Teaching history has always been a difficult task. I would say that the people – professors or writers, who can do this right is a very small minority.
“Doing it right” is more than just reciting names and dates. It involves taking the people, whether considered historical or simply ancillary, and bringing them to life in the eyes of the reader or student. One not only has to bring the people back to life, but show the circumstances of the times that they were in. Each is equally important.
I was no stranger to writer Erik Lawson, having read 2 of his previous books.
The Devil In The White City dealt with 2 seemingly disparate subjects: The building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who was also in Chicago at the time. I learned a lot about this book – committees don’t change much and evil hasn’t changed. This killer made Charlie Manson look like a Girl Scout.
In the Garden of Beasts is about a professor from the University of Chicago with no State Dept experience who was picked by FDR to be ambassador to Germany, just as Hitler was consolidating his power. I felt like I was a Berliner in 1933. For one I did not realize in Berlin that year there were over 100 locations where Nazis would take less than enthusiastic Berliners – not giving the Hitlergruss, or Nazi salute, for example – where they would be tortured or even killed.
So for the Lusitania Lawson took for me was just an ancient passenger liner that was torpedoed 101 years ago and brought it – and her people – back to life. The Titanic disaster was just 3 years old, and it affected operations on the Lusitania. For one, there were enough lifeboats for every passenger, but when she was torpedoed only 6 of the 22 could be used. She sank within 20 minutes.
From what I have read of the Titanic to me anyway her Captain, Edward Smith, was certainly negligent by not slowing down at night even with iceberg warnings. The Lusitania’s captain, William Turner in my opinion, based on the information that he had, did the best that could have been done. I don’t want to be a spoiler and tell you why; you’ll have to read the book.
One thing that I will say after reading the book that surprised me was the circumstances that the US entered the first world war. I had thought, as the author himself thought before researching, that the Lusitania’s sinking was the main reason. But that was 2 years before we finally entered the war.
After the Lusitania there were numerous American ships sunk by German U Boats.
It was a change of policy by the German Navy for unrestricted warfare to starve Britain. It was suggested that by 1917 Britain would have capitulated had we not entered the war.
Lawson did a wonderful job describing not only the Lusitania and her people, but President Wilson’s life at the time and life aboard a WW1 German U-Boat. I was surprised at how advanced submarines were 101 years ago.
If you’d like to take a trip back to those times, this is an excellent read.