June 11, 2015
(++++) YESTERDAY’S HORRORS, TODAY’S RESONANCE
The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. By James Cross Giblin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
Alex’s Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany, and a Grandson’s Journey of Love and Remembrance. By Martin Goldsmith. Da Capo. $15.99.
First published in 2002 and now available in a well-priced paperback edition, James Cross Giblin’s The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler was and is the best biography of the Nazi leader intended for young readers. In fact, it is good enough so that adults unfamiliar with Hitler’s rise and the factors that led to World War II will gain as much from it as will their children. Although clearly judgmental and condemnatory, Giblin does his best to present the history of Hitler and his movement as objectively as possible, not denying the future Führer his moments of heroism and even tenderness, particularly in his earlier life and through his service in World War I. There are occasional speculations here about what might have been: Giblin recounts how Hitler, hiding after the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch at the home of intensely committed backer Helene Hanfstaengel, learned that he was soon to be arrested, “panicked and said, ‘Now all is lost – there’s no use going on!’ He reached for his revolver. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Helene said. She grabbed his hand and wrenched the revolver away from him. …One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Helene Hanfstaengel had not been such an ardent supporter of Hitler and his Nazi Party. He might have acted on the impulse to kill himself – and the world would have been spared the agony that lay ahead.” True – or, in a parallel universe, the Nazis might have triumphed and Hitler’s post-war rule might have taken unexpected turns (this is, in essence, the plot of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle).
Most of The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, however, sticks to facts rather than speculation, and the book is strong for that very reason. The information on Hitler’s youth is absorbing, including his poverty – after his imprisonment in 1923, his cell “was far larger and more comfortable” than places where he had lived before. The way in which Mussolini’s takeover of Italy influenced Hitler’s own strategy is clearly explained, and the portraits of Hitler’s inner circle are done very well, with admirable clarity and lack of emotion in the writing. Explanations are given when available – Herman Göring, for example, was “a World War One ace who was looking for a cause and found it in the Nazi Party.” When reasons for Hitler’s success are less certain, Giblin simply mentions what happened – for example, Hitler’s increasingly strident anti-Jewish tirades after 1919. Giblin shows how the seeds of World War II were planted after World War I through the Versailles Treaty, which “aroused such tremendous resentment in Germany, and created such painful hardships for the German people, that many observers felt it was counterproductive.” Yet Giblin makes it clear that it was Hitler and his closest advisors who took advantage of that resentment and deliberately stoked it to the highest possible levels, fanning fears of ascendant Communism and long-simmering suspicion and dislike of Jews into a potent mix of hatred and determination that led to a long and disastrous war. The Nazis’ battlefield successes and ultimate failure are clearly discussed, although certainly not in detail – that is not the purpose of Giblin’s book. Hitler’s death, the mysteries that still surround it (the location of his remains is still unknown), and the postwar trials of the Nazi elite are all well-presented. And the little things that make history so fascinating are ever-present here: Hitler’s love of dogs, the circumstances under which he became a vegetarian, the fact that the Nazis earned considerable praise in the pre-war years from such towering literary figures as George Bernard Shaw and Gertrude Stein (she proposed giving Hitler the Nobel Peace Prize). There are occasional missteps in the book: for example, World War I reparations are given as $32 billion without saying whether that is in current dollars, and the book comments on the state of things “even today, almost sixty years after [Hitler’s] death” – an inaccuracy traceable to the original publication date, but certainly not clarified by a back cover that says “almost seventy years after his death.” Still, these minor matters in no way detract from the power and effectiveness of this well-researched and well-written biography of a man who still personifies evil to many, and whose life is therefore worth studying and understanding – if only to try, perhaps vainly, to ensure that his like never rises to a level of such power again.
As memories of the horrors of World War II fade along with the generation that fought it, it is the personal stories of people affected by the war that become increasingly important for those determined that no such conflict will recur. This may be a vain hope – it was World War I, after all, that was dubbed “the war to end war” – but it is a hope, and one to which the continuing release of books about details of World War II contributes. Certainly for those with a strong personal stake in the war’s events and its outcome, these books can be salutary experiences. But they are very clearly niche productions – for many of today’s readers, a war that ended 70 years ago is simply not a significant factor in everyday life. Alex’s Wake, originally published last year with the subtitle A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, and now available in paperback, is a perfect example of a (+++) book written by someone with a strong personal attachment to wartime events, for readers feeling an equally strong involvement in the war. The book chronicles the personal travels of author Martin Goldsmith, who apparently feels guilty because he did not suffer and die in the war, which ended seven years before his birth. To assuage that guilt, he decides to retrace the journey taken by two doomed members of his family: his grandfather, Alexander Goldschmidt, and Alexander’s son, Helmut. This is a book about a harrowing trip, or rather two of them – the one long ago and the one Goldsmith undertakes. Alexander and Helmut were passengers aboard the MS St. Louis, which sailed from Hamburg in May 1939 bearing Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi Germany. The world did not yet know all that was going on in Hitler’s Third Reich, or at least was not yet galvanized against it, and the ship, which headed for Havana, Cuba, was denied landing rights there. So the 900 refugees journeyed to Canada and the United States – but were refused admission by both countries and forced to return to Europe. World War II had not yet begun – Hitler’s invasion of Poland did not occur until September 1 – but the Nazi campaign against the Jews was gathering momentum, and both Alexander and Helmut were caught up in it, sent to Auschwitz, and eventually killed in the gas chambers there.
This was a tragedy of the time – one among millions – and it is certainly comprehensible that Goldsmith wants to understand it as part of his family history. His reasons for feeling uncomfortable, even guilty, about his own solid and apparently happy life, are harder to fathom. But they are the driving force behind the six-week journey that Goldsmith takes through France, Germany and Poland, attempting to follow the route of Alexander and Helmut and lay to rest, in his own mind, the ghosts of these people he never knew. Goldsmith’s travels eventually take him, intentionally and inevitably, to Auschwitz, a site that produces intense emotion even among people who have no personal connection with it. The trip then takes him, at the end, to his grandfather’s family home, where the unveiling of a memorial plaque represents a triumph of sorts and provides Goldsmith with the comfort he has been seeking. Alex’s Wake is unfailingly well-meaning, carefully researched and skillfully written. It is clearly a work with considerable meaning for its author and, by extension, for those who share a similar family history and similar connections with the war. For other potential readers, though, it will be curiously uninvolving. Those unfamiliar with the story of the MS St. Louis, which is not an especially well-known one, will find some matters of interest here; those familiar with the depredations of war in general and World War II in particular will find confirmatory material aplenty – but no more than in many, many other books about the war and its impact on families and the world as a whole. Alex’s Wake is a personal memoir that makes little attempt to reach out to anyone who does not already share the background that led Goldsmith to his quest – a self-limiting, self-limited work that will have considerable meaning for a few readers but very little for many others.