The S.S. Officer’s Armchair by Daniel Lee #bookreview

The S.S. Officer’s Armchair by Daniel Lee #bookreview

The S.S. Officer’s Armchair by Daniel Lee offers insight into life in Nazi Germany.

the s.s. officer's armchair

The S.S. Officer’s Armchair

This book is the story of Robert Griesinger. Griesinger was born in 1906, in Stuttgart, which was then part of the Kingdom of Württemberg. He entered the author’s life accidentally. Daniel Lee is a World War II scholar. His primary focus is the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the war.

Like many scholars, when strangers learn what they do, the stranger regales the scholar with tales they think are related to their area of study. In Lee’s case, World War II stories became second- and third-hand tales by the 2010s. The story of The S.S. Officer’s Armchair began in this offhand way.

The book pursues two tracks. One is the story of Robert Griesinger, his family history, early years, education, and how he became a Nazi. A second, and equally fascinating track, details Lee’s unraveling of the story. Griesinger died in 1945. Jutta and Barbara, his daughters, were in their seventies when Lee began his research. A chance encounter with a woman whose mother owned Griesinger’s armchair, leading to a portrait of a mid-level Nazi officer, offers insight into the Third Reich beyond the leaders and the horrors they perpetrated.

Armchairs

Lee discovers the armchair by accident.  Instead of just a story, this time, he gains access to documents belonging to an S.S. officer. Not just an oral account of someone’s activities during the war, but primary sources. It’s no surprise he took this seriously. The armchair from the Griesinger household in Prague made its way to a woman in Amsterdam. Documents sewed into the chair were discovered when it was taken to be reupholstered.

It’s interesting to compare the attitude of the Dutch furniture upholsterer with those of the Czechs Lee encountered in Prague. While the Dutch craftsman didn’t want anything to do with people he thought were related to Nazis, the Czechs were less concerned. Czechoslovakia strained under the control of the Soviet Union for long enough that Nazi occupation was a blip on their timeline. The documents enabled Lee to learn about their owner. They provided insight into the daily life of a Nazi bureaucrat.

Lee’s initial encounter with Griesinger happened at a dinner party. A guest told him the story of how her mother discovered the papers. He verified the story, and the guest’s mother offered to send the papers to him. Things started to click when his guest’s mother explained that she was not Dutch, even though she lived in Amsterdam. She was Czech. Lee’s journey to unravel The S.S. Officer’s Armchair begins.

The New Orleans Connection

Where to begin? Lee had a name and some documents that didn’t tell anywhere near a story. Beginning with Stuttgart, he cold-calls folks with the last name Griesinger, and comes up with one of Robert’s nephews. He learns from Jochen Griesinger that, Adolf, Robert’s father, was born in New Orleans. Robert Griesinger, Sr., Robert’s grandfather (and Jochen’s great-grandfather), came to New Orleans from Germany in 1867, in the aftermath of the Southern Rebellion. Robert Sr. met Lina Johns there. Lina was the daughter of the musician Paul Emile Johns, a contemporary of Frédéric Chopin. Lina and Robert married in 1870, and Adolf was born in 1871. Robert Sr., and Lina returned to Stuttgart in the early 1880s. Adolf was groomed to be part of the military infrastructure of Prussia.

The author speculates much about Robert Jr.’s connections to New Orleans. Lina’s family owned enslaved Africans prior to the rebellion. They were friends with the author Kate Chopin (no relation to Frédéric), and her husband, Oscar, who was a member of the White League. Did growing up in a racist environment such as post-bellum New Orleans influence Adolf? Did those New Orleans attitudes travel back to Germany with him? How did they contribute to the formation of his son’s beliefs? Lee is unable to make a direct correlation between the enslavement culture of the American South and Robert Jr.’s growth as a Nazi, but the parallels are stark.

Young Robert

Adolf Griesinger became a loyal officer in the cavalry of the King of Württemberg. That loyalty never wavered, even after the defeat of the German Empire in World War I and the hardships of the 1920s. Robert was born into a life of middle-class/military-class privilege. He was educated at a quality Gymnasium (high school), and attended the University of Tübingen. The author guides his readers through the very-masculine culture of Prussian universities and how this had an impact on Griesinger’s relationship with his doting, over-protective mother. Robert’s membership in Corps Suevia Tübingen, a collegiate dueling fraternity, offered life-long connections and networking to Robert. This was similar to membership in a Final Club at Harvard or a social fraternity at other American universities.

