Friday, April 30, 2010

Stephen E. Ambrose

In The New Yorker of April 26, 2010, Richard Rayner writes that Stephen E. Ambrose, the famous American historian, was lying when he claimed to have interviewed Dwight Eisenhower before writing some of his books. He was also lying when he claimed that Eisenhower approached him requesting that Ambrose write his biography.
I worked with Steve on the manuscript of my book Other Losses in 1988. He read it for me and wrote me a long agonized letter in which he said, inter alia

I have now read Other Losses and wish I had not. I have had nightmares every night since I started reading. have a sensational if appalling story and it can no longer be suppressed, and I suppose (in truth, I know) it must be published...I’m not as convinced as you are that Ike played so absolutely central a role...there were clearly things going on that were not central to him and to which he paid less attention than he should have. Maybe that is all rationalization on my part...But again, you have the goods on these guys, you have the quotes from those who were present and saw with their own eyes...You really have made a major historical discovery, the full impact of which neither you nor I nor anyone can fully imagine. Many will curse you; many will denounce you, many will argue with you; most will try to ignore you...


Stephen E. Ambrose

PS I have written at length about your script to Alice Mayhew, my editor at Simon and Schuster.

Steve invited me to his house at Lily Lake in Wisconsin, where I went with my wife Elisabeth in the summer of 1988. There he worked on and off with me for two or three days, correcting details in the manuscript, and offering some general criticisms. Among them, he advised me to eliminate a short section in which I speculated on the origins of Eisenhower's hatred of Germans, which I did. The book was published in Canada, the UK, Germany and France, creating a storm of controversy around the western world with the evidence it produced of mass crimes in 1945-48 against German prisoners of war in American camps, and in French camps. About one million prisoners died in open-air camps where they were sometimes denied water, and were routinely denied food and shelter for months at a time. Much of the evidence I discovered and interpreted in US Army and SHAEF archives with the help of a great American historian, Col. Ernest F. Fisher Jr., who supplied an eloquent Foreword to the book.

After the book was published in the US, Ambrose courageously supported this thesis during interviews with various people including a journalist on The Dan Rather Evening News. But his support abruptly ended soon after Ambrose had spent a few months lecturing at the US Army War College in Carlyle Barracks, PA. Ambrose without a note to me or Fisher, suddenly decided to set up a hostile colloqium on my book at his Eisenhower Centre in Louisiana. When Other Losses was published in the US, Ambrose also wrote a front-page attack on it and me personally in the New York Times Book Review in which he denigrated my research despite the firm support of Fisher and thousands of documents that we had unearthed, and the interviews I had done with many survivors including US Army guards who had witnessed the slaughter in the camps. Ambrose had done no research at all in support of his thesis: in fact he admitted that he had no support for it at all, writing, "When the necessary research is done, it will be seen that ...( Bacque's thesis is fatally flawed)."

Some years later, Ambrose was revealed as a serial plagiarizer. He died soon afterwards, in shame.

It is a shame that his fervent defence of Eisenhower has been allowed to obscure the fact that, as he said on the Dan Rather show, 'terrible things were done.' Lacking an official investigation of the camps and the death-dealing policy approved by Eisenhower, the American public has been denied the opportunity to investigate what went on. This has meant that the Army, Government and public have tacitly approved not only the disasters in Germany, but also those which have subsequently occurred in other detention facilities of the USA, including Guantanamo.

Yet Steve is not to be blamed, or to be blamed alone. What we as societies require rigorously of our historians is not accuracy in recording events of great consequence, but rather a pleasing chronicle which justifies and supports our society. We should not wonder when a very popular writer like Ambrose is revealed to be a liar and plagiarizer, because he has in fact given us what we demand from him above all, a pleasing myth.

For all those who want to know what really happened to the Germans under our control after the Second World War, please consult the books of Alfred De Zayas, the great American historian, Harvard trained. These include Nemesis At Potsdam, and A Terrible Revenge. Or see the books of another great American, George Gimbel including Science, Technology and Reparations, and The American Occupation of Germany. Or see the work of Count Nikolai Tolstoy in England, notably The Minister and the Massacre. Or consult my books, Crimes and Mercies, and Other Losses.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

All's Well That Ends Well

How often do you get to visit your past, with the chance to reconcile yourself with any part of it? Well, I had that chance, recently.

Elisabeth and I were sitting in front of our cottage beside Georgian Bay on a warm April day. Sitting beside us were our friends, Joan Rogers, and her husband Ian, nicknamed Buck, who had come over for lunch from their house in Collingwood. They have been happy together ever since they married more than fifty years ago, and we also have survived, perhaps gracefully, and for sure gratefully. Our son Andrew was also there with his bright and brilliant daughter Isabella, who was alternately shy behind his legs and then running around the grass. We were a perfect picture of long-settled married harmony. With a difference.

In our student days at university, long before marriage, but while we were definitely thinking about it, I used to be in half in love with Joan and she was very attracted to me. Those thoughts and feelings were now just pleasant memories, but the day was warm, two new generations were listening and everyone was in a good mood, so she and I began to reminisce about our few dates fifty years before. She told a little story about us. We went out to a movie one evening, and enjoyed ourselves. Around 11:30 pm, half an hour before the witching time, we were in my father’s car in front of Joan’s residence at the university. I was nervous, because Joan--who is a no-nonsense person, funny and direct, with a deep hoarse voice roughened by smoking--could be daunting to a love-struck young male presumably intent on her person.

“We were sitting there in the car, about half an hour before I had to go in,” Joan said. “And do you remember what you did?”

“I probably lunged at you.” I smiled, feeling pleasantly embarrassed.

She laughed that deep hoarse laugh, and said, “You read me a poem you had written.”

“I did? Oh, my God,” I said. “Did you like it?”

“I don’t remember,” she said.

“And I didn’t kiss you?”

“No,” she said and laughed. I couldn’t tell if she was offended, or disappointed. But it was obvious to all of us sitting there in the warm sun of our later years that everything had turned out for the best. I was grateful. Joan had picked right, and so had Buck, Elisabeth and I. It had all wound up like a Shakespeare comedy--confusions cleared away, resentments dissolved in laughter, no regrets anywhere, and the Duke smiling benignly on everyone.

She had forgotten the poem of course, but now, fifty years later, she and Buck had come to the opening night of my new play, and she had laughed so much along with others in the theatre, that she could not hear all the dialogue. Now she asked for a copy so she could read it. What was I thinking going into the house to print a copy? I was happy that finally she saw something she liked in my writing.

I printed a copy, brought it out and signed it for her, under the inscription, “For Joanie, thanks for marrying Buck. Love, Jimmy.”