I originally chose to read Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall because a snippet about it mentioned occupied Crete during WWII and I needed a Greek WWII book to finish out my (very long) Greece month (or months). What I didn’t put together was that the author, Christopher McDougall, also wrote one of my favorite books of all time: Born to Run. It took about a chapter for me to realize that this book wasn’t just a dry accounting of the Cretan resistance and mysterious disappearance of a German general, it’s a fascinating interweaving of ancient Greece, World War II, natural movement exercise, and heroism that somehow all comes together in an illuminating story that makes you want to be better than you are.
A Note on Geography:
You might not realize this now, but a basic idea of the geography of Crete is essential to understanding this book (and appreciating the book review). I’ve said in earlier posts that Greece has incredibly mountainous terrain, which was key to the formation of city-states. Crete is the most mountainous of all Greek islands. It takes a special sort of person to manage this rugged countryside. The shepherds of Crete, that lowliest of livelihoods, managed it, making them some of the most effective resistance fighters against Nazi occupation that the world has ever seen.
A Note on History:
In 1941 Germany had occupied mainland Greece, but its occupation of Crete was not nearly as easy as Hitler would’ve liked.
Germany Occupies Crete.
Hitler agreed to send his elite troops, the airborne “Hunters of the Sky” or Wehrmacht to drop into Crete—probably because it appealed to his ego—but the Cretans fought hard. Of the 10,000 elite Hunters, 5,000 were killed or captured.
It took five weeks for Germany to take Crete (and the Cretans probably would’ve held out longer if it wasn’t for communication problems with the Allies fighting with them); Hitler had given his general 24 hours. Those extra 34 days were critical in another way: it was time that Hitler wasn’t sending the full force of his army on to Russia. Because Hitler didn’t start early in the summer with his invasion plans of Russia, the cold Siberian winter claimed him. Like it did Napoleon Bonaparte before him. Thank goodness for the Cretans.
The Cretans built a strong resistance, but this book concerns a specific operation. The plan brainstormed by British operatives in Crete, and backed up by their Cretan allies, in which General Kreipe would be kidnapped and hustled off to Egypt.
The operation would have to go off flawlessly and, most importantly, point toward British involvement without fingering the locals. Because German General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller was also known as the Butcher of Crete. He believed in razing villages and murdering innocents to make a point to the resistance.
So how would the resistance disappear a highly guarded German general, get him over the rugged Cretan mountains, and boat him across the Mediterranean without the Butcher catching them?
This book starts out painting a picture of the crime scene: General Kreipe’s car is found abandoned with a few Cadbury wrappers and a note inside. The German soldiers were baffled. They saw the general being chauffeured through the checkpoints minutes before he was found missing.
How did the operatives do it on an island filled with 80,000 German soldiers in inhospitable terrain?
McDougall explores this mystery by literally walking in the footprints of those resistance operatives, looking back at the Ancient Greeks for answers, researching the idea of heroism, and understanding the truth of real physical fitness.
You ask how these things are related…I’ll tell you.
This book is so complex that sometimes I need a written map to remind myself of how it all fits together. If you don’t want to see the map and instead explore it for yourself, then skip this section and go write to my thoughts. Otherwise…
The Cretan resistance and British operatives pulled this off because:
- The idea of heroism, lost to the modern world, is still alive and real in the rural world of Crete. It hasn’t modernized like other places. The people still practice ancient customs and ideals of exercise.
- The ancient Greeks were truly fit. They believed in natural movement, in an all-inclusive exercise that was not only meant to win Olympic Games, but win wars. Fitness should have the ultimate purpose of helping others, so it should include jumping and running and climbing. Because you might have to climb up a window so save someone from a burning fire or jump out of danger.
- The Cretan goatherds understand this natural movement like no others because they practice it every day ranging over the mountainous terrain with their animals.
- Part of the natural movement thing is the use of fascia, that connective tissue that runs along the human body. There’s more strength in fascia than in muscle, and the ancient Greeks—and their Cretan descendants—knew how to use it.
- Along with exercise is diet. The most effective, plentiful energy source is fat. Cretans live off of leafy greens, olive oil based fats, meats, and very few starchy carbs. So during the deprivations of Nazi-occupied Crete, these Cretans could survive on little because humans have a huge reserve of fat and the Cretan’s bodies were accustomed to burning it.
- The Cretans managed to disappear a general because they had the stamina and ability to hike over the ragged, craggy mountains. Nobody suspected they could.
This book appealed to me on all levels. It talked about the ancient Greeks, modern Greeks, and World War II. It discussed natural movement exercise, fascia, diet, and heroism. And it did this all, tying it so seamlessly together, that I can’t imagine one without the other now. It taught me so much, inspired me. And I’m all about inspiration, about those things that make you reach for your better self.
Christopher McDougall puts himself in his books, and I love it because he’s funny and self-deprecating. He’s me. He’s you. He’s what we would be trying to discover the same things (albeit with the leisure and money to do it). He doesn’t just tell us about the main players in the World War II drama, he makes them come alive. He gives back story and description. He makes them real (because they are).
Christ White is a fellow enthusiast about Greece and World War II that meets up with McDougall in Crete to discuss Fermor and the other players of the kidnapping. He mapped out the entire route of the resistance over the mountains to deliver the general into Allied hands for a trip across the sea to Egypt.
Patrick Leigh Fermor was the British operative that spear-headed the plan to kidnap the general. Although not a native Crete, he learned the art of the hero, learned natural movement and fascia use and to burn fat as energy from the goatherds and other Cretans that made up the resistance. He was amazingly brave…and lucky. Or maybe it was divine intervention (that’s what I believe).
The story starts out after the kidnapping, flashes forward to modern Crete where the General’s car was found abandoned, and goes back and forth in time to follow the path of the Cretan resistance and McDougall walking it decades later. In the meantime, he discusses theories and studies on heroism, ideas about exercise, and facts about the fascia and burning fat for fuel. Somehow it melds together beautifully. I don’t know how he did it.
The writing is beautiful, and the story fascinating. There’s just enough humor to keep it interesting without overwhelming the plot. The way McDougall inserts himself into the book moves along the story in a way it couldn’t without him (he did the same thing in Born to Run, and it was awesome).’
Here are some of my favorite quotes about heroism:
“The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue.”
“Because that’s the ugly truth about heroism: the tests don’t start when you’re ready or stop when you’re tired.”
“Heroes aren’t perfect; with a god as one parent and a mortal as the other, they’re perpetually teetering between two destinies. What tips them toward greatness is a sidekick, a human connection who helps turn the spigot on the power of compassion. Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.”
“The truth is that there can be no proper training that does not educate the whole system of the man.”
“You are fit if you can adapt to the demands of your environment with ease and imagination.”
“Être fort pour être utile. Be fit to be useful.”
“As a rule of thumb, performance aberration in a basic skill is a good way to evaluate whether it’s natural to a species. When you spot a giant ability gap between ages and genders, you know you’re looking at nurture, not nature.”
Maybe what I love most about this book is that it isn’t really about World War II or Greeks or fitness or even heroism. It’s about compassion, about love:
“The ancient Greeks loved that little interlocking contradiction, the idea that you’re only your strongest when you have a weakness for other people.”
It all comes down to serving other people. And if it helps you be a little more fit, a little more heroic in the meantime, then that’s just a bonus.