Books: Winter of the World

As I had read in book reviews that Winter of the World picks up where Fall of Giants left off, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find out that this was not really so. There is a gap of nine years, with the sequel beginning in 1933 with Hitler’s rise to power. Perhaps in terms of world events nine years isn’t so long, but I was expecting continuity in terms of the characters.

Nine years is long enough that the main characters of the first book have receded into the background and it is through the eyes of their children that we see events unfold. The parents are there, but they are no longer very interesting. And there is little explanation for how they got to where they are now. Grigori, in particular, seems much too content with his comfortable position in life as a general in the Red Army. I realize that it would have been dangerous for him to oppose Stalin (he escaped being purged by not being important enough at the time), but one can’t help but wonder what happened to his thirst for a just society.

As with Fall of Giants, it is interesting to see history taking place through the eyes of those who experienced it. Again, we see the differing perspectives of people in Britain, Germany, the U.S., and the USSR. But unlike in Fall of Giants, we don’t really get the “opposition” point of view, so to speak. All of the main characters hate the Nazis. It was clear in Fall of Giants where Follett’s sympathies lay, but he gave some idea how the older generation, obsessed with ideas about social class and honor, thought and felt.

In Winter of the World, there are only two Nazis from whose point of view some chapters are written. One is a sadistic man who enjoys the power he has over other people. The other is the son of Social Democrats who, for reasons not made clear, has come to greatly admire the Nazis and who believes their propaganda wholeheartedly. During one incident in the war he realizes suddenly how wrong he was, and he comes home from being a POW in Russia as an ardent Communist. His sister realizes that he is one of those people afraid to think for themselves, who prefer to let someone else tell them what to think and how to feel.

I’m sure there were Nazis like those two. There must have been many. But it would have been interesting to hear the thoughts of someone who actually understood fascism as an economic system and could explain it. Today the word fascism seems to be used more or less as a synonym for totalitarianism, and it may be hard to understand why fascists and communists opposed each other so vehemently, when they seem equally awful in their treatment of ordinary people.

Follett makes it easier to understand why the U.S. and Britain cooperated with the USSR, as Hitler and his brutal Gestapo so clearly needed to be stopped. When I was growing up, Hitler and his Third Reich were history, but the brutal oppression of Communism was ongoing. It was hard to fathom why we would have been willing to work with Stalin, even to stop Hitler. But from the perspective of what people knew at the time, it made sense, as uneasy as the other allies may have been about the possible long-term consequences of cooperation with Stalin.

The part of the novel that deals with the Spanish Civil War provides an example of the difficulty of working with Communists. Lloyd, a strong supporter of workers’ rights, starts out thinking all left-wing groups should be working together to fight fascism. He had witnessed firsthand the brutality of fascists as a teenager in Germany, but had been powerless to fight them. In Spain he sees an opportunity to finally take action, to keep fascists from gaining power there as well.

As a college student I had learned about the Spanish Civil War. I knew the basic facts about what happened, but never quite understood why so many men from other countries went to fight there. Why would freedom-loving Americans, in particular, go fight alongside the Communists? Follett’s example of Lloyd helps make that more understandable.

He also shows how futile it was. Lloyd quickly discovers that the Communists (with military help supplied by the USSR) insist on running things their way, and see socialists who do not fall in line with them as enemies as much as the fascists. Their military tactics, moreover, are dictated by commanders far from the battlefield, and adherence to the official Party directives proves more important than doing what it takes to win battles.

Follett seems to attribute this primarily to the Communist leaders’ need to be seen as always knowing what they are doing, even when they are wrong, and finding scapegoats to take the blame for the failures caused by bad leadership. But I have read elsewhere that Stalin really didn’t want either side to win. His goal in intervening in the war in Spain was to keep Germany busy helping the fascists in Spain while Stalin prepared the USSR for war with Germany.

Another part of the novel that particularly struck me was the description of Action T4 and the brave efforts of ordinary Germans to learn – and then share – the truth about this program to exterminate people with mental or physical handicaps. I knew that the Nazis killed a lot of people besides Jews but knew little of the details. Follett’s account uses fictional people and places, but I knew enough must be true to history that I went searching to read the history about it.

Some of the history described in the novel is more familiar to the general public. Follett includes chapters on the Blitz, Pearl Harbor, and the beginning of D-Day. I read some reader reviews of the novel that criticized Follett for not having included other important military engagements, but personally I find it more interesting to learn about those I was not already somewhat familiar with. This isn’t, after all, primarily a military history. It is a story about sweeping social movements and the lives of individual people and families affected by them.

(I find it interesting that other reviews criticize Follett for having his characters manage to be on hand for so many key events of the war. How else could he tell the story except by having someone there to witness it? And if he had included more of the most important battles as some readers think he should have, there would be that much more unreasonable coincidence for the other readers to complain about.)

One criticism that I do agree with that a number of reader reviews mention is the description of sexual acts. This was hardly absent but less graphic in the first book in the series – perhaps to go along with the prevailing sexual mores of the time. I don’t know whether attitudes had really changed that much by mid-century – I always had the impression that it came later, in the 60’s – but then, I also have heard that many social changes occurred earlier in Europe than in the U.S. If the rest of the book is good enough I’ll put up with some of the that, but I hardly think it enhances the novel to include it.

On the whole, I enjoyed this novel but not as much as the first. Still, when Edge of Eternity comes out in September to finish the trilogy, I’ll be looking forward to getting it from the library. After all, with it covering the period of the 1960’s through the 1980’s, that will be events and movements I first learned of from newspapers and TV, not from history books.

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