Laurence Rees (2007)

It’s hard to mark a book like this as four stars, since it’s a harrowing rather than a purely enjoyable read. Nevertheless, it’s a phenomenal work that really complements the author’s other accompishments. It’s a series of interviews with people involved in various aspects of World War 2, including both victims an victimisers, and tries to get them to open up about their experiences and motivations. Some of the people appear in Rees’ other books, notably “Auschwitz, the Nazis, and the Final Solution,” and one can read these extended interviews in the wider context of their experiences. Rees doesn’t shirkthe dificult questions but also doesn’t give in to facile equivalences either: ha asks whether the Allies’ bombing of civilians and the Nazis’ destruction of the Jews are in any way equivalent, and manages to nail the key differences without naively exculpating the Allied pilots.

The characters introduced include a SMERSH interrogator, a concentration camp guard, a man forced to work as a human minesweeper, a cannibal, an actress in propaganda films, and a woman nearly killed by her own mother in the aftermath of the Red Army’s sweep through East Prussia. Taken together they offer a balanced portrait of people tested to the limit by their circumstances, bringing out the best and worst in themselves.

4/5. Finished Saturday 25 May, 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)