Remembering Odd Nansen: Dec. 6, 1901–Jun. 27, 1973

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died on June 27, 1973, age 71.  Each year on his anniversary I try to highlight some aspect of his character (here, here, here, and here).  Although I never met the man, by studying his diary, and through numerous conversations with his daughter and my dear friend Marit Greve, I feel I know a bit about the man.

In my Introduction to From Day to Day, I discuss what, to me, is in many ways the emotional heart of the diary, which I also describe as “one of the most vivid and wrenching episodes Nansen ever wrote about.”

The place: Sachsenhausen.  The date: Monday, February 12, 1945.  The end of the war is less than three months away.  But the Nazi persecution of the Jews is still in full swing.  Nansen visits an isolation area in the camp filled with Jews newly arrived from another camp.

Here is how Nansen begins his narrative: “There are no words left to describe the horrors I’ve seen with my own eyes. . . .   Dante’s inferno couldn’t be worse.”

Starved, half-mad Jewish prisoners are fighting over scraps of garbage while being set upon by ex-German soldiers who are themselves prisoners in Sachsenhausen, but who have been supplied with rubber truncheons and given free rein to wreak havoc.

A Jew “who had been struck ten or twenty times” totters and falls at Nansen’s feet.  His lips are cleft, his teeth knocked out, his feet frostbit, and he bleeds from mouth and ear.  Nansen lifts him (“he was as light as a child”), props him against a wall, straightens his clothes and dries the blood from his face.

“[T]hen he raised his arm with an effort, as though mustering all his failing strength; his hand reached the level of my head; there he let it sink, and slowly that bony hand of his slid down over my face.  It was his last caress, and he gurgled something that his friend translated with, ‘He says you are a decent man.’ Then he collapsed along the wall and onto the ground, and I think he died then and there, but I don’t know, for I was hurrying off with my face burning. ‘A decent man!’ I who hadn’t even dared to try and stop his tormentor.  I who hadn’t even cared to risk my own skin by going out into the camp and collecting food for those starving skeletons!  ‘A decent man!’ If only I could ever raise myself up again from this shadow life in this sink of degradation, and be ‘a decent man!’”

I have always been struck by this passage, and especially Nansen’s own reaction.  Although he might well have been among the most decent, most selfless, most humane people in all of Sachsenhausen, Nansen could only lacerate himself for how little his had done to help this suffering man.

Recently I came across the following passage in Stalingrad, a novel written by Vasily Grossman, and first published in 1952.  Grossman was a Soviet Jewish war correspondent who had covered the battle.  To me, it sums up Nansen perfectly:

“Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness.  The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed—while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.”

Rest in Peace, Odd Nansen.

June 24, 1893: Fridtjof Nansen sets out for the North Pole

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“The most important thing is not to reach your goal, but always to be on your way—always on your way.”  Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

On this day in 1893, on the heels of the summer solstice and the all-important midsummer celebration, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father, departed Oslo (or Christiania, as it was then called) on board his ship Fram.   His objective: the North Pole.

Nansen (1861—1930) had already earned his spurs by becoming the first man to cross Greenland’s forbidding terrain, in 1888.  But reaching the North Pole would be a significantly more formidable undertaking, something many had tried, and all had failed, usually with disastrous consequences.  Nansen’s approach would also be unique: he purposely planned to embed his ship into the polar ice cap and allow the ice cap’s drift to carry the ship north, without it being crushed.

To do this Nansen had to design a new ship, one “as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years.”  Many of the best polar experts thought the plan nothing short of madness.  Adolphus Greely, the dean of American polar explorers (and once the holder of the farthest north record), called it “an illogical scheme of self-destruction,” and found it “almost incredible that the plan here advanced by Dr. Nansen should receive encouragement or support.”

Fram and its crew

But in the end Nansen proved all the naysayers wrong. Although he never reached his ultimate goal—the Pole—he ventured farther north than any man had ever gone, and in the process proved his theory of arctic drift.

The entire trip lasted 3 years, 2 months and 16 days.

Today we complain about quarantining safe at home, with every creature comfort.  Imagine, if you will, spending any length of time—to say nothing of 3+ years—aboard a cramped ship with 11 strangers, where almost 6 months of every year are in total darkness, and where the outside temperatures are often well below zero.  Now, that’s hardship.

