Review: Magda, By Meike Ziervogel

What did you do in the war, Mummy?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the midst of all the appalling details that emerged at the end of the Second World War was one concerning not the victims of the Nazis but a Nazi family itself. In the bunker where Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun took their own lives, his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda also killed themselves. But more than this – they also killed their six children.

It's an almost unimaginable act, one that seems to belong more to pre-history, Greek epics, or Biblical tales, and it's an act that has attracted novelists ever since. (Most recently: Tracey S Rosenberg, whose troubling The Girl in the Bunker is primarily told from the point of view of the Goebbels family's eldest daughter, Helga.)

Magda Goebbels was the "Mother of the Nation"; the blonde, fertile, Aryan goddess who represented what Hitler wanted German women to be. In her novelisation of those last days of the war, Meike Ziervogel imagines how such a mother became a murderer, and how a daughter rebelled.

She also gives us something of Magda's back story: born illegitimate to a servant-girl, then sent to a harsh convent where girls are abused and bullied, she is eventually rescued by her mother's second husband, the Jewish Herr Friedlander. As Magda's mother tells it, her daughter then developed ideas above her station; had "no patience with little human errors". Ziervogel moves from Magda's childhood experiences in the convent to her mother's testimony at the end of the war, and Helga's diaries, written while she is in the bunker, to give us a sense of successive generations of women impacting on one another. The relationship between Magda and Helga is almost a reflection of that between Magda and her own mother: cold, distant, manipulative, riven with lies and deceit, it culminates in physical abuse.

Helga falls in love with a young soldier guarding them in the bunker, but he cannot persuade her to run away from her mother, or her fate, even when he reveals to her what Magda has planned. Mother and daughter are inextricably bound together.

Told in spare, simple prose, Ziervogel's depiction of a likely afterlife for Magda and her children, in which Helga must prostitute herself so that her family can eat, is particularly powerful. But at only 113 pages, sometimes Ziervogel's imaginings can seem a little too spare. This is a horrible story, but in novelistic terms it is also an irresistibly meaty one, and in this case, one longed for more. How parents inflict their principles and beliefs on their children, even to their deaths; how mothers deprive their daughters of love and turn them into monsters; how family secrets and lies destroy everything: all these are clearly described, but further exploration would have divulged even more. Perhaps, though, few of us could take it.