Books in the Background 9: Common Minds

Ron Berman



Carlos Baker's Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story observed that some reviewers of Men Without Women disliked the "vulgar" protagonists of these stories. They specified Hemingway's "bull-fighters" and "professional soldiers" among others.  Such characters typified the author's bad choice in viewing his times through the eyes of the uneducated.  Baker added that the reviewers objected to the absence of a "ruling philosophy"—we might guess that they believed in, wanted to protect,  a narrow definition of culture and knowledge.  All of this took place while Ludwig Wittgenstein began to rethink the idea of knowing. One book about him, Avrum Stroll's Wittgenstein, sums up his conclusions about mind.   The long line of philosophy from antiquity on had elevated the intellectual who, removed from material thought, was best qualified to judge human affairs. "Common persons" needed to be shown how to live by those more capable of thinking.  "But Wittgenstein's originality consists in turning this picture on its head.  It is the plain man who is all right, who is not troubled by mental cramps, and who does not cast up a dust that prevents him from seeing things as they are." That was, Stroll adds, a monumental challenge to the attitudes and systems of "traditional" philosophy.  And to Bloomsbury reviewers.  Within a decade of those original reviews there were even more changes. They came about in books, as we might expect, but results could be seen in other places.


Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45. By Peter Caddick-Adams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.  872 pp. $24.95

The Rise of Germany: 1939-1941. By James Holland. New York: Grove Press, 2015.  692 pp. $20.

First published in 2015, Snow and Steel has become the standard for its subject. It uses journals, letters, and military records from both sides.  Snow and Steel cites Hemingway—and also officers and men on both sides who recorded their experience in letters, reports, and recollections.  Hemingway's war was one among many. Sources include official histories and quite a few descriptions of the Bulge that have been censored, edited, or temporarily forgotten by history. There were dozens of different reactions to the same events, among them German accounts of the bombardments, fighting  (and, eventually, imprisonment) that made up this prolonged event.  Many American prisoners were taken in this campaign and some of their experience has been retold: "Corporal Taylor was searched by a red-headed German youth, who 'demanded the glasses I was wearing, which happened to be gold-rimmed.  He took them, broke the lenses, and crushed the frame into a wad which he dropped into a small canvas bag.  It contained several pieces of gold, some of which were crowns still attached to teeth." And,  "some of us [prisoners] were ordered to prepare their Flak guns for moving.  One American refused, saying that it was against the Geneva Convention.  A German officer pulled his pistol and shot him in the head.  That's when I learned to forget the Geneva Convention" (534).  

Hemingway is often mentioned in this book about the Battle of the Bulge and, although it is an investment in reading time it shows how other writers handled similar situations.  The book covers the complex subject of "fighting in wintry woodland" (175) which made all of the usual logistic things much harder: getting food, fuel and ammunition; digging into defensive positions; and dealing with bodily and mental disabilities which became prevalent in the brutal campaign after the liberation of Paris. 

There is less writing about individual experience to compare in The Rise of Germany because it concerns the first two years of war. And, this book concentrates on both Allied and Axis preparations for war, showing how industrial and agriculture production would always be unsolvable problems for a land power dependent on imports: German tactics depended on speed because there was not enough food, labor, or manufacturing materials to sustain a long war.   They also depended on the theatrical desire of Hitler to keep "the adulation in which most Germans held him" as well as keep dominance over his "inner circle" (39).  While, of course, impressing upon other European countries whatever views he held from moment to moment about neutralizing them, working with them, converting them, or destroying them.  Blitzkrieg was a very effective tactic for a country that wanted the war to be as short as possible.  But Germany's worst problems became plain after the early victories and couldn't be solved even when most of Europe—hungry, sullen, resentful—was in Hitler's power.  Conquered territories needed garrisons, and they could not supply enough food for either humans or livestock in the Reich.  Eventually, the armies of Germany needed to impress prisoners from Eastern Europe while its own factories came to rely on slave labor. 

The Rise of Germany has something directly to say about Hemingway's intellectual nobodies, those professional soldiers and bull-fighters who had been dismissed by their betters in the late twenties. The War Office in London had assigned General John Kennedy to draw up plans for an eventual return to France.  He spent a lot of time with Colonel Raymond Lee, the U.S. Military Attaché in London, and "on one occasion, Lee asked Kennedy whether he had read Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon with its vivid description of bullfighting. The principle of bullfighting, Lee told him, was to wear the bull out gradually.  Every move was planned for the eventual killing of the beast by getting him to exhaust himself.  It was considered a bad mistake to deliver the coup de grâce too soon.  The Germans, Lee suggested, were rather like the bull, and the following day sent Kennedy a copy of Hemingway's novel [sic], which he duly read." Trying to evolve a standard for their own strategy, both men began to think over Hemingway's ideas: "the analogy, Kennedy thought, was a good one, but he also thought it worth pointing out it only applied up a point.  Wearing down the enemy was one thing, but, as far as he was concerned, there was no benefit to dragging out the fight longer than necessary.  'If you regard Hitler as a bull, and this war as a bullfight,' Kennedy wrote, 'then I regard you as a man in the front row of the stalls with a machine gun.  I want you to press the button now and shoot the bull'." (485).  Holland notes that this discussion took place within a series of talks between Kennedy and Churchill so that those "bull-fighters" and "professional soldiers" disliked by the critics of the late twenties had a different kind of audience a decade later. 


Ron Berman 08/21/2017

How to cite this blog in MLA 8: 

Author's Last Name, Author's First Name. "Title of Post."  THR Blog, The Hemingway Foundation and Society, Date blog was published, Link to blog entry (omit http:// or https://).