Upwardly Mobile Nazi

Upon graduation and receiving his credentials as a lawyer, Robert joined the Schutzstaffel, better known as the S.S. Lee explains the structure of the S.S. when Griesinger joins in 1933, and how it evolved into the dominant paramilitary organization prior to the war. Based on his mediocre performance as a student, Robert knew he needed to leverage personal contacts to advance himself. Lee describes the balance of Griesinger’s work and his involvement in the S.S. Given his father’s dislike for the Nazis (to the extent he forbade Robert from wearing S.S. uniform in his presence), his activity in the organization was a major statement of independence. He knew which way the wind was blowing.

Jews in The S. S. Officer’s Armchair

The author’s explanations of German anti-semitism in the wake of the Great War explains how the dislike for Jews among the German people was pervasive, enabling the Nazis to exploit the issue. Even though Lee establishes that Griesinger was not a “desk killer” while in the S.S., he certainly had the ability to become one. Robert was a “gentleman’s C” student, and that carried through in his early career.

Marriage

Robert runs into obstacles with the S.S. when he desires to marry Gisela Nottebohm. The social aspects of their courtship, combined with the struggles involved with securing permission from the S.S., present the complexities of being a young officer in the Reich. His superiors in the S.S. frowned upon its members marrying divorcées. Aryan purity and ability to produce children suitable to the S.S. and the Reich were paramount. It would be nice to say Lee “humanizes” the process, but it’s hard to see that side of Griesinger.

Griesinger joined the Gestapo in 1935. Lee presents Robert’s duties and routine as part of the Political Police machinery in Stuttgart. Robert leveraged his university fraternity connections while in the Gestapo, forging strong personal bonds with his co-workers. This is one of the most interesting themes throughout the book. While Robert nurtures his social and political connections, he doesn’t work them to advance within either the S.S, or the Gestapo. His friends were much more aggressive, and they leave him behind. His desire to blend in, keep his head down, eventually comes back to haunt Robert. By the time war begins, his fraternal connections are unable to keep him out of harm’s way. He is forced into joining the Wehrmacht Heer (army) unit and is sent to the Russian Front. Robert is severely wounded. This provides him the opportunity to return to a civilian position.

Prague

The Griesingers come to Prague in March, 1943. While Robert was not a hero in the sense of performing acts of valor, his status as a decorated, wounded, veteran of front-line combat enabled him to secure a position at the Ministry of Economic and Labor. He put his experience with the Gestapo to good use, assisting and advising local law enforcement on how to improve production from local factories. Griesinger’s ruthlessness fit in well, as the Reich needed maximum exploitation of resources and labor to continue the war effort.

In the end, of course, it wasn’t enough, as the Allies pressed in on both sides. Robert gets Gisela and the girls out of Prague, but is himself caught up in the reprisals at the end of the war, and never leaves the city. The author takes us through his quest to find Robert’s burial site. It’s a small amount of closure at the end of a fascinating journey for Lee.

Griesinger’s Legacy

We will never know why Robert Griesinger, Jr., chose to hide his personal papers in the armchair, rather than simply destroying them. Perhaps he knew he would not escape from Prague, so he had no concerns with respect to self-incrimination. Maybe he thought they would be discovered somewhat earlier than 2011, and would have been passed on to his daughters. If preserving his memory was the goal, Robert succeeded, at least partially.

Jutta and Barbara, grew up with no knowledge of their father, beyond the little they remembered of him before they were put on a truck and evacuated from Prague. It’s clear that they had an interest in learning more about him, as Lee updated them on the progress of his project. Addressing the issues surrounding German attitudes post-war, post-Shoah, Lee reveals the spectrum of emotions involved. Germans are still, in many ways, in denial about the war, seventy-five years later. For all that the sisters want to know more about their father, and for all that Lee appreciates their assistance, there’s still a dissonance, a desire to look at it all from the outside.

Takeaways

The S.S. Officer’s Armchair fills in gaps in the knowledge base of the Third Reich. Students learn about death camps, but not as much about the policies and war crimes that didn’t involve the extermination of the Jews. Squeezing the Protectorate of all it had to provide goods of war to Germany required a mindset that mid-level managers like Griesinger developed in their youth. Reading more about how Robert grew up and lived demonstrates the complexity of simply labeling everyone a Nazi.

