The Dark Years Before World War II
I was thinking about how to approach a reading list that dovetails with Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” I thought about books about World War II – thousands of books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been written about this terrible time, and I’m convinced this catastrophic era in world history will be examined as long as people are reading and researching.
A personal quirk I have is a preference for books that talk about the period before World War II, when the world was in upheaval (in part because of the Depression) and the different sides in the war were coalescing: fascism, the Nazi party, the Communist movement and, of course, democracy, more and more under siege as the 1930s proceeded.
Here is a list of books, all nonfiction, about that time. If only the world could have been more prescient about what was in store – as a reader you know the outcome, and that makes these books doubly mesmerizing.
“The Long Night: William R. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by Steve Wick. This book tells the story of Bill Shirer, who would go on to write one of the best-selling books of all time, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” What many people, even those who have read and admired that book, may not know is the harrowing experiences Shirer went through as a journalist in 1930s Berlin.
Shirer born and raised in Iowa, never wanted to do anything except be an international correspondent. As they say, be careful what you wish for. He wound up in Berlin as a correspondent for a now-defunct wire service. He walked a continual tightrope between trying to report the truth of what was going on inside Germany while avoiding the wrath (and worse) of the Nazis, who were reading every word and expelling correspondents who were too truthful. Some correspondents bowed to the government’s will, and that is one reason why many people did not know what was happening with the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and political dissidents until it was too late to do anything about it. Others, like Shirer, fought back, putting themselves and their families at risk. I loved this book because I’m a journalist (as is Steve Wick, the author) and I could really appreciate the tightrope Shirer had to walk; telling enough of the truth to get the point across, but avoiding the level of candor that would have gotten him kicked out of the country – or worse.
I first heard of Shirer though Erik Larson’s fantastic book “In the Garden of Beasts,” about the American ambassador to Berlin in the early thirties, a harrowing time William Dodd and his family were woefully underprepared for.
Another biography that has just come out, set before, during and after World War II is called “The Double Life of Paul de Man” by Evelyn Barish.
If you were an English lit major, you may have heard of de Man. He was a brilliant teacher and theoretician who revolutionized the study of literature through his theory of Deconstruction (I won’t get into that). When he died in 1983, it was front page news in the New York Times.
What few people knew, and what ultimately came out, was that de Man was a Nazi collaborator in Belgium during World War II. A master chameleon, and, ok, liar, he had managed to hide his past, but when it came out it rocked the academic world. In wartime Belgium, de Man wrote for Nazi-controlled publications and worked intimately with fascist publishers, even as he tried to help some Jews escape from Belgium. The best word I can think of that applies to de Man is “chameleon.” This is a fascinating book about a man incapable of the truth, and it also highlighted events in Belgium during the war that I knew nothing about.
De Man and Shirer survived the war. The next biography I’m going to mention is about a man who didn’t, a German theologian who opposed the Nazis and paid the price.
“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Charles Marsh is an interesting and even shocking book. I’m going to tell you straight up that you have to wade through some discussions of Christian theology, but they’re almost necessary background when it comes to explaining how the Nazis took control of a main branch of the German church. As the Nazis took control, many terrible things happened. Jews who had been baptized into the church (a lot of German Jews, an estimated 350,000, converted to Christianity, in part because of the rampant anti-Semitism in Germany) were targeted, and many so-called “Christians” refused to worship with them. They even managed to convince themselves that Jesus was not a Jew. One minister gushed that “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”
Bonhoeffer, who spent time in America and came to view the world through an egalitarian’s eye, was vocal in his opposition. He lost his job. He was targeted by the Nazis, who continually put pressure on him to shut down his criticism. Eventually he was jailed, and then, after the Nazis discovered his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he was executed.
Not the first time, and not the last, religion has been perverted in the service of an extreme and deadly ideology.
Finally, I want to briefly mention two books by authors we have had on “Well Read” that have indelibly portrayed the era leading up and including World War II. Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” tells the story of the University of Washington crew team that competed in the 1936 Olympics, staged managed by the Nazis in Berlin and vanquished Hitler’s hand-picked team. And David Laskin’s “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” tells the harrowing story of three branches of his family, all Jewish; one who moved to America, one who emigrated to Israel and one of whom stayed in Europe. The fate of those who stayed was very sad indeed, and their descendants are still coming to terms with it, as has David Laskin by writing this moving and deeply researched book.