I wished a German editor would have given the author some counsel because there are so many faults regarding the use of the German language (see my status updates for that) it’s almost ludicrous. I will never understand the need of US writers to write fictional novels on countries and cultures they never even been to only read about in books and pictures. Yeah everybody can read billions of books on Hitler, the NS regime, on Hitler and his women, Hitler and his pets, hell there are even books and documentaries on Hitler’s sex life. But will someone not from Munich ever feel the cities vibe? Tell how beautiful the English Garden smells in spring and summer in the middle of the city? How the sky is always so blue and white just like the Bavarian Flag? Can they conjure up the fun and buzzing nights in Munich’s ale houses? Can they convincingly create the atmosphere of those days in the early 30ies that even a girl from Munich would be convinced? Even I who wrote my master thesis on Adolf Eichmann and have read my fair share of historical documents, viewed the concentration camp in Dachau from the inside, been in the Munich Synagogue and talked to survivors and their families, read the transcripts and evidence of the Nürnberger Prozess and the Eichmann Prozess in Jerusalem, and was stuffed like a turkey with the German history in school. Am I convinced by this tableau Anna Blankman created? No I am not!
This book is like reading Wikipedia entry after entry or reading a history book. There is almost too much recounting of historical facts, names, places and too little plot, atmospheric / character descriptions or interaction. 30% into the story and we have heard all people involved in the NSDAP at that time (Hess, Röhm, Eva Braun, Geli Raubal, Hanfstaengl, the Socialist reporters from the Poison Kitchen / Munich Post, the many SA and SS people) but we have met Uncle Dolf only twice and in my opinion those encounters are too short as Gretchen and Uncle Dolf exchange only a few sentences. They have no effect in making me believe this was Adolf Hitler. He is described as having a voice like chocolate and looking half-starved. Well I don’t know about the voice, but chocolate wasn’t really what I would use to describe it. And I also have problems with his looking half-starved. From 1943/44 on Hitler was very ill and he lost a lot of weight, that is true. But 1931, the year this story starts Hitler was really in his prime, a healthy, awe-inspiring middle-aged man with penetrating, sparkling blue eyes, black shining hair and a celebrated spokesman. Fiction, even if documentary, should never be a recounting of known facts only.
SA chief Röhm. He had lost his cap, so she could see how his hair had been shaved so close to the scalp that his pale skin showed, a fresh-scrubbed pink like a pig’s hide. His small eyes focused on hers. Pockmarks disfigured his broad, florid face. From shrapnel, she’d heard but she didn’t know if the injuries had occurred during the Great War or while he had lived as a mercenary soldier in Bolivia during the twenties. The deep gouges had always unsettled her, ever since she’d seen him again in April, after Hitler summoned him back to Munich to take over the SA.
Sometimes the introduction of people and places or historical events feels a lot like info-dumping. Every history nerd who likes to check things out could have searched online for pictures of Rösch and would have gotten the swine-analogy. Everyone could have read on Wikipedia about Rösch’s life. And everybody else would not really be interested if Rösch came back as leader of the SA or not, if his pockmarks were from shrapnel in the First World War or from his time as mercenary in Bolivia.
The actual fictional plot: the indoctrinated ward Hitler’s meeting a Jewish reporter and uncovering the truth about her father’s murder plays a very minor role in the story. I was not a big fan of this romance either. Gretchen is a special snowflake, all innocent, dreamy and virginal with her unpainted face, her long blond hair pulled back in a shining braid and her slim figure. In contrast we have slutty, superficial Eva Braun, with her make-up, the fake peroxide hair and red colored lips. And even Geli Raubal is likewise frilly and shallow, shopping all day and making fun of everything and everyone. In every other Young Adult novel people would remark upon Sluts vs. Virgin trope. Maybe they have all been numbed by all the previous info-dumping and retelling of historical facts to really notice it. But if you take away the historical make-up of the story what remains is a badly executed, generic Young Adult romance. Gretchen is Uncle Dolf’s sunshine, the martyr’s daughter, the serious student, the future physician. It’s the well-known, boring and million times recounted story of blonde miss perfect meeting dark and mysterious stranger uncovering together a supposedly dangerous truth while being chased by the evil opponent. Everything starts with her witnessing and interrupting a brawl between her brother Reinhardt and a Jew.
