Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Reviews- The Berkut, Bran Mak Morn, This Side of Glory

The Berkut
by Joseph Heywood
In 1945 with vengeful Russian soldiers less than a mile away from his bunker, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide. He had no intention of being captured alive and strung up like his good friend Mussolini, or worse yet turned over to the tender mercies of a legendarily merciless former ally, Joseph Stalin.

That is what happened as far we know. Because of the inability to bring Hitler to justice, the murkiness of Hitler's demise, and the belief that the profoundly selfish Hitler would be unwilling at the end to take his own life, there have always been theories that Hitler somehow survived and escaped from the bunker in those final days.

The Berkut picks that idea up. It combines real life history with just a few minor speculative changes to look at what would have happened if Hitler DID escape the bunker. It's a sad truth that once some vengeance was taken both the Russians and the Western Allies were VERY interested in getting their hands on Nazi medical and scientific research and of course the Nazi military intelligence and weaponry. This meant making deals.

NASA as we know it would not have been possible without the input of several former Nazis, most famously Werner Von Braun. Under Operation Paperclip, Project Odessa, and other such initiatives, Nazis with something to trade or with some wealth either escaped to South America or joined Western military/intelligence organizations. This book uses that real life history to imagine that Hitler was well aware of such programs and had set up his own escape ratline well in advance of Germany's defeat. The Catholic Church also assisted.

The book is primarily told through the viewpoints of two highly skilled operatives on opposite sides: SS Colonel Gunter Brumm, who has been tagged to rescue the man they call "Herr Wolf" from the ruin of Germany and spirit him away to safety, and Special Operations Leader Vasily Petrov, who is one of Stalin's most trusted warriors and has been assigned to disrupt the SS operation and bring Hitler back to Moscow-alive. When Stalin orders something, failure is of course, unthinkable.

The American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) gets wind of the plots and has its own man on the scene to try to snatch Hitler. This was a long (600 pages) book but I thought it was worthwhile. If you like mystery, intrigue and are interested in that time period you may enjoy this book. There is a fair amount of sex, double crossing and last stands.

Bran Mak Morn-The Last King
by Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard is a favorite author of mine despite his many literary and personal faults. Howard was of primarily Scots-Irish ancestry. Interest in his heritage runs throughout his works. Most of his heroes are stand-ins for Howard and have similar backgrounds. Bran Mak Morn is the last king of the Picts , in our history a pre-Celtic people that mostly lived in Scotland.

In this collection of stories Howard altered Pictish history somewhat so that the Picts were both aboriginal inhabitants of the British isle, pushed out by the Celts and later the Romans and Saxons, and a sort of uber-Celt, a representative of fierce Celtic resistance to Roman colonization.

In any event Bran Mak Morn is the Pictish king but he is king of a dying people-a people who are physically degenerating and who will not be long for the world. Nevertheless he leads resistance to both the Romans and the Saxons in Britain (Howard loved mixing up time periods in one big mashup).

The two best short stories in this book are  1) Worms of the Earth, in which Bran Mak Morn uses supernatural means to take his vengeance on a Roman tribune who cruelly executed a Pict as a disguised Bran Mak Morn watched, powerless to save his countryman and 2) Kings of the Night, where the hopelessly outnumbered Picts and Celts call upon their ancient ancestor, King Kull, to aid Bran in a last stand battle against Romans and Saxons. Howard REALLY didn't like Romans.  This is fun reading for Howard geeks and I am one. Because of the setting it lacks Howard's usual racism. The stories are short, to the point and easy to get through. There are of course battles in just about every story. They leap off the page. This book also has some of Howard's poetry, which could either be described as moody (the man did after all commit suicide at a very young age) or pugilistic.

This Side of Glory
by David Hilliard and Lewis Cole
I love The Black Panthers. Lord knows they made plenty of mistakes but when I think about what they tried to do and what they were up against I just have to give them much respect. Also keep in mind that like with any other revolutionary movement, these were generally young people-from 66-73 much of the leadership was in its late teens to late twenties.

With any movement there will be tons of different perspectives. This Side of Glory gives David Hilliard's. The book opens with Hilliard's learning of Huey Newton's murder. Hilliard and other former Panther leaders are invited on various news shows to talk about the Panthers and Newton's life. Out of respect for Newton and loyalty to his memory at first they try to downplay his struggles with addiction and the sordid circumstances of his murder. That becomes untenable and as they try to give a more nuanced and honest view of Newton's life, Hilliard feels compelled to do the same of his own. He details his love and hate for Newton. He discusses his own struggles and shortcomings. He explains how and why the Panthers came to exist. Hilliard knew Huey Newton as a child and was later one of Newton's earliest recruits to the Panthers. This is as much an autobiography of Hilliard as it is a discussion of his time as a Panther. Hilliard makes clear the Panthers could not have existed without the strong family ties among the various southern black migrants to the West Coast and a fierce commitment to justice and resistance to racism.

As police repression increased Hilliard would later be forced into a leadership position, something for which he was not really suited. From Hilliard's own viewpoint he seems to have been more comfortable in a secondary, behind the scenes position. Like many other stories of this time, This Side of Glory details the inevitable tensions in any organization-the jealousies, rivalries, infidelities-all of which were greatly magnified by open police attacks and more subtle COINTELPRO manipulations.

The book also describes the fall of the Party into thuggery, gangsterism, factionalism and ultimately political irrelevance. Hilliard is honest about his own role in this, particularly his later struggles with drug addiction. This is a pretty powerful book. Some of it is contradicted by other Panther memoirs and biographies but no one ever has the same memory or perspective on events that took place 40 or more years ago. Again, this book really pulls the cover off the "Officer Friendly" depiction of the police. After one arrest, Hilliard wisely gives a fake name. Upon arriving to the station a higher up police official recognizes him and angrily tells the arresting officers who he is. They start to beat him telling him "Motherf*****!! We'll kill you. You never would have made it here if we had known!". That's America.
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