By Timothy R. Smith,
1 The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews From the Nazis , by Gordon Thomas (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $27.99). Pius XII, the pope during World War II, supposedly did little as Europe’s Jews were exterminated wholesale. But in “The Pope’s Jews,” Gordon Thomas sets out to debunk that notion. Rather than stand idly by, he argues, Pius XII oversaw a covert network of priests, nuns and Roman citizens who forged documents and smuggled Jewish refugees safely to Switzerland, the United States and Palestine while Vatican infirmaries became hiding places. According to Thomas, the pope was considered such a threat that Nazi officials hatched a plot to kidnap him. All the while, he had to keep the Germans from finding out about the secret operations that saved hundreds of lives.
2 Army of Evil: A History of the SS , by Adrian Weale (NAL Caliber, $28.95). The SS — the abbreviation for Schutzstaffeln or “protection squads” — evolved from a gang of street thugs into the most feared and pervasive security apparatus in Hitler’s empire. The SS oversaw the Gestapo, the Third Reich’s secret police force; a vast network of concentration and death camps; and intelligence operations. In his comprehensive history of the group, which proved to be Hilter’s most effective tool of brute force, Adrian Weale traces it from its beginnings as Hitler’s bodyguards through “the disaster of the Munich Putsch,” its replacement of the Sturmabteilung (Hitler’s first paramilitary organization) and its service on the Eastern Front.
3 Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs , by Soenke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, translated from the German by Jefferson Chase (Knopf, $30.50). Hollywood has lionized Allied prisoners of war in classic films such as “The Great Escape” and “The Password Is Courage.” But what of the Germans? In “Soldaten,” two scholars explore the world of German POWs as revealed in a trove of recorded interrogations discovered in 2001. Although the recordings were made by British intelligence agents to gather crucial information about German military operations, they capture the prisoners’ mind-set, including their views on anti-Semitism and how they coped with the effects of combat.
— Timothy R. Smith