Friday, May 26, 2017

Five of the best books on modern Germany history

Hester Vaizey is a lecturer in Modern European History, and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her books include Surviving Hitler's War, Keep Britain Tidy and other posters from the Nanny State, and Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall. One of her five best books on modern Germany history, as discussed with Sophie Roell at Five Books:
Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men (1992)

It’s horrendously difficult reading because it takes you through the psychological transformation from ordinary, middle-aged men into killing machines, almost. I remember, when I studied history at university, that it was one of the books—out of all the hundreds of thousands of history books out there—that really stayed with me. It was so vividly written.

We know a lot about the Holocaust and how it happened but less about what the killers themselves felt about what they were doing. And understandably it has been quite a taboo topic. In the book, there are descriptions of these men shooting people at close quarters. They end up with brains and blood on their faces. 20% of their battalion drop out because they found it too distressing, but 80% percent carry on.

Browning talks about how they drank a lot of alcohol to keep going. There’s some comfort to be had in knowing that this behaviour didn’t come naturally in some way. Alcohol was a crutch that they needed to get through.

It’s one of those things we wonder about the Nazis and the Holocaust—are these people other from us or are they just humans too? And Christopher Browning gives them a very human face.

I had a student who was quite disengaged and wasn’t sure whether he’d made the right choice studying history. He did an essay on the Holocaust and he read this book. It was a defining moment. He wrote me a letter, at the end of his degree, to say thank you. He cited this book as the reason that he carried on doing history.
Read about the other books on Vaizey's list at the Five Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue