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My holiday reading

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4 January 2010 15:02

The break between Christmas and the New Year is a wonderful opportunity for reading both in relation to and outside one's research interests. These are some of the books I sampled over this period.

Last year brought the publication of the final volume in Richard J. Evans' trilogy dealing with the rise and fall of the Third Reich, 'The Third Reich At War'. Like the two previous volumes, it is a meticulous analysis of a terrible period in 20th century history, made the more fascinating by Evans' ability to retail the thoughts and concerns of Germans, both prominent and otherwise, about the the war's meaning. The term 'magisterial' is often misused, but it deserves to be applied to this book.

One of the reasons for my fascination with the German state's actions during the Second World War is my concern to try and understand another 'final solution' applied in very different circumstances: the 'autogenocide' as Jean Lacouture called it, in Pol Pot's Cambodia. No single book is ever enough to provide all answers on this grim subject, whether in relation to Germany or Cambodia, and analogy is never more than a partial help to understanding, but Evans is marvellous guide to how and why events took place in Germany.

I was left with a feeling that he endorses the conclusions found in a much less well-known book, Claudia Koonz's 'The Nazi Conscience', that Germans became anti-semites because they became Nazis, rather than the reverse. As for the debate on whether Hitler actually gave 'The Order' for the implementation of the Final Solution, Evans deals with this issue by showing that a single order was hardly necessary, given his 'repeated promise, or threat, to annihilate the Jews of Europe...'

2009 saw a number of other important books published on the Second World War, not least Antony Beevor's 'D-Day; The Battle for Normandy' and Matthew Cobb's 'The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis'. The latter I read over the break with particular interest because of the year I spent in Paris in the mid-1960s working in the French colonial archives.

At that time, the 'patronne' of the pension in which I lived was, as she put it, 'une vraie resistante', as many who claimed this status were not. She had fought with and admired the British Jedburg teams and decided that, as an Australian, I could be regarded as an honorary Brit. This, she said, entitled me to take any number of showers each week, a privilege denied to her French pensionnaires. Putting the fractured and fractious French Resistance into an understandable and comprehensive single book, as Cobb succeeds in doing, is a remarkable achievement.

Having written about French explorers and the Mekong many years ago ('River Road to China: The Search for the Source of the Mekong') and retaining a fascination with travellers in far places, one of my Christmas reading delights was David Gramm's 'The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon'. It is the story of the last of Percy Fawcett's expeditions in search of El Dorado, in 1925, and of his disappearance, which has never been solved. Gramm captures the sense of period marvellously.

And finally I had the chance to read Sara Paretsky's latest novel featuring V.I. Washarski, 'Hardball'. Paretsky is back to her very best, with V.I. as interesting as she has ever been and Chicago's long history of difficult race relations handled with skill and sympathy, but not without clear criticism of how that city's politics used to work, and sometimes still do.

Photo by Flickr user MorBCN, used under a Creative Commons license.

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