By Chet Yarbrough
By Ken Follett
Narrated by John Lee
For those who read or listened to Ken Follett’s first book, “Fall of Giants”, the Fitzherbert- Williams’, Dewer, and Peshkov’ families live on. “Winter of the World”, explores the history of WWII through the lives, loves, hates, and deaths of these English’, American’, and Russian’ families.
Listeners will be fascinated and entertained in the same way they were in the first novel. Follett creates characters that are imperfect; neither totally good nor bad but measures of both, just like real human beings. Follett shows the human attraction capitalism, socialism, fascism, and communism have for many people in different cultures.
The attraction of capitalism is summarized in one vignette about a communist spy in America that smuggles an American’ merchandise catalogue home to Russia to show his wife how different capitalism is in America from communism in Russia.
Socialism’s appeal is shown by the Williams family’s rise from lower class laborers to Parliament. The injustice of income inequality is laid bare by the conflicts between the Fitzherbert’s and Williams’ families.
Fascism’s appeal is illustrated by youth movements and rapid industrialization in the early days of Hitler’s Germany that improves German employment and security. The foolish treaty of WWI that imposes crushing war reparations on Germany galvanizes German youth to believe in fascism. Means justify ends.
Communist appeal is shown in the rhetoric of the Russian Peskov family’s conversations. Father and son believe Stalinist’ mistakes are merely short term consequences of a journey toward perfect communist equality.
Follett also shows the dark side of capitalism, socialism, fascism, and communism. Capitalism’s dark side is obscured but hints are shown in anti-gay sentiment, discrimination against minorities and women, and the prominent role wealth plays in American society.
Follett moves on to picture the dark side of socialism in Great Britain. He writes about an incident of England’s confiscation of private property for coal. Follett infers government confiscation is a mistake when he writes of a working class mother that regrets seeing a private garden estate, built by generations of the Fitzherbert’ family, taken and destroyed by the government.
The rise of dictators in Spain, Germany, and Italy show the dark side of fascism with Franco’s, Hitler’s, and Mussolini’s assumption of power. The most prominent exemplar of fascism’s dark side is Nazism; i.e. Follett recounts stories of Brown Shirt’ thuggery, Gestapo’ violence, and blind, insensitive and brutal actions of German’ bureaucrats. The Nazis organize to exterminate the old, the infirm, and the mentally and physically handicapped to “purify” the Teutonic race. Nazi leaders pursue a policy characterized as the “final solution”; i.e. the extermination of all Jews within Germany’s jurisdiction.
Follett infers that the mean and dark side of Stalinism equals the brutality of Nazisim. Follett’s stories of Stalinist actions suggest there is little difference between the darkness of Stalinist communism and Hitler’s fascism. The darkness of communism is amplified by Follett’s description of Germany’s occupation and the horrible treatment of German citizens by Russian soldiers. Follett contrasts selfless German spies working for Russia to defeat Nazism with the inhumanity of Russian soldiers as they enter Berlin. The contrast of Russian occupation with selfless German spies makes Russian soldiers look as evil as the Nazis.
Listening to “Winter of the World” reminds one of George Martin’s phrase in “Game of Thrones”; i.e. “winter is coming”. The depiction of Hitler’s rise to power is made brutally clear but the role of Stalinist Russia seems as darkly described as German fascism. One is reminded of Martin’s fictional walking dead in Russia’s retaliation for Germany’s invasion of the motherland. Russian soldiers move south, like Martin’s walking dead that march south to attack fictional’ Winterfell, while brutally murdering every human being in sight.
The duplicity of Stalin in bargaining with Hitler and then joining the American and Allied powers, when Hitler attacks Russia, is well known. But Follett’s stories of Russian atrocity make Russian soldiers look like “Game of Thrones” zombies–pillaging, and murdering every person south of Russia.
There is no doubt Russia committed horrendous crimes in their southwestern march through Poland and Germany. However, there seems a lack of balance in Follett’s characterization of Russia’s role in WWII. As cruel and dictatorial as history shows Stalin to have been, Russian’ soldiers are the first to defeat German’ armies in WWII. Every Allied Power committed atrocious acts of war. Great Britain bombs civilian cities in Germany. The United States drops two nuclear bombs on Japan.
War has little conscience with all participants focusing on a zero sum game. Ken Follett notes that Japan is cornered by the Allied powers’ embargo of fuel. This gives some balance to Japan’s reason for bombing Pearl Harbor. In contrast, Follett says little about Russia’s justification for being beasts of the north.
Despite this quibble about history, Follett writes an entertaining story about WWII. “Winter of the World” continues to follow the fictional families of Follett’s first book in his trilogy of the twentieth century. Follett keeps the main characters of “Fall of Giants” and adds fascinating new characters from the same families. They are all enmeshed in historical events of WWII. Follett reaffirms his skill in writing a great entertainment about historic world events.