Book review: The German War: A Nation Under Arms: 1939-45

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_german_warNicolas Stargardt’s The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, is a social history of an extraordinary kind, providing an English language account of what in effect was ordinary life in Germany during the second world war, within a shattering context of bombs, genocide, food shortages and mass moral turpitude.

Stargardt quotes a German soldier writing to his fiancée: “The life of this generation seems to me to be measured by catastrophes”. This note came toward the end of the war, and sums up how the attitudes of many Germans evolved during the period of the war. Originally, there was widespread disquiet at the start of another war with memories of the defeat and starvation of World War 1 still all too real. The national mood changed though, toward euphoria, when Hitler’s armies won stunning victories in Poland, France, Norway and the Low Countries.

But as the bombs started raining down on city after city from as many as 1,000 British and American bombers, morale slumped. In May 1942, even before bombing of civilian targets became widespread, the Swiss consul in Cologne, Franz-Rudolf Weiss noted that civilian morale was “well below zero”. However, as occurred in Britain in 1940-41, the bombing developed a strong resilience among the population, with local and national authorities and ordinary folk rushing in to help. In the March 5 raid on Essen, Carola Reisner was quoted as saying that it was “really amazing with what heroic resilience and lack of complaint everything is endured here”.

The fact that this 681-page book (inclusive of bibliography and notes) includes a mass of personal reflections taken from personal letters and diaries of soldiers from the rank and file to generals to ordinary folk, artists and poets is but one illustration of the deep shaft of research that has been undertaken by Stargardt. The book also includes the results of in-depth research of official documents, including some from the Security Service (SD) , a security section of the SS in charge of foreign and domestic intelligence and espionage which produced frequent commentaries on the social conditions within the country as the war was waged.

A profoundly important result of reading this book is the understanding that ordinary Germans “knew”. They knew of the deportation and massacres of Jews, undesirable citizens of their own country and thousands of others in occupied countries. They knew of the use of slave labour and the inhumane conditions forced upon these peoples, and they knew that the peoples of occupied countries were starving, in order to maintain food supplies for Germans. And at the end of the war, Stargardt clearly documents that many, if not most Germans, turned a blind eye – “we just followed orders” or “this was a war brought upon us – not our fault”.

This is an outstanding and important history written by one of the foremost historians of Nazi Germany.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The German War: A National Under Arms, 1939-45
by Nicholas Stargardt
Published by The Bodley Head
ISBN: 9781847921000

Book review: The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook

This book is available in bookstores now.

Have you ever thought about what happens after acv_the_aftermath war in which you were on the losing side? Specifically, when your country was invaded and your side lost? For some, it is unimaginable. For others, it will be all too real. One of the strengths of Rhidian Brook’s third novel, The Aftermath, is the way that in this era of global conflict, with refugees and reconstruction missions so constantly in the news, a story set sixty years ago will resonate with people going through, or at least observing, the same thing going on today.

The Aftermath is set largely in Hamburg, Germany, immediately after the second world war. Brook acknowledges inspiration from his grandfather, who requisitioned a house there in 1946, and he constructs a story that shows the rebuilding of post-war lives in a way that is both fascinating and horrifying. His website says the book is being translated into twenty-three languages. Assuming one of those languages is German its audience there will, perhaps, react with more emotion than any other.


Hamburg post-WW2

Those who remember what it was like in Europe in the post-war years are rapidly dwindling in number. My own grandparents, gone now, were in their late teens and early twenties in 1939-1945. My parents were both war babies, and grew up in a time of ration books and austerity. But those days were over by the time they were in their teens, and their remembered youth was more milk bars and mods, Bill Haley and Elvis, motorbikes and day trips to Clacton-on-Sea.

Rhidian Brook’s novel shows us that immediate post-war austerity, from the perspective of both the British who were sent to help Germany rebuild, as well as the Germans who survived. Can you imagine the reaction of the British as their government sent food, supplies and manpower to a country that was, last month, still killing their young men, while children at home went hungry? Can you imagine what it was like to have all semblance of civilisation stripped away – your mayor, your government, your everything – before surrender, and now be faced with the very soldiers who were killing your families arriving and throwing you out of your house?

Once the emotion of the events that frame the novel settle down, the story is somewhat more conventional. The novel hinges on the decision by Lewis Morgan, a British Army Colonel who is allocated a substantial and beautiful house next to the Elbe in Hamburg, to allow the Luberts, whose house it is, to remain living there alongside him and his family. This is highly unusual, and draws concern and criticism from Lewis’s fellow officers, but he insists that to do otherwise would be the opposite of what they are trying to achieve – the rehabilitation of a people and the rebuilding of a country.

