Sutherland can display an epigrammatic style and a sharp eye for the telling detail—of Erskine Childers, the author of The Riddle of the Sands, he notes, “Few novelists, with only one novel to their credit, can be said to have managed to trademark a whole genre,” and he quotes Childers’s manly direction to his Irish Republican firing squad the moment before his execution: “Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.” But, although Sutherland also notes that Childers offered his hand to each of his executioners, he fails to note his most openhearted act: before his execution, trying to stanch the internecine hatred that marked the Irish Civil War, he made his 16-year-old son promise to shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant—a promise that his son, the future president of the Irish Republic, kept.
And he gets too many details wrong. While there is a murder in the film version of Mildred Pierce, there isn’t one, as Sutherland states, in the novel—did he really read it? Similarly, John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live takes place not in the fictional town of Gibbsville (the simulacrum of O’Hara’s hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania), but in the fictional city of Fort Penn (the simulacrum of Harrisburg, a place very different from Pottsville). If readers are to be diverted from Wikipedia to the kind of anachronistic and eccentric work that Lives of the Novelists exemplifies, then publishers and authors must take their duty seriously. And this author, as winning as he can be, hasn’t won me over with the soundness of his approach, his judgment, or his facts.
A historian at Colgate, R. M. Douglas offers the most thorough study available of the largest expulsion of a people in human history and by far the most horrific instance in post-war Europe of what is now called ethnic cleansing: the forcible transfer of at least 12 million ethnic Germans, mostly women and children (nearly all the men were dead or prisoners of war), from Eastern and Central Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. Characterized by the New York Times reporter on the spot, Anne O’Hare McCormick, as “without precedent … a crime against humanity for which history will exact a terrible retribution,” these expulsions, conceived, planned, and executed mainly by the Czechoslovak and Polish governments and security forces, were accompanied by widespread rape and sexual torture, and killed as many as 1.5 million.
No doubt the victims included many Germans who had supported the Nazis, but they also included Germans who actively opposed the Nazis (the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia’s industrialized Sudetenland, for instance, included a high proportion of Social Democrats and other members of the left), as well as German-speaking Jews. Douglas notes that anti-Semitism in Poland “remained at pathologically high levels”; the Poles, who sought an ethnically homogenized state, almost immediately took up where the Nazis had left off, carrying out murderous pogroms against the Jews who had managed to survive the Holocaust. For its part, the ostensibly democratic Czechoslovak government pursued its ethnic cleansing of Germans, Hungarians, Gypsies, and Jews not merely in reaction to Nazi depredations during the war, but to further Czechoslovakia’s pre-war policies aimed at creating a rigidly ethnically circumscribed nation-state—in fact, members of Czechoslovakia’s pre-war German “minority,” who endured officially sanctioned discrimination, outnumbered Slovaks by nearly a million. (Two exceptionally fine works of recent scholarship, Mary Heimann’s Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed and Andrea Orzoff’s Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914–1948, illuminate the ethnic illiberalism at the core of the pre-war Czechoslovak state.)