The process of telling Griesinger’s story is as interesting as his story itself. Even if Nazi Germany is not one of the reader’s interest areas, the story of Lee’s journey makes The S.S. Officer’s Armchair a solid read.

The S. S. Officer’s Armchair: Book info

The S.S. Officer’s Armchair
Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi

Genre: Nonfiction / History / Modern / 20th Century

On Sale: June 16th 2020
Price: $28 / $35 (CAD)
Page Count: 320
ISBN-13: 9780316509091

Lakefront Drive-In Theater 1940

Lakefront Drive-In Theater 1940

Lakefront Drive-In Theater, in 1940.

Lakefront Drive-in Theater

“Drive-in Theater” on Canal Blvd, 1940.

Lakefront Drive-In Theater

Last year, I presented a lecture at the National World War II Museum, entitled, Winning the War on the Lakefront. The talk started at West End and the New Canal, then moved along the lakefront to the Industrial Canal. Every time I’ve presented this lecture, folks in attendance asked about a facility in what is now the East Lakeshore subdivision. Turns out, it was a Lakefront Drive-in Theater.

The Army and Navy hospitals.

lakefront drive-in theater

Aerial photo of Lagarde Army Hospital (bottom), and Naval Hospital New Orleans (top), 1940

The Orleans Levee Board reclaimed a great deal of land along the lakefront in the late 1920s. For reference, around 1910, the Mount Carmel Convent on Robert E. Lee Blvd had a fishing pier out front. It extended into the lake from almost the front door. The OLB reclaimed the area from there, up to where Lakeshore Drive is now.

The WPA made major improvements to the lakefront in 1938-1939. They built the seawall and Lakeshore drive. The reclaimed land belonged to the city. So, when the US Army and US Navy looked to build hospitals in New Orleans, the lakefront area appealed to them. The Army built Lagarde Army Hospital in what is now West Lakeshore. The Navy built Naval Hospital New Orleans on the other side of Canal Blvd. The breeze off Lake Pontchartrain cooled down the area at a time when air-conditioning was not ubiquitous. While the hospitals had different missions, they both benefited from the location.

What’s that thing?

Lakefront Drive-in Theater

Ad for the “Drive-in Theater,” 1940

I found some good aerial shots of the lakefront in 1940. They show the WPA improvements and the hospitals nicely. They also show a facility with a bunch of arcs, right behind Naval Hospital New Orleans. I dismissed it as maybe some kind of outdoor amphitheater, perhaps for concerts and other entertainment. Folks asked, “What’s that thing?” I replied with the outdoor entertainment answer.

Well, that answer wasn’t exactly wrong! I shared an Infrogmation photo of the bus stand at Canal and Robert E. Lee a couple of days ago. Arthur “Mardi Hardy” Hardy, musician, teacher, and local Carnival expert, replied to that image. Arthur said there was a drive-in movie theater, there on the other side of Canal Blvd, from the bus stand. He shared the ad (above) in the comment thread. The name of the place really was just, “Drive-In Theater.”

DING! That must be the “thing” behind Naval Hospital New Orleans. It makes sense, the quarter-circle pattern of the facility. Everything converges on the point of the right angle. That’s the screen. Public transportation to get out to the hospitals was limited (just the West End Streetcar). So, most folks drove out to there for work. Maybe stop and catch a movie before heading all the way home? Makes a lot of sense.

Movie Theater Project

I know Arthur has a book in progress on local movie theaters. So, I have yet another reason to buy it when it’s done. Thanks, Arthur!

 

Zoom Talk 2020-03-19 – Golden Age of Canal Street

Zoom Talk 2020-03-19 – Golden Age of Canal Street

Zoom Talk 2020-03-19

Zoom Talk 2020-03-19

https://www.dropbox.com/s/e0mrfn3mftjm4dz/zoom_0.mp4?dl=0

I’ve presented this talk to several groups in the last year or so. With everyone holed up because of Covid-19, I did the talk yesterday (19-March) via Zoom. It’s a bit long, because I was sorting out the use of Zoom, so you’ll need to fast-forward through the first 20 minutes of the talk to get to its actual beginning.

Also, TIL: it’s too long for YouTube. I’ll edit out that first portion and get it up there over the weekend. If you’d like to view it now, the link will let you download the MP4 version.

