I was thrilled to receive a preview of the cover for In the Arms of the Enemy, my World War II romance novel to be published by The Wild Rose Press in 2010. You'll be hearing more about Isabella, Günter and Massimo in the coming months...
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
The German people certainly did not love the partition that scarred their country from 1961 to 1989. On my recent trip to Berlin and Dresden, I heard many stories of the struggles, heartbreaks and resilience of citizens from the East and West who lived through this painful period in German history.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989. Berlin is already abuzz with anticipation. I happened upon a festive street parade on my next to last day in the German capital, not realizing that my trip coincided with The Day of German Unity. October 3rd is their national holiday, celebrating the formal reunification and incorporation of the communist German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990.
Remnants of the Wall are still evident throughout the city, as a reminder of the hated symbol of separation and in memory of the more than one hundred people who lost their lives trying to cross from the GDR to freedom in the West. The Berlin Wall, part of the “Inner German Border” which bisected the entire country, completely encircled West Berlin, making it an isolated island of democracy cut off from the rest of West Germany. The Wall was constructed by the communists, not to keep westerners out, but to keep their own people in. Soldiers guarding the “death strip” between East and West had orders to shoot anyone who attempted escape. Crosses bearing the names of the victims remain scattered throughout Berlin, and flowers and candles commemorate these murders. Perhaps the most poignant were those marked “Unbekannt” to honor the unidentified fatalities.
I had the privilege of hearing personal stories of people who experienced East Germany first-hand. Cosima Curth, now a tour guide in Dresden, was born and raised in the GDR. Her parents were among the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from eastern Europe following World War II. A Roman Catholic, Cosima was made to feel “different” — Christians were barely tolerated by the communist state. One of her earliest memories is her first day of school as a six-year-old. The teacher singled her out, making her stand in front of the class and explain why her God was so great. Cosima returned home in tears, but by the next day had resolved to continue to practice her faith and to persevere. She shared moving stories of events she witnessed leading up to reunification. As protests in the East heated up in the fall of 1989, she found herself in the midst of a street demonstration in Dresden calling for democratic reforms. Confronted by a barrier of armed police officers, her fellow protestors pleaded for the chance to peacefully air their grievances. One courageous man approached the wall of police. They were human beings, after all, he reasoned. And they were, because all at once, they laid down their shields and allowed the man to make a public statement. This was only the beginning of the tidal wave of popular sentiment, the irrepressible outcry for freedom, which soon led to the “Peaceful Revolution” and the fall of the communist state.
The aristocratic family of Georg, Prinz zur Lippe, was forced to flee their ancestral home in Saxony when that region became part of the Soviet Zone of Occupation at the end of World War II. As members of the nobility, they had reason to fear for their safety. Though raised in Munich, West Germany, Georg could not forget his heritage, and his parents dreamed of the day when they might reclaim their land. After reunification, Georg’s father implored him to return to Saxony and do whatever he could to reacquire the estate. The property had been expropriated without compensation decades earlier by the East German government, but Georg slowly succeeded in buying it back and now runs a prosperous winery on the land his family had owned for centuries. My tour group had the pleasure of listening to the prince’s reflections and personal experiences as he graciously hosted our lunch at his “Schloss”.
The last German I encountered who shared his experiences was Harry Hampel, the taxi driver who took me to the airport on the day of my departure from Berlin. In the back of his cab was a stack of flyers for a book about the Wall. Harry invited me to peruse the paperback entitled Where the Wall Stood, which was in the pocket of the door next to me. He then went on to explain that he was the photojournalist who, along with Thomas Friedrich, the writer of the accompanying text, compiled this fascinating testament to Berlin “before and after” the Wall came down. His book was available for sale right there in the cab, his credit card imprinter ready for my purchase. Being a fellow writer, I did not hesitate (well, maybe a little; my suitcase was already ponderous with all the other books I had purchased on my trip and this one cost the equivalent of $30 US) to support him and buy a copy. We exchanged business cards and I told him he would be hearing about my World War II novel when it comes out next year. Of course, I also told him about my blog so he may be reading this right now. Guten Tag, Harry!
This post is dedicated to “Dem Deutschen Volke” as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of the start of their hard-won achievement of “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” as a free and united country, a country without Walls.
1) The title of this post is the first line of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”, published in 1914.
2) The phrase “Dem Deutschen Volke” (To the German People) is famously emblazoned on the architrave of the Reichstag in Berlin, the seat of the German parliament.
3) “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (Unity and Justice and Freedom) are the first words of the German national anthem.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
-- Staci Jacobson
Saturday, May 16, 2009
When did they know it? Those are the questions so often asked of Germans who lived through Hitler’s era. Men who served in the armed forces of the Third Reich are subject to the suspicions and denunciation of the world, as well as of their own children and grandchildren. Not even mothers and grandmothers are exempt; women contributed to the war effort, some serving as concentration camp guards, and many more supported their Führer, at least in principle. Twenty-first century Germans still bear the stigma of the crimes of their forebears, and Nazi guilt is deeply embedded in the conscience of today’s Germany.
