February 2010

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I recently read Fatherland by Robert Harris, originally published in 1992. It was a great book, an alternate history in which the Germans win WW2. But it is what I might call an indirect alternate history because there is no “prologue” or anything like that to set up this alternate world. The alternate history unravels brilliantly for us and (in a different way) for the book’s hero as the story progresses. The hero is a Berlin detective who is investigating a murder. Berlin in the book is the Berlin of Albert Speer, it is 1962, and Adolf Hitler is about to celebrate his 75th birthday.

I doubt Fatherland is considered “literary fiction.” But I have also read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which is considered “literary fiction.” The Plot Against America is an alternate history with similar themes. I think Fatherland is ten times better. I had to force myself to finish Roth’s book. Fatherland is easier to read (i.e., better written), more fun to read, and sends a more powerful message. To my mind, just another example that contemporary “literary fiction” rarely lives up to its name.

What first struck me about Fatherland is how the Nazi Germany envisioned by Harris is eerily similar to post-9/11 America. For instance, terrorism is the dominant threat. And there is a color-coded system for terror alerts. Then there is this — a quote from the book:

Down in the cellar the Gestapo were licensed to practice was the Ministry of Justice called ‘heightened interrogation’. The rules had been drawn up by civilised men in warm offices and they stipulated the presence of a doctor.

That blew me away. I wanted to know whether the Gestapo really used that phrase. My impression of Fatherland is that the story is built on a foundation of extensive research. I have done extensive research on Nazi Germany for my book and saw many nuggets of authenticity in Fatherland. So I expected that this mention of “heightened interrogation” was based in fact. And based on my internet research, it seems the phrase “heightened interrogation” was indeed used by the Nazis. For instance, in 1939, Himmler authorized the use of “heightened interrogation” techniques on a man who had set off a bomb in a beer hall shortly after Hitler delivered a speech there. [Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich, by Martyn Housden, 1997]

I thought the phrase used by Bush and the Republicans was usually “enhanced interrogation” but it seems the phrase “heightened interrogation” was also used. I wonder if some Republicans made a conscious effort to use the word “enhanced” rather than “heightened” so they did not sound exactly like the Nazis. The government-sanctioned use of torture during the Bush Administration was a disgraceful episode of our nation’s history. (Not to mention the fact that it does not work and is not a technique advocated by experienced interrogators.) The fact that the Nazis and the Bush Adminstration used the same euphemism is even more damning.

Terrorism is a very real threat but in responding to that threat we should not compromise our principles. And we should not turn the Gestapo into role models.

Update: It looks like whether you say “enhanced” or “heightened” just depends on how you translate the German word. Which makes one wonder whether the Bush Administration at some point actually looked to the Gestapo for hints.

I recently spent a week in the Netherlands visiting my girlfriend Courtney. She grew up in Denver and went to Denver’s second-best high school but these days she is an international woman of intrigue and works in The Hague for SNV, an international development organization based in Holland.

I had not been to Holland for twenty-five years. I went there in high school as part of the People-to-People program. Back then, we visited Amsterdam and I stayed with a family for a few days in a small town, the name of which escapes me. I had not been anywhere in Europe for twenty years and I have not exactly been keeping up with current events. I frankly doubted I would ever get to Europe again though I fantasized about spending a month in London. That kind of went out the window when I decided to remodel my house.

But everything changed when I met Courtney at my friend Mayf’s wedding in November, a few days after my birthday. One of the perks of knowing her is that she has reawakened my interest in Europe. She did not need to twist my arm too hard to get me to visit her in The Hague, or as we Hollanders say, Den Haag.

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Some observations about Holland:

1. The water closets. The Dutch put the closet back in water closet. The room with the toilet is not much bigger than the toilet. And there is a tiny sink with a cold water faucet only. Showers and bigger sinks (with hot water) are found in a separate room. Maybe this is a Europe thing but I don’t remember it being the case in Germany and elsewhere.

2. Tiny beers. You know when you order an orange juice at a restaurant in the United States and they give you a shot-glass filled with OJ? Beers in Holland are not much bigger. You can ask for a “big” beer, which is about the same size as beer glasses normally are in the U.S. Or you can get a medium beer which is in between the tiny beer and the big beer. After a while I learned to order the big beer. I should have taken a picture of the tiny beers.

3. Bicycles. The Dutch ride bicycles everywhere. It’s a beautiful thing. Most of the bikes have no gears (they are essentially granny bikes). But the ride is amazingly smooth and Holland is so flat it’s almost effortless. This, as I see it, turns Dutch cities into big college campuses. And the Dutch let nothing slow them down. They ride with multiple kids on board, adults sitting on the back, groceries in the front and/or back, and in all weather. A major oversight on my part: I didn’t take a photo of Courtney with her awesome new pink bike.

