Review: The Nazi Hunters. How A Team Of Spies And Survivors Captured The World’s Most Notorious Nazi – Neal Bascomb

5 of 5 stars

My version: Audiobook
Non Fiction World War II, Nazis
Arthur A. Levine Books
2013
Bought

In 1945, at the end of World War II, Adolf Eichmann, the head of operations for the Nazis’ Final Solution, walked into the mountains of Germany and vanished from view. Sixteen years later, an elite team of spies captured him at a bus stop in Argentina and smuggled him to Israel, resulting in one of the century’s most important trials — one that cemented the Holocaust in the public imagination.

The Nazi Hunters is the thrilling and fascinating story of what happened between these two events. Survivor Simon Wiesenthal opened Eichmann’s case; a blind Argentinean and his teenage daughter provided crucial information. Finally, the Israeli spies — many of whom lost family in the Holocaust — embarked on their daring mission, recounted here in full.

A straightforward re-telling account of what happened, where, when and how. It doesn’t need any dressing up. It’s important enough to stand on its own. The details are retold in a clear and concise manner, with time taken to include some of the background both to Eichmann and his thought process throughout and that of the people who found him and were sent to bring him back to Israel. Along with a little of the historical context of the post-war years and where the world was heading going into the 1960s.

The why Israel is dealt with as well. Why not just shoot him where they found him? He needed to be brought to Israel to serve as a reminder to the world that was trying to move on from the Second World War, less interested in old Nazis and more worried about dealing with new Communists. Interestingly, they actually managed to get Eichmann to sign a statement that he came to Israel willingly. Not against his will anyway. By persuading him it would be a chance to put his side of the events.

It’s a naturally tense story all the way through, it doesn’t need artificially ramping up. Especially the troubles they had getting him out of Argentina. If you’ve seen the excellent film Argo, you’ll be in the same ball-park.

In a link to my other book reviews: In The One From The Other Philip Kerr has a section where Bernie travels to Palestine with Eichmann. Where Eichmann was maybe trying to find a place to send the Jews of Germany. That’s true. Also true, is that nobody wanted them.

You can buy The Nazi Hunters at Booksplea.se

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Review: Savage Continent by Keith Lowe

Savage Continent
5
of 5

My version:
Paperback
Non Fiction Second World War
Penguin
2013
Bought

The end of the Second World War saw a terrible explosion of violence across Europe. Prisoners murdered jailers. Soldiers visited atrocities on civilians. Resistance fighters killed and pillories collaborators. Ethnic cleansing, civil war, rape, and murder were rife in the days, months and years after hostilities ended. Exploring a Europe consumed by vengeance, Savage Continent is a shocking portrait of an until-now unacknowledged time of lawlessness and terror.

“They were hungry, bereaved and bitter about the years of suffering they had been made to endure – before they could be motivated to start rebuilding they needed time to vent their anger, to reflect and to mourn.”

The they are of course ‘us,’ the winners. The Germans, the losers, had/have no right to feel in anyway aggrieved by anything ‘we’ did to ‘them,’ did they?

They started it, after all. So they should expect it, keep quiet, take it and do nothing. They knew they’d got it coming, so they can’t complain. However, what about those ‘we’ who worked for ‘them’? Yeah, they got what was coming to them as well. And why shouldn’t we look the other way when our boys in uniform let off steam? After all they’d been through. And those out in the east of Europe? Well, let them do what they’ve always done to each other. Also to the Germans.

As the book points out (not this bit) most of the western WWII books have been written by the western parties of the alliance. About what happened over here. Whereas “The true horror, as usual, occurred not in the west but in the east.” Their need for ‘justice’ was understandably more deserved. Wasn’t it? Take Ukraine. The Germans smashed their way over on their way to Russia. And on the way back. Followed by the Russians who also smashed Ukraine for having helped the Germans. And then kept smashing them until 1989. The Poles were just brushed aside by both, both ways and afterwards.

This ‘revenge’ angle, background and consequences, forms the main theme for the book, I think. Well I got this from it anyway. When is revenge one or the other? One and not the other? Is it justified by what the victims have gone through? How would that be measured, so the response is appropriate? By whom? The book also subconsciously addresses the ‘what would YOU have done?’ angle, by presenting what did go on. Would you have done any differently? You can’t sit there now and say they shouldn’t have done it. Were the Jews justified? Was anyone, when very, very little of the revenge was carried out on the perpetrators. And was the ‘justice’ of a clean execution at the hands of the Allies, adequate considering the crimes they committed and the thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions they committed them against? Justice still gets mixed up and used for revenge even now. Hillsborough for example. Rightly or wrongly, they don’t want justice, they want revenge. And because I’m not from Liverpool, hold no special regard for Liverpool, and have never had or wanted children, who am I to say that they shouldn’t get their revenge? I’m not going to do it. That’s up to them to find their own peace.

Neither justice nor revenge ever brought anyone back from the dead. Never re-built a house, a city or a life. A ‘punishment’ wrecks more than it builds. As a warning? Well, full prisons of people having committed the same crimes people have committed since Cain slew Abel would seem to answer that. So what is the point of revenge, if not to make the victim feel better? Through causing the perpetrator – and their family and/or friends, the same, or worse, pain? How many times have we heard “shooting is too good for him”? They don’t want justice, they want revenge. Not to at as a warning to others, but to make themselves feel better, by causing others ‘justifiable’ pain. That is then the key, the justifiable. Who would argue that the Jews shouldn’t have some form of revenge over the Nazis who killed so many of their fellow Jews? Not many, even now.

