Tag Archives: WWII


Mark’s #40 – Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

While serving as America’s first female Secretary of State in the 1990s, Czechlosovakian born Madeleine Albright discovered that she was of Jewish descent.  When Hitler and the Nazi regime rolled in to Prague in 1939, Madeleine and her immediate family fled to London, where her father worked with the Czech government in exile.

This is both a personal story as well as a well written and researched national history of Czechloslovakia – focused primarily on the years between 1937-1948.  Madeleleine’s research led her to places like Terizin, where many of her Jewish relatives were sent to live in what Hitler called a “prosperous village for Jews”.  Sadly, only traces of her relatives remained after the war, as they, along with thousands of other Czechloslovak Jews were sent by train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Berkanou.

I have long been interested in WWII history in particular, but this book was absolutely fascinating to me as I have gone to school in Prague, and I hope to one day serve as a missionary in the Czech Republic.  This book gave me a great insight into the particular Czech tragedies of WWII, and some of its shaping influences that persist in the country today.


Ron’s #51: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

As I have mentioned before, C. S. Lewis is my favorite author. I understand that this is not a novel pick; most Christians would say the same if asked. It’s been said that Lewis is the only patron saint of Evangelicalism. There is something about his writing that is irresistible. One may disagree with his claims, but it is difficult to deny his gifted writing style. Because of the latter, it is often hard to do the former.

Mere Christianity is a must-read for Christians (See a few others I posted before), and it makes a clear treatise for the logic of both theism and Christianity. It was birthed from a series of radio talks that Lewis made on the BBC during WWII, and later edited for publication. Whether or not you call yourself a Christian, this slim volume will offer a clear, concise case why Christianity makes sense.

This is not actually the best apologetics book if you are looking for answers to specific difficult questions in the Christian faith. Rather, it takes on general topics such as: is Jesus who he says he is; is there such a thing as absolute morality?; and is Jesus Christ God?

No other writer has had the impact on me as a reader and a thinker as Lewis has. His books change, strengthen, inform, and inspire me. In my post for #48, I discussed the influence that Robert Cormier had on my reading life. If that is true, then C. S. Lewis had an even far great influence on my Christian reading life. To him, I’m grateful. Because of this, I’ll be reading and rereading Lewis for as long as I’m alive. There is no other author about which I can make the same claim.

Except maybe for the guys who write Spiderman comics.

For those in Okinawa: We have our monthly Apologia meeting on Wednesday, January 25, to discuss the second half of this book. Read it and join us!


Mark’s #28 – In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

In 1933, America and the world was gripped in economic crisis known later as “The Great Depression”.  Fresh off his campaign promises of “change” (he may have used the term “hope” as well), newly elected President Roosevelt now faced the difficult task of making good on such promises.  Americans were eager to restore the economy, and even more eager to avoid any military involvement around the world.
Meanwhile, in Germany, a charismatic leader was rallying the German people and infusing a level of nationalistic pride rarely seen in history.   Of course, we now know how the story of Hitler and the Nazis progressed and ended, but in 1933 the fate of world history was still very much “up in the air”.
In the Garden of Beasts gives the readers a vivid and unique insiders look at 1933-34 Berlin through the stories of two principle characters; newly appointed Ambassador to Germany William Dodd and his young adult daughter Martha.
Knowing how the story ends so tragically, as I read this book, it was hard not to cringe whenever the Ambassador, other members of the State Department, the president, or the American people would somehow think the best of Germany and the Nazis. Dodd, a history professor by trade, eventually does connect the dots and is able to see the terrifying direction the Nazi party will eventually lead the world… though it was either too late, or too few western democracies were willing to face reality.
As for Martha, she basically ‘sleeps’ her way through Berlin, with a variety of illicit affairs and trysts.  Most notably, she had prolonged and overlapping love affairs with the head of the Gestapo as well as the Russian ambassador to Germany.  In my opinion, these retellings in the book were too long and uninteresting.
As is common with history books, there are many lessons to be learned and applied in our day… but will we choose to learn from the past, or will we choose to put our heads in the sand as most of America and other western democracies did while Hitler scrambled to gain absolute power.

Ron’s #3: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

For good reason, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand landed on many Best of the Year lists in 2010, including on Mark’s. I’m not sure I would have picked this up otherwise; I like World War II books as much as the next guy (if the next guy in question also likes World War II books), but this is focused on one man. And it’s 500 pages. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to commit.