During the first decades following the war, world condemnation focused on the SS, especially the Allgemeine-SS, and the Gestapo. The Waffen-SS fought on the front alongside the regular Army. Though still labeled a criminal organization by the victorious Allies, their guilt was considered less reprehensible than that of their Allgemeine brethren who worked in the death camps.
More recent research has unearthed atrocities committed by members of the regular Army, the foot soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Without question, many participated in death squads and horrendous treatment of Jews, Russians, Poles and Slavs in the east. But most were merely fighting for their country and struggling to survive the mortar, artillery and aerial bombardment of the enemy. Some fought willingly for the Reich but most were drafted. Those who resisted military service were imprisoned or executed; Nazi Germany did not recognize conscientious objection.
I've read numerous autobiographies and memoirs of the men of the Wehrmacht, seeking out their humanity and assessing the responsibility of the average German soldier for the crimes of the Reich. Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier is the poignant, beautifully written memoir of a common Landser. I challenge any German-hater to read this book and not feel sympathy for a young man experiencing the horrors of battle. I was profoundly moved by his story, but disappointed that the author does not address the guilt of his fellow soldiers. Though the accuracy of the book has been called into question by some historians, I am satisfied that Sajer himself was not guilty of any atrocities.
Siegfried Knappe, who rose to the rank of major in the German Army, professes to know nothing of the death camps until after the war. His autobiography, Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, describes harrowing experiences on all battle fronts, ending with his surrender in decimated Berlin at the very end of the conflict. Upon beginning five years of Soviet captivity, he is challenged, “What have you got to say about Auschwitz?” and is mystified. Though a high-ranking officer on the General Staff, even meeting the Führer in his infamous bunker, he learns nothing of the Holocaust until years later.
Other autobiographies do address Nazi atrocities, some revealing the conflicted souls of the authors. In A Mind in Prison: The Memoir of a Son and Soldier of the Third Reich, former Wehrmacht corporal Bruno Manz reveals the troubled conscience of a man who esteemed the Führer as a Hitler Youth, and later fights for the German Army. When a comrade tells him of the atrocities, he doesn’t want to believe him. Manz questions his mission as a German soldier, imagining the consequences of acknowledging his country’s guilt. He envisions the firing squad he would face if he acts in accordance with his conscience and lays down his arms. He does not choose that path but returns to the battlefield instead, preferring to confront the enemy rather than himself. Though his military record is beyond reproach, the guilt of “knowing” but not acting haunts him for decades after the war.
What did they know? When did they know it? I am convinced that there were soldiers of the Third Reich too occupied dodging American, British and Soviet bullets, too busy freezing and starving in foxholes, to participate in or even know of the worst atrocities of their countrymen. German shame is also mitigated by the recognition of courageous, honorable Germans who fought against the Nazis. (See my two previous posts for their stories.) Among ordinary Germans, who knew and who didn’t? What percentage of the armed forces, or even the general population, comprised those two groups? How much can we credit accounts of Wehrmacht veterans? Can we believe their claims of ignorance? Historians still debate these questions. Does it even matter now, two generations after the war? Those alive today old enough to be culpable of Nazi crimes represent a tiny fraction of German citizens. But twelve years of Nazi horror still color our perception of what it means to be German.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The verdict was guilty, the sentence death. Months ago, when Michael had heard these words from the military tribunal, he was struck by the tragic absurdity of it all. He was shattered, of course, but not particularly surprised. Now, in the stillness of his cell, he thought more of the past than of the future – a future that would end abruptly tomorrow morning with six bullets through his heart.
It was two years ago when he first endured the frigid wretchedness of the eastern front – the mud, ankle deep from the ceaseless trudging of a million boots, cold sweat that froze and stung his skin, the constant rumble of artillery, the ghastly food, the lice. He’d made captain by the age of twenty-four, merited an Iron Cross Second Class for heroism in battle, and received the gold wound badge with seven trips to field hospitals. He’d risked his life for his country and for his men countless times, yet had been condemned for mere words. But four years of service and sacrifice couldn’t mitigate the unforgiving punishment worthy of a traitor…
Michael Kitzelmann died on June 12, 1942 in front of a firing squad, sentenced for “undermining the German Army”. He’d fought dutifully for his country during the Polish and French campaigns, earned a commission, and served as a company commander on the eastern front.
Michael K. is a fictional character, inspired by the real-life German officer who lost his life—not in battle—but at the hands of his own Army. I’ve invented a detail or two that may deviate from historical fact, but hope to have conveyed the essence of Michael Kitzelmann’s story.