It’s not as if, at least in the start, revenge was so widespread because the authorities looked the other way and condoned it. There was, as the book points out, no authority. No law, no Policemen – none that could be trusted, or none left. And there were fewer and fewer left at the start of the period, because the people took the chance to have their revenge on them!

No one came out of it whiter than white. Let’s just be glad we’re not in Eastern Europe, the six months before and the two years after the end of the war. What the book does very well, is show the silliness of the general picture I think a lit of people still have. “From the safety of the twenty first century, we tend to imagine the Second World War as a single, unambiguous conflict between the Allies on one side and the Axis on the other.” One side fought the other. We knew who we were and they knew who they were. They were black, we were white. They lost we won. As always, life isn’t wasn’t like that. Shades of grey as always. But it needs reinforcing next time you feel good about Great Britain beating the Germans and setting the Jews free. We didn’t want them any more than the Germans did. ‘Homeland’? We were glad to get shot of Palestine and the whole ghastly problem was moved a reassuring ‘long way away.’ The silliness too of seeing the Second World War as something that stopped in Europe on a certain date in 1945. While the book – and other books I’ve read; Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings, etc – make it reasonably clear that the Second World War continued until 1989 for many, many people, even the blurb on the back falls into the trap of describing events “after hostilities ended!”

The book seemed planned out like a thesis. Where he states his aims, why he thought how he did, what he wanted to look at – then does it. It hangs together in that way, very well indeed. It is nicely written and well explained. It does, in the second half/final third, get way too bogged down in the Romanian situation leading to Communist power. Goes into way more detail than is needed to hold interest. You know what the biggest feeling you get from reading this? Thank fuck I wasn’t there. Thank fuck the heroes were.

And, while reading this, you’ll come to realise – IS, Islamic State? They are amateurs beside this sort of savagery. Compared to some of the ‘medieval’ barbarism documented here, IS are a bunch of squeamish Girl Guides helping little old ladies across the road. Rest assured they’d none of them lasted five minutes in Eastern Europe during or just after WWII.

You can buy Savage Continent at The Book Depository

Relevant reviews on Speesh Reads:

Forged In FuryThe Second World War

 

 

 

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Hanns and Rudolf. The German Jew and the Hunt for the Commandant of Auschwitz

Hanns and Rudolf

Hanns and Rudolf. The German Jew and the Hunt for the Commandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is, was, an extraordinary story, no matter how you look at it. The author is related to someone, who, when young in the 1930’s, was effectively forced to flee Germany and settle in England. Because he was, as you’ve guessed, a Jew. The story comes to light, to the author’s attention, after his relative, Hanns Alexander, has died, as Hanns himself, seems not to have liked talking about the story all that much.

What is the story? Well, the other ‘half’ of it, relates to Rudolf Höss, who was, for the main part of its existence, Commandant at the Aushwitz concentration camp(s) complex. They are born in Germany at roughly the same time, grow up, go to school and, well, for all intents and purposes, at this point, in the days before and even just after, the Nazi Party’s rise to power, have the same possibilities in their lives ahead. However, for obvious reasons, their lives take very different paths.

The two men’s lives are re-told in some detail and the book alternates between the life threads, based on periods. The story is presented in a clear, matter of fact, this was how it was, style, but not commented on by the author. No ‘ooh, look this is horrible’ or ‘this is normal.’ It is unavoidable, of course, for the reader. As it should be, if you’re getting what he intends you to get from it, I guess.

What did I get from it? Well, you’ll probably be as interested as I was in reading this, to form your own opinion(s). If you’re looking for historical perspective, warnings to now, ‘must never happen again’ passages, you won’t find them. Of course, a fair bit of everyone’s focus is, always has been, how could they do this? But that’s looking at the German people now and wondering if they have it in them. Rudolf Höss is pretty normal, for Nazi Germany. The way I see it, all he was doing, in his view, was solving a problem, being presented with another problem, solving that, moving on. As I got from his own comments, he really didn’t see anything abnormal about it, but you have to consider that ‘normal’ was in a different place back then, back there, in those circumstances. And once you’ve been doing something, getting away with it if you like, for a while, that becomes ‘normal.’

The story is of course, that Hanns, joins the British army and is instrumental in tracking down and capturing Rudolf. Their lives are intertwined from start to Rudolf’s finish. It is a really interesting, well-put, engrossing book. Important in the way of being totally aware of what went on back then, and how. The why, is up to you. Thoroughly recommended.

 

Buy Hanns and Rudolf at The Book Depository

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Review: The Northmen’s Fury. A History of the Viking World

The Northmen's Fury
The Northmen’s Fury. A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another history of the Vikings? Do we really need another one? Well, yes, if they’re as good as this one.

This is an easily digested, engrossing, reads like a novel, time-line history. No darting about, not too long on one area, no frills history. I thought it was pretty good. I thought it read like it had been written to try and bring the Vikings to a new, younger generation, though without dumbing down any.  If you’ve read other Viking histories (as I have – and plenty), you’ll already know a lot of this. But there is a fair bit of new information.  However – and maybe for the paperback – I would say that we now know that sunstones are a thing.

