Friday, November 20, 2009

The excellence of Richard J. Evans

There's a small pile of unread fiction beside Malcolm's desk. Another on his bedside table.

In the usual run of things, Nine Dragons, the 14th Harry Bosch, would be a day's non-work. Robert Harris's Lustrum, Cicero 2, would be not much longer. James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover, completing the Underworld USA trilogy, might demand a bit longer. All of those have been on Malcolm's to-do list for the last week or more. Along with others, they remain neglected.

For why?

The simple reason is Richard J. Evans's The Third Reich at War, which has rarely been far from Malcolm's hands this recent while.

Two things stand out here:
  • The Second World War and the Götterdämmerung achieved by Hitler for himself and his people must be the most studied topic in modern historiography. Yet Evans makes his account fresh and revealing.
  • Evans is a remarkably economical writer. He takes 764 pages to cover from the assault on Poland to the aftermath of 1945; yet in there is no padding, no rhetorical excursions, no waffle.
A remarkable display of Evans's masterly talent is his explanation of how the Holocaust became known to the wider world. Others have expanded this into full book-length expositions, which leave the reader little the wiser. Evans addresses the topic from the top of page 558, and, by the bottom of page 561, has moved on to the people of Cologne regarding the bombing of their Dom as retribution for the burning of the synagogues in 1938.

So, in a few moments of study, the reader has a fair grasp:
  • how, in July 1942, Eduard Schulte told a Jewish business friend in Zurich of the intention to annihilate European Jewry, transporting the victims to the East and killing them, "possibly by sulphuric acid";
  • how that information came to Gerhart Riegner, who transmitted it to the Jewish World Congress in New York via the US and UK embassies;
  • how Kurt Gerstein, of the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS, delivered 100 kg of the pesticide Zyklon-B to Lublin "for an undisclosed purpose. He came to witness a trainload from Lvov received, undressed, herded into the death chambers, and how it took "thirty-two minutes to kill the people inside the chamber". Gerstein was also a "devout protestant" who retailed his experience to Göran van Otter, a Swedish diplomat, who passed it on to his Foreign Office (who sat on the story until the end of the war). Then Gerstein "pestered the Papal Nuncio, the leaders of the Confessing Church and the Swiss Embassy ... all to no effect.
  • how the Polish resistance were sending accounts of Treblinka to the government-in-exile. The London Poles vacillated until Jan Karski eventually reached London with accounts of the Warsaw ghetto and Belzec camp.
  • how Archbishop William Temple chaired a protest meeting (29 October 1942) at the Albert Hall, attended by Jewish and Polish communities, so that the London Poles (27 November 1942) finally went public on what was happening to jews in Poland.
  • how (14 December 1942) "Foreign Secretary Eden delivered an official report on the genocide to the British Cabinet" with the result that "Three days later, the Allied governments issued a joint declaration promising retribution".
  • how "Beginning in December 1942, British and other allied propaganda media bombarded German citizens with broadcast and written information about the genocide."
What Malcolm celebrates there is how little compression a bulleted précis achieves compared with Evans's succinct and highly-literate version. And that is one single example of the success of this whole text. Few works stand out as an instant classic: this is one.

With luck, Malcolm will be out from Unter den Linden by the weekend, and able to ramble at ease though the quieter meadows of some of the awaiting fiction. He knows, though, which book of recent months will stay longest in his memory. And be revisited. Sphere: Related Content


Dewi Harries said...

Sounds excellent - I'll have to get it....Nine Dragons very disapponiting and un-Bosch like...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.

Might you establish a more complete online account of that aspect of the book, for reference when you know whats are denying, pls?

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