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Book Reviews

Book Reviews by Dan Hess, Branch LibrarianBy Dan Hess, Branch Librarian
What do you think when you hear the words, “propaganda, Fascist, left-wing, right-wing?” Some people avoid these words because they’re controversial. The library, on the other hand, fosters learning about these trigger words. We want to help patrons navigate the news cycle, so they can recognize propaganda, pick apart fake news, and think fiercely for themselves.
History books and World literature offer insights into these words. In the 20th century, the clearest examples come from World War Two and Nazi Germany. I’ve been reading books, watching DVDs and discussing these words with library patrons. Last year, we showed a classic Nazi propaganda film and had a great discussion. The following book and movie reviews touch on those four words.
I’m personally interested in how individual lives intersect with history. Kristallnacht took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.–only eighty years ago. The stigmatization of people for their ethnic origins, the consolidation of power by bullies, the undermining of the rule of law bring on catastrophes. The individual is always the casualty. It is here that the words, “Propaganda, Fascist, left and right wing” reveal their terrible sides.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

Imaginary dystopias are nothing compared to the real thing. On Dec. 9, 1941, the Berlin police started to investigate a political crime. Someone was dropping subversive postcards in buildings around Berlin. Each message delivered a stinging rebuke to the Nazis. One read: Free Press! Why suffer war and death for the Hitler Plutocracy?”

The case brought the full power of the police state against the grief-emboldened couple dropping the cards. Records of the case survived the Nazi regime, inspiring this fictionalized account by Hans Fallada: Every Man Dies Alone, (published in 1947).

The power of the book lies in two things: the suspenseful investigation and the psychological portraits of people defying the Nazi state from within.

Independent political thought and actions were discouraged by National Socialism, where collective strength and cooperation were rewarded. Individuals were coerced by collective bullying to be silent. The all-powerful leader spoke for the people, claiming to protect their interests and promote their culture.

Just like the real couple doubted the Fatherland, the novel’s heroes are not deceived by propaganda. At the start of the book, the wife accuses the husband of supporting the Nazis who have murdered her son by conscripting him for war. To prove his loyalty to her and to honor their dead son, he writes his first postcard. The action takes off from there–resulting in a brilliant, bleak masterpiece of historical fiction.

We had a thought-provoking discussion following our screening of the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. That film showed how seductive and terrifying collective willpower can be under a dominant personality like Hitler. A down-trodden people were invited to believe in their future greatness. Selfless sacrifice, hard work, and war were going to bring Hitler’s utopian goals into being: The Thousand Year Reich.

Fallada’s novel shows the dystopian underside of fascism, when the Seducer has betrayed the people and the State is blind to people’s suffering. To hold onto power, the leaders and their agents must suppress protest and kill those who dissent. Internal dissent is always a theme in dystopic novels. Characters with a conscience fight back. The resistance may seem futile, but the couple cannot wait for others to “set things right.” Every man dies alone and some die fighting.

Cover image for The readerThe Reader by Bernhard Schlink

“What would you have done?” Hannah Schmitz asks the judge during her trial for war crimes in the early 1960s. The judge was trying to determine her reason for leaving a factory job to take a job as a concentration camp guard–a job for which she showed an unflinching sense of duty. What was her role in the particular crime for which she was on trial? In the last year of the war, she drove prisoners on a death march from Auschwitz into the countryside. During this march, she took her orders so literally she and her fellow guards caused the death of nearly 300 Jewish women. They barred the prisoners’ escape from a church that caught fire during an allied bombing raid. Only a mother and daughter got out. The survivor takes the stand and accuses Hannah and her fellow guards of murder. Hannah asks, “What would you have done?” Those of us watching Kate Winslet say these words or silently reading them on the page are as jarred by her question as the judge was. Is the author asking us to consider her reasons and justify her choices?

But isn’t that the question brought up by Law–or Reading? If we don’t have the capacity to empathize and imagine, to listen to other peoples’ words and place ourselves inside their stories, there is no reason for juries, judges, trials–or Literature.

The law student, Michael, observes the courtroom from the gallery. He knows the defendant very well. Hannah had initiated a sexual relationship with him when he was an adolescent boy. This relationship ended when she abruptly moved away. He thought he was the reason she left town. He is now watching her on trial for war crimes. Learning about her past causes him great pain–especially remembering her bouts of meanness to him that left him confused and ashamed. Hannah had required that he read books aloud to her before having sex. The German title of the book means “The Reader Aloud.” He learns that she did the same to young girls in the Death Camp. Prior to their extermination, they were asked to read books aloud to Hannah. Michael infers that Hannah is illiterate. He believes shame over her inability to read was so strong she moved from job to job so her employers would not find out. Though she couldn’t read, she was deeply drawn to stories. It was part of her pathology.

Her personal secret and his involvement in that secret are a metaphor for those who survive abuse and invent “after-lives.” Germans in the generations following Nazism, like Michael, condemned what came before yet they were “involved in the lives” of those who committed or abetted crimes. They sought to understand why people acted as they did. The older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) says, “When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.” Bernhard Schlink’s, The Reader, may cause you to ponder your own role in history, “What would I have done?”

