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Under a Darkening Sky: The American Experience in Nazi Europe 1939-1941.

Under a Darkening Sky: The American Experience in Nazi Europe 1939-1941

by Robert Lyman, Pegasus Books, 332 pages, $27.95

The first Americans in Europe during World War II were not the liberators of Sicily or Italy or France. Rather, they were journalists, diplomats, attaches, writers, and businessmen, often embedded and always observant of a continent lurching into war. In Under a Darkening Sky, Robert Lyman recounts their experiences watching invasion approach as they be came refugees and sought in vain to draw their own nation into the struggle against Nazism. Lyman grounds his history in excel lent accounts of Austria and Czechoslovaia succumbing to Nazi invasion, abandoned by the rest of Nazi appeasing Europe, and in the widely varying responses of their populations, from grudging acquiescence to frenzied cheering to improvised escapes.

As Germany's luckless eastern neighbors succumbed, Britain fretted in panic at the failure of placating Adolf Hitler, loath to rearm and acknowledge the failure of its principle-driven appeasement. The inevitable outbreak of war with England and France seems peculiarly understated: in Berlin the studiously nonchalant British embassy staffers speak of their dogs, while incredulous Germans vow that they will not be the ones to fire the first shot and then watch their tax rates rise to 50 percent. When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, Germans cheered at rumors of peace. This was not war the way anyone on either side had expected.

Though Lyman covers all the early, unwilling adversaries of Germany, he has a special insight about the French. Long before the first bombs fell, the Germans had won the mind game against the French. One American observer discovered that the French people, though at war, were squabbling not about tactics and strategy, but about governance, a curious preoccupation. Mobilized troops were sullen and apathetic. Leftists sowed a servile defeatism. In Paris, jewelry sales were brisk and cultural life surged as the citizens waited for Hitler's next move. In CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid's account of the first night of the war, isolated events formed a mosaic of mayhem as German forces surged toward the futile Maginot Line of defenses built by France in the 1930s and as the civilian population abandoned the border regions. Sevareid further recounted the universal chaos of panicked civilians and conflicting accounts as the Germans drove toward the English Channel, impervious to French defenses and British counterattacks.

The German forces seem unfamiliar to us. A fleeing journalist, no admirer of theirs, admits that they showed a level of professionalism far superior to their adversaries. There was no class division between their officers and men, who ate together. Free postal services allowed them to stay in touch with families. When not remorselessly strafing civilians, they advised refugees to return to Paris, because otherwise they were inadvertently fleeing straight toward the next planned battlefield.

Perversely, the French leadership sought to make lemonade from the abundant lemons. The US ambassador reported to President Franklin Roosevelt that the French leaders were so defeated morally and broken physically that they completely accepted their fate as a German province; their hope was to be the favorite among Berlin's colonies. Alas, their fate was otherwise, and Lyman describes the slow atrophy of exchange rates, caloric intake, social graces, individual liberties, and personal property under occupation, for the French and expatriates alike. Back in Berlin, citizens enjoyed a materially superior lifestyle as imported goods, beneficial exchange rates, and care packages sent home from men at the front introduced them to new luxuries (though this ended by the winter of 1941).

While some in Europe lay supine, others stood tall. Lyman includes memorable accounts from Yanks in the British Royal Air Force regarding British preparations to resist German attack and invasion. The resilient citizens of London, indeed all the British, withstood the Blitz of 1940 and 1941 alone and waited for the rest of the world to come to its senses.

Under a Darkening Sky sometimes strays, or leaps, into bombast: "That Hitlerism was ever able to so dominate European and global politics to the extent that it did for twelve hellish years, sending the world screeching into a cataclysmic war from which it only escaped by the skin of its teeth, battered, bloodied, and changed forever, is no mystery now." Whew! But Lyman is not alone in this rhetorical excess; many of the writers he quotes exhibit similarly enthusiastic prose styles. As early as the second page we read, "Surrounding him [Hitler] is his camarilla of braves: the murderous, fat Goering, a vain but able man; the satanic devil's advocate, Goebbels." The book seldom slows down!

Breathless as the prose is, it becomes one of the book's pleasures. During the late 1930s, some of America's great 20th-century foreign observers were expatriates such as George Keenan, Eric Sevareid, and William Shirer, and they watched and wrote about the transforming German state. These are memorable accounts of historic experiences. They write vivid portraits of a continent in decline. And while Lyman's history is occasionally over-written, it is often illuminating, and definitely satisfying.

Tom Mullen

Flemington, New Jersey
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Author:Mullen, Tom
Publication:America in WWII
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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