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Decades of terrible discontent and violence

Monday, January 14, 2013

Winter of the World by Ken Follett is the second tome in The Century trilogy and is a tremendous achievement. The characters that populated the first epic saga, The Fall of Giants, from around 1911 to 1924, have grown old and have achieved what they had to, and they now move aside to let the next generation in their families take over.  So here we are again with the youngsters from the English, Welsh, American, German and Russian families we knew so well.

This book has history as its very large canvas, since it starts towards 1933, when Adolf Hitler was staging a comeback in Germany and was gradually managing to polarize society there by his rabid utterances against Jews, minorities and homosexuals. The wonderful and vivacious Lady Maud Fitzherbert, is married to distinguished Walter von Ulrich and living in Berlin, and they are facing the brunt of Adolf’s wretchedness. Since Walter is a socialist and does not share the jingoism of the Nazis, he and his fellow politicians are humiliated and sidelined by the bizarre black-shirted Hitler Youth. Attempts are made to discourage moderate parties, and threats and coercion employed to defeat them in the Reichstag. Walter is later brutalized by the secret police, who have a free run of the place and are hopelessly corrupt and violent. Their daughter, Carla, plays a wonderfully human role in the story, as a nurse who squirrels out medical supplies and links up with a Jewish doctor, who until he runs out of favour with the emerging Third Reich, happens to a very popular figure among the elite in local German society.

Lev Peshkov is the Russian fugitive from Moscow who has made it big in Cardiff, from his humble origins as a starving émigré off a boat, and traveling on his brother’s papers and money. Starting as a hungry labourer employed by the authorities to break an ongoing strike, he later grows up to become somewhat of a wheeler dealer, organizing similar tactics for fees by the industrialists there. Daisy Peshkov of the new generation has a tough time shaking off this mobster stigma, even as she tries to make it to the top of English and Welsh society. And she succeeds. There are pages and pages devoted to her warm hearted and brave rescue work during the bombings of London, and of her traumatic marriage before we see her breaking free from a faithless but high-born spouse, and his title that she has coveted for so long.

This book also sees the political somersaults that characterized British parliament and the American senate, when some of the big players sought to befriend and align themselves with good old Adolf. Also mentioned in detail is the family of Gus Dewar, and his sons, Woody and Chuck, and their personal brush with the Japs during the bombing of Pearl Harbour. A Japanese fighter zeroes in on them with its guns blazing. The strafing brings in tragedies and America’s entry into the Second World War. From then on the theatre of war in Europe sees a shift in fortunes. There are well described situations of battles on the beach, the fight for holding a bridge, and many others thereafter.

Russia faces its severe defeat, with the Germans having overrun most of the country, and closing in on Leningrad. The long siege also puts us in touch with their psychopath of a leader, Joseph Stalin, who was as much of a maniac and a murderer as Adolf Hitler, and ran a repressive regime with the help of his own bizarre secret police. Ruthlessness is seen in the spying by Russians to check on America’s nuclear bomb, with operatives not stopping at kidnap and murder. Also depicted cold-bloodedly is the brutality of rape when they Russians take the eastern part of Berlin. 

Though this book is all of 818 pages, and winds up around 1949, going by the major events Follett did not touch or dwell upon, Dunkirk, the flattening of Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, it still falls short by a few hundred pages. Definitely very readable.

Winter of the World  by Ken Follett
Pan Macmillan


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