Fall of the Giants—2010
Winter of the World—2012
Edge of Eternity—2014
By Ken Follett
Published by Penguin Group
I happen to be a student of history. For me, studying history is like looking at one huge story. Reading an informed and compelling history uncovers another piece of the puzzle of our past. Looking at our history from a working class perspective has given me a better understanding of current events.
Many of us feel that the immense problems we face are unsolvable. However, when I look at history I see many stories of people who experienced much more difficult times, but were able to participate in struggles that made this a better world.
Some of the best histories that I’ve read are biographies. The authors of these books examined the life and times of their subjects. In doing this, we can gain an appreciation of how individuals have influenced our lives.
Ken Follett is a talented writer of historical fiction. He has amassed an immense amount of information to give us a three volume fictional portrayal of the twentieth century. In this effort, we see the day-to-day lives of families living in the United States, Britain, Germany, and Russia.
While the writer of nonfiction must stick religiously to the facts, Follett used the facts of history to create his own story. Clearly, this has been effective since Follett has sold about 130 million books in total.
While these books have deeply compelling stories, there is one big problem to Follett’s narrative. Follett appears to have a social-democratic or liberal political outlook. At the conclusion of the third volume of this series, Follett viewed the fact that Barrack Obama became President as a watershed event. In other words, it appears that Follett felt that the election of Obama to the Presidency was the culmination of all the trials and tribulations of the twentieth century.
Clearly, Black people in the United States have experienced a viciously racist past. The question is: Did the election of Obama, in any meaningful way, change that reality? The facts are that millions of people who voted for Obama also voted for Donald Trump. This happened for one basic reason. The standard of living in the United States has been deteriorating for the last forty years. Yet, President Obama made no meaningful changes in his eight years as President.
So, even though Follett’s trilogy has this and other basic problems, I found these books well worth reading. Why?
The coal mines of Wales
In The Fall of the Giants Follett introduced us to what it meant to work in the coalmines of Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. Follett lived in Wales as a child. His character started working in the mine at the age of thirteen.
Follett also wrote a book titled A Place Called Freedom that took place in the eighteenth century. In this book Follett reported that children started working at the age of seven and carried loads of seventy-five pounds every day. At that time, women carried loads of 150 pounds for fifteen hours every day.
Today many people believe that women are the weaker sex. However, in the Welsh coal mines of the eighteenth century women were significantly stronger than most men are today.
In the eighteenth and twentieth centuries we see how the drive for profits was more of a priority than the safety of the miners. One of the hazards of working in a mine is the flammable gas, that when sparked, can create a devastating explosion. Follett showed how the mine owners routinely compromised safety and the lives of the miners in their drive to maximize profits.
Then, Follett introduced us to the Welsh nobility who had literally everything money can buy. We see how this nobility viewed the gross exploitation of mine workers to be beneficial. While the mineworkers did all the necessary work, this nobility felt that they were the ones who owned the wealth, and gave the miners the opportunity to earn a living. We might argue that the capitalist class of Britain and Wales continue to believe in this absurd logic.
The Russian Revolution
One of the biggest priorities of the United States government over the past hundred years has been criticism of the government that came to power after the Russian Revolution. Clearly the primary reason for both the wars against Korea and Vietnam was the argument that communism needed to be stopped. According to the capitalist press, the government in the former Soviet Union was communist and this was a threat to the entire world.
In his Fall of the Giants Follett told a compelling story of why the Russian Revolution erupted. Rarely do we see this information in the capitalist media.
The father of two of Follett’s Russian characters was a farmer who raised cattle. One day his cattle grazed on the land of a member of the nobility. For this so-called crime this farmer was executed by hanging. His sons were forced to watch the execution of their father, so they would think twice about committing a similar offense.
Then, we see how the Russian people protested against this atmosphere in the year 1905. The Tsar’s armed guards attacked a peaceful protest and murdered about 1,000 of the participants. The mother of two of Follett’s characters was among those who were murdered.
Then, we see how the Tsar ordered millions of soldiers to go to war against Germany in the First World War. The soldiers learned that they had no chance of victory and millions would die as a result. In this atmosphere, the soldiers had little respect for the abusive commanding officers. At times, Follett showed how murdering these officers was the best way of saving the lives of the soldiers.
Along with the war came shortages of food. Workers needed to toil all day and then wait in bread lines all night so they might have access to bread in the morning. Babies died because mothers weren’t eating enough food to give their babies breast milk.
Under these conditions Russia experienced two revolutions. First to free itself from tsarist rule and then to overthrow a capitalist government that was determined not to make any basic changes.
Then, Follett portrayed a history that flies in the face of the facts. His narrative argues that the politics of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin were the same.
The facts are that Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia because they were determined to deliver on the demands of Peace, Bread, and Land. The Provisional Government did everything in their power to block those demands from becoming a reality.
Under Lenin’s leadership the many nationalities of the Soviet Union experienced a cultural flowering. Lenin organized the Third International in order to encourage a world movement of workers and farmers against the horrors of the capitalist system.
As Leon Trotsky argued, the policies of Joseph Stalin represented a betrayal of everything that Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for. He instituted a crackdown of the nationalities of the Soviet Union. He also advanced a strategy of compromise with the capitalist powers that undercut communist parties all over the world.
