Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trying to Understand Nazi Germany

By Jeff Burns

Nazi era Germany has to be one of the most fascinating eras in all of human history.  It’s not just the horrific scale of the death and destruction of the Holocaust and World War II, or the fact that tens of millions of people were directly involved.  Much of the fascination centers around the question How could this happen?  How can the country that created some of history’s greatest scientists, thinkers and artists also create a society in which ordinary people witnessed and participated in such unspeakable acts. 

Here are four books I recommend. Each in its own way delves into the mystery by examining German society from different angles.


Two of the books paint a picture of 1930s Germany from an American perspective.   Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by Andrew Nagorski creates a mosaic portrait of Germany by telling the stories of dozens of Americans who experienced it, from reporters to diplomats to athletes.  Some opinions were favorable, some unfavorable, some mixed, but, taken together, they reveal that there was much confusion and disagreement about just what Hitler and the Nazi Party represented.
Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin is the story of America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, a mild mannered history professor named William E. Dodd,  and his family, specifically his daughter Martha.  As Ambassador Dodd struggles to protect American citizens and their interests in Germany and urges the U.S. government to exert more pressure on the German government, his flamboyant daughter has one affair after another with top party officials and even Soviet spies.  The family’s year-long experiences offer a truly unique perspective.
The other two books offer different views of German women during the war.  First is a novel:  City of Women by David R.  Gillham.  The year is 1943, and Berlin is virtually a city of women. While their husbands are away at war, or perhaps captured or killed, Berlin’s women struggle to carry on, up against shortages, suspicions, paranoia, guilt, and a myriad other obstacles.  It’s a fascinating look at the homefront, the enemy’s homefront, that we don’t normally see.
Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower is a disturbing look at women in the German front lines.  Thousands of German women accompanied troops as they moved eastward, as secretaries, clerks, drivers for example.  Other women accompanied their SS husbands as the vanguard of the German migration into the new lebensraum, “the living space” of the newly conquered Eastern Europe.  Lower discovered that many of them were willing, and sometimes eager, participants in brutal acts committed there.  The stories are difficult to read, but they make for a more complete picture.
Will we ever find out why Nazi Germany happened?  Probably not, but these books add a little to the understanding.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seascape, Sandscape, Lunarscape: Four 19th Century Adventures

By Jeff Burns

            In the 19th century, readers devoured thrilling tales of adventure by and about men (and a few women) exploring the unknown.  As Americans moved westward, carving out new lives for themselves and their families, others were exploring exotic locales and facing unimaginable dangers.  Some lived to write or tell their stories, sometimes becoming celebrities and inspiring other storytellers.
            Off the coast of Chile, in 1821 a whaling ship spotted a boat on the open sea, occupied by two haggard  and deranged men, surrounded by, and chewing on , human bones.  They were survivors of one of the most well-known maritime disasters of the 1800s, the sinking of a Nantucket whaling ship by a sperm whale.  Three boats containing a total of twenty men survived the sinking; only eight survived the two thousand mile long struggle.   The incident inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex  by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story of this incident, unparalleled in the history of whaling.  Philbrick, a maritime historian, and a sailor himself,  provides a detailed account of the Nantucket whaling industry and a description of shipboard life.  The book is extensively researched and footnote, but Philbrick’s writing style makes it a page-turner. (Ron Howard-directed movie version scheduled for 2015 release)

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King recounts the experiences of twelve American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, captured by desert nomads, sold into slavery, and subjected to a hellish two-month journey through the bone-dry heart of the Sahara.  King did exhaustive research and even re-traced part of the desert journey the men were forced to take.  The story of survival is every bit as thrilling as it was when it was first published in the 1800s, when it was read and admired by Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and Abraham Lincoln.  (History Channel docudrama 2006)

Sea.  Desert.  What locale could be more exotic in the 1800s than the moon?  We know the zenith of the newspaper industry in America was near the turn of the 20th century, when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers tried to out-sensationalize each other for the public’s pennies, in the era of the newsies.  However competition was fierce in the early 1800s as well. 

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York by Matthew Goodman brings to life that intense cutthroat atmosphere that led to one of the greatest hoaxes in American history.  On August 26, 1835, a fledgling newspaper called the Sun brought to New York the first accounts of remarkable lunar discoveries. A series of six articles reported the existence of life on the moon—including unicorns, beavers that walked on their hind legs, and four-foot-tall flying man-bats. In a matter of weeks it was the most broadly circulated newspaper story of the era, and the Sun, a working-class upstart, became the most widely read paper in the world.

 Goodman also wrote Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World.  Inspired by the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, two pioneering female muckraking reporters, Bly and Bisland, attempted to complete the feat, and beat each other doing it.  While their names are not as well-known today (Bly more known than Bisland), the literate world was riveted by their adventures.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Read in the Chinese New Year

By Jeff Burns
            Happy Chinese New Year!  Gong Xi Fa Cai!  The Year of the Horse is here.  Celebrate by reading some Chinese and Chinese-American history.
            Unfortunately, the world lost author Iris Chang much too early.  She was the author of two excellent books I highly recommend:  The Rape of Nanking and The Chinese in America:  a Narrative History.   The Rape of Nanking is a disturbing but necessary account of the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s, particularly the atrocities committed in the city of Nanking.  Japanese troops systematically ransacked the city and brutally murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians.   Unbelievably, the story’s full scope was  not very well known in the West until Chang’s book, and the incident is still a source of tension in Sino-Japanese relations today, with some Japanese still denying that it happened.
 
            The Chinese in America covers the entire history of Chinese immigration to the US, beginning with the first Chinese laborers who came for the California gold rush and stayed on to work on the railroads and build communities here to the present day.  She covers the whole experience, including the nativist backlash, the effects of the communist-nationalist conflict in America, and the wave of immigration that followed the Revolution. 

            On Gold Mountain by Lisa See focuses on the gold rush experience.  In China, those who went to California were said to have “gone to Gold Mountain.”  She personalizes the story by making it a family history, supported by years of research, sort of like a Chinese –American version of Roots.  She succeeds in making the story universal and enthralling.
 
 
 
            Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation by Moon-Ho Jung is not quite as entertaining since it’s more academic in tone, but it introduced me to a fascinating aspect of southern history that I had never known about.  During Reconstruction, southern landowners needed labor to replace slavery; as a result, sharecropping, basically a new face of slavery, developed. Some planters came up with an innovative idea:  encourage Chinese immigrants to move to the South. Many Chinese seized the opportunity and moved to the Deep South, creating a very unique situation.  In the racially charged atmosphere of the Jim Crow world, these new arrivals were neither black nor white, and they found themselves suspended between the two worlds in many ways.  The book is about that unusual situation and the contradictions that were highlighted by the experiment and its effects on both the Chinese and on the South itself.