Hazel McHaffie

World War II

Alone in Berlin

Having just read a book about the German side of the Second World War and posted a review last week, I segued smoothly into another one about German resistance to the Nazis, which I bought at the same time.This one is Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (translated by Michael Hofmann).

The author’s own biography reads like an exaggeration but he is generally accepted as one of the foremost German writers of the twentieth century. However, after allegedly writing this book in twenty-four days, he died before Alone in Berlin was published, the victim of his own abuse of alcohol and drugs, but not before he had informed several relatives that this was a ‘great novel’. It was in fact a reworking of a real-life case to which Fallada had been given access. His contention in the book is that morality under Nazi rule was not measured by the size of the effort made to stand up against tyranny and atrocity, but by doing something, rather than simply capitulating and accepting evil. But as the afterword explains, though ‘there was substantial and heroic resistance to the Nazi regime at all levels of German society, from aristocratic officers in the army to brutalized inmates of concentration camps … this resistance was unsuccessful, in the sense that the regime was destroyed by the foreign armies which conquered it rather than by internal rebels who overthrew it.’

The book recounts numerous small acts of defiance and rebellion on the part of many anti-Nazi dissidents, but the main story centres on the Quangels. Otto Quangel is an insignificant taciturn emotionally-stunted man working as a shop foreman in a furniture factory (now given over to producing coffins) and living with his wife Anna in a run-down tenement block in Berlin. When his only son is killed in battle during the invasion of France, he hatches a determined plan to fight back against this unjust war that has robbed them of their family and future: he will write and secretly distribute postcards, decrying the government, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage. It’s an unspectacular and unsophisticated effort, limited to a small area, but as Anna says, whether acts are big or small, no one could risk more than his life. The main thing was: you fought back in whatever way you could; tried to stay decent, have no part in the evil being perpetrated and promoted all around you. Otto tries to be vigilant, not get caught, firm in the conviction that the longer you could fight, the longer you were being effective against brutality; there was no value in dying early. Besides, he wanted to be there when the regime fell, to be able to say: we were there; we were fighting our own war.

Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo, immediately deduces the writer of the anonymous propaganda is a poorly educated workman who recently lost his only son. Give him time, and he’ll reveal more details about himself. It just requires patience and alertness and he will hunt down ‘the Hobgoblin’. But as the months go by he develops grudging admiration for this wily person whose postcards arrive in his office every week.

Two years on, 233 cards and 8 letters have reached the Gestapo. Escherich has been removed and tortured; Inspector Zott has taken over the investigation. Zott’s methodical approach leads him to very similar conclusions to his predecessor but he is convinced the postcard writer works with the city trams. This certainty allows the Quangels to avoid capture the first time they fall under suspicion, but then Otto makes a fatal mistake. And after a long patient vigil, the now-reinstated Inspector Escherich pounces, determined not to let any irregularities in procedure abort his moment of glory. By this time his painstaking mapping shows 259 cards have been handed in; and he is confident in his profiling of the sender.

But Quangel is appalled when he learns not only that a mere 18 cards have been left in circulation, but that his actions have terrorised the very people he wanted to free. ‘I never wanted that! I never thought that would happen! I wanted things to get better, I wanted people to learn the truth, so that the war would end sooner and the killing stop – that’s what I wanted! I didn’t mean to sow terror and dread, I didn’t want to make things worse than they are already! Those wretched people – and I made them even more wretched!’

The Inspector points out he didn’t stand a chance; he is a gnat pitting himself against an elephant. ‘You, an ordinary worker taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA. The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous!’

Nevertheless, it’s Quangel who emerges the moral victor. When he points out to the Gestapo officer, ‘You’re working in the employ of a murderer, delivering ever new victims to him. You do it for money; perhaps you don’t even believe in the man. No, I’m certain you don’t believe in him’  – it’s the inspector’s gaze that is lowered. He has become Otto’s only convert.

As one dissident tells a rather complacent colleague who seems content in his personal happiness with his wife and coming baby, ‘You’re robbing mothers of their sons, wives of their husbands, girlfriends of their boyfriends, as long as you tolerate thousands being shot every day and don’t lift a finger to stop the killing. … your apathy made it possible.’ Real decency demands protest. And somehow the quiet dignity and courage of this ordinary couple, even under severe provocation in prison, convey a powerful message. 

It’s a substantial tome and the English is a tribute to the translator. The rather unusual switching of tenses, points of view and perspectives, owes more to the author’s style than the translator’s, I suspect. But, to my surprise I found it held my attention effortlessly in spite of the slow pace, minimal action and limited plot. Oh, and I had to smile at Otto’s description of reading: ‘something superfluous that only high-up people went in for, people who did no proper work.’ Hmmm!

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Maritime disasters

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’m at the stage of saying: If this is Plymouth it must be Sunday! But in zooming from the Outer Hebrides to Devon with trips to assorted cities in between, there’s been ample opportunity to appreciate what a beautiful country we live in. With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, everything lush and flowering, the countryside is glowing in its prime.

But one evening stroll brought me back to earth in a quite unexpected way. It was Monday: then this much be Lichfield!

Lichfield is a place I’ve never visited before and expected only to overnight in, but events required a second day there leaving an evening free to explore. And what a lovely city it is – especially when the cathedral bells are peeling out during Monday night practice! My footsteps took me to the parks and there I found a statue of Commander Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. We’ve all heard of the ship of course, but how many knew its captain, I wonder? Not I.

My thoughts unravelled to a book I’ve just finished reading: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. The Titanic, the Lusitania … yes, their names are embedded in our vocabulary. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And yet this ship was at the centre of the worst disaster in maritime history. Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went down; 9400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland in 1945.

