Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: 1944

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History
Jay Winik

I've read a lot of World War II history. I'm often a little chary about reading any more, as it's relatively uncommon for me to learn much. I made an exception for this, in part, because I enjoyed Winik's earlier April 1865.

I didn't learn all that much that was new in the large, but I liked 1944 anyway. Jay Winik knows how to put the story in history, which is important. This, it turns out, is the story of how the U.S. and Franklin Roosevelt responded to the slow, unspeakable realization of the truth of the Holocaust. The general history of the year is secondary; Winik treats 1944 as the fulcrum of his story: balanced to the fore with an exposition of how events reached that point, and aft with the knowledge of how they turned out.

The truth is bleak: we did very little. It's not likely that we could have done more; by 1944 the extermination was largely complete. But we should have tried. In saying and doing as little as possible until late in the war, we showed a complete moral failure. I expect that, in similar circumstances, we'd do the same today. It could be argued that we already are.

The other thing that 1944 does masterfully is to make real the absolute monstrosity of the Nazi industrial death machine. I've occasionally heard the opinion that Hitler & Co. didn't really believe their own antisemitic propaganda--that it was just red meat for their ignorant followers. That's not true. 1944 makes it brutally clear that the Nazis, from the top down, were genuinely devoted to doing their job, and to doing it with as much rational efficiency as they could manage. They kept doing it right to the end. Even as the Reich crumbled, and the tanks rolled towards Berlin, Germany devoted scarce resources to keeping the trains rolling and the gas chambers working overtime.

So this is not a light read. It's a good one, though.

The last time I was happy to have broken my own guidelines re: WWII reading, it was for Rick Atkinson's unbelievably good An Army at DawnThe Day of Battle and The Guns at Last Light. Read them if you have any interest at all in the subject.

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