The real value of non-fiction books, I often feel, is found in the back. The appendix which lists all the references contained in the book proper. At least in general non-fiction books, like those on Vikings. Because you’re not really expected to plough through from start to finish. Well, maybe so, but they do seem written with the expectation that you’ll return to them time and time again, when something sparks your interest elsewhere and you think “I wonder if that book on the Vikings has anything on that…”
Unless, that is, you’ve found a book dealing with a specific part of the Viking story. Vikings in America, for instance.

Also it was strange, not to mention irritating, to see where I now live written as ‘Jutland.’ In case you were wondering, it’s Jylland. Home of the Vikings.

 

Me, on Goodreads.

Review: Catastrophe

Catastrophe
Catastrophe by Max Hastings

My rating: of 5 stars

If not the most pointless of all wars, certainly the most pointless that killed the most people. Can’t argue with that. What you can argue with, what I thought emerges from Max Hasting’s look at the first few months in the lead up to and the first few months after the start of the First World War – is what caused it. But then, I thought, the ‘what caused it’ angle is something we’ve all become too accustomed with, living in the 2000’s, maybe. We’re all looking for the smoking gun the whole time, for someone to point at and blame. There are no accidents anymore, someone must be guilty/responsible! It couldn’t have ‘just happened.’ Well, from this book, I’d say the First World War did just happen. Everything was in place for something to happen, and equally as many people wanted and looked forward to something happening, as didn’t.

Problem was, they were the wrong people, looking forward to the wrong war, the wrong reasons at the wrong time. A 19th – even 18th in some cases – Century war, fought in the 20th Century. With the wrong tactics, the wrong weapons and the wrong ideas of how to put it right. Everything that could go wrong, did. However, the people for whom it was a ‘Catastrophe’ weren’t those who wanted the war, they were those who it was decided, should fight it. Certainly there are here tales of silly officers committing ‘glorious’ suicide by charging 20th Century machine-gun posts on horse-back with sword drawn…but, the world is better off without fools like that, than with them in charge. They were doing later generations a Darwinian favour.

Before the war, it seems alliances changed and shifted the whole time. It’s hard to keep track of sometimes – me reading and them at the time. Stepping back, he seems to say that Germany’s ambitions for dominance and empire were already being achieved through their growing industrial and economic dominance. They didn’t need a war. But the under-employed, old-fashioned ruling class, certainly did. To ‘clear the air.’ Britain seems almost reluctantly drawn in, and countries went to war because it was either expected of them, or their allies were going to war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, well…there was really no saving them. So many years of in-breeding has never bred a bigger bunch of arrogant, out of touch idiots masquerading as buffoons ever. It doesn’t feel right though, to even try and make light, or fun, of those in charge (as ‘Blackadder’ did, to my annoyance and contempt at the time, I’d like to point out). Because their arrogance and ineptitude and failure to realise that the world had turned and left them behind, on both sides, resulted in people, the enemy and their own, hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, dying.

Another book on the first world war I’ve seen, but not read as yet, has it about right for me, after reading Catastrophe, called it’s called Sleepwalkers. They didn’t really seem to know where they were going, and were completely un-able to stop. Seems silly to say that? Can’t believe it? Read the book, you’ll agree with me.

The marshalling of facts and evidence here, is again (after reading All Hell Let Lose), is astounding. He has some team of researchers out there, does Max (as there’s surely no way he has the time to go finding every little nugget presented in his books). But the final pulling together, the links made, the ease of reading and understanding, is – even in my limited experience of his works – all Max and always to be admired. I bet even his shopping lists are a wonder to behold. He is looking at, presenting, the situation that lead up to war and then the process of the first few months. The book stops as the trench-warfare that would come to dominate and stagnate the majority of the war, is beginning. Max always seems to let you draw your own conclusions, his style, to me, never seems to present his version, though it must, as he is determining what to include or leave out. But I never, ever get the feeling he is saying ‘look, this is why.’ I feel like I have come to my conclusions. I did, however, enjoy his taking the ‘War Poets’ down several pegs. That was good.

There was, as I say, no ‘magic bullet’ so there’s no point in looking for one. If you know what happened at the end of WWI and/or have read any about the start of WWII, you’ll know that the war to end all wars, was the fuck-up to end all fuck-ups, that started the next one. The lesson there for the learning, was how to stop the thing happening again. But they didn’t and it did.

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Review: Wulfsuna

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
My rating: of 5 stars

Lighting up a previously dark age in my personal historical knowledge, Wulfsuna is a convincing and compulsive tale that starts with a bang of betrayal, battle and blood – and builds from there.