As an adventure story alone, Fridtjof Nansen’s feat has few peers.  But, more importantly, it would have a direct bearing on the life of his yet-to-be-born fourth child, Odd Nansen.

Odd Nansen

As Fridtjof Nansen’s biographer, Roland Huntford, observes about his trip, “This combination of achievement and publicity [abetted by Nansen’s striking looks and the advent of the telegraph] gave Nansen the fame that lasted a lifetime.”  All of Nansen’s later accomplishments—playing a key role in Norway’s independence; facilitating the introduction of a new royal dynasty; first ambassador to Great Britain; humanitarian work for the League of Nations; Nobel Peace Prize—all grew out of the international reputation Nansen earned from his polar adventure.  As Huntford concludes, “Without the Fram there would be no Nansen as we know him.”

This fame also attached to his son Odd Nansen, making him a prime target when the Nazis went looking for suitable hostages in early 1942.  Thus, it is not too much of a stretch to say that, without the Fram, there might never have been Odd Nansen, Häftling (Prisoner) Number 1380.

There was another equally important inheritance running from father to son.  As Fridtjof’s granddaughter, and Odd’s daughter, Marit (Nansen) Greve, has written about Fridtjof’s polar trip: “Here was courage, strength and endurance in abundance—a man who could undoubtedly meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Odd Nansen did not have to conquer long nights, the cold, isolation, and polar bears.  The forces arrayed against him during his captivity were nonetheless no less daunting: spiritual darkness; fear; doubt; hate.  But reading Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day, it is easy to conclude that, like his father, Odd Nansen had “courage, strength and endurance in abundance . . . [to] meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

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Anne Frank

Today is Anne Frank’s birthday.  Had she lived, she would be 91 years old, the same age as Odd Nansen’s eldest child, my dear friend Marit Greve.  The exact date and cause of her death are unknown, although it is now believed that she succumbed in late February, 1945, probably to a disease such as typhus.

Anne, her family, and the other inhabitants of the secret annex in Amsterdam were discovered and arrested on August 4, 1944.  Thereafter she was sent to Westerbork, then Auschwitz (sharing the camp with Thomas Buergenthal who was also there at the time) and finally, in October 1944, to Bergen-Belsen.

Despite considerable differences in age and experience, there are numerous parallels between Odd Nansen and Anne Frank.  Most obviously, they were both famous diarists. Moreover, their diaries were not a mere afterthought, they were central to their respective lives.  When the Frank family received a call-up notice and decided to go into hiding, “I began to pack some of our most vital belongings into a school satchel [and] the first thing I put in was this diary,” wrote Anne.  Similarly, Nansen writes in his Foreword “Paper and writing materials were the last things I put in my knapsack before going off with the district sheriff and his henchmen.”  Anne describes as one of her “worst moments” the time her family discussed burning the diary, lest it fall into the wrong hands and implicate their helpers; Nansen called his diary “such a blessed help to me, such a comfort.”

Both diaries survived by the slimmest of margins.  Nansen faced the constant threat of detection in prison, and relied on all sorts of channels while in Norway to smuggle the diary pages to his wife, including, at one point, a Wehrmacht driver that even he called “ungovernable [and] frankly dangerous.”  Anne’s diary, seemingly safely hidden in a briefcase, was unceremoniously and unwittingly dumped on the floor of the annex on the day of her arrest by a Gestapo official who wanted to use the briefcase to collect any family jewelry and cash he could find in the apartment. After the Gestapo left, Miep Gies collected everything she could find on the floor for safekeeping.  As a result, as Francine Prose has pointed out in Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, “There is no way of knowing if any, or how much, of Anne’s writing was lost.”

This was not the only danger both diaries faced.  Upon his evacuation from Germany (along with his secret diary) at the hands of the Swedish Red Cross, Nansen heard, to his dismay, that the prisoners’ every possession, without exception, was burned upon arrival in Denmark, presumably to prevent the spread of disease.  Miep Gies, holding Anne’s diary until her return, later wrote that, had she read the diaries “she might have felt compelled to burn them, out of concern for her colleagues.”

Once the war was over, both diaries had difficulty getting into print.  Nansen’s diary was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to, before being taken up by Dreyers Forlag.  Similarly, the manuscript collated and prepared by Anne’s father Otto Frank was rejected by every Dutch editor to whom it was submitted.

