Tuesday, October 03, 2006
some books I've been reading
As some of you already know, certain periods in history fascinate me more than others. Ancient Rome, of course, from the Punic Wars to Justinian. The Plantagenet Middle Ages. The Italian Renaissance, of course. Dutch maritime history. The Restoration. The American Revolution. The American Civil War (so it's a long list - so sue me).
Ancient Greece has never done it for me (although none of you should get frisky at this admission - just because these areas don't fascinate me doesn't mean I don't know more about them than any of the rest of you. Settle down back there). The Crusades have never done it for me. The Wars of the Roses. The Victorians. Vietnam ... all dutifully studied, yes, but none of them really tripping my trigger.
Another subject that eternally fascinates me is World War Two, and an intense subset of that is Nazism and the Holocaust. The subject is as endlessly fascinating to me as it is grim.
Niall Ferguson's huge new book The War of the World squarely locates this fascination:
Yet there was something qualitatively different about the Nazi's war against the Jews and the other unfortunate minorities considered to be 'unworthy of life.' It was the fact that it was carried out by such well-educated people, the products of what had been, at least until 1933, one of the most advanced educational systems in the world. It was the fact that it was perpetrated under the leadership of a man who had come to power by primarily democratic means. The Nazi death machine worked economically, scientifically, and euphemistically. In a word, it was very, very modern.
Three of the books I've read recently deal with this subject.
The first was Nazi Terror by Eric Johnson, and it was a little dull, its phrases carefully rounded off and sanded free of eccentricity at the expense of color. The most interesting part of the book is its notes, where Johnson, maybe feeling nobody's watching, feels free to loosen up and more directly engage with his subject.
The second book was Making Friends with Hitler by renowned Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw. Anbody familiar Kershaw's books knows they'll be encountering very good writing, and this book - about Lord Londonberry and his circle of Nazi partisans (and the larger public ambivalence toward the Nazis) - is no exception.
Kershaw has done a very satisfying amount of research on his specific subject, but the real interest of the book is its broader background. It's a thing that needs remembering as the Second World War fades further and further into the past: unless you were a Jew (and not always even then, wishful thinking being a omnipresent human trait), it was entirely possible in 1933 to view the Nazis as a more or less legitimate democratically elected party. Granted, the tell-tale signs plied up quick - by the time anybody was using the word appeasement, it was already a criminally horrible idea.
So Making Friends with Hitler was a much better book. But it fell quickly into the shadow of the third book, Richard Evans' The Third Reich in Power. This is the second of Evans' volumes - the first was The Coming of the Third Reich, and one presumes the final volume will be The Third Reich at War.
Evans' Third Reich in Power is a thick, satisfying little plug of a paperback, so massively researched and so beautifully, sparsely, angrily written that the reader becomes entirely subsumed in the vision of the thing.
The numerous accolades showered upon this book aren't amiss: it's stupendously good, a wildly multifaceted look at exactly the phenomenon we were discussing: the slow, creeping, daily insinuation of the reality of Nazism into the lives of those who lived under it, both its partisans and its victims.
If you want to read about the subject, hie thee hence at once to your local Barnes & Noble and snap up these two long, wonderful volumes (the Johnson and Kershaw will have to wait, you being not made of money). They're some of the best history being written.