Theresa Bernstein, The Readers, 1914
I normally avoid World War II novels, or novels about Nazis, for no other reason than I’ve read so many, but a friend recommended Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel by Mark Sullivan. She wanted to discuss some things with me after, so I obliged. It’s billed as the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian boy, during the war. It has over ten thousand reviews on Amazon, with over 83% giving it a five star rating. Overall I enjoyed it — it was hard to put down — but I do have issues with the authenticity of the story. Perhaps more about that at a later date. What most intrigues me about this novel is its success. Why are so many novels with Nazis as the overarching antagonist being written, published, and devoured by the reading public?
The label “Nazi” is ubiquitous in today’s society, but do people, especially young people, truly understand what the word signifies? In the UK are Brexiters Nazis? In the USA are anti-illegal immigrant advocates Nazis? In Europe and America are people who show concern regarding “radical Islamic terrorism” Nazis? Are people who promote school of choice, or less government interference in our lives, Nazis? According to many, they are. Is it a fair label in these circumstances? I’ll leave that for others to decide, but this leads me to a possible answer to my question.
In today’s world, it feels as if evil is everywhere. The specific brand of evil is defined by where you stand ideologically, but the feeling it induces is universal. Novels with Hitler’s Nazis as the antagonist allows us to compartmentalize our feelings. We can focus on one clearly identifiable and undeniable evil. We can all (the vast majority) come together in our condemnation, our outrage, over the evils of historic Nazism.
In addition, Nazi novels come with a guaranteed overall positive outcome. The Allies vanquished evil. Good triumphed. There is no ambiguity. Good guys were easily recognizable as good, the bad are bad to the bone. No label connotes evil more than “Nazi,” except perhaps “racist,” which carries similar implications.
The answer to my question might be simply this: There is nothing more uniting than going through times of trouble together — working as a group to combat a common foe — whether it’s during a war, natural disaster, or perhaps experiencing these dire circumstances with the reading community. In this world where the definition of evil has become capricious and highly subjective, reading about a universally unassailable evil unites us, despite our differences, and gives us the sense of community for which we all yearn.