2

Portrait of a Husband

Back when I first read The Scent of Secrets, Jane Thynne’s series centred on a German movie star/spy, I expressed an interest in learning more about the Nazi wives.

Well, when I was at Powell’s last year, I found Magda Goebbels: The First Lady of the Third Reich by Hans-Otto Meissner. I didn’t even hesitate picking it up.

This book was published in German in 1978. Meissner begins the book by telling readers that although his own father, Dr. Otto Meissner was the head of the Reich Presidential Administration from 1919 until 1945, he and his father were both acquitted of wrongdoing during the de-Nazification tribunal in 1947.

whoa.gif

That’s part of what makes this book so compelling: the author knew his subject. They socialized together! Her friends felt comfortable telling him stories afterwards because they were all part of the same social circle.

This was always going to be an interesting book – Magda Goebbels was married to the man in charge of Nazi propaganda! She died with him at the very end, taking their six young children with them. The fact that the author knew Magda and her friends added something to this book that I wasn’t expecting.

However.

This also limited Meissner. I got the sense that parts of his portrait of Magda were softened, intending to make her more of a victim than a perpetrator. In speaking with some of her friends, he agreed to keep some names out of the book because they were still living and quite well known. In this way, Meissner reminds readers that he was on the inside, and we are not.

The biggest issue I had with this book though (and if you’ve kicked around here for a while, you won’t be surprised) was that for much of the book Meissner looks at Joseph Goebbels.

Look, obviously Joseph Goebbels was a big deal. But I didn’t pick up the book Magda Goebbels to read all about Joseph’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Like, is it so impossible for those who write biographies about women to just write about the women? Yes, sometimes their husband’s work or personality has bearing on what happens (and that’s certainly true here) but the focus should still always be on the women. Whole chapters of this book were dedicated to Joseph Goebbels and his education and how he became a Nazi. Overall, I still don’t feel like I know anything more about Magda.

In the end, Meissner scored some points with me for ending his book thus:

If there is a hell and its ruler incarnate, Goebbels would presumably have been greeted warmly as a kinsman. A place at the devil’s table must long since have been kept for the monster who so richly deserved it, right next to the Prince of Darkness himself.

I mean, damn. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a biography where the biographer inserts himself so fully into the book. It was an interesting experience and no doubt I would have enjoyed it so much more had I actually come to understand Magda Goebbels herself at all.

I’m still on the lookout for more books about Magda and the other Nazi wives…

7

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Reading John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness was like a revelation. It was excruciating and exquisite and so, so powerful.

When given the chance to read his latest, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, I was all over it.

boy mtnIn 1936 Paris, Pierrot lives with his French mother and German father. His father is shattered by his experiences in the First World War and as the mood towards Germans shift, he starts to drink more and more. Pierrot’s best friend is a deaf Jewish boy who lives downstairs. When Pierrot is left an orphan, he ends up in the care of his father’s sister, Beatrix, who he has never met. He has to leave behind everything he knows: his school, his home, his best friend, his dog.

Beatrix works as a housekeeper at the Berghof, Hitler’s alpine retreat. Eight year old Pierrot becomes Pieter as he falls in thrall to Hitler, the Fuhrer taking a shine to the young man. As he grows up at the Berghof and as the war hurtles forward towards it’s horrific apex, Pieter must decide where his loyalties lie.

This book was so good. It’s only 215 pages – I think it’s actually meant as a children’s book – but it is such a perfectly crafted little story. I loved this idea of a child under the care of Hitler (ok, loved is maybe the wrong word. I loved it as a plot device. As an actual thing, it’s obviously terrifying), away from the actual consequences of actions. Boyne does an incredible job of illustrating the climate of the time, how easy it was to get caught up in the furor over the Fuhrer.

And the end! The end was masterful. Oh, I was delighted by the end.

What Boyne has done here, create a story about an incredibly dark period in human history that is suitable for children and adults, is no small feat.

15

Spy Game: The Scent of Secrets

You may recall that I’m a big fan of historical fiction but that I’d been having a hard time finding something to really get me excited. The Storms of War and The King’s Curse had been rare bright spots in my historical fiction quest.

But you know what? I feel like maybe the tide is turning and I’m going to have more good luck than bad going forward.

I just finished reading The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne, the first book in a promised trilogy, and it was fantastic.

secrets

Clara Vine is a half English, half German (with a Jewish grandmother) actress living in Berlin in 1938. She is popular enough to have her likeness on trading cards cigarette companies are pumping out to promote German culture. And she’s a spy.

A former lover had trained her to be a spy and she’s just waiting to find out when she will be needed. When her assignment comes through it’s a big one: befriend Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun. Her work takes her to Paris, Berlin and Munich, crossing paths with Chanel, Himmler and Dr. Goebbels.

