A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd & Angelika Patel

Not my usual sort of read, but I’ve joined an online library, and to be honest, I don’t read nearly enough history, so I thought this was worth a shot. As I’m sure you’re aware, there are A LOT of books about the war, and quite a few of them examine the Germany during the conflict. (You’re probably familiar with the saying: The first country the Nazis invaded was Germany).

I made it to the end (even read the endnotes), which I rarely manage with historical non-fiction, which made me wonder what set it apart from similar books that I struggled to finish. Two things spring to mind:

  1. The people. Rather than looking at Germany as a whole, or the Nazis in particular, the writer has focussed on a small number of ordinary folk from very diverse backgrounds, going into great detail on how individuals coped with the country’s rapid slide into fascism, the impending war, the defeat, and the aftermath. The villagers were an eclectic mix of die-hard Nazis, persecuted Jews, nuns, heroic mountaineers (drafted into the German army’s elite Mountain Division), and members of the National Socialist Party who did their best to save the Jews living in the village.
  2. The Location. The village in question (Obersterdorf) is located in the mountainous southern region of the country (Bavaria). It’s extremely cold, remote, and breeds the kind of folk who are tough, self-reliant, and loyal. Being so far away from the country’s main population centres meant that it was difficult for the Nazis to know whether their laws were being obeyed or not. Even the mayor was applying a fairly soft version of Nazi doctrine.

The book was a fascinating read, and though it was very firm in its criticism of the Nazis (quite right too), I think it was also sympathetic to the party members whose loyalty lay with their fellow villagers.

Through recorded anecdotes, diary entries, and newspaper articles, the authors covered the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, through to the outbreak of war, and the eventual fall of Germany. By focussing on the stories of individuals and families, the book provides a surprisingly intimate, non-judgmental view of how the times affected the average citizen.

Unsurprisingly, A Village in the Third Reich is a lesson in how fascism can rapidly become the norm without the vigilance of ordinary people. Case in point: here’s a review snippet from taken from the book’s opening:

Contains many amazing anecdotes . . . It warns us that we, with our all-seeing hindsight, might ourselves have been fooled or beguiled or inclined to make excuses, had we been there at the time. I can thoroughly recommend it as a contribution to knowledge and an absorbing and stimulating book in itself.

Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday

Bit of a strange flex for the Mail on Sunday.

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

I’ve been reading a lot of books on culture and racism recently. The thing that surprises me the most is how much I still don’t know; in every book I’ve learned something that feels like a slap in the face with a wet haddock: something you know you’ll experience one day, and that you won’t enjoy it.

Sanghera’s book takes a slightly different approach to the likes of Caste as it focuses on the Asian experience, and is similar to Natives as it takes a long, hard, painful look at the British Empire and its contribution to the divisions we see in society today.

It’s a broad-ranging piece of writing too, covering the author’s own experiences growing up, but focussing mainly on the hidden history of Britain’s time in India and China, and its treatment of the population.

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Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire (Akala)

Okay, a confession: I thought about dropping the book, a couple of times. It’s not that it’s not well-written, because it is (one of the best I’ve read actually). It’s not because it isn’t relevant; it’s been relevant for the past three hundred years. No, the problem is that I’ve been reading a lot (and I do mean A LOT) about race over the past year, so when I started Akala’s book, I think I started with a few preconcieved notions about what I was getting into, and for the most part I wasn’t surprised: it’s a brilliantly-researched, honest, opinionated, and occasionally bitter read from someone who’s elevated himself out of a place where white privileged society told him he belonged. I think the problem was that I was expecting the kind of jaw-dropping revelations that Isabel Wilkerson came up with in Caste, and I’m sure that there would’ve been a few, if I’d read this one first.

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