For those fascinated with 20th-century European history, the third volume in Gerald N. Lund's Fire and Steel series is an informative treat.
"The Shadow Falls" (Deseret Book, $27.99) offers readers a vivid slice of life in war-torn Germany following World War I, with all its economic challenges; a look at the survival and faith of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in that part of the world; and an in-depth look at Adolf Hitler's political rise to power.
The historic tale is told through the eyes of the fictional Eckhardt family, residents of Munich. It includes Eckhardt's unique friendship with the Westlands from Monticello, Utah, introduced in Lund's "Only the Brave" novel.
"The Shadow Falls," which was released in November, covers events in Germany from 1919-23. In a question-and-answer with the Deseret News, Lund, a best-selling author, LDS Church education instructor and a general authority Seventy from 2002-08, answered several questions from the Deseret News and he discussed writing a historical fiction novel involving Hitler, one of the world's most notorious war criminals, and what he has learned and observed in the process. This has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What has it been like for you to research and craft this story featuring Hitler as one of the main characters?
Gerald Lund: To be honest, the best word that describes what it has been like to pore over Hitler's history and his words and his writing is that it has been "marvelous." Not marvelous in the sense of something wonderful, but marvelous in the sense of causing one to marvel. I think many people understand that the conditions in Germany following their defeat in World War I were a major factor in Hitler's rise to power.
Conditions in Germany for several years were unthinkably deplorable: food shortages, starvation, lack of fuel, people dying by the thousands in their unheated homes, unemployment that reached a rate of 50 percent, constant political upheaval and revolution, inflation that is almost incomprehensible to us today, and the vast disruption of family life and social stability that resulted from all of these conditions.
There is no question but that this provided a rich soil for demagoguery and a totalitarian government to flourish, but Adolf Hitler was not just any seedling that was dropped into that soil. He was a unique individual in so many ways, including his eventual penchant to engage in mass murder and self-destruction. He left his home in his mid-teens and went to Vienna to study art, but what he really ended up studying was history and politics. He went to meetings of various political parties on both the left and right to see what it was that made them successful or caused them fail. He read their newspapers and pamphlets. He spent months living among the working-class poor, sharing of their hunger, being exploited with them and suffering as they suffered.
Then he went off to war and watched Germany's new government sell out to their conquerors. When he returned from the front, he seethed with the desire to make a difference in the destiny of the world, and his vision was unswerving: "The road to significant change lay solely in politics." When I first read that, it struck me as an odd thing to say. Now I see that his vision was correct.
Early in my research, I noticed that several of the great historians of this time period called Hitler a "political genius." I quickly came to see why the viewed him that way. Over and over again, as I studied how he moved step-by-step to become a major force in Germany's political landscape, I was struck with his uncanny ability to sense the mood of the people and then know what to do and how to capitalize on it to his advantage. I know of no other word that describes it except "uncanny." It was amazing how many times he made mistakes that brought humiliating defeat, often through his own hubris and vanity. Yet he would then, as he described himself, rise phoenix-like from the ashes to even greater heights.
On many occasions his genius was so uncanny that I almost wondered if he weren't being directed, to use Star Wars language, by the dark side of the Force.
DN: Has any reader had concerns or not wanted to read Fire and Steel because of Hitler or what happens later with the Nazis?
GL: I've had a few readers say that it is such a dark time, they're not sure they want to read about it. But far more readers are telling me that they are finding this period of history as fascinating to them as it is to me.
And, without me prompting them, they often share a feeling similar to one that I have had over and over, and that is that the parallels to our own time are "amazing."
They see parallels in current events, especially in an election cycle where on both sides of the political spectrum, people are so disgusted with the government or the frustrating conditions of their lives, that on both sides of the political divide, they are desperately searching for anyone who can bring real solutions.
DN: What lesson can we learn from this period of history?
GL: There are so many answers to that question, including the ones given above. But if I had to choose one it would be this: People are basically the same throughout the world and throughout history. Most of them just want to have a stable, safe life for themselves and their family, where their basic needs can be met through their own labor, where they are free from oppression and have opportunity to grow and progress while enjoying the basic freedoms that the Founding Fathers called our "God-given" rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
So why is that millions upon millions of people in the world today, and throughout history, do not or have not enjoyed these basic rights and freedom? Why? Because of corrupt, wicked, venal and oppressive governments. In America, we are privileged to live under the protection of the Constitution. I have never appreciated how profoundly unique and wondrous is the U.S. Constitution and it worries me greatly to see us moving farther and farther away from its protective umbrella.
In short, here's what I've learned from my study of this time period in Germany. If the German government had provided the basic freedoms and opportunities to their peoples after the war, Hitler would have been just another demagogue ranting in the beer halls of Munich. I have come to believe that the German people didn't want Hitler so much as they wanted to be happy, to be free, to be protected and safe. And Hitler convinced them that he was the one that could give it to them.