Wulfsuna, is the start of a series of books featuring the characters and begins in AD433 on the south-eastern coasts of what will later become England. The ‘later become…’ is hard to get away from when describing events of this period. That’s because – as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you – they weren’t of course Anglo-Saxons at the time, we now call them. Saxons or Angles, though what they actually called themselves – apart from ‘Wolf Sons,’ I’m not sure. ‘E.S.’ goes for ‘Seaxon,’ deriving from the Seax, a dagger and ‘symbol of freedom’ (Seax, you’ll see features as a weapon in many Hist Fic stories) but doesn’t, in my mind, sit all that easily with them being from ‘Sachsen,’ in Germania. See, you really do struggle to describe the period in period terms, though I didn’t really feel it would do justice to the book’s depth, to reduce it simply to ‘Germans coming to England.’ Both terms belonging obviously to a much later date. As the book works hard to put over, these were very ‘fluid’ times and there was a lot of too-ing and fro-ing of peoples across the English Channel and the North Sea. Those terms again being later inventions of course. Oh bugger…

Anyway, what happens? Well, there is a lot of confusion. The Romans have departed, well, their systems have, as how many were actual ‘Romans’ and not Roman-icised Britons in the later stages – and therefore how far they would actually have had to travel, to return ‘home’, is perhaps open to discussion. The Legions have gone anyway, but many of the the mercenaries the Romans padded out their forces with, from many lands other than Britain and not just Angles and Saxons, are still there. After being away for 20 years, the Wulfsuna are returning to the islands of the ‘Brytons’ from the mainland. Some are returning to where they were actually born, as I read it, some coming over for the first time. Some have good intentions, want to settle and live a good life, others have different ideas and have brought old rivalries that were thought to been settled back ‘home,’ with them. They’ve been fighting for the Romans, generally against the ‘original’ inhabitants of Britain. But when more Angles started coming over – often to finish the job – some turned round and fought against the new ‘invaders,’ while some couldn’t see why they should fight against their own kind. The real losers, the ones who could genuinely say “Oi! We were here first!” are those we now call Celts, but whom the Angles and Saxons called ‘Wealisc,’ or foreigners. Interesting, eh? The foreigners calling the inhabitants foreigners. Having my whole family living in Wales and half now actually being Welsh on their passports, it gives me even more reason to tell them I spit (after winding down the car window first, of course) when I drive over the border from England.

I’m not going to give you any much more, because as it starts the development of the – for me anyway – pivotal elements, very nearly from the start. I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment – or shock – for you. I did think the situation and the dilemma(s) facing Wulfgar, as he tries to step into the leadership of the Wulfsuna, is very neatly summed up on page 32: “Now he was a Lord over a divided tribe in a strange land.” He needs help, but the tribal members who stayed in Bryton, only seem to raise suspicions, there are potential, blue-painted enemies everywhere (at least they’d be easy to spot, I suppose) and then they come across a young girl by the roadside. She may be good news, may be bad news. But it’s clear she’s destined to travel with them. Coincidences never happened back then, everything was either pre-ordained or the will of the old gods, or the new one. So, she is there for a reason but what it is, what it means and how their fates are entwined is one of the main threads of the story from then on.

Wulfsuna is full of convincingly developed main characters along with some interesting bit players. Wulfgar, especially Sieghild (to whom I warmed immediately) Acgarat, and many more. The young girl Morwyneth’s presence, as a young reluctant ‘seer’ woman, run out of town for having visions she cannot control, etc, is obviously a gigantic cliché. ’She’ features in many books of this kind and I did fear for the worst when she was introduced. You see, I don’t go with the “It seemed she had two choices: to deny herself the seer’s sight for the comfort of community, or accept her powers and spend a life in solitude.” (p71). That’s the cliché, that it’s a ‘burden.’ Nonsense. What a gift! Punch the air with a “Woo-hoo! I can see the future!” Keep quiet about it, improve your life with it, have a good time and use it to your advantage. But, really, no-one can do what she does. No one can see the future, either when they want to, or when, as pretty much here, when they don’t want to and least suspect it. Not before then, not then, not after. Proof? When did you last read ‘Clairvoyant wins Lottery?’ eh? Try never. Interestingly, I have seen the theory that deja vu, is actually the result of time travel. You think you’ve been in that situation before, because you have. Through stepping into a time ‘bubble’ of some sort at some point. Erm, however, to be fair to the good Ms Moxon, I thought Morwyneth’s subsequent development as the tale progressed, was very deftly handled and she could well turn into one of the series’ most interesting characters. It did though raise the question of the genre of the book – should it be filed under Fantasy? If she’s going to continue calling it ‘Historical Fiction,’ it maybe needs the visions and the being stalked by dead mothers toning down a bit in future volumes. It’s one thing having your characters believe ‘magic’ is the cause of things they cannot explain, it’s another thing to have magic actually happen in the story. Then, it’s fantasy. Morwyneth is built up as being ‘one with nature.’ In the absence of any meaningful technology in the period, it is nature which holds the (balance of) power. And those who can read the natural signs, are to be admired or suspected, or, as here, both at the same time. What is good is Morwyneth is used as an outsider to the Wulfsuna, to look at their culture and habits and compare, both to her own, Briton ways – and us and ours’ now. That alone would justify her presence for me. Quite apart from any potential Lotto-winning abilities.

