Arifa Akbar: Are we ready to hear untold war stories of 'ordinary' Nazis?

Week in Books column

A film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s 2005 bestselling novel, The Book Thief, will bring familiar yet unfamiliar scenes of Nazi Germany to our cinema screens next week. They are familiar because we know this terrible story all too well: the rallies and the speeches, the goose-stepping and the book burning, Kristallnacht and the seizure of Jewish homes, properties, and finally, lives.

The scenes are unfamiliar, though, because here are Germans going to war, and cheering at the speeches, and hurling books into a town square’s burning pyre. And here is the lead character, the orphan Liesel singing the “Horst Wessel”, smiling in pigtails as she looks up to a Swastika that hangs for all to salute at the school assembly. Here we are, following the lives of ordinary townsfolk who believed in Hitler’s lies, and yet they are not rendered intrinsically evil, or cruel. In fact, they are eminently normal – even nice.

It helps that this story is a cute one, told from Liesel’s innocent-child perspective, and that of the equally cute, blue-eyed boy next door, Rudy. It also helps that Liesel’s adoptive parents (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) help a young Jewish man, who hides in their cellar for a while. And that her mother is killed for being a communist. These are the equivocals that make her, and those around her, more innocent. But they’re not all that innocent. Rush’s character goes off to fight against the allies, however reluctantly; the boy next door is signed up by the Nazi Party for his athletic talent. Not all are caught up in Hitler’s war. For some, it is their war, and yet they are still not all evil, or all bad.

This last aspect is what is unfamiliar, and it reminds me of one of the most striking, most devastating books of 2013: A Meal in Winter, about three German soldiers, executioners in fact, whose job it is to go deep into a Polish forest to find Jews in hiding. They find a man and they are reluctant to kill him, jaded in their effort to keep dehumanising fellow humans. They tussle with the question of his fate, arguing over what they will achieve in setting him free in a war that is hounding Jews to their graves.

They are the consummate Nazi guards carrying out orders, but they are far from the demonic creatures of the classic World War Two narratives in which the Germans must always represent evil. The brilliance of this book, written by the French novelist, Hubert Mingarelli, means that we feel for them, in spite of ourselves. We feel for the tragedy of their task, their treachery and their burden. We feel for them very differently to how we feel for the painfully thin, petrified Jew they pick up.

Books and films like these, imagined outside Germany, signal a change, and perhaps an urge to tell another, lesser-told side of the story. German authors and film-makers began to address the “normality” of Nazism in the 1960s, after the watershed moment of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963-65. WG Sebald spent a lifetime coming to terms with the Holocaust, the scar that Nazism left on the psyche of the nation and the literary silence around the wartime bombing of German cities; Bernhard Schlink has done so too. The German TV series Heimat showed characters  going off to war. We felt sad when they died. One character was a Nazi zealot and he was sneered at by other villagers.

Yet is there a line not to cross?  The Historikerstreit (German historians’ disputes of the 1980s) tussled with the question of how far to tell stories of ordinary Germans, “ordinary” Nazis.

Of course, there are narratives of Jewish persecution that need to continue to be written, such as the Israeli scholar and Auschwitz survivor Otto Dov Kulka’s astonishing memoir, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, republished next week. Yet, the latter day “German” stories of war, tragic in a very different way, need also to be heard – and signal another stage of forgiveness, and healing.

An urgent plea for those who like to read aloud

The Independent Bath Literature Festival kicks off next weekend – and I am particularly looking forward to “Bath Aloud”, which will see volunteers commemorate First World War poetry by declaiming the works of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and others. The festival is currently recruiting volunteers to read over 75 poems from 1914: Poetry Remembers, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, which features the work of Rupert Brooke, Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion and Jackie Kay. The readings are taking place on Saturday 1 March and Saturday 8 March. Viv Groskop, the festival’s artistic director, feels these public reading events “are a great way of getting everyone in the community involved”. In this vein, an urgent plea has been put out for anyone who would enjoy reading aloud in Welsh, to voice Gillian Clarke’s “Eisteddfod of the Black Chair”.

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