Once finally published, Nansen’s work was faster out of the gate, becoming a bestseller in Norway when it appeared in 1947; that same year Anne’s book had a small initial print run (1500 copies) in Holland, and was out of print by 1950.  Nansen also had an easier time breaking into the U.S. market; by 1949 an English translation was available through G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  Anne’s diary received a skeptical reception.  One major publishing house called it “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.”  The book was already on Doubleday’s reject pile when an assistant to the director of its Paris bureau picked it up in 1952, started reading, couldn’t stop, and thus rescued it.

When both diaries ultimately appeared in America, they each met with an enthusiastic response.  Meyer Levin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was smitten by Anne’s writing; it “simply bubbles with amusement, love [and] discovery” he wrote.  The New Yorker said of Nansen’s diary: “[I]t will surely rank among the most compelling documents to come out of the recent [war].”

Even the moneys generated by the books have followed a similar course.  According to Prose, Otto Frank decided to channel some the book’s profits into human rights causes.  Odd Nansen chose to give all the proceeds of the German edition of From Day to Day to German refugees.  And one hundred percent of the speaking fees and royalties from the sale of the new edition of From Day to Day are earmarked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies .

Of course, the post-publication trajectories of The Diary of Anne Frank and From Day to Day have been much different.  Millions of copies of The Diary of Anne Frank are now in print.  As Prose explains, “Good fortune and serendipity appeared, at every stage, to arrange Anne’s diary’s American success.”  Out of print, and all but forgotten in America for over 65 years, perhaps good fortune and serendipity will now smile equally on Nansen’s diary, and it will someday join the ranks of seminal works on the Holocaust, along with Anne’s diary, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Most importantly, now that From Day to Day is back in print, perhaps it will also provide the same inspiration that Francine Prose attributes to Anne’s eloquent diary: “Anne Frank’s strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion.  Guided by a conscience awakened by [the diary] one . . .  may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death.”

The above is a revised and updated version of a blog which first appeared on June 12, 2016.

D-Day: June 6, 1944

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Seventy-six years ago today, the largest amphibious assault ever undertaken, Operation Overlord, began.

In retrospect, events like D-Day increasingly to take on an aura of historical inevitability.  It seems inevitable that the massive Allied landings would succeed, inevitable that the second front would be established, inevitable that Germany’s demise would ultimately follow.  It had to be “the beginning of the end.”

Success certainly didn’t seem so assured at the time.  General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of all Allied forces, wrote two announcements in the hours before D-Day began: one, announcing success, and crediting the troops, and a second, accepting sole responsibility for Overlord’s failure.

One thing which remains all the more astounding in hindsight is the secrecy which was successfully maintained right up to the launch of the invasion—an undertaking massive in scope: involving 156,000 men and almost 7,000 naval vessels.  Nevertheless, the timing and the location of the invasion caught almost everyone—including the Germans—by surprise.

Odd Nansen

For Odd Nansen, news of the Allied landings “came like thunder from a clear sky,” he wrote in his diary on June 6.  “I’d almost given up the idea of that everlasting invasion, that second front that had been haunting our minds for almost three years, and now it’s really started!”  Despite Nansen’s excitement, it would be another ten months—the worst ten months of his prison experience—before he would finally see freedom.

Victor Klemperer

Another diarist, Victor Klemperer, was not nearly so enthusiastic.  Klemperer, a German Jew, had managed (just barely) to avoid deportation to a concentration camp solely because he was married to a non-Jew.   His diary, begun in 1933 with the accession of the Nazis, relates, in excruciating detail, his ever more harrowing existence at the hands of his German tormentors: primarily the Gestapo, but also neighbors and colleagues who shunned him after years of (apparent) friendship.

On the evening of June 6, Klemperer was giving a private tutoring lesson (having long since been deposed from his university teaching position) when, as he confided in his secret diary: “Eva [his wife] brought the news that the invasion had begun last night (from June 5-6). Eva was very excited, her knees were trembling.  I myself remained quite cold, I am no longer or not yet able to hope.” Even days later, when it was apparent that the landings had succeeded, Klemperer admitted, “I can no longer hope for anything, I can hardly imagine living to see the end of this torture, of these years of slavery.”

Klemperer nevertheless miraculously survived the war, dying in 1960, age 78.

