This week marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. And despite Brad Pitt’s recent claim that the history-mulching film Inglourious Basterds has “put a cover on that pot”—exhausting the subject as far as movies go, anyway—there’s still a great deal to say about those six years and how they reshaped the world. The books below, all of them published in 2009, focus on the war in Europe and contain startling new perspectives on a chapter of the past that’s still very much with us.
Every Man Dies Alone (By Hans Fallada. Melville House, $32)
Appearing in English for the first time, this landmark novel has a story behind it that’s as compelling as the tale it tells. Born in Germany in 1893, Fallada refused to flee the Nazis even when fellow writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht did. One result of this decision was the personal interest Joseph Goebbels took in Fallada’s work, placing pressures on the psychologically fragile author that eventually led to his breakdown and confinement to a Nazi-run insane asylum. Freed at the end of the war, Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in just over three weeks, at the request of a culture official; he died shortly before its publication. The book is based on a true story and offers a sweeping vision of wartime Berlin that centres on a blue-collar couple who oppose the Nazi regime and incite the wrath of the Gestapo. Though it is in many ways as tragic as Fallada’s own life, it is also as quietly heroic.
Kahn & Engelmann: A Novel (By Hans Eichner. Biblioasis, $21.95)
Both introspective and immersed in the broad currents of history, Kahn & Engelmann tells the story of three generations of a Jewish family that moves from Hungary to Vienna at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The threat of the Holocaust looms throughout this ambitious and often surprisingly humorous work. There’s also a strong autobiographical thread running through the narrator’s sense of survivor’s guilt and his anxiety-ridden love of German literature. Eichner escaped Nazi-ruled Vienna in 1938 and eventually settled in Canada, becoming the head of the University of Toronto’s department of German studies. He wrote Kahn & Engelmann, his first novel, at the age of 79. When he passed away earlier this year at 87, it had just been translated into English after years of acclaim in Austria and Germany.
The Third Reich at War (By Richard J. Evans. Penguin, $50)
A colossus of research and synthesis that completes Evans’s trilogy on the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, capping off 2003’s The Coming of the Third Reich and 2005’s The Third Reich in Power: 1933-1939. Here, the Cambridge University historian describes a pitiless military machine that bred a reputation for efficiency but was in fact so corrupt and frivolously brutal as to be self-destructive. Evans takes all vantage points, examining the despots as well as the foot soldiers and the millions of innocent victims. The result is an invaluable record that, as Evans writes, “poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction”.
Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member (By Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager. Knopf, $29.95)
Nothing to do with the Tom Cruise film of the same name, although Claus von Stauffenberg—the historical figure portrayed by Cruise—makes occasional appearances in this unique eyewitness document. Von Boeselager, who died last year at the age of 90, grew up as a member of the German aristocracy. As he and his brother Georg rose to the high ranks of the nation’s cavalry, they were appalled, he says, not only by official anti-Semitism but by the ruthlessness of the SS (not to mention Hitler’s lack of good manners: “Hunched over his plate, his elbows on the table”¦he was a despicable sight.”) The recollections tend to wander in this too-short account, but it’s impossible not to be struck by the courage needed to launch a series of close-range attempts on the Fí¼hrer’s life.
Clara’s War (By Clara Kramer. McClelland & Stewart, $32.99)
Stories about German resistance to the Nazi regime—as in Every Man Dies Alone and Valkyrie, above—remain controversial in many circles. Such rebellion was notoriously rare, and a huge percentage of the Nazis’ victims in the parts of Europe they controlled were, of course, ordinary Jewish civilians. Clara’s War is subtitled A young girl’s true story of miraculous survival under the Nazis. Just how miraculous can be stated with a single fact: of the 5,000 Jews who lived in the small Polish town of Zolkiew, only 50 survived the German invasion. Clara Kramer is one of them. The diary she kept as a teenager serves as the basis for this harrowing memoir about the physical and mental tenacity she required to spend 18 months hiding, with 10 others, in a crude bunker beneath the floorboards of a neighbour’s home, where SS officers came regularly to drink. If the meaning of warfare in the past century could be summed up in a few images, this would be one of them.