FIPS, the title of Werner Fürbringer’s WWI memoirs, comes from the nickname Fürbringer earned while becoming one of Germany’s greatest U-boat aces (101 ships sunk). During the interbellum years, he was instrumental in rebuilding the German Navy. His memoirs came out during those years and have fascinated readers by both the intimate portrayal of the U-boat service and the picture of WWI submarine warfare.
It has ever been my opinion that Germans should take pride in their U-boat service. Their history in both WWI and WWII displays great gallantry in face of the enemy, and they carried out their duty aggressively despite appalling loss rate of 80% and 75% respectively. These memoirs show Germans adhering closely to prize warfare in the early days of the war (capturing merchantmen before sinking their ships) despite the many more dangers this poses to submarines than to surface warships. Even after unrestricted submarine warfare was declared, they generously helped their victims however they could.
Yours truly finds it hard to review a book like this. The Children of Hurin unrolls a beautifully tragic story. Yet, tragic beauty is not something I typically appreciate in literature–especially not as much as this blog’s co-author, Thomp D. James. (That Euripides sometimes gives the audience a happy ending makes him my favorite of the Three Athenian Tragedians.) With The Children of Hurin, like in your classic Greek tragedy, our hero, Turin, has many noble qualities twisted by tragic flaws–melancholy and pride in this case. These two faults drag him down from every happy circumstance he finds and lead to his demise.
I learned about Neil MacGregor when I saw his name in the History Book Club catalog. Searching for his name in the local library did not bring me the same book, but I was intrigued by the title Germany: Memories of a Nation. Reading the memoirs of Heros von Borcke, a famed Prussian cavalryman who served under Jeb Stuart, brought to my attention how little I knew of Germany’s history between Charlemagne and the Renaissance and between the Renaissance and World War II. With the thought that this book would help fill in those gaps, I plunged into it.
One of the considerable problems with writing a history of Germany is that Germany only first existed as a state in 1871 when Otto von Bismarck brought about unification. Prior to this point, the land we refer to today as Germany existed as a federation of states known as the Holy Roman Empire. Though having a ruler, the Holy Roman Empire, the individual states often pursued their own political and economic goals. How does one create anything like a comprehensive history such a loosely united principalities?
I’ve gotten halfway through The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. So far it exudes a style and mood at variance with other works of Tolkien. It feels more like a Greek tragedy or Viking saga: it has the style of the latter and the tragic flaws of the former. None of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is present therein, unless we count the happy death of Androg, who died a better man than he lived. If it were not for this happy death, I should doubt that the famous Tolkien really wrote the story. Little else relieves one from the heavy sense of sorrow hanging over the action.
Joy or even humor is missing from the work. Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings, can get pretty dark at times, but its characters defy their desperate circumstances with joy, humor, or even glory. Boromir’s death lost some of its sting by the exuberant courage of his last stand. Homely humor from Samwise Gamgee brightened up Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor. How about the orc slaying game played between Legolas and Gimli at the desperate Battle of Helm’s Deep?
Suhren’s memoirs, Teddy Suhren, Ace of Aces: Memoirs of a U-boat Rebel, stands as a very interesting, but all too short, German submariner’s reminiscences of the Second World War. Suhren’s real first name is Reinhard. His nickname Teddy comes from his days in basic training, when his comrades noticed that he marched like a teddy bear. And so, the name stuck. The officer in charge of his training remarked to Suhren later in the war that he succeeded in training many thousands of young men, but Suhren was the one recruit in whom he did not succeed! Despite his lack of polish, Suhren excelled in his U-boat training, became one of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s best U-boat captains, and was promoted out of the boats to be a section commander in Narvik, Norway during 1942.
Suhren’s promotion occurred just when the Battle of the Atlantic turned against the U-boats. For this reason, Peter Cremer’s U-boat Commander is a much more compelling memoir: in warfare which claimed the lives of 75% of German submariners, Cremer became one of only two captains made in 1942 to survive the war. Cremer’s memoirs also contain far more detail about the difficulties posed by Allied destroyers and anti-submarine planes and the progress in U-boat technology.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead and What’s Mine’s Mine by George MacDonald. Novelists like these, the kind we term “classic,” well deserve that term. Every book of theirs brims with insights into the human condition. So many other writers’ concerns are only skin deep, but Dostoyevsky and MacDonald write of the soul. MacDonald has the tendency of doing this in a sermonizing fashion, which has perhaps made him less popular among moderns. Yet, there was a time when great preachers could attract crowds. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, wrote one hundred years ago but his insights the evils of socialism and fallen man strike one as still relevant.
The House of the Dead focuses on the dark side of man–his fallen nature. And no wonder: this novel derives from the experience of Dostoyevsky being exiled to Siberia for his involvement in a radical political group. What Dostoyevsky saw of human nature in prison cured him of Marxist ideas and the concept of the perfectibility of man forever. This novel records the sheer divide between nobles and commoners and the great diversity of the convicts: there were Chechens, Old Believers, Muslims, a Jew, Orthodox, Catholics, Poles, Russians, rich, poor, middle class, laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, and others. Many were perfectly well off, but this did not prevent them from committing crimes. The commoners in the villages outside of the prison referred to the prisoners as “unfortunates.”