If you’re in the United States and like free stuff, especially stuff related to postwar Germany, head over to Goodreads and enter a chance to win one of 100 advanced reader copies of my debut novel The German Heiress. (It’s called Finding Clara in the UK).
It’s set in the ruins of Essen, Germany in December 1946 at the start of what the Germans call the “Hunger Winter,” one of the hardest on record. It stars Clara, a woman on the run and struggling with her conscience; Jakob, a black marketer determined to get his family through the winter; and Willy, a boy soldier who refuses to believe the war is over.
How does modern Germany present WW2 to school kids? As my kids have gotten older, I’ve wondered at what age they’ll begin to learn about the war and Germany’s responsibility for what it did to so many countries in Europe. I knew that high school-age kids learn about it, but how young can children be and still grasp what happened and why?
My kids haven’t gotten to it in school yet, but last week they had a chance to immerse themselves in the topic in a way they had never done before. Kika, German national TV’s children’s channel, launched a series called Der Krieg und ich (The War and Me) for 8-year-olds and up. Each episode follows a child from a different country as they struggle with their fate before and during the war. The stories come from Germany, Norway, France, Britain, Poland, the USSR and the Czech Republic.
This international focus really impressed me. It seems like the war is largely portrayed inside of national bubbles — the German experience seeming to have little to do with the Russian or British etc experience on a personal level. But the series manages to zoom out to show the war as the link between 7 different but in some ways similar dramas. These are all children. None of what happens is their fault, but they are growing up in a conflict that forces them to make hard and fateful decisions.
My whole family settled onto the sofa to watch the first episodes together. My 9-year-old is especially sensitive, and I watched how she reacted to the show. The first episode focused on Anton, a German boy who desperately wanted to join the Hitler Youth so he could have better clothes and belong to a group of boys who looked like true friends and wanted great things for Germany. He didn’t understand what the group truly stood for until he had to face a choice: betray the family of his Jewish friend, or stand by them, which would endanger his own family.
My 9-year-old is a bright kid, good in school, and very curious about the world. She’s asked about WW2 before, but not in great depth. As she watched Anton’s story, she couldn’t sit still. She climbed onto the back of the sofa, slid to the floor and hid behind it, peeking over the top as she continued to watch. The story scared her. Basically good people like Anton can end up doing bad things. This was only one of the lessons of the show, and it was a hard one to process.
After we turned off the TV, my daughter and I talked through some of these issues. It wasn’t easy. Germany is a very different country than it used to be, and many of its basic values are so different, I had to explain those before my daughter could make sense of what she’d seen. For instance, she wanted to know: why did people think the army and being a soldier was such a good thing? It’s a legitimate question in a basically anti-war country like modern Germany.
We told her that her great grandfathers on her Papa’s side fought for Germany, while her great grandfather on my side fought for the United States and the anti-Nazi Allies. She personally had nothing to do with the war, but as a half-German, she has a responsibility to know what happened and to try to prevent such a thing from happening again. Having the courage to speak out and take risks is hard for everyone, especially children. But Der Krieg und ich has done a good job showing kids struggling with those decisions and their consequences. A great introduction to WW2 that even adults can learn from.
Here it is, the first face of my debut novel, FINDING CLARA, launching March 5, 2020 in the UK.
I still can’t quite believe it!
This blog has been a place to share much of the research that went into my story of guilt and conscience set in the dangerous world of Germany just after WW2. I’ve been updating more rarely, but will keep up this resource for others who are interested in this lesser-known period of German history.
My follow-up novel is set in the same world, so stay tuned!
My research has been pretty Berlin-specific lately, so I was thrilled to find a relatively new video uploaded to You Tube. When the Allies Settled in Berlin (1945) is one of the most high quality pieces of footage I’ve ever seen of the period. And since it’s in color, allied Berlin is truly brought to life. This is footage without commentary. It’s mostly slice of life imagery.
So if you want to see Russian troops, men and women, marching down a wide street (smiling!), or British troops swimming at the Olympia Stadium, or German women joking around with the cameraman while they clean up the ruins, give this 12-minute film a look.
One of my favorite parts of this video are the images of the different armies/troops getting along in close proximity. No Cold War yet….
And if you know German, or just want to see the footage and narrative from the German side, try the long documentary Berlin unter den Allierten (1945-1949).
This is a quick one to take my hat off to former US serviceman Geoff Walden’s website Third Reich in Ruins. Geoff’s father had taken so many photos while in the US Army after World War II that Geoff (thankfully) decided to share them with the world, identifying where the photos were taken and when, if he could. He’s added to the collection himself with some nice “then and now” photos – like the ones I linked to for Berlin — which show places like the Reichstag or the Zoo Bunker before, during or after the war. The site has been running for almost 20 years, so there’s a lot of great information to dig through for war/postwar buffs.