The first two or three chapters I did find something of a rocky road – some of the dialogue felt like it was written in the way you would tell someone else what happened, rather than the character describing whist IS happening. The first chapter or so did feel a bit rushed as well, too much information and character swings too early. As it was the start of a series, there wasn’t the need to bring us up to speed so quickly and it felt a little forced. I also wondered if she hadn’t gone through multiple alterations before publishing and actually forgotten to put it back in some of the neccessary parts. Like this one: ‘“Wulfgar leaned on the side of the boat, his iron-splinted vambraces winking in the sunlight.” ‘Vambraces’? What are they? Where are they, are they on Wulfgar, alongside him, where, what? Clearly they’re open to the air, glinting in the sun, but there is absolutely nothing in the preceding or following passages to give a clue as to what they might be. We find out later, but at the time of first reading they just stop the reading flow. Stop it like someone suddenly slapping you. I have seen a review which mentioned something about (they thought) the innappropriate use of some words in the story. They flagged something about the girl making a ‘deal with herself’ as being wrong for the time. ‘Deal’ being a much later word, or similar. I’m no expert, so I couldn’t say. However…the words that worried me and the reason, wasn’t so much for them being wrong for the time period, more for them being wrong for the situation being described at the time, standing out unneccessarily and thereby interrupting my flow. Like cycling along a nice smooth cycle path and suddenly being jolted by hitting a rock you didn’t see coming. It happened a few times over the first couple of chapters. The one I’m thinking about right now, was this (P59):  “Safe at last, she clutched her abdomen where the ache…” When writing about a lowly, uneducated, lonely girl in a middle of nowhere life in a village in the middle of nowhere, 433AD, ‘abdomen’? No. Stomach, yes. Fits her, fits the passage. She’s not a doctor in the 21st Century, she is the afore-mentioned lowly farm girl. Yes, it’s from Latin, but first began to be used in the mid 16th Century – were I to get all pedantic on your asses. My point is that it stopped me and that was irritating and it made me wonder about the word, instead of being concerned about her. However, from about Chapter Three and onwards, I realised it wasn’t happening any more and it all got a considerably smoother, with a much more satisfying flow thereafter.

Wulfsuna oozes with passion, not just from its characters, but from its author. Clearly, ‘E.S.’ is passionate about this formative period of English history and that comes over very strongly. As does her enjoyment of the tale she is writing. If anything, the book, the series, seems like her attempt at time travel. It all feels right and is – eventually – convincing in its portrayal of life, fashions, thinking, warfare and not least, the landscape. The descriptive passages I found most enjoyable of all, I think. The after-impression I take away from Wulfsuna is that it is a tale full of yearning for a time, attitude, honesty, we have little idea of, nor really total understanding for. To read and fully appreciate a book like this, you need to take your 21st Century head off. To do that and fully immerse yourself into the period, it obviously takes a strong and well-written tale…like Wulfsuna then! After, as I say, the bumpy start, I began to forget myself, forget I needed to go online and book a new travel card, up-date computer software, get the shopping in, ring my Mum and Dad in another time zone…and begin to worry about how they’re going to pitch camp tonight, where they’re going to find enough to eat, why is he riding to tell them all that, is she really in touch with the spirits… And when you get to the end, while the bad news is you’ve finished the book, the good news is, there’s a second and maybe more books on the way.

The above was what I posted last week on my Goodreads review. This is extra.

I, perhaps like many, was always under the impression that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc came over to the British Isles, after the Romans left, in pretty much a single wave of conquest. However, If you want a clearer idea of idea of what the latest (well, up to when the book was written a few years ago) thinking based on archaeology, is, I can thoroughly recommend Britain A.D. by Francis Pryor. In fact, that book would be a lovely primer, for this one. As would Matthew Harffy’s The Serpent Sword. They might put a few things in place before you dive in. Wulfsuna also does a very good job – from the cover and inwards – of showing how the Anglo-Saxons moving into the British Isles, were both the fore-runners of and sprang from, pretty much the same source as, the Viking peoples. Unless you keep that in mind, you could become a little confused and have trouble perhaps pinning the period down in your mind, with the talk of gods that have similar names to the ones you know from the Vikings, but clearly aren’t the same – and are a couple of hundred years before Vikings came to prominence. Remember, they – like the languages – sprang from the same Germanic source and, just as the peoples moved away from each other, their beliefs, while similar, developed nuances of their own. Luckily, we have people like young Miss Moxon on hand to help.

Buy Wulfsuna at The Book Depository

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Review: Viking America. The Norse Crossings and their Legacy

Viking America

 

Viking America The Norse Crossings and their Legacy by Robert Enterline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s only a short book, but that’s because there isn’t very much information about the Norse exploration of North America. There are some mentions in the Icelandic Sagas and, of course, there is a Viking settlements (or way-station) that has been discovered in northern Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows, but very little else. Or is there?

From extensive work pouring over old maps, old texts and old legends, Robert Enterline worked out an interesting new theory, presented here in this book.

“First, that Leif Eiriksson’s successors in Greenland eventually vacated that land and spread throughout North America, as far as Alaska, meanwhile sending to Europe geographical information that sparked Columbus’ voyage. Second, that Leif Eiriksson’s North American “Vinland” of A.D. 1000 was not a land of grapes on the temperate eastern seaboard but a land of pastures in nearly arctic Canada.”

He does point out that his ideas that Norse exploration in America was a lot more extensive and long-lasting than the physical evidence so far might suggest, may well go against conventional thinking. “Such an idea is completely at variance with all hitherto accepted theories, which looked upon Leif’s contact with America as an isolated incident having no historical consequences.” Those theories also include the Greenland colony, from which the Norse Vinland explorers set out, died out somewhere around (if I read it right, 1400, give or take. His explanation, whie not necessarily ruling out the existing ideas, is different, logical and very interesting, leading as it does, to the first part of his theory.

