Between 1940 and 1943, Polish diplomats based in Bern, Switzerland, engaged in a remarkable – and until now, almost completely untold – humanitarian operation. This operation was one of the largest actions to aid Jews of the entire war and far eclipsed the better-known efforts of Oskar Schindler. In concert with two Jewish activists, these diplomats masterminded a systematic program of forging documents for Latin American countries that were smuggled into occupied Europe, in an attempt to save the lives of thousands of Jews facing extermination in the Holocaust.
Today’s guest is Roger Moorhouse, author of “The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation.” We look at the heroism of a group of ordinary men whose actions were part of a wider story of the Polish Underground resistance.
The Clotilda was the last slave ship to land on American soil, docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in July 1860—more than half a century after the passage of a federal law banning the importation of slaves, and nine months before the beginning of the Civil War. Five of its passengers, ranging in age from two to nineteen when kidnapped, died between 1922 and 1940.
Today’s guest is Hannah Durkin, author of “Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade.” We follow their lives from their kidnappings in what is modern-day Benin through a terrifying 45-day journey across the Middle Passage; from the subsequent sale of the ship’s 110 African men, women, and children in slavery across Alabama to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement in Selma; from the foundation of an all-black African Town (later Africatown) in Northern Mobile—an inspiration for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Zora Neale Hurston—to the foundation of Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective—a black artistic circle whose cultural influence remains enormous.
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As the popular narrative goes, the Civil War was won when courageous Yankees triumphed over the South. But an aspect of the war that has remained little-known for 160 years is the Alabamian Union soldiers who played a decisive role in the Civil War, only to be scrubbed from the history books. One such group was the First Alabama Calvary, formed in 1862. It went on raids that destroyed Confederate communications and also marched with Sherman’s forces across the South. They aided the fall of Vicksburg and the burning of Atlanta.
Today’s guest is Howell Raines, author of “Silent Cavalry: How Union Soldiers from Alabama Helped Sherman Burn Atlanta—and Then Got Written Out of History.” As Raines has pieced together, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s decisive effort to burn Atlanta was facilitated by an unsung regiment of 2,066 yeoman farmers and former slaves from Alabama—including at least one member of Raines’s own family.
So why have the best-known Civil War historians, including Ken Burns and Shelby Foote, given only passing – or no – attention to this regiment of southerners who chose to fight for the North – a regiment that General Sherman hailed as one of the finest in the Union? We explore this question through an account of Alabama’s Mountain Unionists and their exploits, along with investigating why they and others like them were excised from the historical record.
Veterans of World War 2 are called the Greatest Generation for their uncommon courage and self-determination. Whether this descriptor is true or part of America’s self-mythologizing during the 20th century is a challenging question, one that Andrew Biggio, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, worked to answer.
Biggio found that many were brave, but they were all ordinary men who also shared in humanity’s weaknesses and flaws while responding to the call of duty. Biggio is today’s guest and author of “The Rifle 2: Back to the Battlefield.” He shares first-person accounts from the last of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who fought the most dreadful war in history.
The idea for his first book “The Rifle” was simple: travel across the country with a 1945 M1 Garand, the basic U.S. fighting rifle of World War II, ask combat veterans of that war to sign it, and listen carefully as the sight, touch, and feel of that rifle evoke a flood of memories and emotions. In this follow-up book, Andrew Biggio once again reveals the astonishing effect his M1 Garand had on the old warriors who held it.
In the midst of the Great Depression, punished by crippling drought and deepening poverty, hundreds of thousands of families left the Great Plains and the Southwest to look for work in California’s rich agricultural valleys. In response to the scene of destitute white families living in filthy shelters built of cardboard, twigs, and refuse, reform-minded New Deal officials built a series of camps to provide them with shelter and community.
Today’s guest is Jonathan Ebel, author of “From Dust They Came: Government Camps and the Religion of Reform in New Deal California.” We look at the religious dynamics in and around migratory farm labor camps in agricultural California established and operated by the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration. Ebel makes the case that the camps served as mission sites for the conversion of migrants to more modern ways of living and believing. Though the ideas of virtuous citizenship put forward by the camp administrators were framed as secular, they rested on a foundation of Protestantism. At the same time, many of the migrants were themselves conservative or charismatic Protestants who had other ideas for how their religion intended them to be.