It seems almost inevitable that the attention of Rachael, Lewis’s wife, is drawn away from the reserved, English Army officer, always busy with his important work, towards the interesting, cultured and strong-minded Lubert, whose own wife was killed in the war. After all, Lewis is hardly ever home. Lewis and Rachael had their own wartime tragedy which they’ve never come to terms with. And, for his part, Lewis is attracted to the intelligent, interesting women working for the government, helping rebuild a conquered country. Multi-lingual, well read and bright-eyed, they tempt him.

Around these intensely personal and emotional interactions, there is the horrific backdrop of a devastated nation. A city like Hamburg, especially, with its important port, was flattened. There were no services, no government, no jobs. Children roamed the streets scavenging food and cigarettes. Ordinary German men and women were demoralised, destroyed. Brook carefully lets us know that the world is not black and white. Some British army officers are coarse, corrupt and cruel. The Allies were at war with Germany, not all Germans. There are people on both sides who wish the war had never happened, and those on both sides who wish it hadn’t ended. And, in the background, there are the international tensions that led to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

The Aftermath, for all its darkness, is a story of hope and it is that which perhaps makes it a lesser novel than it could have been. Its strength is that it shows us a time and place few can remember and few have written about, at least in fiction. It reminds us that winning and losing in war is a relative concept. To be on the losing side – if you survived – is to be denied your very existence and identity, and to be the victor brings extraordinary responsibilities towards the same people who were, yesterday, your mortal enemies.

The book’s weakness is to pick, as it reaches its conclusion, a slice of that time and place where humanity, compassion and good fortune triumph. It is not that the books ends on a happy note – everyone here is damaged beyond repair – but I couldn’t help but think that for most of the people who found themselves in these kinds of circumstances, in the late 1940s, in places like Hamburg or Bonn or Frankfurt, things ended less well.

I believe The Aftermath would have been even stronger with a less redemptive ending. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly written, deeply moving and makes a very strong addition to the collection of novels – by the likes of Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, John le Carre and William Boyd – about the wars and related events that shaped 20th century Europe.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Aftermath
by Rhidian Brook
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780670921126

Book review: A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo

This book is in bookshops now

I was looking forward to reading award-winning author Michael Morpurgo’s A Medal for Leroy because, although I haven’t read any of his other books I have heard of a number of them, and am a big fan of the theatre play War Horse, based on Morpurgo’s novel of the same name. However, I have to hope that A Medal for Leroy is a departure from his usual form as I did not find it to be inspiring or engaging, and it left me with a distinct feeling of ‘so what?’

I realise that I am not the target demographic for this children’s book, but this, I felt, was one of the problems with the book – it was very unclear at which age group it was aimed. The narrator, Michael, is telling the story of events in his life when he was first 8, and then 13, but is retelling these events as an old man. The ‘voice’ of Michael feels very much like an older person telling a boy’s story, and I’m not sure it would capture or really ‘speak to’ its young audience. The book opens and closes with present-day Michael, but the promise of the suspenseful opening pages, which leave us initially wondering what is happening and why, is never really fulfilled.

The story suffers from over complexity. Ostensibly about Michael at three different ages, the bulk of the story actually concerns the lives of his father and grandfather who died in the second and first World Wars respectively. A significant chunk of the story is told via a letter from Michael’s ‘Aunt Snowflake’, who turns out to be his grandmother. The ‘twist’ whereby all the dogs are named Jasper just served to add to the confusion. I found myself constantly having to flick backwards and forwards to remember whether we were in Leroy’s story, Roy’s story, or Michael’s. And all this in 200-odd pages of fairly large type!

The themes were also quite adult for a children’s story. Dialogue about intercultural relationships, single parenthood and racism all run through the story, and because of the historical context of the book it did not feel like these issues would be easily comprehensible to a child reader. The pace was quite slow and all the “action” happened at a distance, either being relayed by letter, or through someone telling a story about something that happened years ago. This really distanced me from the core of the story, and it didn’t feel like any of the action was really big or important or relevant to Michael either.

Having said all that, I particularly like the characters of Aunty Pish and Aunty Snowflake, and I could tell that this particular story was one the author was passionate about telling.

Perhaps making it a longer story for older readers, told in context rather at a remove, would have made it a more engaging read. I will persevere and read other of Morpurgo’s work and would recommend those new to his work to start with some of his award-winning works before considering this one.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

A Medal for Leroy
by Michael Morpurgo
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780007363582