends ribbed him as Ochsensepp, Joey Ox. The nickname aptly captured Müller’s robust build, his rural roots, and the strong will that brought him such bad and good fortune.

As the Nazis seized power in 1933 he advised Bavaria’s Prime Minister, Heinrich Held, to arrest Heinrich Himmler and put him before a firing squad. Held hesitated and did nothing. In 1934 Müller was arrested for treason. Himmler personally interrogated Müller about what he had told Held. Müller admitted advising Himmler should be shot and asked would Himmler not have given the same advice:

Müller’s courage confounded Himmler. An Allied Intelligence officer later posited that Müller, “a tough and two-fisted political infighter,” was “the type of man-sprung-from-the-people whom the Nazis loved to claim as their own and who, as an opponent, rather daunted them.” Somewhat awed by his prisoner’s will, Himmler invited him to join the SS. Müller refused. “I am philosophically opposed to you. I am a practicing Catholic, and my brother is a Catholic priest. Where could I find the possibility of a compromise here?” Himmler congratulated Müller on his “manly defence” and let him go.

The head of Hitler’s bodyguard, Hans Rattenhuber, became Müller’s friend and an unwitting but valuable source of SS secrets in conversations with Müller.

Müller set up a network assembling information on Nazi violations of the Concordat between the regime and the Catholic Church.

He started acting as a courier carrying information between Germany and Rome as he personally flew a sports plane.

The Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, reached out to Müller and enlisted him to carry messages to and from the Vatican. The leadership of the Abwehr, including Admiral Canaris, was at the heart of German resistance to Hitler.

To provide cover for Müller they portrayed him as an agent of the Abwehr spying on the Vatican!

In early 1943 he directly briefed Pope Pius XII on coup plans by high ranking German military leaders. Pius subsequently gave moral sanction to the assassination of Hitler, arranged that the Vatican would take immediate diplomatic action after a coup to recognize Müller as a special emissary to the new German government with the status of ambassador and would seek a separate peace with the Western Allies. The coup was never attempted when a bomb failed to explode in a plane carrying Hitler back from the Eastern Front.

Eventually Müller was arrested. He was in prison in Berlin when Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to kill Hitler in July of 1944 and mount a coup. Müller was to play an important role. If the coup succeeded Müller would be released and flown immediately to Rome where he would meet with  the Pope and pursue peace talks with the Allies.

When Hitler survived and the coup failed retribution was swift and fierce.

The SS finally determined the Abwehr was plotting against Hitler and found evidence of Catholic participation in the plots.

On April 8, 1945 Müller was advised he would be hanged that day:

Müller prepared for death. He sank to his knees in his striped orange and gray pajamas, whispering the Our Father. Then he motioned to one of his fellow prisoners, Russian General Pyotr Privalov, and asked him to memorize a message. Knowing that the last words of the condemned sometimes reached the outside world, he told Privalov he would shout to the hangman: “I die for peace!”

Müller then walked to the gallows. What happened there is as dramatic as any work of fiction I have read. You will need to read the book to find out the fate of Joey Ox.

What writer of spy fiction could not wish he or she had a hero to rival Müller. Ian Fleming’s personal WW II exploits are pale in comparison to Müller.

Recounting Muller’s story demonstrates Riebling’s skill at bringing to life the scheming and people that enveloped the Vatican and German Resistance to Hitler. It is a rare work of non-fiction that has me anxiously turning the pages. One night I stayed up late reading as I had to know what happened to Müller before I could sleep.
Church of Spies by Mark Riebling 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

H.P. Tergersen & Sons and Icelandic Crime Fiction

I am departing from my series of posts on WW II and choices for a post on the H.P. Tergersen & Sons store in Gimli, Manitoba. Sharon and I were in Gimli for the 5550 Rotary District Annual Conference when we took a walk Saturday afternoon.

Across the street from the hotel was an old looking store that captivated us on entry.