This historical fiction breathes life into a neglected tragedy. It’s a young adult novel set during World War II, beginning in January 1945, as the Third Reich was beginning to collapse. The Russians were gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, got underway. Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region migrated to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans.

Four young people lie at the centre of this tale; four very different characters, all bearing haunting secrets, all seeking to flee from those who hunt them. Emilia is a shy pregnant Polish teenager pretending to be Latvian. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse full of compassion but weighed down by guilt. Florian is a Prussian with a ruthless agenda, carrying a priceless stolen artefact. German Alfred is bent on showing the world he’s a hero, though in reality a coward at heart, living in a fantasy world. No one knows whom they can trust. Their disparate circumstances bring them together on the Wilhelm Gustloff as they join the teeming masses desperately seeking safety and freedom.

By the time the deadly torpedoes are unleashed we know something of the scenes of horror and destruction these young eyes have witnessed, we know their private burdens, we’re willing them to reach their goal. Unlike them we know what lies ahead, but that foreknowledge takes nothing away from the tension of Sepetys’ writing. Extremely short chapters, brisk sentences, one voice at a time taking its turn, sparse language, everything conveys the perspectives of youth and tentative lives lived minute by minute.

Salt of the Sea was loaned to me by my youngest granddaughter, aged thirteen, herself an avid reader. It’s written for her age group but well worth the attention of any age. And a sobering reminder of the tragedy of war and how quickly sacrifice and hardship can be forgotten. Our present day comfortable lives are built upon the sacrifice of others; let’s not forget.

 

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Truth stranger than fiction

Normally I stay clear of religion and politics in my blog, but this week I just can’t ignore the craziness bombarding us. There comes a time when staying within the safe and respectable writerly world, simply won’t do.

We’re rather inured to improbable happenings on our screens in dramas, aren’t we? Professors of neurosurgery who beat the living daylights out of a colleague who taunts them, and then walk straight into theatre and perform some intricate ground-breaking surgery on a patient to widespread acclaim. High ranking detectives who get suspects into quiet corners and extract information by foul means. All without repercussions. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And yet, reviewers are wont to criticise authors quite harshly if their characters don’t ring true; a person in that position in those circumstances just wouldn’t behave like this, wouldn’t say that.

Well, if I were to include in my novels some of the real-life activities in the news recently, I’d be accused of writing unbelievable fiction too. Or dubious hyperbole, at the very least. I ask you.

Mature (in years) men, MEPs, indeed, brawling … abroad  … when they are supposed to be representing their country …?

High ranking ministers promoting harsh discriminatory ideas completely opposed to views they themselves expressed as their deeply-held beliefs when they were lower down the food chain … ?

A last-lap US presidential nominee, bidding to lead the largest and most powerful free country in the world, who has already openly scorned many minority groups (eg muslims, immigrants), now admitting he has sexually abused women …, seeing them as the entitlement of any ‘alpha male’ … especially ‘a star’ …?

Hugely important questions about Brexit being decided by a tiny cabal with neither MPs or the people having a say …?

Large numbers of high-earning BBC employees being accused of dodging taxes …?

Hmmm. Looking at this list I note they’re all except one about politicians. Houses of ParliamentOK, I could develop that theme but it could get nasty, so instead I’ll share my thinking about the matter of credulity.

Decent civilised people living in decent civilised communities tend to assume the integrity and honesty of public and professional figures. We want to trust doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, clergy, royals, social workers … we want our children to be able to trust them. But coming on top of all the scandals exposed by the media in recent years, these current horrors challenge our credulity. Can this really be happening? How is it possible? The more I thought about this, though, the more I realised that this is the stuff of thrillers. When apparently trustworthy people step outside the boundaries of the acceptable and believable. Unreliable narrators, unscrupulous colleagues, immoral perpetrators.

Shutter IslandFor example, this week I watched the film Shutter Island, a disturbing glimpse inside the world of insanity. US marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) is sent to Boston’s high security prison for the criminally insane, on a remote hurricane-blasted island, to investigate the disappearance of a female murderess. Daniels himself has a traumatic past having witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities at Dachau and lived through his wife’s murder. But on the island he is determined to gain access to the ward where the most dangerous patients are housed, a ward in a lighthouse to which the medical team are denying him entry. It’s a film that challenges received wisdom, professional facades, and the limits of humanity. What is believable? Can I trust what I’m seeing and hearing?

Nor is it just thrillers that do this. I’ve also been reading All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a beautifully written, haunting novel about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan German boy, Werner, whose paths cross in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It’s by no means a thriller, but inevitably there are troubling scenes that make us question just how far humans can sink and still retain their humanity. Happenings which Marie-Laure’s great uncle says ‘sound like something a sixth-former would make up.’ In other words, unbelievable. But of course we today know about the atrocities of that era, and much as we might inwardly recoil and think, Surely not, we know these things were real and do/did happen. They become utterly credible in a spine chilling kind of way.

Spine chilling. Now that’s what I’m pondering in my own writing at the moment. I’ve always worked consciously to make my characters believable. For each book I’ve asked a raft of experts as well as discerning readers, to check the manuscript for credibility before it goes for publication. But I’m starting to wonder if any of us can predict how low human beings can sink, or how unlikely any extreme behaviours really are. And now that I’m experimenting with thriller-writing, perhaps I can push the boundaries further in my writing about a young mother who exhibits pathological behaviour, without being condemned by the literary critics. Certainly I need to keep pushing that ‘What if’ button. See how far I can go.

 

 

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