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”.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?