The specifics of his court-martial are not known, and even if transcripts exist, I would have a difficult time deciphering them with my poor grasp of the German language. (I doubt they would have ever been translated into English.) Thankfully, what survives is his eloquent and heart-rending diary, written in a military prison as he awaited execution. Though I quote only a small portion, his character and anguish come through in a few lines:
“Now I know the full fury of these Military Laws. Overnight I was branded as a criminal just for making a few derogatory remarks about the government. And for that apparently I must lose my life, my honor, my friends and my place in human society… Haven’t I served my country honorably for four years? I was at the front for two years, took part in three campaigns and proved my loyalty often enough. Is this the thanks I get from my country?”
A short but poignant biography of Michael Kitzelmann can be found in Conscience in Revolt: Sixty-Four Stories of Resistance in Germany, 1933-45. It was compiled by Annedore Leber, widow of dissenting German politician Julius Leber, executed by the Third Reich in 1945 for defying the Nazis. Published in English in 1994 by Westview Press as part of their series Der Widerstand (the Resistance), it’s well worth reading.
Accounts of French, Italian and Jewish resistance to the Nazis are familiar to American consumers of popular media. But stories of Germans who refused to follow Hitler’s sway, who risked and usually forfeited their lives by opposing the Third Reich, have mostly escaped notice. Michael Kitzelmann’s merits our attention.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
I was prepared not to like this movie. Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg, one of Germany’s greatest heroes? Nonetheless, I had to see it. I’d read about the July Plot while researching my World War II romance novel and had been anxious to see the movie since I’d first heard of its filming. Would Hollywood finally acknowledge that not all German soldiers of the Third Reich were spellbound by the Führer and mindlessly followed his every command?
Yes, I know, other films have portrayed a Wehrmacht officer with a heart and a mind of his own. Sebastian Koch’s recent role in Black Book (2006) comes to mind, as well as Marlon Brando’s character in The Young Lions (1958). But most of us grew up with the image of the merciless, black-booted, steel-helmeted killing machine as the personification of the German soldier.
This project was controversial from the start. The producers wanted to film on location in Berlin, and fly Nazi flags over buildings still used by the German government. Displays of the swastika are banned in today’s Germany, and though exceptions are made for historical and educational purposes, the sight is deeply disturbing to citizens of the Federal Republic. The government was also less than pleased that Mr. Cruise, a Scientologist, would portray their national hero. Germans are suspicious of radical ideologies (look how much trouble National Socialism got them into!) and most view Scientology as a harmful cult.
Cruise does a passable job of portraying the fearless, stoic protagonist, though a little more Cruise than Stauffenberg comes through at many points. Cruise is handsome enough for the role; with wavy black hair and a steely gaze (from the one good eye – yes, even an eye patch can look sexy) he creates a reasonable facsimile of the noble German officer who dared defy the Nazis. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that some unknown German actor could have saved the producers a heck of a lot of money (and saved me from having to watch Cruise for two hours while trying to suppress the memory of his tirade to Matt Lauer). And they’d even have gotten a German accent in the bargain! But then I’d forgotten that it’s the name above the title that sells the tickets. Most Americans have never heard of Stauffenberg or the July Plot, and the story of a German who risked his life for his country’s salvation wouldn’t entice enough moviegoers.
So, in addition to banking on Cruise’s star power, they hawked Valkyrie as an action thriller, filled with speeding cars, machine-gun blasts and lots of explosions, just the sort of thing an American audience loves. But it works. The film is visually appealing: bright red Nazi flags wave crisply above a battalion of extras who snap to attention with the precision of a troop of real soldiers. The soundtrack has a fitting ominous tone and the click of a thousand booted feet marching the streets of Berlin is effectively chilling. The filmmakers create a great deal of tension and suspense, despite the fact that for anyone who hasn’t just awoken from a sixty-five year coma, the outcome of the plot is a foregone conclusion. But I must credit the director for succeeding in suspending my disbelief, even if for just a moment. When propaganda minister Goebbels slips a cyanide capsule into his mouth, fearing imminent arrest by the conspirators, I found myself whispering, “Eat it, you bastard”, though I certainly knew that his end would not come for many more months, when the Soviet Army came knocking on the Bunker door. In the movie, a timely phone call from his Führer saves Goebbels from taking the fatal bite. The movie is fast-paced and well executed, and I found myself literally on the edge of my seat, my heart racing, as I urged the resisters on.
For anyone not familiar with this chapter of World War II history, I strongly recommend seeing Valkyrie. It’s a fascinating and complex true story, and in the end, the filmmakers give the valiant Stauffenberg and his comrades their due. Not by making the most masterful, intelligent film possible, but in bringing an entertaining movie to a wide audience, so that people outside Germany will know of the honor and sacrifice of the real-life heroes of July 1944.