Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer

August 29, 2011 at 19:18 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, War) (, , , )

9/10

Albert Speer is a convincing and likable writer: and therefore any discerning reader would do well to resolve to dislike him and remain utterly unconvinced. This was harder than it sounds, possibly because it is easy to want to find some wholesomeness even in the darkest and vilest of pits. Speer’s apparent willing martyrdom in Spandau and his bleating and repetitive urges for the reader to realise that he considers himself guilty (even as he coolly explains why he was not guilty) are winsome, appealing and ultimately dangerous.

It is impossible to read this book and remain a sceptic. It is impossible to read this book and consider Speer to be entirely deserving of his harsh sentence. It is almost impossible to read this book and understand the full horror behind such clinical phrases as “imported workers” or “forced labour”. The stinking body count and the ploughed mud of Europe’s cities seem utterly irreconcilable with Speer’s gentleman’s war. Quite besides his genteel and sympathetic self-portrait, he presents a Hitler both familiar and new. Even forty years after this book’s publication, Hitler is still spoken of by serious historians as a tactical genius (a madman, naturally – but a genius nonetheless).

“…the chaotic command structure made it possible for men of good will to limit chaos in the future.”

-Inside the Third Reich

If Speer is to be believed (and he is no less convincing here than when protesting his own innocence) Hitler was an utter idiot. A lucky idiot, but a poltroon of poltroons. Besides the intimate portraiture of the Fuehrer, Speer provides his true judgement in a comic facade of buffoonery and incompetence at every level, and gives a convincing argument for the Third Reich’s hypothetical triumph under steadier hands. Speer’s memories can be questioned; his motives even more so. But if this is not after all the true inside story from a true inside penitent, then it is at least the inside story that a man who thought he was penitent, thought was true. A priceless historical document and a deeply interesting memoir.

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

August 23, 2011 at 19:29 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , )

7/10

This book starts off fairly drearily (though not extremely dull), and for much of the first half feels unpleasantly like a lecture about “how people lived in the olden days”. Long on intricate detail, long on grubby minutiae, very short on appealing characters or anything in the way of a crisis-driven plot. Inertiatic and dour, and as grindingly static for the reader as for the poor prisoners. Of course this sort of thing has its benefits (and the historian reader will find it very informative) but it is as cold and aloof as a diorama in a musty museum.

This improves to a degree towards the early afternoon of Ivan’s day, when the Captain (and later Caesar) is provided as an interesting and vivid character: a bright spot made all the more effervescent by the staid landscape. Perhaps one way to describe this book is to compare it to a dark and brooding oil painting still-life that hangs as forbiddingly as a photograph in the corner of a gallery–with subtle additions and subversions dabbed in with a careful brush in the background, that brings the whole thing to life for the man patient enough to spend a minute or two in looking.

“Spitting the bones out on the floor was thought bad manners.”

-One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisivich

Solzhenitsyn is a careful student of the human condition, and if this book is a portrait of terrifying realism, then it is also an intricate study of the best and worst of man: and more importantly, of several shades in between: the capriciousness of Caesar that gives way suddenly to helpless weakness and panic, for instance. Or the fragile structures of power and impotence that fluctuates and changes depending on the precise arrangements of inmates in any given situation. For such a short book, this amount of depth is surprising, especially as Solzhenitsyn actually succeeds in painting a very informative (if stagnant) picture of the Gulag in the process. At this sort of length, no reader who dips into these pages will be wasting his time.

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World’s War Events (Vol. I), by Francis J. Reynolds and Allen L. Churchill (Eds.)

August 19, 2011 at 20:04 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )

7/10

The pedantic and stuffy compendium World’s War Events is difficult to rate as a whole, chiefly because of the incredible variety of styles and penmanship in the various articles contained. These range from exciting journalistic accounts by men who write as though bullets were currently whipping over their heads, droll pulpy pamphlets of propaganda discussing very earnestly the ‘Hunnish character’ or the ‘excitability of Asiatic Mohammedans’, and at least a few dry and crusty accounts of the movements of this-or-that regiment, with dutiful accounts of near-identical death-or-glory charges into the teeth of machine guns. The account of the Invasion of Belgium or the two chapters on the Battle of Ypres are two of the worst offenders, whereas the articles on mountain warfare and the history of the Emden are deeply interesting and vividly written.

“But a victory by Turkish arms would probably instantly change the situation and might loose the pent-up fanaticism of the most intensely emotional of the Oriental races.”

-World’s War Events (Vol. I)

As a primary source (some of the articles were written during the War itself) this volume is deeply interesting; and readers will be amazed at the prescience shown starkly alongside jingoistic nonsense, and the unique mixture of pathos and insight with arrogant wrongheadedness. The book is poorly annotated, with very little said about either the individual authors of the pieces or their own histories, but to identify a strongly British bias would be generous in the extreme.

Even considering the staunch onesidedness of this history it ought not be written off as useless as a picture of the acts besides the thoughts. Indeed, some of the driest and most bureaucratic pages contain a depth of detail lost to many well-rounded histories, proving that this is one of those rare things indeed: a blend of the myopic fact and the fantastic theory. A very valuable tool, and at least the half of it very easy and pleasant to read.

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A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis

August 11, 2011 at 15:55 (Biography, Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Theology) (, , , )

5/10

This is neither a book nor even a devotional tract. It’s a pamphlet: the afterword is around the same length as the actual text. It is a chapter, broken off abruptly almost as quickly as it began. Lewis charts his thoughts following the death of his wife through some truly dark valleys and some surprisingly heady heights, with very little in the way of explanation between each and the other. There is theology and philosophy, but in the roughest of stages, harsh and unedited and contradictory. It is not a book about a man losing his faith, but it is a book that is much more about the man than about the faith.

“For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appall me.”

-A Grief Observed

Lewis’ ready wit and charming voice survive, though in somewhat of a dishevelled state, like meeting a dazzling performer backstage once the curtain has fallen, and finding him just a little more unshaven than when on the stage, and with a glass of gin in his hand. By no objective criteria could this be called a particularly good book, though it is interesting to read. It is badly structured and sometimes difficult to follow. No: it is easy to follow, but difficult to see the precise direction Lewis has taken between paragraph breaks. He veers and leaps erratically, and follows an interior logic or intuition that is not always shared with the reader.

If this is not a good book, then it is certainly an interesting, engaging and informative piece, and could even prove useful as a devotional tract. It is like opening the Book of Job at random and reading scattered verses from the page, or like reading the Twitter updates of someone particularly literate and wise. A pleasant book to have with one on a lazy afternoon, a train journey, or something of that sort.

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