There were genuine hardwood floors and an old fashioned cash register (beside the computer terminal) and a stock of contemporary clothing.

The history of the store is summed up on a Manitoba Heritage site:

     This General Store was constructed in 1898 by Hans Pjetur
     Tergesen and opened for business on January 1, 1899. It has
     been owned and operated by three generations of his
     descendants. It is the oldest operating general store in Manitoba
     and an excellent example of a rural community store. The
     vernacular-style building is a rectangular wooden structure with
     a flat roof. A wooden parapet with a bracketed cornice gives the
     building a more imposing appearance. The interior possesses
     most of its original furnishings.

As I looked around I saw that a second part of the store was a bookstore.

I told Sharon I would see her in awhile and headed for the books.

There was a nice selection of fiction and non-fiction but what stood out were the large selections of Manitoba books and Icelandic literature.

A large number of Icelanders settled in Gimli and area on the edge of Lake Winnipeg. Their descendants make up the largest group of Icelanders outside Iceland. While the town currently has about 2,000 full time residents there are a large number of summer visitors to the beautiful area.

It was a pleasant surprise to see shelves of Icelandic crime fiction that had been translated into English. I would never have dreamed of encountering one of the largest collections of Icelandic crime fiction in Canada in a general store in rural Manitoba.

In fact Lorna Tergersen in an article published in the Interlake Enterprise last year stated:

     I believe our store has the largest collection of Icelandic and
     Scandinavian books in North America,” says Lorna who was a
     book representative for several Canadian publishers in the 1980s
     before she devoted herself to Tergesens in the early 1990s.
     “Local authors are also popular and one of the latest best sellers
     is ‘Vikings on a Prairie Ocean’ by Glenn Sigurdson, a
     prominent Canadian lawyer who grew up in a Lake Winnipeg
     fishing family.”

She went on to say their book sales are back up after a drop off about 3 years earlier because of e-books.

I could not leave without buying a book though I restrained myself from more.

Torn between the Manitoba section and the Icelandic section I opted for a Manitoba book, A Candle to Light ths Sun, set in the 1930's that I had not heard of before going to Tergersen's. There is a special story about the author that I will add as a post after I read and review the book later this year.

I wish I had more shopping surprises like Tergersen's. Sharon would say it is because I go buying rather than shopping and do not go into enough new stores to find surprises.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Church of Spies by Mark Riebling

(21. – 863.) Church of Spies by Mark Riebling – A grand spy thriller that happens to be a work of non-fiction. Sub-titled The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler the book explores the role played by the Catholic Church in the German Resistance to the Nazi’s before and during WW II.

Pope Pius XII has been praised and criticized for his actions and inactions during WW II. John Cornwall in Hitler’s Pope was among the critical.

Riebling portrays the Pope as willing and ready to speak out against the Nazis but restrained by the German Catholic Church.

Within Germany the Catholic cardinals and bishops thought it counter-productive to have the Pope protesting Nazi actions against the Jews for the Nazis already saw the Church as their enemy. Those leaders expected reprisals that would not just be limited to the Church. When Dutch bishops spoke out against Jewish deportations from the Netherlands there was a deportation of 80,000 Jews. Furthermore, they believed the Pope would, as an outsider, be considered as interfering in German politics.

In 1942 a German priest, Father Leiber convinced Pius, not to publish a public protest:

The pope would do better to keep a public silence and do whatever he could in secret. Pius handed the pages to Leiber, who threw them into the kitchen fireplace and watched them burn.

Yet the most important reason for public silence was the part being played by the Church in German Resistance to Hitler. There is abundant documentation in the book that Church clergy and lay persons were important members of the Resistance.

Plotters inside Germany sought secure means to liase with the nations fighing the Nazis.  Led by Admiral Canaris of the German Abwehr they sought to use the Catholic Church’s reliable and secret means of communications between Germany and Rome.

The Church has always maintained its private means of communications to and from Rome.

