Introduction to Gaither Stewart’s Trails of Memory: A Century of Nazism, by Rowan Wolf

Charlottesville "Unite the Right" Rally

Image by Anthony Crider via Flickr

Sent to Dandelion Salad by Gaither Stewart

by Rowan Wolf
November 30, 2021

I did not realize until I read Trails of Memory – A Century of Nazism how much that time and political movement has harmonics in this time. I am in the U.S., where decades of effort on the part of one of the major political parties – Republicans – moved them, and perhaps the nation, deeper and deeper to the right. At the same time, the efforts of capitalists continued to break the bonds of community and the treads of continuity, while the broader efforts of Republicans created a more jaded and less informed public. I did know from my studies of white nationalism that it was an ideology that actively spanned continents and was not just contained to North America. Likewise, this movement towards right-wing populism is not confined to the United States, and it is not the only nation experiencing the awful allure of strongman leaders with dreams of dictatorial rule.

Mr. Stewart spoke with me about his idea to write Trails of Memory – A Century of Nazism and merge it with the short stories of Words Unspoken. Being familiar with the latter but not with the former, I thought it sounded like an okay idea. However, I did not have a lot of enthusiasm for the proposal. When Stewart sent me a draft of Trails, I had a much clearer idea of his vision, but more importantly a new insight into Stewart’s works of historical fiction. Between his study of history and his own life experiences, he brings life to his stories that truly does make history live again in the lives of “ordinary” people.

Gaither Stewart is an experienced, if unwitting, time traveler and his short stories convey us to the streets and locales of another time. We walk in the shoes of his characters who live in that time. I feel ashamed that I missed this aspect of Stewart’s craft. My awareness of my blindness was corrected when I read in his own words and experience the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, and how the aftermath of that war shaped the lives of millions of people, and the world.

Trails of Memory – A Century of Nazism reflects Gaither Stewart’s own experience of living in the WWII conflict zones with the people who survived that war. He shares the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party through the eyes of the people rather than those of a politician or the historian. There is a rich mingling of Mr. Stewart’s own experience and the experiences of the people he walks among. Just as in a different way we enter the lives of these people in many of his short stories, but most especially in Words Unspoken.

This dance of historical construction (Trails of Memory) and historical Novel (Words Unspoken) is an excellent read. However, there is a magic here for those who would toss aside history, even historical fiction, as a waste of time in the modern era. I would argue that we have reentered a brave old world as we watch the rise of the dictators and various forms of nationalism. I think we desperately need to understand what we are facing, and where the landmines might well be planted. We need to know how fragile is stability.

One might ask why history is important, though I suspect most readers of this book would never question that premise. For others, the simple answer is “so we don’t repeat our mistakes”. That answer has been given so often that it is trite and likely many do not pause over what it means to “repeat our mistakes”, or for that matter, to repeat our successes. On the individual level when we repeat our mistakes it may bring us pain or frustration. On the collective level our mistakes are amplified geometrically. This points to the difference between “biography” (the individual’s story) and history (the collective’s experience). History is more than the individual experiences of people added together. The whole is certainly more than the sum of its parts. However, repeating our mistakes – individually or collectively – means that we have not grown. The same is true if we repeat out “successes” over and over again. I hope, and hope that you join me, that over time we become wiser and better versions of ourselves.

This is where works such as this by Gaither Stewart are important. Here, he shares a significant slice of his personal journey and his understanding gained from it, joined together with a fine work of historical fiction. Stewart writes on his perspective of the importance of historical fiction in the Forward of Words Unspoken. For me, Stewart’s words in Trails of Memory brought things about the rise of Hitler, and of Nazism to a clarity I had lacked before. It also illuminated some of the events of our current times and challenges. Further, it brought a new appreciation for Words Unspoken.

My understanding of Hitler and the spread of Nazism across Europe has largely been learned from books. Most Americans I have known who lived through that had no desire to talk about it, or only about how things were in the U.S. at that time. Most did not have Stewart’s experience of an outsider’s eyes and a journalist’s thirst for the real story living in those places where tanks rolled, bombs dropped, and so many went to their death. Most Americans have little connection to the true losses of war. Maybe that is why we seem to support U.S. military intervention “over there”. Not since the Civil War has the U.S. been face to face with those losses. Perhaps that is why so many seem so eager to repeat that war, hoping for a different outcome. That is not the experience of most of the people on the planet who know all too well the horror that war brings.

Given all of that one has to ask why across the world, including where the ugly face of war and nationalism has been experienced, we seem to be rushing into the modern rendition of that era? It is at the worst of times since we are already experiencing the devastation of global warming. This is a time when we need to be seeing ourselves as having a common struggle to pull us together. Instead, we seem to be falling apart at the seams and repeating the worst of our collective mistakes. It also makes these works by Stewart very timely. I believe they can touch you in unexpected ways and bring unexpected insights. It is not too late to turn from the treadmill and step onto the next step of our journey.

Rowan Wolf is a sociologist, writer and activist with life long engagement in social justice, peace, environmental, and animal rights movements. Her research and writing include issues of imperialism, oppression, global capitalism, peak resources, global warming, and environmental degradation. She taught sociology for twenty-two years, was a member of the City of Portland’s Peak Oil Task Force, and maintains her own site Uncommon Thought Journal. She may be reached by email at

Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was published by Punto Press. His latest book is Trails of Memory: A Century of Nazism and his previous book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).

From the archives:

A Dystopian Hellscape Beckons: 21 Dark Clouds Over 2021 Amerika, by Paul Street

Hapless Biden Administration Is Weimar Republic on Way to U.S. Fascism, by Finian Cunningham

America’s Instinctive Fascism Creeps On, by Paul Street

Warnings from Weimar + The Corporate State is Not Our Friend, by Kenn Orphan

Fascism and the Quickening of History + The Empty Theatre, by Kenn Orphan

Chris Hedges: The Collapse of Democracy in Germany’s Weimar Republic and its Descent into Fascism

The Gehlen Org + The Powers of Love and War by Gaither Stewart

The Rise of America’s Fascist Paramilitaries by Rainer Shea

Landslide… To Totalitarianism by Gaither Stewart

Words Unspoken by Gaither Stewart