It has been noticed, in this office as well as in more auspicious places, that, given enough time, any discussion will inevitably return to some comparison to Hitler and the Nazis. Once that was pointed out to me, I suddenly started noticing this everywhere (read into that what you will). The vast quantity of World War II fiction (and non-) that gets published seems to back this up as something more than selective attention on my part.
The second world war, it seems, is a perennial favorite topic. Even here, a relatively small publisher, we have no fewer than three WWII series: The Billy Boyle series by James R. Benn, the Station series by David Downing, and a new Stuart Neville series in January based on the aftermath of WWII and the fate of war criminals, beginning with RATLINES.
What gives? What is our preoccupation with that war and its perpetrators?
Personally, I think the constant reexamination of the events of and leading to WWII is an expression of how devastated we still are at what happened then. We are obsessed with asking how (Someone could be so evil, How no one saw what was coming until it was too late.) and grappling, even decades later, with the aftermath. No war’s wounds heal cleanly, but perhaps no other war to date inflicted wounds that so directly affect our world today. The West’s relationship with Israel springs specifically to mind. The horrible genocides in Africa and Eastern Europe have their closest corollary in Hitler’s mid-century Europe.
WWII is easiest to remember in broad swaths: the villains and the victims. The death. But in remembering that period in history one of the things that has always struck me is how insidiously Holocausts are built. Much before the invasion of Poland or the discovery of death camps, there were normal people in Berlin, in London, in Rome, making small compromises. Overlooking small things.
Ernst Vogler is one of these people. A variously failed 24-year-old, Ernst is hired to work as a part of the Third Reich’s Sonderprojekt, carrying out the Führer’s dream to collect Europe’s great art in Berlin. At first this seems like a dream come true to laconic, apolitical Ernst, who just wants to catalog art with his mentor, his closest confidant after a horrible incident alienates Ernst from his father. But then his mentor disappears. Immediately thereafter, Ernst is sent on his first major assignment: go to Rome and collect the Classical marble masterpiece The Discus Thrower and return it to the German border. It should be a straightforward assignment, but something isn’t right about Ernst’s German counterpart in Rome. Many things are not right about the Italian brothers charged with getting Ernst and the statue to the border. One lovesick, both quarreling, the brothers embark on a dangerous detour, taking Ernst and his invaluable cargo along for the bumpy ride. Is it simply a case of trivial personal agendas interfering with the Reich’s will, of small compromises? Or is something more sinister going on?
One thing is for certain: Ernst can not remain apolitical or passive any longer. Someone has to take charge.
Richly drawn and meticulously researched, THE DETOUR, by Andromeda Romano-Lax examines WWII Europe in terms of the individuals who had the power–all along–to change the fate of the world. Read an excerpt here.
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Check back the last week of July for a wrap up post, complete with discussion questions!