By looking at the camps as missionary spaces, Ebel shows that this New Deal program was animated both by humanitarian concern and by the belief that these poor, white migrants and their religious practices were unfit for life in a modernized, secular world.
For nearly two centuries, the beating heart of electoral politics was on the back of a train. William Jennings Bryan spoke to an estimated 5 million people from a train car in his 1896 presidential campaign. Yet memories of the pivotal role campaign trains played in American elections fade with the passing of each generation. Also forgotten are the stories documented by the reporters who traveled with hundreds of whistle-stopping politicians including Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
Today’s guest is Edward Segal, author of “Whistle-Stop Politics: Campaign Trains and the Reporters Who Covered Them.” Campaign trains were an American invention that enabled politicians to connect with as many voters as possible in the country’s largest cities and smallest towns.
Joseph Seligman arrived in the United States in 1837, with the equivalent of $100 sewn into the lining of his pants. Then came the Lehman brothers, who would open a general store in Montgomery, Alabama. Not far behind were Solomon Loeb and Marcus Goldman, among the “Forty-Eighters” fleeing a Germany that had relegated Jews to an underclass.
These industrious immigrants would soon go from peddling trinkets and buying up shopkeepers’ IOUs to forming what would become some of the largest investment banks in the world—Goldman Sachs, Kuhn Loeb, Lehman Brothers, J. & W. Seligman & Co. They would clash and collaborate with J. P. Morgan, E. H. Harriman, Jay Gould, and other famed tycoons of the era. And their firms would help to transform the United States from a debtor nation into a financial superpower, capitalizing American industry and underwriting some of the twentieth century’s quintessential companies, like General Motors, Macy’s, and Sears. Along the way, they would shape the destiny not just of American finance but of the millions of Eastern European Jews who spilled off steamships in New York Harbor in the early 1900s, including Daniel Schulman’s paternal grandparents.
Today’s guest is Dan Schulman, author of “The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America.” We trace the interconnected origin stories of these financial dynasties from the Gilded Age to the Civil War, World War I, and the Zionist movement that tested both their burgeoning empires and their identities as Americans, Germans, and Jews.
In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of young GIs—including such future luminaries such as Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Singer, Victor Dowd, Art Kane, and Jack Masey—landed in France to conduct a secret mission. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war's end.
The unit’s official US Army history noted that “its complement was more theatri¬cal than military,” and “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines imperson¬ating the real fighting outfits.”
They pulled off twenty-one differ¬ent deceptions and are credited with saving thousands of lives through stagecraft and sleight of hand. They threw themselves into their impersonations, sometimes setting up phony command posts and masquerading as generals. They frequently put themselves in danger, suffering casualties as a consequence. After holding Patton’s line along the Moselle, they barely escaped capture by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and in March 1945 they performed their most dazzling deception, misleading the Germans about where two American divi¬sions would cross the Rhine River.
To explore the story of this forgotten subterfuge is today’s guest, Rick Beyer, author of “The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery.” We look at how a traveling road show of artists wielding imagination, paint, and bravado saved thousands of American lives.
Free time, one of life’s most important commodities, often feels unfulfilling. But why? And how did leisure activities transition from strolling in the park for hours to “doomscrolling” on social media for thirty minutes?
Despite the promise of modern industrialization, many people experience both a scarcity of free time and a disappointment in it. Here to explain why this is today’s guest Gary Cross, author of “Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal.” We discuss a broad historical explanation of why our affluent society does not afford more time away from work and why that time is often unsatisfying.
We begin with a survey of the past 250 years to understand the roots of our conception of free time and its use. By the end of the nineteenth century, a common expectation was that industrial innovations would lead to a progressive reduction of work time and a subsequent rise in free time devoted to self-development and social engagement. However, despite significant changes in the early twentieth century, both goals were frustrated, thus leading to the contemporary dilemma.
Cross touches on leisure of all kinds, from peasant festivals and aristocratic pleasure gardens to amusement parks, movie theaters and organized sports to internet surfing, and even the use of alcohol and drugs. This wide-ranging cultural and social history explores the industrial-era origins of our modern obsession with work and productivity, but also the historical efforts to liberate time from work and cultivate free time for culture.