Ken Follett documented the effects of Stalin’s pact with Nazi Germany. The armies under the command of Adolph Hitler were able to invade the Soviet Union with little opposition. Stalin didn’t believe his own intelligence officers who gave him conclusive evidence that the Nazis were preparing to invade. This horrendous error must have cost the lives of millions. Not until the Nazi armies were outside of Moscow did the Red Army begin to stop their offensive.
Twentieth Century Germany
One of Follett’s German characters was an intelligence officer who had social democratic politics. This officer was adamantly opposed to German participation in the First World War. However, we see how the Kaiser and the German capitalist powers were adamant in extending their global empire. The capitalist powers of Britain, France, and the United States were just as adamant in extending their global control. This meant that millions of soldiers would die to decide which capitalist power would dominate the world.
Follett introduced readers to a written version of what the battlefield looked like in the First World War. He also imagined what it was like in a Christmas Eve celebration when both sides put away their arms and celebrated the holiday together.
After the war Germany needed to adhere to the Versailles Accords. This would eventually mean that one-billion German marks were worth less than a single dollar bill. Under these conditions a communist party similar to the one led by Lenin could have reorganized Germany so the needs of workers and farmers would be the top priority. Because this didn’t happen, fascists were able to organize and received huge subsidies from capitalists.
Follett’s German social democratic character argued against workers using the force of arms to defend themselves against the Nazis. In my opinion, this was the only way the fascists could have been stopped. Even prominent Nazis acknowledged that they could have easily been defeated in their early years when they were a tiny minority party.
After the Second World War, Follett showed what the reality of Berlin was like. The city was occupied mostly by women because so many men died in the war.
At this time there was horrendous poverty. Follett reported that families sold their furniture for cigarettes. These cigarettes became the best currency for purchasing necessities like food. Furniture was also burned in order to heat homes. Much of Berlin had been reduced to rubble.
We might also keep in mind another aspect to the war most people are unaware of. Many people know that the Nazis bombed civilian areas in London. However, Follett reported that these bombing raids happened as a response to British bombing raids on German civilian areas.
Today, we see how the standard of living is better in the western part of Germany than in the east. Follett reported that one of the main reasons for this was because of the massive funding by the United States under the Marshall Plan.
The United States and the Civil Rights Movement
In the last book in this series one of Follett’s main characters is a Black Harvard Law School graduate who is also a freedom rider in the civil rights movement. His name is George Jakes. Here we see how those freedom riders were attacked and beaten by racists sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.
George Jakes then uses his degree and his connections to get a job working for the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy. At this job Jakes sees one of the racists who attacked the freedom riders holding a prestigious government job.
We also see how government officials who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement compromised the goals of the movement because of political expediency. However, Follett gives his saving grace as the fact that all of these compromises at least culminated in the election of Barrack Obama to be President of the United States.
While we see many compelling stories in The Century Trilogy, Follett has one central theme to these books. He believes that his version of capitalist so-called democracy is superior to what he believes is communist totalitarianism. The evidence he uses to make this claim is his comparison of the capitalist developed nations, to the totalitarian societies of Eastern Europe. Clearly there are a few problems with this point of view.
In this trilogy Follett rarely mentions the nations of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Today we see that in these parts of the world there are billions of people who live on two dollars per day or less. In these nations hundreds of millions of people lack direct access to food, running water and electricity.
The relative underdevelopment of these nations is directly related to the development of the United States, Britain, and Germany. In fact, in the United States the economy has been transformed in the past forty years. Most manufacturing jobs have gone to these nations where wages are a tiny fraction of the wages here.
In fact, when the Stalinist Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, this signaled a clear defeat for capitalism. At that time the Stalinist government that had influence throughout the world was no more. That government had been used as a break on revolutionary movements throughout the world. One reason for the international instability we see in the world today is because there no longer is a Stalinist government that works to peacefully coexist with capitalism.
In Follett’s final volume in this series, I don’t believe he has any primary characters that are workers. The facts are that the Department of Agriculture in the United States estimates that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat. Yet, while President Obama was in office he literally dumped trillions of dollars on some of the most affluent people in the world in his quantitative easing program. Obama also cut the Food Stamps program by $8.7 billion.
Today Cuba has shown the world that it is indeed possible for humanity to escape the capitalist nightmare. Cuba is a largely underdeveloped nation. However, every Cuban has the right to a lifetime of health care and education and these services are among the best in the world.
The bottom line is one that Follett ignores completely. The resources have been available to eliminate poverty throughout the world during the entire twentieth century. This didn’t happen because capitalists made mistakes. No poverty exists because it is necessary to the day-to-day functioning of the capitalist system.
We are unable to understand the complete reality of capitalism unless we look at the fact that in the year 2008 the banks almost closed their doors. This would have had unimaginable consequences. Follett reported on some of the consequences of the last depression. Yet, this crisis has merely been postponed and workers of the world will experience a capitalist collapse in our future.
With all these limitations why did I find Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy worth reading? Looking critically at these books we see that the twentieth century was a century of struggle. We see how people continued to struggle under the most difficult conditions. Understanding this history we can have confidence that working people will continue to struggle and will have a real possibility of true liberation in the future.