While the Nazis did achieve some penetration of the Church the Pope continued to have trusted agents and couriers that kept communications flowing.

The Vatican knew the Nazis would seek to infilitrate it and was wary of Nazi spies. In scenes that would seem implausible in a Hollywood thriller meetings were held in a crypt at St. Peter’s where excavations were being done to see if the grave of St. Peter was beneath an altar. In the depths of the great Basilica plots were refined and information assessed.

What startled me was the direct participation of Catholic priests and lay people in the plots against Hitler. There were two planned coups that faltered at the last moment that preceeded the assassination attempt in the summer of 1944.

In all the plots the Pope had given his blessing and approval while the consipirators kept his name from the documents should the plots fail. Had they succeeded the Pope was ready to offer assistance in mediation and peace talks.

In most great ventures there are little known heroes. Joseph Muller is among the least known characters of WW II. He was the key man for the Pope in Germany on connections with the German Resistance. My next post will further discuss this amazing man.

In his work he was greatly aided by a network of Bavarian Jesuits.

The plotters wanted to be known as representatives of Decent Germany.

I was intrigued by the theological justifications for the killing of Hitler. While the Catholic Church had developed moral reasoning on the killing of tyrants centuries ago the Protestant Churches of German did not have a comparable analysis which hampered those plotters who were Protestant.

Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the day before he attempted to assassinate Hitler went to confession and possibly sought a special blessing of the Last Rites because of the anticipated danger to his life.

When the plot failed the investigations and punishments were brutally conducted. How the Catholic participants faced the SS interrogators was profound and inspiring. We do not think often of modern martyrs.

While Pius, for the sake of the Church, was discreet the records clearly show he approved of the Church’s participation in the plots against Hitler which meant the Church was sanctioning his assassination.

While the coups were worthy causes they were and are a perilous path for a Church to engage so directly in violent government overthrow. Riebling sums up the dilemma:

In war the Vatican tried to stay neutral. Because the pope represented Catholics of all nations, he had to appear unbiased. Taking sides would compel some Catholics to betray their country, and others their faith.

Riebling is not going to convince those who condemn Pius that he played a significant role in challenging the Nazi regime but his secret actions were far more significant than I had ever realized. The Catholic Church was the leading support of the German Resistance who conspired against Hitler and the Nazis.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald Completed

In my previous post I started a review of Hitler's Art Thief by Susan Ronald. In that post I discussed Hildebrand Gurlitt's movement from respected academic and museum director to an unscrupulous art dealer taking advantage of the opportunities created by the Nazi regime and its ideologies.

During WW II Gurlitt’s options and profits were almost boundless. 

France was the greatest treasure trove for avaricious dealers such as Gurlitt. While Goering skimmed off a large number of artworks there were thousands of other pieces of art.

Gurlitt made sure he had good relations with the men appointed to purchase art for the planned Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria.

Not content with commissions from buying and selling artworks Gurlitt occasionally manipulated payments. He bought some paintings by having the purchase prices credited “against the ‘occupation credits’ that France had to pay Germany” as part of the terms of surrender in 1940.

Occasionally there is outright theft. Gurlitt is so bold as to buy paintings for Hitler that never reach their destination. Fake invoices and other fraudulent accounting aid the deception.

The looting process accelerates once the Allies invade France in 1944. The art dealers are among the first Germans to understand the war was lost and plan for the future. There were 34 export licences granted in France during part of 1944 but only 29 are reported in Germany

Gurlitt manages to get a general authorization from the Fuhrer Museum to allow him to make up his own applications for export.

He constantly visits Switzerland.

As the war comes to an end Gurlitt helps to hide art from the Allies.

It was a good war financially for Gurlitt. His estimated income during the war exceeds 1,000,00 Deutsche Marks. Continuing his pattern of deceit he declares for income tax less than 20% of his income.

