All posts by Fred Michmershuizen

William L. Shirer’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’

The best thing that happens in this very long book is that Hitler kills himself. It comes at the end, in late April 1945. By this time the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, had retaken France and were advancing into Germany from the West. The Russian army was closing in on Berlin from the East, and the leader of the Third Reich was holed up in an underground bunker with military personnel, some aides, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife and their six young children, and a few other hangers-on, including a female companion, Eva Braun, whose secret relationship with the Fuehrer had been kept from the public all this time.

With his regular army disintegrating by the day, the deranged murderous lunatic at the center of it all was ordering old men, and even boys as young as 10 years old, to fight. Some of this insanity is depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “Jojo Rabbit,” which is in current release and is presented as a comedy even though the story is anything but funny. Hitler was cruel and evil, and he was also crazy. In the end he was telling his people that he was about to unleash secret weapons (not a nuclear bomb but rather jet fighters and rockets) that would alter the course of the war — which, by this time, he was losing decisively. Hitler had also been consulting his horoscope, which told of a big sign coming that would signal a change in the course of the war. Even when the “sign” materialized (FDR’s death), it did not change things. The war in Europe was about to end with the total defeat of Nazi Germany. Sadly, this did not come before 50 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. Among the dead were 6 million Jews, who had been murdered by racist thugs as part of an intricately planned, systematic effort at genocide.

Hitler died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and his wife died of cyanide poisoning when she bit down on a glass capsule. Their bodies were then placed outside in a bomb crater and, as per Hitler’s instructions, doused with gasoline and burned. They had been married just a day before, in a late-night ceremony in which both bride and groom had to vow in accordance with German law that they were each of pure Aryan blood. The next day Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and then themselves. Others in the bunker either committed suicide or fled. This is depicted in the 2004 movie “Downfall,” in German with English subtitles. The German military officially surrendered a week later.

“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer, is a book I had been long meaning to read, but it’s length — more than 1,200 pages including notes and bibliography — and dark subject matter had held me back. The picture of the book shown here is a hi-res scan of my hard copy. I chose to cover the Nazi emblem on the jacket and spine with black masking tape. It was originally published in 1960. This is a 30th anniversary edition published in 1990. The author was a broadcast journalist who was in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power and who witnessed many of the events firsthand. He also drew upon the vast amount of Nazi government documents that were recovered after the war, testimony of witnesses and defendants at the Nuremburg trials that followed, as well as personal interviews.

I picked up this book now because it fits in well with the World War II-era presidents I am currently reading biographies of. I wanted to learn more about the war and about Hitler, especially where he came from and how he came to power. It was not pleasant to read this book, which describes what is arguably the darkest chapter in all of human history.

For today’s book report I’ll summarize some of the key points of what I learned, but first, some terminology. Reich means realm or empire. The Third Reich was Nazi Germany, which lasted for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. The First Reich refers to the Holy Roman Empire, which existed from the Middle Ages until the rise of Napoleon in the early 19th century. The Second Reich was better known as the German Empire, which existed from the 1870s until the end of World War I. During both eras there were various emperors (Kaisers) including the last one, Wilhelm II, who had to abdicate at the end of World War I. The Weimar Republic followed World War I and was the constitutional system of representational government established in Germany, with free elections, which sadly only lasted for about 15 years, until Hitler and his Nazi party came to power.

The Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, or National Socialist party, which is a misnomer because the Nazis were not socialists. Rather, the party was based on militant nationalism, expansionism, totalitarianism and overt racism. Fuehrer, which is what they called Hitler, is German for leader. The Luftwaffe was the German air force. The Wehrmacht was the German armed forces, including the army, navy and air force. U-boats were German submarines, as depicted in the 1981 film “Das Boot,” in German with English subtitles. Blitzkrieg meant lightning war, which involved using tanks to overwhelm armies in quick, overwhelming attacks. Lebensraum meant living space, which is what Hitler wanted more of for the German people, but only those belonging to the Aryan race, which he considered superior to all others.

Hitler laid out his plans in “Mein Kampf,” which translates to “My Struggle.” According to Hitler and his stupid book, the master race was entitled to expand eastward, take over the land and kill or enslave the inferior races. That was his evil plan from the beginning.

Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, which at the time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when he was very young his family moved to Germany, when it was still the German Empire or Second Reich as mentioned above, and then back to Austria. His father was a civil servant and he wanted his son to follow in that career path, but Hitler wanted to become a painter. After dropping out of high school Hitler moved to Vienna and applied to art school, but he was turned away for lack of talent. Vienna at the time was one of the most beautiful, vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the world, but for the next several years Hitler lived in squalor and might have been homeless for a time. He started reading racist literature that helped solidify his hatred for Jews.

In 1913, according to the book, Hitler moved to Munich, to avoid military service in Austria because he did not want to serve alongside Jews and others whom he considered undesirable. He was still an unemployed loser when war broke out a year later, and despite not being a German citizen he managed to get permission to join the Bavarian army. He fought bravely and received the Iron Cross. He attained the rank of Corporal. He was wounded twice, first by being shot in the leg and the second time by a gas attack that left him temporarily blind. It was during his convalescence in the hospital that Germany surrendered, thus ending World War I. According to the book, Hitler cried over this like a baby and later started to blame the “November criminals” for their “stab in the back.” According to this ugly conspiracy theory, which took hold, it was Jewish bankers and others pulling strings behind the scenes which led to Germany’s premature and unnecessary surrender in the war. In truth the German military had been soundly defeated.