Anne Frank

Perhaps the most enthusiastic of all diarists was Anne Frank.  On June 6 she was almost two-years into her enforced, hidden existence in the secret “annex” above her father’s shop, along with seven other people.  At first, she records, everyone in the annex concluded the event was merely a trial run, much like the Dieppe landing two years earlier.  By 10 am, however, with BBC broadcasts in German, Dutch, French and other languages, they all realized this was the “real” event.  “Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation?  The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale, ever to come true?  Will this year, 1944, bring us victory?  We don’t know yet.  But where’s there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.  We’ll need to be brave to endure the many fears and hardships and suffering yet to come.”

What young Anne Frank did not, could not, know, was that she was fated to record only eleven more entries in her diary.  On the morning of August 4, 1944 (only a week before the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy) several security police arrived at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, and arrested all eight people in hiding—the victims of an apparent betrayal, although the culprit has never been definitively established. Of the eight people rounded up that morning, only Anne’s father Otto survived the war.

Excitement, despair, hopefulness—the feelings generated by the D-Day invasion.  Although Anne Frank never experienced the fruits of the Allies’ sacrifice on that day, millions of other Europeans did, finally freed from the yoke of Nazi oppression.  Anne, not yet fifteen years old on D-Day, yet had the wisdom to recognize one thing: where there’s hope, there’s life.

National Oatmeal Day

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I’ve written about some important topics lately: Sachsenhausen, V-E Day, war diaries, etc.  And there are plenty of other matters I could be writing about: the announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on May 23, 1960, or the arrival of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz on May 24, 1943, or the tragic voyage of the passenger ship MS St. Louis and its Jewish refugees, turned away from Cuba on May 27, 1939.

But this week, while sheltering-in-place, I made myself a batch of one of my favorite cookies: oatmeal raisin.  And that got me thinking about oatmeal.

We all know that oatmeal is good for us. But many, like me I suspect, prefer their oatmeal in cookie form rather than as a breakfast meal.

Odd Nansen wasn’t too keen on oatmeal, or porridge as it is sometimes called, either.  It didn’t help that his father, Fridtjof Nansen, was a big believer in the efficacy of porridge.  In fact, he thought so highly of porridge that he made his children eat it—not simply every day—but twice every day.  Can you imagine having only one free meal per day that is not oatmeal? I understand from Odd’s daughter Marit that this wasn’t instant oatmeal either—it required hours and  hours of cooking just to make it palatable.

Fridtjof’s children devised their own coping mechanisms.  As Odd’s older sister Liv later wrote, “[A]s soon as Father was out of the door . . . having had his breakfast, we rushed to the window and emptied our plates out of it.”

Sometimes Odd Nansen resorted to even more extreme defensive measures.  In a letter written in 1906 to Fridtjof, away in London while serving as Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Odd’s mother Eva wrote about Odd’s civil disobedience.  “Yesterday he yelled incessantly and said he would not have it [the porridge], but then I came in and said that in that case I should have to write Father, and surely he would not like Father to hear that he had become so fastidious.  He at once controlled himself and took his spoon and ate it all up without a grumble.  The boy certainly has character.”

One can well imagine a five-year-old Odd Nansen backing down in the face of his mother’s threat.  Perhaps he feared that Fridtjof would make him eat porridge three times a day as punishment.  [For a man who subsisted on polar bear meat and walrus blubber for months while in the Arctic, perhaps oatmeal seemed like a delicacy.]

But tastes change, and circumstances change, and by December 24, 1942, while in prison in Grini, even Odd Nansen looked forward to a special Christmas Eve treat: “At five o’clock there was to be a common dinner table for each hut, and Christmas porridge. It was rather behind time, but when it did arrive toward seven it was good, really good, and we got two big plate­fuls each, with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter. In our hut we all ate out in the lobby. It was very cozy and successful.”

I recently finished reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It’s a history of the Roosevelt White House during World War II.  Turns out that FDR was no fan of oatmeal either.  Nevertheless, the White House cook—a certain Mrs. Nesbitt, called “Fluffy” behind her back—came from the Fridtjof Nansen school of culinary nutrition, and Fluffy believed in oatmeal.

Here’s how the most powerful man in the world handled it.  “My God!” he exclaimed to his secretary Grace Tully one day.  “Doesn’t Mrs. Nesbitt know that there are breakfast foods besides oatmeal?  It’s been served to me morning in and morning out for months now and I’m sick and tired of it!”  Later that day FDR called Tully in for some dictation, and handed her advertisements for various cereals he had torn from the morning paper.  “Corn Flakes! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! Post Toasties! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! . . .  Now take this gentle reminder to Mrs. Nesbitt.”  History does not reveal whether Roosevelt’s gentle reminder ever succeeded.