When questioned after the war he carefully avoids implicating himself. It is soon apparent America is not pursuing the looters of art. The focus is on genocide and slave labour. Ronald sets out with brutal simplicity that the “Truman administration did not wish to understand that art theft and genocide were intrinsically linked”.

What America chose not to understand or overlooked at that time was that from the beginning of the Holocaust works of art were confiscated from European Jews meaning Gurlitt and other dealers were directly involved in the Holocaust.

Through lies and bureaucratic indifference Gurlitt’s art collection is returned to him in 1950.

The Gurlitt name becomes known around the world for the looting of art when his son, Cornelius, is discovered in 2010 as still having 1,407 pieces of artwork in his Munich apartment from his father’s collection.

Cornelius, a strange and private man, had gone through his adult life thinking his father had rescued art during the Nazi regime. Cornelius thought of the paintings as dear friends.

Once the book reached the time of the Nazi takeover I found it interesting. Unfortunately, it took 150 pages to reach that point. Ronald provided a great deal of German history in the first half of the book. Some chapters had more history than writing about the Gurlitt family.

At the end of the book there are but a few pages on Gurlitt’s family after the war and especially after he died in 1956.

It would have been a better book with less German history and more Gurlitt history.

I found the title misleading. I was expecting in the book to find out how Gurlitt was Hitler’s personal thief or at least the most prominent German art thief. While Gurlitt was an art thief for Hitler he was far from the only art thief for the Fuhrer and but one of several very successful art thieves in Nazi Germany.

Not surprisingly those who had no scruples profited most during the Third Reich in every business. What was most striking was his talent at anticipating what was going to happen before, during and after WW II. The amoral have the advantage of no ideology to cloud their judgments.

What I learned most from the book was the immense amount of money involved in art during the Nazi regime and World War II. Further conflict is ahead. The war over Gurlitt’s collection has just begun over 70 years after the end of the war.
Hitler's Art Thief by Susan Ronald

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald

(18. – 860.) Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald – I wanted to call Hildebrand Gurlitt the leading looter of art in the 20th Century but he was just one of a group of unscrupulous German art dealers who plundered Europe when the Nazis were in power.

Gurlitt was born into a family of academics in Dresden. During WW I he was retrieved from the frontlines to serve with the Art Preservation and Momuments unit of which his father was a member. They were in Belgium to “preserve architecture and artifacts from destruction”. Unlike WW II German looting was modest in WW I and his father’s men did work to save artworks from being destroyed during the war.

After the war Gurlitt and his sister were well known members of the German Expressionist Movement.

After years of struggle in the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic Gurlitt became a museum director in the industrial city of Zwickau. Having gained a position in the art world he works to improve his position by publishing academic articles and acquiring a patron.

Gurlitt makes the most important business connection of his life when he gains auto parts industrialist (brake pads) Kurt Kirkbach as a patron. For the rest of his life Gurlitt will be dealing in art for and with Kirkbach.

Gurlitt first shows his talent for exploitation when he helps Kirkbach buy modern art from Germans left in desperate financial circumstances by the crash of 1929.

His prominence in modern art gets him fired by a Nazi leader in 1930 from his museum directorship.

Seeing the growing strength of the Nazis he no longer champions modern art but looks for ways to profit from his knowledge of German Expressionism.

He works out a clever scheme to buy Renaissance Art (approved as traditional art by the Nazis) in Italy to be sold in Germany and then buy German Expressionist works (the disapproved modern art) cheaply for sale in other countries such as the United States.

When the Nazis take over in 1933 there are many sellers of art, even more desperate, than the financially bankrupt of 1929.

Profit is all around for Gurlitt and a select group of art dealers. German museums are being forced to dispose of their modern art.

In 1936 the Nazis move to seizing art from German museums and a year later begin confiscating art from artists. It is estimated 21,000 works of art are taken.

Gurlitt is constantly receiving lucrative commissions for buying and selling these artworks. Occasionally he buys for himself at an unconscionably low price. One of his purchases is for but 1 Swiss Franc.

