STARRED REVIEW

November 15, 2022

The best World War II histories and memoirs of 2022

Even the most devoted history buffs will discover fresh perspectives among these 11 outstanding World War II reads.

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By the mid-20th century, Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures were turning heads in France and Germany, ushering in cubism, a new artistic style that challenged older styles. At this same moment, American art was dominated by a devotion to realism and the old masters, and therefore resistant to and repulsed by the “modern art” of Picasso. In 1939, that all changed when the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit titled “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art,” featuring pieces that two Americans, who never met, worked tirelessly to make available to the public. Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War tells the scintillating tale of how John Quinn, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and others brought Picasso’s work to America and changed the face of American art.

Irish American lawyer Quinn championed modernist novels and poetry and avant-garde art, introducing Americans to William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as to Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” A great collector, Quinn had a “growing aversion to what he called ‘dead art,’” Eakin writes, and wanted to promote painters and writers who could “express the values and forces of his own time.” Although he personally never understood cubism, he believed that “American art needs the shock that the work of some of these men will give.” After he met Picasso, the artist started reserving his best work for Quinn, who built a modest collection. Quinn dreamed of opening a museum devoted explicitly to modern art, since the Metropolitan Museum of Art excluded such art as “degenerate.” He never saw his wish come true, however. He died of cancer in 1924.

In 1926, Barr took up Quinn’s vision for such a museum, aided by wealthy patrons who shared Quinn’s hope. Three years later, Barr opened the Museum of Modern Art using pieces from Quinn’s collection, striving to build a collection of premier work by the most important modern artists. He worked incessantly to open a show devoted to Picasso, but he was hampered at several turns by challenges from Parisian art dealers and even by Picasso himself. By the late 1930s, though, as Adolf Hitler’s campaign against so-called degenerate art ramped up and museums and galleries in Paris began removing and hiding certain paintings, Picasso and his dealer, Paul Rosenberg, tried to get as many of the artist’s paintings as possible to America. Such forces enabled Barr to put on his 1939 Picasso exhibit and to secure a place in the American cultural world not only for Picasso but also for the Museum of Modern Art, which flourished following the Picasso exhibit.

Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about this illuminating chapter in cultural history.

Hugh Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about the fight to bring Picasso’s art to America.
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The role Pope Pius XII played during World War II has long been a subject of controversy. Under great pressure to align himself with the Allies or Axis powers, he chose silence and diplomatic neutrality. Some saw him as a heroic champion of the oppressed. Others thought he turned a blind eye to the killing of Jews and other vulnerable populations and did not use his moral authority to work for peace. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer explores the truth of how Pius XII handled this situation with great skill, combining extraordinary documentation and elegant writing, in The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.

Early in his papacy, which began in 1939, Pius XII decided to tread a careful path. Once World War II began, his public pronouncements were crafted so that each side could interpret them as supporting their cause. The pope often said, for example, that true peace required justice—a familiar theme to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who complained that the Treaty of Versailles was not a true peace because it was unjust. The pope insisted it was his role to attend to spiritual, not political, matters. Using this excuse, he didn’t criticize Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws. He didn’t denounce totalitarian states, until the only one left was the Soviet Union. In his first speech after the war, he emphasized the Nazi regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church and didn’t make any mention of the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews nor Italy’s part in the Axis cause.

The Vatican archives of this period were sealed when Pius XII died in 1958, but they became available to researchers in March 2020. This book is based on many sources but is the first to take advantage of these previously unexplored materials. (Among their revelations are secret negotiations between the pope and Hitler.) Kertzer believes, based on this new evidence, that “Pius XII saw his primary responsibility to be the protection of the institutional church, its property, its prerogatives, and its ability to fulfill its mission as he saw it.” But Pius XII was also aware that, to many people, he failed to provide courageous moral leadership, which Kertzer outlines in gripping detail in his outstanding book.

David I. Kertzer explores the role Pope Pius XII played in WWII with great skill, extraordinary documentation and elegant writing.

