Fall of Giants by Ken Follett was about World War I and class struggles taking place all over Europe before, during and after that pivotal war. The book is the first volume in a series called The Century Trilogy. Winter of the World is the second volume in this same series. It covers the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the rise of Bolshevism is Russia, along with showing how the rest of Europe is grappling with feelings about fascism, communism and socialism. It also covers World War II. The third book in The Century Trilogy has not been released and Ken Follett may still be in the process of writing it.
The series personalizes the aforementioned historical events and movements by following a set of characters that live in representative nations. We have the Peshkov family in Russia and America, the von Ulrich family in Germany. We have the Dewar family in America, living in Washington and Buffalo. We have the British family of Earl Fitzherbert and the Welsh miners who work for him, the Williams family of Aberowen (one of the Welsh mining families) and the Leckwith family which includes Ethel, the daughter of Billy Williams, Sr. We also have a Jewish family in Germany, the Rothmanns, whose father is physician to the von Ulrich family and whose family members are friends. Our original set of characters has grown older and they now have partners and families, so we follow the first generation somewhat, but we are more concerned with the activities of the second generation.
The Peshkov family began its history in Russia, but we had two brothers, Grigori and Lev. Lev murdered someone in Russia and his brother Grigori saved him by giving him his ticket to America. Because this ticket was a scam he ended up in the mines on Earl Fitzherbert’s land for a while before he was able to continue his journey to America where he went to work for a rather unsavory but very successful Russian in Buffalo, NY. Lev, a chauffeur for this Russia-American family impregnated the daughter and improved his fortunes considerably through marriage. He has a legitimate daughter, Daisy and an illegitimate son, Greg. Grigori raises another illegitimate son of Lev’s in Russia and marries the son, Vladimir’s, mother. We get to contrast the progress of the unprincipled Lev under American capitalism and the progress of the reliable and idealistic Grigori in Russia.
The Earl Fitzherbert has a sister Maud, who falls in love with and secretly marries a German friend of her family, Walter von Ulrich in the first volume. Maud is the kind of women who has more intelligence than she has freedom, but she was working to change the rules society as they apply to women and equalize treatment for women and men. Her brother allowed her some leeway and funding to pursue her concerns because he believed she was fighting a losing battle, and because it kept her happy and busy. Walter left to fight on the German side in World War I because he was a loyal German and his family lived in Germany. Between World War I and World War II Walter and Maud were reunited, her brother disowned her, and she went to live with her husband in Berlin. They had two children, Eric and Clara. Eric became a brown shirt and then a Nazi, the rest of the family members were Social Democrats and were against Nazism. Clara even became a spy to help pass on information that would help defeat the Nazi’s. Follett shows us how difficult it was to be a non-Nazi in Germany while Hitler was rising and ruling by showing us what happened to even loyal German families who could not support him, but could not openly defy him. Follett also gives us the story of the Rothmann family including daughter Eva who was sent to America, Rudi, the son, and Dr. Rothmann, both Jews who stayed in Germany, and Rothmann’s wife Hannelore who was not Jewish but was married to a Jew. Follett does not dwell on the Jewish fate in Hitler’s Germany, perhaps because it is already so strongly represented in histories of the era, rather he gives us a view of the politics of Germany, and then broadens it to include Russian, Britain, American, a little view of French, and a bit of Spanish politics.
By the time World War II finally comes to an end every family has felt the sting of this war and every nation has been changed forever. Leaders have come and gone, the lives of women have been turned upside down and many of the rights they wished for are won, the United Nations has been established and Germany is divided as spoils of war. We see the development of the nuclear bomb usher in the Cold War and the partition of Berlin. The Iron Curtain is about to descend on the world.
We know this history by heart, but Ken Follett makes it fresh again by giving us characters we find interesting which gives it added relevance. These volumes are long, but very readable. I have been reading them on my Kindle while I walk on the treadmill at the gym. It a “two-fer”, healthy body and healthy mind.