Once Germany starts taking over other countries the opportunities explode for Gurlitt and other official German art dealers. Between 1937 and 1941 a group of four dealers sold 8,700 artworks in Switzerland alone.

When Austria is annexed to Germany in 1938 there are confiscations of art and then expropriations.

Gurlitt gets a share of confiscated Jewish art.

His lack of morality is most evident in taking Jewish art for Gurlitt is one-quarter Jewish having a Jewish grandmother. Other members of his family agonize over whether to deny grandmother. While millions of Jews are persecuted and murdered Gurlitt continues to deal in art through the whole Holocaust. His Jewish ancestry is overlooked as he is useful to high ranking Nazis.

My next post completes my review of the book with an outline of his actions during WW II and the infamy gained by his son after the war.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo

(9. – 851.) The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo – The Ritz. No hotel in the world is more famous. It has been a destination of the world elite since it opened in the heart of Paris in 1898. Masseo has written a biography of the hotel focusing on its role in World War II.

When the German army rolled into Paris in June of 1940 the Ritz was a favoured destination for its officers. On orders from Berlin the hotel was not formally taken over but remained privately run with Hans Franz Elmiger, its Swiss born deputy manager, in charge of hotel operations.

Marie-Louise, Madame Ritz, widow of the hotel’s founder, Cesar Ritz, remained an active presence in the hotel.

The German military did take all the rooms in one wing of the hotel paying discounted rates.

The American heiress, Laura Mae Corrigan, was evicted from the Imperial Suite in favour of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering.

Several long term residents of the hotel continued to stay in the section of the hotel not occupied by the Germans. Most famously, Coco Chanel, maintained a suite.

During the German occupation the Ritz remained the focal point of elite Parisian life. The champagne flowed. The famous mixed cocktails of Frank Meier in the rue Chambon side bar were eagerly consumed. German officers and their French mistresses celebrated good times.

There were Resistance members among the hotel staff but the hotel, as with most of the French population, accommodated if it did not actually collaborate with the German occupiers.

There were spies and plots swirling around the Ritz throughout the war. Mazzeo discusses the meetings of German officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944. For a few hours those plotters took over Paris until word spread that Hitler had survived.

After the Allied invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 there was a race to return to Paris. While the Allied armies looked to re-take the capital of France among American war correspondents it was a competition to be the first to reach Paris and more important, re-claim the Ritz.

Ernest Hemingway was determined to win the race. “Papa” at 45 effectively formed his own private company within the American Army. He had been going to the Ritz since he had arrived in Paris during the 1920’s and had but enough money for a couple of drinks at the bar.

What I had not known before reading the book was the number of women war correspondents who covered the war. Several had been in as much in action as any of the men.

The relationships of two female journalists with Hemingway involved as much intrigue as any war story. As 1944 unfolded Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gellhorn was swiftly deterioriating and Hemingway had entered into an affair with Mary Welsh.

In the final rush to Paris Hemingway famously said he intended to liberate the cellars of the Ritz. His arrival at the hotel on the day of the liberation of Paris was appropriately dramatic and he took charge of the hotel and the finest wines were opened. Hemingway was to start each day at the hotel for the next seven months by opening a bottle of fine champagne.

The famous kept coming. A month after liberation Ingrid Bergman arrived at the Ritz and became the lover of famed war photographer, Robert Capa.

The word “fabulous” has been overused but it best describes the Ritz of that era.

Mazzeo portrays a Hotel of grandeur and unsurpassed elegance. Within its rooms, salons, bar and restaurant passed everyone who mattered in Paris. Generation after generation of the elect in France made sure they were seen at the Ritz.

There is a good movie to be made with the dramas of the rich, famous and beautiful unfolding in a beautiful hotel.

The Hotel on Place Vendome is well written. In a couple of chapters it tries too hard for drama but Mazzeo’s life of the Ritz has made me wish I could visit that grand hotel which re-opens this summer after a 2 year renovation.