Magda Goebbels is a woman almost as infamous as Medea, and for the same reason: she murdered her children. The wife of Joseph Goebbels, she poisoned her five daughters and one son, then herself, in Hitler's bunker in the final days of the Second World War. Meike Ziervogel's debut novel imagines her motivations in scenes involving Magda, her mother and eldest daughter Helge.
Beautiful and elegant, Magda was a poster-girl for the Nazis, and had a meteoric rise. Her life is full of paradox. Born illegitimate and unwanted to a serving woman, Magda is sent to a brutal convent where she is bullied by nuns until rescued by a Jewish stepfather. His existence was embarrassing enough for a Nazi, but even more extraordinary was her love affair with a Zionist, Victor Arlosoroff. Ziervogel imagines the private woman behind the public façade, shuttling back and forwards in time.
The distrust and dishonesty between mothers and daughters, rather than the lies and crimes of the Nazi regime, is the canker growing throughout the novel – but inevitably, they merge. Having witnessed her mother having sex, and an abortion, Magda decides to remain a virgin and to be "clever and powerful". The way she achieves this is through marriage – first to the wealthy Gustav Quandt, then to Joseph Goebbels.
Ziervogel's theory that Hitler inspires Magda with a quasi-religious fervour makes psychological sense. Magda's mysticism is echoed by the teenaged Helge, whose account of life and first love in the bunker is like a saccharine version of Anne Frank's diary. In between is a spiteful monologue from Magda's mother, who blames her daughter's coldness on her Jewish stepfather rather than on her own neglect.
But are Magda's own crimes committed out of love and fear, or selfish madness? Ziervogel has given us a novel which is frustratingly fragmentary, but also challenging, clever, and fascinating as an insight into how generations of Germans are summoning the courage to address the horror of the last century.