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Originally published Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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Ukraine and historic parallels: A reading list for understanding war

The chain of events in Ukraine holds eerie similarities to the period in the run-up to World War II, when Adolf Hitler sent in troops to “rescue” the pro-German portions of the populace in Czechoslovakia. Here’s a reading list for understanding war in this turbulent time.


Seattle Times book editor

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Lit Life

When I read about the turmoil in Ukraine, I get the historical heebie-jeebies. Vladimir Putin’s strategy of ginning up the pro-Russian portion of the Ukrainian populace, then sending in troops to “rescue” them, eerily mirrors what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1938-39, when Adolf Hitler sent in troops to “rescue” the pro-German portions of the populace in that country.

I’m not predicting a conclusion to the unrest in Ukraine — we live in a different era, where news of any cataclysm instantly echoes around the world. Still, the chain of events has stoked my obsession with the period in the run-up to World War II, when apparently unrelated events were coalescing into world war. Here’s a reading list.

“Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War” by Amanda Vaill (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 hardback). This is a group biography of six charismatic individuals caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a confusing conflict with many different ideologies and participants. The focus is on three couples — writer Ernest Hemingway and correspondent Martha Gellhorn; photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and Spanish citizen Arturo Barea and Austrian Ilsa Kulcsar. The violence was a warm-up to World War II — Nationalist Gen. Francisco Franco asked Hitler to send in Luftwaffe bombers to attack Spanish cities, including the town of Guernica in 1937, one of the first salvos in an inter-European campaign of German aggression.

“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Charles Marsh (Knopf, $35 hardback). The story of a German pastor and theologian who opposed Hitler and paid the price, this biography explains how the Nazis managed to assume leadership of a main branch of the German Protestant church during the 1930s. Some members refused to worship with Jews who had converted to Christianity (an estimated 350,000). Some convinced themselves that Jesus was not a Jew. One minister gushed that “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.”

Bonhoeffer, who loathed these distortions of Jesus’ teachings, was vocal in his opposition. Eventually he was jailed, relentlessly interrogated by the Gestapo and executed in April 1945, weeks before the Third Reich collapsed.

“The Double Life of Paul de Man” by Evelyn Barish (Liveright, $35 hardback).

If you were an English major you may have heard of de Man. He was a brilliant teacher and theoretician who revolutionized the study of literature. When he died in 1983, it was front page news in The New York Times.

What few people knew, and what was exposed after his death, was de Man’s collaboration with the Nazis in Belgium during World War II. De Man managed to hide his past while teaching at Bard, Cornell and Yale, and when it came out it rocked the academic world. This book also illuminates prewar Belgium, when politicians were already lining up for (or against) Hitler’s National Socialism.

“The Long Night: William R. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by Steve Wick (Palgrave Macmillan, $17 paperback). Shirer, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” was a journalist in 1930s Berlin. Born and raised in Iowa, his single-minded goal was to become an international correspondent.

Be careful what you wish for. Working in Berlin for a now-defunct wire service (and eventually as a radio reporter for CBS), Shirer walked a continual tightrope between trying to report the truth of events inside Germany while avoiding expulsion by the Nazis, who were reading every word.

Local note: I first read of Shirer’s time in Berlin in Seattle author Erik Larson’s grim and compelling “In the Garden of Beasts,” the story of William Dodd, American ambassador to Germany in the early ’30s, and his family, notably his memorably reckless daughter Martha. Redmond author Daniel James Brown’s stirring “The Boys in the Boat” tells the true story of the University of Washington crew team, which competed in Hitler’s stage-managed 1936 Olympics and defeated the Führer’s hand-picked team. And Seattle author David Laskin’s “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” tells the story of three branches of his family tree, all Jewish. One settled in America, one emigrated to Israel and one stayed in Europe. The fate of those who remained was very sad indeed.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.



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