The Treaty of Versailles came about after World War I and required Germany to pay reparations and severely limited its ability to build up a military force. It also required Germany to cede territory. To most Germans, these measures were humiliating. Even worse, two rounds of economic hardship ensued. First, there was a period of runaway inflation in the early 1920s that left many people financially destitute. Then, when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929 it set off not only an American depression but a global one, causing massive unemployment throughout Europe and especially in Germany. These were ripe conditions for fringe political parties to take root.

After the war Hitler returned to Munich and got involved with one of these radical organizations, which was a precursor to the Nazi Party, which Hitler took control of. With his hateful, angry rhetoric, Hitler made many speeches and attracted a following. In 1923 he and his followers attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in a coup, which became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolt was unsuccessful, resulting in violence in which police killed several of the co-conspirators. Hitler survived the confrontation and ran away, only to be arrested later. During his subsequent trail, Hitler caused a spectacle in the courtroom with his angry outbursts, which only increased his fame and notoriety. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but he was released after about a year.

While he was incarcerated Hitler began working on “Mein Kampf.” He also reflected on his unsuccessful coup, realizing that if he was to overthrow the government he needed something to replace it with. He also concluded that to come to power he would have to do so through constitutional means, and by infiltrating existing institutions. He and his fellow Nazis divided up the country into districts and appointed regional and local leaders to act as a de-facto shadow government. They also started running candidates for office. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they established a quasi-military police force, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, also known as the Brownshirts) which were basically a bunch of street thugs who used violence and intimidation to bully their political opponents. In federal elections in 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1932, Nazis won seats in the Reichstag, the German legislature, but they never attained a majority. But by 1932 they had more seats than any other party. Also in 1932 Hitler ran for president but lost to Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent, who was a war hero. The way it worked is that the President appointed the Chancellor, who would form a government. But it was difficult to form a government with so many political parties vying for power. In the midst of all this political chaos, in 1933, Hindenburg, who by this time was a very old man and close to death, named Hitler Chancellor.

Shortly thereafter there was a fire in the Reichstag building, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists. In the ensuing confusion, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree giving him emergency powers. The legislature subsequently passed an Enabling Act, officially ceding their power to Hitler. Then a year later Hindenburg died, and rather than calling for new elections Hitler proclaimed himself Supreme Leader and Chancellor, in essence dictator for life. With his new power Hitler outlawed all the rival political parties and had their leaders jailed, shot or sent away to concentration camps. At first the concentration camps were not death camps. That came later. Hitler also outlawed unions and silenced academics and clergy who dared to speak out against him. He also took control of the press. He basically created a police state. Hitler enacted a number of laws targeting Jews, who were forbidden to work at universities or at various other jobs. Many fled or were deported. In November 1938 it got even worse when Jewish schools, synagogues, private homes and businesses were destroyed in a single night of terror, what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.

Hitler was also preparing for war. When he set forth his crazy ideas to the generals, many knew immediately that this would ultimately lead to complete ruin for Germany. But those who dared raise objections were fired, killed or otherwise eliminated by Hitler, one by one. And in disobedience of the Versailles Treaty, first secretly and then openly, Hitler began a campaign to build up the German military, with more ships, tanks and warplanes. This caused unemployment to fall, but wages were low and it was difficult if not impossible for workers to change jobs or seek better working conditions.

Also in violation of Versailles, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been occupied by France, but nobody stopped him. This was in 1936. According to the book, this was the riskiest move Hitler had yet made and had the French stopped him, his whole house of cards would have fallen right then and there. But Hitler had sensed that the World War I allies were wary of armed conflict and would let him get away with quite a lot. He was correct. Hitler next turned his sights on Austria, where many citizens were of German heritage. In March 1938, in what became known as the Anschluss, Hitler annexed Austria. He marched his armies right in and took over, without firing a shot. This is the backdrop of the events depicted in the musical and movie “The Sound of Music.” In the film’s best scene, Captain Von Trapp tears down a Nazi flag and rips it in half. And of course at the end of the movie, rather than accepting a commission in the German Navy, he and Maria lead their family to safety over the Alps into Switzerland.

 

Next Hitler targeted Czechoslovakia, specifically the Sudetenland, or border regions, again where many citizens of German heritage lived. In a policy that became known as appeasement, the allies allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland with a promise that he would stop there. Of course he was lying. Hitler was constantly lying. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made three separate trips to Germany and after the third visit, which took place in Munich in September 1938, he met personally with Hitler and when he returned home he waved the paper and was hailed as a hero for securing the peace.

Shortly thereafter Hitler took not only the Sudetenland but the interior of Czechoslovakia as well, and then he made a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and agreed that Germany and the USSR would divide Poland. When Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this time King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) addressed his nation, the back story of which is depicted in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.

But neither England nor France was on a war footing. France was especially ill equipped. The German army conquered Poland in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile Britain sent troops to the continent, but the leaders of Britain and France had trouble communicating with each other and failed to put up much of a fight at all. Germany was able to run roughshod over not only Poland but many more countries as well, including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The German army also invaded France, which fell in about a week. Hitler then went on a victory procession down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Soon the entire British army became trapped and surrounded on the northern coast of France. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Great Britain, more than 300,000 troops were evacuated home across the English Channel. For more on this miraculous escape, watch the 2017 movies “Dunkirk,” which is violent, and “Darkest Hour,” which is inspirational and ends on a hopeful note.

