The Circle of History

I’m reading To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 by Ian Kershaw, mostly because I am a huge fan of this author’s work and because I used to be obsessed with World War II several years ago. The book is part of the Penguin History of Europe Series, which covers almost all of recorded history (from the city of Troy in ancient Greece until the present). It’s 522 pages with very few footnotes and no endnotes (just a really long bibliography) and a font size that’s not microscopic, so it’s an extremely brief survey of what happened during the two World Wars, the time between them, and a small slice of the recovery period thereafter.

It’s strange to read about European politics in the time before World War II and compare it to American politics today. In a way, it’s the same thing all over again: the ideology of the Right versus the ideology of the Left, the propaganda from both sides, and the regular, hardworking, everyday people wanting no more than the basics of life at a price that they can afford. But the human story goes on in cycles, and history repeats itself whether we are aware of it doing so or not.

We always say that if we were around during World War II, we would have stopped Hitler from destroying the Jews and all the others he deemed unworthy. We always say, with the benefit of hindsight behind us, that we wouldn’t have been as stupid as those Germans who joined the Nazi party or those Italians who supported Fascism or those Russians who supported Communism. We would have seen it coming, unlike those ill-informed citizens of history.

Today it’s different. We’re bombarded with news. We can’t escape it. There are televisions and Internet access everywhere. We have so much information about politics, government, and leadership that we can’t process it all. Most of us can’t effectively sift through all the information to find the bias, and most of us simply can’t be bothered to put forth the effort anyway. We try not to get too involved with politics or with the leadership of our communities because it’s complicated. It’ll just give you a headache and fill you with impotent rage because you can’t truly change anything. No matter which party wins the election in November, we’ll likely still get more of the same thing.

So we put our heads in the sand and go about our lives and fill our ears and eyes with mindless entertainment while world events go on. We become desensitized to terrorist attacks and school shootings and presidential candidate debates because there are just so many of them and new information about them is inescapable and in our faces constantly. Who can make sense of all these world events and do it in an unbiased way? Nobody.

Then someone in the future, one hundred years from now, will look back on our times and say something like, “Those stupid Americans of yesteryear! They shouldn’t have wasted so much time watching all that reality TV. They should have been more aware of what was going on in the world, and all those terrorist attacks could have been prevented.” Or maybe that person in the future won’t say anything because he’ll live in a “brave new world” where history has been obliterated. Who knows? The only thing that stays the same is human nature, so we get what is effectively the same story over and over but with different characters.

30 Day Book Challenge – Day 23

Today’s prompt: A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

I think I have to bust out my old booklist from 2007… let’s see…

Nonfiction

1. Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution – Ian Kershaw
I went through a Third Reich obsession from 2007-2009 and to some extent, I am still obsessed. Kershaw is one of my favorite history authors.
2. Jesus, Interrupted – Bart Ehrman
This book is about the contradictions in the Bible. I’m a Christian and always will be, but I find it interesting to see how others interpret the Bible.
3. The Anxiety of Influence – Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom never ceases to fascinate me. His literary criticism is far out and brilliant.

Fiction

1. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
A cult classic, and very different in terms of typography and narrative. This book is supposed to be a spooky thriller.
2. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
It’s a “fanfiction” of Jane Eyre, told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s insane wife.
3. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Everyone raves about how wonderful this book is. I want to see exactly how wonderful it is.

So… has anyone read any of these?

Third Reich Historians

I don’t recall exactly how my obsession with the Third Reich started, but I think it was sometime in 2007 after I read Lothar Machtan’s book The Hidden Hitler, which was more about the Fuehrer’s sexuality than anything else. The subject fascinated me for a reason I do not entirely understand. Maybe it was the psychological underpinnings or the motivations behind Hitler’s mass slaughter of humanity.

So I read as much about the Third Reich as I could, just to learn more about it and the psychology behind the whole thing. (If I had not picked English as my college major, I probably would have picked either psychology or history.)

These are the top four authors/historians that I enjoyed the most out of what I’ve read on the subject so far:

William Shirer

Notable Works: Berlin Diary (1941), End of a Berlin Diary (1947), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), and The Nightmare Years (1984)

I loved Shirer’s work because as an American journalist and war correspondent, he was fairly objective in terms of how he saw the entire National Socialist regime. His commentary is different from anyone else’s that I’ve read. He’d met many of the head Nazis and got to know them firsthand. The two Berlin diaries are extremely insightful and not only portray the cruelty of Hitler and his men, but also portray the difficult life of a foreign correspondent.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a nonfiction account that I would consider definitive and in-depth, for anyone who wants to learn more. The only reason I would not recommend it is because it was published in 1960 and may be considered “old” and not the most up-to-date research.

Even so, Shirer’s firsthand account is extremely valuable. His writing style is clear and precise.

Daniel Goldhagen

Notable Works: Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), and A Moral Reckoning (2002)

Where Shirer’s works are easy to read and written in a relatively simple and emotional language, Goldhagen’s are definitely more “academic” and less friendly to the lay person. Both of his books read like doctoral theses and require concentration. I wouldn’t recommend reading them right before bedtime – they are dense. I would also not recommend them to anyone just starting research on the Third Reich. I’d consult them to verify facts – everything in the books is extremely accurate and Goldhagen puts forth well-evidenced claims.

Goldhagen is the son of a Holocaust survivor and an academic currently teaching at Harvard, which makes his point of view very different from Shirer’s. His works are worth reading for an intelligent and insightful account of how the psychology of Hitler’s regime burned into the minds of the German people and the Catholic Church.

Ian Kershaw

Notable Works: Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000)

The two books mentioned constitute a two-volume biography of Hitler; it is the new definitive study, replacing Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952). Kershaw definitely knows what he’s talking about; his biography represents masterful and meticulous research.

Both volumes are written in an academic language, but it’s nowhere near as dense as Goldhagen’s. Some parts of Kershaw’s books are written almost like a novel, leaving the reader wanting to continue into the next chapter. Both books are extremely long, but they captivate an audience easily. Kershaw uses an excellent and extensive bibliography and his writing is clear and precise. His biography is definitely a starting point to any Third Reich research and it’s where I got my start.

Albert Speer

Notable Works: Spandau: The Secret Diaries (1976) and Inside the Third Reich (1982)

I read these books solely for the point of view of the author; Speer was Hitler’s architect and armaments minister who was known as “the good Nazi”. There is speculation about how much he knew about the Holocaust; both of his autobiographical books above do not include much on it. Speer stood trial at Nuremburg after World War II and was sent to Spandau Prison for 20 years, during which he wrote his books.

Both read well – they’re like novels and they go rather quickly. What is most interesting about the books is how the imprisoned author views the passage of time in prison in relation to what happened in the past with the Third Reich. Both books make great primary sources for research and are good to read for pleasure – Speer writes with insight on the human condition.