Enjoy!

 

Canal Terminal 1941 – Street Level #StreetcarMonday

Canal Terminal 1941 – Street Level #StreetcarMonday

The Liberty Monument defined Canal Terminal 1941

canal terminal 1941

Street level view of a NOPSI arch roof streetcar circling Liberty Place, 1941 (Franck Studios/HNOC)

Canal Terminal 1941

A NOPSI arch-roof streetcar makes the turn around Liberty Place. This charming photo from 1941 shows one of our classic “green” streetcars circling around the Liberty Monument. After completing the circle, the motorman parked the car in the four-track terminal. He and the conductor took their break, then proceeded on their outbound run.

Liberty Place

The obelisk known as the “Liberty Monument” stood at Canal and Front Streets in a small, oval-shaped green space. The New Orleans Traction Company contracted the engineering firm Ford, Bacon, and Davis (FBD), to evaluate the street rail system in New Orleans in 1893. They made a number of recommendations, including a re-design of the streetcar tracks at the foot of Canal Street.

Canal Terminal 1941

Plan of the Canal Terminal designed by Ford, Bacon, and Davis, published by Street Railway Journal, 1905

The city completed construction of FBD’s Canal Terminal design in 1900. By this time, all the mule-drawn tracks were removed from service. While the city cut back the  massive base of the Clay Monument at Royal and Canal, they left Liberty Place alone.  They cut down Clay to allow the tracks to run straight. FBD designed a loop around Liberty Place. Streetcars traveled down the Uptown side of Canal Street. When they reached Liberty Place, they looped around and parked on the French Quarter side. The 1900 version of the terminal included the loop and eight tracks. In 1930, the city implemented a “beautification” program that cut back the number of tracks to four. That 1930 street program also included installation of our fleur-de-lis street lamps, also visible in this photo.

Canal and the river

The buildings on the right display advertisements for liquor and wine. “Three Feathers” was a popular blend of Scotch. So, the name refers to one of the heraldic badges for the Prince of Wales. The badge includes a plume of three ostrich feathers and the royal coronet of the prince.

The second sign visible on the right is for Franzia Wines. Franzia still has a warm spot in the hearts of New Orleanians. Supermarkets sell Franzia as a “box wine.” Box wines are popular for Carnival parades, picnics under the interstate, or out at the lakefront.

The building background right is the Port of New Orleans office building, at Eads Plaza. Those buildings were demolished to make way for the International Trade Mart building and Spanish Plaza.

Rounding Liberty Place to Canal Terminal

From the time of the Liberty Place loop’s construction to its removal in 1964, many routes used it to change directions. For example, the Canal Street/Esplanade Avenue “belt” service arrived on Canal Street at N. Rampart Street. The streetcars turned toward the river. They looped around Liberty Place, parked at Canal Terminal then headed outbound. Other lines, such as Gentilly and Desire, used the loop to change direction.

When NOPSI discontinued the Canal line in 1964, they city demolished Liberty Place. So, they placed the monument in storage. Therefore that began its tumultuous history as a civil rights flashpoint. When Canal Street service returned, NORTA constructed the current three-track terminal that exists today. NORTA connected the tracks for the Riverfront line to that terminal. Streetcars now run from the Cemeteries and City Park all the way to the French Market terminal.

 

 

 

 

WWII Lunchbox Lecture Wednesday June 19th by NOLA History Guy

WWII Lunchbox Lecture Wednesday June 19th by NOLA History Guy

UPDATE: Here’s the link to the Facebook Live version of my talk last week at the National World War II Museum.

Come see NOLA History Guy at the National WWII Museum for a WWII Lunchbox Lecture

wwii lunchbox lecture

WWII Lunchbox Lecture

Edward Branley presents a WWII Lunchbox Lecture, this Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at the National World War II Museum. The talk will be in the Orientation Center of the Louisiana Pavilion, at Noon. The lecture’s topic is, Winning the War on the Lakefront.

Andrew Higgins and Higgins receive most of the attention in discussions about New Orleans during WWII. While his contributions to the war effort were the most important thing to come out of the city, so much more happened here. The Army Medical Corps, the US Navy, the US Coast Guard, and the Army Air Corps all operated facilities along Lake Pontchartrain. They built hospitals, air bases, supply depots, even a POW stockade. Consolidated Aircraft built flying boats. And yes, Higgins tested his landing craft and PT boats in Lake Pontchartrain.