By now the crowd had scattered. All except a lone man, watching her (…)
“Your’re not like the others,” he said. The voice was young and quick, with the sharp accent of a Berliner. Not a man, but a boy, perhaps her age or a little older. “Are you, Fräulein Müller?” (…)
“You’ve surprised me, Fräulein Müller. Not an easy feat, I promise you.”
This first shadowy encounter is followed by a mysterious letter he sends her after school.
Dear Fräulein Müller,
Although you hide it well, it is clear you are nothing like the others, which is why I presume to send you this letter. Last week, I was approached by one of the Nazi Party’s original members. He is old now, and his health frail, but his memory is clear. He told me a troubling story that I believe you, as Klaus Müller’s daughter, deserve to hear. Your father did not die a martyr to the Nazi cause, and your family’s precarious position within Hitler’s party is predicated on a lie. I beg you give me a chance to explain, and I shall meet you directly outside your home this evening at half past six o’clock.
I ask you, would a journalists who is so worldly-wise and says about himself “not many things surprise me anymore” would a Jew working for a Socialist newspaper known for their investigative journalism and Anti-Hitler campaigns really approach the golden child Hitler’s, his ward, the daughter of a martyr and a professed National Socialist? I would think not, especially not in 1931 in Munich, especially not as a Jew. It’s also kind of creepy stalker-ish, if you ask me, calling out her name from the shadows he is hiding in although he never saw her before, or sending that letter to her. I’ve had a hard time imagining him because he is described as “a man, a boy, really” so many times, but his behavior, his world-weariness, his confidence and sarcasm doesn’t match that at all. I would have guessed him to be much, much older.
“A Jew and a National Socialist, joining forces. I never thought I’d see it.”
What a dumb standoffish statement making fun of Gretchen who just offered to help him.
On a small side note: Berlin accent is not sharp at all, it’s kind of cute if you ask me. In Germany the “Berliner Schnauze” is widely known to be bawdy and humorous. It’s to High/Standard German like the US southern drawl to Oxford English.
During their following encounters in the park and in a nightclub (just imagine: Hitler’s favorite 17-year old pet going to a communist nightclub with degenerated Swing music in 1931, Munich) Gretchen parrots dumb phrases like “Herr Hitler is committed to reducing unemployment and creating more jobs” and that “swing music is degenerate”. Really? 8 years of being Hitler’s favorite girl, of going to opera and visiting art museums with him, of discussing personal and political stuff with him and that is all the ideological propaganda she can come up with? Does she really think about Jews that they stink and have hairy fingers? Apparently so.
And the sour stink of sweat and decay she had expected, she didn’t smell. Only a light scent of soap and cologne. The fingers holding hers felt smooth and soft, not rough with tangled hair. Could she have been wrong about him?
It sounds not very believable to me. I would really have loved to see how bit by slow bit her beliefs start to crumble. But as Gretchen is portrayed there are not many convictions to start with. She seems rather naïve, foolish and utterly devoted to Uncle Dolf (because he kept them fed after her father saved his life and died). She only starts to challenge the system, her uncle or what she has been made to believe when she meets Daniel Cohen. She doesn’t mistrust because she starts realizing that things don’t add up but because of the love interest. I was disappointed.
I have to come to an end with this review. So finally I will only say this: It is apparent that the author has read many books on Hitler and the rising of National Socialism in Germany but to me it is also very apparent that she hasn’t got a clue about German language and never been to Munich or Germany. The story lacks this last emotional touch when history is told in a way that makes you feel it, experience it for yourself. For me it was nothing short of a list of names, places and events that left me rather cold because I already know them from history classes. The romance is a Young Adult run-of-the-mill romance with formulaic characters. Again nothing to write home about. I am kind of disappointed because it could have been so much more. The story recounts one-dimensional Hitler’s rise in Munich and leaves other aspects of the time totally out. 1918-1933 the time of the Weimar Republic was one hell of a time. Not only because of Hitler, but it was the Golden Era of the avant-garde, of Bauhaus, Blue Rider and the Expressionism. It was also during this time a lot of industrial innovations were made. Herman Hesse wrote 1927 Der Steppenwolf, Thomas Mann wrote 1924 “Der Zauberberg” and was 1929 awarded with the Nobel Prize for literature. Erich-Maria Remarque wrote 1929 “Im Westen nichts Neues”. If you tell a story on Hitler’s rise you can’t leave out the reasons why the Weimar Republic failed. It failed for many other economic (Great Depression) and political reasons and people.