Reviewed by Ian Lipke
While I have never heard of Catrine Clay, whose ‘ground-breaking research’ produced The Good Germans, the fault is not hers. It is my responsibility to keep up. I note that Ms Clay has written at least one other book, King Kaiser Tsar, and on its merits has been described as an ‘award winning historian’. I was justifiably enthusiastic about delving the depth and breadth of her new book and, through it, this award winner’s mind.
In her Introduction Clay reminds us of the Nazi-driven terrors of the period and, while many Germans tried to keep their profiles low, some chose to oppose the regime in little ways or large. Her statement to this effect appears on page 2, and is immediately followed by the confusing, “Once power gets into the wrong hands there is little the individual can do” (2). This struck me as odd as it conflicted with the thrust of her thesis that ‘little people’ (her chosen six) could resist and annoy the Nazis in power. She makes clear that she was looking for, and found, small, personal stories of quiet courage.
Chapter 1, called The Swastika, introduces each of the six characters, who will play large parts in the story. We are given a smidgen of information about each and learn much more about the country’s woes. The chapter closes and, Chapter 2, The Nazis take Power, opens. Again, the opportunity is provided for readers to familiarise themselves with the protagonists. We see them with their families, with their friends or enemies in social situations or at work. Like their contemporaries they’re shown keeping their heads down.
But not Irma Thälmann. Her opposition to the Nazi regime never wavers – refusing to Heil Hitler, and delivering the glorious coup de grace, by means of the relay race described on page 109 in which Irma wore, not the regulation outfit but her red Pioneer sports outfit. That was a significant slap in the face for the officials, and especially the coach.
As the story progresses and readers follow the rise of the ever-greedy, power hungry Nazi regime, they discover that nothing new appears. Any undergraduate European history student if she has been working, knows this material. Where are these six heroes that are supposedly resisting the Nazi regime? The answer to that question reveals the cleverness of this author. The quickest way to destroy any piece of undercover work is to expose it.
The heroes are beavering away hidden from view in the complex maze of a society doing what most of society in wartime is likely to be doing. What’s more, the heroes have no idea what will be expected of them. The author has a subtle way of hiding the left hand in a glove while all attention is on the visible right. Many examples of resistance at the micro-level can be found in the book. Irma’s rejection of conventional attire is one. Rudolf’s writing, and smuggling out of Germany under the noses of the Nazis, his true account of the horrors of the Nazi terror regime. His book, A Stranger in My Own Country, if discovered, was a free pass to a concentration camp. Fabian von Schlabrendorff is a regularly appearing character. He is the author’s representative of the German upper classes. Like other members of his class he detests National Socialism. Catrine Clay makes much of his class’s inability to recognise the current government as legitimate and has no anxiety over disrupting the appointments of key Nazis.
An interesting read that opens to scrutiny a lot of history. Catrine Clay has managed to insert the stories of her six subjects in the wider context of this study of German history. Does she have the ability to write as an award-winning historian is expected to write? I believe she does.
By Catrine Clay
Weidenfeld & Nicholson/Hachette
$32.99; 416 pp