The Spanish Civil War is the fulcrum of twentieth century political history. The short, tragic life of the Spanish Republic exerts a hold on the imagination beyond the scope of the conflict and the scale of the bloodletting. It ramifies through Auden, Orwell and Hemingway, the Clash, down to Pan’s Labyrinth. The war was a clash of ideologies and nations, but Helen Graham’s scholarly, ethically-attuned recapitulation is capable of illuminating with a few strokes the individuals in its throes, like Oliver Law, the black commander of the Abraham Lincoln brigade—American republican sympathizers who, in Auden’s words, “came to present their lives.”
Nazi Germany remains a deep well of untold stories. With In the Garden of Beasts (Crown, $26), Erik Larson provides a fresh look at pre-war Berlin from the perspective of an “average” American family. The family in question is that of William Dodd, who accepted the post of ambassador to Germany at a time when no one else would take it. Dodd was unlike almost all other ambassadors in that he was neither rich nor from a well-known family; he was a college professor. Dodd and his family went to Germany with a certain bright-eyed naiveté: Dodd thought he could bring American reason to Nazi leaders and Margaret, his daughter, was impressed by the trappings of life in the “New Germany.” Slowly, they came to see Hitler’s Germany for what it really was.
Jill Jonnes revisits the 1889 World’s Fair to chronicle the construction of Eiffel’s Tower (Penguin, $16). Her fluid reportage, knowing navigation of the period’s social standards, and clear presentation of the political gamesmanship that goes into the creation of a national symbol make for an amusing and charming narrative. While luminaries such as Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Thomas Edison, Paul Gauguin, and James McNeill Whistler enjoyed the sights, the Tower rose amid disputes over the project’s expense, its time frame, and the building’s artistic value. Yet Eiffel defied the odds and built a monument to Paris that would withstand the test of time.