Monday, 4 July 2016

Good books - July 2016

Although readers (going by page views) seem to like the odd diversion into the world of books, I haven't had the time to do many recent reports, the latest being 'Then and now', my look at the latest volume of Charles Moore's excellent biography of Margaret Thatcher (before that, I'd written up The Fall of the Celtic Tiger, and earlier GDP: A brief but affectionate history and Wellbeing Economics: Future directions for New Zealand).

Now, along has come another great new biography - Volker Ullrich's Hitler, Ascent 1889-1939, with a follow-up second volume in the works. It's both very readable (Ullrich is as much journalist as historian) and professional: Ullrich has gone back to many of the original sources and found new takes on them.  People at every end of the political spectrum have loved it: the Guardian's review called it "an outstanding study" and the Telegraph's review called it "chilling and superb".  Even if you've already read Joachim Fest's Hitler: A Biography and Ian Kershaw's Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis, you'll get a lot out of this book.

His overall approach, responding to the question that German media asked abut the 2004 film Downfall, "Are we permitted to depict Hitler as a human being?", is to say, "The only answer is: not only are we permitted, we are obliged to". It would certainly be easier, he argues, to explain Hitler away as either a criminally energetic cretin or a psychopathic monster, but one-dimensional perspectives miss important parts of the story. He concedes that what he regards as the key chapter, "Hitler as Human Being", has a "somewhat unsettling title" but goes on to say
To depict Hitler in human terms is not to elicit sympathy for him or to downplay his crimes. This biography seeks to show the sort of person he was since the 1920s: a fanatic Jew-hater, who could tactically conceal his anti-Semitism but who never lost sight of his aim of 'removing' Jews from German society
For me the key takeaways were two. One was that the idea of Hitler as a confused grab-bag of incoherent noxious ideas is wrong: all the evidence is that he had a long-held, mutually consistent set of them, melding the Treaty of Versailles and the 'stab in the back', the need to restore German power through rearmament and to claim lebensraum in eastern Europe, and hatred of Jews and Bolshevism (he may have caught his particularly virulent dose of anti-semitism in Vienna, which is an easy place to catch it). And the other was the total shallowness of the Nazis' pretence at being a democratic party: within weeks they had suborned virtually every civil institution - the public sector, trade unions, professional associations - into executive arms of the Nazi party. If you ever needed one insight into the nature of the Nazi regime, it's this: Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Dachau opened on March 22.

As a colleague recently wrote to me, "The fact that we study Hitler biographies to understand our own times is frightening". So it is, but here we are, with very ugly movements underway in the US and parts of Europe (and undercurrents of them in Brexit). Time to wise up on how and why these things get going, and why they need to be stopped. And if any of this has piqued your interest, then move on to Richard Evans' wonderful three volume set, The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War.

On the fiction side, there are some great books set against the backdrop of the Second World War and the run-up to it. If you'd like thrillers generally around the general themes of intelligence agencies' manoeuverings and resistance against German occupation, often entangling civilians and often in obscure parts of central Europe, then you'll appreciate everything Alan Furst has written: I've just finished his latest, A Hero in France. Each is self-contained: you can start anywhere. Another great series is Phillip Kerr's one about Bernie Gunther, an officer in the Berlin criminal police during the war. Best read chronologically: last time I was in the University Book Shop in Dunedin, they were selling a cheap omnibus edition of the first three books, marketed as Berlin Noir. You'll also have to go chronologically through David Downing's Furst-like six book espionage series about an Anglo-American journalist in Berlin from the late 1930s onwards: they're named after Berlin railway stations, starting with Zoo Station and finishing with Masaryk Station.

On a darker note, there's Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, a huge book formally about SD officer Max Aue, actually an allegory about the German people's relationship with Nazism. As flavour, in one incident, Max is with the Nazi annihilation squads in Eastern Europe:  they go to find a clearing in a forest to bury/hide the corpses, only to find all of the clearings already full of victims.

What else have I been reading that's worth a look? Christopher Petit's The Butchers of Berlin, another Berlin police story from 1943. John Guy's Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years, excellent biography of Elizabeth I. Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London, a fine whodunnit set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. And although I'm not usually a great one for legal thrillers, try Gianrico Carofiglio, who in real-life is an anti-Mafia prosecutor and has written a series set against that background: I enjoyed his latest, A Fine Line. And though they're aimed at younger readers, anyone of any age will enjoy Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder. And for something completely different, Antoine Laurain's The President's Hat (translated from French, the president being Mitterand).

Not much economics in that lot, I know, but I'll make up for it with two I've got on the bedside table, Richard Grossman's Wrong: Nine economic policy disasters and what we can learn from them, and David Evans' and Richard Schmalensee's Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms. Also lined up to go: Philippe Sands, East West Street: On the origins of "genocide" and "crimes against  humanity"; Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World;  and Ann Patty, Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.


  1. For great reading in the near future (mid September) I would go for


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