Hitler’s next plan was to persuade Britain to surrender. He had plans to invade, but first he decided to attack from the air. In what became known as the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe bombed London, which was defended by the Royal Air Force. It was a ferocious conflict that went on for months, but ultimately the British fighter pilots prevailed. During this time Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the British people that held up morale. King George VI decided to stay in London with his family rather than flee to Canada, which also helped reassure the British people.

After being frustrated by England, Hitler next decided to invade the Soviet Union! (Had he read my book report on Napoleon, he would have known what a bad idea that would turn out to be!) In “Operation Barbarossa,” the German army advanced all the way to Moscow and then got trapped in the cold, brutal winter. They were also held back in Stalingrad. Rather than allow his army to strategically retreat, Hitler ordered his generals to stay and fight to the death. Then, frustrated with his generals, Hitler fired his military chief of staff and rather than replace him, he decided to take over personally. Think about how ridiculous this is. Here is someone whose highest rank to date had been Corporal, and now he thinks he knows better than all his generals.

But it was about to get even worse for the murderous lunatic. About the same time Hitler was losing battles in the Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, the United States was bombed in Hawaii. Our country then declared war on Japan. And days later Hitler declared war on the Americans, in accordance with a deal he had just made with the Japanese. The United States first got involved in the Middle East and Africa, then Italy, and finally, in June 1944, under the command of General Eisenhower, troops from the United States, Britain and Canada invaded France in what became known as D-Day. This is the part of the war depicted in the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

It would take almost another year for the Allies to finally defeat Germany, and sadly the end of the Third Reich did not come fast enough. Beginning with the invasion of Poland and later with the invasion of Russia, the Nazis escalated their genocidal plans against the Jewish people. At first many Jews were rounded up and shot, others were confined to urban ghettos in Warsaw and other cities. Much of this is depicted in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.” This was all a calculated Nazi plan to literally kill all the Jews in Europe. Starting in 1942, in what they called the “Final Solution,” the Nazis started sending Jews to concentration camps to be murdered in gas chambers and their bodies were burned. In addition to Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals were also killed, but most of the victims were Jews. At Auschwitz alone, it is estimated that more than a million people were murdered. There’s an exhibit to this horror currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York City.

Here are a few more notes about Hitler:

  • He was a vegetarian!
  • He was a fan of classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
  • His family name was Shicklgruber, which would have been Hitler’s own last name except his father, who was of illegitimate birth, had the name changed.
  • He did not become a German citizen until 1932.
  • Before Hitler rose to power he had a relationship with a cousin, who died of a gunshot wound. She might have been murdered, or she might have committed suicide.
  • He dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess and several others.
  • Hitler designed the Nazi flag himself, with the black swastika in the center of a white disk on a red background. This became the flag of Germany from 1935 to 1945 and was used during the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and was on the famous Hindenburg blimp, which went down in flames over New Jersey in 1937.
  • Before the swastika was stolen by Hitler as a symbol of hate, the icon was used in many different cultures throughout history, including in Asia and even among some American Indian tribes.
  • The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was in power at the same time as Hitler, and their fates are intertwined in many ways. Italy and Germany were Axis allies during World War II, along with Japan. Mussolini was deposed in 1943, only to be rescued later by the Nazis. Toward the end of the war, Mussolini was executed by firing squad by his fellow Italians, and his body was hung upside down and defiled. This might have been a reason Hitler wanted his own body to be burned.
  • As part of his plan to seize power, Hitler had the leaders of the SA killed in what become known as the “Blood Purge,” also called the “Night of the Long Knives.” Hitler did this to prevent trouble with the regular German military.
  • The SS (Schutzstaffel) was originally part of the SA but it continued under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, who was one of the most evil of all Nazis. The SS under Himmler ran the concentration camps and carried out the Holocaust.

There is much more in the book, including many passages about the many plots to arrest or kill Hitler over the years. The most famous of the plots was depicted in the 2008 film “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. The book also has lots on diplomacy, especially leading up to the war, and it is quite detailed in that regard, often describing the frantic meetings on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Yet as long as the book is, and as much information it contains, it barely scratches the surface of the horrors unleashed on this world by Hitler.

End-of-year update on the presidents

This year I read biographies of seven more presidents, getting me a bit closer to my goal of reading at least one book on every president, in order. But, as you can see, I am running out of space on the bookshelf and I might have to build more shelves or else move! I have not started Truman yet, but I will in the New Year.

 

If you scroll back through my feed here on fredmick.com, you can read my most recent book reports, not only of presidents but others as well.

Article about what to do in New York for visitors from out of town

Every year I write a “travel story” for our at-show newspaper, Dental Tribune Today, which we publish on-site at the Greater New York Dental Meeting. The article is meant for those who might be coming to the event from out of town and offers some sightseeing ideas.

