History is Written by the Victors?
by Kate Braithwaite
Anthony Doerr, author of the acclaimed novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014), recently said in an interview with NPR that, as the number of people who remember World War Two inevitably declines, there is a danger that our understanding of it becomes a “black and white narrative.” Instead, Doerr said, “it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point,” suggesting that exploring the German experience, “might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.”
He does this through Werner, an orphan who dreams of escaping life in the mines by attending engineering school. But instead, Werner finds himself in an academy for Hitler Youth, subjected to a harsh physical and mental routine and becoming a Nazi soldier, using his radio skills to track down Resistance fighters in occupied France. In Werner, Doerr creates an ordinary boy, brought up to participate in acts of war and atrocity, who yet remains a character for whom the reader feels empathy and concern.
Similarly, in The Undertaking (Atlantic Books, 2014), Audrey Magee’s protagonists are a young couple living in Nazi Germany during the war years: Peter, a soldier serving on the Eastern Front, and his new wife Katherina, the daughter of a Party Member, living in Berlin. Magee, like Doerr, talks of a conscious choice to try to “understand what happens to an ordinary person caught up in a war.” Peter participates in the Nazi regime, helping round up Jewish families and serving as a soldier, but he is also a victim of it; one of thousands of German infantry trapped in Stalingrad with no hope of rescue. At home in Berlin, Katherina’s troubles are different but no less dramatic. Her family becomes increasingly dependent on Nazi high society, initially for luxuries but increasingly for their safety and survival. Both characters, like Werner, are complicit in the crimes of the times in which they lived. But their stories are certainly not black and white.
The events of the Holocaust play quietly in background of The Undertaking. Magee has spoken of how ordinary Germans were only able to cope during those years by “putting the Holocaust on one side,” but in The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, 2014), Martin Amis’s characters are denied that luxury. Paul Doll is the camp commandant at “KZ” or Auschwitz, overseeing the separation of trainloads of Jewish detainees to either to the Buna Werke factory or the concentration camp. In time, Doll descends into madness amidst the logistics of genocide. He is not a sympathetic character but others are, particularly the Jew Szmul, who survives by working for Doll, part of the operation that is murdering his own people. But in common with Doerr and Magee, Amis, through his characters, emphasizes the human complexity of war.
Richard Flanagan creates a character similar to Doll in The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus, 2014, and winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize), a complex novel about Australian prisoners of war in Japan. But where Amis’s camp commandant is destroyed by war, Tenji Nakamura survives, escapes justice and lives out an apparently good family life – in stark contrast to Flanagan’s reluctant hero during the war, Dorrigo Evans. Readers of these two men’s stories must consider the very nature of heroism, good and evil, with all the horror evoked by Amis but also more of the humanity of Magee and Doerr.
By exploring this pivotal point in human history through the eyes of the “losers,” these four novels all demonstrate the degrees of inhumanity and the effects of war on everyone involved. Although Churchill famously said that history is written by the victors, it seems historical fiction, from the point of view of the losers, can play its part in keeping the truth alive.
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is a fiction and freelance writer. Originally from Edinburgh, Kate now lives in Pennsylvania and writes a humorous blog about American/British English at http://transatlantictranslator.wordpress.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 71, February 2015