Magda Hellinger was a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher when she was deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in March of 1942. She was one of the few who survived more than three years in a concentration camp, eventually relocating to Australia, where she lived to be almost 90. During her lifetime, Hellinger shared her experiences in interviews with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, all while secretly writing a memoir of her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazis Knew My Name is grounded in that memoir, self-published in 2003, but enhanced by Hellinger’s daughter, Maya Lee, who has added further research and details from her mother’s oral testimonies. The result is a compelling and seamless portrait of a young woman who managed to survive and save others through cunning bravery and compassionate leadership.

At the core of Hellinger’s approach was this: “I constantly encouraged women to work together—a very simple form of resistance. A lonely, isolated woman was always more vulnerable than one who had others looking out for her.” Her determination and use of resistance tactics emerge time and again in this chronological account of her imprisonment, which lasted until the end of World War II.

When Hellinger was given the role of block leader at Auschwitz, she realized it was crucial that the prisoners under her charge avoid any behavior that would attract attention from Nazi officials. She therefore focused on trying to keep the women under her care as healthy as possible, making sure newcomers understood the rules of the camp and warning them of the most volatile guards. And while it was dangerous to challenge SS officers directly, at key moments Hellinger did exactly that, often risking her own life to win some small concession, such as replacing worn clothing for the prisoners.

The strain of Hellinger’s various roles must have taken an enormous psychological toll. At one point, she had 30,000 women under her care, yet she didn’t falter and always returned to the touchstone of cooperation. She mobilized others to improve sanitary conditions, ensure that food was distributed fairly and hide the most vulnerable prisoners to prevent them from being selected for the gas chamber. “If we could do these things, we might save a few lives, or make life a little more bearable,” Hellinger writes. “But we had to work together.”

The Nazis Knew My Name offers dreadful insights into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but at its heart, it remains an extraordinary portrait of one young woman who fought for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.

Holocaust survivor Magda Hellinger offers a compelling memoir of fighting for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.
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The so-called lost generation of American writers and other expatriates began to return home in the late 1920s. By contrast, foreign correspondents became more concerned with international politics and began to venture abroad more often. As a result, what Americans understood about world events in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s came largely from these U.S. newspaper correspondents. In her luminous, extensively researched and beautifully written Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War, historian Deborah Cohen brilliantly captures the complicated personal and professional lives of that period’s four most influential journalists, all close friends, who witnessed the rise of fascism and communism, the powder keg of the Middle East after the Balfour Declaration and much more.

Dorothy Thompson saw journalism as her era’s “most representative form of letters,” as the theater or the novel had been for other periods. John Gunther described their profession by saying, “We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.” These two journalists, plus Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean and H.R. Knickerbocker, felt the need to go beyond objective reporting and convey what they thought and felt about the rise of dictators and the strong chance of war, which set their reporting apart. Drawing from abundant primary sources, Cohen brings these four reporters, as well as Gunther’s wife, Frances, vividly to life in Last Call at the Hotel Imperial. Their disagreements, approaches to getting stories, excessive drinking, infidelities, ambitions, achievements and disappointments are covered in detail—as well as their interactions with figures such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mahatma Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Jawaharlal Nehru and Josef Stalin’s mother.

Sheean’s memoir of his experiences in China and Soviet Russia was a bestseller during his lifetime, as was his biography of Thompson’s marriage to the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. Thompson became a prominent commentator and activist, and at one point she and Eleanor Roosevelt were called the most influential women in the country. Between the 1930s and ’50s, Gunther had more American bestsellers, both fiction and nonfiction, than all but one other author. Knickerbocker was an outstanding reporter but also an alcoholic, and Cohen explores the professional consequences of his condition with sensitivity. He eventually recovered and returned to work, only to be killed in a plane crash in India when he was only 51 years old.

Cohen’s book is a remarkable and exceptionally reader-friendly account of the lives of an extraordinary group of writers and people.

In Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, historian Deborah Cohen brilliantly captures the complicated lives of some of America’s most influential journalists.

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