Monday, March 24, 2014

Ballantine's ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF WORLD WAR 2 - (The Genesis and Afterlife of a 1970s Publishing Phenomenon)

Ian Ballantine (1916 - 1995) was a publishing genius.  A New Yorker, he completed his education in London in 1940 and returned home to lead the PENGUIN invasion of the American domestic book market.   The 24 year old 'whiz-kid' so impressed U.S. military publishers that they signed contracts  granting PENGUIN BOOKS the exclusive right to distribute millions of copies of War Service publications to military bases and deployed personnel.   Mr. Ballantine toiled on the American Home-front, for the duration.

Ian Ballantine was the boffin who managed the founding of BANTAM paperbacks  and a personal imprint, BALLANTINE BOOKS, the pair of which innovated the mass distribution of the low priced reading material that readers of my generation thrived on.   (Ballantine was also godfather to more Science Fiction writing careers than could be lauded in one telling.)  During the 1960s, a decade of mass anti-war sentiment, Ian Ballantine was undaunted.  He felt that there was a generational counterpart to the Hippies, a youth demographic (niche readers) who still wanted to learn about World War 2.  His formative period in London had armed him with superb industry contacts, and he proceeded to negotiate a joint venture with Purnell and Sons, experienced publisher of mass-market military history.  All editorial and design responsibility was handled by the British, who marketed the series throughout the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The Ballantine's in New York, got a ready-made product to sell to the larger  North American market.  (The full story is actually far most complex.)


Thus was born BALLANTINE'S  ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF WORLD WAR 2, a profusely illustrated series of books researched and written to (in most cases) academic standards, but made accessible to the general reader.  Printed on good paper, in larger format than industry standard, the series was introduced  in 1968 at only $1 per copy, which was well under the average price of mass market non-fiction paperbacks at that time.  As the series evolved and was renamed (in 1973)   BALLANTINE'S ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE VIOLENT CENTURY, the cover price climbed to $1.50  and the last few titles were published at $2.  Still a bargain price, given what the competition was charging. More to the point, the series was written by a Who's Who of working military historians, and in many cases veterans of W.W. 2 who leavened their writing of history with personal experience.  In January of 1973 the Ballantine's, (Ian and Betty), sold their business to Random House, in order to concentrate on a new Science Fiction imprint, among other projects. Since the Editorial Team for the  WORLD WAR 2 - VIOLENT CENTURY publishing project was based in England, customers detected no change in the product. 

Clearly, there was a public backlash underway against the wretched war in Vietnam, and suddenly the public was rejecting "war movies and war books". By 1975 sales of the ILLUSTRATED HISTORY were in decline, and it is probably no coincidence that Random House pulled the plug at about the same time that the White House was evacuating the U.S. expeditionary force  from Saigon. There were no print runs of the Illustrated History titles after November 1978.  Random House itself was swallowed by another conglomerate in 1978.

I made no particular attempt to assemble the complete set, but somehow over a lifetime of reading, the shelves just filled.  Millions of copies are in circulation, although the scarcer titles had only one printing and can be hard to find. PATTON is said to have gone through five printings. Serious readers can now access more information about the history of warfare than any human mind can grasp, but for short form treatment of specific subjects, nothing bests the Ballantine list. If you are interested, I can guide you through the collection  - four volumes at a time, as my time allows.  

REICHSTAG FIRE - Ashes of Democracy - R. John Pritchard,   
SERIES - POLITICS IN ACTION  No. 3, Published in New York, February 1972, 160 pages.

REICHSTAG FIRE - author  R. John Pritchard, Ballantine's, New York

REICHSTAG FIRE - Ashes of Democracy is a good read. Pritchard was very thorough and he offers us a highly convincing account of the   desperate arsons perpetrated by Dutch political activist Marinus Van der Lubbe.   While both the Nazi's and the Communists (COMINTERN)  used the 1933 Reichstag Fire for political gain,  each accusing the other, the truth was stranger than propaganda.  Van der Lubbe's serial arsons throughout the city were thoroughly investigated by the (pre-Nazi) civil police, and he was fairly tried. Dr. Pritchard also covers the post-war craziness of Cold War politics in which the Communist Left made continuous attempts to blame the fire on the defeated Nazi leadership... a conspiracy theory equal to any tinfoil-hat plot one might also name.  This volume might equally be shelved in the  "True Crime" corner of any bookstore, as it describes political violence and sabotage rather than warfare.

Dr.  R. John Pritchard, expert on International War Crimes Trials, photo 1972Marinus Van Der Lubbe, convicted serial arsonist,  1933

After completing this book for the Ballantine's 'Black Band' series, John Pritchard completed his Doctorate at the London School of Economics and after post-graduate work in international law he dedicated many years to researching and publishing the findings of the major International War Crimes tribunals. He is today a ranking expert on War Crime Investigation.

PANZER DIVISION - The Mailed Fist - Major Kenneth J. Macksey, M.C.
SERIES - WEAPONS BOOK, No. 2, Published in New York, September 1968, 160 pages.