Odd Nansen never met Franklin Roosevelt, although he tried at least once.  Nansen traveled to America in late 1939 to drum up popular and governmental support for tiny Finland, which had been attacked by Russia.   Nansen’s diary for January 21, 1940 reads: “Sought an audience with Roosevelt today, but have not yet heard anything.  Everything is so damn slow and difficult.  I wonder if I should just go over to the White House and ring the bell.”

Apparently, Nansen never got a chance to try out the White House doorbell (although he did meet Eleanor after the war).  It’s a pity that FDR and Odd Nansen, two great humanists, never met in person.  They undoubtedly would have had much in common, and much to talk about—perhaps starting with their common antipathy to oatmeal.

And yes, there is a National Oatmeal Day.  This year it was April 30.  I don’t know how I managed to let that anniversary slip by.  I’ll be more vigilant next year.

But then again, any day with an oatmeal raisin cookie is National Oatmeal Day to me.

Syttende Mai: 17 May

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Today Norwegians everywhere celebrate Syttende Mai (literally 17th May), the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution on May 17, 1814, in Eidsvoll, Norway.

Typically, Norwegians mark Syttende Mai with celebrations and festivities—parades, feasts, etc.  I suspect this year’s activities will be much more subdued, if held at all.  More likely the celebration will be virtual in most areas. I had had a full slate of appearances scheduled for May 14—19 at Sons of Norway lodges and other venues in such places such as Grand Forks and Fargo ND, Thief River Falls, Red Wing, St Cloud, Minneapolis and Austin, MN.

All cancelled (or rather, postponed until 2021).

It’s probably no coincidence that the great Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl started one of his famous expeditions—the RA II voyage, on May 17, 1970, departing Morocco in a papyrus sailing craft.  Fifty-seven days and 4,000 miles later he arrived safely in the Barbados.  A true adventurer and a man in the mold of  Fridtjof Nansen, Heyerdahl made his reputation sailing the Kon Tiki raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947.

One of Heyerdahl’s crew members on the Kon Tiki was Knut Haugland, who participated in the famous raid on the heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway. Even the general in charge of Germany’s military occupation of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, later described the raid as “the finest coup I have seen in this war.”  Many books have been written about the daring attack, most recently The Winter Fortress, by Neal Bascomb, which I reviewed in the pages of The Norwegian American (here).

Speaking of World War II, whose end in Europe we recently celebrated, I’ll close this essay with an observation made by M.R.D. Foot, a British intelligence officer during the war, and the official historian of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE.  Winston Churchill conceived the SOE to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance throughout occupied Europe.  During the war it employed almost 13,000 people from every occupied country and every conceivable background, men and women.  [I’ve previously written about some Norwegian members of the SOE here and here.]

This is what Foot had to say in his definitive history of the SOE:

“One thing, besides their courage, distinguished the agents sent into Norway for SOE: their toughness.  Several times over, they stood up to conditions of hardship that would make most city men not merely wilt, but die: Jan Baalstrud, who lay wounded in his sleeping-bag, without food or drink, in the snow for six nights and days, and survived, may stand as an example for several more.”

So, to my rightfully proud Norwegian friends on this 17th of May, I raise a (virtual) glass and toast your famous day: Skål!

VE Day in Europe: May 8, 1945

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VE Day

Seventy-five years ago today World War II ended in Europe.  Hitler was dead, and a devastated Germany surrendered unconditionally.

In his diary for that day William L. Shirer wrote: “All day I have had to rub my eyes to believe it; to realize that this is really the end of the nightmare that began for me . . . five and a half years ago.  It seems a long time—ages—and some twenty-five million human beings who were alive on that day and relatively happy have perished, slaughtered on the battlefield, wiped out by bombs, tortured to death in the Nazi horror camps.”

Although the end of the war in Europe is quite clear, when did it all actually begin?

Most conventional answers focus on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But would Hitler have invaded Poland without securing his southern flank, which he accomplished on March 15, 1939 when he marched into Czechoslovakia? Would he have marched on Czechoslovakia if he hadn’t already seized Austria in March 1938?  Does the date go back even further—to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty?