What goes through the mind of a mother who must send her child to school across a minefield or the men who belong to groups of volunteer body collectors? When living in a warzone, such questions become part of the daily calculus of life. This is an everyday form of war that included provisioning fighters with military equipment they purchased themselves, smuggling insulin, and cutting ties to former friends.
Today’s guest is Greta Uehling, author of “Everyday War: The Conflict Over Donbas, Ukraine.” She explored these questions by researching Donbas, Ukraine, where an armed conflict over the region began in 2014 and continues to today. Uehling engaged with the lives of ordinary people living in and around Donbas and showed how conventional understandings of war are incomplete. She found that rather than nonstop air raid sirens, humans are able to forge a sense of normalcy in the most abnormal conditions.
Winston Churchill remains one of the most revered figures of the twentieth century, his name a byword for courageous leadership. But the Churchill we know today is a mixture of history and myth, authored by the man himself. Today’s guest, David Reynolds, author of “Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him,” re-evaluates Churchill’s life by viewing it through the eyes of his allies and adversaries, even his own family, revealing Churchill’s lifelong struggle to overcome his political failures and his evolving grasp of what “greatness” truly entailed.
Through his dealings with Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, we follow Churchill’s triumphant campaign against Nazi Germany. But we also see a Churchill whose misjudgments of allies and rivals like Roosevelt, Stalin, Gandhi, and Clement Attlee blinded him to the British Empire’s waning dominance on the world stage and to the rising popularity of a postimperial, socialist vision of Great Britain at home.
In the early twentieth century, anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman championed a radical vision of a world without states, laws, or private property. Militant and sometimes violent, anarchists were heroes to many working-class immigrants. But to many others, anarchism was a terrifyingly foreign ideology. Determined to crush it, government officials launched a decades-long “war on anarchy,” a brutal program of spying, censorship, and deportation that set the foundations of the modern surveillance state. The lawyers who came to the anarchists’ defense advanced groundbreaking arguments for free speech and due process, inspiring the emergence of the civil liberties movement.
Today’s guest is Michael Willrich, author of “American Anarchy: The Epic Struggle between Immigrant Radicals and the US Government at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.” We look at this tumultuous era and parallels with contemporary society.
Books are often seen as “victims” of combat. When the flames of warfare turn libraries to ashes, we grieve this loss as an immense human and cultural tragedy. But that’s not the complete picture. Books were used in war across the twentieth century—both as agents for peace and as weapons. On one hand, books represent solace and solidarity for troops and prisoners of war desperate for reading materials. On the other hand, books have also been engines of warfare, mobilizing troops, spreading ideologies, and disseminating scientific innovation. With accounts that span from ancient Rome to the Cold War, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Mao’s Little Red Book, Pettegree demonstrates how books have shaped societies at war—for both good and ill.
Today’s guest is Andrew Pettegree, author of “The Book at War: How Reading Shaped Conflict and Conflict Shaped Reading.” We explore the weaponization of the publishing industry, the mechanics of mass-scale censorship, and why the Soviets Hated Ian Fleming.
In a country fragmented by Roman withdrawal during the 5th century, the
employment of Germanic mercenaries by local rulers in Anglo-Saxon Britain was
commonplace. These mercenaries became settlers, forcing Romano-British
communities into Wales and the West Country. Against a background of spreading
Christianity, the struggles of rival British and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were exploited by
the Vikings, but eventually contained by the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred of Wessex. His
descendants unified the country during the 10th century, however, subsequent weak
rule saw its 25-year incorporation into a Danish empire before it finally fell to the
Norman invasion of 1066.
Scholars of the early Church have long known that the term ‘Dark Ages’ for the 5th to
11th centuries in Britain refers only to a lack of written sources, and gives a false
impression of material culture. The Anglo-Saxon warrior elite were equipped with
magnificent armour, influenced by the cultures of the late Romans, the Scandinavian
Vendel people, the Frankish Merovingians, Carolingians and Ottonians, and also the
Today’s guest is Stephen Pollington, author of ”Anglo-Saxon Kings and Warlords AD 400-1070.” We look at the kings and warlords of the time with latest archaeological research.
For a 30-year period, from the 1880s to World War I, 2.5 million Jews, fleeing discrimination and violence in their homelands of Eastern Europe, arrived in the United States. Many sailed on steamships from Hamburg.