Land Reclamation

The Orleans Levee Board drained much of the modern lakefront in the 1920s. They reclaimed the marshy land for use as residential neighborhoods. The Great Depression and the war slowed those plans. Since there was no civilian development in most of the land, the military took advantage. Hospitals appeared in what is now the East and West Lakeshore subdivisions.

Works Progress Administration

Much of the construction was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA lifted New Orleans out of the Great Depression. While the military paid to construct their hospitals and bases, WPA funded road improvements, airport upgrades, and even Pontchartrain Beach. The WPA made it easy for New Orleanians to get to jobs along the lakefront.

Pilot Training

The US Navy needed more training facilities for aviators. They built Naval Air Base New Orleans in 1941. The site is now the main campus of the University of New Orleans.

Come out!

 

 

Streetcars Canals Baseball #StreetcarMonday in Mid-City

Streetcars Canals Baseball #StreetcarMonday in Mid-City

Streetcars Canals Baseball in Mid-City New Orleans

Streetcars Canals Baseball

Heinemann Park, 1915

Streetcars, Canals, Baseball!

In one of our podcast conversations with Derby Gisclair, we discussed aerial photos of Heinemann Park/Pelican Stadium. Derby explains the neighborhood around the stadium used by the Pelicans baseball club. While Heinemann Park wasn’t the first ballpark used by the AA-club, it was their home for most of their tenure.

This 1915 photo is amazing. It shows a football field, chalked out over the outfield, and a racing oval behind the fence. Derby suspects the racing oval dates from the amusement park the stadium replaced.

City Park Avenue to Tulane Avenue

streetcars canals baseball

Aerial view of the New Canal, running out to Lake Pontchartrain at the top, 1915

The Pelicans played ball at Crescent City Park, later known as Sportsman’s Park, until 1901. They moved to Tulane Avenue that year. Heinemann built the ballpark at Tulane and S. Carrollton in 1915. The team moved there that year.

streetcars canals baseball

Here’s the area behind the Halfway House, City Park Avenue and the New Canal. It’s a bit grainy, but you can see the patch of ground where Sportsman’s Park was located. NORD eventually built St. Patrick’s Park, a few blocks down, at S. St. Patrick and the New Canal.

Getting to the ballgame

streetcars canals baseball

S. Carrollton Avenue bridge over the New Basin Canal. It was demolished when the canal was filled in, late 1940s.

Pelican Stadium sat very close to the New Canal. A set of railroad tracks separated the park from the waterway. So, bridge crossed the Canal there. The streetcars used that bridge, then turned onto Tulane Avenue to continue their inbound run. So, baseball fans from Uptown rode the St. Charles line to get to the ballpark. Folks coming from downtown rode the Tulane line, down Tulane Avenue, to the ballpark.

So, I know we’ve talked about the Tulane line, particularly when it operated in “belt” service with the St. Charles line. It seems line some things pop up regularly. But hey, this is baseball! The area around S. Carrollton and Tulane was a nexus. The Tulane/St. Charles belt crossed the New Canal here. Passenger trains coming to town from the West rolled by, on their way to the Illinois Central’s Union Station. Folks bowled across the street at Mid-City Lanes. Therefore, the corner is important to many folks.

Especially baseball fans.

After the streetcars

streetcars canals baseball

Pelican Stadium, ca 1950

Belt service on the St. Charles and Tulane lines was discontinued in 1950. So, after that time, fans from Uptown rode the streetcar to its new terminus at S. Carrollton and S. Claiborne Avenues. They transferred to the Tulane bus line from there. The Tulane line provided trackless trolley service until 1964. After 1964, Tulane used regular diesel buses. While the railroads worked with the city on the new Union Passenger Terminal, they trains still stopped right here, a convenience for Uptown passengers. The other “belt service” in New Orleans was on Canal and Esplanade, which we discuss in my book on the Canal line.

This photo is likely from 1950, because the city resurfaced Tulane Avenue. So, they removed the streetcar tracks, leaving the overhead wires for trackless trolleys.

After Pelican Stadium

The stadium became the Fontainebleau Hotel after the stadium was demolished. So, the hotel became a mini-storage facility later. Now it’s condos and storage units.