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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Monday, March 27, 2017

New Spanish Civil War Volunteer Biography

An International Brigade veteran from Germany is portrayed in this new book.

Having met and interviewed several Swedish veterans of the Spanish Civil War (see Swedes at War 1914-45) I have most books written by or about them. There is a strange gap among them that I have been thinking about lately, thanks to a new book.

Walter Struck was one of the many thousands of Germans who fought in Spain 1936-39. Most were in the German pro-Franco Condor Legion, but there were also rather large groups of Germans within the opposing International Brigades of the Comintern (Communist International). Struck was one of the Germans in the Brigades that joined up via Norway. His eventful life in Spain and afterwards in Sweden has now been documented by his son Rune Struck in the book Pappa ville aldrig prata om Ebro, which translates as "Dad never wanted to talk about Ebro". This is a book that attempts to, and succeeds, in painting a vivid portrait of a German Spanish Civil War volunteer. One gets to know the man behind the strong convictions and it is no simple hero portrait.

Rune Struck knows how to write and has had access both to good notes from his father and has searched for traces of him in today´s Spain. Like yours truly he found out that the memory of the war is still very much alive in Spain, in surprising ways and in spite of the fact that most war participants are now dead. I also recognize the author´s joy in actually finding places described so many decades ago, almost as they were. Those moments will never go away.

The book does not end with Ebro and the fall of the Spanish Republic but follows Walter Struck to his refugee life in Sweden, from which he took part in the information war (to use a more modern term) against the Third Reich. After 1945 he for a time considers returning to Germany, but opts for joining Swedish society together with his Norwegian wife and children.

Rune Struck´s quest for his father´s and also mother´s wartime past is a moving one. I suspect that I will many times look back at this book´s questions about Germany and the Germans. Reading the book I also came to think of the very small number of Swedish biographies about Spanish Civil War veterans. If one excludes a handful of autobiographies, I can only come up with two previous biographies in Swedish: Frisco-Per (1985) by Arvid Rundberg and Helmut Kirschey (1998) by Richard Jändel. Considering that over 550 Swedes took part in the Spanish Civil War, plus the Spain veterans from other countries (like Walter Struck and Helmut Kirschey), the number of biographies in Swedish is surprisingly low.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Building Lightsabers & Understanding The Force

Two Star Wars-related books that gave me a deeper understanding of not just SW.

OK, you have seen all the films more than once and want to understand them on a deeper level, and especially how their look came about, and what the Star Wars story (stories) are really about. Well, in that case these are the droi... books you are looking for.

Cinema Alchemist is a pretty good title, but the subtitle is even better: How I built the Lightsaber and Won an Oscar. I mean, that is just about the best subtitle I have ever come across. This is simply a terrific book if you want to understand how the look of both "Star Wars" and "Alien" was created, very often from pieces of junk - making Luke´s words about the Millenium Falcon ring even more true ("What a piece of junk!"). The thing is that this book is written not by some film researcher but the man that actually did very much of the actual designing/decorating on the sets, Roger Christian.

Simply put, Cinema Alchemist is a treasure trove if you are into Star Wars, and especially the first trilogy. Aside from learning about all the gadgets and spaceships you will find out what the filming was like, the drama (serious!) and sweat (lots!) behind the camera. I had seen and read quite a lot about the filming, but this book has loads of details I was not aware of, or had not fully understood.

Surprisingly, Cinema Alchemist is not only about the many droids, filming in Tunisia etc but also about the ideas behind the manuscripts, not least the ideas behind the Force and the Buddhist influence.

Now, if trying to understand the Force and the deeper ideas behind Star Wars is your cup of tea, then you should also considering getting The Gospel according to Star Wars by John C. McDowell. Like the subtitle says it is about Faith, Hope, and the Force. Unlike Roger Christian, however, John C. McDowell shows that also Christianity is a rather large part of the Star Wars story. Being a Christian myself I have long thought of Star Wars as not being in conflict with my faith, but in fact providing encouragement.