I would submit that the date may in fact be even earlier than all that: to January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  After all, Hitler had laid out his plans for all the world to see (and read) in Mein Kampf, published in 1925.  It’s all there: Germany’s need for Lebensraum in the East; his hatred of the Jews.  Hitler made no secret of his ultimate plans when and if he achieved a position of power.

And while much attention is focused on every conceivable aspect of the “hot” war (1939—1945), far less is paid to its crucial antecedents.

Peter Fritzsche, one of my favorite historians, has just written an in-depth study of Hitler’s start in 1939 in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, Basic Books (2020).  As Fritzsche is quick to point out early on, “[In 1933] Europe suddenly slipped from the firm footing of a postwar era into the anxious vertigo of a prewar one.”

In his latest book, Professor Fritzsche attempts to answer a conundrum that lies at the heart of one of the strangest socio-political developments of the Twentieth Century. Namely, how were Hitler and the Nazis able, in a bitterly polarized country; in a country where opposition parties consistently outpolled them; in a country where the Nazis were in fact losing popular support—how did Hitler, within a mere 100 days, so solidify his hold on the nation that all dissent was effectively eliminated and the country stood almost wholeheartedly behind his program?

As Fritzsche explains, it’s complicated, and this blog can hardly do justice to his deep analysis.

Fritzsche first makes clear that Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on January 30 was by no means preordained.  Just two months earlier, in the November 1932 national elections, the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, and the Communist Party, together received more votes than the Nazis, whose share of the national total actually slipped, from 37% to 33%.  But the right-wing, anti-Weimar parties were united, whereas the anti-fascist parties were not.

Even so, it was only on the morning of January 30 that the leaders of the nationalist, right wing factions each concluded that the appointment of Hitler was the only way to establish authoritarian rule, and destroy the hated Weimar Republic.  This desire outweighed even their fear that they would be unable to tame him.

Once in power, the Nazis used a combination of consent and coercion—push and pull—to meld German society into a united whole.  Many Germans, tired of the political and economic uncertainly which had characterized Germany since 1919, were beguiled by Hitler’s program, and the vision of a new Germany he offered.

In End of a Berlin Diary, Shirer relates an interrogation by US Forces of Hanna Reitsch conducted shortly after Germany’s surrender.  Reitsch had achieved notoriety during the war as a female test pilot and aeronautical expert.  Even in retrospect Reitsch continued to believe Hitler’s initial aims were worthy.  “Hitler ended his life as a criminal against the world,” she confessed, but quickly added, “he did not begin that way.  At first his thoughts were only of how to make Germany healthy again.”

Where consent failed, there was always the threat of coercion.  Armed with near dictatorial powers following the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Nazis soon forced the independent press to toe the party line.  At the same time the compliant nationalist press pursued its goal of the destroying the republic, “which meant the destruction of fact, morality and law.” Any underground movement soon fell afoul of impromptu concentration camps, where the violence meted out was not primarily to extract information but to break the spirit of the resisters, and to cause suffering rather than death.

The Nazis also promoted solidarity within its growing ranks, ironically, by artfully engaging in the politics of division, of exclusion and inclusion.  The Jews were the first to be excluded, via boycotts, etc., and no one could be neutral.  To help a Jew was to be anti-German. Next came the Social Democrats.  To associate with a Social Democrat was to be a traitor, and a traitor could not be a friend.  Better then to accept the inevitable, and even embrace it, than to object, and thus stand out in the crowd.  In fact, it was not enough to keep quiet—one had to denounce the enemy.  When Hitler belittled Weimar, and those associated with it, in his speeches, his audiences cried out “Hang them.”

And so, in an exceptionally rapid and comprehensive way, German society became fascist.  As Hanna Reitsch’s comments above show, the country was soon convinced that the coming of Hitler promised a brighter future for Germany.

But as Professor Fritzsche makes clear, the conservative grandees who coalesced behind Hitler on that fateful morning of January 30, 1933, in their eager ambition to destroy Weimar by any means possible, made one fatal mistake, a mistake that they would only come to fully realize when Germany lay in utter ruin on May 8, 1945:

“they had made a pact with the devil.”

April 28: Odd Nansen’s Diary Ends

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“So completely has our world been turned upside down.  Is it strange that one should be confused and still unable to fit oneself into reality.”