Click below to see the article in a larger window. You can also read the article on the Dental Tribune website, by clicking here.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein

In 1905, when he was just 26 years old and working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four scientific papers that would forever change the way humanity comprehends some of the most fundamental laws of nature:

  • First, he demonstrated that light comes in specific quantities or packets, called quanta, later to be called photons, and this discovery helped explain the photoelectric effect, which is what happens when light bounces off an object. This disproved the long-held belief in “ether,” or a substance in space through which light waves were thought to travel.
  • He helped prove the existence of molecules and how they can be measured, and he showed how the existence of molecules explains Brownian motion, or the vibrations of particles suspended in liquid.
  • He then put forth his theory of Special Relativity, in which he disproved Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time. According to Einstein, measurements of time, and also of space and distance, are relative to the motion of the observer. He said that there can be no absolute time or absolute space, but something he called spacetime.
  • Next, Einstein came up with the principle of mass-energy equivalence, as expressed in the most famous formula in all of science, e=mc2, in which e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. The equation means that energy can be converted to mass and vice versa. Decades later this formula would lay the foundation for the development of nuclear weapons. More on that in a moment.

Albert Einstein came up with all four of these scientific breakthroughs in a single year, known as his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” in his spare time. That’s because his day job was that of patent clerk, a position he had settled for after being unable to get a job as a professor following his graduation from university in Zurich. Despite having set the scientific world on fire, he remained relatively unknown and even kept his patent clerk job for several more years.

Einstein book review
“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

 

This is according to “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, a book that describes, in 551 pages, not only Einstein’s many theories but his entire life story as well. For me as a reader, I must admit I found much of the science in this book difficult to understand. Come to think of it, I was actually quite baffled. The chapters on his life and times were much more enjoyable.

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. He was born in Germany in 1879. He was a Jew. When he was a boy he was given a compass, which fascinated him. When he was still in his teens he moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. This might have been to avoid compulsory military service. According to the book, Einstein did not like military parades, soldiers marching in the street or any such glorification of war. He also shunned blind deference to authority. He questioned everything.

He was “stateless” for five years after moving to Switzerland, at which time he became a Swiss citizen. He attended the Swiss federal polytechnic institute in Zurich. He married and would later divorce Mileva Maric, a fellow student who was from Serbia. She was a Christian. They had two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. According to the book, he and Mileva also had a daughter, who apparently either died at a very young age or was given up for adoption. His second wife was Elsa, who was his cousin. She had two daughters, one of whom would eventually live with Einstein. For many decades Einstein had a live-in secretary, Helen Dukas, who was with him constantly and served as his gatekeeper. Einstein also had several mistresses over the years, sometimes in plain view of his wife.

After leaving the job at the patent office, Einstein held several teaching positions and eventually landed at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in Berlin, where many of the world’s brightest minds then held court. But to go there he had to become a German citizen again. It was from there that he put forth his theory of General Relativity, in which he said, among other things, that gravity happens when objects bend the fabric of spacetime. He also predicted that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity, and in May 1919, during an eclipse, this was tested and proven to be true. The results were published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, thus making Einstein an overnight global celebrity. From then on his name would be synonymous with the word “genius.”

In 1921 Einstein made his first trip to the United States, at the invitation of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Everywhere he went Einstein was greeted by large crowds and inquisitive reporters. Einstein played the part of the friendly professor and answered the reporters’ questions with quick, snappy lines delivered with a grin.

In subsequent visits to the United States, Einstein attended the opera, went to a Hollywood film premiere with Charlie Chaplin, was feted with statues, awards and keys to cities, and he spoke at universities. For a time, Einstein expressed pacifist views and even encouraged all who would listen to shun compulsory military service. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Einstein’s views on pacifism and conscientious objection to the draft changed. For the second time he renounced his German citizenship. In 1933 Einstein sought refuge, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, accepting a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had also been courted by the California Institute of Technology. Einstein spent the rest of his life in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.

At the outset of World War II, Einstein, with the help of another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that it would be possible to use uranium in a chain reaction that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. The letter was hand delivered to FDR and was read aloud to him. After that and a follow-up letter from Einstein, the president established the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would result in the development of nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists led that effort. When Germany’s defeat in the war seemed imminent, Einstein wrote FDR yet another letter calling for caution in deploying the weapon, but FDR died before he received it and the letter instead went to President Harry S. Truman, who passed it to a subordinate.

Einstein had brought the possibility of a bomb to the attention of FDR because he thought the German scientists back in Berlin would certainly be working on one themselves, but when he learned that was not the case he regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After World War II Einstein spoke out in favor of arms control, and for the establishment of a world government. He wanted a body that would be stronger that the United Nations turned out to be, something with a military force, which he considered necessary to prevent future wars and human annihilation. Isaacson quotes Einstein, speaking to Newsweek magazine, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Here are some additional facts about Albert Einstein:

