Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, 4/5
Many books have been written about the inhumanity of Nazi Germany during WWII, but fewer portray the bureaucracy. Behind the scenes, the business of war gave Oskar Schindler an opportunity to leverage the “ordinary” vices of extraordinarily evil men in order to save Jewish lives. Almost all of the seven deadly sins make an appearance as Schindler schmoozes, name-drops, threatens, cajoles, bribes, wines and dines his way through the war. A man who, at the beginning of the story, could barely be described as “decent” transforms into a fanatic who risks everything to sabotage the German war effort and protect his Jewish workers. It is a fascinating tale, both from a historical and a psychological perspective, though the author’s writing style is a bit dry and idiosyncratic.
Why I read it: I’ve never been motivated to watch the film (way too depressing for movie night) so I was excited to come across the book instead.
Night by Elie Wiesel, 5/5
This firsthand account of a Jewish teenager’s experience in four German concentration camps during World War II is short, stark and brutal. While most other historical accounts from this era that I have read contain some sliver of hope, faith, humanity, and closure, there is none to be found in Wiesel’s testimony. Presumably these elements are explored in the following, fictional, books of the trilogy, Dawn and Day. There are many disturbing and moving scenes in this book, but strangely, the thing that hit me most was the author’s brief mention of electrical fences around the camp. Some irrational part of me pictures the Holocaust as happening in the dark and distant past, before modern civilization. Realizing that something as thoroughly modern as an electric fence was used to contain innocent men, women and children, 11 million of whom were doomed to die, brings the horror of the Holocaust back to the very near past, where it belongs.
Why I read it: My boyfriend and I found the battered little paperback in a box of his high school relics. If it’s still not required reading, it should be.
In the Garden of Beasts
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson, 5/5
It’s been a long time since I picked up a book that I couldn’t put down again (especially a nonfiction one), but I read this for 3 hours straight one morning and finished it almost in one sitting. This true story takes place in an odd slice of history–the years directly preceding the outbreak of WWII, as Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and gradually revealed the extent of his aspirations to the tentative but growing concern of the rest of the world. The characters on whom the story focuses are even more odd: an elderly academic, appointed in desperation to the role of American Ambassador to Germany when more qualified men turned it down, and his free-spirited daughter who lets few opportunities to party and sleep with the enemy slip through her fingers, despite the delicacy of her family’s situation in Nazi Germany. Even more interesting than the political twists and turns of this turbulent time are the many appearances of famous and infamous entities, portrayed from a more personal, intimate perspective than the hard, cold light that history usually shines on them. Author Erik Larson somehow achieves a well-researched tone without diminishing the natural drama of events.
There were, as might be expected, many horrifying things in this book. What was unexpected to me, however, was the source of this horror. I was most shocked, not by Hitler and his Nazis’ iconic atrocities, but by the greedy, irresponsible, antisemitic attitudes documented in the behavior of many U.S. politicians and other high-profile citizens. Many influential policy-makers were more than willing to identify a so-called “Jewish Problem” in the U.S. and seemed more interested in Germany’s ability to repay high-interest war loans than any human rights concerns. Wealth and social prestige, unbelievably, seemed to be acceptable qualifications for positions of world-event-affecting influence and politicians trusted by the U.S. public to guide their country in perilous times floundered without coordinated priorities or plans. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, but knowing in retrospect the millions of lives that were at stake makes the outcome of events documented in this book seem even more tragic.
Why I read it: My friend, Peggy, passed it on to me.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, 5/5
When a psychiatrist who endured the German concentration camps of WWII has something to say about happiness and the meaning of life, you can bet it’s something worth paying attention to. Frankl’s thoughts on the bigger questions in life are woven into the first part of this short book–an account of the author’s experiences and observations in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. An introduction to the foundations of logotherapy (the author’s approach to psychotherapy) comprise the second part of the book, in which Frankl’s ideas really come into focus.
Frankl’s refreshing premise is that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (121) and that “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease” (125). The author’s theory of the meaning of life encompasses the complexities of human existence with startling simplicity:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible (131).
I have seldom been moved as this book moved me, right from the preface, which contains this bit of wisdom that alone would make the book worth reading:
Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run–in the long run, I say!–success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it (17).
[Why I read it: it was mentioned in Your Money or Your Life and the title sounded interesting.]
Back Home by Bill Mauldin, 2/5
Tedious political ramblings accompany this collection of aged cartoons by celebrated WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who obviously had a rough transition back to a civilian career after the war. I’ve always been put off by political cartoons in general because they tend to over-simplify complicated issues, mindlessly ridicule opposing viewpoints and, crucially, are usually not even funny. The cartoons in this book are no exception and, I think, would appeal to few readers besides fans of Mauldin and those who are interested in an inside view of one person’s perspective of the political climate in post-WWII United States.
[Why I read it: I recognized Mauldin’s name and liked what I had previously seen of his army cartoons.]
The First and the Last
The First and the Last: The Rise and Fall of the German Fighter Forces, 1938-1945 by Adolf Galland, translated by Mervyn Savill, 3/5
This memoir by Adolf Galland, a German fighter pilot and Luftwaffe General of Fighters during WWII, is undoubtedly an invaluable resource for the student of history, but I did not find it to be written in a particularly engaging manner. The parts I found most interesting were those describing Galland’s personal encounters and conflicts with Hermann Göring and Hitler, with whom Galland had major disagreements over policies that focused on bombers to the detriment of the fighter wing, handicapped fighters by forcing them to operate defensively instead of offensively, and spread the air force’s assets too thinly. Of course, Galland comes off rather well in the memoir, so it is difficult to tell what is accurate and what is embellished in retrospect (whether purposefully or not).
Like many others, I presume, my exposure to WWII was mostly of the sanitized, black and white version found in history textbooks. It was thought-provoking to see the war from a different, more morally-ambiguous point of view. Galland did not seem to experience any moral conflicts regarding Hitler’s actions; he may have doubted his führer’s method of conducting the war, but he didn’t raise any concerns about Hitler’s ideology. Except in the case of his under-trained fighters being sent out on what amounted to suicide missions, his mindset was very much that of a faithful cog in the war machine, as was the case, I suspect, with the vast majority of people who fought and died for the Axis.
When I think of civilian casualties during WWII, the first thing that comes to mind is the London Blitz. That chapter of England’s history is not unduly disturbing to me because 1) I [incorrectly] picture everyone hiding in bomb shelters while empty buildings take the brunt of the violence and 2) the Germans were the baddies and thus could be expected to target the civilian population. This naive point of view was shattered when I read Galland’s account of the Allied bombing of German cities, in which hundreds of thousands of German civilians were killed (including thousands of children). I always pictured collateral damage occurring only in the course of bombings of war factories and industries vital to sustaining the war effort. I never pictured the “Good Guys” taking off to purposefully destroy cities and centers of culture, filled with normal people. It’s always been my unthinking opinion that if a country is at war, it’s civilians are at war too, but this first-hand account was hard to stomach.
[Why I read it: my sister enjoyed it first.]
The Man Who Never Was
The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu, 4/5
This is the definitive and first-hand account of a real-life wartime deception that bears more similarity to a fictional spy/thriller story than to reality. During WWII, the author was in charge of a scheme to float a corpse bearing falsified military papers off the coast of Spain, in an attempt to trick the Germans into diverting resources from the impending Allied invasion of Sicily. The narrative is simply-told and well-illustrated with numerous photos.
[Why I read it: the retro design on the spine caught my eye at the thrift store and I was somewhat familiar with the historical event the book describes so I bought it for my brother’s library.]