Thus ends Odd Nansen’s final diary entry, on April 28, 1945.  Nansen was in Horsens, Denmark at the time, and, while technically not yet “free”—there were still German guards about—it was clear that the end was near, and Nansen was safe.

But the unreality of the war’s sudden end had stopped him in his tracks.  Nansen, a man who had assiduously filled the pages of his secret diary for almost 40 months in the most challenging environment possible, was now rendered speechless.

“Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe.   Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”

Another famous diarist, William L. Shirer, writing shortly after Nansen, agreed: “It was the week, of all our lives, we’ve been waiting for.  When it came, and unfolded, one breathless hour after another, it was too much for our poor human minds really to grasp.  You could not find words—or at least I couldn’t—to express it.”

Odd Nansen can be forgiven if anticipating the object of his longing—home and family—precluded any further attention to his diary in those whirlwind days.  Selfishly, I would have preferred the diary to continue a bit longer, if only to read his thoughts and observations on the world-shaking events that continued to unfold:

  • April 28, 1945: Mussolini executed
  • April 29, 1945: Dachau liberated
  • April 30, 1945: Hitler suicide
  • May 1, 1945: Goebbels suicide
  • May 2, 1945: Berlin surrenders to Soviets
  • May 8, 1945: Germany surrenders
  • May 9, 1945: Quisling arrested

But it was not to be.  Interestingly, Nansen, who had maintained a diary almost continuously since his teens, would never again over the course of his life take up a pen for a diary.  Perhaps he felt that nothing could compare with the experiences he—at such great personal risk—had memorialized.

And perhaps he was correct.  When you’ve written what some critics later called “a masterpiece,” “never-to-be-forgotten words, “and “among the most compelling documents to come out of the [war],” it’s best not to attempt a second act.

Nevertheless, we shall always be grateful for what we have: a first-hand account, in Shirer’s words, of “how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

April 26–A Day for Anniversaries

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My readers have by now undoubtedly noticed that I have a thing about anniversaries.

Today is no exception, and marks several important such anniversaries, including the fact that my mother, were she still alive, would have turned 100 today.

Also, today is the fourth anniversary of the re-appearance, in print, of the English version of From Day to Day, following a 67-year hiatus.  Perhaps equally important, this week represents the ten-year anniversary of my chance decision, in late April 2010, to purchase a newly published memoir called A Lucky Child, written by Thomas Buergenthal.

As I’ve pointed out to the audiences I have addressed, once you have, like me, amassed almost 5,000 books at home, the impetus to purchase yet another book comes quite easily.  And so I had little hesitation in purchasing A Lucky Child even though I knew almost nothing of the book’s contents or its author—no reviews, no advertising, no recommendations—beyond what I could see on its cover.  And yet A Lucky Child and From Day to Day, taken together, have changed the entire course of my life over these past 10 years—and hopefully for many more to come.  The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, have all changed me indelibly and, I feel, for the better.

I recently came across a quote, attributable to Eleanor Roosevelt, when explaining how her husband’s polio affected him.  “Anyone who has gone through great suffering,” she said, “is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”

Now, I make no claim to any such suffering.  In fact, I’ve led an incredibly privileged life.  But I feel that one can vicariously experience something of the suffering of others.  And the experiences of Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen—whose stories I’ve read, and re-read, and absorbed—have engendered, I hope, “a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”  I certainly cannot imagine a better insight into such problems than the combined experiences of these two special people provide.

Even if this is all true, it still begs an important question.  Why did I choose to purchase, and read, Tom’s memoir in 2010, which in turn induced me—via a single footnote on page 177—to search out Odd Nansen’s diary?

Perhaps the best explanation I can come up with is one I found in a book review written a few years ago.  The reviewer observed: “The life of an artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance.  How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy. . . .” (emphasis added)

So, while I still scratch my head in wonder, I accept that I was fortunate to have had not one, but two, serendipitous encounters with such inspiring works, and the opportunity to advocate for them.

And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

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Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • July 21, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • July 23, 2020: Del Webb at Grande Dunes, Myrtle Beach, SC (Virtual)
  • August 18, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • August 25, 2020: Montgomery County Library, Potomac, Md (Virtual)
  • October 7, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • October 30, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 4, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL
  • November 4, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • November 5, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • February 5, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC,
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • SPRING 2021: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • SPRING 2021: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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- Dirk Hansen, President
Sons of Norway Southern Star Lodge
Myrtle Beach, SC

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