I’ve read a LOT about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve read a biography of Eva Braun, of Hitler, Coco Chanel, a book about the Ritz during the War, I read about the women who did Hitler’s dirty work and what it was like to live in Germany at the time, about what it was like working to try and stop it and so, so much on the Final Solution to the Jewish “Problem.” Considering how much non-fiction I’ve read about this era, this book could have been a re-hashing on a fictional level, leaving me bored.

But it didn’t. Not even a little bit. Thynne must have been reading the same material as I have (and then some) because her book was littered with all kinds of details that I want to know more about. For example, the wives of the Nazi elite Emmy Goering, Magda Goebbels and Lina Heydrich were just as dangerous and powerful as their husbands and I want to read a whole book about them! Thynne also introduced me to Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the fuhrerin, who was essentially the female Hitler, charged with making sure that all German women were doing their part for the new German Reich – namely marrying Aryan men and having at least six children. Scholtz-Klink sounds like a terrifying woman, she really existed and I would like to read more about her.

I liked this book a lot, I liked Clara and the way she was insinuated into historical fact. I loved that Eva Braun was getting a bit more time on the stage, so to speak – I’ve always felt sorry for her. But what really made this Nazi spy story so great was the amount of detail Thynne has woven into the story. It doesn’t hurt either that she uses a female spy. She really creates a sense of time and place, of the fear that was so prevalent, of how all-encompassing the Nazi way of life really was. Take for example, this passage about German toys:

“Rosa had that morning been sent out to buy puzzle games with pieces of wood that spelled out the name Adolf Hitler, a spelling book – A is for Adolf, B is for Bormann, et cetera – and a mobile with the face of Hitler to hang above a baby’s cot. There were card games too, like the one where players competed to collect the top Nazi leaders, with Hitler, of course, worth the maximum number of points. All these toys would be demonstrated to the women’s leaders in their sessions on childhood indoctrination…”

A Hitler mobile for a crib? The stuff of f*%#ing nightmares.

The Scent of Secrets was a great read and I’m looking out for the next installment!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book. 

8

A Haunting Account: Underground in Berlin

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Growing up with a mother who had survived the war in Holland, my mother was taught to revile Germans. By no means was that unique. There are still tons of Dutch people that have no time for Germans. So for my mom, the chance to read Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon, was eye opening. She told me afterwards that she’d never read a story about the other side, about the German experience during the war.

berlin

At the end of her life, Marie Jalowicz Simon’s son convinced her to finally tell the whole story of her experiences during the war. As a young Jewish woman, she was at risk from 1933 onwards. By the early 1940s, both of her parents were dead and she had only herself and a small network of friends to rely on to keep her safe. For 1942, Marie spent a couple of weeks at a time in different households, sometimes hiding completely, sitting in a chair all day afraid to make any noise, at other times passed off as a visiting relative, always afraid lest a neighbour ask too many questions.

From 1943 until early 1945 she managed to lead what was almost a normal life. But it was still filled with fear, sacrifice, and always ensuring that her true identity was hidden. Food was scarce, buying anything involved a complicated ritual of ration coupons, registered all over the city and standing in line for hours just to get a nominal amount of flour or meat. I was annoyed by the constant mention of “ersatz coffee” until I clued in to the fact that this was an actual thing: “coffee” made from roasted rice, peas and chicory to mimic real coffee.

When Marie finally told her story, she did so orally. Over a period of several months, she filled 77 tapes and her son then transcribed those tapes. As she told the story, her son researched what she told him to see if it matched up with what was known about that period of time in Berlin. He was surprised (and his mother gratified) to learn that her memories did match.

Because of the way the story was told, it feels very much like you are sitting listening to her story the same way. It doesn’t have the polish of other historical accounts of the time, but it has more heart. Marie can, at times, come across as callous and hard but when you think about what she had to live through, how she had to survive with only her wits about her, how she had to lie constantly about who she was, it’s really no wonder she sounds so harsh.

I did have a hard time getting through this book. I think this was partly because Marie does seem so distant from the story – a coping mechanism no doubt. It was also that I found it difficult to keep a lot of the people straight. The people helping her would drift in and out of the story and it took me some time to put it altogether.

Nonetheless this is a powerful account of what it was like to actually live in Berlin at the time, to live through one of the cruelest epochs in human history as the kind of person that your country reviles. And for that reason it’s worth reading.

1

The Book Thief

I recently stole The Book Thief from my sister.

True story.

She’s probably not going to get it back.

Someone that I worked with a few years ago told me that I had to read it. That I would love it. That it would change my life.

When someone tells you that about a book, my immediate reaction is always to kind of dismiss it. I am totally comfortable making those kinds of recommendations to other people but horrible at taking the advice myself. My book club participation has definitely made me more open minded about reading recommendations.

It still took me a long time to get around to actually reading it.