This mass exodus was facilitated by three businessmen whose involvement in the Jewish-American narrative has been largely forgotten: Jacob Schiff, the managing partner of the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Company, who used his immense wealth to help Jews to leave Europe; Albert Ballin, managing director of the Hamburg-American Line, who created a transportation network of trains and steamships to carry them across continents and an ocean; and J. P. Morgan, mastermind of the International Mercantile Marine (I.M.M.) trust, who tried to monopolize the lucrative steamship business. Though their goals were often contradictory, together they made possible a migration that spared millions from persecution.
Today’s guest is Steven Ujifusa, author of “The Last Ships From Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and The Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I.” His great-grandparents were part of this immigrant group, and he describes how they moved from the shtetls of Russia and the ports of Hamburg to the mansions of New York’s Upper East Side. We explore how debates on immigration have changed from the 1880s to today, and what it takes for the interests of billionaires and the interests of society’s poorest members to align.
During the Civil War, Gen. James Longstreet was one of the Confederacy’s most beloved generals. Southerners called him “Lee’s Warhorse” and considered him a pillar of the war effort, largely responsible for victories at Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chickamauga.
But after the war Longstreet moved to New Orleans, where he dramatically changed course. He supported black voting and joined the newly elected, integrated postwar government in Louisiana. When white supremacists took up arms to oust that government, Longstreet, leading the interracial state militia, did battle against former Confederates. His defiance ignited a firestorm of controversy, as white Southerners branded him a race traitor and blamed him retroactively for the South’s defeat in the Civil War.
Today’s guest is Elizabeth Varon, author of “Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South.” We consider why although Longstreet was one of the highest-ranking Confederate generals, he has never been commemorated with statues or other memorials in the South because of his involvement in the Republican Party and rejecting the Lost Cause mythology. We also look at his second life as a statesman, serving in such positions as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
The Septuagint is the most important translations you’ve never heard of. In this episode of the 10th Anniversary of the History of the Papacy series, Steve Guerra and his special guest Garry Stevens lay out the basics of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. They talk about the issues of translation and the process of translation.
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Benedict Arnold committed treason— for more than two centuries, that’s all that most Americans have known about him.
Yet Arnold was much more than a turncoat—his achievements during the early years of the Revolutionary War defined him as the most successful soldier of the era.
Today’s guest is Jack Kelly, author of “God Save Benedict Arnold: The True Story of America’s Most Hated Man.” We look at Arnold’s rush of audacious feats—his capture of Fort Ticonderoga, his Maine mountain expedition to attack Quebec, the famous artillery brawl at Valcour Island, the turning-point battle at Saratoga—that laid the groundwork for our independence.
Arnold was a superb leader, a brilliant tactician, a supremely courageous military officer. He was also imperfect, disloyal, villainous. One of the most paradoxical characters in American history, and one of the most interesting.
It took little more than a single generation for the centuries-old Roman Empire to fall. In those critical decades, while Christians and pagans, legions and barbarians, generals and politicians squabbled over dwindling scraps of power, two men – former comrades on the battlefield – rose to prominence on opposite sides of the great game of empire.
Roman general Flavius Stilicho, the man behind the Roman throne, dedicated himself to restoring imperial glory, only to find himself struggling for his life against political foes. Alaric, King of the Goths, desired to be a friend of Rome, was betrayed by it, and given no choice but to become its enemy. Battling each other to a standstill, these two warriors ultimately overcame their differences in order to save the empire from enemies on all sides. And when Stilicho fell, Alaric took vengeance on Rome, sacking it in 410, triggering the ultimate downfall of the Western Empire.
To discuss this critical decade in Western history is Don Hollway, author of “At the Gates of Rome: The Fall of the Eternal City, AD 410.”
Scientists have always been rivals—for priority, prizes, and positions within science, and for fame and funding. This can be seen when Newton and Leibniz fought over who invented calculus (and the former destroyed the reputation of the latter), or Tycho Brahe losing part of his nose in a duel with his third cousin over a differing opinion on a mathematical formula, or when Thomas Edison publicly electrocuted animals to prove Nikola Tesla’s alternating current was dangerous. Yet, scientific rivals must co-operate in order for progress to be made, especially on massive projects that require international teams. But how?
Today’s guest, Lorraine Daston, author of Rivals: How Scientists Learned to Cooperate,” guides us through a few major efforts of scientific collaboration over the ages, including the creation of the map of the stars and the Cloud Atlas, both of which we still use today.