When the hype for Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity was going around, I found myself forced to confront a new wall in my reading tastes, an allergy of sorts. I can’t read fiction about World War II. I don’t want to read fiction about World War II. Get that shit away from me—what are you kidding?—gross.
It is a result of living in Germany. I have been here for almost ten years now, and I can’t recall a single day in recent memory when World War II didn’t come up. Let’s look at one week in the life.
On Mondays and Tuesday, I edit a website called Young Germany. You can’t write about tourism, lifestyle, and culture in Germany without hitting WWII every couple of hours. In 2012 I wrote a short Frankfurt travel guide, and almost every landmark description contained some variation of: “this building was flattened during the war and is a reconstruction.” You can’t read a travel guide without a WWII mention, or find a museum that doesn’t take it into account.
On a day off I might walk into town, go to the bank, or get some groceries. On my way I will pass at least one set of Stolpersteine (English: stumbling stones), brass plaques set into the sidewalk with the names and dates of Jewish victims of the Holocaust who lived in the neighborhood. There are almost 500 of them in Frankfurt, 40,000 in the world.
During the rest of the week WWII will come up in a multitude of ways. I might have a book to read for review, say Slow Travel Berlin’s 100 Favorite Places, which I’ve talked about here and here this week. Though it is a quirky guide that includes toy shops and eco villages, there are more than a handful of memorials to the events of WWII. The Neo-Nazis might have made the news again that week (or the protests against them), or there might be a new editorial lamenting German angst about showing national pride in the shadow of that asshole Hitler.
On a bike ride, I might see a German flag, and any German flag, any size, anywhere, ever, reminds me of National Socialism. Germans have started to feel more comfortable with public shows of patriotism in the last few years and more people are flying the red, yellow and gold. Images of flag-filled rallies and flag-decked buildings burned into my brain as they are, I am reminded, once again, every time, of fascism, the war, Hitler, the camps.
Expat blog-land is equally fraught territory. So-and-so visited some new history museum with a WWII-themed permanent exhibit. Here-and-there shared an article on facebook about their trip to Berlin and posted photos of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured at the top of this post). Hell, it comes up in casual conversation. You’d be surprised at how often.
I don’t mind the constant reminders—know your history or repeat it, as they say. But with the stories of so many real people who were murdered, who were tortured, who tried to be heroes, who were heroes, or who just survived the fucking mess, I can no longer stomach the fiction. Why read a fictional story when the real stories are so moving, so present? When a WWII novel becomes a bestseller do we congratulate ourselves for keeping the memory alive, or hang our heads in shame for making money, making entertainment out of a horrific reality?
If those novels help people further removed from the scene of the crime(s) connect with the history and remember it, then they are doing something good. But I don’t need them, and I don’t want them. I’d rather hear the stories of the people around me and connect with their realities rather than a neatly structured narrative about a similar event.
When I was living in Mainz, I once met an old woman on my way to the grocery story. She was standing outside her gate, waiting for someone to walk by. She had cake leftover from her grandson’s birthday party, and did I want to have a piece with her on the veranda? I did, and during the chat that followed, she told me about being trapped in her basement as the city was bombed and the neighborhood above her was reduced to rubble.
After the war ended my grandfather-in-law had to walk home from northern Germany because the train lines were in ruins. It took him six months. He arrived, excited to see his girlfriend again at last. But she was dead, killed during a bombing. He’ll probably never tell us the whole story because the whole story was probably pretty horrible. But even the details we do know move me in a way that WWII fiction never has. The fictional stories about the journeys, the loss, the grief, and the pain feel somehow sterile, one step too many removed from my capacity for empathy. But contemplating the journey this man took at the end of the war as he sits across the table from me, eating cake at some family birthday party? Holy shit.
Reading Mauerweg: Stories from the Berlin Wall Trail, I learned about a farmer who drove through the Berlin Wall with his tractor, of 70- and 80-year-olds digging a 32-meter-long tunnel to escape to the West, and of a daring escape by boat. I also read the tragic stories of two children who were shot by the border guards, their murder covered up by the government in the name of PR. In 100 Favorite Places: Berlin I learned about the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind where Weidt hid his blind and deaf Jewish employees and the Marga Schoeller Bookshop whose owner both refused to sell Nazi propaganda and managed to sell banned literature out of the basement during the Third Reich.
The real stories are so moving, so rich, and above all, so close. In comparison the fictions feel distant and artificial.
Germany has been forced to remember because Germany lost the war. But keeping the memories is such an important part of telling the story. We need these stories—for some in the form of fictions, for others in the form of memoirs—to truly understand what war, what fascism, what genocide are.
America does not memorialize its atrocities in the same way because the victors get to control the narrative. But imagine if America was as concerned with memorializing and understanding the atrocities committed against Native Americans? Or the horrors of slavery? It might lead to a deeper understanding of war, oppression, and violence and a more powerful urge to avoid them. The weight of past events can be a heavy thing to carry on a daily basis, but that weight can only make us stronger, can help us build something besides mirrors.
I read Code Name Verity, and though I couldn’t say I enjoyed it, I can say that it is well written. It didn’t move me to tears like it did so many of my friends, and the details of its plot have already faded from my mind.
To enter to win several of the Berlin-themed books mentioned above, click here.