The book also concentrates on Columbus and his voyage to rediscover the New World, as that tells us much about what he knew before he set out and where he knew it from. Where he got his idea that land was where he said it was, the book suggests, is those Norse explorations in northern America. It is perhaps worth saying here too, that you shouldn’t think ‘Vikings’ and have a picture from the story books (or the tv programme) in your mind. You should learn to call them ’Norse.’ And, when you see ‘America’ try not to think ‘USA’ but northern, up to the Arctic circle, Canada. In fact, attempting to remove preconceptions, is perhaps what the book tries to do. Saying we need to look at the evidence again, re-interpret, where it can be re-interpreted.

It is a little difficult sometimes, as he seems to have two competing ideas on what Columbus’ intentions (of finding) were and how he knew what he’d find and where. One is, I think, that Columbus knew there was land exactly where he found it. We think, or have built the legend that he was looking for Asia, but that knowledge of both the roundness and the size of the earth was sufficient at the time, to show that by sailing westward, with the supplies he had, there was no way he could have reached eastern Asia. Therefore, he must have known that there was something else where his supplies would run out and he only had that amount of supplies, because he knew something was there. And he knew that, thanks to the Norse explorations. “Detailed analysis of pre-Columbian maps, as well as other geographical ideas that were in the air just before the Columbian discovery of America, suggests strongly that such shadowy, frequently misunderstood information did exist, and was based on the dispersal of the Norse settlements in Greenland into America.”

The other idea is that the information coming back to Europe from the Norse explorations, was that what they had found, was the east coast of Asia. Though that that was never anything the Norse themselves claimed. This, if I read it right, would seem to be confirmed by Enterline’s stating that Columbus thought the world was actually pear shaped. The Norse themselves, thought they had discovered a new land, outside the (known) world and that if you travelled south along the coast of it long enough, you would come to Africa.

The book was published in 1972, and so I think while there is mention of the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows in the 1960’s, it seems like it was still ‘Breaking News.’ So, he doesn’t know about the nuts and the Jasper found at the site, which would seem, in essence, to compliment at the very least, his proposition.

It’s an analytic study of the actual evidence and his reasons for his theory, using both probability and possibility to construct some very convincing and intreguing arguments. So it doesnt read like a Giles Kristian or a Robert Low. It read to me, like a book trying to present a new theory, knowing there was going to be resistance from the established Archaeological and Historical community, but that Historical romantics with perhaps more open minds *raises hand* would appreciate the theory being presented. So, the tone is one in the middle of dry factual study and more appealing easy reading for Historical Fiction aficionados. You’re not going to race through it, not being able to put it down, but give it a go and see what you think. If you know something of the background, you’ll be intrigued, if you know nothing, it might just set you off on further explorations of your own.

I’m giving it 5 stars because it is so darned interesting and is a positive, up-beat alternative to Erik Wahlgren’s ‘Im right, you’re wrong’ ‘The Vikings and America.’

Click on the book cover at the top and you’ll go to a search page for the title on Abe Books. That’s where I got my copy.

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs

Elizabeth's Sea Dogs
Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs by Hugh Bicheno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know about you, but I love reading non-fiction history books like this, as much as I like reading fiction books. Packed with interesting information, insight and juicy tidbits all the way through, it really is a pleasure to lose myself back in the 1500s once again.

However (I won’t say ‘but’ as of course ‘everything before the ‘but,’ is bullshit,’ as you well know) when a book is so richly and densely packed with detail and insight as Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs is, I wonder how much of it can we really hope to take in? How much of it am I going to be able to recall a year from now? In my case I spend the first half of such a book worrying I’m not going to remember all this. Then I relax, remind myself I’m not actually going to get tested on it afterwards, enjoy the second half and resolve to dip back in and out should the need arise in the future. It is nigh on impossible to take on (or in) the wealth of facts presented here and it’s probably more beneficial to my overall reading experience, to know I have this book available to me in the future, if I need. I think if you’re more relaxed when reading you probably absorb more. But then, how much should/could/can I really reasonably expect to learn, or remember, of books like this? I would imagine, if you were right now asked to write down what happens, in a book of fiction you read and enjoyed a year ago, you might reasonably be expected to fill a half or two thirds of an A4 page. So why, when a book like this is packed with ten times the information of the average fiction book do I expect myself to remember more, but think I will actually remember less?

So, I think we’re dealing with impressions. And my impression is, that this is an excellent book for background of the period, written by an author clearly at the top of his game and it is packed with wit, style and strong opinions. See here; “It says much about the demise of once-thriving Tudor scholarship in England, that the most recent biography of Sir John Hawkins is a prissy tome, whose premise is that he was ‘Queen Elizabeth’s slave trader’, written by Harry Kelsey, an American archivist so mitred in the modern obsessions of the American Academy that he projects them back to the 16th Century.” You gotta love an author who doesn’t mess about and names names. He knows he’s writing the definitive piece on the period, don’t you think? Surely, no one is going to dare to venture he might be mistaken in his opinions. And live to write again…

