I am just finishing the book KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann, which is a very detailed analysis of the concentration camp system constructed by Germany both prior to the war and during the war itself. It is a demanding read (all 629 pages of it) but is illuminating in telling the story of how a “genocide industry” was created.
I then began to reflect on some of the books that have given me greatest pleasure and influenced me in the last fifty years or so. So here, in no particular order is my eclectic choice.
Stalingrad – Antony Beever
The Battle of Stalingrad was not only the psychological turning point of World War II: it also changed the face of modern warfare. Historians and reviewers worldwide have hailed Antony Beevor’s magisterial Stalingrad as the definitive account of World War II’s most harrowing battle. I have read many books about ww2 but I have to say this is the finest I have yet come across, in that it paints both a broad canvass whilst at the same time describes in acute detail the barbarity, suffering and atrocity of war. The prose is wonderful and you are drawn into this story of at times, despair, cruelty and unspeakable suffering but ultimately, the victory of the Soviet army lays the bedrock for Hitlers ultimate downfall.
Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
I came across this book when I was about 16 years old, all my friends at the Grammar School (I was an outcast at the Secondary Modern school) were doing it as a set book for English Literature. Not wanting to miss out, I decided to get it from the school library and give it a go. First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. It is a magnificent piece of writing and if the conclusion to the story does not bring a tear to your eye, then you have no humanity.
Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
In my teens I became interested in left wing politics but wanted to know more of the history of the soviet regime and why it was venerated by left wing supporters, but despised and loathed by people from the other parts of the political spectrum. I can’t remember who it was but a friend suggested that I read Koestlers book. Darkness at Noon stands as an unequaled fictional portrayal of the nightmare politics of our time. Its hero is an aging revolutionary, imprisoned and psychologically tortured by the Party to which he has dedicated his life. As the pressure to confess preposterous crimes increases, he relives a career that embodies the terrible ironies and human betrayals of a totalitarian movement masking itself as an instrument of deliverance. Almost unbearably vivid in its depiction of one man’s solitary agony, it asks questions about ends and means that have relevance not only for the past but for the perilous present. It is —- as the Times Literary Supplement has declared —- “A remarkable book, a grimly fascinating interpretation of the logic of the Russian Revolution, indeed of all revolutionary dictatorships, and at the same time a tense and subtly intellectualized drama.” It is possibly the finest book to expose the tyranny of all kinds of dictatorship (both left and right) and perhaps someone might hand a copy to Corbyn and his cabal as a warning from the past.
Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall – Spike Milligan
I remember borrowing this from Leigh library, sitting on the steps of the new library and howling with laughter at Milligans exploits. You have only to read the very start of the book ” At Victoria station the R.T.O. gave me a travel warrant, a white feather and a picture of Hitler marked ‘This is your enemy’. I searched every compartment, but he wasn’t on the train” to get an idea of the madcap approach Milligan took to army life during WW2. Throughout this first part of his memoirs, Milligan demonstrates his surreal take on life through his humour, but at the same time reflects of the pathos, sadness and morbidity of being in an army at war. You do wonder at times how the hell the British army performed so well given the stupidity and ineptitude displayed by those in charge and beautifully (if sarcastically) described by Gunner Milligan. Possibly the best anti – war book ever written.
The Little World of Don Camillo – Giovannino Guareschi
I cannot remember how I discovered these stories but they gave me untold hours of pleasure reading about the trials and tribulations of the two protagonists. These tragicomical stories, often politically or socially charged, mostly situated in a fictional village on the Po called Boscaccio, in the period immediately after World War II, paint a clear picture of the post-war Italy. In this period the Italian Communist Party is very strong, but the Second World War and fascism are still vividly remembered. Boscaccio has a communist mayor named Peppone. He wants to realise the communist ideals, and the Roman Catholic priest Don Camillo is desperately trying to prevent this. But despite their different views these men can count on each other in the fight against social injustice and abuses.
One – David Karp
A dystopian novel set in a perversely benevolent future in which an attempt is made to remould the identity of a so-called heretic, Professor Burden, who had, up until then, regarded himself as a loyal citizen of the State. A worthy successor to Huxleys “Brave New World” and Orwells “1984”. One, was first published in 1953 but has never received the recognition or success of its predecessors. It must be 40 years or so since I read it, but at the time it made a tremendous impression on me which has remained with me ever since. It is a book that should be celebrated and much more widely known. I will not give details of the ending to the book, sufficient to say that it is “interesting.” A true 20th century masterpiece in my opinion.
Another Country – James Baldwin
It was during the late 1960s when I came across the author James Baldwin (I think I had read a review of one of his books) and read “Another Country” which, many consider his finest work. Published in 1962, this is an emotionally intense novel of love, hatred, race and liberal America in the 1960s. Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem and France, ANOTHER COUNTRY tells the story of the suicide of jazz-musician Rufus Scott and the friends who search for an understanding of his life and death, discovering uncomfortable truths about themselves along the way. As a black gay man Baldwin was criticised from within the black community, in particular Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers, stated that Baldwin’s writing displayed an “agonizing, total hatred of blacks.” As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people. Another Country is one of Americas finest novels and alongside his other book “Giovannis Room” should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in America and its social inequality.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
I think it was after watching the film Soldier Blue that I went looking for something that would give me more background knowledge about the treatment, of what are now called “Native Indians.” What I came across was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” which is Dee Brown’s eloquent, fully documented account of the systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the nineteenth century. Using council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions, Brown allows the great chiefs and warriors of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes to tell us in their own words of the battles, massacres, and broken treaties that finally left them demoralized and defeated. A unique and disturbing narrative told with force and clarity, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee changed forever our vision of how the West was really won. In many ways a sad and dispiriting story, and even today the native American indians still sit at the bottom of the socio economic scale.
This is not a definitive list of “must read” books, but simply those which have made the greatest impact upon me over the years……….and no doubt I will add to, or even change my choices in the next few years.