Hi Sam! I know you've talked about this before, but I can't for the life of me find the post: which books did you recommend for learning about Nazi Germany? I have no idea where to start.
Ugh, Anon, I know the post you mean and I can’t find it either.
Aside from some actually really educational history classes in high school, I mainly learned about Nazism sidelong, while studying art history, which I think is a great way to do it because a lot of people who write about the war and Hitler directly have an ax to grind. Sometimes the most justified of axes, but also there’s a lot of misdirection, misinformation, and bad agendas surrounding the war and the Nazi party. So learning about Nazism through the lens of art history was, for me, extremely helpful, because nobody writing about art looting in the war is going to be on the side of the fascists. Well, usually anyway. (There are also a lot of super boring WWII books by guys – it’s always dudes – who are obsessed with the minutiae of battle.)
I also watched a lot of documentaries with a very finely-tuned bullshit detector. There are some great ones; there’s a series of documentaries called Infamous Assassinations and the WWII ones are highly informative (actually all of them are pretty good and quite short, so if you can find ‘em online I recommend taking a look). I didn’t learn, until watching one of the IA episodes, that Hitler actually entered the Nazi party as a spy for the German government and then got flipped. And by that time I had studied a lot about Nazism, but somehow that information had escaped me.
If you’re interested in holocaust denialism, there’s a very good documentary called Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. which is about a man who becomes a holocaust denier after being asked to study the gas chambers at Auschwitz. (His science was, shall we say, spectacularly incorrect.)
There’s a great documentary called The Rape Of Europa, based on a book of the same name; it’s primarily about art looting during WWII, but by necessity it also covers what led up to the war (including the horrifyingly methodical way in which the homes of Jewish people who had been forced into the ghettos were looted) and a lot of the pivotal battles during the war. The book is by Lynn H. Nicholas but I recommend the documentary first, the book is awesome but very dense. I think the documentary is still on netflix.
I would be very wary of History Channel documentaries – some of them are great, but a lot of them are aimed at a demographic of middle-aged white dudes who have an interest in Nazism that borders on the fetishistic. Many of them are assembled hastily and contain information which either isn’t true or hasn’t been proven. I mean, the way I learned a lot of the time is by randomly picking a book or documentary and then making sure I was thinking critically about it, questioning sources and viewpoints. Which is good practice for life at any rate.
A book I would recommend is Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre, which is not directly about Nazism but gives a pretty good view of wartime activity among the allies, and also tells a ripping good story about one of the most daring con games of the war. (Relatedly, The Ghost Army is a great documentary about other cons the Allies pulled.)
I would also recommend The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which is the history of a Jewish family’s encounter with Nazi looting before and during WWII, and humanizes something we tend to see sometimes in terms of statistics.
Remember, when you go looking on your own, that Nazism is something that had been fermenting in Germany since the end of the first war – you cannot look at 1940 and hope to understand how it happened and why. You have to go back and understand how bitterness over Germany’s defeat and extreme poverty in the wake of reparations payments, along with a hugely traumatized and embittered cohort of young German men fresh from the first war, led to this. (None of this justifies it, but it explains why people moved in the direction they did, and I think explanation is part of what you’re looking for.)
Readers, feel free to comment or reblog with your own suggestions, particularly for books on the sociology of Nazism, which I assume is what Anon is looking for (ie, books about their behaviors and how to combat them). Please remember to comment or reblog rather than send an ask, so the info is all in one place and also because I don’t repost asks sent in response to other asks.
One last recommendation I will make, which is tangentially related, is about fascism, racism, and authoritarianism in America. It’s called The Burglary, by Betty Medsger. On the surface it’s the story of the burglary of the FBI offices in the 70s which leaked a lot of important information – but in order to tell that story, Medsger does a deep, hard dive into the history of the FBI’s policy of reinforcing institutionalized racism and repressing the rights of Americans, particularly African-Americans. If you want to understand how we got to where we are, The Burglary is a great book to start with.
Just saw your post about In Broad Daylight and I was wondering if you have any more true crime book recs? It's a genre I've been interested in lately but don't know where to start. (I've read Devil in the White City and all that fun stuff)
Well, the classic of course is Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” which is widely credited with launching the fledgling genre, but a) there is a lot of debate about the accuracy of his reporting and b) honestly? It’s not that great.
A lot of true crime suffers from the same issue biography does: you want to structure it as a narrative, with rising action and a climax, but most natural lives don’t have a climax. True Crime gets by a little on the idea of arrest = climax but that doesn’t always work super well.
Most of the true crime I read isn’t the traditional “horrible murders and how to stop them”. But I do have a list of books that I think you will enjoy if you also enjoy true crime:
The Burglary by Betty Medsger – this is about the burglary of the FBI offices in the 70s which led to a HUGE revision in the way the American public viewed the FBI. It’s not really true crime as much as it is political thriller but it does a great job telling the story of the breakin itself, and it also pulls back the veil on a lot of institutionalized racism enforced and fostered by the FBI.
The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser – not perhaps the definitive text on the Gardner heist, but certainly one of the better ones I’ve read.
The Napoleon Of Crime by Ben MacIntyre – A biography of Adam Worth, upon whom Arthur Conan Doyle based Professor Moriarty.
Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet Everything by Kevin Cook – a biography of one of America’s most infamous con men.
Cooked by Jeff Henderson – the autobiography of a crack dealer who became a gourmet chef after being sent to prison, including his struggles to overcome his past once he got out.
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover – Conover went undercover to become a prison guard at Sing Sing prison; this is his frequently scathing expose of the way the prison was run.
The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – The history of one Jewish family’s encounter with Nazi looting before and during WWII, and how they recovered their treasured art.
Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre – Another WWII story, this time the story of one of the most daring confidence games of the war, where a dead man became a double agent.
The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas – A very dense but fascinating book about art crime during WWII, covering most of the theatres of war and the formation of the Monuments Men. (If you want to ease into it there’s a brilliant documentary of the same name which last I checked was still on netflix.)
And finally, here is one nega-recommendation: Jack The Ripper: Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell. Don’t read it. It is hands down the shoddiest piece of “nonfiction” I’ve ever encountered. I mean if you want a chance to pick apart a really poorly constructed thesis, go for it, but it’s not worth your time. I still get angry about the poor quality of the scholarship a decade later.