Os Guinness inspired me to cram some history into my reading schedule, so I turned to two book-sale acquisitions covering the second world war.
A Quiet American chronicles the life of Varian Fry, an American who traveled to unoccupied France and set up an underground immigration network for refugees who were in political danger as intellectuals, artists, or writers. Over the course of a year, he helped many now-famed personages evade the clutches of the Gestapo and reach Ellis Island. (Incidentally, I just found Lion Feuchtwanger's Proud Destiny in a local book nook.)
Replete with forged passports, money from the black market, and boldfaced lies, Fry's operation raises all sorts of knotty ethical questions. The author is predictably sympathetic to Fry and his tactics, and draws you into the urgency of the moment, as the ebb and flow of French patriotism surges around you and the world wakes up to the harsh reality of world war.
These questions run much deeper than multiple-choice mathematics. Even the mild Dietrich Bonhoeffer snapped when confronted with the stark horror of Nazi brutality, joining the July 20 plotters in their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler. In Fry's case, he based his network on entirely secular morals, and it seems his work is properly applauded as a triumph for the cause of secular freedom.
Last Words, "A Memoir of World War II and the Yugoslav Tragedy," recounts the experiences of Yugoslav POW Boris Todorovich, who escaped a German concentration camp to eventually rejoin the Yugoslav resistance forces. Composed of numerous ethnicities, Yugoslavia was ruptured in several directions by the war. The Croats defected to the Germans, turning in Serbs as prisoners or worse, and the Serbs were divided into two parties: the Communists, led by Josip Tito, and the Chetniks, led by Draža Mihailović.
Todorovich, a passionate nationalist and freedom fighter, identified strongly with the latter group. Unfortunately, since the Communists struck more effective blows against the Germans early on, they became the de facto recipients of Allied aid, which they used to vanquish their rival party. Mihailović was eventually executed by Tito's Communist regime.
Being an autobiographical account, certain pieces are undoubtedly skewed to fit Todorovich's ego and ethics, and the narrative lacks the usefully critical commentary of an outsider. There is, however, value in the firsthand, and the book offers a singularly cutting perspective in that the story does not end well.