"Anniversaries" is a tetralogy, and only two parts are translated into English. Thats a little unfortunate because it certainly is one of the most complete description of german history immediately before and after World War II. I also find it the most subtle and terrifying description of how the Nazis took power in Germany. I read all four parts in German and find that the first two parts are the best ones, so that you do not miss too much by not having the last two at hand.
Johnson tells the story of Gesine Cresspahl, who was born in Eastern Germany and now lives in New York with her 10 year old daughter. The book is structured like a diary, with an every day entry from August 1967 to August 1968. But it is not really a diary, because it is not her who writes the entries. Instead she "gave the right" to the writer to write down her thoughts, conversations and experiences during these 365 days. This style is somewhat similar to James Joyce' Ulysses, but certainly not directly comparable.
But the diary does not only refer to Gesine's life in New York, but it also refers to important experiences she made during her childhood and youth in pre-and post war Germany. In that way, Johnson contrasts Gesines life in modern New York to her childhood in rural Eastern Germany. He draws a huge panorama of 4 decades, starting with the raise of the Nazis in Germany, continuing with WWII, Soviet Occupation, beginning of the Cold War, modern life in US and the racial tensions of the 60's and ending with the Massacre in Prague in 1968.
It certainly is a major task to organize so much material, and most books choosing such a wide focus do fail completely (for example "Middlesex"). Not so "Anniversary". By using the diary-structure, Johnson really manages the huge amount of material quite well and keeps track of all the major and minor storylines without loosing the reader.
The book starts a little slowly, introducing us to the Cresspahl family living in a little Eastern German village at the beginning of the 30's. Quite soon we see the first signs of rising National Socialism: Some inhabitants of this village start to bad-mouthing the small Jewish community, and initially their old friend still support them. But this changes soon. The Nazis become stronger, and trying to keep their stakes, most people give up their relationships to the Jewish.
It is the major strength of the book to desribe this process of a slowly emerging dictatorship in a very subtle way. By focussing on a very small village where everybody knows each other, this process becomes the more terrifying. It is the best description of pre-WWII Germany I have read so far, and it is completely contained in the first 2 books.
The last two books, which are not in this edition, are considerably weaker and do not deserve 4 stars. Especially the third one which basically describes the transition phase between the end of WWII and separation of the 2 Germanies is not so good. The fourth part proceeds with the beginning of the Soviet Dictatorship, and we learn that people have not learned so much from Nazi-Germany so much, after all. But that does not only apply to Germans, it applies to us all and teaches us that we do have to fight every day for democracy and equal rights and that we should not tolerate any intolerance.