It kicks off with a very interesting look at how different – and yet how amazingly similar – these first Elizabethans were to us second Elizabethans (I am still an ‘Elizabethan’ until I take Danish citizenship, OK?). Right off, you’re with him in what he knows of the period and not thinking “Errol Flynn” every time there’s mention of Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh and the like. He then looks at the society and social conditions that gave rise to the ‘golden age’ of Elizabethan exploration, conflict and conquest. Good and bad. The good are Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher and Elizabeth. The bad are the various Popes, Philips, Spaniards and Catholics in general. We go all the way through the period until, of course, Elizabeth’s death and what this time meant for later periods and the way Britain developed afterwards. The overriding impression of the period I’m left with is – how on earth did they achieve so much, travel so far and fight when they got there, when lack of even a basic understanding of hygiene (especially that when large numbers of people are gathered to get her for extended periods) so decimated their numbers? Like eating lemons to avoid Scurvy, for example. You were a Lemon seller in the ports of England at the time, you went bankrupt! Forget cannons, muskets and swords, perhaps the most deadly weapons the English had, I seem to remember one Spanish source speculating, was the deadly diseases their ships arrived in the Americas/Spanish ports, riddled with. You don’t see sailors dropping like flies in the background of Errol Flynn’s version of Sir Walter Raleigh, but you do in Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs. It often reads as though to have survived as long as some of them did (and the life expectancy was low, because so many died young, a fortunate few could indeed live around about as long as we do now) you needed to be born lucky. That includes of course, being born rich, but as the book often details, that didn’t safeguard you against deadly diseases cooped up on a galloon on the Spanish Main, with several hundred others all suffering from all sorts of rampant diseases. Or from falling out of favour with the wrong people at the Palace…

And what a set of bastards they were. Not just to the Spanish, but also to each other. And what a penny-pinching, dithering, old schemer Queen Elizabeth I was.

If you read this, or this sort of period is your ‘thing’, I can also recommend The Confident Hope of a Miracle. The True Story of the Spanish Armada (the title line there is also quoted in Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs), by Neil Hanson. As well as The British in the Americas 1480 – 1815, by Anthony McFarlane. All, along with Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs are more than worthy of a place in the Non-Fiction section of your bookcase.

View all my reviews

9 October, it’s Leif Ericson Day

And who was that, by the way?

Leif EricksonIf you need to ask, or think it was the guy who played John Cannon, in High Chaparral, then you have no business here – begone!

So, yes today in the USA, the 9th of October, it is/has been, Leif Erikson Day. And yes, it does celebrate the man who possibly led the Viking seamen who became the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas. Why the 9th of October? Well, it’s called after the day when the immigrant sloop ‘Restauration’ sailing from Stavanger, Norway, arrived in New York harbour in 1825. The first ship of Norwegian settlers to arrive in the USA.

By the way, you can’t really say ‘discovered’, as I’m sure the Native American people who were already there, didn’t realise they needed discovering.

His actual name was Leif, Leifr, or Leifur and he is thought to have been born on Iceland, around A.D. 970. His surname, was, given it is an Icelandic name, based on his father’s first name. So his father was Eric. Eric the Red, in full.

Leif EricsonWhat we have in the way of evidence for Vikings in America, is in the Icelandic Sagas and at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada. The Viking trips to America are mentioned in several sagas.

As with a lot of these sort of ‘firsts’, Leif gave his name to the achievement, but may well not have actually been the very first European to set foot on dry American land. As the Wikipedia page for Leif says:

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen‘s translation of the two sagas in the book Voyages To Vinland, Leif was not the first European to discover America, nor the first to make landfall there: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when travelling from Norway to Greenland, Leif was also blown off course, to a land that he did not expect to see, where he found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country, and went back to Greenland… Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see America beyond Greenland, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.

What I learned first, was that it wasn’t such a long journey. They were probably of Norwegian descent, these Vikings, but if you look at a globe, you can see how they could do it in fairly bite-sized trips. From Norway, to The Shetland Isles, to the Faroes (still a Danish protectorate), to Iceland, to Greenland (possibly named by one of the Eriksons to try and entice people to go live there), then to the very north east coast of what is now Canada. I’m sure I read somewhere, that it is possible, if you stand on a hill high enough, close enough to the coastline and on a clear day, to see your next landfall, from the previous land, all the way over to Canada. I’ve never tried it (unfortunately), so I can’t say if it’s true or not. But instead of thinking what a long way it must have been to sail all the way from Norway to Canada in a trading boat from the Viking era, think more of a series of short island hops. Nearly.

So, where did they set foot in America?

The lands the sagas say they discovered, they named Helluland, which the Old Norse-speakers amongst you will of course recognise as meaning ‘Flat-Rock Land’ and possibly a reference to Baffin Island. So that would be where you’d find the first European footprints on American soil. They also landed, the sagas say, at a place they called Markland, which may refer to the coast of Labrador. People always say Markland meant forest land and it quite probably does. Having lived in and spoken Danish, for up to 10 years now, I can only say that a ‘mark‘, to a Dane, would be a ‘field‘. I live at Havremarksvej, for example. Which means Oats Field’s Road. I’m just saying. Then they got on to the place you all know and love, Vinland. Always referred to as meaning the land of grapes, or wine. This is still disputed. As I remember partly because grapes don’t/didn’t grow as far north as the areas traditionally associated with being Vinland. They might have been just berries. And another theory is based around how you spell ‘Vin‘. I think it’s if you have the ´accent over the í, like that, as it may have been written in the sagas, it actually can mean ‘good‘, as in good land for farming.  As Graeme Davis (see below) says; “In Old Norse vin means good, fertile land – land which may be cultivated meaning emphasised by the element, land, which again means farmland.” The modern Danish for good or fine, is ‘fin‘, land is usually used to mean country, or countryside.