  • He thought visually, and he conceived of his theories largely in visual terms. He often used “thought experiments” to develop his ideas.
  • He was a creative thinker who was similar in many ways to those who revolutionized other fields, such as Sigmund Freud in psychology and Pablo Picasso in art.
  • According to the book, he was not an atheist.
  • Nor was he a communist. But he was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, which kept a file on him.
  • He believed in social and economic justice, as well as personal freedom. He was skeptical of the socialist revolution when it began in Russia because he felt it would be repressive and authoritarian.
  • In general, he was good natured and friendly, although he could be emotionally distant and even a bit cruel to those close to him. According to the book, he was especially mean at times to his first wife.
  • He had wild, unruly hair. It was part of his image of a disheveled scientist. He could also be forgetful and often misplaced his keys or train tickets.
  • He played the violin.
  • He also enjoyed sailing.
  • He had many lifelong friends and scientific colleagues.
  • One of his friends was Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) of Belgium.
  • When his first wife originally refused to give him a divorce, Einstein was able to persuade her by promising to give her the money should he win the Nobel Prize at a future date.
  • Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity but for his work on the photoelectric effect. Isaacson’s book explains all the drama and politics of how that happened.
  • Originally Einstein had written his famous formula as L=mv2, but he later changed it to E=mc2 to comply with more common symbols.
  • Before collaborating with Szilard on the letter to FDR, the two patented a refrigerator.
  • Both of his stepdaughters had husbands who wrote books about Einstein.
  • After the death of Weizmann, who had become the first president of Israel, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but he politely and firmly declined.
  • After Einstein’s death, in a ghastly act, his brain was preserved in a jar and was later experimented on by various scientists, none of whom ever learned anything significant.
  • The theoretical physicist is portrayed in the musical “Einstein’s Dreams,” currently running Off-Broadway, which, in my opinion (I went to see it last weekend) was completely wrong scientifically and on many other levels. It is based on a book of the same name.
  • In the movies, Walter Matthau gives what I consider to be a much more enjoyable portrayal of Einstein is in the 1994 film “I.Q.,” also starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.

Also during Einstein’s lifetime the field of quantum mechanics took shape. This is the study of atoms and subatomic particles. In his own mind Einstein was troubled by many of these discoveries, which were made by Niels Bohr and many other scientists. That’s because determining the location of an electron around the nucleus of an atom required the use of probabilities, which caused Einstein to utter his immortal words that God does not “play dice” with the universe!

Another facet of quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, which is an observed phenomenon in which two particles that have interacted with each other will have opposite properties even when far apart from each other. Einstein called this “Spooky Action at a Distance,” which is a term still in use today — google it or look it up on YouTube!

Einstein spent the final years of his life thinking and working on a theory that would reconcile relativity with quantum mechanics. It’s an effort that continues to this day.

For me, reading “Einstein: His Life and Universe” was a nice little peek into the world of theoretical physics. I think I might understand some of this stuff a little better now, but I am not sure. But it was still fun to read about, and I am glad I did. This was the second biography I have read by historian Walter Isaacson, who is the former managing editor of Time magazine. Earlier I also read his book on Benjamin Franklin, which was fantastic in my opinion. Isaacson also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, which I do not plan to read, and another of Leonardo DaVinci, which I certainly will at a future date.

David M. Oshinsky’s book about polio

In “Polio: An American Story,” author David M. Oshinsky identifies four key heroes in the fight to eradicate the disease. They are Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the scientists who developed vaccines; Basil O’Connor, chairman of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and FDR himself, who was the world’s most famous polio survivor. My own mother was another.

book review Polio: An American Story David M. Oshinsky
“Polio: An American Story,” by David M. Oshinsky

 

FDR contracted the disease in 1921, after he had been governor of New York but before he became president. Like countless others, he was crippled for life by the virus. Many others died. During his convalescence he visited a property in Warm Springs, Georgia, which included a swimming pool and a hotel, and he purchased the property and turned it into a facility to help treat those with polio, mostly children. FDR brought in Basil O’Connor, his business partner, to run it. The fee was $42 per week, but patients who could not afford it were allowed to come anyway. FDR had used most of his life savings to purchase the property and later relied on private fund-raising.

Later, during his presidency, FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which still exists today as the March of Dimes. O’Connor ran the national foundation for decades. The purpose of the organization was twofold: First, to pay for medical care for those who were stricken by polio and, second, to fund research to develop a cure.

Over the decades the national foundation raised and distributed many millions of dollars. It was the first time such an organization had been formed to combat a disease, and it was groundbreaking in many ways. The fund-raising drives, which were clever and successful, involved local community involvement and later included having a “poster child.” Many of the initiatives also brought in celebrities, who hosted balls across the country each year on FDR’s birthday.

There had been an unsuccessful attempt at a vaccine in the 1930s, but it was not until many years later that Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, working separately, developed the vaccines that were ultimately successful. The Salk vaccine came first and was used to treat most children in the United States in the 1950s. The Sabin vaccine followed and was used to treat most children in the Soviet Union and in many other parts of the world. The Salk vaccine involves an injection or a series of injections of a killed virus, while the Sabin vaccine involves ingesting weakened live virus on a sugar cube.

Salk and Sabin were rivals, and their differing approaches on how a vaccine should be developed — and how quickly — led to bitter disputes in the scientific community.

A few more notes:

  • There are three types of the virus that causes polio, which is also called poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis. The term “infantile paralysis” is something of a misnomer, since most of those stricken by the disease are children.
  • Each type of the polio virus has various strains, some more aggressive than others.
  • Salk, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine, became a celebrity. He was criticized by fellow scientists as being a publicity hound. Salk was also criticized by many of the scientists who worked under him, who felt that he did not adequately credit their own contributions.
  • Eddie Cantor, the movie actor and radio personality, coined the term “march of dimes.” He was one of countless celebrities who helped raise funds for the cause. Others included Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Mary Pickford, Mary Martin, Joe DiMaggio and Lucille Ball, among many others.
  • In recent years some have speculated that FDR might not have had polio at all, but rather Guillain–Barré syndrome.
  • Today, the dime in your pocket features a portrait of FDR, in recognition of his founding of the March of Dimes!

