Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair*****

dragonsteethDragon’s Teeth is the third in the Pulitzer-winning Lanny Budd series. Set in 1942—the present, at the time it was written—it provides the reader with a fascinating, well-informed, hyper-literate view of Europe during the years before and during Hitler’s ascent to power. While it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge in order for the reader to keep up with the story, history lovers, political philosophers, and especially those fascinated by the period in question will find it riveting. Thank you Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for allowing me a DRC. This title is available for purchase digitally now.

Sinclair, himself a socialist of the Utopian variety, shows us the ideas of the “reds and pinks” that were plentiful and active—yet in the end, not active enough to prevent a Fascist takeover—during this period. Budd is the heir to a munitions-maker’s fortune, and so his is the life of the idle rich. He amuses himself by hosting salons, popular at the time, which were group discussions regarding alternative political ideas. His wife Irma is heir to an even greater fortune, and is uncomfortable hosting these odd people that speak of redistributing wealth, but in time she relaxes, understanding that this is just one of Lanny’s hobbies and is unlikely to ever affect her personal comfort level. And indeed, Lanny is never going to sully his hands by taking to the streets with working class militants; in fact, apart from buying and reselling artwork, he’s never going to even hold down a job, reasoning that it would be wrong of him to take a job he does not need when someone else really does need it. He is amused and comfortable in his role as armchair socialist and angel financier to a leftwing newspaper. Yet the idea of actually taking power…hmmm.

“It seemed to have begun with the Russian Revolution, which had been such an impolite affair.”

Nobody writes setting like Sinclair. The story begins in Italy following the First World War; Mussolini has risen to power, and we can almost hear the hard heels striking the cobblestones. Budd is somewhat concerned for Hansi, his brother-in-law who is Jewish, but he also believes that money talks, and any unpleasantness can probably be squared away with a donation here and a greased palm there. As long as the seas are safe, the family considers simply waiting out all the unpleasantness on the family yacht, hoping that things will be settled down by the time they want to dock somewhere.

Hitler is out and agitating, but no one really thinks he will take over the world; if he were going to do that, he surely wouldn’t stand in the streets and scream about it, now would he? And we feel, through Lanny and his family, the stark startled horror when his power increases and his Storm Troopers become an official government organization rather than simply a pack of street thugs. At the same time, we also experience his and others’ perplexity at the name chosen by the NSDAP, because it invokes the name of Socialism for a system that is actually far-flung from it, and it calls out to the working class even as it pounds their unions to dust and sends their leaders to concentration camps.

While the working class of Europe starves or stands on line at a soup kitchen, the Budd family has the traditional six meals daily; when they are not at home, they do the charitable thing, and instruct the servants to find some “worthy poor” to consume the unused meals. Well…not in the house, of course. Somewhere else.

At times, the tone is satirical, and in a few places made me laugh out loud, mostly in the beginning. Later the tone changes and is sharper, angrier. I found it deeply satisfying.

Particularly fascinating is the statement that “He who could get and hold the radio became God.” In one form or another, this has been true since the radio was introduced into first-world homes nearly 100 years ago. Major media sources had the monopoly on information, apart from the printed press. The radio, then television…only recently have ordinary people had the means to record and disseminate information on the phone they carry with them everywhere. And it’s interesting to see the changes that result.

Perhaps your thoughts will travel in different directions than mine did in reading this interesting nugget, but it is bound to make you think. If you are looking for some escapist material to take to the beach or curl up with by the fire, this isn’t it. This is fuel for the brain, fierce material that came from a time when all of Europe had to decide which side they were on.

For those that love history, literary fiction, or political science—or all three—highly recommended!

Goebbels, by Peter Longerich ****

goebbelsLongerich has established himself as a scholar who specializes in writing about the Nazi thugs who surrounded and supported Hitler’s regime in the 1930’s and 40’s. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the ARC.

The fact is, despite my strong preference for meaty, well-documented, detailed historical works including biographies, I really struggled with this one. At first I thought it was my own fault for asking for 992 pages (about a third of which is documentation) about such a rotten guy, but that isn’t the reason I kept setting it aside. I devoured John Dean’s recent tome on Nixon, who while not actually a fascist was a really dirty guy, and that was really interesting reading. This colossal volume on Goebbels, on the other hand, is dry, dry, dry.

Longerich’s thesis, if such a large work can be boiled down to its essence, is that while Goebbels was a villain and a sociopath, he wasn’t nearly as important a player in Hitler’s regime as he considered himself to be. He was emotionally dependent on Hitler and the reverse was also true, but his scope and authority were not as great as many people may believe. Longerich makes his case thoroughly and carefully, using Goebbels’s own journal entries and other primary documents, often citing works in the German language to back his assertions. And maybe that is where part of my ambivalence lies, because what he sets out to prove, isn’t what I wanted to know. I wanted to know—just as we always do when something really calamitous occurs or a really monstrous person draws the public eye—what the hell happened to make someone participate in, and even initiate, the things that Goebbels did. I don’t care about his love life, and would just as soon see a good portion of the first 200 pages edited, since the interesting part of his story is later in his life, once the fascists assume power. However, Longerich has written about at least one other top Nazi, and he followed the same basic format, relying on the man’s early life to demonstrate the formation of his character, and he’s had success and acclaim by doing so, and perhaps that isn’t entirely the reason I found this work to be so unexpectedly dull.

For those who are pursuing research projects that involve Nazi top officers, Goebbels is bound to be a valuable resource. For general audiences it might have been more interesting to see him from multiple perspectives. We see Goebbels through his own eyes, and we see what Longerich has discovered to be fact in terms of the authority he was given and the positions he held. I wonder, what about what others who worked with him thought about him? What about how the German public perceived him? I think it might have livened up the text to include more vantage points.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the most thorough biography of Goebbels that is widely available and written in English. For scholars seeking information for purposes of research, I highly recommend it. For the audience that seeks an accessible and interesting history and biography that relates to the Holocaust and Nazi officers, I recommend Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, by D. Lawrence-Young.

In short, Goebbels is more appropriate for a niche audience than as a general read.