The darkest hour

The darkest hour

The darkest hour

Winter of the world
Ken Follett
2012, pp 818

The time frame for this historical novel is only 16 years. However, the 16 years from 1933 covers one of the most significant periods in history from the coming to power of Hitler in Germany to the ending of World War II and the division of that country into two states, one controlled by the Soviet Union, and the other supported by western powers.

With over 60 million people dying in World War II alone (2.5% of the then global population), those 16 years saw life being turned upside down for individuals across the planet. “God is on leave,” was the poignant reaction of the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps where some six million people died, including the schoolgirl who wrote The Diary of Anne Frank. Equally poignant was the response of those who survived to tell the tale: “It must never happen again.”

For those who were born after all that, the novelist’s imagination enables us to vicariously live through that dark age while understanding how one of the most civilised nations could be led astray by a demagogue like Hitler who came to power in a Germany which was so wracked by anarchy and inflation that a cigarette-pack cost millions of marks.

In the early 1940s, even while World War II was raging, novelist Upton Sinclair created an affluent young American called Lanny Budd who was repelled by the brutality of Hitler’s rule, but hid his feelings since he was an undercover agent who was asked by the American president to support the anti-fascist resistance movements while pretending to be a Nazi sympathiser.

Sinclair wrote 11 Lanny Budd novels where his hero hobnobbed with the likes of Churchill, Hitler, Goring, Hess, Stalin and Roosevelt. The first Lanny Budd novel was World’s End and the one which won Sinclair a Pulitzer Prize was Dragon’s Teeth, where the hero is witness to the rise of Hitler in the period 1929 to 1934.

Follett’s book is aptly titled Winter of the World, given the intense suffering experienced by his characters in inter-related families from four countries — UK, Russia, Germany and USA. It is the second book in Follett’s The Century Trilogy, the first being set in the era of World War I (in which 17 million people died), the Russian Revolution and the suffragette movement for women’s rights. Follett’s first in the trilogy, titled Fall of Giants, saw the domination of the landed aristocracy in the UK being eroded by the trench-warfare of World War I, where 60,000 British soldiers were killed on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, because of the folly of upper-class commanders who insisted their men march through a hail of machine gun fire to capture a few miles of territory.

The first book ends in 1924 with the housemaid Ethel Williams being elected to the British Parliament on the Labour ticket. The second book begins in 1933 with Ethel Williams and her son Lloyd being present in Berlin on the day when the newspaper office of the Social Democrats is attacked by the storm-troopers of the newly-elected German chancellor Adolf Hitler.

With so many characters, it is difficult to single out a hero. However, the one who performs most heroically is Lloyd who, like Follett, hails from Wales. After studying on a scholarship in the elite Cambridge University, Lloyd joins the British Army as an officer, is captured by the Germans when they conquer France and escapes via Spain but only to return since he is sent to help out the French Resistance.

Lloyd comes back home as a hero once World War II ends, gets elected to the House of Commons on a Labour ticket and is appointed as parliamentary secretary to the British foreign minister Ernest Bevin. Lloyd and his lover’s brother Gus (who is an assistant to the US secretary of state George Marshall) persuade their respective bosses to agree to a plan to unify the British, American and French zones in Germany so as to resist the domination of the Russian zone.

However, Follett is not a Kiplingesque writer who believes that the British are inherently superior to the fascists of Germany and Italy. Follett narrates how the British Union of Fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosley, tried to march into London’s Jewish borough of Stepney on Sunday, October 6,1936, but was stopped by a human wall of Labour Party supporters and  Communists despite repeated attempts by the police to clear the way for a procession chanting, “One, two, three, four/We’re gonna get rid of the Yids! (Jews)” Anti-Semitism was rife throughout Europe and not just in 1930s Germany.

If fascism finally lost its flavour among the British upper classes, it could well have been because Germany upset the imperial balance of power once Hitler occupied, first Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, and then invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. One can only look forward to the third part of Follett’s trilogy which will focus on the Cold War.

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