At long last, here is my review Darren Whiteside's biography of Germany's 21st (or so) top-scoring ace, Rampant Lion: The Life of Eduard Ritter von Schleich, Germany's `Black Knight' of WWI
. I promised Darren that I would review the book for the Aerodrome Forum shortly after it was published at the end of March 2007. However, at that time, I was working on my masters degree thesis and really could not spare the time to write the review. I graduated in May and have spent a good portion of June (and now July) re-acquainting myself with my wife and toddler son and taking care of long-neglected projects like this review.
One more quick note: this is the first biography I've read of a German ace. Most of my casual reading and more in-depth research has been on Allied airmen. I know a lot about
German pilots, but, I have not studied the Germans as much as I have the Allies. This book, then, represents a broadening of my horizons.
The overall quality of the book is excellent. I was immediately impressed as soon as I opened the package. The book is 312 pages, beautifully-bound with an attractive painting by Jack D. Hunter (aviation artist and author of The Blue Max
) on the dust jacket. There are 255 pages of narrative and then several pages of appendices, index, and explanations of abbreviations. The book is exceptionally well-illustrated with not only an extensive section in the center full of photos, but also photos scattered throughout that introduce people and planes mentioned in the narrative.
Eduard von Schleich
was born in Munich, Bavaria in 1888 and died shortly after the end of World War II, probably of heart failure. In between, he became one of Germany's highest scoring fighter pilots -- with 35 official victories over Allied aircraft, lived through the turbulent times following World War I, joined the National Socialist (Nazi) party, and became an officer in the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
Darren Whiteside is a very conscientious biographer who is careful with his sources, and scrupulous about citing sources and letting his readers know when he has to speculate due to incomplete information. The result is a factual and mostly unbiased account of von Schleich's life. The sections of the book dealing with World War I are very interesting. Darren does a good job of checking von Schleich's claims against actually recorded Allied losses -- something that biographers have traditionally neglected.
However, things really get interesting when the story turns to von Schleich's actions between the wars. Until I read this book, I had no idea just how turbulent and difficult the period immediately following the war was for German citizens. If von Schleich's experiences are typical, then it must have been very difficult to makes one's way through the politics, depressed job market, and poor economy of the time.
It makes for good reading to see how von Schleich works his way through several difficult jobs over several difficult years before joining the Nazi party and working his way back into the German air force. In retrospect it is easy to wonder how anyone could ever have wanted to become a Nazi. This book helped me understand more fully why somebody would be attracted (at least initially) to that particular political party at that time in history. Von Schleich's final years were, strangely, almost as compelling to read about as his service during the first World War.
My first complaint about the book is that it is too short! Darren chose to focus very tightly on von Schleich's life, with seemingly just the minimum necessary additional narrative to provide a setting and context. I would have loved an addition 50 or so pages with more information on events that may not have directly involved von Schleich, but that affected him. The information in the book that provides setting and context is good, I just wish there were a bit more of it.
My second complaint is that the elephant in the room is never fully addressed. I am, of course, talking about Nazi atrocities committed before and during World War II. One gets the impression from reading the biography, that von Schleich was an ardent supporter of the Nazi party, but only minimally involved. However, as a reader, I never got a sense of how von Schleich felt about the persecution of Jewish people, nor is there any indication of how much he knew about the horrible things happening at the concentration camps. I think this is an important question because I still do not really understand just how much regular Germans knew or condoned the truly evil actions of the Nazis. I was hoping that Darren would have found during his research some indication of the answer to those questions for von Schleich.
These two complaints are relatively minor; German politics between the war, and the rise, fall, and aftermath of the Nazi regime are both very complex subjects. I cannot fault Darren too much for narrowing the scope of his focus so that these subjects are only touched upon.
One effect of the author's circumscribed approach is that no overriding theme emerges from the story of von Schleich's life. Darren presents von Schleich as a complicated and flawed human being who nevertheless was a successful fighter pilot and later pilot instructor to two generations of German airmen. One thing that does come through is how von Schleich's sense of honor and duty directed his actions throughout his life. It is truly a strength of Darren's writing that he allowed von Schleich's personality and actions to drive the story rather than some predetermined story line.
Overall, I heartily recommend Rampant Lion
to students of World War I aviation. It is a modern biography with good scholarship that, at the same time, is a very enjoyable read.