For a book written about a man in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, Seelenbinder reads more like a casual conversation in a café than the biography of an Olympic wrestler and member of the Resistance.
James McNeish manages to deliver this story in an easy and comfortable manner, seemingly writing more for the reader than for the history books. He blends together historical facts and events with his own style of storytelling, inventing conversations and painting Seelenbinder’s life for us in interesting colours. He talks to the reader at times, inviting us into his process of writing, moving between his own experiences and motivations and those of his subject. Seelenbinder, the Olympian who defied Hitler comes across as a highly interesting and engrossing, if at times confronting, book about a man largely forgotten.
McNeish somehow manages to expertly combine history and fact with his own storytelling. At one point he compares himself to Scheherazade, the narrator of The Arabian Nights, saying that at times he must invent. He is open about his own writing, letting us know what is invented and what is not. At times he gives us options, different possibilities of what actually happened. These moments in McNeish’s writing are inviting, they feel casual and give life to the history. It draws you into the pages, creating an engaging story, filled with both fact and fiction.
Where his writing style is interesting and engaging, so too is his subject. After reading the book I asked my parents, who lived and grew up in Germany before the reunification, if they had ever heard of Werner Seelenbinder. By McNeish’s account, it is not surprising that they haven’t. “The process of un-naming goes on.”
Seelenbinder remains mostly forgotten, and this book feels like an appropriate stepping stone to bringing him back into history. Through McNeish we see Seelenbinder not simply as a historical or political figure (as he is often viewed), but as an interesting and complex man who endured the hardships of his time. Alongside other important figures and groups that existed in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, like the July Plotters, he seems to be an important part of German and world history, and yet remains largely forgotten.
McNeish not only tried to relay his life to us, but also deals with this issue, asking the question of why his name disappeared. His journey is just as interesting as Seelenbinder’s, and these multiple lines that run through the book create an interesting and enjoyable read. McNeish has crafted a book that is not only valuable in its exploration of the past, but also serves as an interesting tale to be told, and a unique look into the mind of an author.
Reviewed by Matthias Metzler
Seelenbinder: The man who defied Hitler
by James McNeish
Published by Steele Roberts