Today I am delighted to be sharing an extract from Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell as part of the Random Things Blog Tour. This looks like an incredible read, looking at a harrowing time in history from a different perspective. Author, Brian Van Reet says that the book is ‘A timely reminder that a nation’s politics and people are not one and the same.’ There are many voices that still have a right and a need to be heard and I for one, will be adding this to my reading pile. Many thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.
A stunning family memoir of one woman’s search for her
German grandmother’s history during the Second World War
Svenja’s beautiful, aloof German grandmother Inge never spoke about the past. All her family knew was that she had grown up in a city that no longer exists on any map: Königsberg in East Prussia, a footnote in history, a
place that almost no one has heard of today. But when Svenja impulsively visits this windswept Baltic city, something unlocks in Inge and, finally, she begins to tell her story. A fascinating story of passionate first love, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence.
It begins in the secret jazz bars of Hitler’s Berlin, as Inge falls in love for the first time, amidst a background of growing terror and uncertainty, and takes the reader through her family’s terrifying escape out of Germany,
into Denmark as the Red Army approaches. Over hours of conversation Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, and realising that there is suffering here on a scale that
she had never dreamt of. Finally, she uncovers a desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has beenkeeping for sixty years.
A Story of Family, Secrets and Survival under Hitler, Svenja, on a journey of her own, investigates the complex relationships Germans have with their
past, even two generations later, posing the question: who do we allow to tell their story? Inge’s War listens to the voices that are often missing from our historical narrative – those of women caught up on the wrong side of history. It is a book about memory and heritage that interrogates the legacy passed down by those who survive, and the bonds between generations of women who have loved, endured and overcome. At the heart of this beautifully written memoir is a story of love and family, of a girl from a vanished land who lived through a time when Europe, and its humanity, collapsed.
Königsberg, June 1932
Albert Wiegandt folded his newspaper in half, obscuring the front-page headline: seven injured in königsberg street fights. Stacking it into a neat pile with his papers, he locked everything in his desk. Every Friday without fail, he left the office early, at 3.30 p.m., to take his daughter, Inge, for a hot chocolate at the Cafe Berlin. The small, blue-fronted establishment near Königsberg’s Paradeplatz, busy with tourists in summer and students from the nearby Albertina University the rest of the year, was rather unprepossessing at first glance. It had simple wooden chairs and tables, and none of the plush leather upholstery of the old town’s most fashionable restaurants. The cafe’s success lay in its reputation for serving the best hot chocolate in the old town. It was so thick your spoon would almost stand up on its own when you tried to stir it, and was served in large white porcelain cups that smelt of cinnamon and cocoa, topped with rich whipped cream, with a pot of milk to thin it on the side.
Those Friday afternoons were a favourite ritual of theirs. Albert had first taken Inge to the cafe when she was five, as a special treat, to allow his wife Frieda an hour’s undisturbed practice at the piano; a grateful Frieda, whose playing had suffered a little from the demands of motherhood, had encouraged the habit ever since. He and Inge would sit together and he would tell her about the latest happenings in the wine and spirits trade, which restaurant had placed the biggest order and who was making the best schnapps.
Inge would tell him about her week at school, which lessons she’d enjoyed the most, which girls were in trouble with the teacher and which tricks they had played on each other; he would laugh heartily over every scrape and commiserate over the small trials of a schoolgirl’s life.
Inge was born in July 1924, two years after her parents’ marriage, and had come to them almost as a miracle, as Albert and Frieda had met and fallen in love late in life. Albert was forty-five and Frieda thirty-nine at the time of Inge’s birth. She was now eight years old, a pretty, blue-eyed girl with thick, dark curls, a quick smile and a vivacious manner. She was an only child and, though charming, could be demanding too. Her parents, and sometimes even the other inhabitants of their block of flats, indulged her more than they ought.
Albert took off his jacket as he made his way to the Altstadt where they lived, in Königsberg’s very centre, to collect his daughter. It was a warm afternoon, presaging the intense heat that often descended on the city at the height of summer. A farmer’s son from Grünwalde, some 150 kilometres east of Königsberg, as a young man Albert had turned his back on a life spent working the land, with its harsh winters and isolation, to make his name as a merchant. He loved the city with the zeal of a convert; it held the refinement, the bustle and the success he had been denied in childhood, which he relished. With his attractive, cultured, musical wife and his little daughter, he had achieved everything he’d ever wanted, but he had been somewhat troubled of late.
As he walked, he thought again about the article that he had read that morning in Königsberg’s liberal newspaper, the Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung, about the clashes between local communists and the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary group led by the NSDAP, the new Nazi Party which was growing in popularity all over Germany. It had reported terrible beatings: a young man of twenty three lay close to death. It was the latest in a series of incidents that had plagued Königsberg in recent months.
Albert had previously dismissed clashes between Nazis and communists as something that happened in the distant capital, Berlin. But their increasing frequency in Königsberg was starting to bring the violence and agitation of Germany’s new political era uncomfortably close to home. Politically, Albert was a centrist, a soft conservative with liberal leanings, who disliked violence and only bothered about politics if they affected his business as an importer of fine wines and spirits, or his more recent venture, a schnapps factory. He had joined the trade after returning wounded from service as a soldier in the First World War, before a legacy from his father helped him set up on his own. Business had been tough to start with; the aftermath of the war had brought great poverty, and it was some time before luxury goods such as wine and fine spirits flourished as they had before the war. Germans who had endured wartime starvation found they fared little better in peacetime, as punitive reparations crippled Germany’s economy, bringing persistent food shortages and hyper-inflation.
In spite of all these difficulties, Albert had persisted, and his hard work had paid off. His business provided him with a comfortable income, and he dearly loved his family. But things were changing; his social circle included a number of Jewish friends, and he was not blind to the Nazi Party’s violent anti-Semitism, the attacks of its Brownshirt gangs, or its alarmingly populist rhetoric. His wife’s uncle, a professor of botany at Albertina University, whose judgement he respected, had convinced him early on that the Nazis were criminals and thugs. Anti-Semitism had been on the rise throughout the 1920s, fuelled by the harsh economic climate, but the waves of attacks on the Jewish community always eventually subsided.
Albert did not know that only a few weeks later Nazi gangs would turn Königsberg’s streets into a bloodbath, in a series of murders and attacks they styled as a revolt against ‘communist terror’. The federal elections of 31 July 1932 would unleash a wave of terror in which Nazi activists killed twenty-five people, including the editorin-chief of the socialist newspaper Königsberger Volkszeitung.
Even after that violent summer, Albert told himself that the Nazi gangs’ violence against Jewish businesses, and their rising popularity, was just a temporary blip. He did not go as far as some of his acquaintances, who held the view that giving the Nazis a brief taste of power might help restore order by quieting the threat from Polish nationalism in the west, and Communism in the east. He simply hoped that the popularity of this new and violent party would die down and his life could carry on undisturbed.
Thomas Mann, writing for the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper in early August 1932 from his holiday home in Nidden, a hundred kilometres northeast of Königsberg, hoped the violence that hit the city in the first week of that month would finally open the eyes of its intelligentsia.
About the author
Svenja O’Donnell is an award-winning political correspondent and commentator whose work regularly features on TV and radio. Before covering Brexit for Bloomberg, she worked as a correspondent
in Russia. Half-Irish and half-German, she was born and brought up in Paris, and lives in London. Inge’s War is her first book.