Both of these books illuminate the impact of cataclysmic war on the civilian population, which is an angle I personally find much more compelling than straight military history. I am way more interested in the individual experience and the repercussions of what we in America tend to view of the last good war, or the war in which we foreground ourselves as heroes. These books both complicate that picture and ask the reader to face the consequences of war. Books that deal with the immediate aftermath of the war and the crime and conflict that continued to happen for years make up a large chunk of my to read section on WWII. This month I was in a real mood so downed these two very grim but compelling books.
In the Ruins of the Reich covers the end of WWII and to about 1949 from the point of view of Germany, with an English author at the helm. This book covers a lot of ground and is a good overview of all the different aspects of the fallout for Germany, in particular the civilian population. Botting starts with the last few months of the war, the discovery of the concentration camps, and the battle for Berlin. He then covers the ensuing mass expulsion of Germans, starvation, vice and corruption, the effect of military government decisions on the country, denazification, and the rise of Cold War tensions. It’s a lot to cover in 394 pages, but he’s an efficient and clear writer. His use of personal stories, diaries, and interviews makes for compelling reading, and I found him to be generally fair minded. I agreed with the majority of his conclusions about the issues the Allies caused after the war and our own dehumanization of the Germans. My only major issue with this book is that he uses neither end notes or footnotes but instead a frustrating system I’d never seen before where he writes a paragraph or two per chapter explaining in general what sources he used and sometimes saying where a particular quote came from. It then becomes a guessing game as to which quote came from which source, making the Sources section broadly unusable in a lot of cases, especially when it’s an anonymous quote or one he didn’t attribute clearly. But overall this is a great overview of post-WWII Germany and I definitely recommend it for anyone wanting a general view.
Leningrad is also an excellent overview of the forces leading up to the siege of Leningrad, the siege itself and the horrific starvation that killed about 750,000 people, and the aftermath. I had never read a book about Leningrad and just knew the general story, and this would be my pick for the general reader. Reid uses a lot of diaries, interviews, and personal stories, which give the book the arc of a horror novel, as you get to know people while also being aware that the Germans are coming and everything is about to descend into Hell. She has the good ability to make a very complicated series of events understandable and engaging. I think it can be easy to overlook how hard writing good history books can be, and Reid really does a great job synthesizing the siege in this book. I will note that it is really unsparing in its descriptions of death and starvation, which it should be, as we should confront the horrors that happened. I appreciate the work that historians do to try to convey the human toll that war has. This one will really stick with me — I find it hard to summarize the horrors the people of Leningrad went through for this review, so I’ll just say that I’ve been left thinking about it since I finished reading it, which is the sign of a good book.
Warnings for both books for just about anything you could think of — rape, murder, cannibalism, genocide, general unceasing grim details. Also, both books have picture sections featuring dead bodies, especially Leningrad, which has two I found especially tough.