Now, a word of warning about The Gospel according to Star Wars. It is not an easy read and I found large parts simply too complicated. Had I been more into theology I would probably have appreciated also those parts. But, as this is the kind of book that allows you to skip pages - fine with me. The parts that I did like are really important to me, and I will return to them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Manhattan Project´s Swedish Connections

Unofficial emblem of the Manhattan Project, circa 1946.

Seldom has a TV series about WWII begun with the same slow pace as "Manhattan". After having seen also the second episode I was not that keen to continue watching it, in spite of the terrific acting, look, atmosphere and the subject itself - the people who made the first atomic bomb. But then something happened.

From lukewarm feelings for the series I developed a real attachment, and after the introduction of the Dane Niels Bohr into the story I keep asking myself how it is possible that both Swedish historians, writers and film directors have been able to pay so little attention to the Swedish connections to the Manhattan Project. I mean, first we have the most crucial trip of Niels Bohr via Sweden, and then we have Arthur Adams, the Sweden-born Soviet spy (and former osnaz soldier) who was focused on the Manhattan project. For more about Adams - see my latest book.

Incidentally, Netflix right now show both "Manhattan" and "The Heavy Water War". So, the same media now has both the Allied and the German atomic bomb stories.

Well, Swedish film directors, read up on Niels Bohr and Arthur Adams...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Parachute Containers For Christmas

WWII parachute containers still in situ. From new book "Norges tack till Sverige".

As a reader of this blog you might recall that I have quite often mentioned the parachute operations around Narvik. Amazingly, the not-that-hard-to-find parachute container that I blogged about back in 2010 is still (2016) in situ. Finding any kind of traces of WWII still out in the open is a memorable experience, but finding airborne-related materiel is special indeed.

A new book about Norway and Sweden during WWII shows how parachute containers still today can also be found in situ in Vassfaret, south Norway - see the above photos. I am also glad to see that Swedish Narvik veteran Jan Danielsen is mentioned in the book, entitled Norway´s Thanks To Sweden (In Swedish: Norges tack till Sverige). Generally speaking, the book is filled with WWII in Scandinavia facts, photos and other illustrations. And now comes the most unexpected part - the book is directly available as a free e-book on the new English/Swedish website www.norgestack.se

The kings of Norway and Sweden are on the cover with the "police troops" stone.

The authors, Mats Wallenius and Anders Johansson, have done a great deal to make Swedish covert and not-so-covert support for Norway during WWII more known to the general public. Their work can also be seen out in the open in Stockholm, as they were key persons behind this year´s move of the huge Norwegian "police troops" stone, taken from the Norwegian resistance stronghold Vassfaret (where many parachute containers were dropped). Now, thanks to the move, more residents and guests in Stockholm can see and touch a big piece of Scandinavian WWII history that hopefully will contribute to a broader understanding of Sweden´s support for Norway.

Yours truly by the Norwegian "police troops" memorial. PHOTO: Ella Gyllenhaal

So, during the coming holidays, do please visit www.norgestack.se

Wishing you a Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Strangest Winter War Volunteer

Winter War volunteer Otto von Zwehl. Photo from the book cover.

While researching for Swedes at War 1914-1945 I came across some pretty unexpected foreign volunteers for Finland during the Winter War of 1939-40. But I missed one very remarkable German who defied both Hitler and Stalin, only to later return to German service in spite of being considered partly Jewish. The first book about him is now out.

The Winter War had an attraction similar to the Spanish Civil War, it made people volunteer from near and far. Just two examples: the US President’s son Kermit Roosevelt recruited a “Finnish Legion” in London that went to Finland with 230 legionnaires. The elderly French general Clement-Grandcourt signed up as a private, but was made an officer when he arrived at the volunteer center in Helsinki. Well, now Lars Westerlund of the National Archives of Finland, author of several books about 20th century wars, has documented one of the 15 Germans who chose to fight for Finland in spite of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. For the Bavarian Otto von Zwehl this was a step that was not as strange as it may sound, as he was among the German officers who had fought for Finland back in 1918. The year after he became a Freikorps volunteer in his native country, the commander of the artillery detachment of the Freikorps Probstmayer.

