WW II, Morality, and Books

I knew a guy whose family—or was it his friends?—had  an argument tactic called "1, 2, 3 Hitler." Basically, whoever in an argument got to Hitler first seemed to win, (you know, in the "Well, if you think violence is wrong, what would you do if you met Hitler?" etc) and so in an argument, you could just call 1, 2, 3 Hitler and if you remembered to do it first, you would win. At least I think that's how it went.

I feel like a lot of people play this game without knowing it (see: political folks of many persuasions, among others). And I see why. It's why, I think, so many writers set books in World War II: it's so helpful to have evil there, personified. There is no troubling subtlety about it. You want evil, you've got evil.  It's as though Hitler = Badness, all the things we most fear and hate about ourselves as humans. Or really, not as humans, because what people say to make themselves feel better is: He was a monster. Which he was, of course. But a human monster. He is ours.

I just read Life After Life, which I really loved, but I think she, too, goes this way. I understand it—it's one of the few things writers have, in this relatively rule-less world. For Dickens and Austen, right and wrong, allowable and not, were clearly delineated. Now? Not so much. Except, of course, for the Nazis.

So here's the other book I read:


I love Anthony Doerr—he's written some beautiful books of stories, and they tend to have a scientific bent, which I appreciate. So when I saw he'd written a novel, I was excited but wary. 

I am still inexplicably wary, though I have already read it, and I loved it. I was moved—deeply moved—and rapt. I blew things off to read more of it. I stayed up too late. I tried to slow down at the end so it would last longer. It was a true pleasure to read. And yes, it's about World War II. But what he's trying to do, I think, is see everyone as victims of the war, of war in general. He's trying to open his heart to the whole world, to open the novel to the whole world, to see the Nazis as human beings as well. Not the Nazi cause—nothing like that. He's just trying to see each person's humanity.

I feel this is a noble goal. And that if there were some way, somehow, of all of us recognizing each other's humanity, we would have the chance at something better. At fewer wars. Or less cruelty. I don't know.

I do know that his writing is gorgeous, sometimes embarrassingly so. Everything is limpid and illuminated. Everything is beautiful and upsetting. I cannot say why I still feel uncertain about it. I think I read it too recently to have any sort of objectivity about it.

Anyway, you should read it and tell me what you think. It's for adults—though I think Chestnut might love it. It's showy and emotional and over the top. I want to talk to someone about it. It was—beautiful.

5 thoughts on “WW II, Morality, and Books

  1. I once read a great book that tried to work with this idea that the German people struggled too, and that Nazis, too, are human — Rachel Seiffert’s ‘The dark room.’ It’s not exactly my kind of book, but it stands out in my memory regardless.


  2. I will read it and get back to you — it sounds marvelous (a work I rarely use, but it seems fit).
    There’s another novel that pays some justice to the regular people in Germany during the war — why can’t I remember it? It was dense and literary, written by a woman, it’s on the tip of my tongue. I’ll get back to you with that, too.


  3. Stones From the River has been one of the Top 10 books on my “give to people and tell them to read it” list for years.


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