I’m so glad that I did. After a few pages, I knew that I would love this book. Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini, a hooligan-turned-Olympic runner-turned-pilot-turned-prisoner of war-turned- unbroken and hopeful man. That’s a pretty good one-sentence summary of the book, just in case the publisher is looking for a subtitle for the forthcoming paperback version. I liked Louie instantly; he was a troublemaker tough-guy, but found his escape from his California town by running. Introduced to the sport by his brother, Louie runs in high school, college, and then in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he met Adolph Hitler.

His life changed soon after as the story follows Louie into his new career as an AAC bombardier, until he crashes in the Pacific. Louie and two others survive at sea for over forty days without provisions (with a troubling scene about a lice infestation in his newly grown beard). If the story ended here, it would be a powerful journey. However, it does not. Much of the book is his horrid treatment in several prisoner of war camps in Japan. Just when I thought all the evil happened to Louie, there is a new chapter of horror.

The title is perfect to describe Zamperini. This man personifies courage, resilience, and hope in ways I have never seen. There were times I gasped aloud to read his ordeals. The squalor and suffering only provide a backdrop to allow Louie’s courage and character to shine brightly.

I hesitate to say to much to avoid taking away the suspense as you read it, but allow me to say that Louie continues to sink lower into despondency and hopeless until God intervenes. In literature, it’s called deux ex machina; in life, it is called redemption.

This book also has much to say about the many Japanese atrocities in World War II, whether it is in prison camps, Pearl Harbor, or Nanking:

The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: ALL PRISONERS OF WAR ARE TO BE EXECUTED. What followed was a six-week frenzy of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them. Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape. The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants. Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.

This gives a more complete picture of the behavior and the attitudes of Japan, and why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were last resorts. Japan was on par of the atrocities committed by Hitler and Germany, and the two countries had more in common during treatment of people during the war than they differed. This concept certainly is not in our modern psyche. It is accepted (and often applauded) to denigrate Germany, but it is labeled as racist if we criticize Japan.

In addition to the highlighting of a great man and as a history lesson, Unbroken is simply excellent prose. Hillenbrand has a poetic style of writing even the cruelest events.


He felt as if he would faint, but it wasn’t from the exertion. It was from the realization of what he was.

One engine, for reasons known only to the plane, was thirstier than the others, so the gauges had to be watched constantly

There was one perk to life in the barracks. The bathroom was plastered in girlie pinups, a Sistine Chapel of pornography.

But it was good to feel oriented, to know that they were drifting toward land somewhere out there, on the far side of the earth’s tilt.

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.

Whether or not you are a fan of war accounts, go read this book. Like me, you will be mesmerized with Louie Zamperini for good reason. He is a man who stands above other men, and his story demands to be told. The more like Zamperini we are, the better the world would be.


Ron’s #2: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Slaughterhouse-Five has one of those memorable opening lines. I heard it referenced recently, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those that is both familiar and distant both at once. After a few days of thinking about it, I decided to read the novel. I discovered that, like Billy himself, the novel is unstuck and does not follow a regular chronological narrative.

A difficult book to summarize, Slaughterhouse-Five is a fractured timeline about Billy and the narrator (most likely Vonnegut himself) trying to piece together fragments of a life affected by the Dresden bombings in 1945. As the narrator tries to compile information about Dresden for a book he is writing, Billy Pilgrim flashes from moment to moment throughout his life. Billy is a type of time-traveler, although he cannot change anything, just experience it over and live through it once again. We snap to Billy as a boy, then to war, then in college, then to his captivity by the alien race, the Tralfamadorians, to his middle-aged career as an optometrist, and all back again. As Billy passes in and out of his own existence, he attempts to come to terms with life, death, and the role of fate over all. Since he has popped in all areas of life, he knows the exact place and time of his death, and he accepts it calmly, “like bugs trapped in amber.” In these snapshots of life, we piece together a mind trying to make sense out of the atrocities of war, death, and evil, both for Billy and for the narrator attempting to write a book. The subtext of why God and men allowed Dresden to occur reigns throughout the story. True to Billy’s story, there is no complete ending to the novel. It, too, is unstuck.

This is one of the books that we should have read in college, and for good reason. It will be a completely different story than most of the novels you’ve read before, and it may be a refreshing change. I especially liked the philosophical nature to asking why terrible events occur, the seemingly meaninglessness of life, and, of course, time travel. While I cannot guarentee that you’ll enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five, and do think that you’ll be glad you gave it a read.


My friend Charlie Cooley has Slaughterhouse-Five as one of his favorite books, and he even painted a picture of Vonnegut (now that’s devotion!). See it here.

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