4. Pride. The Dutch have a lot of pride in themselves and their country, as they should. It’s a great place to live. But one interesting manifestation of this is that waiters and waitresses seem to take pride in the quality of the food they serve. I don’t think most American waiters and waitresses give a rat’s ass what we think of the food. One time in Amsterdam when I did not finish my lunch the waitress looked genuinely hurt and confused. (Other than that lunch, most of the food was great.) When the Dutch wait staff asks, “How was it?”, they really care what your answer is.

My favorite things about my trip:
1. Seeing Courtney, of course!
2. Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” even though we had to stand in line in the freezing cold for an hour to get in. It was worth it.
3. V. van Gogh’s “Wheatfield.”
4. Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” One result of this trip is that I appreciate van Gogh and Vermeer much more than I did before. Normally I’m not into portraits but “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is surprisingly beautiful and powerful and must be seen in person.
5. Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson.” For some reason, this has always been one of my favorite paintings. Probably because it depicts the beginnings of modern medicine.
6. Seeing the other Vermeers, van Goghs, Rembrandts and a few other artists’ paintings. My trip has inspired me to learn more about the Dutch masters.
7. Going to Arnhem and seeing the war cemetery there. We did not intend to go there on Valentine’s Day but it sort of happened that way. Courtney was a good sport about this!
8. Madurodam. (More on this in a moment.)
9. The Escher museum. Did you know Escher was Dutch? I didn’t until this trip.
10. Exploring Den Haag and Amsterdam.

Some photos:

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Me in front of the Parliament complex in Den Haag. To the right, behind the fence and out of frame, is Mauritshuis, where “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “The Anatomy Lesson” are housed. (Remember the Parliament and Mauritshuis for later.)

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Courtney and me in Amsterdam after a day of art-viewing with Courtney’s friend Margot. We found a nice cafe on the edge of a small square and had some refreshing adult beverages.

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Here I am at the entrance to the war cemetery in Oosterbeek (outside Arnhem). Many of the Brits and Poles who died in the Battle of Arnhem are buried here.

In September 1944, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden. We dropped the American 101st Airborne on Eindhoven, the American 82nd Airborne on Nijmegen, and the British 1st Airborne (with Polish paras) on Arnhem. Each drop was intended to secure a major bridge. In the meantime, British XXX Corps was to drive through the German lines to relieve each group in turn. They relieved the 101st and then the 82nd but they did not quite make it in time to relieve the British 1st Airborne. The plan went “a bridge too far.”

The Brits and the Poles were not supposed to face serious opposition but unfortunately the 2nd SS Panzer Corps had been sent to Arnhem to rest shortly before Market Garden began. Of the 10,000 Allied soldiers that were dropped in the Arnhem sector, only 2,000 made it back to Allied lines. The rest were captured, wounded and captured, or killed.

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The graves.

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Courtney reading the inscriptions.

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A glider pilot. Many of the troops arrived in gliders.

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“Known Unto God.” Many of the graves were unknown soldiers.

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A member of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. I made it a point to take some photos of the Polish graves because their role in the Allied army has been underappreciated. This Polish airborne unit was formed to aid in the liberation of Poland and was almost dropped to aid their countrymen in the Warsaw Uprising. The Poles had previously distinguished themselves in the Normandy campaign.

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Some of the inscriptions on the gravestones were heartbreaking.

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Courtney took this shot of me in front of a Sherman tank that was sitting outside Hotel Hartenstein, which was the headquarters of the British 1st Airborne during the battle. (And previously it had been the German headquarters.) Now it is a museum to the Battle of Arnhem. Elements of the British 1st Airborne and the Polish 1st were able to escape from Hotel Hartenstein to the Allied lines. Other elements of the British 1st Airborne fought a strong defensive action around the bridge in Arnhem. This group, under John Frost, had to surrender to the Germans.

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After we left Oosterbeek, we took the train the short distance to Arnhem. There we went on what seemed to be a massive hike to the bridge too far, what is now called John Frost Bridge. (The bridge was rebuilt after the war. The old bridge was destroyed by the Allies after Market Garden.) A kind Dutch woman passerby took this photo of Courtney and me with the bridge in the background. The bridge goes over the Lower Rhine.

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That’s Courtney standing under some sort of medieval-esque gate in Arnhem as we begin the long hike back to the train.

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A close-up under the same gate.

Our last tourist stop on my trip was Madurodam. Courtney and I call it Tiny Town, after the Tiny Town in Colorado. But Den Haag’s Tiny Town is much bigger and much better than ours. Madurodam is a kid’s paradise. Every major site in Holland is at Maduradam in miniature. Everyone who visits Holland should go to Maduradam first and last.

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Courtney stands next to a cathedral, which I thought was the most impressive structure at Tiny Town.

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A real Dutch cityscape, right?

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Not so fast. Courtney provides scale.

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I kneel next to The Sting, a shopping center in Den Haag that Courtney and I walked past many times.

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Courtney points at Mauritshuis.

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An aerial view of Parliament. As Courtney reminded me, we biked through the life-size version.

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Courtney at the Tiny Town airport, an impressive mock-up of Schiphol, the Amsterdam airport.

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Adorable, no? My favorite photo of the trip and a good one to end on.