The Liberator: A User’s Guide to Hell

Alex Kershaw's WWII history chronicles the torturous slog of an American infantry division — led by legendary commander Felix Sparks — from Italy in 1943 into the heart of Germany just before VE Day

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So many stories through the years — novels, movies, plays, TV series, multi-volume histories — have been added to the Second World War’s inexhaustible narrative that, faced with the prospect of a new book about the war, readers might be forgiven for feeling not so much daunted as just plain worn out. After all, seven decades after VJ Day, how many more new, genuinely gripping tales — from the Pacific, Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa — can any of us really hope to encounter? At this point, what else can anyone say or write that can appreciably deepen our understanding of the last century’s defining cataclysm?

Thankfully, if Alex Kershaw ever asks himself those questions, he answers them the only way a writer knows how: by finding those very stories that other writers have missed, or have only touched on, and making them feel at once urgent and somehow emblematic. As the author of several accomplished WWII histories (The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, The Few), Kershaw has forged something of an authorial niche in recent years, breathing new life into largely forgotten chapters from the war while capturing much of the era’s very best (its heroism, its sacrifice) and very worst (treachery, venality, downright evil).

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Through deep, old-school research and interviews with those who survived — and through letters, telegrams and the memories of friends and family of those who never made it home — Kershaw has ensured that individuals and entire battles that might have been lost to history, or overshadowed by more “important” people and events, have their own place in the vast, protean tale of World War II.

Kershaw’s latest, and arguably his strongest, book is the story of an American officer and his men who not only fought some of the most brutal battles of the entire war, but who also, at war’s end, were among the very first of the Allies to bear witness to the incomprehensible reality behind the walls and barbed wire of the Nazi concentration camps. The title, The Liberator, is ostensibly a reference to the utterly remarkable protagonist of the book, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, who led the famous 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, the “Thunderbirds,” for almost two years from the summer of 1943 to the spring of 1945, fighting from Italy northward through France and into Germany itself. But the title — and the book’s stark black-and-white cover image of an anonymous GI making his way through an apocalyptic landscape — is really as much a tribute to the American infantryman, every infantryman, living and dead, who fought in the Second World War as it is an homage to the eminently deserving Sparks.

(The book’s subtitle, “One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey From the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau,” is unmistakably about Sparks — in part because so few of the hundreds of men he commanded and fought with, and became so bound to, made it to Germany in one piece.)

That the Texas-born, Arizona-raised Sparks was a phenomenal leader of men — the sort of seemingly indestructible, fair-minded, fighting officer that subordinates worship and superiors commend — is a point The Liberator makes early and late; but Sparks himself (who died in 2007, and whom Kershaw interviewed for the book) stressed again and again that his men were what mattered. He led from the front — he was miserable issuing orders from the rear — and he had the wounds by war’s end to prove it.

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The Liberator will, in all likelihood, be compared to Lauren Hillebrand’s rightfully celebrated war epic, Unbroken. Both books, after all, are harrowing chronicles of tough, charismatic Americans surviving the very worst that World War II could throw at them. Unbroken‘s Louis Zamperini endured deprivation, torture, humiliation and more as a POW in savagely run Japanese camps; Felix Sparks withstood what sometimes feels, when reading The Liberator, like ceaseless violence, from the moment he and his Thunderbirds set foot in Sicily until, utterly unprepared (how could they have prepared?), they came face to face with the waking nightmare of Dachau.

Both Zamperini and Sparks displayed the same grinding, uncomplaining will to get the job done, no matter the cost. The only other real choice was despair — and for both of them, despair was not an option.

The Liberator is hardly a flawless work. Kershaw’s pacing and his handling of point-of-view, for example, is a bit shaky — bouncing, for example, without much explanation or transition between Sparks and his men, Dwight Eisenhower at Allied headquarters and, occasionally, scenes of Hitler himself, sweating like a meth addict, falling apart physically and screeching at his cowed, sycophantic advisers as his Eastern and Western fronts collapse.

But where Kershaw succeeds, and where The Liberator is at its most riveting and satisfying, is in its delineation of Felix Sparks as a good man that other men would follow into Hell — and in its unblinking, matter-of-fact description, in battle after battle, of just how gruesome, terrifying and dehumanizing that Hell could be. Near the end of the book, when Sparks’ Thunderbirds, unhinged by the horrors of Dachau, begin to hunt down and kill unarmed Germans — even as many of the Germans are surrendering — the wanton slaughter feels, somehow, inevitable: all of the violent death and loss that Kershaw so ably chronicles in the book has led, inexorably, to this heart of darkness.

That the one officer who refuses to be swept up in the madness, and orders his men to stop the killing, is none other than Felix Sparks? That also feels inevitable. Like something out of Euripides, or a sicker, more deranged Titus Andronicus, Sparks bringing even a modicum of order to such moral chaos after an eruption of vengeance-fueled violence — there, at the end of all things — feels, in a word, cathartic. And catharsis, as we know, is nothing if not liberating.

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