Consequences of the Great Depression
“The Boys in the Boat” has just about everything you could want in a great story. Beautiful writing, well fleshed and eccentric characters, triumph over adversity and some really villainous villains. Some of my friends are just so attached to novels and will not pick up a work of nonfiction. When I read a book as good as satisfying as “The Boys in the Boat” I want to leave it on their doorstep; just give it a try!
“The Boys in the Boat” isn’t Daniel James Brown’s only book. He has a gift for ferreting out little-known stories and bringing them to life. One I would like to call out is 2006’s ‘Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894.” Brown set out to find out what happened in Hinckley, Minnesota, on Sept. 1, 1894, the date the town his grandfather and great-grandfather lived in exploded in flames. The Hinckley fire was of those seemingly impossible events, when two forest fires converged, creating hurricane-force winds and a 200-foot-high wall of flames.
This tragedy, little known outside the Midwest, became the platform for Brown to launch his career as a nonfiction author. It won several awards and was picked for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program. Brown’s next book, “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride,” was about the Donner Party! Maybe he was happy to discover a subject that didn’t involve catastrophe and tragedy, never mind cannibalism.
Another key aspect of the story of “The Boys in the Boat” is the Great Depression. So many books have been written about the Great Depression, I hardly know where to start; it affected every aspect of life, virtually worldwide, in the 1930s, and was one key reason the Nazis were able to rise to power.
One book that opened my eyes to this era was Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.”
Studs Terkels was a great author, journalist, actor and popular historian. His method was to get people to tell him their stories and then reproduce them, without much change or interpretation. He was a superb interviewer – he credited his ability to talk and interact with people in part to the fact that his parents ran a rooming house when he was growing up in Chicago, where he met and discoursed with people from all walks of life.
“Hard Times” follows that lead; you read the stories of everyone from the very poor to the very wealthy. This book was the first I ever read that made me realize just how hard the hard times of this era were, an era ,both my parents lived through and never talked about. Studs Terkel repeated that approach in many other books. He was truly a national treasure.
The 1930s were also a pivotal time for politics in Germany, where much of the story of “The Boys in the Boat” unfolds. The phenomenon of the Nazification of Germany was so cataclysmic and had such a horrible outcome, I truly believe people will be writing about it until the end of time. I just want to touch briefly on a couple of books that are well worth reading:
The first is “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer. This is an enormous work …1,280 pages! But it has the distinct advantage of the author having been in Germany for many pivotal early events. Shirer was a journalist who operated in Germany in the 1930s under increasingly hostile conditions, as Hitler clamped down on the press to hone every aspect of his message. His vivid memories and his impeccable scholarship are a potent combination.
A 2007 book that focuses on the 1936 Olympics that got good reviews at the time was “Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936” by David Clay Large. Of course, the Olympics have always had a political aspect, but these games were supercharged in that respect – from the moment Germany secured the Olympics bid, Hitler started expelling Jews from German sports clubs. Shall I just say that things went downhill from there.
Today we all know the stories of the athletes who defied and upstaged Hitler, including the great American track star, Jesse Owens, who Hitler refused to greet because he was black but who won four gold medals anyway. But the fact is that at the time, the 1936 games were a great propaganda coup for the Nazis. Hitler’s minister of information, Josef Goebbels, once said “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play,” and for a time he did it brilliantly.
Goebbels takes the stage in one of the best-written books about the Nazis that I have ever read – Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.”
This book turned into a huge best-seller for Larson, who already had a huge bestseller in his book “Devil in the White City.” He told me in an interview that he was inspired to start researching it when he picked up “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” in a bookstore.
“In the Garden of Beasts” tells the story of William Dodd, a mild mannered history professor who thought an appointment as ambassador to Berlin in 1933 would be just the kind of cushy sinecure that would help him finish his book, a history of the rise and fall of the American South.
He got the job – no one else wanted it, wonder why? and was plunged into the sinister politics that marked a key year in Hitler’s rise to power. Dodd’s daughter Martha plays a key role in this book – a femme fatale, one could say Martha lacked judgment; she managed to have affairs with both the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy!! Larson does such a good job of reconstructing the day-to-day life of the Dodds, he helps you really understand how even well intentioned people could have been deceived, bullied and shut up by the Nazis as they proceeded along their nefarious path.