Katyn (dvd)

In April 1940, about 22,000 Polish officers were murdered in the Katyn Forest by Soviet invaders. The film, Katyn, focuses on that event and shows its effect on Polish society during the German occupation and the Soviet era following WW2. The film has a cold, unsentimental strength. It shows the documented atrocities as they happened–individual executions–night and day by Russian officers. Watching too many war movies is a kind of exploitation of the “fear centers” in our brains, desensitizing us to real pain and suffering. We become addicted to viewing violence, and start to see war as “action movies.” One way out of that passive state is to read history. The facts give context to acts of war, exposing the rationale for violence and the political agenda behind it.

Black Earth by Timothy Snyder

Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, is a play-by-play account of behavior on all fronts leading to the Holocaust. Author, Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor, shows how strand after strand of propaganda and fear was woven into a poison cloak that killed its wearers. The urge to render groups of people (the Other, the Enemy) stateless and without legal protections, is an ever-present danger. Snyder writes of the Katyn massacre and its implicit goal: to wipe out Polish statehood and awaken fears that would grip and paralyze the minds of any who survived. The destruction of Poland at Katyn–where many Jewish Poles were killed–coincides with Irgun’s insurgence in Palestine and the creation of the modern state of Israel. Black Earth is grim reading but presents the essential facts. One begins to see how the villains–Stalin and Hitler–employed ideologies to draw in supporters and wipe out enemies. No easy answers, only warning shots fired directly from the past into our dangerous present. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana.

Read and Think Critically

The Big Lie by Dinesh D’souza

The Pen is mightier than the Circus Knife. “In this book, I turn the tables on the Democratic Left and show that they — not Trump — are the real fascists. They are the ones who use Nazi bullying techniques and intimidation tactics and subscribe to a full-blown fascist ideology.” Quoth the circus knife-thrower, Dinesh D’souza, in The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left.

Shrieks and gasps from the audience. They love the drum rolls, the “hyper-partisan takedown” (Adam Howard), straw men pinned up against the wall of political history. The Big Lie aims rubber knives at various Democrats to show how they have kept Fascism alive in America all these years while Republicans have held Fascism in check. Slick operators from Herbert Marcuse to George Soros have duped us to accept their fascist worldview.

History is composed of facts; polemic is full of opinions and ad hominem attacks. The Big Lie is a reactionary polemic by a right-wing showman. US News Reviewer, Nicole Hemmer, writes, “D’Souza was a Conman in search of a mark….” Paul Gottlieb writes in The American Conservative, There are still many respectable historical works that are produced by scholars identified…with the American right. But there is also a plague of genuinely ridiculous writings on historical subjects coming from conservative media celebrities that surpass in their arrogant stupidity almost anything I’ve encountered in professional journals.”

How arrogant, you ask? How stupid? Democrats Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama–poles apart in any grade school history book–are tied together by their populist strategy to manipulate the People’s rage and discontent into voting “Democrat.” Other “Fascists” are brought to the stage. The Liberal pessimist, Herbert Marcuse, and Neoliberal financier, George Soros “collection boy for Hitler” become another odd pair skewered by D’Souza! Absent is the Left familiar to most Americans. Emma Lazarus (and my grandma) would say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” D’Souza defends his legions of law-abiding Americans against imagined thugs who threaten censorship, intolerance, and political correctness.

“Damn, I got caught!” D’Souza’s showmanship falls flat when one looks at the FACTS of his own life. “In May 2014, D’Souza pleaded guilty to one felony count of making illegal campaign contributions in the names of others. In September 2014, the court sentenced D’Souza to five years probation, eight months in a halfway house (referred to as a “community confinement center”) and a $30,000 fine.” He had his daily coffee in a La Jolla cafe then hustled to do nightly penance in a correctional center bunk-bed. His outpatient treatment allowed him ample time to dream up The Big Lie. Some gulag Obama sentenced him to! Some Concentration Camp these latter-day Fascists invented for their snotty Dartmouth grad, aka political prisoner.

Was this knife-throwing act worth the $15 admission price, the cost of putting this book on the library shelf? The giant lie that lets such books get published is that history is entertainment. Nothing really Happens. Leftists were and still are in a worldwide Fascist Conspiracy to victimize the Right. Even though the heaps of suitcases left by the tracks of Auschwitz belonged to people who believed in pluralistic, democratic principles. Even though countless political prisoners died in Hitler’s Death Camps, turned in by Nazi sympathizers for their Leftist views or arrested for armed resistance against the Fascist Right. That’s history, folks, and the knives were real.

If you read The Big Lie, think critically then compare it to:

Conscience of a Conservative: a rejection of destructive politics and a return to principle by Jeff Flake

From the Publisher: Republican Senator Jeff Flake takes his party to task for embracing nationalism, populism, xenophobia, and the anomalous Trump presidency. The book is an urgent call for a return to bedrock conservative principle and a cry to once again put country before party.