Vinland it would seem, may be what the Vikings called the whole of the rest of the land they discovered. The whole of north America. They were looking for good farmland and they found plenty of it.

Why write about this on a book blog?

Well, firstly, I find the whole concept of Vikings in America fascinating. Secondly, I’m using this day’s connection to point you in the direction of two books I have read, which detail pretty much what is known about the Viking voyages to the New World.

The first book you really owe it to yourself to check out if you want to gen up on Vikings and America, is the cunningly titled Vikings In America, by Graeme Davis. I have reviewed and mentioned it before, but it really is good enough to be mentioned again here. And here’s what the blurb on the back says:

When Columbus claimed to have discovered America in 1492, and the Borgia Pope claimed it as a New World for Catholic Spain, the Vatican started a 500 hundred year conspiracy to conceal the true story of Viking America. In this groundbreaking new work by the author of The Early English Settlement of Orkney and Shetland, the true extent of the Viking discovery and colonisation of the eastern seaboard of America is fully examined, taking into account the new archaeological, linguistic and DNA evidence which supplements the historic account. For four centuries or more, from their first visits around AD 1000 to the eve of the Columbus voyages, the Vikings explored and settled thousands of miles of the coasts and rivers of North America. From New York’s Long Island to the Canadian High Arctic the New World was a playground for Viking adventurers. And the name the Vikings gave to this New World – America.

The Vikings In America - Erik WahlgrenThe other, is a bit more straight-laced shall we say, than Graeme Davis’ book, it’s The Vikings and America, Ancient Peoples and Places, by Erik Wahlgren. He doesn’t stand for no messing about with ‘evidence’ of Vikings’ travels further inland, like the Kensington runestone and this is perhaps more of a thorough investigation of the evidence so far. Or, as it was when it was published. As things have moved on a little, with more evidence emerging of further possible sites for Viking landings further south of L’Anse Aux Meadows and even of hints they might have travelled/explored further inland.

Here’s what Amazon says about this one:

Excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland have revealed the presence of the Vikings around AD 1000. But was this the mysterious Vinland (“land of grapevines”) which, according to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Eriksson discovered almost one thousand years ago? In his account Wahlgren argues for a location farther south and also suggests Viking exploration far to the North. He also answers the question: “Why did the Vikings eventually leave the New World?” with his theory that a worsening climate and attacks by native Eskimos and Indians put paid to the first European presence in North America.

L'Anse aux MeadowsAnd what is L’Anse aux Meadows? Well, it’s the only – so far – verified place we know the Vikings were in North America. At L’Anse aux Meadows we can say, with certainty, the Vikings landed on American soil. It was discovered in 1960 by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad. You can see it on Google Maps (the ‘A’). You can read and see more on the Parks Canada website. The photo I’ve used here, is of one of the reconstructed Viking dwellings they have there, is from their website and doesn’t say who it was taken by.

That’s it. Go read more about the Vikings and America. Go celebrate Leif Ericson Day (maybe next year for those of you in Europe, or east thereof). But definitely go say “Columbus? Who?!”

Today is the Anniversary of Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066

If you’ve had a look through some of the books I’ve read on this blog, you’ll see more than a few are set in and around the 1066 period. I haven’t actively sought out books to do with this period, it’s just that there seems to be at the moment, a fair few of them about.

The Norman Conquest 1

Today is the anniversary of one of the two less famous battles of 1066. And I’ve noticed a couple of interesting links I thought you might like to check out.

This is a link to a quite excellent piece (one would expect nothing less) from the blog of historian Marc Morris, not by coincidence, the writer of The Norman Conquest book, which I recently read. And thoroughly enjoyed reading (if you only read one book on 1066, etc).

The Norman Conquest 2

This is a link to a podcast on the BBC Radio 4 programme called In Our Time, where four (I think) historians talk about the events before and leading up to the battle of Stamford Bridge. I say ‘before and leading up to’, because – and I suppose we should blame time constraints here, as Melvin Bragg points out few times) – of the battle itself, they say very little, to next to nothing. In over 40 minutes. Which kind of makes you wonder why the title was ‘The Battle of Stamford Bridge.’

The Norman Conquest 3

However, Marc Morris’ blog post does manage to stick to talking about the actual battle and I would dare to suggest, tells us more about it in his five and a bit paragraphs, than these four (?) esteemed professors managed to in their 40 minutes. Actually, the whole podcast is worth a listen just to hear Melvin Bragg jumping in time and time again to keep the historians from rambling off into unconnected areas 😉

Another good, if not great, reason for you to go buy Marc Morris’ book, The Norman Conquest. Now. Here and or here.

I used to (before moving to Denmark) live up in the north of England, in Leeds, reasonably near York and Stamford Bridge. We drove through the village many times and stopped more than once for a cheeky pint in the local pub. There isn’t much of any kind of indication of where the battle took place, but as they say in the radio podcast, there is a small monument to the battle in the centre of the village. Or there was, as it is 10 years nearly, since I left the UK, f’goodness’ sake.

Suggestion: As Marc Morris does stick to the subject, the battle, I’d suggest you read his post first, and then listen to the Radio 4 programme, as a way of filling in more background details – such as they are – of the general situation in England and Europe in the period leading up to 1066 and all that.

Must say thanks to Justin Hill (@jhillauthor) for the link to the BBC Radio 4 podcast and Marc Morris (@Longshanks1307) for the link to his blog post.