Book Review: Anonymous Soldiers

The Anonymous Soldiers by Bruce Hoffman. Published by Random House in 2015

This is a well written and well researched book that is easy to read, and is packed with information. While there is a lot in there, it’s not a ‘dense’ book. It is a definitely a book that needs to be ready multiple times to get everything, but that’s just because the situation itself is so complicated and crazy.

The book is about the Jewish terrorist campaign in the Palestine Mandate. It lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s and involved the three terrorist groups Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi. The Palestine Mandate was a British mandate and included today’s Israel and Gaze Strip. It contained an explosive combination of British, Arab, and Jewish citizens. The Arabs, despite selling land to Jewish settlers, were upset that the Jewish people wanted to resettle in the Mandate, the Jewish people were upset that no one recognized their claim to the land. The British were, seemingly, confused why no one could get along. After a series of Arab revolts in the 1930s and a lackluster British response, the Jewish people created beginnings of the Haganah and the Irgun.

The Haganah was the moderate group that wanted to trust the British, but were never given a good reason to expect anything from them. They struggled to protect their Jewish brethren while avoiding angering the British. They were always between a rock and a hard place. They would create the Palmuch, a mini professional elite task force, and they would cooperate with the British police to hunt down the other two terrorist groups for a period known as the Saisson. Conversely, they also worked with the Irgun and Lehi to break the British hold on the Mandate.

The Irgun was the militant group that saw no point in trusting the wishy washy British. They would be the most feared of the three groups and would launch some of the Mandate’s most devastating terrorist attacks. They made a point of recruiting members who had served in resistance groups during WWII and took advantage of their member’s expertise to make the British government’s life hell. The only time the Irgun ever took a break from their terrorist activities was during WWII, when they decided that Nazi Germany was the greater enemy.

This, however, angered their most militant of members, especially Avraham Stern. He broke away to create the Stern Gang and they focused all their anger about the Mandate and WWII on the British forces. After Stern was killed, the Stern Gang were recreated into Lehi and would occasionally work with the Irgun and the Haganah. However, they never had the funds or men to compete with either group. The British always thought they were more of a gang then a legitimate terrorist threat.

The book starts with the Arab Revolts and the White Paper that followed. The White Paper limited the number of Jewish immigrants who could enter the Mandate because the Arabs were pissed. The Jewish people were furious and, Hoffman argues, that the revolts taught them that the British bowed to violence. Additionally, the revolts themselves revealed that the Jewish people were vulnerable to Arab outbursts and the British were powerless to protect them. So, they created organized defense groups that would lay the groundwork for the Haganah and Irgun.

It does a great job chronicling the often confusing betrays and alliances that were formed with the British and the various terrorist groups. It also handles the many famous attacks such as the King David Hotel Bombing and the assassination of Moyne, even handedly and fairly. My one complaint, honestly, was that the focus wasn’t always consistence. The core of the book is the Irgun, but sometimes Hoffman would switch gears to focus on Haganah or the British response. Lehi was discussed on a periphery level, only coming into focus during the murder of Stern and the assassination of Moyne. Additionally, the Arab perspective was almost never discussed. They were highlighted during the first few chapters, when the book discussed the Arab revolt, but for the rest of the book, the Arabs seem strangely distance from an uprising that occurred in their own backyards and killed their own people. This book is meant to focus on the Jewish fight for the Israeli state, but it would have helped to spend some time on the Palestinian perspective.

When reading this book, two things stuck out to me. One, the British shot themselves in the foot when they restricted Jewish immigration to only a couple thousand immigrants per year. In the 30s, it made sense, but the British stuck to their restricted immigration strategy even after World War II. They were completely blinded to the fact that the Holocaust had changed everything for the Jewish people of Israel. Immigration was no longer, simply a right, it was a necessity. Additionally, there was a lot of bitterness because many in the Mandate believed that the British allowed thousands of Jewish people die in the Holocaust. If only they had lifted their immigration restriction, then thousands could have fled to the Mandate, escaping the nightmare the Nazi government had planned. What was amazing was that this never seemed to have entered the British administration’s mind. They were confounded that the Jewish people were upset and angry about the immigration restriction. Eventually they realized immigration issue was important, but, instead, they tried to use it as leverage. This gave the Irgun and Lehi a golden propaganda tool that gave them an important moral justification in the international arena.

I don’t know why they didn’t increase the immigration, even a little bit. There was some fear that the Arabs would revolt, but, at the same time, the international situation had changed, and the British had to recognize that. Additionally, lifting the restriction would have given them some control over who resettled, could have allowed them to open a discussion with other European powers on Jewish immigration and resettlement, and talk to their Arab counterparts about Palestinian resettlement and rights. Instead, they stuck to a plan that was doomed to fail and left the Mandate in the hands of the U.N. and, eventually, the very Jewish terrorists they had once tried to defeat.

The second thing that stuck out to me was the involved of the Polish government and underground in the development of the Irgun. I had read in the Reckoning by Patrick Bishop that Avraham Stern had an agreement with the Polish government to train future Jewish guerilla units to invade the Mandate. Apparently, the Polish government thought if the Jewish people won control over the Mandate, then they could just ship off all their Jewish citizens to Israel. Certainly, an odd attack of assistance? Hoffman mentions that there was a weapon smuggling route from Poland into the Mandate and many of the members of Irgun and Lehi immigrated to the Mandate. During and after the war, many of these immigrants had served in the resistance movement, meaning that the Polish Home Army had inadvertently contributed to the creation of the Israel State. It’s definitely something I want to unravel further, as I think it’s an important element to understand Israel’s creation, but also modern day Israel.

Overall, this is an excellent book that should be read by anyone who is even semi-interested in the mess that was the Palestine Mandate.

Cons: My only real complaint about this book is that it didn’t include the Arab perspective on what was going on in the Mandate. Additionally, the focus wasn’t always consistence, sometimes wandering to discuss Lehi or the British government, before returning its core, the Irgun.

Pros: Well-researched and incredibly detailed.
Expertly handles the various betrays, double crossing, and alliance making that occurred during the fight for the Mandate
An easy real that doesn’t sacrifice detail for clarity

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