“Forgiveness doesn’t magically right every wrong. Loss is still loss.” This Terrible Beauty by Katrin Schumann
Whereas interest in the literature of World War II is at a peak, fiction set in its aftermath in the former German Democratic Republic has yet to achieve the same heights of popularity. This might be about to change, given the excellent historical fiction recently published on the fascinating topic of how part of Nazi Germany came to be transformed into a model Communist state. One such novel is bestselling author Katrin Schumann’s This Terrible Beauty (Lake Union Publishing, March 2020), which takes place on the Island of Rügen, famed for its white cliffs immortalized by Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings of solitary ramblers, perched on top of mountains or staring out at the Baltic Sea, continue to be favorites with modern audiences. The forlornness of Friedrich’s wanderers resurfaces in the generation of Germans Schumann portrays in This Terrible Beauty: the young men and women who grew up under Hitler and suffered through his cruel dictatorship and the war he started. Not surprisingly, these young people often regarded Communism as the panacea to Fascism. They joined The Socialist Unity Party of Germany in order to work for what they believed would be a better future.
This Terrible Beauty tells the story of Rügen native Bettina, who at the end of World War II marries Werner, a man the Marxist-Leninist rulers have placed in a position of responsibility. While Werner is busy climbing the career ladder, Bettina becomes increasingly rebellious as she observes a second wave of oppression washing over her beloved island. The Socialist Unity Party not only confiscates the private property of her fellow islanders; it spies upon them, vilifies them, and incarcerates those it considers enemies of the state. Frustrated, Bettina embarks on a love affair with Peter, a dissident, and takes terrible risks in order to meet him, courting discovery.
When the worst happens, and her husband finds out about the affair, he presents Bettina with a chilling choice. Either she goes to prison, or she leaves the country, abandoning their only child, a daughter. After Bettina flees to the US, she becomes a successful photographer, documenting the race riots that take place in Chicago. But soon, the past catches up with her, and Bettina returns to Rügen in order to fight for the love she was forced to renounce.
As Schumann explains in an interview, This Terrible Beauty is inspired by her family’s history. “A few months after the Berlin wall came down, my father and I visited Rügen. He’d… spent summers there as a little boy before WWII. It’s a rugged northern island, on a geo-political level has been shaped over the centuries by a violent history… After the war, the communists forcibly moved all landowners off the island to the mainland. My aunt, now 94 years old, fled during that time and her family lost its home and property… On that visit, my father and I crept into an abandoned fisherman’s cottage… I saw the years of love and neglect in the shredded wallpaper, the stain of black bloom of smoke from lignite on the walls behind the coal heater. I began thinking about all the “ordinary” Germans who had suffered through the war—and lost; they were the enemy, after all, the bad guys.
“It’s really the smaller-scale, human element of that historical moment that moved me to write This Terrible Beauty,” Schumann goes on to say. “My parents had shared some of their experiences with me when I was younger, but it hadn’t come alive for me until that day in that sad, derelict house. It was an accident of fate that the islanders ended up on the wrong side of the wall, and moments of chance and transition are great fodder for novelists.”
When asked why she told This Terrible Beauty as a love story, Schumann answers, “I knew immediately that the driver of the story was that Bettina would marry the wrong man and that she’d have to pay the price for the hope that led her into his arms. My father’s sisters lost their fiancés in the war and then married poorly—but whom do you blame for that? Werner felt very real and complicated to me, and I wanted to see what he would do when he is betrayed. The stakes are high, too, because in a totalitarian system everyone is watching you… It wasn’t clear to me initially if this story would end well or not. It didn’t seem realistic that everything would come together and Bettina could live happily ever after. Since the outcome is in Werner’s hands, I had to trust that his character development would lead me to an ending that seemed right. It felt true to his nature that he’d find a way to forgive Bettina, because he understands her better than she realizes… But forgiveness doesn’t magically right every wrong. Loss is still loss.”
Schumann’s heroine Bettina winds up in the US. Probed about the reason as to why her character migrates to North America, she elucidates, “I chose to set part of the story in America for a variety of reasons, mainly because I was interested in some intriguing ironies. There’s a scene during which Bettina is photographing the aftermath of a race riot in a Chicago neighborhood, and she feels a connection to the people she’s documenting: she’s an outsider, stripped of power. She understands their sense of desperation and entrapment. But also, in contrast to her, the African Americans are fighting for their rights whereas Bettina has become passive over the years; this is something she comes to realize during the course of the story. Connecting this distant, foreign-seeming story with something readers could identify with seemed like a good way to highlight how recently all this happened. The Cold War was raging not all that long ago, and limiting personal freedoms and widespread use of propaganda are weapons that are wielded even today.”
The timeliness of Schumann’s fiction, along with the intriguing history she relates in This Terrible Beauty, makes her book a wonderfully exciting and compelling read. The title comes from William Butler Yeats, and although he wrote about Ireland, his words describe the situation in the German Democratic Republic, which promised its people recovery from Nazi despotism only to replace it with Stalinist state-sponsored terror, equally well. This Terrible Beauty depicts the radiant arc of hope cut short for many Germans by the dreadful reality of the Cold War—the country’s infamous secret service, the ‘Stasi,’ was founded as early as 1950. It also presents the moving record of a woman who tries desperately to reconcile the courage of her convictions with her need for love and family, bridging the divide between the Romantic novelistic tradition and modern, often political, East German literature. This Terrible Beauty is a wise and stirring contribution to the literary canon written about the German Democratic Republic that deserves to find as many enthusiastic readers as the bestselling books about World War II.
About the contributor: Elisabeth Lenckos holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and has published books on Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. She serves as one of the Editors of the Palgrave-Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Romantic-Era Women Writers and is on the Social Media Team for the Historical Novel Society.