It’s one of my new favourite books, despite the fact that I was basically hysterical by the time I finished it (and trying to sob quietly because I was sitting with my boyfriend and he always laughs at me when I cry at movies or books.)

Death narrates the tale of The Book Thief. Liesel Meninger is the daughter of a Communist that is left with foster parents in Bavaria following the death of her little brother on a train. She never sees her mother again but is soon comfortably ensconced in the world of Himmel Street. In the madness of Nazi Germany, Liesel learns to read and soon enough, words and stories and most of all books, come to mean everything to her (who can’t relate to that?) Unfortunately for Liesel and all of the people that she loves, the war and Death are coming ever closer.

I’m doing a horrible job explaining this book. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the last people on the planet to have read it anyway, so you probably already know that it is an incredible story. Liesel grows from this terrified, sulky little girl into a curious, defiant young woman, with incredibly strong convictions. And it’s honestly down to the power of books that she’s able to make it through one of the most heinous epochs in history. It’s not often that a story about Nazi Germany is told from the sympathetic perspective of the Germans, but this story is a very human one. Obviously there are those in the neighbourhood that are Nazis, like the woman that owns the candy shop, or the camp guards that parade Jews through the streets on their way to Dachau. Everyone of age is a participant in the Hitler Youth, although Liesel’s best friend Rudy does make life difficult for himself by constantly undermining his leader. The people in Himmel street are hard working and suffering from the decisions made for them by their leader. They are struggling financially and when the bombs start to fall from the sky and the men start leaving for the front, things become tough emotionally too.

I loved this book. So much. The end was devastatingly heart breaking but so perfect too. It was actually hard to read – you kind of knew something horrible was coming, Death had been foreshadowing it for pretty much the entire book. But I was still completely devastated, and kind of felt ill reading it. I was that invested.

The Book Thief is an incredible book. I loved it so much and there is no way that my sister is going to get it back.

4

In The Garden of Beasts

Don’t judge, but I’ve always been completely fascinated by Nazi Germany, Hitler and the Third Reich. I know, totally creepy and weird and not something one admits to in polite company, but there we are.

Let’s be clear here. I’m fascinated by the time and the set of circumstances that allowed a completely deranged, angry little man to throw the world into war and terror and all manner of horrible things. I find the personalities completely fascinating. I’ve managed to read almost the entire biography of Hitler that Ian Kershaw put together (probably the heaviest book I own), I loved Angela Lambert’s The Secret Life of Eva Braun and I constantly have to stop myself from buying biographies of other Nazi notables like Himmler and Goebbels because, let’s face it, people will start to think terrible things about me.

That being said, I didn’t stop myself from picking up In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Having read Larson’s account of America’s first serial killer in The Devil in the White City, I knew that I would love it.

You may have heard of In the Garden of Beasts – it’s been on Bestseller Lists and Top 10s all over the place because it is a masterpiece. Erik Larson is incredibly gifted when it comes to novelistic history.

William E. Dodd was just a history professor in the twilight of his career, hoping for a simple ambassador job somewhere undemanding that would allow him to finish his 4 part series on the American South. He ends up getting sent to Berlin in 1933, just after Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany, but before he has managed to assume complete power. Dodd brings his family – wife Mattie, son Bill Jr., and daughter Martha – and in short order all are comfortably ensconced in the social hierarchy of Nazi Germany.

Mattie and Bill Jr. soon fall away from the story – they make appearances when warranted but the story is mainly about Dodd Sr. and Martha. Dodd Sr. begins to understand that America needs to take a stand against Hitler in the face of all the horrible things that are being done to Jews (despite the fact that Dodd is an anti-Semite himself) but everyone back home is working against him, focused on the fact that Germany has defaulted on payments from the Great War and on keeping America out of any future European conflicts.

Martha, meanwhile, is completely infatuated with Nazism. She believes that its wonderful and just what Germany needs. Until she begins to witness assaults in the street, her friends disappear and some of her romantic conquests fear for their lives.

The book isn’t terribly long. With about 50 pages left to go my heart was hammering in my chest and I was reading while I was walking down the street (dangerous pastime if you know me) because, despite having an idea of how this was going to end, I needed to know.

What’s unique about this book on Nazi Germany is that it really focuses on that one pivotal year, the first year (of nearly 4) that the Dodds were in Germany. They were there when Hindenburg died, during the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler ruthlessly took military control and as it became clear the Germany was no longer safe for any “undesirables.” I always have trouble with the military aspect of any books about WWII, but this book leaves all of that out. As far as everyone knew, in 1933/34 Hitler wanted peace for Germany and for Europe. But those who were able to see a little bit further than the ends of their own noses, they understood that Hitler would never settle for what was best for Europe as a whole. He wanted revenge.

Sadly no one else listened to the few.

In the Garden of Beasts is in paperback now, which is even more reason to pick it up for yourself.