I learned a great deal reading “Polio: An American Story” by David M. Oshinsky. I think the author did a good job of explaining the science without getting too complicated for a reader without much of a medical background. He also did a very good job of putting the disease into the context of the times. The book is also helpfully illustrated with many pictures, which help tell the story of this dreaded disease and how it was conquered.

Ron Wood pays tribute to Chuck Berry

On a sizzling new live album, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood pays tribute to Chuck Berry. It’s called “Mad Lad: A Live Tribute to Chuck Berry.” Ronnie Wood plays guitar on all the songs, and he sings on most of them. I’m not the biggest fan of Ronnie Wood on lead vocals, because his singing voice reminds me more of Bob Dylan than Mick Jagger. But his guitar playing is fantastic, and his band is really tight. They are billed as Ronnie Wood With His Wild Five. The album was recorded at a small theater in Dorset, England.

Ron Wood CD review Fred Michmershuizen

The CD opens with “Tribute to Chuck Berry,” a song by Wood, followed by the Chuck Berry covers. Many of the songs are instantly recognizable, while others are lesser known. Some of them, including “Talking About You” and “Little Queenie,” have been recorded by the Stones. “Wee Wee Hours” features Imelda May on vocals with Ronnie Wood and is the CD’s best song. Other standouts include “Almost Grown,” which is Ronnie’s best vocal of the evening, “Blue Feeling,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Mad Lad,” the album’s title track, which is an instrumental. But all the songs are fantastic. If you’re a Stones diehard like me, this album is a must for your collection!

 

Eleanor Roosevelt

During the approximately 12 years that Franklin D. Roosevelt, our nation’s 32nd president, served in the White House, his wife kept a high profile. Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences and gave speeches in public. She published newspaper and magazine columns and hosted a weekly radio show. During the depression years she traveled all across the country, visiting children in poor neighborhoods and workers in coal mines, advocating for better living and working conditions. During the war years she traveled extensively overseas, visiting troops to help raise morale. She was also outspoken on civil rights and women’s rights.

It should be noted that the job of first lady is not really a job at all. There are no required duties. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “first lady” is not even a formal title and should not be capitalized in news articles.

Eleanor Roosevelt biographyreedman
“Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” by Russell Freedman

 

Both before and after the White House years, Eleanor Roosevelt had a thriving public career. In the years before FDR’s presidency, Eleanor was active in charitable and philanthropic organizations, in Democratic Party politics, and in various women’s groups. She taught at Todhunter School for Girls in New York City. She also helped run a furniture factory with some of her female companions, with whom she shared a house at Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York.

After FDR’s death, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt a delegate to the United Nations, where she worked in various capacities for many years. She chaired a commission on human rights and was instrumental in drafting the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here are some additional notes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life:

  • She was niece of Theodore Roosevelt and was fifth cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Theodore attended the wedding of Eleanor and Franklin in New York City when he was president and gave the bride away. It was St. Patrick’s Day 1905.
  • She was born to wealthy parents in 1884 in New York City. She was orphaned at and early age and was raised mostly by her grandmother.
  • She was sent to a private all-girls school in England that was taught entirely in French, where she thrived. But her grandmother made her come back to New York a year early to make her social debut as a debutante.
  • After Eleanor and Franklin married, they had six children, one of whom died in infancy.
  • Franklin had an affair with another woman, and Eleanor found out about it in 1918. The other woman, Lucy Mercer, turned out to be Eleanor’s social secretary! Franklin promised to end the affair, and he and Eleanor stayed married. But from then on they lived separate lives in many respects.
  • When Franklin died in 1945 at his home for polio survivors in Warm Springs, Georgia, Eleanor learned that Lucy Mercer (who was now Mrs. Rutherfurd) had been with him. Not only that, Eleanor also learned that the other woman had been visiting FDR in the White House, and everyone including her daughter, Anna, knew about it.
  • After FDR’s death Eleanor moved to New York City, first living in an apartment on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Later she bought a house with her physician and his wife, where the three of them lived together and became companions.
  • She wrote more than two dozen books.
  • Throughout her life Eleanor Roosevelt had close relationships with several other women, as well as with men, the nature and scope of which has been speculated upon extensively.
  • When Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 at age 78, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and former Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower attended her funeral.

Most of this is included in “Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” by Russell Freedman, a book intended for younger readers. I really liked this book. I found it heart-warming and informative. One of the best features of Freedman’s book is its extensive collection of photographs. Sometimes pictures can say more than words.

There are many other books about Eleanor Roosevelt, including a multi-volume series by Blanche Wiese Cook, which I have not read but I understand goes into much greater detail about Eleanor’s personal life and relationships. There’s also the wonderful seven-part Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” available on Netflix, which is definitely worthwhile in my opinion.

