Dated & Overgeneralized

Title: They Thought They Were Free:
The Germans, 1933-45
Author: Milton Mayer
Genre: History / Anthropology
Pages: 384
Rating: 2.5 of 5

From reading the Amazon reviews and blurbs for this (which is what piqued my interest), you would assume that every page drips with parallels to the current political climate of the US. While there were certainly some troubling similarities in the first half of the book, the book as a whole was overgeneralized and very dated.

The author spent a year in early-1950’s Germany getting to know ten average, unimportant men  who had been members of the Nazi party. His goal was to try to understand how seemingly normal people could be party to the atrocities of the Nazi regime and how they felt about it now that it was over. The author (who is Jewish, though his German friends didn’t know it) is extremely gracious in how he presents the thoughts and attitudes of these men and tries to understand where they are coming from.

By his account, most of them looked back on Hitler’s rule with nostalgia (they had jobs and stability, anything really bad wasn’t Hitler’s fault but other people sabotaging his good intentions, at least Hitler wasn’t a politician or an academic, the Jews might’ve been treated too harshly but they were outsiders who hurt the real Germans economically, etc.). The two or three who showed some regret spoke of the steps toward evil being so gradual that it was hard to notice or object…how would you stand up against such small steps that were supported by so many people (especially when it would cost you your job and you didn’t know for sure that bad things were happening)?

Unfortunately, once he has finished describing his fascinating (in a sad/disturbing kind of way) conversations with these men, he spends the last half of the book making sweeping generalizations about the “national character” of Germans and the doom that is likely to follow for Europe and the world once they are rearmed. Many of these condescending generalizations don’t even seem to follow from what he has presented up to that point, and history certainly hasn’t borne them out.

The book ends with an afterward, written in 2017, that calls into question a lot of his methodology and conclusions (arguing, in part, that neither Marburg nor these ten men were particularly representative of the average German experience and attitude). I was already a bit disillusioned with the book before getting to the afterward, and it put the cap on a fairly disappointing reading experience.

Vivid Glimpses of History & Culture

Title: Tell My Horse:
Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: History / Anthropology / Autobiography
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5

Zora Neale Hurston’s record of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti provides colorful glimpses into the history, daily life, and religion of these nations. The historical sections in the early part of the book skillfully gave a sense of the extreme racism, pervasive corruption, simmering  rage, and explosive violence that accompanied their early history. Unfortunately the arrangement was haphazard and elliptical in the extreme. Unless you are already well-acquainted with Haiti’s history, Google and Wikipedia will be your friend here.

The later part of the book that focuses on voodoo/vodou is fairly fragmentary as well, but no less interesting. Apparently Hurston was a first level initiate (she mentions preparing for her second level, but never directly tells us about her initiation). Her level of credulity seems to vary depending on the passage, but she mostly manages to present it fairly neutrally as “this is what people believe.” While I would tend to agree with the view that the pantheon/loas of Vodou are identical to the demons/evil spirits of the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 6:12), I think it is important to understand people’s beliefs from their own perspective, and this book is helpful in that regard.

Overall, this isn’t a systematic treatment of the topics in the title, but Hurston’s personal experiences and vivid writing make this a worthwhile read.