Saturday, April 17, 2010

Witnesses of War - Nicholas Stargardt

Not that I have read that many, but I doubt I will find another book that will curdle my blood and fill me with impotent rage the way this one did. Nicholas Stargardt, a historian from Oxford has given such a chilling account about the lives of children under Nazi dominance - German or Jewish, able-bodied or not. I knew going into this that it would not be an easy read, nevertheless I was unprepared for the kind of horror that lives within its pages: a window to an unspeakable past.

Witnesses of War is a non-fictional account of how children's lives got disrupted in the Europe of the Nazis. With the help of journal entries, drawings and anecdotes, Stargardt traces the origins of the Third Reich and follows the entire duration of the war and the final destruction of Nazism and denazification - all through the eyes of Children. Stargardt's voice is clear and the narration does not falter anywhere in the book: whether it is about the Jewish children in the ghettos or a young girl dying in one of the gas chambers, whether it is the death march, the final solution, the millions of children whose parents were inexorably made to board a train to a concentration camp and death, whether they are horrifying accounts of how the Nazis treated their own children who refused to conform, how the wounded and the disabled in Germany were gassed to death in asylums in a blind bid to "rid the Third Reich of bad blood", the words flow with almost a vehemence. He wants you to see things for what they actually were, he makes you view drawings of children, heartbreaking ones that will make you sob, pieces of verse, photographs, and he quotes a small Jewish boy in a ghetto who screamed,"I want to eat! I want to be German!" You might be sitting on the most comfortable couch in the house but in your mind, you are travelling all over Europe horror-struck at the destruction a few blinded, psychotic men unleashed upon millions of innocents.

There is nothing more to say perhaps about the contents of the book: the title and whatever little description I have given here will give those who want to read this book, a fair idea. There is however, one noteworthy point: Stargardt has given a completely impartial and unbiased account. His focus has been on children throughout the book and he has beautifully shown how the villains were the Nazis, how Germany suffered because of them, the kind of a response it evoked in all those who were affected by it. Neither does he wholly blame Germany itself, nor does he try to smooth over the atrocities committed by the Red Army and other Allied soldiers in occupied Berlin. An entire generation of children grew up in Nazi Germany, what of their confusion, their struggle with what they thought was morally right? The last common man, fought the war against the Allies - was he a Nazi who inherently believed that it was his right to oppress and destroy or was he just a pawn in a cruel game? What the Nazis ultimately did was to leave behind a maimed, belligerent nation. The author repeatedly states that post-war, many Germans were uncomfortable talking of their past and tried to blot it out altogether, many German children having been brought up in a certain way suddenly found themselves alienated from the only world they ever knew. As for the survivors of Himmler's "solution", Jewish or German, one can only wonder at the immensity of the nightmare they carried in their hearts.

Nicholas Stargardt has succeeded in explaining how this wasn't Germany's war, it was the Nazis'. These men were responsible for the genocide of millions of people among other forms of destruction because they saw fit. Witnesses of War is not for the weak-hearted and I would say it is most definitely not for children. It might leave you disturbed and helpless, then why read it? Because we need to know. We owe it to every single one of those victims and survivors, they need witnesses to their lives, to their history and it is ultimately the responsibility of all of us to never let the world forget how extremism can only wreak havoc and destroy, especially in these degenerate times.

PS - Hey all! Do visit my other blog There'sh a Moskeeto in my Foog if you have the time. I shall be grateful for any reader over there :)

12 comments:

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Good review, Vaishnavi: except for just one (but very serious) flaw... it wasn't just about a monster called Hitler. History is never that simple. Try Daniel Goldhagen's book called Hitler's Willing Executioners. In this wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitler's_Willing_Executioners) you may note how, despite a lot of criticism, the book has found wide acceptance in Germany itself, especially concerning the idea that millions of 'nice and ordinary' Germans were complicit and responsible for the horror...

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks so much for the heads up! I have actually read that wikipedia article before and this particular fact is even mentioned in this book. Hitler was the champion of a collective sentiment. When I wrote, I am afraid I sort of wrote in an indignant flow, I have edited such lines from the review Sir. My apologies!

Pavi said...

Wow!your much stronger than I've imagined:) To pick up such an intense horrifying book in the first place and then to go ahead in giving an unbiased review of it..Good work..Personally,I would never read it,not more than 2 pages at the max.Not that the book's got to do anything with it but me,I cant stand reading something so horrifying and worse,that it is the truth:(
Lovely job vaish..Congrats:)

nsiyer said...

How folks look forward to freedom -freedom from suffering, from poverty, from hate et al .....

Nice one.

Diane said...

Very intense book; thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Kals said...

This review is great..but I'm afraid the book is too depressing a read for me, especially because of the children angle. I've read loads of books about partition ( which is gory, depressing et al) but anything tragic with children as a major focus is too sensitive for me.

Shweta said...

I usually avoid the war and it s effects in fiction because I have spent an entire summer reading only these books for a paper. I must have read around 15 books fic and non fic at tht time. Now I am not too inclined to read them. Though I make a few exceptions some time..

If it affected you so emotionally then I think it is really well written book

Vaishnavi said...

@Pavi - It took me a long long LONG time to finish this one. A lot of people might contest my reasons for reading something so obviously disturbing, but the thing is...it is not fiction..so..

@Mr.Iyer - Thanks a lot and welcome here! Yes, I would say that in spite of the horror and the tragedy, the second world war when we look at the fact that it was the reason for the ultimate destruction of Nazism, is one of the best examples of the triumph of human spirit.

@Diane - Yes it is indeed intense, I suppose one wouldn't really read this without a single minded inclination. It is too nightmarish to pick it up on a whim.

@Kals - Thanks a lot :) I sort of agree with you there....I asked myself several times why I picked up this book..but...I am sort of glad I did.

@Shweta - It is a wonderfully written book but a bit too hard to stomach..if at all you have the inclination, you can pick it up :)

bikerguy said...

reality!! i will definitely read this book.
beautifully beautifully written by you...you have touched a whole new level in writing with this post...good going :)

Whitney said...

This review made my hair stand on end! I think we need unsugarcoated books on this subject to remind us of what a little to much power can do. Great analyzes for such a disturbing book.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Thanks for the lucid review, Vaishnavi. You have made me feel a bit of the anguish and pain that I will surely go through when I read the book. Another added to my long list of books to be read.

Vaishnavi said...

@Avi - You must. Even if you don't want to. At some point or the other, I will totally make sure that you do :)

@Whitney - Thanks a lot and you are absolutely right, such strong books are needed even if they make us cringe in horror.

@Mr.Chaudhuri - My pleasure Sir! I am glad if this review makes you read the book :)