Eleanor Roosevelt Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. This photo, dated November 1949, is from the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

 

Rumors of War

Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculpture, on temporary display in Times Square. According to the description posted nearby, the work is a response to the many Confederate monuments displayed throughout the country. After being on display in New York until Dec. 1, the description says, the sculpture will go to Richmond, Va., where it will be permanently installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculpture

 

Wiley is the same artist who painted President Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley Barack Obama

FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was our nation’s 32nd President. He is considered one of the greats. He led our country during two of its most difficult challenges: The Great Depression and World War II. He was elected to an unprecedented third term, and then to an even more unprecedented fourth term. But he was president for 12 years, not 16. That’s because he died three months into his fourth term. He is the only president to have served more than two terms. He had three different vice presidents: John Nance Garner during his first and second terms, Henry A. Wallace during his third term and Harry S. Truman for his fourth. He won all four of his presidential elections in landslides. In 1932 he soundly defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover. In 1936 his opponent was Alf Landon, in 1940 Wendell Willkie and in 1944 Thomas E. Dewey.

Today’s book report is on “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith. There are many biographies of FDR to choose from, and I selected this particular title because I wanted a solidly written, one-volume, cradle-to-grave book. I am glad I chose this one. It clocks in at 600-plus pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes plus 32 pages of photographs. In my view, this is a well-researched and nicely written biography. Like in any good biography, the author describes not only the subject’s successes and triumphs but also his flaws and failures. Yes, FDR had quite a number of flaws. But he had many more good qualities. Many of these characteristics were endearing, even heroic. Many passages in this book were moving and brought a tear to my eye, and a few other descriptions made me laugh out loud. A minor complaint I had was the author’s frequent use of asterisks and footnotes — lots of them, on almost every page — breaking up the flow of reading. I also thought the coverage toward the end of the events leading up to D-Day, and then the 1944 presidential campaign, was a bit on the skimpy side. But all in all, this book was filled with tons of insight and information. Here is some of what I learned.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into a life of wealth and privilege. His status came not only from the paternal side of the family. His mother, Sara Delano, came from a wealthy family herself. Sara was what would be called today a helicopter parent. Her influence on her son was immeasurable. She saw that Franklin received an excellent education, first at home with tutors and later at boarding school. By the time he was 9 years old Franklin knew French and German. The family traveled extensively in Europe. He attended Harvard and graduated after three years, but he stayed on campus a fourth year as editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson.

Franklin was a distant cousin of both Theodore Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin was from the Hyde Park (Hudson River) branch of the family, and Theodore and Eleanor were from the Oyster Bay (Long Island) branch. Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle. Eleanor’s father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), died of alcoholism when Eleanor was a girl. Like her uncle and cousin, Eleanor also lived a life of privilege. She attended an all-girls boarding school in England that was taught entirely in French. Theodore was president when Franklin and Eleanor got married, and Theodore attended their wedding in Manhattan and gave Eleanor away. Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor and Franklin had six children, a daughter and five sons. One of the sons died in infancy. All of their children ended up getting married and divorced multiple times, and several of the sons embarrassed their father while he was president with various minor scandals. All of FDR’s sons served in World War II. At one point early in their marriage, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. The other woman was Lucy Mercer, and Eleanor found a packet of love letters they had exchanged. FDR broke off the affair. Eleanor and Franklin remained married, but from that point on they led separate lives, had separate groups of friends and had separate interests. In the White House, according to the book, FDR and Eleanor dined apart each night, in separate dining rooms, with different groups of people.

Eleanor became active in various social and philanthropic causes, as well as with various women’s organizations. In these circles she met and befriended two women, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. FDR built them a “shack,” which was actually a large mansion, called Val-Kill, located on the Hyde park property in New York State, where the women all lived together. The author of “FDR” does not delve too deeply into Eleanor’s relationships with other women or speculate on the scope of their intimacy. Eleanor was also close with various men in her life. According to the book, Eleanor had a male bodyguard, Earl Miller, a New York State Police officer, who became a companion and friend, and who might also have been more than a friend.

FDR got his start in politics as a State Senator. Then, following in cousin Theodore’s footsteps, he became assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920 FDR ran for vice president as the running mate of James Cox. They lost to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. A year later, FDR had a life-changing event. He contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent several years convalescing, first aboard houseboats in Florida and later in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he purchased a large property and turned it into a home for polio survivors. He faced his physical disability with courage, never asking for or seeking sympathy. He devised a strategy for appearances in public in which he would walk with crutches and braces while holding on to a son or a military aide. Always, even though he might have been in excruciating pain, he was smiling.

In 1928 FDR ran for governor of New York and won, again following in TR’s footsteps, and then in 1932 he ran for President and won. During this time, becoming governor of New York was seen as a stepping-stone to the White House. FDR was the fourth governor of New York to become president. Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and TR were the others.

When FDR took office in 1933 the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis it had ever known. FDR acted quickly and decisively, first to stabilize the nation’s banks, and then to establish a number of government agencies and programs designed to put people back to work. He called this agenda the New Deal, and in his first 100 days he got Congress to pass enormous amounts of legislation. Some of these programs and agencies were temporary, while many others have survived to this day. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created to use federal funds to build dams, bridges and schools. There was also the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired young men to plant trees. And later there was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which also employed many people and funded many endeavors, including arts projects. FDR also signed into law legislation that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), which for the first time protected depositors from bank failures; the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to regulate the stock market; and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations and controlled flooding. He brought electricity to rural communities. He initiated legislation for unemployment insurance, and he signed the Social Security Act into law.