What made Otto v. Zwehl´s decision to volunteer for Finland in 1939 very special indeed was that he was then both a civil servant of the Third Reich and, according to the same state, a Mischling, meaning mixed-blood, to be precise a Vierteljude ("one-quarter Jew").

As a resident of Finland since 20 years, Otto v. Zwehl felt it was his duty to volunteer for Finland when Stalin attacked on November 30, 1939. In late December 1939 his application was accepted and he was put in charge of a motorized battery of Finland Swedes. The vehicles of the unit got markings consisting of a "Z", for Zwehl, followed by a number. In Germany, the authorities were not happy - when Hitler heard of von Zwehl´s step he "blew his top". Lars Westerlund writes that Hitler then personally made sure that Otto v. Zwehl lost his German citizenship.

In record time, though, von Zwehl was granted Finnish citizenship and refused to follow the advice to emigrate to the United States.

One year later and in spite of how he has been treated by the German state, Otto v. Zwehl became a Finnish volunteer in the German Army in Finland. As a modern reader one finds this decision particularly hard to understand. Here one misses an interview quote from Otto von Zwehl. However, Lars Westerlund has managed to put together an amazing biography even though von Zwehl died in 1960. The book provides very valuable insights into Third Reich policy toward Finland, as well as the German community in Finland. This book also constitutes one of the first Nordic books about Mischlinge in German uniform during WWII, a subject pioneered by the US historian Bryan Mark Rigg.

Otto v. Zwehl is so far only available in German, as an e-book via Amazon or as a book-on-demand in Finland.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Star Wars vs Donald Trump

The Swedish Star Wars fan film "Threads of Destiny" (Director: Rasmus Tirzitis).

It is a period of civil war. But also wars called civil wars that are more international than internal. Add to this a president-elect who has repeatedly bullied in public and does not seem to understand the meaning of basic words such as sacrifice. His main slogan was one big deception, as with every passing day it becomes clearer that what he really is going to do is MAKE AMERICA ONE GREAT REALITY SHOW.

If I had a shrink, I am sure I would be told that my recent behavior is escapism. I mean, analysis of actual wars - that´s basically my livelihood. But instead of writing more I find that I have lately been writing less. I find that I am spending too much time musing about space fantasies. Such as the coming Episode 0 of Star Wars, i.e. "Rogue One", fan films like "Threads of Destiny" and films about fans like "Elstree 1976". Thanks to SciFiNow magazine I now know a lot more about how the first Star Wars movies were designed. If you suffer from the same geekness you too will want to read the SciFiNow interview by Oliver Pfeiffer with Roger Christian, one of the main designers behind the worn-aesthetic look of Star Wars (esp the first three movies). Just the story of the most iconic Star Wars weapon of them all, Luke´s lightsaber, is well worth the price of the mag (Issue 126). And guess if I´ll be getting Roger Christian´s book? The title is Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars & Alien.

So, dear humanity, as I am now unable to deal with reality I wish to at least provide you with insights about Star Wars trivia.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Finnish Hurriganes in Sweden

The Finnish rock album "Stranded In The Jungle".

The other day I made an unexpected discovery in Luleå, the largest city up here. This 1978 rock album entitled "Stranded In The Jungle" by the Finnish group Hurriganes. I now understand that this album was quite different in appearance in Finland, where it also got another name.

It may seem like a misspelling in the name of the group, "Hurriganes" with a "g". But it is a kind of joke. Having listened to them now I reckon the Hurriganes can be viewed as old school rock performers. I also just learnt the band is still around. Who knows more about this cover and especially why it was not used in Finland?

The place where I bought this rock gem is Antikvariat Samlarshoppen and here is the link to their Facebook-page.