PANZER DIVISION, author Major K.J. Macksey, Ballantine's, New York, 1968

The Weapons Series  or 'Blue Bands" were the most popular of the BALLANTINE'S illustrated titles, and were widely read here in Canada. Major K.J. Macksey was a recently retired officer who had enjoyed success with THE SHADOW OF VIMY RIDGE (1965) and then began to produce a book per year. He wrote three for Ian Ballantine, including this one, PANZER DIVISION. The book reads well, although sometimes pithy in style, as in his description of the Panzer divisions deployed to Russia in 1941 - "The men were in fine fettle, fully confident in their battle-craft, their equipment, their leaders and their cause." The book  employs twenty small maps, without which we might get lost as the great tank armies strike and counter-strike. Major Macksey was a military scholar and his potted Bibliography includes German  language sources as well as archives held by the British M.O.D. and the R.A.C. Tank Museum.

Major K.J. Macksey died in 2005 after producing more than fifty books, including a few "alternate history" works of a purely speculative nature. He was a veteran of World War 2 and earned his Military Cross in 1944 while a Lieutenant in the Normandy Invasion.

Additional evidence of Ian Ballantine's marketing savvy - my copy of PANZER DIVISION  has the colour folder of the MILITARY BOOK CLUB bound in.  How many of us were seduced into membership in the M.B.C. back in the 1970s?

HITLER  by Alan Wykes.
SERIES -  WAR LEADERS,  No. 3, Published in New York, March 1971. 160 pages.

HITLER, author  Alan Wykes, Ballantine;s, New York, 1971

"HITLER" is a wholly unsatisfying book and you should not bother with it.  There are several very good biographies of Adolph Hitler readily available. (I recommend, for a start, Ian Kershaw, Werner Maser, Lothar Machtan, Robert Payne and John Toland.)  There are also far better illustrated works available detailing Hitler's life and career.

Alan Wykes was a veteran of W.W. 2, (a lorry driver in the R.A.S.C.) and a sometime military historian, who wrote two regimental histories, but he was not an accomplished biographer. He was though, a high-speed professional writer who could churn out copy to a publisher deadline, which is why Purnell and Ballantine hired him to produce several titles in their WAR LEADERS category.  In his introduction, Series Editor-in-Chief, Barrie Pitt seemed at bit embarrassed. He begins: "Not every reader will accept Alan Wykes' explanation of Hitler's behaviour as Party Leader and Dictator - which is that he had been infected in early manhood by syphilis and in later life succumbed to its tertiary effects: irrationality, irresponsibility, and gross intemperance of speech and action."  Wykes of course, consulted no eye-witnesses, primary sources or German archives.  In fact he brazenly references several of the previously published titles in the Ballantine's Illustrated History series!

Alan Wykes, author of HITLER, published by Ballantine, 1971

Mr. Wykes died in 1993 after producing 38 books of his own and ghosting for a few faltering writers.  His whacky idea about Hitler and syphilis probably derives from a profile he published in 1965 on "a specialist in venereal diseases and sexology".  

NAZI REGALIA  photographed by Jack Pia,
SERIES - FULL COLOUR, No. 1,   Published in New York, May 1971,  160 pages.

If I told you that Alan Wykes also wrote the introduction to NAZI REGALIA,  you might think that I pre-judged the work.  In fact I bought this book over forty years ago when I was in junior high school and incapable of judging anything.  The book cost me  $3 dollars in 1973, and that represented more than two hours of after school wages, cleaning windows at  car wash.  At the time it seemed a thrill to possess high quality colour photos of Nazi regalia, but in hindsight it was a wasted purchase.  There are websites now which have more comprehensive collections, and rarer material.

Jack Pia was simply a contract photographer in London who took a set of photographs for a publisher, but because of this book and its companion volume,  S.S. REGALIA, his name will forever be associated with Nazi artifacts and ephemera.  It all started in 1975 when Susan Sontag, who was both an up-and-comer critic of cultural trends and a serious historian of photography,  drew attention to the books Pia did for the Ballantine's Illustrated History series. Sontag considered any interest in Fascist uniforms and insignia to be nothing more than a sexual fetish.

Recall that George Lucas, (a crypto-fascist??) was working on both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones projects at that time.  I suspect Lucas and his films' production designers had many copies of the twoJack Pia books at hand.

S.S. Regalia - photographs by Jack Pia

Sontag wrote, "Though S.S. Regalia is a respectable British‑made compilation (with a three‑page historical preface and notes in the back), one knows that its appeal is not scholarly but sexual. The cover already makes that clear. Across the large black swastika of an SS armband is a diagonal yellow stripe which reads "Over 100 Brilliant Four‑Color Photographs Only $2.95," exactly as a sticker with the price on it used to be affixed—part tease, part deference to censorship—on the cover of pornographic magazines, over the model's genitalia."       

I suspect that Mr. Pia squirmed when he read Sontag's prose, and may never have taken another assignment involving military collectibles.   Unless you are a series "completist", there is no reason to purchase this book.

Jack Pia,  NAZI REGALIA, Ballantine's  Illustrated History, New York, 1971

So there is a start... two worthy titles from Ian Ballantine's WW2 list, and two that are not worthy of your time.  Even if I do not care for a particular book I will still provide a photo of the author and additional biographical information.  Most of the Ballantine authors produced further works of military history.

Effective publication dates of series: May, 1968  - August 1975
Reprints of select titles until November 1978.

A final note: If you find this book guide helpful, spread the word to Military History enthusiasts, because I am not sure I have the energy to profile all 151 titles in this monumental series. (Plus the Chinese, British and Spanish editions in my private library.) Reader response will count.