All of this was a departure from his three immediate predecessors, who thought that the Washington had no business enacting such programs. But FDR was different. He believed that the full force of the federal government should be brought to bear to provide for the general welfare, and to improve the lives of all citizens. Perhaps the biggest departure from his predecessors, however, was FDR’s sincere confidence that things would get better, that everything was going to be OK. Unlike Hoover, who was a pessimist, FDR was an optimist. It was in his first inaugural address that he uttered the immortal phrase that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself,” which was a message the American people needed to hear at the time.

The next huge event to confront FDR and the nation was the outbreak of World War II. Hitler was on a murderous rampage, and he had already invaded France and was threatening Britain. Yet the American public did not want to go to war. FDR helped Britain with desperately needed war materiel, under a policy that he devised called Lend-Lease. He also got Congress to enact a military draft. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR gave his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to an emergency joint session of Congress, and he called for massive numbers of planes, tanks and ammunition to be manufactured in our nation’s factories. Early in the war, FDR devised a secret plan that allowed the United States to drop bombs on Tokyo. It was a crazy idea, but it worked. And while it had little military effect on the conflict at the time, it achieved a much-needed morale boost for the Americans. Again, FDR’s confidence and optimism came into play.

During the war FDR met many times with Churchill, and a few other times with Churchill and Stalin. According to the book, FDR did not micromanage the war effort. He set broad goals and left it to his generals to plan and execute the objectives. For D-Day, according to the book, FDR merely set the date and named Eisenhower commander, and he let his military leader conduct Operation Overlord, as it was code-named.

FDR also made several huge mistakes, and he had plenty of personal flaws. According to the book, he had been arrogant as a state senator and rubbed many people the wrong way. As president, he signed no civil rights legislation. The author says that FDR was unable to act on civil rights because he needed to keep southern racist Democrats in his fold, because he needed their support for his New Deal and war initiatives. Also, tragically, FDR went along with a plan during World War II to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. During his second term FDR also interfered, unwisely, in various Democratic Party primary races and was embarrassed. Also during his second term he cut federal spending, which led to the “Roosevelt Recession,” which was basically a recession within the depression.

Perhaps FDR’s most famous blunder was his ill-fated scheme to pack the Supreme Court. This happened during his second term, after the court had struck down several of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. FDR failed in his plan and was bruised politically. According to the book, the reason so much of the legislation had been struck down was that it had been poorly written or too hastily drafted.

Nevertheless, despite FDR’s shortcomings, his tenure in office includes momentous achievement. By the end of 1944 the depression was over, the Allies had invaded France and the tide of the war had turned and the end was in sight. FDR sought and won a fourth term, but his health had deteriorated markedly. He was in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945. Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, was with him.

Here are a few more facts about FDR:

  • He was lifelong stamp collector.
  • He also collected stuffed birds.
  • He had a beloved dog, Fala.
  • He was a natural politician who knew how to cultivate relationships with key players in and out of government. He used flattery, cajoling and various other means to get what he wanted.
  • In 1932 FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination at the convention in person. The plane had to stop twice on the way for fuel.
  • In all his years as president, FDR had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In some sessions the majorities were substantial, at other times narrow.
  • He held “Fireside Chats,” broadcast to the American people via radio. He started the broadcasts when he was governor of New York.
  • He had good relations with the press, and he held twice weekly press conferences.
  • As a precursor to full repeal of Prohibition, FDR signed federal legislation that legalized beer.
  • Every afternoon FDR observed “children’s hour,” in which he would mix drinks for himself and whoever he happened to be hosting that day.
  • When FDR was governor of New York, he named a woman, Frances Perkins, to his cabinet. When he became president, he named Perkins Labor Secretary. She was the first woman cabinet secretary.
  • FDR also had two female assistants, one of whom, Missy, was at his side constantly. When Missy had a stroke, FDR wrote her into his will, but she died first.
  • Eleanor was considered a political liability because she advocated for women’s equality and spoke out for civil rights for blacks.
  • FDR had a half-brother, James, who was many years older.
  • FDR was on a trip to Europe in 1901 with is mother when they received word that President McKinley had been assassinated and their cousin Theodore had become president.
  • When FDR was president-elect, a gunman tried to assassinate FDR when he was on a trip to Miami. FDR was not hit, but several bystanders were, as was the mayor of Chicago, who died.
  • He could quote British poetry from memory, a talent that endeared him to Churchill.
  • He drew a sketch for the design of what would become the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
  • According to the book, FDR was always seen in public standing with his braces locked, or seated in an open car. Only two pictures are known to exist showing FDR in a wheelchair.
  • The 22nd amendment, which limits a president to two terms, came into effect after FDR.

Whew! There is certainly a lot to consider about FDR. In my view, he was indeed one of our nation’s best presidents. I consider him to be the leader our country needed at the time, not only to help us get out of the depression but also to get us through the war. He left many lasting legacies, including Social Security, the FDIC, unemployment insurance, rural electricity, flooding protection — and the GI Bill, which FDR also signed, allowing millions of returning American servicemen to get an education and improve their lives and increase the nation’s standard of living. Plus of course, there’s the United Nations, which FDR laid the foundation for and is yet another organization that endures to this day.

What strikes me most, though, is that FDR did not have to do any of this. He was born rich enough that he could have spent his entire life doing essentially nothing. And then, after being stricken with polio, he could have retired from public life altogether. Nobody would have faulted him had he chosen to fade away. He had several comfortable homes to choose from. But there was something about FDR that made him genuinely want to help others, and to help his country.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.