An intriguing mystery that paints a vivid picture of post-war Germany.
Reading the sleeve notes on the back of The German Heiress, Anika Scott’s debut novel, I thought it was a piece of crime fiction – a young woman searching for her missing friend in post-war Germany. But it turned out to be nothing of the sort.
Often, when we think of Germany and the Germans during WWII, we remember only the Nazis and their terrible crimes. This book shows us another picture. It is set over a couple of weeks in the bitter winter of 1946, mostly in the heavily industrialised city of Essen in the Ruhr Valley.
The story starts in the town of Hamelin (of the Pied Piper fame). There lives a young woman, Margaretha Muller, quiet, unassuming, doing her job and going out with her doctor boyfriend, who incidentally is not at all that he seems. But then neither is Margaretha, because she is, in fact, Clara Falkenberg, the missing heiress and director of one of the biggest ironworks empires in the Ruhr valley; an empire which supplied iron and steel for the German war machine and achieved its success with the help of slave labour from the East. She’s hiding because she’s wanted as a war criminal by the occupying forces.
Clara is torn with questions about her family’s past, what she did in the war and what she could have done differently. So, one day she decides that she must go back to Essen to find her childhood friend, Elisa, who may have some of the answers and who has gone missing. But this turns out to be not so easy. Along the way her train is stopped and she is pulled off it and harshly questioned by the British occupying forces. She escapes and gets to Essen, a city that’s been almost totally destroyed with a population living in the ruins, starving and freezing.
There she gradually pieces together the story of her family and the story of Elisa, and finally faces up to her own actions during the war. There is of course a lot more to the story than this, but to find out what happens you should read it.
To start with I wasn’t sure about this book and nearly put it down. But I’m glad I didn’t because it paints a really vivid picture of a city in total disarray. It also questions the meaning of justice and morality, shining a spotlight on the often-overlooked perspective of Germans who were caught in the crossfire of the Nazis, with nowhere to turn.
Before I read this, I didn’t know much about Germany in the immediate post-war period. For example, I didn’t realise how determined the Allies were to destroy all Germany’s manufacturing capabilities so as to ensure that a war machine could never emerge again.
The story is quite tense; does Clara find Elisa? Who is the boy in the mine? Do the Allies catch up with her, and what happens to all the other character which we get to know? The descriptions of the ruined city are very well done, and the glimpses we get of the SS and other Nazis in hiding are truly disturbing. It was also strange and interesting to read a story where the lines between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys were so blurred. Clara should have been a villain but wasn’t really, and the British security officer questioning her should have been a ‘good’ guy but wasn’t entirely. I give it 4 Stars.
Review by: Freyja
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